Aseity (Aseitas)

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A term used in scholastic philosophy and theology to express one of the primary attributes of God. Aseity comes from the Latin a se (aseitas ), and signifies the attribute of God whereby He possesses His existence of or from Himself, in virtue of His own essence, and not from any other being outside Himself as cause. It is best understood by contrast with its opposite, that is, the attribute whereby a being receives its existence from another (ab alio ) or is a caused or contingent being. It is thus one of the primary marks distinguishing God from creatures.

Meaning. Aseity has two aspects, one positive and one negative. In its negative meaning, which emerged first in the history of thought, it affirms that God is uncaused, depending on no other being for the source of His existence. In its positive meaning, it affirms that God is completely self-sufficient, having within Himself the sufficient reason for His own existence. The technical analysis of this in terms of essence and existence, which took longer to develop in Christian thought, affirms that God possesses existence per se, that is, through, or in virtue of, His own essence. This does not mean that God is literally the cause of Himself in the strict sense of cause, since this would imply some kind of real distinction between God as causing and God as effect. Such a teaching, as St. Thomas Aquinas has pointed out (C. gent. 1.22), would be absurd. What it does mean is that God's existence is absolutely identical with His essence, that His essence necessarily includes existence itself, so that God cannot not exist: He is the Necessary Being par excellence.

This identity of essence and existence, although held by all Christian thinkers, has been explained in different ways. The following account traces the development of the notion in Catholic thought from the Greek and Latin Fathers to the late scholastics and then concludes with some observations on the meaning of aseity as understood by certain modern philosophers.

Patristic Writers. The notion appears first clearly in the Apologists of the second century, expressed in the negative terms γένητος (uncaused, unoriginated) and γέννητος (ungenerated). St. justin martyr is a typical witness: "For God alone is unoriginated and incorruptible, and it is for this reason that He is God. Everything else after Him is originated and corruptible" (Dialogue with Trypho, 5.46). The same idea, in one form or another, quickly became the primary attribute of God among the Greek Fathers: He alone is uncaused, unoriginated, underived and ultimate.

The early Latin writers repeated this doctrine. But lactantius (early fourth century) adds a more positive analysis of his own, describing God as "self-originated (ex se ipso est ) and therefore of such a nature as He wanted Himself to be" (Div. instit. 2.8, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum, 19:137). At times he slips into such philosophically unsound and theologically unorthodox language as the following: "Since it is impossible for anything that exists not to have at some time begun to exist, it follows that, when nothing else existed before Him, He was procreated from Himself before all things (ex se ipso sit procreatus )," and again, repeating the words of seneca, "God made Himself (Deus ipse se fecit )"Div. instit. 1.7, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum, 19:28. The same positive notion of self-causality, but without the note of temporal beginning, appears in marius victorinus, the convert who so deeply influenced St. Augustine. He speaks of God in one place as "a se, per se, without any beginning of existence" (Contra Arium, 4.5 ed. P. Henry and P. Hadot, Sources Chétiennes, 68). In another context, not very consistently, he says that God is "the original cause both of Himself and all others," who "makes Himself to be (se esse efficit )" (ibid., 1.3; 4.27). This incautious interpretation of a se as self-caused, taken over from pagan philosophers like Seneca or plotinus (God "made Himself is cause of Himself"Enneads 6.8.1314), was later rejected by Latin Fathers such as St. augustine (Trin. 1.1.1). Neither Lactantius nor Marius Victorinus, it should be noted, is a Father of the Church.

Saints Hilary and Jerome. The next important step is the linking of the notion of God as a se with the Biblical text in which God declares His name to Moses: "I am who am" (Exodus, 3.14). The result is the identification of being itself with the very essence of God. This appears first in St. hilary of poitiers, who describes his sudden realization, while meditating on the text of Exodus, that the essential nature of God and the source of all his attributes was revealed therein (Trin. 1.56, Patrologia Latina, 10:28; cf., In psalm. 2.13, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum, 22:46).

St. jerome also appeals to the Exodus text. The strong expressions he uses to explain it, such as, God is "the origin of Himself and cause of His own substance," are interpreted quite traditionally by him as meaning that God has no cause or origin outside of Himself (In Eph. 2.3.14; Patrologia Latina, 26:488).

From Hilary on, the text of Exodus 3.14 is central in the West for the analysis of the essence and attributes of God. The official Vulgate translation of St. Jerome, commonly used in the Latin Church, was: "Ego sum qui sum " (I am Who am). This was universally interpreted as identifying the very essence of God (since the name for the Hebrews signified the essence) with being itself. This interpretation endured and continued to deeply nourish the thought of Christian theologians and philosophers, until the revival of Biblical scholarship in the 20th century. Contemporary Biblical studies have however shown, that the original Hebrew text does not in fact offer any positive metaphysical description of the essence of God, but most probably means simply, "I am Who I am," that is, My name (and therefore My essence) is My own secret, hidden from men. It is an affirmation of the mystery, incomprehensibility and ineffability of the divine nature with respect to the human mind. Another possible but less favored meaning is: "I am the one Who gives, or is the source of, being." Thus theologians no longer hold that the identity of God's essence and existence is directly revealed in this text. This does not alter the fact that the older interpretation exerted a decisive influence on Christian thought about God for many centuries, especially on St. Thomas Aquinas and the whole tradition of scholasticism in the West.

St. Anselm. St. anselm of canterbury is responsible for firmly imbedding the notion of aseity in the rising scholastic tradition as a primary attribute of God, thus summing up the whole patristic tradition. He expresses the negative aspect by a se, the positive by per se (Monologion, 6). Anselm also introduces a more technical analysis of the identity of essence and existence. He explains existence as an attribute or perfection flowing necessarily from the very concept of the divine essence as the infinitely perfect Being; thus, for him, it is impossible even to think of God, that is, of "that than which nothing greater can be conceived," save as actually existing. This notion is basic to his famous ontological argument (Proslogion, 14).

