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Duquesne University

Number and Infinity:


Thomas and Cantor
Adam Drozdek

N THE CENTER OF medieval discussion on infinity is the problem of temporal infinity, which contradicts the creation doctrine, and the problem of omnipotence. Can God create infinity? Can God actually divide a continuum which only
potentially has parts? In this paper the discussion will concentrate on the problem
of whether and to what extent infinity can be found in creation and how it can
be reconciled with Gods omnipotence. First, views of Thomas Aquinas will be
presented, and then some later modifications of his views, especially those made
by the founder of modern set theory, Georg Cantor.
I

It appears that in Thomass philosophy the division line, very roughly, between
God and creation is very much the same as between the infinite and the finite.
Creation is identified with being finite (In I Sent. 17.1.1 obj. 5). The very fact of
being created implies finitude; therefore the world and everything in it is finitein particular, man is finite because he is caused to be.
Also, human knowledge appears to be finite. We cannot understand infinity
since we are unable to know an infinity of things simultaneously, unlike God,
who can. We can understand things in succession, one thing after another, which
rules out an infinite understanding (ST I.86.2). We are unable to encompass in one
cognitive act an infinity of data, which limits us to scrutinizing data one by one
or, at most, small amount by small amount. Since we are immersed in time, we
cannot see infinity at one glimpse of understanding; the confines of time limit us
to finite knowledge.
For Thomas only God, who is his own subsistent being, is infinite, and his
infinity means his perfection, powers, wisdom, and other attributes. Prime matter
is purely indefinite and, as such, cannot exist. If it had existed separately, it would
have been imperfect; hence, infinity of prime matter is the same as imperfection,
unlike in God. Only by acquiring forms, and thus by being limited and determined, does matter acquire reality and some measure of perfection (ST I.7.1).
Neither a natural body nor a mathematical body can be actually infinite. A
mathematical body, which is a body analyzed in respect to quantity, can exist
only by its form, and because figure is the form of quantity, such a body, as having a figure, would be limited by a boundary (ST I.7.3).1
1

This limitation was later lifted by Cusanus.


International Philosophical Quarterly Vol. XXXIX, No. 1 Issue No. 153 (March 1999)

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An (actually or accidentally) infinite set cannot exist since every kind of set
follows the species of number, but no species of number is infinite (ST I.7.4).
Such a set would be quantitatively formless . . . and unintelligible,2 and therefore no purpose could be found in Gods act of creating it. Furthermore, although
there is an infinity of kinds of figure (triangles, squares, etc.) and any individual
of any kind can be made actual, there is no set of figures which would include
one figure of each kind, whereby this set could be infinite, since an infinitely
numerable multitude is not all at once reduced to act; that is, the existence of the
set is ruled out since such a set of figures would have to be numbered, and there
is no infinite number (ST I.7.4 ad 2).3 And again, the infinite cannot be known
insofar as it cannot be numbered, because to number parts of the infinite is contradictory (SCG I.69).
Since all knowledge, except that stemming from the light of grace, originates
from the senses, so does mathematical knowledge. The object of mathematics is
not independent of the real world. It is extracted from the world by abstraction. In
sensible matter the first accident is quantity, which precedes any other sensible
quality (ST I.85.1 ad 2), and as such, quantity can be analyzed separately from
sensible qualities. Because the world is three-dimensional, mathematics should
not consider any space that has more than three dimensions. Even if it did, such a
space would not be abstracted from empirical knowledge and, hence, should not
belong to mathematics, which by including this type of space would cut itself off
from its empirical roots. Also, such mathematical knowledge would be useless
because physics could not apply concepts which are not abstracted from sensory
knowledge and thereby can serve no apparent purpose. The order of things in the
world is independent of us, and the task of cognition is to uncover this order
without imposing onto nature an order of our own. This order can be detected
with proper categories, and these categories should also be extracted from the
world. Therefore, if we attempt to look at the world through the mirror of a fourdimensional space, we are doomed to have a distorted image of the world since,
in Aristotelian physics, the world is three-dimensional. The order is objective, and
reason has no business in making it more efficiently graspable by using false categories. For Thomas efficiency of cognitive categories and pragmatic reasons for
using them could never be accepted.
Moreover, since nothing in the world is infinite, no particular object of mathematics can be infinite.4 Mathematics is bound to physics. Mathematics cannot escape the limitations of the physical world, and if it tries to do it by, for example,
introducing an actually infinite division of the continuum, it turns into a chimera;
it ceases to be science and loses touch with sound physics and valid epistemology.
2
George F. J. LaMountain, The Concept of the Infinite in the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas,
The Thomist 19 (1966) 320.
3
Therefore Thomass views would exclude the axiom of choice. Thomas would agree that the Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory based on eight axioms is only 75% successful because two of the ZF
axioms have empirical content and so are not properly logical. The two axioms are the axiom of
choice and the axiom of infinity. See Ernest Snapper, The Three Crises in Mathematics: Logicism,
Intuitionism, and Formalism, Mathematics Magazine 52 (1979) 208.
4
One cannot abstract from the finite; that is, the process of abstraction cannot remove from a
body the property of being finite. See Ewald Bodewig, Die Stellung des hl. Thomas von Aquino zur
Mathematik, Archiv fur Geschichte der Philosophie 41 (1932) 411.

