Saturday, August 20, 2011

Aquinas on Impassibility: SCG (Q.89-90)

I have been meaning to read, and understand, Aquinas’ reasons for his doctrine of impassibility for a while now.  To that end, I want to offer my thoughts on questions 89 and 90 of book 1 of Aquinas’ work Summa Contra Gentiles.  I am aware that these are not the only passages that speak to this doctrine.  I am just biting off this small chuck for this post.

In SCG question 89, (sections 1 – 7) Aquinas argues that passions are excluded from God by reason of their genus.  Ultimately, passions are excluded because they are passive potencies.  Since God has no passive potency, it follows that God has no passions.

In that same question (sections 8 – 15) Aquinas argues that some passions are excluded, not merely because their genus, but on account of their species as well.  His first example is sorrow and pain.  They can’t be found in God because “its subject is the already present evil”.  So the nature of certain passions themselves implies some evil or some lack in the subject, which for Aquinas, means that they are not befitting the nature of God.

Aquinas offers additional reasons for judging specific passions to be repugnant to the divine nature.  The following reasons rule out (by reason of their species) a passion from existing in God: (section 10) that a subject can be disposed to the object of a passion in way that is not already possessed [hope excluded] (section 12) certain passions imply a change of will [repentance excluded] (section 13) certain passions require a error in judgment concerning the good [envy excluded] and (section 14) certain passions are saddened over a good [anger excluded].

Essentially, Aquinas has said that there can be NO passions in God.  Passions, in virtue of what they are, are precluded from being part of the nature of God because they are passive potencies. 

He then goes on to explain that specific passions like hope, envy, and anger cannot be found in God because the nature of those specific passions are inconsistent with particular features of the divine nature.

With these things in place, it is very striking that Aquinas would follow this section with an argument for why joy and delight are part of the divine nature.  Joy is listed among the passions of the sensitive appetite and as such it is a passive potency.  So this presents a paradox.  If joy is a passive potency, then how can Aquinas attribute this to God?

This paradox prompts the following questions:

1.) Why does Aquinas give arguments against certain passions by reason of their species when he just ruled out all the passions by reason of their genus?  Why not just say (1) All passions are passive potencies (2) there are no passive potencies in God (3) therefore there are no passions in God.

2.) Why does Aquinas say that joy is properly in God if joy is listed among the passions of the sensitive appetite and all the passions of the sensitive appetite are excluded from God by reason of their genus?

To answer #1 above, it seems to me that Aquinas’ arguments from species in question 89 set up the perquisites for understanding question 90.  Aquinas is doing at least two things with his arguments from species:

1.) He is offering a list of passions that are not found in God.

And more importantly...

2.) He is offering examples of how we can determine whether or not a particular passion is repugnant to the divine nature.

If Aquinas simply ruled out all passions from God on the basis that they are passive potencies, and then went on to include joy in the divine nature, he would be contradicting himself.  The specific reasons given in the argument from species nuance the argument in a way that makes it possible to include joy and delight in the divine nature.

He begins question 90 by saying: 
“There are certain passions which, though they do not befit God as passions, do not signify anything by the nature of their species that is repugnant to the divine perfection.  Among these passions are joy and delight.”
However, if joy is part of the sensitive appetite, how can it befit God?  How can a passive potency be found in God and why would Aquinas argue for joy being in God by reason of its species?

His response: 
“Delight is of a present good.” 
But so what?  If joy and delight are of a present good, how does that mean that it is present in God?  This doesn’t answer the question of how joy or delight can be found in God given that they are passions.

Aquinas goes on: 
“Neither, therefore, by reason of its object, which is a good, nor by reason of its disposition towards its object, which is possessed in act, is joy, according to the nature of its species, repugnant to the divine perfection.”
Aquinas points out that joy is not ruled out from being in the divine nature by reason of its species.  However, even if I grant that there is nothing according to the species of joy that is repugnant to the divine nature, why isn’t joy ruled out based on its genus?  After all, it is a passion of the sensitive appetite and as such it is a passive potency!

Aquinas goes on:
“From this it is manifest that joy or delight is properly in God.  For just as the apprehended good and evil are the object of the sensible appetite, so, too, are they of the intellective appetite.”
At this point, Aquinas begins to give an answer to my concern listed above.  There is nothing in the nature of joy itself that makes it repugnant to the divine nature.  But neither is joy a passion in God.

How can this be?  How can joy be joy without being a passion? 

It is because Aquinas sees something analogous to joy in the intellective appetite.  Aquinas is not saying that God can have passions of the sensitive appetite (i.e. joy).  Rather, he is saying that the kind of joy that God has is something that is found in the intellective appetite.  Aquinas says that there is something in the intellective appetite that is similar to what is in the sensitive appetite.  Thus joy in the sensitive appetite bears a resemblance to joy in the intellective appetite.

This simple operation, while it is in the will, is not simply a volitional act.  Aquinas says “joy and delight are a certain resting of the will in its object.”  So while the kind of joy that God has is found in the intellective appetite (will), it is a kind of resting in the good.  Resting in the good is not the same as choosing.  If, as Aquinas says, this resting is similar to what we experience in the sensitive appetite as joy, then perhaps God does have something like an emotion.  And yet, the doctrine of impassibility still stands because the kind of joy that God has is not a passion.

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