“Not merely to learn philosophy, but to become a philosopher, this is what is now at stake. It does not involve giving up philosophy as a science; it rather involves aiming at possessing philosophy in a different and more exalted way as included in wisdom itself, to which it is in the same relation as a body to its soul. Then also does the philosophical life truly begin, and its beginning does not consist in any addition to already acquired learning; it rather looks like falling in love, like answering the call of a vocation, or undergoing the transforming experience of a conversion.”
St. Augustine never thought of God in any other way than in terms of essence. Commenting on the ‘I Am’ of Exodus, he explains its meaning as follows: “In fact, since God is the supreme essence, that is, since he supremely is, and therefore is immutable, he has given being to the things he has created from nothing, but he has not given them the supreme being he himself is. He has given to some more being and to others less, and thus he has arranged natures according to the degrees of their essences.”
There can be no misunderstanding this notion of God. Finite essences are arranged in a hierarchy according to the degrees of being. At the summit there is the supreme essence, which is not more or less but purely and simply the highest essence. Being the fullness of essence, it has nothing to gain or lose. The sign of its supremacy in the order of essence is its immutability. We should weigh St. Augustine’s words themselves, as he tries to understand better (perspicacius intelligere) what God said to Moses through his angel in Exodus 3:14: Cum enim Deus summa essentia sit, hoc est summe sit, et idea imrnutabilis sit … [De civitate Dei 12.2]
St. Thomas is far from denying any of this. On the contrary, he finds in these words the starting point of the fourth way (of proving the existence of God), ex gradibus quae in rebus inveniuntur (from the degrees found in things [SummaTheologicae 1.2.3]). This is all very well, and the mind can stop there. He himself, however, takes a further step. Penetrating more deeply into this summa essentia which is called ‘Is’ (Est), Thomas adds, et haec Dei essentia est ipsuin suum esse (and this essence of God is his very being [CC 1.22.7]). Thomas grants very correctly and without reservation that God is the supreme essence. He simply specifies that the sole essence God has is his being: Deus igitur non habet essentiain quae non sit suuin esse (God, therefore, does not have an essence that is not his being: Contra Gentiles 1.22.2).
This is the exact moment when we go beyond the theology of Augustine and enter that of Thomas Aquinas. The transition presupposes that we have already conceived, or that we conceive at the same time, the notion of being as an act beyond essence, or, if you prefer, that of an essence whose whole essentiality is being. Augustine had no idea of this; neither had John Damascene nor Anselm of Aosta. Alerted by Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus preferred to stay on the path opened up by St. Augustine, adding to it, in the spirit of John Damascene, the important precision introduced by the notion of the divine infinity. Ens infinitum, for Duns Scotus, is the proper object of our theology.
There is no room for uncertainty here, for he too, as was only natural, commented on the ‘I Am’ of Exodus, and in his interpretation he does not refer to the Thomistic esse but to the Augustinian essentia. Not only is God essence, but perhaps he is the only one who is. God is an entitas realis, sive ex natura rei, et hoc in existentia actuali. Or, in the language of Augustine himself, because being most truly and properly belongs to God, we should say that he is most truly essence: verissime dicitur essentia. [Gilson, Jean Duns Scot: Introduction]
So we come back to the same problem: In order to interpret the statement of Exodus, where, when, and how did St. Thomas demonstrate that, on the level of being, it was necessary to go beyond the notion of a being (ens), conceived until then as a simple notion, to divide it into two others, namely essence and being (esse), and then to assert that one of these two notions, namely being (esse), denotes within a being. itself the supreme perfection and actuality of the other? St. Thomas clearly crossed this threshold. The only question is: how did he justify it? No reply is forthcoming. If he delivered the proof, neither Duns Scotus nor Suarez understood it or was convinced by it, and they were no mean metaphysicians.
The only reasoning that resembles a proof begins with the contingency of creatures. If essence is other than being in a finite being, being and essence must coincide in God in order to preserve his simplicity.
