In Summa Theologica I q. 3 a. 5 "Whether God is contained in a genus?", Aquinas says that if God were in a genus, it would be the genus of "being," but being cannot be the genus of anything (cf. Metaphysica lib. 3 l. 8). He concludes that God "is not contained in any genus as its principle."

Then in his response to I q. 4 a. 1 "Whether God is perfect?", he says

God is posited not as the first material principle, but as the first principle in the genus of efficient causes*
Deus autem ponitur primum principium, non materiale, sed in genere causæ efficientis

*Alfred J. Freddoso's transl.

This seems inconsistent. How can God have no genus but be in the genus of efficient causes? But I notice that Aquinas doesn't exactly say God is in the genus of efficient causes; what he says is that God is the "first principle" in the genus.

I've been looking at Aristotle: Categories, Topics, etc, but I'm not finding anything that would explain what the "first principle" in a genus is. Does Aristotle ever define such a concept?

So, my questions are:

  1. Does Aristotle define a "first principle" in a genus? Or is this an invention of Aquinas?
  2. Is there an inconsistency in the Summa Theologica I q. 3 a. 5 and I q. 4 a. 1?
  3. Does the qualification "first principle" rescue Aquinas from being inconsistent?
  • Maybe we have an inconsistency... the intricacy of Aristotelian metaphysics, when applied to God, is very high. See A.Kenny, Aquinas on Being (Oxford University Press, 2005), page 46: "God does not fall under any genus; no doubt God and creatures are both beings, but ‘being’ does not denote a genus. Everything there is has esse". So far so good... Feb 26, 2020 at 15:22
  • And compare with p.188: "things that participate esse from the first being do not participate it according to the universal mode of being in which it is in the first principle, but in a particular manner according to the determinate mode of being appropriate for particular genera and species. Forms, whether forms of material objects, or self-subsistent forms (as Aquinas believed angels were), participated in the esse proper to it. St.Th here seems to be asserting what he earlier strenuously denied, i.e. that the esse that is identical with God is the esse that is common to all entities." Feb 26, 2020 at 15:25
  • I'm reminded of: "Nothing which is in a genus is the universal cause of those things which are in that genus." (SCG 7 n. 16). That would be akin to a man being the cause of humanity, a triangle being the cause of polygons, etc. Because nothing can cause itself (cf. scholastic axiom 6.5).
    – Geremia
    Mar 8, 2020 at 0:00

1 Answer 1


1. Does Aristotle define a "first principle" in a genus?

In Metaphysics 998a20-999a23, which St. Thomas commentates in Metaphysica lib. 3 l. 8, Aristotle discusses

the problem whether genera (γένη) must be regarded as the elements (στοιχεῖα) and principles (ἀρχὰς) of things

Commenting on Metaphysics 1018b9,

Things are said to be prior and subsequent insofar as there is some primary thing (πρώτου) or principle (ἀρχῆς) in each class (γένει),

St. Thomas says (Metaphysica lib. 5 l. 13 n. 1)

the principle (principium) in each class (genere) of things is what is first (primum) in that class (genere)

2. Is there an inconsistency in the Summa Theologica I q. 3 a. 5 and I q. 4 a. 1?

The solution is that God is not simply the first efficient cause in a class of many other efficient causes, but the cause of efficient causation itself.

He continues (I q. 4 a. 1 co., Freddoso's transl.):

the first efficient principle has to be absolutely perfect.
et hoc oportet esse perfectissimum.

God "is not contained [i.e., limited*] in any genus as its principle (sicut principium)" (I q. 4 a. 1 co.); He is in the genus of efficient causes as its cause.
*Limitation is an imperfection.

Also, St. Thomas gives a few concise arguments for why God it is impossible for God to be the genus of anything (impossibile est Deum esse genus alicuius) in Compendium Theologiæ cap. 13:

God cannot be a genus. What a thing is, but not that it is, comes from its genus; the thing is established in its proper existence by specific differences. But that which God is, is very existence itself. Therefore He cannot be a genus.

neque possibile est Deum esse genus. Ex genere enim habetur quid est res, non autem rem esse: nam per differentias specificas constituitur res in proprio esse; sed hoc quod Deus est, est ipsum esse. Impossibile est ergo quod sit genus.

Moreover, every genus is divided by some differences. But no differences can be apprehended in very existence itself. For differences do not share in genus except indirectly, so far as the species that are constituted by differences share in a genus. But there cannot be any difference that does not share in existence, since non-being is not the specific difference of anything. Accordingly God cannot be a genus predicated of a number of species.

Item. Omne genus differentiis aliquibus dividitur. Ipsius autem esse non est accipere aliquas differentias: differentiæ enim non participant genus nisi per accidens, inquantum species constitutæ per differentias genus participant. Non potest autem esse aliqua differentia quæ non participet esse, quia non ens nullius est differentia. Impossibile est igitur quod Deus sit genus de multis speciebus prædicatum.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .