Aquinas: Being and Becoming

I said a while back that I was going to move on from Aquinas once I finished the Prima Pars. In the version I’m using, the Prima Pars is split into fifteen volumes, and today we’re starting in on vol. 14. I’m also leaving the country in a little over four weeks, as of writing. It’s sort of a race at the moment – either I’ll finish writing up these next two volumes before we go, or I’ll get tantalisingly close. Anyway, today we’re looking at existence.

In 1a.104.1, Aquinas asks whether creatures need God to keep them in existence. If God somehow stopped thinking about you for a second, would you keep going? Or – poof – would you be out like a light? The distinction here is between being created and sustained. Aquinas has already gone through how everything is created by God – but once something is created, it’s kinda self-sufficient. It has its being in itself. For instance, if a builder makes a building, there’s the act of building, the creative act, and then after that the builder goes off home and the building just keeps existing of its own accord. Existence has been put into this thing, and now it doesn’t need the continual input of a builder in order to keep existing. It possesses existence, even after and separate to the act of creation. Therefore, Aquinas argues, creatures don’t really need God to keep them in existence.

But wait, he then says. In Hebrews, there’s a reference to God “upholding all things by the word of His power.” It sounds like God does spend His time keeping things in existence. Aquinas argues that all of creation is entirely dependent on God, such that “without the preserver it could not exist.” He accepts this distinction between different types of causes – basically, there’s a difference between causing becoming and causing being. In our example, a builder causes a house to become a house, but after that creation/becoming is finished, the house holds its being within itself. The builder isn’t actively causing the house to be a house – there was a time of becoming, caused by the builder, and then there’s a time of being, where the house exists of its own accord – because it possesses existence.

That distinction between causing being and causing a becoming is really key here. Aquinas has a neat little example to show the difference. If you’re heating a pot, you’re causing the water to become hot. You can take the heat away, and you’ve stopped causing the water to become hot, but now that water actually has heat as an intrinsic property within itself. The water will go on being hot (for a time) even though you’ve removed the cause of its becoming hot. By contrast, think about a lightbulb lighting up a room. In that example, the lightbulb is causing the room to be light. If you turn the light off, that cause disappears, and the room becomes dark. At first, the room has the quality of ‘being light’. But that ‘being’ is dependent on an external cause: something other than the room causes the room to be bright. Remove the cause, and the room stops being light. The room never took light-ness into itself as an internal characteristic, and so when the external cause vanishes, the room stops being light. The heat causes a becoming, but the light causes being. Thus Aquinas says that “every creature stands in relation to God as the air to the light of the sun.” God causes our being in the same way that the sun causes the air to be bright. That’s – I mean it’s bad physics, but you get the picture. When the sun goes away, we stop being. Being is not a property we hold within ourselves.

In terms of the original house-building example, then, Aquinas says that the analogy just doesn’t stick. The builder causes a house to become a house, but doesn’t cause the house to be a house after that initial creative act. The wording here is still a little bit awkward – obviously being is predicated on becoming, right. We can say that the builder caused the house to exist and that the house’s existence depends on the builder’s act of building. That’s all true. The distinction we’re trying to draw here asks where being resides. In a built house, the house has existence as kind of an internal quality. If the builder fucks off, the house still exists. It’s the heated water, right – there’s a quality that got into the thing and now that thing has that quality independent of any external factor. By contrast, the house is definitely not like a lit room. We can say a room is lit, or that it has light-ness as like a quality, but that quality is entirely external. If you turn the lamp off, the room stops being lit. It never received light-ness into itself as an intrinsic quality. So yes, the builder caused the house to exist, but the house’s ongoing existence is now an internal quality. It’s not something that depends on the external builder’s ongoing activity.

So Aquinas ultimately says that yes, humans are kept in existence by God. There’s a few things to take out of that; firstly, the cutesy notion that God keeps us all existing by thinking about us constantly. That’s cute and sweet and sounds like a Sunday morning sermon. The other, slightly more grim point is that if existence isn’t a natural inherent part of our being, it’s hypothetically quite easy for God to just remove His support and blink us out of existence. Existence is like crutches – we have it, but it isn’t a natural and inherent part of our body. It’s a supplement. And because it’s a supplement, God can remove it without doing any violence to our identity as human beings (because God’s not allowed to do that, because it’s bad (according to Aquinas) and God is only good). We’ll talk more about this idea soon, so just tuck it away.

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