Aquinas and Spinoza: The Concept of God

Aquinas and Spinoza: The Concept of God

Throughout recorded history, mankind has envisaged an ultimate being, omnipotent, omniscient, infinite. This being, which we call God, has been described in many different ways, in cultures all over the world. It seems there are as many ideas about God as there are stars in the heavens.

In this article, I will set my sights on the ideas of two very famous Western thinkers concerning the conception of God, these being Thomas Aquinas and Benedictus de Spinoza. Initially, an examination of Aquinas’ views will be undertaken. I will then proceed to Spinoza’s ideas of God. Comparison and contrast will be followed by a few thoughts of my own.

For Aquinas, God is, of course, the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the transcendent God of the Bible. The Bible, however, was not the only contributing factor in Aquinas’ thinking. The philosophy of Aristotle also played a major role in the formation of his concept of God. Seeing that Thomas was attempting to synthesize Aristotelian philosophy with Christianity, it is not surprising that Aristotle’s ideas are abundant in his writings. One need only look at the Five Ways, contained in the Summa Theologica, where God looks very similar to Aristotle’s “unmoved mover.”

The Five Ways, or five proofs for God’s existence, give us a good idea of what Aquinas thinks about God. He began by analyzing our everyday experience, such as motion, for example. His Five Ways conclude that God is

  • first mover
  • first efficient cause
  • absolutely necessary and independent being
  • ultimate being and goodness
  • super-intelligent being

But what do these descriptions really tell us about the attributes of God? For the answer to this, Aquinas’ via negativa, or “negative way”, will be used to arrive at some understanding of what Thomas is saying.

First of all, God, as first mover, cannot undergo change from potentiality to actuality, therefore God must be totally actual. From this we can conclude that, since only material things can move from potentiality to actuality, God cannot be material or corporeal, thus God is incorporeal, according to this line of reasoning.

God, as first efficient cause, cannot have a prior cause, therefore God is self-existent. God relies on none other than Himself for His existence (Aquinas believes God is sexless, but is usually referred to in the masculine sense). Since there are no accidents in God (since accidents must have some cause other than themselves), God is His essence.

God, as absolutely necessary and independent being, is similar to the previous argument. God cannot not-be, therefore God’s existence is necessary, not contingent.

According to Aquinas, God, as ultimate being and goodness, cannot be more or less good; God is the supreme Good. God cannot possess more or less being; God is supreme Being and the source of all being.

God, as super-intelligent being, cannot lack knowledge or intelligence, and God is the director of all non-intelligent natural bodies, such as the planets and the stars. Herein, we also see the providence of God.

In addition to these, Aquinas also asserted that God wills Himself, and, In willing Himself, He wills the existence of all creatures. Furthermore, God is the creator, and the Christian doctrine is one of creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing.

Spinoza’s God, overall, is radically different. He does not initiate his investigation by reasoning from common, everyday experiences as Thomas did. In his work, The Ethics, Spinoza puts forth a set of definitions from which he proceeds to reason. His definition of God is as follows:

By God, I mean a being absolutely infinite–that is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality (Spinoza 45).

The entire argument rests on his idea of substance, which he defines as “that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself, in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception” (ibid.). A substance, by this definition, is entirely independent, i.e. it relies on nothing else for its existence. Unlike Aquinas, who draws a distinction between finite substances and infinite substance (God), Spinoza posits a single substance, which he called God. All other things are properties of God, thus meaning, basically, that God is the totality of all things. Hence, Spinoza is espousing a form of pantheism.

Spinoza was critical of some Christian thinkers’ advocation of both a finite and an infinite substance. Aquinas had assumed the two were not “univocally substantial” (Jones 199), meaning that finite beings and God are not substantially the same. Spinoza reasoned that, if finite beings are not substantially the same as God, why, then, are they called substances? He saw this as absurd. A substance, as previously mentioned, is that which has its existence in itself. Spinoza believed that Aquinas put forth this assumption in order to satisfy Christian dogma, for Christianity taught that everything must be dependent on God for its existence, and that certain of these “finite substances” required individuality, viz. humans. This was done to avoid a monistic absorption into an all-encompassing One, such as is found in Hinduism (Jones 200).

Spinoza also believed that more than one substance inferred more than one universe, and this was nonsense to him. He believed our universe is infinite itself. There is no need to pass beyond it to discover God, as Aquinas taught in asserting a transcendent God (ibid.). 

Although Spinoza equated God with Nature, he does make a distinction between substance and the properties of that substance. A property of substance is anything that is not substance. There are two kinds of properties, which Spinoza called mode and attribute. Spinoza said that mode is the “modifications of substance, or that which exists in, and is conceived through, something other than itself” (Spinoza 45). Attribute is “that which the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substance” (ibid.). Descartes had posited thinking substance and material substance. In Spinoza, these become attributes of the one substance, God. Aquinas put forth a multitudinous array of substances, but with Spinoza these become modes of God. God possesses infinite attributes, but thought and extension are the only ones we can know, these being basic determinations of the one substance. Modes are individual, particular modifications of substance. “What in earlier language was called the world, Spinoza now calls the modes of God’s attributes” (Stumpf 242). God is expressed in Nature as different modes of either thought or extension, but everything is God, nevertheless–Deus sive Natura.

There is little similarity between Aquinas’ God and Spinoza’s God. However, Spinoza was, indeed, referring to God as ultimate reality and truth, a tradition, according to W.T. Jones, that can be traced back thousands of years, even before Plato (Jones 202). Aquinas, and all other Christian philosopher, did the same, even though their views were vastly different from Spinoza’s. Metaphysically and epistemologically, Spinoza’s complex web of reality functioned the same as Aquinas’ infinite and transcendent substance, in that God is the source of existence for whatever there is, and that He is the font of all infinite truth. That is about as far as it goes in discussing similarities between the two men, except maybe to say that both offered so-called proofs for God’s existence, and that both conceptions of God seem to be ingenious solutions to philosophical problems.

There are many contrasts. I will only touch on a few of the most obvious. First, Aquinas eschewed any form of pantheism. Being a Christian theologian, he believed in a deity that transcends this space-time universe. He held that God is both transcendent and immanent, this being the teaching of the Church Fathers. Spinoza’s equation of God and Nature is heresy in his eyes. This is probably the most glaring difference. All others will stem from this source. For example, we have already discussed the distinction Thomas made between finite substance and infinite substance (God). Spinoza consider this absurd, as previously mentioned. The Christian God of Aquinas is a loving Father who sympathizes with the suffering of His creatures. Spinoza’s God is a system of cold, abstract assertions, a vast geometrical network of “implicatorily related” truths (Jones 194). For Aquinas, God is the creator of the world. Spinoza claims that a God who wills to create would be limited, and therefore not perfect.

In my own thinking, I tend to shy away from any attempt whatsoever to claim what God is. I am more comfortable with the via negativa. In this, I respect Aquinas, but do not share his dogmatic assertions on the nature of God. I also do not believe one can arrive at true knowledge of God through rational means. I think there is truth to be found in all cultures, religions, and philosophies.

Both conceptions of God are rather cold and abstract for my taste. Whatever ultimate truth may be, I hate to think of it as being so impassive. Aquinas speaks of the stars and planets as non-intelligent natural bodies. I reject this. In my thinking, all natural bodies possess soul in some way, and thus have some sort of intelligence, what Aristotle called entelechy.

Honestly, I do not find either man’s God as being very intelligible. I suppose Aquinas’ God is more comprehensible, simply because our culture is so saturated with Christian teachings. Notwithstanding, I find his teaching quite unpalatable. Spinoza is too systematic, as is Aquinas for that matter. It strikes me as pointless to attempt to treat God or reality systematically. I have the same problem with Hegel.

If knowledge of God does indeed stem from ratiocination, then Spinoza has a firm grasp of the matter. He seems to carry things to their logical conclusion much better than Aquinas, who is biased by Church dogma. I am thinking here of Aquinas’ failure to see the contradiction involved in distinguishing between finite and infinite substance. Of course, Spinoza was not under theological constraints, as Thomas was.

Spinoza is to be commended for his free-thinking. It must have taken much courage to break with the Jewish orthodoxy of his fathers to go in search of truth on his own. That is most likely the path to God, in my estimation, unlike Aquinas, who wrote under the watchful eyes of the Roman Catholic censors. I wish Spinoza would have realized that human reason does not seem to get us any closer to knowing God.

If humanity ever arrives at true and certain knowledge of God, which I seriously doubt will ever occur, then it will be through individuals who are able to express themselves freely, without fear of reprisal from authorities. There is no other way.

Works Cited

Jones, W.T. Hobbes to Hume. Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1969.

Spinoza, Benedictus de. The Ethics. New York: Dover, 1955.

Stumpf, Samuel Enoch. Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.

2 thoughts on “Aquinas and Spinoza: The Concept of God

  1. I believe that you will find that the first sentence in this essay is false. Can you cite a text from , say, the 15th century BCE that refers to an ultimate , omnipotent, omniscient, infinite being?

  2. I am pleased with your work, however there are a few things that I thought were off.

    “I wish Spinoza would have realized that human reason does not seem to get us any closer to knowing God.”

    This statement is problematic in how it presupposes knowledge of a how-to and how-not-to in regards to the acquisition of knowledge of God.

    Although you expressed your doubt on humanity’s arrival at the true and certain knowledge of God at the last paragraph, the same problem applies.

    Putting aside the problem on the knowledge of God, I agree with your sentiments on the encouragement of the free spirit.

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