Father David Burrell, a well-known philosopher and theologian who has written on Thomas Aquinas, has discussed Aquinas' view of God, or at least of what could or could not be properly said about God. Aquinas (and Catholicism generally) believed that the nature of God was not distinct from the fact that he exists. Burrell's version of the statement is "To be God is to be 'to-be'." (Burrell recognizes this as ungrammatical, but accepts as being an "improper" way of speaking about God which nevertheless gets across important ideas.)

Can one use a construction like Esse Deus est esse… in this sort of situation? How might I approach translating this sentence into Latin?

2 Answers 2


Although your proposed translation, as amended in the previous answer, is grammatical (though certainly eyebrow-raising!), I would like to approach your question from an angle that might be more appropriate: How did Thomas Aquinas express this thought?

Fr. David Burrell's translation uses one verb ("to be") to express two ideas, and succeeds I believe. Aquinas divides these concepts expressed by esse, using the famous distinction between being (esse) and essence (essentia, also natura as used in your question, or even quidditas). This distinction forms the subject of one of my favorite opuscula of Thomas Aquinas: De Ente et Essentia.

I recommend reading the whole work through. The part that comes closest to expressing the idea of "To be God is to be 'to be'" is at the beginning of VI:

Invenitur enim triplex modus habendi essentiam in substantiis. Aliquid enim est, sicut deus, cuius essentia est ipsummet suum esse; et ideo inveniuntur aliqui philosophi dicentes quod deus non habet quiditatem vel essentiam, quia essentia sua non est aliud quam esse eius.

(Be careful with this last bolded statement, though, since he includes the caveat shortly afterwards: "Nec oportet, si dicimus quod deus est esse tantum, ut in illorum errorem incidamus, qui deum dixerunt esse illud esse universale." This is a crucial step away from pantheism.)

To fit the first phrase into roughly the same shape, I would thus translate: Dei essentia est ipsummet suum esse. You could take out ipsummet, but for me it adds the strange "what's going on here..." flavor that the repeated "to be" has in the English.

  • Not bad! I was just trying to stay away from specifically philosophical jargon. Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 2:59

To construct the English phrase, you first introduce a new noun 'to-be'. Then you take the (grammatical) expression "to be X is to be Y". You can verify with different choices of X and Y that this is a grammatically sensible phrase — semantic sensibility depends on the choice. For example, take X = "an artist" and Y = "free" or X = "a human" and Y = "an animal". Now, you apply this construction with X being "God" and Y being the new noun 'to-be'. You get the phrase you mention: "To be God is to be 'to-be'."

The reason I gave detailed steps is that now we can try to follow them for Latin — or any other language, for that matter. The noun 'to-be' would be 'esse'. It is a matter of taste whether you want to include quotes or not. Let me keep them for clarity. The phrase "to be X is to be Y" would be "esse X est esse Y". This is admittedly a little weird construction, but so is the English one. What makes this even more weird is that both X and Y are in the accusative1. Again, we can test: X = heroem and Y = pium or perhaps X = regem and Y = victorem. The structure makes sense. Now we apply it with X = Deum and Y = 'esse' to get a translation: Esse Deum est esse 'esse'.

This may or may not be the bets way to phrase the thing in Latin, but I think it is a reasonable parallel and equally grammatical with the English phrase. One could of course try to say something like "To be God is to exist.", but that would add a different tone.

1 I first used nominative, but then I was unsure. I asked a separate question about the choice of case, and contrary to my intuition, it seems that accusative is the way to go. I thank all who have commented and helped fix my intuition.


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