It does no good to praise Aristotle’s method if we refuse to follow it, and above all if we misconstrue its meaning. The last chapter of the Posterior Analytics is extremely important in this regard. Aristotle speaks there of the knowledge of principles. The assumption that they are innate is absurd, because if they were we would possess, unknown to ourselves, knowledges more certain than any demonstration. On the other hand, how could we formulate these principles within ourselves without having a faculty or power to acquire them?
What is this power? In order to satisfy the conditions of the problem, it is necessary, Aristotle says, “that that power be superior in accuracy to the knowledge itself of principles (Posterior Analytics 2.19, 99b31-34). This statement has been interpreted to make it say less than it does, but in vain, for however the agent intellect is conceived in Aristotle’s doctrine, even if it is reduced to the status of an indeterminate light and as indifferent to the intelligible apprehensions it causes, the statement of the Posterior Analytics means that this light belongs to a higher order and certitude than that of the principles it makes us know.
It is not easy to state clearly St. Thomas’s opinion on the subject, but we have to get used to a certain way of not understanding, which is nothing but a modest stance in the face of a purely intelligible object. One who understands everything is in great danger of understanding badly what he understands and not even to suspect the existence of what he does not understand.
The obscurity surrounding the origin of principles is exactly the same as that which partly hides their nature. It is agreed that in the Thomistic epistemology the agent intellect immediately conceives the principles by way of abstraction from sensible experience, and that is correct. It is added, then, that the intellect suffices for this operation, that it accomplishes it by its own natural light, without needing for its explanation to have recourse to the additional illumination of a separate Intelligence, not even, as some Augustinians would have it, to the light of God, the Sun of minds, the interior Master, finally the Word who enlightens everyone coming into the world.
And that too is correct, but it is not the whole truth. Thomas is the less scrupulous about not taking away anything from nature as, completely filled with the presence of God, like air with light, nature cannot be belittled without doing injury to the creator. Nothing can be denied to the essence of a being that God has made to be what it is.
In this spirit, at the very moment when St. Thomas in his Summa theologiae (1.84.5) places limits on the Platonic noetic of St. Augustine (qui doctrines Platonicorum imbutus fuerat) nevertheless holds the essence of the Augustinian thesis and the truth of his words. The intellectual soul knows material things in the eternal reasons, but this does not require the assistance of divine light added to that of the intellect.
The latter suffices, “for the intellectual light within us is nothing else than a certain participated resemblance of the uncreated light, in which are contained all the eternal reasons (that is, Ideas). So it is said in Psalm 4:7, “Many ask: who will make us see happiness.” The psalmist replies: “The light of your countenance is imprinted on us, O Lord.’ It is as though he said: Everything is shown to us by the very seal of the divine light within us.”
Thus, while maintaining the necessity of sensible experience at the origin of all human knowledge, St. Thomas intimately binds the human intellect to the divine light itself. It is because that light (which is the divine esse) includes, or rather is, the infinity of divine ideas (which are the divine esse) that the agent intellect of each one of us, being a participation in the divine light, has the capacity of forming intelligible concepts on contact with the sensible world. That intellect is not the divine light; if it were, it would be God.
But it is a created product of that light, and in a finite way it expresses it and imitates its excellence. Hence its capacity to discover in beings, which are also made in the image of the divine ideas the intelligible forms in which they participate. The agent intellect in itself has the power to recognize outside itself the resemblance of the first cause, which is the source of all knowledge and intelligibility.
We shall have to return to this theme after trying to grasp St. Thomas’s very special notion of participation. For the moment, let us simply examine that doctrine of knowledge such as it is; or, rather, let us attempt to do so, for how can we succeed? In one sense it begins by following Aristotle, but the genuine Aristotle who, from the level of sensation, sees empirical notions develop in an ascending induction, experience itself being the starting point of art in the order of becoming and of science in the order of being.
But above science and its demonstrations there is an intuition of principles. Because demonstrations depend on principles, they themselves are not objects of demonstration. They do not provide science with its demonstrations; science does this for itself in their light. And since their light is thought itself, in the final analysis it is the intellect itself that is the cause of science (Post Analytics 2.19).
