The Form of Forms is Itself Formless

That which has no form cannot be conceived – and vice versa. It’s easy to see that this is so when we try to think of what a square circle is like, or a four-sided triangle.

But, let’s talk about God.

To put the same thing another way: that than which no greater can be conceived by any mind cannot be conceived by any mind. If that than which no greater can be conceived could be conceived by any mind, then that mind would insofarforth understand how its conception of that thing could be surpassed, and would realize that in conceiving of it he had not yet quite conceived of that than which no greater can be conceived. He would realize that he had not been thinking of the unsurpassable. He would, i.e., realize that he had been thinking, not of God, but rather of something like Gaunilo’s Island, than which always some greater island might be conceived.

So, here’s the shocking consequence of these considerations: Not even God can conceive himself.

God transcends conception as such. He is himself greater than any concept of him – even his own. This is what we mean by calling him to apeiron, ain sof, the Unlimited.

His conception of things – his Logos – is in virtue of his prior actuality. He first acts (not in the order of time, but of logic); then, his only begotten Son understands his act – which is the Son’s own act – which, i.e., is as much the act of the Son as of the Father. Not that the act and the understanding thereof – which is itself an act – are separate, or disparate. They come along together as a package deal, together with the Holy Spirit’s understanding that the Logos has understood the Father, and his own understanding of them both, and of their relations. The Persons then are all three together one act; no one of them could have happened completely without all three of them.

The Logos, then, and the Holy Spirit in whom the Life of God subsists, are both implicit in the Father.

And vice versa. He is implicit in them, and could not be without them. The Father could not be Father without the Son, and ergo the Holy Ghost, in whose collection their threefold communion subsists, and is delivered to the other Two, thereby completing them.

God is inconceivable, even to himself. So then is his exploration of himself as endless and as boundless and as sempiternal as our own exploration of him – the difference being that, whereas the creaturely exploration of God is never completable – so that life everlasting is then vouchsafed to us – his exploration of himself is, in virtue of his eternity, always complete. It does not end, of course, because if it did, God would not be eternal. So it is always lively. It is an active enjoyment. Nevertheless is it complete.

To say that God cannot be conceived even by himself is an aspect of the fact that God cannot come to be, and does not exist, but rather simply and eternally is. He does not decide to form himself according to some merely conceptual ideal form, and then go ahead and form himself that way, and then proceed to be in that way. Rather, he just is the way that he is. All forms of being follow and depend upon his being.

The Suprapersonal Godhead is the Form of God, and has itself therefore no form. It is the Principle of Formation, of Formity. But just as numeration has itself no number, so the Form of forms per se can have itself no form. This is what Maimonides was talking about when he wrote that God is formless.

The formlessness of the Suprapersonal Godhead is the reason that the Persons dwell in and issue from light inaccessible, hid from our eyes even in the BV. The light is inaccessible, not because our eyes cannot see it, but because – like the darkness – we cannot comprehend it.

We cannot enter that Light. But it can enter us.

24 thoughts on “The Form of Forms is Itself Formless

  1. Pingback: The Form of Forms is Itself Formless | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: The Form of Forms is Itself Formless | Reaction Times

    • Well, if God created the insurrection then it is not an insurrection, properly speaking.

      Thanks for linking that post, which makes a number of interesting arguments. It’s mostly spot on. I have only a few quibbles.

      First, as necessary, God is not self-caused, but uncaused. It’s an important distinction.

      Second, while it is true that what there is to know of creatura is what God creates, it is not the case that creatura exists necessarily – that would collapse the world into God, or vice versa. God himself is necessary, but his knowledge of contingency x is not necessary; for, if it were, x would not be contingent, but necessary – which is to say, an aspect of God himself. And that would entail the nonexistence of creatures disparate from God. It would entail our nonexistence; which is counterfactual.

      Again, it is not the case that “for GNON to know what it can do is already to have done it, because divine intelligence is creation.” That would impose modal collapse: the category of the possible would collapse into the category of the necessary, and the divine act of creation would disappear; for, as necessary, creatura would be uncaused.

      If we avoid modal collapse so as to avoid counterfactuality and keep the category of the possible, then what we find is that while God is necessary, his creative act is not, and nor are the acts of contingent creatures. These acts rather are *free* – this is to say no more than that they are after all acts.

