Aquinas and maimonides on the divine names

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CHAPTER TWO

AQUINAS AND MAIMONIDES ON THE DIVINE NAMES

Chapter 1 argued that the Quaestio de attributis represents one
of Aquinas’ most complete and definitive insights on the issue of
the divine attributes. This chapter attempts to demonstrate that
it also contains one of Aquinas’ most comprehensive evaluations
of Maimonides’ position on the divine names and that it does not
deviatefrom his earlier readings of the Guide on the issue, but
rather elucidates all the elements of his critique and offers a new
insight into Maimonides’ work.
Regarding the general approach to philosophical issues in the
Guide, Aquinas already finds common interests in principle with
Maimonides in his Introduction, where the latter asserts that
human beings apprehend God through the divinescience and
that this can only be achieved after the study of natural science.1
In other places Maimonides claims that it is only possible to apprehend God through the things He has made, a principle also present in Aquinas’ thought, both of them following Aristotle in the
acknowledgment of the physical world as the sole way for any natural knowledge of God.2 Another element common to Aquinas
andMaimonides is their acknowledgment of the divine characteristics of unity and simplicity as a fact easily grasped and demonstrated by the intellect,3 and of the divine attributes as expressions
of God’s utmost perfection.4
Aquinas’ first explicit references to Maimonides in his earliest
major work, the Commentary on the Sentences, are precisely related to
the names of God and the apprehensionof the divine essence, a
fact that stresses this issue’s central role in Aquinas’ interest in the
Guide. When, ten years later, he composed the Quaestio de attributis,
he also reviewed his earlier understanding of Maimonides’ position. It is therefore opportune to examine these first references in
1
2
3
4

Guide, Intro., 9.
Ibid. I, 34, 74.
Cf. for instance In I Sent., d. 2, q. 1, a. 1;Guide, II, Intro. and ch. 1.
Guide, I, 26, 56 and I, 46, 98.

66

AQUINAS AND MAIMONIDES

order to put in context the elements persistently maintained and
the possible discrepancies between his early and late readings of
the Guide in the Commentary on the Sentences (1252-1256), De Potentia
(1265-1266), the Quaestio de attributis (1265-1266) and the Summa
Theologiae I (1266-1268).5
Iam dividing this chapter into three sections. The first identifies the reasons for Aquinas’ interest in the Guide and for his disagreement with Maimonides’ answer to the problem according
to the Commentary on the Sentences and De Potentia. The second is
devoted to Aquinas’ analysis of Maimonides’ position according
to the Quaestio de attributis and the new elements in his approach
to the Guide.The third examines his more general summary contained in S. Theol. I, q. 13. While maintaining the chronological
order of the texts, I also examine them according to the two
main questions at stake: being as the proper name of God and
the legitimacy of the divine names.
1.

Maimonides’ Position According to the Commentary
on the Sentences and De Potentia

The first references toMaimonides on the issue of the divine
attributes are affected by the nature of the Parisian Commentary
on the Sentences.6 Aquinas approaches the problem of the knowledge of God in this work in a context that is unsuitable for a systematic explanation of his own position on the issue, constrained
as he is by the ordering imposed by Peter Lombard.7 This
explains the scattered references to key issues ofhis doctrine,
like the three steps for the elaboration of a notion of God
(causality, removal, and eminence), which Aquinas expounds at
least three times: when explaining the causality of God,8 the
5
For a systematic examination of Aquinas’ position on quidditative knowledge
of God and knowledge by analogy, cf. J.F. Wippel, The Metaphysical Thought of
Thomas Aquinas.. However, the author...
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