"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

— A Commentary on the First Part of St Thomas' Theological Summa

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


First article: whether the existence of God is self-evident

State of the question. That proposition is self-evident which, as soon as the terms are known, and without the medium of demonstration, is known as true and necessary. Such are the first principles of reason, which are immediately evident and which therefore cannot be demonstrated except indirectly or by a reduction to absurdity. Is the proposition, God is, self-evident; is it evident from the terms alone?

In the state of the question St. Thomas first gives the reasons for affirming this. (i) Damascene says: "The knowledge of God is naturally implanted in all,"(6) and therefore the proposition seems as self-evident as the first principles of reason are. (2) St. Anselm's argument (7) is proposed by the following syllogism: Nothing greater can be thought of than what is signified by the word "God"; but what exists actually and mentally is greater than what exists only mentally; therefore, as soon as the word "God" is understood, it evidently follows that God exists not only mentally but also actually. This argument was later on revived by Descartes, Leibnitz, and the ontologists. It was admitted even by Spinoza, but according to the pantheistic type of ontologism. (3) It is evident that truth exists, says St. Thomas (for if it is said that truth does not exist, then it is true that truth does not exist); but God is truth; therefore God exists.

It must be noted that St. Anselm's argument, as de Wulf (8) relates, was admitted by William of Auxerre, Richard Fitzacre, and Alexander of Hales. St. Albert the Great seems to be of the opinion that this argument appeals to philosophers. It is rejected, however, by St. Thomas, Robert Middleton, Scotus, and many Scholastics.Among modern intellectuals it is rejected by Kant who, moreover, in accordance with his subjectivism, maintains that St. Anselm's deceptive argument, which he calls the ontological argument, is implied in all the classic proofs of God's existence. In this difficult question that must be carefully considered, as we shall at once see,there are three systems of thought that are in opposition to one another, namely, the exaggerated realism of St. Anselm and the ontologists, the subjective conceptualism of Kant, and the moderate realism of St. Thomas, this latter being, so to speak, the just mean and summit between the other two.

The reply. That God exists, is not self-evident, at least to us.

1) The indirect proof is given in the counterargument as follows: no one can mentally admit the opposite of what is self-evident (e.g., of the principle of contradiction, or of causality); but "the fool said in his heart, there is no God"; (9) therefore, that God exists, is not self-evident.

To this the followers of St. Anselm reply: This proposition, "God is," is self-evident only to the philosophers, as this other, that "incorporeal substances are not in space." It is not self-evident, however, to those whose intelligence is obscured by reason of inordinate passions, and who, therefore, do not consider what is signified by this name God. Truly this indirect argument does not seem to be apodictic. On the contrary, what is said in the body of the article constitutes a cogent argument for St. Thomas.

2) The direct proof is then given. The entire argumentation has its foundation in the distinction between "what is self-evident in itself and to us," and "what is self-evident in itself, but not to us," and is reduced to this conclusion: A proposition is self-evident in itself, but not to us, when the predicate is included in the essence of the subject, the essence of either subject or predicate being unknown to us. Now in this proposition, "God is," the predicate is included indeed in the essence of the subject (for God is His own existence), but we do not know the essence of God. Therefore this proposition is self-evident in itself, but not to us, not even to philosophers; it needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us, though less known in their nature, namely, by effects.(10) The major is evident; but the difficulty is in the minor, as regards the words, "we do not know God's essence." For a better understanding of this difficulty the objections of St. Anselm's followers must be presented as they increase in urgency.

The followers of St. Anselm object that we have not the quiddative knowledge of God which the blessed enjoy in heaven, which means that we do not know the Deity as it is in itself; but we do know what is meant by the name God, namely, that if God exists, then He is the first Cause and the most perfect Being; and this suffices.

St. Thomas would reply to this, as he points out in the reply to the second objection of the following article, by saying: The names given to God are derived from His effects (as first Cause, most perfect Being), and this point will be more clearly explained later on in the first article of the thirteenth question in which the analogy between names taken from creatures as applied to God is discussed. "Consequently, in demonstrating the existence of God from His effects, we may take for the middle term the meaning of the word God." (11) In other words, the - nominal definition of God does not include actual existence, and from this definition all that can be concluded is that God is self-existent and independent of any other being, if He exists. It follows then that God's existence must be demonstrated a posteriori, that is, from those effects already known to us. This is just what is said in the reply to the second objection of this article.