      God could have created nothing; he could have brought this world to a close a few moments ago, foreclosing the possibility that I would type what I now type. He might have made me a cat. He might never have made me. And so forth. Presumably God knows that he can somehow or other foreclose my existence as me at this moment, but chooses not to foreclose it. If God’s knowledge that x *just was* the creation of x, then if God knew that he could either foreclose this moment or not, he would both foreclose this moment and not foreclose it. He would, i.e., enact a contradiction. Obviously that’s something he can’t do, for it would contradict his own nature.

      • If God’s knowledge that x *just was* the creation of x, then if God knew that he could either foreclose this moment or not, he would both foreclose this moment and not foreclose it. He would, i.e., enact a contradiction. Obviously that’s something he can’t do, for it would contradict his own nature. — Kristor

        In other words…

        God is (P)erfection.

  3. I suppose it depends on the definition of form and conceive. Are God’s definitions and ours identical?

    This article seems to be discussing limits on God. It matters not from what perspective these perceived limits are being apprehended. We know so little of who and what God is, we know so little of what our five senses are capapble of registering – compared with all that may be out there – that it is foolishness (or at least a waste of time) to speculate about any limits on God’s power. Except that we are pretty sure he cannot create a rock that is so heavy that he can’t lift it. But outside of that one limitation of which we know …

    Oh, and I guess we know that he is not limited by the things which limit us. So how do we use the tools at our disposal, how do we use those things that we CAN apprehend, to determine anything at all about that which we cannot apprehend, even with our tools?

    • Are God’s definitions and ours identical?

      No; his are complete and consistent, while the most we can hope for is consistency. NB that there are some things we can possibly know absolutely, just as God knows. E.g., the truths of logic, mathematics, and metaphysics.

      This article seems to be discussing limits on God.

      On the contrary: it specifically notices that God is the Unlimited. As the Limit of all things, he is not himself limited. If he were limited, he would not be God.
      It is no limitation on God that he cannot conceive himself. It’s just logic. Logic does not limit God; logic is the character of his Limit. As you say:

      … we are pretty sure he cannot create a rock that is so heavy that he can’t lift it.

      Exactly. God can’t enact a contradiction. But that’s not a limitation on him. Contradictions are nonsense. It is no limitation on God that he does no nonsense. The only sorts of things he can do are those that comport with his logical character; it is no limitation on God that he can’t be something other than God.

      … how do we use the tools at our disposal, how do we use those things that we CAN apprehend, to determine anything at all about that which we cannot apprehend, even with our tools?

      That we see now but through a glass and darkly does not mean we are altogether blind. We can’t comprehend God, but we can comprehend truths *about* God.

      • No; his are complete and consistent, while the most we can hope for is consistency. — Kristor

        I disagree. “We” can certainly hope for a “completeness” in our definitions. This “hope” presupposing a completeness and consistency of definition(s) identical to God.

      • No consistent logical calculus is complete. Only the whole stack of logical calculi is complete. And that stack is infinite. Finite minds cannot encompass it.

      • Absolute Truth is all-pervasive, infinitely so. Lies are a strict redundancy, ie., really irreal. “We” may know the complete infinite stack as (P)erfection in a method of encompassing what is a basic thirst for Absolute Truth. Ergo, “we” can hope for completeness and consistency in our definition(s) identical to God.

        I am not lamenting the inability to climb atop the (F)ather only pointing out the absolute possibility of standing right next to Him.

  4. Kristor, thank you for some hearty lenten fare. I’ve sometimes wondered whether God’s “thinking” of himself is what the Orthodox understand as the divine energy (both in act and object). When we think of the formative power of God, it seems that we’re talking about some sort of instantiation of the really real — an eternal and intelligible showing-up of what is beyond being (at a higher ontological level than formal instantiation [that people normally mean when they use the term] in the world of sights and sounds). The blueprint of all that is is what it is eternally; is the fount rather than the product of creation. And then the blueprint manifests itself in time and space . . . a trickle down metaphysics, I suppose, and also the truth that underlies Plotinus’ emanations. So, we can affirm that everything that is is an image or footstep (imago or vestigium) of God — the source of intellection and intelligibility — as the Seraphic Doctor taught, while God is likewise beyond intellection and intelligibility. The divine essence is beyond being, while the divine energy is being itself — and the beingness of what we casually call beings. The former is the dark cloud into which the soul ascends when it encounters God, while the ladder is what the mind contemplates with beatific bliss — as well as the source and sustenance of the cosmos.

