The Fundamental Truth 1 – Etiénne Gilson

November 6, 2012

Thomas is held in the Catholic Church to be the model teacher for those studying for the priesthood. The works for which he is best-known are the Summa theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles. One of the 35 Doctors of the Church, he is considered the Church’s greatest theologian and philosopher.

Et sic fit ut ad ea quae sunt notissima rerum, noster intellectus se habeat ut oculus noctuae ad solem, ut II Metaphysicorum dicitur (Summa contra Gentiles 1.11.2).
["So it comes about, as is said in Metaphysics 2, that our intellect is related to the most knowable things as the eye of an owl is related to the sun." Aristotle, Metaphysics 2.1, 993b9.]

Few philosophers avoid the temptation of philosophizing without other presuppositions than thought itself. Fichte yielded to it without reservation in building his well-known immense structure. No Christian philosopher has gone that far, but some of them do not conceal their displeasure when they are urged to consider and, if possible, to see a primary truth which as such cannot be demonstrated. That is why, holding the composition of essence and existence in finite beings as the fundamental truth of Christian philosophy, they could not tolerate the idea of leaving it as an arbitrary assertion and have tried to demonstrate it.

In order to avoid any confusion, let us say at the outset that the distinction (or composition) of essence and being in finite beings is indeed demonstrable under certain conditions, but it is extremely important to understand their nature.

An excellent study of the De ente et essentia reduces to three the main types of arguments by which St. Thomas establishes the famous scholastic distinction. The first, which certainly originates in Avicenna but which St. Thomas could have read in the works of William of Auvergne, is clearly set forth in De ente et essentia : “Everything that does not belong to the concept of an essence or quiddity comes to it from without and forms a composition with that essence, for no essence can be conceived without its parts. Now, every essence or quiddity can be conceived without knowing anything whatsoever about its existence. I can conceive what a man or a phoenix is and yet not know if they exist in reality. It is clear, therefore, that being is other than essence or quiddity.”

The argument is irrefutable, but what does it prove? First of all that actual being is not contained in the notion of an essence. As Kant will later say, in the notion of a hundred thalers the notion of a thaler is the same whether it be a question of simply possible thalers or real thalers . [Kant, Critique of Pure Reason A 599/B 627, trans. Norman Kemp Smith, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1933)]

Next, as St. Thomas explicitly says, it proves quad esse est aliud ab essentia vel quidditate (that esse is other than essence or quiddity). For an essence to pass from possibility to being, then, an external cause must bestow actual existence on it No Christian theologian or metaphysician has ever doubted the soundness of this conclusion. Because a finite being is not the cause of its own existence, it must hold it from a higher cause, who is God.

In this sense, what is called the distinction between essence and being simply means that every finite being is a created being. Now all theologians grant this, but many refuse to conclude from it that a finite being is composed of two metaphysical principles: its essence and an act of being through which it exists. It is one thing to say that the essence of a finite being does not contain the cause of its being, which is all the dialectical argument of Avicenna, taken up by William of Auvergne and St. Thomas, proves. It is another thing to say that in this same finite being existence comes from an actus essendi to which it owes precisely its actual being. This by no means follows from the above argument

Here is a good subject for meditation. Excellent philosophers and theologians have devoted their lives to the study and teaching of the Thomistic doctrine without ever suspecting the true meaning of this fundamental thesis. They have seen in it only a formula, a little more abstruse than others, for saying that every finite being is contingent and created. If nothing more than this were involved, every theologian without exception would teach the distinction between essence and existence, which we know well is not the case.

Let us move on to the second group of arguments. They are said to have the following general form: “There must be only one being in which essence and existence are not distinct, whose essence itself is its existence, because it could not be multiplied without being diversified, and there is no way in which it can be diversified. Hence being is distinct from essence in all created beings.

