Is God a "what"? Aquinas, Neoplatonism, and the divine essence

John Paul Rosheger, Marquette University


Both Aquinas and the Neoplatonists affirm a divine "super-whatness" or "super-essence." For the Thomist and the Neoplatonist alike, God is not so much a "what" or "nonwhat" as he is a "super-what." In other words, neither a purely apophatic (negative) nor an exclusively cataphatic (positive) method for talking about God is adequate. Instead, a middle position (via media ) that combines both the "meontological" (from [Special characters omitted.] , non-being) and ontological features of theological discourse is required. While the meontological approach underscores God's transcendence, the ontological method emphasizes God's immanence. Together the Thomistic and Neoplatonic traditions maintain that an unqualified affirmation of a divine essence cannot be made. A positive portrayal of God, in the final analysis, must be purified by the way of remotion (via remotionis ). When Aquinas and the Neoplatonists place conditions on the way the ultimate principle is described, rather than negate God's "whatness," they end up affirming a divine essence in a super-ontological manner. More specifically, it is shown that the "de-essentializing" language of Plotinus, the pseudo-Dionysius, Boethius, Avicenna, and William of Auvergne actually parallels Aquinas' own terminology. When the Greek Neoplatonic tradition of Plotinus and the pseudo-Dionysius; speaks of the ultimate principle as beyond substance or essence ([Special characters omitted.] ), its meontological orientation should ultimately be interpreted as affirming a "super-essence." When Boethius states that God is beyond substance or essence (ultra substantiam ), he merely rejects the ordinary application of Aristotle's categories to the divine. And when Avicenna and William of Auvergne hold that God does not have quiddity (non habet quidditatem ), they are refusing to apply to the divine a "whatness" that implies composition. Aquinas' own superontological affirmations of the divine essence conform to the above Neoplatonic statements.

Recommended Citation

Rosheger, John Paul, "Is God a "what"? Aquinas, Neoplatonism, and the divine essence" (2000). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9977721.