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The limitations of mathematics are the same as those of physics, and the structure
of the real world determines these limitations. They ought not to be violated.
Therefore, if matter did not exist, mathematics would not exist either since there
would not be any quantity and thus no number: The one which is the principle
of number is not predicated of God, but only of things which have being in matter. For one, the principle of number, belongs to the genus of mathematical
things, which have being in matter but are abstracted from matter according to
reason (ST I.11.3 ad 2). Similarly, angels cannot be counted, nor abstract things,
since they are not of the genus of quantity (Opusc. 44.3.1; In I Sent. 14.1.2).
Mathematics could not create useful categories to be used in cognition if these
categories exceeded the ability of abstraction. Mathematical knowledge is passive
and depends on empirical cognition since it can depend only on abstraction to
gain non-analytic knowledge. The role of synthesis is very small in Thomass
epistemology, limited mainly to the sensus communis. Thus synthetic knowledge
of four-dimensional space, as obtained from a synthesis of the concepts of space
and number, would be of the same value as putting together a circle and a square
to obtain a circular square.
The foregoing discussion of infinity may suggest that for Thomas there is no
room for infinity in the world, that is, there is no room for infinity except in God.
This would seem logical if the separation between the supreme Creator and his
creation were maintained. But for a Christian philosopher this simply cannot be
the case. For Thomas God is a personal God who created man in his image, who
is interested in the affairs of this world, who intervenes when he sees fit (miracles), who speaks to his chosen ones (prophecy), and who also in the Incarnation
becomes part of this world. Gods infinity is not, therefore, rigidly separated from
the finitude of this world. Thomas struggled constantly in his writings with how
much infinity should be allowed in the world and to what extent infinity could be
let into his account of the world. He wanted to keep a fine balance between Gods
perfection and supremacy, on the one hand, and the worlds status as creation, on
the other. Since infinity is a mark of divinity, imbuing the world with infinity
could be equated with allotting to the world some measure of divinity. This, however, should be done with great care because for a theologian the consequences of
an error in these matters are not of a theoretical nature only. After all, for Thomas
faith is what matters most; hence, such discussions are important from the perspective of faith and religion.
First of all, for God, that which is infinite is finite. Also, something can be finite
in one mode of being and infinite in another mode (In II Sent. 17.2.1). For example, our intellect has an infinite power in the sense of not being limited by matter
(De anima 18 ad 3). Also, since man knows God, man can know the infinite,
although not infinitely because, after all, the created light of glory . . . cannot be
infinite (ST I.12.7). Therefore our intellect can understand the whole God, but
not wholly (De veritate 1.2.1 ad 3).
The intellect, with its limited capacities, can in a sense encompass infinity since
it can comprehend universals, which can be predicated of an infinity of things (ST
III.10.3 ad 2). An intelligible species in our mind is a likeness of a potentially
infinite number of particular things. The creature can have a knowledge of the
infinite by the knowledge of simple intelligence but not by a knowledge of vision (ST III.10.3). Some knowledge of the infinite is possible, but not compre-

