With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Friday, August 07, 2009

More on Aquinas and his (Pre-modern) Ontotheology

I have written much on the questions surrounding God and being, particularly in defense of St. Thomas' approach, which I believe is radically different from the typical approach in modern philosophical theology. So far most all of what I have written can be summed up as a meager "what he said" to Rudi te Velde's masterful explication (Aquinas on God: The 'Divine Science' of the Summa Theologiae, Burlington: Ashgate, 2006; pp.88-89). The bold text marks my emphasis.

"In Aristotle, perfection resides primarily in the form and essence of things. To be means to be form or to be determinate. This is why he can so easily rephrase the ancient question 'what is being?' into the question 'what is substance?' (ousia). Thomas remarks, however, that any ousia as such, like humanity or fieriness, can still be considered in the manner of 'not yet in act', thus as somehow distinguished from its 'to be.' A certain form, taken as such (forma signata), can be considered as existing in the potency of matter or in the power of an agent or as known in the mind. According to all these types of 'in-existence' the ousia has an ideal existence in something else, it does not yet enjoy actual existence in itself by reason of its being. Only when it is said to be will the form pass from its ideal in-existence to actual existence in rerum natura. The point Thomas wants to make is that this passing over to actuality is not a mere change of modality which is, as such, indifferent to the perfection residing in the form, but that unless a thing is said to be, its perfection is not (yet) a perfection of its being; its perfection does not make it actually be perfect. This is why esse is siad to be the 'perfection of all perfections'. Any perfection, whatever its determinate character, is a perfection of being.

This is explained further by pointing to the manner in which esse is diversified in things. How should one account for the determinate character of esse as found in this or that particular being? To esse nothing can be added that is more formal, since as principle fo act esse is itself most formal, relating to everything else by way of determining. Nothing can be added to esse which is extraneous to it, because nothing is extraneous to it except non-being. This is the crucial point: the differences of being (such as being white, or being human) cannot be added from outside, since they are differences of being. Even those differences are. This suggests an alternative manner of accounting for the differentiation of being. In each case esse has a determinate and diverse character by the fact that it is the esse received in a nature of a certain kind...The being of a tree is different from the being of a horse. The point now is that those differences (of different natures) are not added from outside to esse, but that those differences are somehow originally included in esse and are 'released' from it. If the differences- that is, the essential perfections of things- are differences of being, then they must differ according to the degree in which they incorporate the perfection of being....From this Thomas concludes that perfections, such as those of life or intelligence, are not so much external additions to the perfection of being but are, on the contrary, 'manifestations' of the perfection of being. And therefore, if a reality is completely determined in identity with its being (ipsum esse subsistens), then being must be present in it according to its full range of perfection, including perfections such as life and intelligence and so on. Thus it appears that in reducing all things, with respect to their being, to the first cause, the categorical differences of being in the sphere of essence are, so to speak, gathered together in their original unity in and as being itself: the simple being of God contains in itself the perfections of all things (of all genera).

I'm quite sympathetic to the concerns and detailed critiques of thinkers like Marion who are battling with idolatrous metaphysical approaches. But it seems clearer and clearer to me that the concern of these critiques never actually reaches the ontological discourse that Aquinas presents. When they speak of "being," they don't end up meaning nearly the same thing. The ways that Scotus, Descartes, and even Heidegger addressed the question of being and God are simply of an entirely different nature from the account that Aquinas gives. So we need simply to ask: granting the legitimacy of the kinds of deconstructions that Marion and kin present, must we grant that Heidegger has the final say on how to think and speak of being? Is it not possible to reclaim a discourse of God and being (an "onto-theology") that does justice to the radically different understanding of it that Thomas presents? It seems to me that until the modern theological critiques can accurately address his unique conception of esse, we have no reason to fear framing our God-language around "being."

Distinctions within being, rather than between being and non-being, provides a new (relatively speaking) way of marking the immanence AND the transcendence of God in relation to creatures.

Pax Christi,


  • At 8/10/2009 8:40 AM, Anonymous Ethan said…

    I don't know if your familiar with it, but you may find Wayne Hankey's article "Why Heidegger's 'History' of Metaphysics is Dead" very interesting. He deals with just these issues surrounding the place of St. Thomas relative to H's influence over figures such as Marion, and why such should not dominate our intellectual horizons.

    It can be found here: http://classics.dal.ca/Faculty%20and%20Staff/Why_Heidegger_Dead-r.php

  • At 8/11/2009 8:23 PM, Blogger Lee Faber said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 8/11/2009 8:24 PM, Blogger Lee Faber said…

    So why do you divide the approaches to being with Aquinas on one side and Scotus, Descarte and Heidegger on the other? I would think Aquinas and Scotus would have far more in common.

  • At 8/11/2009 9:30 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    I've read Hankey's article, as well as others in which he addresses these questions. He seems to have the ability to tackle folks like Heidegger, Marion, Milbank, and Aquinas in the same piece without mistranslation. Very compelling.

  • At 8/11/2009 9:49 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Of course. Aquinas and Scotus are certainly closer in their approaches than either is with Descartes or Heidegger. The point being simply that Aquinas and Scotus are not the same on being, at least not on the concept of being.

    I mention Scotus simply because I've encountered some students in divinity school who seem to think they are: that metaphysics is a grand univocal enterprise and names like Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham are practically synonymous.

    Hence, the popular narratives about the sin of "natural theology" or "metaphysics" understood as univocal, stemming from Scotus, (which I'm sure you have significant problems with) do not actually address Aquinas, whether or not they give a fair shake to the Subtle Doctor.

    P.S. I'm a big fan of your stuff on the Energetic Procession posts. "Western nonsense" of the best kind.

  • At 8/12/2009 3:41 PM, Blogger Lee Faber said…

    Fair enough.

  • At 9/04/2009 1:07 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Pat -

    I'm glad to know that Te Velde's work has your stamp of approval. I'll have to procure it for my own work, as he seems to have discovered several metaxological principles of Aquinas's metaphysics, though he does not use the word.

    The excerpt you provided seems an 'intra-Thomas' way of describing what metaxology would call the overdetermination of esse. It's good to know it's there.

    I'm finding that an exploration of beauty, both in the ancient world and in Aquinas, reveals this very feature of being (i.e., the overdetermined), since beauty was always originally approached as a mode of being rather than a specific object of a different science (which occurs with Baumgarten and Kant). Once beauty is eliminated, as it was when 'truth' became a more emphasized mode of being than beauty, these subtleties of being are lost with it.

    It's a shame that this reading of Aquinas is not more widespread, since clearly this is the most accurate reading there is (meaning, the reading that emphasizes, in whatever language is used, the overdetermination of esse).

    I do wonder, though, how far one can go without being at least aware of that great Modern metaphysical prejudice diagnosed so well by Desmond: that to be is to be intelligible and to be intelligible is to be determinate, hence being is identified with determinate intelligibility.

    Now this prejudice is woven so deeply into the fibers of modern thought that I have found few thinkers, even those as bright as Te Velde appears, who are aware of it.
    Thus, statements like, "Any perfection, whatever its determinate character, is a perfection of being" seem to be going in that sort of direction.

    Instead, I would change this to read: "Any perfection of being, whatever its intelligible character, is a perfection of being."
    Small difference, but no less important for that.



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