But, as we have seen, the non-necessity of a finite being does not require that it actually be composed of essence and being. The point would be expressed no less exactly if we were to say, along with most theologians, that the actual existence of a finite substance, whose essence of itself is a pure possibility, is contingent. A finite being does not possess its existence from itself. In order to be it must receive being from necessary being, which is God. But this is in no sense a proof that in order to confer actual existence on a finite being God must con-create within it an essence endowed with an act of being which, though distinct from it, forms with it a being (ens) or that-which-has-being.
If it is difficult to find a proof of this, it is not because St. Thomas neglected to speak of it When he does talk about it, however, it is usually to say that, without a limitation of the act of being by an essence, this act will be the pure act of being and it will be infinite, that is, it will be God (Contra Gentiles 1.43.5). Thus everything depends here on the Thomistic notion of God: “We have shown (Contra Gentiles 1.22) that God is his subsistent being. Therefore nothing besides him can be its being. So it is necessary that in every substance besides him the substance itself is other than its being” (Contra Gentiles 2.52.2).
This amounts to saying that, if the essence of God is his being, everything else must be composed of being and an essence other than this being. And nothing is clearer if it has really been demonstrated that God is the pure act of being. Now, as we have seen, eminent theologians either have not read that truth in the text of scripture; or, even alerted to the fact that it was there, they have not been able to bring themselves to acknowledge it is there. They did not find it in scripture for the simple reason that it did not enter their mind.
Here we are apparently caught in a kind of dialectic, the two terms of which perpetually evoke each other. God is pure being because, if in him essence were distinct from being, he would be a finite being and would not be God. Conversely, the essence of a finite being is other than its being because if its essentia were identical with its esse, that being would be infinite and it would be God. There are external signs of this difficulty, of which it will suffice to mention one: the very widespread resistance the Thomist notion of esse meets not only, as is natural, in other theological schools, but even in the one claiming the name of St. Thomas. Aquinas. And that is curious, to say the least, but it is a fact.
The worst attitude to adopt in the face of this difficulty is to deny its existence or to banish it from the mind as an annoying’ thought The Church recommends Thomism as the norm of its theological teaching. How would it have made this choice if the doctrine in the last analysis were based on a vicious circle? The objection should not be made that here it is not a matter of philosophy but of theology. That is true, but it does not remove the problem. St. Thomas’s theology is a scholastic theology.
Its object is God, known through his word, but it tries to understand it, and it cannot do this without bringing into play the resources: of philosophy. A master must have the skill to train the servants he employs for his service, and these servants must exist and be themselves in order to render the services he expects of them. If the theologian put into play a philosophy that would be nothing but a disguised theology, as long ago Averroes very unjustly accused Avicenna of doing, he would deceive himself before deceiving others.
There is no more frequent objection made to scholasticism. Authentic Lutheranism on the one hand, and philosophical rationalism on the other, have never ceased accusing it of corrupting everything: the word of God by philosophy, and philosophy by faith in a revelation unsupported by reason. The persistent attempts of certain Christian philosophers to clear themselves of the suspicion of teaching a “Christian philosophy” have no other source than the fear of seeing themselves charged with a hybrid speculation that is neither faith nor reason: something equally contemptible to those who are concerned to preserve intact the supernatural transcendence of faith, and to those whose absolute respect for reason resists every compromise with the irrational, or, what amounts to the same thing for them, anything super rational.
Here it is fitting to recall the bitter controversies that have made Christian speculative thought so unproductive, but we should not dwell on them. First, because the controversy is quieting down. Though it was necessary at one time, it itself was an inferior form of mental exercise. Above all, however, because it is not in one’s power, speaking for the truth, to dispose minds to receive it, and lacking this, his words are really addressed to the deaf. It is good, however, to speak to oneself, to open one’s mind to the truth, and to oppose the accusation of giving way to prejudices, with the firm resolve not to entertain any of them, neither those with which we are charged, nor those with which they who impute them to us are unconsciously imbued.
After all, it is not certain a priori that all the sins against reason are on the side of those who profess to be its true witnesses and claim to monopolize its use. Too many scholastics have forgotten the true nature of philosophical knowledge because they yielded to the unfounded demands of some of their opponents. It was they, however, and not their opponents, who stood for the full use of reason in its complete independence.