Once again, the argument is conclusive, and now it results in establishing the truth of the distinction between essence and existence. Here is undoubtedly the theologians’ royal and favorite road, for if God is the pure act of being he is the only one who can be it. What would lay claim to this title would be ipsum purum esse, and this would be God. That is why so many Thomistic theologians often accuse of pantheism those who, deaf to their arguments, deny the distinction between essence and existence in finite beings. These theologians give themselves an easy advantage, for in order that their demonstration be conclusive it would first be necessary to establish that, for God, to be Being is to be the pure act of esse, whose essence is being itself. Hence the value of the argument depends entirely on the validity of a certain notion of God which, whatever its real worth, never seems to have entered the mind of many theologians, some of whom were saints.

The proofs in the third group, “drawn from the nature of created being, corroborate these conclusions.” The historian summarizes them for us with great subtlety. Since by definition it is caused by another, “created being does not subsist by itself, as the being whose essence is to exist subsists necessarily. On the other hand, being an effect cannot be a property of created being because of being itself; otherwise every being would by essence be an effect, and there would not be a first cause. Hence being an effect is a property of created being by reason of a subject distinct from its being.”

Nothing makes us see more clearly the fundamental difficulty all these demonstrations face. The proof that, because created being is not essential to being itself it can only belong to being by reason of a subject distinct from its being, presupposes the conclusion it was intended to demonstrate. For if we grant the premises of the argument, how do they lead to the conclusion that the subject of created being is really distinct from its being? Now it is precisely this and nothing else that is at stake.

Every theologian will agree that by definition a created being is not identical with its existence. It is not, because, being created, it must receive existence in order to be. But, on the other hand, for a created essence to exist it suffices that God make it exist, which properly speaking is to create it. It might be true that God cannot create a finite being without conferring on it an act of esse really distinct from its essence, but supposing this to be demonstrable; the argument has not demonstrated it.

These arguments, and all those of the same type, are alike in. presupposing the conception of being, not in the sense of a being (ens, habens esse, that which is), but rather of the act of being (esse) which, combining with essence, makes of it precisely a being, a habens esse. Now, as soon as this properly Thomistic notion of esse is conceived, there is no further problem; there remains nothing more to demonstrate.

To be convinced of this we have only to refer to the texts of. St. Thomas which his interpreter cites by way of proofs. Two things clearly stand out in them. First of all, that the notion of pure being (ipsum puruin esse) thus understood is always presented in them as something taken for granted. Second, it is taken for granted in them only because, for the theologian, it is the proper name of God. To think pure esse is to think God.

The progressive dialectic of the Summa contra Gentiles leads St Thomas to establish “that in God being and essence are the same” (Contra Gentiles 1.22). He already conceives, then, the possibility of their distinction. Now, if he does conceive it, the question is already answered. Indeed, engaged here in establishing God’s simplicity, St. Thomas must deny of him every conceivable distinction. That is what he does in demonstrating, with Avicenna, that when there is a necessary being (tertia via) it exists of itself. Now it would not exist of itself if it had an essence distinct from its being, for in this case its being would belong to that essence and depend on it (Contra Gentiles 1.22.2). More briefly, and even as briefly as possible: “Everything is through its being. Hence, what is not its being is not through itself a necessary being. Now God is through himself a necessary being. Therefore God is his being” (Contra Gentiles 1.22.5).

It is impossible to go further along the same road, for only one other operation would remain to be carried out if this were possible. This would be to prove that the necessity of necesse esse is indeed the same as the necessity of what St. Thomas calls ipsuin esse, the pure act of being, beyond essence itself, which in this unique case is as it were consumed by it. Now it must be admitted that a great number of theologians are in doubt about this notion or even dispute its validity.

As far as we know, St. Thomas himself nowhere gives a demonstrative proof of it No doubt he argues, “If the divine essence were other than its being (esse), the essence and being would thereby be related as potency to act. But we have shown that there is no potency in God but that he is pure act God’s essence, therefore, is not other than his being” (ContraGentiles 1.22.7).

This is undeniable, but the conclusion would be the same if, instead of conceiving being as the act of essence, it were simply conceived as the actual essence itself. Far from being unthinkable, such a notion of God seems to be common to all the theologians who, coming before or after St. Thomas, have adopted a metaphysics of being different from his own.

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