Harrison Middleton University

Aquinas and the Metaphor

Aquinas and the Metaphor

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


January 24, 2020

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s blog.

How do metaphors reveal a hidden truth? Question 1, Article 8 of Aquinas’s Summa Theologica investigates whether or not Sacred Doctrine is a matter of argument. One common answer, as Aquinas notes, would be to say that they are articles of faith. However, Aquinas answers that, though arguments are generated from “articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else, as the Apostle from the resurrection of Christ argues in proof of the general resurrection” (8A). He points out, however, that when arguing about metaphysics, the “highest science,” proof exists only if “the opponent will make some concessions” (8A). In other words, the opponent in this argument, must concede that some truth can be obtained by divine revelation and they must concede the possibility of a divine existence. Aquinas, then, studies the way that language bridges this gap between human and divine and in so doing, presents some interesting ideas about metaphor.

In everything I do, I believe that metaphor helps to extend a truth in special and unique ways. Yet, having studied language for so long, I am still confused, on how it actually succeeds. According to Merriam-Webster, “metaphor” is a type of figurative language, defined as: “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money).” It’s astounding to me – and entirely pleasing also – that metaphor exists at all. Why do we say something that cannot possibly be true, and have it represent truth?

Aquinas offers a clue at the end of Question 10, Article 2, when he says, “Eternity is nothing else but God Himself. Hence God is not called eternal as if He were in any way measured, but the notion of measurement is there taken according to the apprehension of our mind alone” (42B). In other words, metaphor may be literally the only way that humans can speak of such complexity. So, while we cannot directly address the size, shape, dimensions, etc. of something like God, we can assimilate ideas and words into our known experience which enables a metaphoric representation of greatness.

Furthermore, I think it is important that Aquinas points out that metaphor is an entirely intellectual process. In Question 10, Article 3, Reply Objection 3, Aquinas writes, “Necessary means a certain mode of truth, according to the Philosopher, is in the intellect. Therefore in this sense the true and the necessary are eternal, because they are in the eternal intellect, which is the divine intellect alone” (43A). He means that any truth we contain comes from God. It also means that we acquire and store knowledge in our intellect. While Aquinas intends this to address God’s eternal existence, I like to also apply it to the way in which we know truth. The ability to connect two discordant ideas exemplifies the intellectual process, which, Aquinas would say, is a God-given process.

In Question 16, Aquinas continues to quote Aristotle (“the Philosopher”). He says in Article 1 that “The Philosopher says, ‘The true and the false are not in things, but in the intellect’” (94B). We know a thing to be true by our apprehension of that thing, whether experiential, sensory-based or other knowledge. It is knowledge that allows us to access truth. And since the intellect is able to make connections, then it makes sense that humans can link unlike things to foster or extend the truth.

Aquinas continues his investigation into the way metaphor enlightens divinity with a discussion of names. In Question 13, Article 3, he attempts to answer whether any name can be applied to God. He writes: “[O]ur knowledge of God is derived from the perfections which flow from Him to creatures, which perfections are in God in a more eminent way than in creatures. Now our intellect apprehends them as they are in creatures, and as it apprehends them it signifies them by names” (65A). According to this, then, humans select names based upon their perception of beings. Since, according to Aquinas, God enables human perception as well as the forms of creation, the names that humans derive are also divinely inspired. He explains, however, that as these names participate with God (being derived from God), they are divinely inspired, however, due to the fact that humans cannot know the totality of God, the names given create a very human link. He continues that the names “do not properly and strictly apply to God, for their mode of signification applies to creatures” (65A). In other words, these attributes are shared with earthly experience from which we derive all knowledge.

Metaphor, then, combines earthly experience and intellect in unique ways. This type of analogy offers unlimited potential for connection. Metaphor is, perhaps, a way to demonstrate the infinite potential of the intellect.

*All citations are from The Great Books of the Western World, Volume 17, translated by Father Laurence Shapcote.

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