"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

REALITY—A Synthesis Of Thomistic Thought

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


There are two notional acts: generation and active spiration. They are called notional because they enable us to know the divine persons better. Their explanation serves St. Thomas [555] as a kind of final synthesis, a recapitulation of Trinitarian doctrine.

Here we find the most difficult of the objections raised against that Augustinian conception which St. Thomas defends. The objection runs thus: [556] The relation called paternity is founded on active generation, hence cannot precede generation. But the personality of the Father must be conceived as preceding active generation, which is its operation. Hence the personality of the Father which precedes generation, cannot be constituted by the subsisting relation of paternity which follows generation.

In other words, we have here a vicious circle.

St. Thomas replies [557] as follows: "The personal characteristic of the Father must be considered under two aspects: first, as relation, and as such it presupposes the notional act of generation. But, secondly, we must consider the personal characteristic of the Father, not as relation, but as constitutive of His own person, and thus as preceding the notional act of generation, as person must be conceived as anterior to the person's action."

Hence it is clear that we have here no contradiction, no vicious circle, because divine paternity is considered on the one hand as anterior to the eternal act of generation, and on the other hand as posterior to that same act. Let us look at illustrations in the created order.

First, in human generation. At that one and indivisible instant when the human soul is created and infused into its body, the ultimate disposition of that body to receive that soul—does it precede or does it follow the creation of the soul? It both precedes and follows. In the order of material causality, it precedes. In all other orders of causality, formal, efficient, and final, it follows. For it is the soul which, in the indivisible moment of its creation, gives to the human body its very last disposition to receive that soul. Hence, from this point of view, that disposition is in the human body as a characteristic deriving from the soul.

Secondly, in human understanding. The sense image precedes the intellectual idea. Yet that same image, completely suited to express the new idea, follows that idea. At that indivisible instant when the thinker seizes an original idea, he simultaneously finds an appropriate image to express that idea in the sense order.

Again, in human emotion. The sense emotion both precedes and follows intellectual love, is both antecedent and consequent.

Again, still more strikingly, in human deliberation. At the terminus of deliberation, in one and the same indivisible instant, the last practical judgment precedes the voluntary choice, and still this voluntary choice, by accepting this practical judgment, makes that judgment to be the last.

Again, look at the marriage contract. The man's word of acceptance is not definitively valid before it is accepted by the woman. The man's consent thus precedes the woman's consent, and hence is not yet actually related to her consent, which has not yet been given. Only by her consent does his consent have actual matrimonial relation to his wife.

Lastly, look again at the triangle. In an equilateral triangle, the first angle drawn, though it is as yet alone, constitutes, nevertheless, the geometric figure, but does not as yet have actual relation to the two angles still undrawn.

In all these illustrations, there is no contradiction, no vicious circle. Neither is there contradiction when we say that the divine paternity constitutes the person of the Father anteriorly to the eternal act of generation, although that same paternity, as actual relation to the Son, presupposes the act of generation.

To proceed. These notional acts, generation and spiration, belong to the persons. [558] They are not free acts, but necessary, though the Father.

wills spontaneously to beget His Son, just as He spontaneously wills to be God. And active spiration proceeds indeed from the divine will, but from that will, not as free, but as natural and necessary, like our own desire of happiness. [559] Generative power belongs to the divine nature, as that nature is in the Father. [560] "Spiratory power also belongs to the divine nature, but as that nature is in both the Father and the Son. Thus the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as from one sole principle: [561] there is but one Breather (Spirator): though two are breathing (spirantes)." [562].

If these two powers, generative and spiritave, belonged to the divine nature as such, as common to the three persons, then each of the three persons would generate and breathe, just as each of them knows and loves. Hence the word of the Fourth Lateran Council: "It is not the essence or nature which generates, but the Father by that nature." [563] Hence the formula, [564] common among Thomists: "The power of generating signifies directly (in recto) the divine nature, indirectly (in obliquo) the relation of paternity."

What is the immediate principle (principium quo) of the divine processions? It is, so Thomists generally, the divine nature, as modified by the relations of paternity and active spiration. To illustrate. When Socrates begets a son, the principium quo of this act of generation is indeed human nature, but that nature as it is in Socrates. Were it otherwise, were human nature the principium quo, as common to all men, then all men without exception would generate, as they all desire happiness. Similarly, the surface of a triangle, as far as it is in the first angle drawn, is communicated to the second, and by the second to the third; but as it is in the third it is no longer communicable. If it were, then we would have a fourth person, and for the same reason a fifth, and thus on to infinity.

So much on Thomistic doctrine concerning the notional acts. It is in perfect harmony with the foregoing chapters.

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