The Golden Key to Thomas Aquinas: Analogy

Well, I poured my cup of decaf herbal tea this morning with a relief. The new book Thomas Aquinas in 50 Pages is finished and the inner circle of collaborators have a copy for review. After we massage the text a little, it will “ship out” to you via email on May 31. If you would like a copy on May 31, please sign up by clicking here.
As a drank my decaf herbal tea this morning, I asked myself, “What if someone doesn’t want to read my new book on Thomas Aquinas? What if they voted for another book and they just aren’t interested? What would be the one thing that I would say to that person?”

So here’s the one thing. In order to understand Thomas Aquinas, you need to understand how he uses analogy with regard to theology.

Here’s a clipping from Thomas Aquinas in 50 Pages that sums up this principle.

Analogy or “God Is Like This”
The “analogy of being” is the centerpiece of Thomistic philosophy. If one does not understand the analogy of being, one does not understand Thomas Aquinas. It is impossible to penetrate his thought without fully appreciating his doctrine of analogy. In fact, this section of the book in your hands is the most important few pages of the entire book so read carefully and make sure that you understand this before moving on.

We must first understand three fancy philosophical terms: univocal, equivocal, and analogical. Here is another table for simplicity’s sake:

All rational human beings already understand these three concepts, but it is important for us to fully appreciate the terminology. In order to do so, let us imagine three different philosophers. 

The first philosopher is named “Ulric the Univocal.” The second philosopher is named “Ezekiel the Equivocal.” The third philosopher is named “Aquinas the Analogical.” 

1) Ulrick the Univocal
Let’s begin with Ulric the Univocal. Pretend that Ulric the Univocal says, “The pasta is perfect.” Here we have “pasta” joined to the word “perfect.” To understand this in a univocal way would be to assume always and everywhere that “pasta” and “perfect” are absolutely the same. So that when Ulric says, “pasta” he means “perfect” and when he says “perfect” he means “pasta.” 

If Ulric’s statement were entirely univocal then he would also say things like “Your test was pasta!” or “His golf swing is absolutely pasta.” Ulric the Univocal might also say things like “May I please have some more marinara sauce on my perfect?” or “Farfalli is my favorite kind of perfect.” 

Small children between the ages of two and three often make these mistakes. Small children do not always pick up the subtlety of language. For example, if you say, “The shirt is big,” they might say, “I want to wear the big.” This is an example of univocity. 

By using language univocally, we run into problems, and this is especially true when we are doing philosophy. If Ulric the Univocal heard someone say, “God is my Father,” he assumes that the term “God” and “my father” are one and the same. If Ulric the Univocal understood you univocally, then when he met your father, he would address him as “God.” That’s a big problem.

2) Ezekiel the Equivocal
Let us now turn to Ezekiel the Equivocal. Ezekiel styles himself as a sharp philosopher and he is aware of all the problems that Ulric the Univocal experiences. Ezekiel the Equivocal takes it upon himself to disprove what everybody says. 

If his mother says, “This pasta is perfect!” then Ezekiel the Equivocal interrupts her and says, “Perfect is defined as having all the required and desirable elements, qualities, and characteristics, that is, perfect is as good as it is possible to be.” Then Ezekiel the Equivocal squints his eyes and wrinkles his nose as he asks, “Do you really think that this pasta meets that criteria?” His mother is now a little annoyed. “Well no. I just meant that I really like this pasta.” Ezekiel smiles with satisfaction. He has one again clarified a situation.

Another time, he hears his mother say, “God is my rock.” Ezekiel throws his hands in the air. “What? How could God, an infinite being, become your rock. Mom, you’re crazy.” This is why nobody likes Ezekiel the Equivocal. He always points out the fact that our truth claims are equivocal. If someone says, “Look up into the night sky. There’s the big dipper!” Ezekiel says, “That’s not a big dipper. It’s just a cluster of stars!” If someone says, “Ezekiel, you’re such a pain in the neck!” he simply responds by saying, “How can I be in your neck. That’s impossible.”

3) Aquinas the Analogical
So far, we have found that both Ulric the Univocal’s philosophic method and the method of Ezekiel the Equivocal are unsatisfying. Ulric is confused about pasta and perfection and Ezekiel is right, but just downright annoying. Fortunately, we have Aquinas the Analogical to solve our problem. Aquinas walks over to Ezekiel the Equivocal and says:
“You know, Ezekiel the Equivocal, you’re on the right track, but you have forgotten the principle of analogy. When your mom says, ‘God is my rock’ she means it by way of analogy. She means God is like a rock. God is strong. When someone says, ‘You’re a pain in the neck,’ what they means is that you are like a pain in the neck. Literally speaking, it is false. You are not in his neck. But analogically, it is true. You are really are annoying, just like a pain in the neck.”
You see, Thomas Aquinas insists on the principle of analogy. This is true whenever we speak about existence (metaphysics) and when we speak about knowing the truth (epistemology). 

The best way is to speak in terms of analogy. This is especially the case when it comes to God. It is true that anything we say about God is not fully accurate. If I say, “God is perfect,” then Ezekiel the Equivocal is going to interrupt and say that my finite and human notion of “perfection” is insufficient in describing God’s perfection. Ezekiel would be correct, by the way. 

When I say that ice cream, pasta, or a golf swing is perfect, this is a far cry from the absolute perfection of God. Since I know that my human notion of “perfect” is insufficient, I simply respond analogically: “Well God’s perfection is similar (analogical) to an earthly example in perfection, but in a much greater way.” In summary, then, Ezekiel the Equivocal is technically correct, but he is dismissed since he does not fully appreciate how we speak of things being similar or analogical to each other.

Now all of this is rooted in the metaphysics of Aquinas, which I try to explain briefly and simply in the new free book. I think you can see here that the principle of analogy is absolutely essential for philosophy. Otherwise, things get confusing very quickly. It also means that one must be very precise at all times. This requires constant distinctions – something Thomas is always doing.

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