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hension of the infinite. Thus a creature does not encompass in its mind an infinite
number of concepts (essences, ideas, forms). However, does the generality of a
concept imply automatically that it can be applied to an infinite number of particulars? An idea of man by itself is insufficient to say that there may exist an infinity of men, even if it is a potential infinity. The idea of infinity has to come from
outside of the particular ideas and their applications.5 As a matter of fact, we may
surmise that it comes from an infinite intelligible reality. Thomas himself says
that our intellect extends to the infinite in understanding since, when thinking
about some finite thing, we are also capable of thinking about something greater,
which would be impossible unless an infinite intelligible reality existed (SCG
I.43). Hence, there is an objective ground in intelligible reality for our being
able to encompass potential infinity in our concepts.
However, only Gods knowledge is truly infinite since he is capable of knowing
all things simultaneously, not successively (ST I.14.12 ad 1). This is important
because the infinite cannot be traversed by the finite, nor by the infinite (ST
I.14.12 ad 2; SCG II.38), and if God attempted to enumerate all things, even he
would be unsuccessful since such an enumeration would require successive processing. Therefore God must be able to know infinity in a non-quantitative way or
not at all. Apparently God knows infinity since he encompasses it, but not through
enumeration, not through traversing it. The act of comprehending infinity has to
be immediate so that numbers do not have to mediate in such a comprehension.
Consequently, the principle that the infinite cannot be traversed does not prevent
God from creating an infinity of particulars if he chooses to do that, since this
creation will take place at the same time, not in succession.
Something other than God can be relatively infinite but not absolutely infinite. A piece of wood, for example, can potentially have an infinite number of
shapes. The same is true of other created and self-subsisting forms (ST I.7.2).
Only God is pure form and pure act; anything else is a composite, even if this is a
composition of essence and existence. God is infinite negatively since his essence
is not limited by anything; anything else can be infinite privatively as quantitatively formless (De veritate 2.2 ad 5).
The infinite is not against the nature of magnitude in general but is incompatible with the definite dimensions found in all specific magnitudes, such as triangular or quadratic magnitude (ST I.7.3 ad 2). There is, therefore, a door open
here for infinity to be encompassed by the concept of magnitude. Can it be that
our knowledge of magnitudes species is limited to finite species only, so that
there are, unbeknown to us, infinite species as well? After all, Thomas did not
show the impossibility of an infinite multitude since, as once aptly observed, it
seems that, according to Thomas, to show how such a multitude is not possible is
beyond human powers.6 Therefore we may assume that an actually infinite magnitude can exist. After all, even Aristotle left a door open, at least in the extramate5
It is true, then, that a concept can have finite content but an infinite scope, and it is only in
this sense that we can think about infinite sets, namely, by knowing their existence but not fully
comprehending them. See Gerhard Langenberg, Des hl. Thomas Lehre vom Unendlichen und die
neuere Mathematik, Philosophisches Jahrbuch 30 (1917) 93.
6
James F. Anderson, The Cause of Being: The Philosophy of Creation in St. Thomas (St. Louis:
Herder, 1952) p. 106.

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rial sphere, because he never proved that an actual infinity in immaterial


substances should be ruled out (SCG II.81).
Generally, Thomas has no problem with a hypothetical assumption that there
may exist an actual infinity of things; however, were it possiblethe universe
of these things would be of a lesser infinity than is God . . . who is absolutely
infinite (SCG I.69). Although it is a property of the infinite that nothing is
greater than it, we see that there are more even and odd numbers than there are
even. It seems, therefore, that we should conclude that nothing is greater than
the absolutely and in every way infinite. However, with regard to relative infinity, we can say that, although there is nothing greater than the infinity of that
order, e.g., even numbers, there may be a greater infinity outside that order, e.g.,
even and odd numbers combined (ST III.10.3 ad 3). Hence, there is a hierarchy of
limited infinities, but there is only one absolute infinity, which is perfection,
which is God.
In effect, Thomas says that the world happens to be finite, both synchronically
and diachronically, and making the world infinite in time and space would in no
wise undermine Gods superiority over his creation. If there were [an infinite
number of singulars], God would still know them (SCG I.69), and yet such
knowledge would be inaccessible to any creature. The world could be made out
of an infinity of things, and, philosophically, Thomas offers no argument which
would show that the world has to be finite. The strongest argument he has is from
revelationhe quotes the Wisdom of Solomon to the effect that God created everything according to number. This argument, in turn, hinges upon the interpretation of number, and for Thomas numbers are obviously limited to positive
integers.
Moreover, the world could be infinite in time, but here also Thomas gives no
philosophical argument that it should be otherwise. He ends his short treatise De
aeternitate mundi with the statement that it has not been yet shown that God
could not create actual infinities. The only argument he has here also stems from
a revelation, namely, from the statements in Genesis. Theoretically, however, it is
possible that the world could have existed from eternity, which would still mean
that God is a supreme being. The worlds eternity would not have been the same
as Gods; it would have been a lesser eternity by the very fact that it would have
been temporal eternity, not Gods eternity, eternity simpliciter.7
7
On the other hand, it can be argued that the world is eternal from Gods perspective since it is
eternally willed by God, and yet temporal from the creatures perspective, since it has been created.
See Francis J. Kovach, The Question of the Eternity of the World in St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas:
A Critical Analysis, Southwestern Journal of Philosophy 5 (1974) 171. The supposition of an eternal
world raised the vexing problem of an infinity of souls of people who would have died in the course of
the worlds existence. This problem was discussed very intensely in Thomass time. Thomas acknowledges it as a serious problem, but in response he only cites others (ST I.46.2 ad 8 or SCG II.38). The
only solution he offers is a cursory statement at the conclusion of De aeternitate mundi to the effect
that God could have made the world without men and souls, so that, basically, the world would have
been empty throughout eternity and only at a certain point of time would man have been created. It
appears that allowing for the eternity of the world in this opusculum is a result of his study of Aristotles
Physics and his recognition of the fact that for Aristotle this eternity was critical in the argument for a
mover and a causa essendi of the world. Cf. James A. Weisheipl, The Date and Context of Aquinas
De aeternitate mundi in Graceful Reason, ed. Lloyd P. Gerson (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1983) pp. 26971.

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All of these examples argue for the presence of infinity in the world. However,
Thomas was not very generous in ascribing infinity to anything in the world and
did so only reluctantly, as a last resort. He used what elsewhere I have called
Aristotles razor, which states that an explanation in terms of the finite is always preferred to one in terms of the infinite; therefore the use of an appeal to
infinity should be curtailed wherever possible.8 Let us observe, however, that most
of Thomass arguments against infinity hinge upon the concept of number. Number is at the bottom of reality; number can only be finite; hence, infinity does not
exist except potentially. The problem, then, is how to weaken the bond between
infinity and number. If it can be done, then the prospect of extending the horizon
of infinity within the world is better in the modern approach than in scholastic
philosophy.
II

Thomas distinguishes between concrete or simple numbers and abstract or absolute numbers: the former are found in matter, e.g., five horses, the latter in the
mind, e.g., five (ST I.30.1 ad 4).9 However, anything which exists has been created according to an idea (form) in the mind of God (ST I.15.23), which must
also be true about concrete numbers. Therefore, there is also a third kind of number, the numbers in the mind of God, who used them to create a world filled with
concrete numbers; from this world the human mind abstracts the abstract numbers. Ockham abolished this distinction by retaining only the abstract numbers.10
In Ockham, therefore, the bond between nature and mind is loosened to a considerable extent, and the mind does not need the mediation of nature to know numbers, as is the case in Aquinas; the mind can lift its sight beyond the limitations of
nature, and by this means the prospect of having better insight into infinity becomes better than was the case in Thomas. The mind has to obtain its knowledge
of numbers by other means than by simple abstraction from concrete numbers
(now eliminated). The mind has to be more active to be in possession of the concept of number. The mind can extract it from the process of counting or by abstracting a property common to sets of the same cardinality, or number can be
given by God (whether by illumination or by his making it an innate idea). These
different avenues, as a matter of fact, have been tried by various philosophers.
Leibniz, for example, drew out to its logical conclusion Ockhams distinction
between the minds concept of number and the sets of singulars in the world. He
accepted a paradoxical position with regard to infinite sets; they exist even though
there is no number to express their multitude. For Leibniz actual infinity is not a
whole and has no unity; it is an aggregate containing more things than any number can express. There is no infinite number since for each number n one can
always generate a number greater than n. As he writes, In spite of my Infinitesimal Calculus, I do not at all admit any true infinite number, though I agree that
Adam Drozdek, Aristotles Razor, Dialogos 70 (1997) 18198.
For the many synonyms possible for these terms, see Ewald Bodewig, Zahl und Kontinuum in der
Philosophie des hl. Thomas, Divus Thomas 13 (1935) 65.
10
Gottfried Martin, Wilhelm von Ockham: Untersuchungen zur Ontologie der Ordnungen (Berlin: de
Gruyter, 1949) pp. 1625, 4764.
8
9

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the multitude of things surpasses every finite number, or rather every number.11
The metaphysical world of substances is actually infinite since there exists an infinity of monads. Therefore, although there is such an infinity of monads, their
aggregates lack unity and so they cannot be numbered because an infinite number
does not exist. Actual infinity is non-numerable; it is immeasurable by an infinite
number. An actual infinity of Cantors type is described as absurd. Only in God is
there such an absolute and indivisible infinity. But, although God is infinite, even
for him there is no last number since such a concept is contradictory. Infinitely
large and infinitely small are only fictions or modi loquendi.12
In this way Leibniz separates numbers from sets and sees no contradiction in
retaining an actual infinity when suspending its numerability. This, to some extent, overcomes the limitation of Thomass theory of infinity at the cost of a rather
unintuitive treatment of infinite sets. The next step is made by Cantor, who lifts
Thomass limitation by introducing transfinite numbers and thereby can again find
a correspondence between sets and numbers. Thomas found this correspondence
by limiting the class of sets to finite sets only. Cantor found it by extending the
concept of number.
III

In 1879 Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni patris, which was aimed at
the revival of Thomism and at bringing Catholic doctrine into agreement with
contemporary science. These two goals are not disconnected, for the encyclical
urges venerable brethren in all earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St.
Thomas and to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic
faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences. The
encyclical not only explicitly mentions such natural sciences as physics and biology but also implicitly includes mathematics since it is an indispensable foundation of these sciences. Therefore the encyclical sees restoration of Thomism as a
means of renewing the Catholic faith, of winning it back to its ancient beauty,
so that it will be able to cope with contemporary science and to interpret its accomplishments theologically.
For Cantor this encyclical, which he praised many times, created a welcome
atmosphere in which his set theory could be used for theological purposes. Cantor
agreed with the spirit of the encyclical in his desire to find harmony between
faith and knowledge. However, the means often applied to accomplish this goal
were, to Cantors mind, entirely wrong since these means were founded on a
statement concerning the impossibility of actual infinite numbers that was absolutely wrong.13 Cantor brought the problem of infinity to the center of the stage
on which the drama of trying to harmonize faith and science was being played
out. Although not a Catholic himself, Cantor believed that his set theory could be
used for strengthening Catholic theology; an admirer of Thomas, he thought that
by his own analyses of infinity he could significantly contribute to the correction
G. W. Leibniz, Die philosophischen Schriften (Berlin: Weidmann, 18751890), v. 6, p. 629.
Ibid., v. 1, p. 338; v. 2, pp. 30405 (letter to des Bosses, 11 March 1704); v. 4, p. 427 (Discourse
on Metaphysics 1).
13
Letter to Enestrom, 4 November 1885, in Georg Cantor, Gesammelte Abhandlungen (Hildesheim:
Georg Olms, 1962) pp. 37071.
11
12