St. Thomas. The next decisive step, marking a new orientation in the interpretation of the identity of the divine essence and existence, was taken by St. thomas aquinas. In terms of his central thesis of existence as act, the fundamental perfection of all things that is participated only in limited modes by finite essences, Aquinas teaches that the very essence of God is a pure subsistent act of existence (Ipsum Esse Subsistens ). This has no admixture of potency or limit of any kind, and thus contains within it the plenitude of all possible perfection (C. gent. 1.26, 28; Summa Theologiae 1a, 3.4; 8.1). The Exodus text is his central authority from revelation (ST 1a, 13.11). In view of his radical reduction of essence to existence in the divine nature, St. Thomas carefully avoids the Anselmian way of speaking of the divine existence as though it were an attribute flowing necessarily from the divine essence, with its hint of a conceptual priority of essence. In fact, the term itself, a se (or aseitas ), traditional though it be, is never actually used by Aquinas in speaking of God, possibly because of its faintly ambiguous suggestion of some causal relation between the divine essence and its existence. The closest he comes is when he speaks of God as the per se necessary being (ST 1a, 2.3; C. gent. 1.15), or as being by essence (ens per essentiam ), in contrast to creatures, which are beings by participation (ST 1a, 3.4; 6.3). Later Thomists resume the use of the older term aseity, but continue to explain the identity between essence and existence in the same way as St. Thomas.

Franciscan School. The Franciscan school parted company with St. Thomas on his doctrine of existence as the basic perfection of all things limited by essence, and preferred to explain the perfection of things as rooted in their essences or forms. In agreement on this point with all non-Thomist scholastics, they analyzed all the attributes of God, including existence itself, in terms of His infinitely perfect essence, to which, precisely because of its infinite perfection, existence necessarily belongs. Hence it is not surprising that in all these schools aseity should retain a central place among the divine attributes.

Not yet clear-cut in St. bonaventure (Itinerarium, 5.5), the difference of approach becomes fully explicit in the teaching of John duns scotus. For him, though the divine existence is, of course, absolutely identical with the divine essence, it is conceived by man as an intrinsic mode of the latter following logically after the primary mode of infinity. This, for Scotus, is the proper defining note of the metaphysical essence of God (Opus Oxon.;; for God as ex se, see De primo principio, 3).

Suárez. Founder of the school of Suarezian Thomism that had been widely influential, F. suÁrez sought to make a synthesis of Thomism and Scotism. His Disputationes Metaphysicae, the first systematic treatise of metaphysics in the West, did much to render classic the primary division of all beings into ens a se (God) and ens ab alio (creatures) and to establish aseity as the primary attribute of God. Although in explaining the positive meaning of aseity Suárez often uses the Thomistic description of the divine essence as the subsistent act of existence, his own metaphysical doctrine of existence led to a more Scotistic interpretation. For Suárez, existence is reducible to actual essencehence his denial of their real distinction in creatures; this made it inevitable that he should interpret God's existence more as a necessary attribute of the infinitely perfect divine essence than as the very core of all its perfection. (Disp. Meta. 28.1.67; 30.1.223; Tract. de Div. Subst. 1.2; 1.3.1; 1.59.) In Suárez's teaching, ens a se becomes practically synonymous with Necessary Being.

Modern Philosophy. The Suarezian notion of aseity seems to have passed into modern philosophy through the teaching of C. wolff and influenced the development of the branch of philosophy known as theodicy. Other thinkers gave different interpretations of aseity in the modern period, notably R. descartes and certain rationalist, idealist and spiritualist philosophers.

Descartes initiated the rationalist tradition that restored to honor Anselm's ontological argument and deduced the existence of God from the concept of His essence as an infinitely perfect being (Medit. 3 and 5). He also revived the ancient term causa sui, abandoned since Augustine. When taken to task for this, he explained, that he did not mean cause in the strict sense of producing an effect distinct from itself. But he insisted that it did mean some positive power in God that is responsible for constantly maintaining Him in existence. This is none other than the infinite power of God's essence, conceived as eternally positing His own existence (Resp. to 1st and 4th Obj. ).

The same basic conception, understood in an even more rigorously rationalistic way, is found in the notion of God as causa sui advanced by B. spinoza (Eth. 1, Def. 1). A similar notion of God as somehow self-causing keeps recurring in various forms down through the German idealist philosophers, as, for example, in F. W. J. Schelling's conception of a procession of the conscious divine being from a deep, irrational, groundless abyss within Himself, or in A. Schopenhauer's notion of an autogenesis of God by absolute will, or in the self-positing, self-unfolding Absolute Spirit of G. W. F. hegel. The primary defect in all these positions, when they are to be taken literally, is that they all imply either some ultimate priority of essence, or will, or power over actual existence, or some kind of distinction (contrary to the absolute divine simplicity) between the ultimate source or ground of God and His actual completed being.

A more subtly qualified and acceptable notion of God as causa sui has reappeared among some French spiritualist philosophers of the 20th century, such as M. blondel (L'Etre et les êtres, Paris 1935, 176181, 342, 520) and L. lavelle (De l'Acte, Paris 1937, 111126). Despite their sometimes obscure and ambiguous language, especially Lavelle's, there is a profound and mysterious truth hidden behind their descriptions of God as pure spiritual act, pure "cause" without effect, as though somehow giving Himself to Himself in a pure spontaneous eternal act of consciously loving self-position or self-affirmation.

See Also: god; essence and existence; pure act; sufficient reason, principle of.

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[w. n. clarke]