"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

— A Commentary on the First Part of St Thomas' Theological Summa

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


First article: whether the existence of God is self-evident (cont)

The ontological argument and the opinions of modern philosophers

Several modern philosophers sought to confirm St. Anselm's argument by a consideration of the objective validity of our intellect. Descartes says: Whatever is contained in the clear and distinct idea of anything, the same is true; but real existence is contained in the clear and distinct idea of God; therefore God exists. (17)

We reply to this by distinguishing the major. In the ideal order of essences known by abstraction, whatever is contained in the clear idea of God is true, this I concede in the order of real and actual existence, this I deny. We contradistinguish the minor like manner; for our idea of God is, like our other ideas, an abstract one and, moreover, is analogical, derived from creatures.

Leibnitz says: For the argument of Descartes to be valid, this must prove that it is really possible for God to exist objectively, or outside the mind. His argument is as follows: If God is really possible, He exists, because His essence implies existence; but it is a priori manifest that God is really possible, for neither contradiction nor negation is implied in the idea of God; therefore God exists.(18) Father Roselli, O.P., incautiously admitted this argument.

We reply to this by neither affirming nor denying the major, because in absolutely necessary things, existence that is necessary and not contingent follows from real possibility. Thus if the Trinity were proved a priori to be really possible, then its existence would follow from this. We distinguish the minor. That it is a priori manifest that God is really possible, and that this is negatively apparent, I concede; positively so, this I deny. This means that we do not see the existence of the most perfect Being to be an impossibility; but neither can this be positively proved a priori. Why so? It is because, as St. Thomas says, in the body of the article, we do not know God's essence; we have not a positive and proper knowledge, but only an analogical knowledge of the Deity. In a relative and negative sense we know that God is the supreme Being, the principle of other beings. In other words, because we do not know God's essence, we cannot know a priori whether He is capable of existing. Moreover, it is difficult to reconcile certain absolute perfections that are clearly properties of the most perfect Being, such as God's absolute immutability and His liberty. It is also difficult to reconcile the free act which, as an act, could be non-existent in God, with His absolute immutability and necessity. Likewise, the intimate reconciliation between the omnipotent God's mercy and justice, as also between His goodness and permission of evil, these are hidden from us. They do not indeed impair the forcefulness of the a posteriori demonstration of God's existence, but they do not allow of an a priori demonstration.

But Leibnitz objects that there is nothing of negation implied in the idea of God. Therefore it evidently excludes contradiction, for this latter is the result of some negation.

In reply to this we say that concealed contradiction can be the result only of the association of two ideas for which there is no foundation. Thus there is no negation involved in the idea of the swiftest motion; yet it implies contradiction because it is always possible to think of a swifter motion, just as the sides of a polygon inscribed in a circle are always divisible. So also there is no negation involved in the greatest possible creature, but it implies a contradiction because "God can make something else better than each thing made by Him." (19) Likewise, there is perhaps no foundation for the union of the two concepts of being and infinite.

Hence we cannot positively affirm a priori the possibility of God's existence. For a positive knowledge of the analogical validity or our ideas of being, goodness, and the like, as these relate to God, this postulates God as the cause of finite beings from which our notions of being, goodness, and the like, are abstracted; for between the cause and its effects there is a certain similarity, at least that of analogy.(20)

Being is that the act of which is to exist (whether it be self-existent or dependent upon another for existence), and it is only from the similitude of the inferior analogate previously known to us that we can know the supreme analogate of being; but this similitude has its foundation in causality,(21) and from the existence of the effect we conclude the actual existence of the cause.

In more recent times Father Lepidi (22) sought to revive the ontological argument by having recourse to the principle of the objective validity of our intellect. His argument is as follows: The intellect clearly makes known to us that being is either logical or real; there is no intermediary. But the objective idea of the most perfect and infinite Being clearly represented in our mind is not a logical being. Therefore it is a real being. Yet it is not, as is self-evident, being that is possible of realization, existing potentially in its cause. Therefore it is actually existing real being.

We reply to this by conceding the major. Concerning the minor, we say, please prove it. Probable reasons, to be sure, are advanced, just as persuasive reasons are given to show the possibility of the Trinity; but they have no demonstrative value. It is not positively proved a priori that God is really possible or that the Trinity is really possible. This possibility is neither efficaciously proved a priori, nor is it efficaciously disproved by unbelievers.