    • Joseph A.,

      The divine essence is beyond being…

      Is this standard Eastern Orthodox teaching? I am no expert, but I think the western tradition would disagree and simply say that the divine essence just is being itself. Said differently: that God’s essence is existence.

      • I was trained in the arts of the handmaiden rather than in those of the mistress. Yet, as a layman with some background in patristics, it seems to me that such is implied by the Cappadocians and their theological heirs — and even sometimes explicitly proclaimed, as with the Areopagite. Accordingly, speaking of God as “beyond being” is certainly representative of Platonism and of Christians’ use of Platonist language to explain their metaphysics. While such riles up decent gentlemen like Mr. Charlton and others who believe that Christians remain shackled in the captivity of Greco-Roman metaphysical commitments, it does not trouble me as a Platonist. Of course, Christian theologians would adopt coherent and profoundly insightful ways of speaking about being! Do you really think that we had to wait until the world gave us the treasures of Derrida before we could articulate our understanding of reality? Feh! The spoiled of the Egyptians, if you ask me!

        Having been schooled by Schoolmen, though, and subjected to opposing views, I have always labored to see how different traditions might be looking at the same object from different perspectives. And so I wonder whether the Western understanding of God as esse is reconcilable with the Eastern understanding of God’s ἐνέργεια. My inner ecumenist thinks so.

      • I wonder whether the Western understanding of God as esse is reconcilable with the Eastern understanding of God’s ἐνέργεια.

        Sure. God’s esse is how he is to himself. His energeia are how he is to others. It’s the same with us. To every fact, there is an inward and an outward aspect. The inward aspect is inscrutable to others. It is scrutable only to the fact itself. The outward aspect of any fact is all that others can know of it.

        The inward and outward aspects are of course logically related. God’s energies could not be what they are if his esse was not what it is.

        The divine essence is beyond being …

        Is this standard Eastern Orthodox teaching? I am no expert, but I think the western tradition would disagree and simply say that the divine essence just is being itself

        Being itself is beyond being. This, in just the way that the set of all contingent things is not itself contingent; or that the bound of all things is not itself bounded. Triangularity does not have three angles. Circularity is not circular. Democracy is not democratic. And so forth.

        I’ve sometimes wondered whether God’s “thinking” of himself is what the Orthodox understand as the divine energy …

        I doubt that God thinks, as we do. What would he need to figure out? He just is, knows, does, enjoys. To us, outside him, it looks as though he first does this, then does that; first says or thinks this, then says or thinks that. To him, it’s all one.

  5. I had just been reading and thinking about being, about how it cannot be predicated and is not a concept. And we know that God is Being itself. But I hadn’t made the connection that therefore, God cannot conceptualize Himself.

    So thanks.

    It’s weird to think about though. My instinctual reaction is: “Of course God can conceptualize Himself!”

    • Yeah, me, too. He’s omniscient, after all, right? But there is a difference between knowing and conceiving. God knows himself, certainly. That is not to say that he thinks about himself abstractly.

      He kens, but does not reckon; cognizes, but does not recognize. Cognizing fully, as he does, there is no occasion for recognizing.

      Being omniscient, there would be nothing he needed to figure out; no reason to reason. Reason himself does not reason; he *is* reason as such, and is every reason.

      • When one gets to know God initially through the eyes of His enemies then one realizes the sheer hatred for His (P)erfection and its ultimate insurmountability. What one then begins to realize is that the only weaponized mechanism at the disposal of the enemies of (P)erfection is REDUNDANCY. This “redundancy” in the guise of rekoning, recognizing, replicating, replaying, rehashing, remaining, revolving, relaying, repeating, remitting, retaining, etc. all works in a multitude of ways to destroy any conception of objective (S)upremacy.

        Hence, The First Law of (P)erfection is no redundancy, ie., only (s)ingularities.

        (P)erfection —> (s)ingularities seems to be the bare-bones metaphysical schematic.

  6. According to Aquinas in scg we have: [18] One must also consider that what is generated, so long as it remains in the generator, is said to be “conceived.” But the Word of God is begotten by God in such wise that it does not withdraw from Him, but abides in Him. (This is clear from the above.) Rightly, therefore, the Word of God can be called “conceived” by God.

    • Yeah, but that’s a different use of “conceive.” It takes conceiving as begetting rather than as thinking. The latter usage didn’t come in until the 14th century.

    • For God as (P)erfection to conceive of Himself is a REDUNDANT ACT. There is no redundancy in (P)erfection. Ergo, God does not conceive of Himself.

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