The followers of St. Anselm again object that, even apart from the effects, we at once know God's essence, namely, that He is the primal Truth and the supreme Good. And it is at once evident that truth exists, especially primal Truth; and it is likewise evident that good exists, especially the supreme Good.

In the reply to the third objection of this article, we read: "The existence of truth in general is self-evident; but the existence of a primal Truth is not self-evident to us." This is proved indeed a posteriori in the third article by the fourth way as follows: "Among being there are some more and some less good, true, noble, and the like. But '`more' and 'less' are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum . . . and consequently something which is uttermost being."

Likewise in the reply to the first objection of this article, we read: "Man naturally desires happiness (or to be happy), and what is naturally desired by man must be naturally known to him." Thus he has a confused knowledge of the supreme good. "This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching; for many there are who imagine that man's perfect good, which is happiness, consists in riches, and others in pleasures, and others in something else."

From these replies to the first and third objections, we see that St Anselm's argument would be valid and fundamentally true if absolute realism were true, that is, if the formal universal had objective existence, as Plato, the Platonists, the ontologists, and Spinoza thought, though the latter applied this theory only to the notion of substance. Even long ago Parmenides formulated the principle of contradiction in accordance with the theory of absolute realism, when he said: "Being exists, non-being does not exist." The principle of contradiction would be then not only an abstract principle (abstracting from actual existence), but also a judgement pertaining to the order of existence. Contrary to this, Aristotle formulated this principle in the abstract by saying: "Being, is not non-being"; something cannot at the same time be and not be.

But if absolute realism were true, that is, if the universal existed not only fundamentally, but formally apart from the thing, then being in general would be identical with the divine being, as Parmenides maintained, later on Spinoza, and also the ontologists, though with some modifications. That such is the conclusion of their teaching is clear from their condemned propositions. These are: "An immediate and at least habitual knowledge of God is essential for the intellect, so that without this there is no possibility of its acquiring any knowledge since this is intellectual light itself. That being which is in all things and without which nothing is perceived by the intellect, is the divine being. There is no real distinction between universals considered apart from things and God. All other ideas are but modifications of the idea by which God as being is simply understood." (12)

Hence, whereas St. Thomas says: "What first comes to our mind is intelligible being" of sensible things, these extreme realists say that what first comes to our mind is the divine being. In other words, the ontological First or the first Being is what is first known by our mind. But in this case being in general is identified with the divine being, as Parmenides maintained among the ancient philosophers and Spinoza among the moderns. Evidently, if this extreme realism were true, St. Anselm's argument would be valid and undoubtedly a fundamental truth even in the order of invention (like the principle of contradiction). But this absolute realism leads to pantheism and is without any foundation; for what is first known is intelligible being of sensible things, and this will be more clearly seen later on.(13) Sometimes we have a superficial refutation of St. Anselm's argument. Its true refutation does not leave out of consideration the problem of universals.

Several followers of St. Anselm object that, even independently of absolute realism, God's essence is sufficiently made known to us by the name God, so that we can at once affirm that God is not a stone, or a man, but that He is "the greatest being that is possible of conception." It is especially this that the philosophers understand the name implies. But the greatest being possible of conception must exist not only mentally but also actually; otherwise it would be possible to conceive a greater being, namely, one that would exist both mentally and actually. Thus God's existence is demonstrated, but by an a priori proof derived from the notion of God.

About the end of the reply to the second objection of this article the minor of the preceding syllogism is denied, for we read: "Nor can it be argued that this being actually exists, unless it be admitted (by the adversary) that there actually exists something than which nothing greater can be thought." In other words, the atheist or the agnostic will say: Most certainly God is self-existent and is independent of any other being, if He truly and actually exists; but it must be proved that He actually exists. This is not proved from merely the abstraction of God, a notion that does not include actual , existence. In other words, if extreme realism is untrue, in this argumentt given by St. Anselm there is an unwarranted transition from the ideal order of essences to the real order of actual or de facto existence. Against the proof of the minor it must be said that neither God existing is greater than God viewed as possible as regards His essence, to which the nominal definition refers; but in addition to this He has actual existence, and this cannot be proved merely from the abstract notion of God.