But Father Lepidi persists in his objection by proving the minor as follows: Logical being is that which in no way exists in itself, nor can it so exist, but exists only in the mind. Because logical beings are not in the true sense entities, they are absolute non-entities, squared circles or negations, as a not-man, or privations, such as blindness. But, on the contrary, the most perfect Being is conceived as having plenitude of being. Therefore the idea of the most perfect Being is not the idea of a logical being, but of a real being, and it is not only possible of existence, but it also actually exists.

In reply we say that this proves only that we do not see the impossibility of the most perfect Being existing; in fact, we are persuaded of the same (just as we are persuaded of the possibility of infinite internal fecundity), but we have no positive proof of the same. The atheist can say: Perhaps there are no legitimate grounds for uniting in one concept the notions of being and infinity. An infinite man implies a contradiction; infinite being does not seem, indeed, to imply a contradiction; but yet we do not know a priori whether the notion is correct that has reference to something extramental. It may be like the notion of a supreme and infinite possible being, which at first sight does not seem to imply a contradiction, and yet it does if "God can make something else better than each thing made by Him." (23)

Finally, Father Lepidi objects that the aforesaid argument presupposes the five a posteriori proofs given by St. Thomas; but these are required only for acquiring the true notion of the most perfect Being, and from this correct notion, due to the objective validity of our intellect, the existence of this most perfect Being is proved. Thus the five proofs would serve as the ladder of ascent to the roof of the edifice, and after we have reached the roof, the ladder is no longer necessary.

We reply to this with the following distinction: If this notion of the most perfect Being were univocal or at least of itself immediately referred to God, as our notion of being of sensible things has immediate reference to the being of sensible things, then I agree. But this notion is analogical and for this reason does not bring us to a knowledge of God, the first analogate, except by the way of causality, by beginning from the previously known inferior analogate, which is finite being. By reason of the principle of causality. when imperfections have been removed from the absolutely simple perfections in which finite beings participate, these are attributed to God, the first Cause. Hence the five classical proofs of God's existence, as we shall see farther on, are not only guides but are truly a posteriori demonstrations. They would be merely guides if our intellect had a confused intuition of God, as the ontologists contend, in accordance with the realistic tendency of Plato.(24)

Yet there is an element of truth in what Father Lepidi and others of like mind say, for it will be more clearly seen later on that the five classical proofs are in some way co-ordinated since they all have their remote foundation in the notion of being and in the principle of contradiction or of identity (of being with itself, in that it is opposed to not-being), and their proximate foundation is the principle of causality.

Thus we construct the following apodictic but a posteriori argument: Because of the objective validity of our reason, the principle of contradiction or of identity is the fundamental law not only of reason but of extramental being. But, if such is the case, the fundamental or supreme reality must be one of absolute identity, which means that it is not composite but is most simple and immutable, so that it is its being and its act, which means that it is the self-subsisting Being. Therefore the most simple and immutable self-subsisting Being exists above all composite and mutable beings.

This proof is apodictic but a posteriori. It is, as it were, a combination of the five classical proofs, clearly setting forth the opposition that prevails between the principle of identity and the changeableness of the world (first three proofs), and its composition (fourth and fifth proofs). Thus, by reason of this opposition, it would make it at once evident, at least for the philosophers, from the very fact that the world is composite and changeable, that it is contingent, which means that it is not self-existent. From this, too, the immediate conclusion is that the self-existing Being must be to existence, as A is to A, that it must be identical with it, so that He is the self-subsisting Being.

In other words, at the beginning of our discovery by the way of finding, it is first of all apparent, by reason of the real validity of the principle of contradiction or of identity, that being is being, non-being is non-being, or being is not non-being. And at the end of our discovery by the way of finding, due to the same principle of identity, it is evident that the supreme reality is absolutely identical with itself, without composition and change, that it is the self-subsisting Being: "I am who am." In this, indeed, we have the refutation of pantheism, since the most simple and unchangeable self-subsisting Being is really and essentially distinct from every composite and changeable being.(25) But this distinction is clearly seen only after a profound penetration of the five a posteriori proofs.

God's existence is known not a priori solely from the notion of being, as the followers of St. Anselm declare; but a, posteriori from the notion o£ being and its first principles by means of the light reflected in the mirror of sensible things.