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and further development of Thomistic philosophy. After all, the encyclical encourages just that by saying that Thomass writings contain the seeds of almost
infinite truths to be unfolded in good time by later masters and with goodly
yield. Cantor may have considered himself to be such a later master, and he may
have thought that his set theory was a good opportunity to grapple with the problem of infinity.
Cantor does not accept the scholastic view that there is only one actual infinitythe infinity of God. For Cantor there are actually existing infinities, even an
infinite number of them. They constitute the realm of the transfinite, or suprafinite. Each of these infinities can be numbered by using numbers which surpass
the sequence of integers. All of these transfinite numbers exist from eternity in
intellectu divino.14 Therefore the scholastic maxim that there is no actual infinity should be replaced by a new maxim, namely, that all things, whether finite
or infinite, are defined and, except for God, can be determined by intellect.15 A
potential infinity is only a manifestation of an underlying transfinite without
which it can neither exist nor be thought.16
At the top of the hierarchy of infinities is God, the Absolute, an absolute maximum, true infinity, whose magnitude cannot be increased nor decreased. The Absolute is beyond human grasp and cannot be scientifically analyzed. This infinity
can be admitted or recognized but never known. This true infinity is inscrutable to
man; therefore mathematics cannot grapple with it. It surpasses human abilities;
man can only acknowledge its existence, knowing that analysis of this true infinity is beyond his reach. Cantor could very well repeat here Thomass statement
that God can be known but not comprehended. Also, Cantor projects onto a
higher level Leibnizs distinction between the magnitude of a set and the number
of its elements. Whereas there is a correspondence between these two concepts
for both finite and infinite sets, it does not hold for the Absolute. The Absolute is
unmeasurableit cannot be ascribed any number, and it is beyond the scope of
mathematics. Just as in the realm of the transfinite certain laws of the finite are no
longer true (e.g., 1 but 1 n n), so in the realm of the Absolute the
laws of the transfinite have no relevance either.
Cantor corresponded widely with Catholic theologians and philosophers, explaining his theory and its usefulness for religious matters and trying to convince
them that any danger of contradicting the Catholic faith here is only apparent. He
had a vivid exchange of letters with Ignatius Jeiler, a Franciscan, whose doubts
about the transfinite disappeared after Cantors elucidations.17
Cantor also wrote a long letter to Joseph Hontheim, a Jesuit, in which he assured him that Thomas considered the impossibility of an infinite number to be
not absolutely stringent, but more or less probable. Also, Thomas admitted that
an actual infinity could be created by God, from which it can be assumed that
Thomas foresaw in his mind . . . a true teaching concerning actual infinity or
14
Letter to Jeiler, 13 October 1895, in Herbert Meschkowski, Probleme des Unendlichen: Werk und
Leben Georg Cantors (Braunschweig: Vieweg, 1967) p. 258.
15
G. Cantor, Grundlagen einer allgemeinen Mannigfaltigkeitslehre (1883) in Gesammelte Abhandlungen, p. 176.
16
G. Cantor, Mitteilungen zur Lehre vom Transfiniten (1887) in Gesammelte Abhandlungen, p. 391.
17
Letter to Jeiler, 27 October 1895, in Meschkowski, p. 260.

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transfinite numbers.18 Hontheim gave serious consideration to Cantors new theory, but he did not accept the philosophical implications of Cantors views and
was not very diligent in discussing this with him. Cantor complained about not
receiving any response from Hontheim for two years.19
Cantor was much more fortunate in his correspondence with Constantin Gutberlet, a professor of philosophy and mathematics at the Catholic seminary in
Fulda. Gutberlet was convinced about the reality of an actual infinity and found in
Cantor the support which he needed for his philosophical and theological views.
Cantor in turn found theological support in Gutberlet, which was necessary for
him if only to see that his mathematical views did have philosophical consequences.
For Gutberlet the statement about a set that can be infinite only potentially is
contradictory; rather, one should say that a magnitude can be called potentially
infinite when it has a foundation in a corresponding actual infinity. Otherwise,
why is it that we can always surpass every limit which is set in an infinite extension? It is because behind any growing extension there is always more extension.20 However, in surpassing any limit, we think of no new extension and no
new, larger set; we only recognize that which already exists. Gutberlet uses here a
theologically potent argument. If an underlying actual infinity were not assumed
in the process of going beyond every limit of a growing extension, then either the
mind would have to construct what it accepts, orwhat amounts to the same
thingit would have to assume the existence of a reality where there is none.
Hence, the mind is never truly creative; it cannot surpass limits if there is nothing
already there. The human mind cannot create anything truly new, otherwisea
thought unacceptable to a theologianit would do something which God did not
do. God alone is Creator; man, at best, can only discover and acknowledge what
already has been brought into being by God. Hence, potential infinity is merely
an unfolding of actual infinity; potential infinity is a way in which actual infinity
manifests itself to the finite minds of men. In this sense what is possible, is
necessary, a thought which was used by Leibniz in his proof of Gods existence.
Although an actual infinity exists according to Gutberlet, this privilege is not
shared by numbers, and therefore it is very incorrect to talk about an infinite
number21 (a solution similar to Leibnizs). This is unacceptable to Cantor, who
says that no one can do the opponent of the transfinite a greater favor than by
this solution since the set and the number are indissolubly interconnected; if we
18
Letter to Hontheim, 21 December 1893, in Joseph Ternus, Ein Brief Georg Cantors an P. Joseph
Hontheim, S.J., Scholastik 4 (1929) 562, 567.
19
Letter to Esser, 25 December 1895, in Walter Purkert, Georg Cantor: 18451918 (Basel: Birkhauser, 1987) p. 209.
20
[Constantin] Gutberlet, Das Unendliche, metaphysisch und mathematisch betrachtet (Meinz: Faber,
1878) p. 11; see also his Allgemeine Metaphysik (Munster: Theissingsche Buchhandlung, 19064) pp.
21920. Cantor praised Gutberlet for emphasizing the dependency of potential infinity on actual infinity
(Mitteilungen, p. 394), and probably under his influence Cantor himself wrote in his Briefbuch (1886):
In order for a changing quantity [the potential infinity] to be usable in any mathematical analysis,
there must, strictly speaking, be known by definition the area of its changeability; this area cannot
be anything changeable, otherwise a solid basis for the analysis would be missing; this area of values
is then a certain actually infinite set. And hence, any potential infinity presupposes an actual infinity to
be strictly usable in mathematics (Meschkowski, p. 250).
21
Gutberlet, p. 18.