To state the case more briefly, in the ideal order of essences conceived by us there cannot be anything greater than the most perfect being; (14) but in the order of real and de facto existence, a fly that really exists is greater as regards actual existence than a creatable angel, and even than the most perfect being that is conceived as merely possible of existing. From this we more clearly see what St Thomas meant when in the body of the article he said: "We do not know the essence of God."

Similarly, St. Thomas had said in the prologue to this second question: "We must consider whether God exists and the manner of His existence, or, rather, what is not the manner of His existence"; this means that He is not finite, not mobile, not corporeal, and so forth. To know positively what God is would be to have a proper and positive knowledge of the Deity, and not a knowledge that is analogical and as it refers to creatures. In this case, the proposition, "God is," would be self-evident, as St. Bonaventure says, who, on this point, does not seem to differ from St. Thomas.

If we had an intuitive and quiddative knowledge of the Deity, then we would see actual existence in the same, because God is Hisi, existence.(l5) But we know God's essence only in an abstract and analogical way, and essential existence is of course included in this absract notion, but not actual existence. In other words, it is indeed a priori evident that, if God exists, He is self-existent and independent of any other (this being a hypothetical proposition that concerns essential existence); but it is not a priori evident solely from the abstract notion of God, that He truly and de facto exists.

This already virtually excludes the opinion of those who posit either some impressed or expressed species in the beatific vision. From this species we would have only an abstractive and analogical knowledge of God, and we would not know God just as He is. As St. Thomas says: ""The essence of God, however, cannot be seen by any created similitude representing the divine essence as it really is," because the essence of God is the self-subsisting Being. We cannot know of God what He is, unless we directly see the Deity, without the intermediary of any created species or representation. We shall then at once see not only that God is self-existent if He exists, but that He is actually self-existent, existing as such externally to the soul.(16)

In other words, as with our abstract notions, so our abstract and analogical notion of the most perfect Being does not include actual existence, but abstracts from it. It differs, however, from our notions of contingent beings, such as of an angel or a stone, in that it includes essential existence. Thus we already have evidence of the truth of the hypothetical proposition that, if God exists, then He is self-existent.


Index Top


1. The prologue says: "God, as He is in Himself," that is, as He is the principle and end of creatures. This expression, however, does not mean "just as He is," because it is only in the beatific vision that God is known "just as He is."

2. Cf. Contra Gentes, Bk. II, chap. 4, § 3.

3. Physics, Bk. VIII: Metaph., Bk. XII.

4. Summa theol., Ia, q. 1, a.5 ad 2um.

5. Rom. 1: 20.

6. De fide orthod., Bk. I, chap. 1.

7. Proslogium, chap. 3.

8. History of Medieval Philosophy (4th ed.), p. 335.

9. Ps. 52: 1.

10. As Cajetan observes, although a proposition that is self-evident in itself excludes an a priori middle term of demonstration, it can admit with reference to us an a posteriori middle term; that is, a middle term by which we acquire a greater knowledge of the subject. Scotus objects, saying that a proposition selfevident in itself and not to us, is not a proposition. In reply to this we say that St. Thomas has in mind the fundamental aspect of the proposition.

11. Summa theol., Ia, q. 2 ad 2um.

12. Denz., nos. 1659 f.

13. Summa theol., Ia, q.88, a. 3: "Whether God is the first object known by the human mind."

14.Cajetan says in his commentary on this article: "The reason for this surpassing excellence is the nobility of the thing signified in itself," and there is no contradiction implied when we say, "Existence is not," but only when we say, that "What exists is not." The whole of Cajetan's commentary on this article should read.

15. In God, as He is in Himself, there is no distinction between essence and existence, not even between the ideal order and that of actual existence. I am who am, or Who is, each is a judgment that pertains both to the essential and to the existential order. Identity of the two orders (the ideal and the real), which Hegel posited as the foundation of his system, is found only in God. See Summa theol., I.a, q. 12, a.2 (end).

16. St. Thomas says (De veritate, q. 10, a. 12, the end): "But in heaven, where shall see God's essence, His essence will be far more self-evident to us than the following truth is now self-evident to us: that affirmation and negation of a thing are not both true."


"The greatest glory we can give to God is to do his will in everything."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

* * *

"There is nothing which gives greater security to our actions, or more effectually cuts the snares the devil lays for us, than to follow another person’s will, rather than our own, in doing good."

St Philip Neri

* * *

"This is the greatest wisdom -- to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world. "

Thomas á Kempis

* * *