Aquinas, Gods and Revelation

1. Introduction

Those who have followed my work through the years know that Thomas Aquinas had a big impact on my thought. I considered myself a Thomist for some time and attempted to adapt his philosophy to a Pagan worldview – much as he did with Aristotle for his Christian worldview. I’ll enchant Aquinas, like he baptized Aristotle; I’d say. I stopped this project, not because I found it unsuccessful, but because I became convinced of another system of thought: Platonism – to which Thomism bears a complicated relationship. I still interact with Aquinas’ works, but mostly because he is one of the few monotheist thinkers to offer substantive philosophical treatments of polytheism. Sometimes his treatments were direct and deductive, but not every time.

Sewn throughout his vast corpus are the premises to an indirect and inductive argument against polytheism; one, in fact, which seeks to make us expect God to reveal something like a major monotheist religion. Of course, he had Christianity in mind as the religion of this induction; but, this is only an extension of the initial argument, and thinkers of other religions can make the same move in their own directions. I have interacted with this argument variously throughout the years, but I would like to consolidate my thoughts as a resource for those who are interested, and perhaps as a conversation starter for others.

I’ll begin by presenting Aquinas’ argument as well as some of the background metaphysics it takes for granted. Once we have as good an understanding of this as might be expected from a blog post, I’ll explain why I don’t think this argument works in the way that Aquinas thought it did. Finally, I’ll close this post by arguing that Thomas’ induction lends itself to a polytheist formulation.

2. What Do You Expect?

a. Metaphysical Prolegomena

Thomas Aquinas developed an entire worldview from basic metaphysical principles that he took to be ‘Aristotelian’. Among these is that there is such a thing as a ‘final cause’. This is the effect or range of effects that causes head in the direction of bringing about. For example, we might say that converting light energy into chemical energy (photosynthesis) is a final cause of green plants or that developing into an oak tree is the final cause of an acorn. The final cause gives the reason why a process is occurring and prevents the laws of Nature and their endless regularities from being outrageously coincidental. But the idea of naturally occurring purpose is lost on today’s philosophical world, probably due to modern associations of ‘purpose’ with conscious intention or intelligent design.

This concern was not on Aquinas’ radar, and he saw Nature as brimming with final causes – or ‘finality’. Every cause aimed (whether by nature or by intention) at some effect or range of effects. As Aquinas (SCG argued:

Besides, if an agent did not incline toward some definite effect, all results would be a matter of indifference for him. Now, he who looks upon a manifold number of things with indifference no more succeeds in doing one of them than another. Hence, from an agent contingently indifferent to alternatives no effect follows, unless he be determined to one effect by something. So, it would be impossible for him to act. Therefore, every agent tends toward some determinate effect, and this is called his end

Nothing in this general picture of reality changed for Aquinas when it came to human beings. It looked to him like humans have naturally occurring means: a power to understand things (intellect) and a power to desire what they understand (will). Intellect is the means by which we pursue truth and will is the means by which we pursue goodness. In other words, intellect is for acquiring truth and will is for obtaining goodness – these are their naturally occurring purposes or functions.

Now, for Aquinas, even though we may not know it, Truth-ness and Good-ness both refer to the same thing: God. That is, Aquinas’ metaphysics had the consequence that the single, transcendent cause of all things appears to the intellect as truth-ness and to the will as good-ness.

As a result, Thomas Aquinas’ background metaphysics meant that we are directed by Nature to attain God; that is our naturally occurring purpose, why we are ultimately here.

b. The Argument from Expectation

The odd thing about all of this, Aquinas might have said, is that while our whole point is to head in the direction of reaching our ‘Final End’, it’s practically impossible for us to do so! Why? Because there’s almost no way for us to come to know of it or anything about it all on our own. After all, people tend overwhelmingly not to have the time, talent, or inclination to think deeply or carefully about such things as whether there even is a First Principle, let alone whether it is also our Final End. And even for those who do, they still struggle to come to any kind of consensus. We’re just too prone to error or distraction. As he put it (ST 1.1):

indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason…But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.

So, Aquinas reasons, God makes us for a purpose that we can’t really fulfill on our own. Shouldn’t we expect God to intervene, then, so that we are able to fulfill his point of making us? Lest we be created for an end that there is no realistic means to, and God’s divine wisdom and providence be called into question?

It seemed so to Aquinas. We need to know the First Principle as our Final End, so that we may orient ourselves to it. And this just does involve coming to know facts about the First Principle which most people would struggle to even grasp or reason to if left to their own devices.