Confirmation of this proof. The existence of God who transcends the world cannot be denied without denying the real or ontological validity of the principle of contradiction or of identity. We already have precise evidence of this in the ancient teaching of Heraclitus, and more so in Hegelianism, which declares that the principle of contradiction is only a grammatical law and at the same time a law of the lower reasoning faculty, but not the supreme law of the higher or intuitive reason and of reality. Instead of the most simple and immutable God we then have universal pantheistic evolution; for the denial of the existence of the immutable and self-subsisting Being means that the creative evolution of itself or universal becoming is the only fundamental reality, in which being and not-being are identified, since what is becoming does not as yet exist and still in some way does exist. But if this becoming is its own reason for such becoming and needs no extrinsic cause, then we have the denial of the principles of efficient and final causality and hence of the real validity of the principle of contradiction or of identity. For if evolution is creative of itself, that is, if this becoming is its own reason for such becoming, then it is without an efficient cause, and so in evolution of this kind the greater proceeds from the less. It is likewise without a final cause, because this evolution lacks a directing agent; it has no material cause and is like a flux without a fluid, because this evolution is not in any subject that is distinct from it and that would necessitate being moved by another; it is without formal cause, for "in effect, God is produced in man and in the world, and God is one and the same thing with the world, and therefore, spirit with matter, necessity with liberty, good with evil, justice with injustice." (26) In all this we have the very negation of the real validity of the principle of contradiction, which would be merely a grammatical law of speech, and a law of logic governing the discursive process of the lower reason, but it would not be a law of the higher intellect directly perceiving the universality of this flux.

Hence if Hegelianism were non-existent, the theologians could devise it as a means of proving by the method of absurdity God's existence and His distinction from the world. Thus we pass from the criticism of St. Anselm's argument, which in our opinion is insufficient, to the a posteriori proofs of God's existence.

The declarations of the Church about Ontologism

A decreee of the Holy Office (September 18, 1861) condemned seven propositions of the ontologists, stating that the propositions cannot be safely held. (27) In this decree it is not the ontological or a priori argument, or its possibility that is rejected; but the doctrine is condemned which states that "the immediate knowledge of God, at least habitual, is essential for the human intellect, so that without it the intellect can have no knowledge of anything; since it is intellectual light itself." The following two propositions are also condemned: "That being which is in all things and without which there is not anything we do understand, is the divine being. Universals objectively considered are not really distinct from God." Ontologism confuses being in general with the divine being, and thus would end in the pantheistic ontologism of Spinoza.

Equally condemned is the ontologism of A. Rosmini, who declared that "being, which is the object of man's direct perception, must of necessity be something of the necessary and eternal being." (28) We say that the intelligible being of sensible things is the proper object of our intellect, and the ontologists apply this to the divine being about whom we have a confused knowledge.

Index Top


17. Meditations et reponses aux objections.

18. Monadologie, § 45; Meditation sur les idees, p. 516.

19. Summa theol., Ia, q.25, a.6.

20. Ibid., q.4, a.3; q.88, a. 3.

21. Ibid., q.4, a.3; q.13, a.5.

22. Revue de Phil., December, 1909; Ontologia, pp. go f.

23. Summa theol., La, q.25, a.6.

24. Father Lepidi admitted a certain naturally innate idea of God, inasmuch as the soul, since it is according to God's image, received, at the moment of its creation, a certain irradiation from God, or a confused notion of the Creator.
But this not proved, nor can it be proved. Moreover, according to the principles of Thomism, all our ideas are the result of abstraction from sensible things (cf. Summa, Ia, q.84, a.3, 6).

25. Ibid., q.3, a.8, "Whether God enters into the composition of other things."

26. See Syllabus of Pius IX, Denz., no. 1701.

27. Denz., nos. 1659-65.

28. Ibid., no. 1895.


"Many words do not satisfy the soul; but a good life eases the mind and a clean conscience inspires great trust in God."

Thomas Kempis

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"The supreme perfection of man in this life is to be so united to God that all his soul with all its faculties and powers are so gathered into the Lord God that he becomes one spirit with him, and remembers nothing except God, is aware of and recognises nothing but God, but with all his desires unified by the joy of love, he rests contentedly in the enjoyment of his Maker alone."

St Albert the Great

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"A single act of uniformity with the divine will suffices to make a saint."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

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