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renounce one, then we have no rights to the other.22 If a set has elements, then it
should be possible to express their number, which is a possibility expressly denied by Gutberlet.
One Catholic theologian to whom Cantor wrote was Thomas Esser, a Dominican. He was very important for Cantor since, as Cantor himself says in confidence
to Ignatius Jeiler, Dominicans in Rome examine everything that concerns this
questionpresumably, the question of infinity.23 Cantor assures Esser that he is
offering to Christian philosophy true teaching on infinity for the first time. But
why should set theory have any relevance to philosophy? The general set theory
. . . belongs entirely to metaphysics. He also argues that there is an unbreakable
bond between metaphysics and theology and that progress in metaphysics can
lead to deeper and richer insight into the mysteries of faith; therefore any progress
in set theory has direct religious resonances.24 Unfortunately, it is not known
whether Esser responded, nor, if he did, what he wrote.
Another Catholic theologian of stature with whom Cantor exchanged letters
was Johannes Cardinal Franzelin. Franzelin maintained that the theory of the
transfinite is indefensible on theological grounds because it leads to the erroneous
doctrine of pantheism.25 This conclusion seemed inescapable since, if infinity can
be ascribed only to God (only to natura naturans) and yet is also placed in concreto in natura naturata, then this nature acquires divine characteristics. In his
defense Cantor introduces a terminological distinction between an eternal, uncreated infinity (or the Absolute) and created infinity. This distinction emphasizes
the difference between Creator and creation although, as Cantor admits, the doctrine of a created infinity is denied by most teachers of the Church, in particular by Thomas, who uses the authority of the Bible to defend his position: You
have ordered all things in measure and number and weight (Wisdom 11:21). According to Thomas, there is nothing infinite in creation (ST I.7.4) since everything
was created according to number and there is no infinite number. Cantor agrees
with all but one point: numbers do not have to be only finite; by breaking such a
limited view of numbers, infinity can also be admitted to exist within creation.
Thus, by keeping in mind his proofs concerning cardinal and ordinal numbers,
Cantor can argue that quite certainly these transfinite numbers are also meant by
this sacred statement.26 The real existence of such numbers is implied by Gods
omnipotence. Also, their existence allows for better explanation of various phenomena, in particular, phenomena of a psychological nature. He also postulates
that Thomass five proofs for the existence of God did not use the faulty statement concerning the impossibility of infinite numbers because that statement
appeared to [Thomas] to be too unsure for that end.27
Franzelins response was positive. He was satisfied by Cantors explanations,
especially by the decisive division made between the Absolute and the transfinite,
Cantor, Mitteilungen, p. 394.
Letter to Jeiler, 22 February 1896, in Johannes Bendiek, Ein Brief Georg Cantors an P. Ignatius
Jeiler OFM, Franziskanische Studien 47 (1965) 65.
24
Letter to Esser, 1 February 1896, in Herbert Meschkowski, Aus den Briefbuchern Georg Cantors,
Archive for History of Exact Sciences 2 (1965) 51013.
25
Cantor, Mitteilungen, p. 385.
26
Ibid., p. 400.
27
Letter to Enestrom, 4 November 1885, p. 371.
22
23