Expecting such a revelation to be made is how the initial argument concludes. It allows people to look out into the world to see if any such revelation has in fact been made. That is, has it been revealed to most people that the First Principle is their Final End, so that they have the chance to direct themselves to it?

From here, Aquinas would argue that this revelation has been made by the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As noted earlier, thinkers of other monotheist faiths can make the same move for their respective religions.

3. One is Not the Loneliest Number

So, why don’t I think this argument works the way Aquinas thought it did, and how can it be adapted for polytheism?

Let me start with a soft ball and work my way up to the curve ball.

a. How many is most?

Right off the bat, the argument might strike you as proving too much for the Christian: it tells us to look out for something that Christianity does not deliver. After all, if doctrine should be revealed to most people so that most people can reach their ultimate purpose, then shouldn’t candidates for this revelation at least be known to most people? But Christianity is relatively new to the scene (what about everyone before it?), and was relatively local only until recently in world history. It just doesn’t look like a revelation made to most people. And the more you have to qualify the initial induction with suggestions like ‘well, Christianity eventually became global’, or ‘the revelation could have been made less explicitly beforehand, or even post-mortem’, the more unrealistic and ad hoc it all sounds. So I don’t think this argument works the way he thought it did. But let’s set this aside for now.

b. A polytheist take

This final section will condense and presume significant portions of Platonist thought. I do this to spare the reader from even more abstract lines of reasoning, especially because I have covered these grounds elsewhere — such as in my most recent book ‘Platonism: A Platonic Approach‘.

Now, as we saw, Aquinas’ idea is that we need to know the First Principle as our Final End in order to orient ourselves to it as such. He thought that this at least had to involve coming to know facts about the First Principle which most people would struggle to even grasp or reason to if left to their own devices. But what are these facts? Whatever the details turned out to be, Aquinas made it clear (ST 1.1.7) that they would reveal the First Principle through its effects, as their cause:

Although we cannot know in what consists the essence of God, nevertheless in this science we make use of His effects, either of nature or of grace, in place of a definition, in regard to whatever is treated of in this science concerning God; even as in some philosophical sciences we demonstrate something about a cause from its effect, by taking the effect in place of a definition of the cause.

But what are the effects of the First Principle?

The polytheist can say with the Platonists that the First Principle is the One, or One-ness, or Unity, so that what it does is to make any given thing hold together or count as the one, numerically distinct thing that it is. It’s what gives each thing its individuality, its uniqueness, its one-ness, its unity.

Understanding the First Principle through these effects yields a very different expectation than what Aquinas had in mind, because the way we attain unity is not the way we attain, say, truth. Truth is obtained by intellection, unity is achieved by inclusion. Were our Final End something like Truth, we’d call our attainment of it something like ‘beatific vision’. But where it is One-ness, our union with it can be called ‘henosis’ — after the Greek term for unity.

Henosis is not a matter of grasping the First Principle intellectually, but of drawing out our oneness with it. As such, this union is not prompted by treating the First Principle like an intelligible object, which requires distinction between subject and object and thus actually precludes henosis, but by experiencing the First Principle as the One-ness in us whereby we and all things are individuated as our own one things.

The prompts such polytheists should expect to be revealed, then, are not intelligible facts about the First Principle which only ever allow us to apprehend it as other and as object, but presentations of the First Principle to us as the utterly unique One that it is so that we can encounter it as such.

However these presentations are made to us, whether to our senses, to our minds, or to both, they have to be symbolic, because they are of an utterly ineffable individual for whom there is nothing else to depict her as but herself.

The expectation, then, would be for symbols to be revealed which allow us to encounter the First Principle in all its sheer, unbridled individuality.

But that’s just the sort of revelation I would argue we observe in the world: myths and theophany in every culture, symbolizing the Gods so that each one can be encountered in her utterly unique way of being the First Principle (oh, were you assuming the ‘First Principle’ referred to one God in particular rather than the arbitrary God?).

4. Concluding Remarks

Aquinas recognized that if our Final End surpassed our reason, we should expect it to be revealed to us. But because of how the Final End looked to him, he thought this revelation would come in the form of sacred doctrines — truths understood by the mind. Such an expectation then allowed him to go through a process of elimination by looking at the world religions and determining which, if any, was the best candidate for channeling these sacred doctrines as revelation. But a more polytheist take on the First Principle yields a very different picture of things; one where we shouldn’t be expecting doctrines about one God to be revealed, but myths about many Gods!

In the end, whether and to what extent the argument works is for better minds than mine to figure out. But that polytheists can make this same sort of induction is something that should be kept in mind, and explored.