It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but I’d like to continue my journey through the Angelic Doctor’s great Summa Theologiae. Having discussed God’s intelligibility (here and here) and God’s intelligence (here and here), I wish to move to the question on God’s life, the text of which can be found here (Ia, q. 18).
First, St. Thomas addresses the question of whether everything is alive. This might seem a bizarre question with an exceedingly obvious answer, but remember: the Angelic Doctor is trying to arrive at a definition of life before determining whether or not God can be said to have life. He is engaging in a kind of dialectic by which we arrive at the true meaning of the words which we use. So, clearly a rock is not alive, but why? Why is a rock not said to be alive? What makes a rock inanimate and a plant animate? St. Thomas answers that that which “moves” itself is living whereas that which can only be “moved” by another (not by itself) is lifeless. Here, “to move” is taken in the classical sense of motion which is change, not only motion from place to place (or local motion) as the word is normally used in the contemporary world. Hence, a plant is living because it nourishes itself, renews itself, and reproduces itself (in some cases only partially – requiring two plants to fully reproduce; in other cases completely). In other words, a thing is said to be alive if it causes an operation within itself.
Then, the Saint goes on to consider whether life is an operation. It seems so, for Aristotle distinguishes four kinds of life in his De Anima (nourishment, sensation, local movement, and understanding) all of which are operations. Furthermore, the distinction between a life which is active, and a life which is contemplative is an operational distinction. And finally, Christ says, “Now this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God.” (St. John 18:3) – but then clearly, the highest kind of life is an operation. Hence, it seems that life is an operation.
However, St. Thomas answers in the negative: Life is not an operation. Aristotle says, “In living things, to live is to be.” (De Anima II.37) He answers that the name “life” or “living” is applied to certain beings on account of the fact that they move themselves and so in a certain sense, it could be taken as a name for that motion. However, properly, it does name the operation but the substance (the being) which has the property of self-motion by nature. In other words, to live is just to exist in a nature capable of self-motion (as Aristotle says above). Thus the arguments to the contrary are resolved, because the substance is named from its act, and so the kind of life a being has is named from the kind of motion to which that being can move itself.
Hence: “to live” is “to exist in a nature capable of self-movement.”
Is God Living?
It would seem not, because a living being is capable of self-movement or change (as stated earlier) but God does not change. Furthermore, all life must have a principle – hence we conclude the existence of the soul in living things – but God has no principle, being the First Cause. Furthermore, all living things posses the vegetative soul (that is, they possess a nature by which they can nourish themselves, heal themselves, and reproduce themselves) – but that can only belong to material things. Hence no immaterial being could be said to be living.
Yet, St. Thomas answers in the affirmative because the Psalmist very beautifully writes: “My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God!” (Psalm 84:2) Material beings are said to live in so far as they move themselves, but this is said also to signify that they act of themselves and not as moved to act by another. In this (analogous) sense of the word, God has life eminently. So, the lowest forms of life (plants) do not perceive an end to which they act, but merely act for that end because it is inherent in their essence to do so. Hence, plants move themselves, but not because they perceive an end to their action (for plants have no form of cognition – not even sensory cognition), but the telos or end of their action is set by nature.
Above plants, animals are said to be living and they possess sensory cognition. Hence, animals can perceive various things outside of themselves and they direct themselves toward (or away from) those things insofar as it fulfills their natures. However, animals still are governed by their instincts which are in them by nature. They do not choose the ends which they pursue, but merely pursue them by means of perceived particular goods.
However, above animals are those who possess reason: man. Man not only perceives particular goods, but by his intellect he understands the universal and hence can freely choose the means to attaining his perceived end. So whereas all men strive for beatitude (for happiness), men disagree with one another as to the means by which that end is to be achieved. However, even men there are things given us by our nature – such as first principles which it is impossible to doubt (whatever the skeptics and other modern philosophers say to the contrary). A thing cannot both be and not be in the same way at the same time. If one (irrationally) denies that principle even in his imagination, he has not denied it in the depths of his thought processes all of which rely on the truth of that principle. Furthermore, all of us have the end of beatitude given us by nature: we can not will anything other than the universal good for ourselves (we do not have freedom with respect to our final end, but only with respect to the means to that end). Hence, even man must be moved by another both “efficiently by God, the supreme agent, and to be drawn to Him as [his] ultimate end.” (Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, The One God, Chapter 18)
Hence that being who is not determined by another in His understanding, but whose understanding is His own act of existence and His own essence, must have life to a perfect degree, but that is none other than God Himself.
This argument resolves the various objections.
Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange comments on this question saying:
“Only God, who is subsistent Intellection, is essential life that is absolutely immanent and immobile. But this immobility of supreme life is fundamentally the very opposite of the immobility of inertia or death. This latter means the absence of operation or the privation of movement, whereas the operation of God’s intellect and will is most perfect, and is always in act. His life is always in second actuality*, and is not a transitive [going outside His essence] action but an immanent [remaining inside] action.” – Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, The One God, Chapter 18
*This is a reference to an Aristotelian distinction. Someone is in first potentiality if they have the capability to learn to do something. Someone is in second potentiality (or first actuality) if they know how to do something [in a habitual manner] but are not currently doing it. Someone is in second actuality if they are currently doing that thing. For example, a child who has not yet learned to speak English is in first potentiality. An adult who knows how to speak proper English but is currently silent is in second potentiality or first actuality. An adult who is currently speaking proper English is in second actuality. Hence, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange is making the point that God is eternally life in act. He is not merely capable of life. While immutable, God is not static – but dynamic. Not dead, but alive.
This last article is especially important because, in grace, we become partakers of the divine nature. Hence, if God has not life, then we become partakers in something which is not life. However, since God not only has life but is supremely living, being Life Himself, then we become partakers of a life that is more perfect than our own natural mode of living. The Trinity Himself comes to dwell within us, bringing us to participate in His eternal processions and enabling us to partake of that sweet life which is above all lives.
Thanks for reading!