INFINITY

45

so that in comparing the two, only the One is the real infinity. Therefore, as
Franzelin writes: as far as I can see, there is no danger to religious truths in your
concept of the transfinite and the conclusion concerning the possibility of creating the transfinite from the concept of Gods omnipotence is quite right.28 Cantor
was extremely satisfied by this warm reception of his views by the cardinal, which
amounted to a semi-official endorsement. He made use of this in his correspondence with other theologians, almost repeating Franzelins words that his own
view on existence of the transfinite is in no way a danger to religious truths.29
The foregoing discussion makes it clear that Cantor regards his theory of the
transfinite as not in opposition to the Christian faith since it does not undermine it
and actually strengthens the basic tenets of Christian philosophy by expanding
this philosophy in various directions.30
IV

The problem of infinity seems to have been for Thomas one of the most difficult
problems to solve satisfactorily. This was not only the case for Thomas but for
many others, as can be seen in the vivid discussions on the problem of infinity in
the 13th and 14th centuries. Solutions ranged from denying infinity even to God
(e.g., Guerric of Saint-Quentin and Albert the Great)31 to elevating God above
infinity (e.g., Jean de Ripa).32 Thomas occupied the middle ground with his view,
namely, that God is infinite and that creation is finite by the very fact that it is
creation. But is creation completely devoid of infinity? Thomas says yes, the infinite can be found in the world, but only reluctantly and with many qualifications.
However, he took great pains to separate this infinity, a limited infinity, from
Gods perfect infinity. John Wyclif would agree with Thomass phrasing but not
with his interpretation: there is infinity in the world, but it is merely infinitum
secundum quid, that is, something so great that for us limited beings it is virtually
infinite even though in reality this is just a modus loquendi.33 Hence, there is no
doubt that there is a difference between the grandeur of God and his creation.
Cantor, who was very much concerned about retaining this difference, saturates
the world with infinity, even with infinities, but ascribes to God the status of the
Absolute which surpasses any infinity. He subscribes, therefore, to the view of
Jean de Ripa, but thereby he returns to the view of Augustine, who undoubtedly
adhered to such a view, although in somewhat less perspicuous fashion than Jean
de Ripa and Cantor himself.34
To conclude, let it be observed that, unless infinity is abolished altogether, theology will continue to use the distinction between the infinite and the finite. HowCantor, Mitteilungen, pp. 38586.
Letter to Jeiler, Easter 1888, in Bendiek, p. 68.
30
Letter to Jeiler, 27 October 1895, in Meschkowski, Probleme des Unendlichen, p. 260.
31
Leo Sweeney, Surprises in the History of Infinity from Anaximander to Georg Cantor, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 55 (1981) 910.
32
Tony Levy, Figures de linfini: les mathematiques au miroir des cultures (Paris: Seuil, 1987) pp.
13841.
33
Wolfgang Breidert, Infinitum simpliciter und infinitum secundum quid, Miscellanea Mediaevalia
13 (1981) 2.68183.
34
See my paper Beyond Infinity: Augustine and Cantor, Laval theologique et philosophique 51
(1995) 12740.
28
29

46

DROZDEK

ever, this division does not have to be exhaustive, and it does not have to coincide
with the distinction between God and his creation. This can be exemplified by the
following classification:
God

world

Thomas:

absolute infinity

limited infinity

finite

Jean de Ripa:

immense

infinite

finite

Wyclif:

infinitum simpliciter

infinitum secundum quid

finite

Cantor:

Absolute

transfinite

finite

If infinity is Gods attribute and if it also can be found in the world, then there is
a distinct difference between these two kinds of infinity, to the extent that the
infinity to be found in the world is really not infinity at all (as in Wyclif). But
infinity does not necessarily have to be Gods attribute. If it is not, infinity can
have free reign in the world; it can actually exist and yet not contradict the supremacy of God since he is above infinityhe is the Absolute. This is the stance
taken by Cantor, and it is quite possible that Thomas himself, had he known Cantors theoretical accomplishments, would not have opposed it.