If this is so, why are we surprised that principles do not yield their full meaning always and to everyone? Their evidence and necessity themselves constrain the intellect which they rule by enlightening it, but which submits to them for want of being able to make their certitude that of a science, which the intellect itself would cause. The only way to approach these supreme intelligibles is with respect and modesty. The various simple formulas used to dispatch them in a few words are tautologies only for those who do not try to plumb their depths.
In a second sense — already implicit in the first and nourishing it from within and giving it infinite riches –, St. Thomas follows the Augustinian way, which itself belongs to Christian philosophy. What is astonishing is that, with St. Thomas, these two ways become one in his own doctrine. Even when he happens to name them, they can no longer be distinguished, for the two have become identical.
The universe we know is henceforth composed of things created in the likeness of a God whose essence, that is to say, the act of being, is at once their origin and model. The intellect that knows these things is itself the product and image of the same God. In this doctrine, in which everything in nature is natural, but in which nature is essentially a divine product and a divine image, it can be said that nature itself is sacred. It is not surprising that the first intelligible object an intellect of this sort discerns in such a real world is the primary notion of being, and that with this origin, this notion surpasses in every way the mind that conceives it
Here is the truth dimly perceived by those who mistakenly, teach the unity of the agent intellect They are wrong in that respect, but it is true to say that Aristotle calls our agent intellect a light that our soul receives from God. In this sense it is even truer to say with Augustine that God illumines the soul, of which it is the “intelligible sun.” These philosophical disputes over: details lose their sharp edge from the theological heights we have reached. In Augustine’s view, knowing is contemplating in the soul a reflection of the Ideas; in Aristotle’s opinion, knowing is an act of the agent intellect throwing light on the intelligibility of the sensible world. The doctrines differ in structure, but in the final analysis they are in agreement: “It matters little whether we say that it is the intelligibles themselves in which the (intellect) participates from God, or that the light producing the intelligibles is participated.” [Aquinas, Tractatus de spiritualibus creaturis 10 ad 8m] In either case God is at the origin of knowledge.
From St. Thomas himself to his most recent interpreters this truth has often been lost from sight Turned to folly, it was sometimes corrupted in ontologism. Reduced, in reaction, to the limitations of an almost physical empiricism, it cut itself off from its source, which is the being of God himself. Preserved in its fullness, it offers itself as a naturalism similar to that of the Greeks, but in which, owing to its dependence on God in its very being, nature is filled with a divine energy and so to speak always points to infinitely more than what it is.
Since this is true of knowledge as well as of being, it should be enough to banish the phantom of a metaphysics based on nothing but regulative formulas. Wisdom begins with notions that are certainly abstract but endowed with a content extracted from the real world by a mind whose light discovers in forms the light itself of which our mind is an image. For metaphysics, the primary notion of being is given to us before all others; it is at the same time apprehended as such and illuminated by the light of Him Who Is, the cause of every intellect and of every intelligible object.
This datum, and the intellectual experience we take from it, is the true principle of metaphysics. All philosophical wisdom is virtually contained in the meaning of the word “is.” So we should not make it a “starting point,” as some call it We must dwell on it at length and leave it only to come back to it as quickly as possible. Being is the most universal and evident of all notions, but it is also the most mysterious, as befits the very name of God.
This is the only reason for the differences among metaphysics. As Suarez very aptly said, it is evident an ens sit (that being is), but not quid sit ens (what being is). Ens does not signify a word but a thing, and that thing is so simple that it cannot be defined but only described.
Every metaphysics presupposes a notion of being, presented for the metaphysician’s reflection, as a truth of that simple intuition which Aristotle justifies by the surpassing excellence of the intellect over the principles themselves that it posits. There is no science of the cause of science. Moreover, the controversies among great metaphysicians are fruitless as long as they oppose each other on the level of conclusions, without first confronting each other on the level of principles.
But they do not like to compare their interpretations of principles, for they have the same first principle, they only understand it differently. No demonstration will make them understand it in the same way, as we see from the fact that all the great Christian philosophies continue to exist side by side. In all of them God is being. As Augustine says, “He is ‘Is.” [Deus non aliquo modo est, sed est est: Confessions 13.31 (46)]
But for one, ‘Is’ means the Immutable Being; for another, that whose nature it is to exist (natura existendi, natura essendi); for still others being is real essence, the inner principle and ground of all the actions and operations of a subject The objection should not be raised that these are concepts of real being, not of the being of reason which is the concern of metaphysics.
If metaphysics were only directed to an abstract notion it would be nothing but a logic. As a science of reality, the first philosophy has for its object existing being, and that is why, again in the apt words of Suarez (DM 2.2.29), if there were neither God nor angels there would be no metaphysics. [DM 2.2, Vives ed. 25: 79 §29. In §30 Suarez says that if no immaterial beings existed there would probably still be room for one part of metaphysics concerning being and the transcendentals.] Everything happens as though the metaphysicians were dispersed within the same intelligible space, which is too immense for them to have the good fortune to meet each other.
There is no trace of skepticism here. We only ask not to be placed in the position of playing the role of the indisciplinatus by demonstrating that whose nature does not allow it to be demonstrated. Moreover, it can be demonstrated that the first principle is being. Even those who dispute it, as Descartes did in a certain sense, are obliged to use it. What did he assert when he said “I am”?
Finally, it is possible and even necessary for a metaphysician to relate at length the meaning he ascribes to the first principle to the contents of experience. If he can find a meaning of the word that does justice to all the properties of beings inasmuch as they are beings, and that arranges them in thought in the order they have in reality, the philosopher will give his assent to that notion without qualification, hesitation, or doubt It will be his first principle, and most certainly, because as he conceives it this notion dispenses with all the others, for it includes them eminently, whereas all the others taken together do not measure up to its intelligibility.
Accordingly, metaphysics is a science from the moment when, having laid hold of the principle, it begins to deduce its consequences; but the fate of the doctrine depends on the understanding of the principle. A true metaphysician will rarely be caught in the act of contradicting himself. At the start he must adopt his doctrinal positions, and he must meditate at length on the mind’s first approach to its formation of principles before committing himself to them. The capacity of the principle to elucidate reality under all its aspects will undoubtedly confirm its truth in the course of constructing the doctrine, but it is the principle’s own evidence, which the mind sees in the very act of conceiving it, on which its certitude essentially rests. Once the meaning of the principle is grasped, the doctrine unfolds in its light It does not make the doctrine true, it simply makes its truth evident
In teaching metaphysics, then, the main concern should not be the sequence of conclusions. Dialectic masters this so easily that it can correctly deduce all the conclusions of a principle without seeing its truth or understanding its meaning. This is the source of the impression opponents in a dispute have of always being misunderstood. And indeed they are, for each judges the other’s sequence of conclusions in the light of his own understanding of the meaning of the principles.
This is not how the good teacher of philosophy proceeds. After lengthy reflection, he says what he sees and tries to lead others to see it. For this purpose, before undertaking to demonstrate what is demonstrable, he elucidates the truth that is indemonstrable to show the evidence for it
This is a whole art in itself. As old as metaphysics, the art is so well known since Plato that there is no need to insist on it here. Starting with images, we must transcend them in order to reach, as by flashes of light, the intelligible principle. Though we only catch a glimpse of it, we can expect that this insight will arouse others to see it as well, as we proceed to an explanatory analysis of the contents of the notion. That will only happen by stepping down a little below it, every time we use our judgment to clarify its pure intelligibility. We can withdraw from it, provided that we do not for a moment lose our hold on it, as we must step back a little from a beautiful face in order to see it
The elucidation, then, should take place at the center of this intelligible insight itself. It need not be very extensive; it is sufficient for itself. As far as others are concerned, it can only lead the way to invite them to set out in pursuit Moreover, because it is linked to the simple apprehension from which the first judgment springs, it will soon run short of words, as is all too evident from what has just been said about it.