We cannot admire enough the attitude of these scholastic philosophers who are well aware of having two wisdoms at their disposal and find it so easy to divide their domains. “Wisdom, or perfect science,” one of them said, “is twofold: one that proceeds by the supernatural light of faith and divine revelation, the other that proceeds by the light of human reason. The latter is philosophy, the former is Christian theology, a science supernatural in its roots and by reason of its principles. Philosophy, then, will be defined as knowledge of ultimate causes proceeding by the natural light of reason.”
These statements are completely true and they conform to the teaching of St. Thomas. They raise no problem as long as we remain on the level of formal distinction. Problems pile up,” on the contrary, if it is claimed that these two wisdoms cannot” live and work together in the same person, in the same mind. Will philosophy have nothing to say about the teachings of theology, a science whose principles are supernatural? And will theology give no thought to the teachings of philosophy, which proceeds by the light of natural reason?
St. Thomas, at least, asserts the exact opposite, for he holds so strongly the formal distinction of the two lights and the two wisdoms only to allow them to collaborate better, without any possible confusion, but intimately and without any false scruples. St. Thomas wanted to make the natural light of reason penetrate right into the most secret parts of revealed truth, not in order to do away with faith and mystery, but to define their objects.
Even the mystery of transubstantiation can be formulated in philosophical language. But the opposite relation can be established as well, for the theology of St. Thomas has the right of inspection in its philosophy, and it does not neglect to exercise it for the greatest good of philosophy. Those who claim the contrary are mistaken, and if they do it for apologetic reasons they miscalculate, for there is no other effective apologetic than the truth.
What is most remarkable in this regard is that they would like to separate revelation and reason to satisfy the requirements of a notion of philosophy that never existed. No philosopher ever philosophized about the empty form of an argument lacking all content. It is one and the same thing to think of nothing and not to think. If we mentally remove everything specifically religious in the great Greek philosophies from Plato to Plotinus, then everything specifically Christian in the philosophical speculation of Descartes, Malebranche, Leibniz, even Kant and some of his successors, the existence of these doctrines becomes incomprehensible.
A religion is needed even to make it stay “within the limits of reason.” The importance of Comte in this regard is that, having decreed that theology was dead and its transcendent God forgotten, he realized that in order to build up a philosophy whose tenets would be drawn from science, he had to look for the principles outside of science.
In order to find them, he created a new religion and substituted for the God of Christianity a Great Fetish, furnished with its church, its clergy, and its pope. The early “positivists” were indignant about this as a deviation from the doctrine, but Comte knew what positivism is better than they. They understood nothing about it, as can be clearly seen in the pitiful history of their “absolute positivism,” reduced today to a verbal dialectic whose object is science, but for whom science itself becomes incomprehensible.
For all wisdoms draw life from the highest among them, and if religion is eliminated, metaphysics dies with it, and philosophy in its turn dies along with metaphysics. Neo-Scholasticism is not immune to this malady, when it wanted to be a-Christian, it quickly degenerated into an abstract formalism whose utter boredom is bearable only by its authors, for to bore is not always boring. Sometimes it is asked with concern why this philosophy is so lifeless. The reason is that it is deliberately tied to a metaphysics that has no object.
There is a twofold mistake in saying that the object of metaphysics is the concept of being as being, explicitated in the light of the first principles. First, metaphysics does not treat of the concept of being as being any more than physics treats of the notion of becoming. If they did, these sciences would be turned into logics. Physics has to do with changing being itself, as metaphysics has to do with being insofar as it is being. We emphasize, with being itself and not only with the concept of being. Nothing can be inferred from the concept of being as being; everything can be said about being as being. But for that we must first reach it, and if we do not comprehend it, at least we get in touch with it, and then never lose contact with, it, under pain of losing our way in an empty verbalism.
The facility enjoyed by the dialectician is his greatest danger. It is always possible to begin with nominal definitions, of being, substance, and cause in order to deduce their consequences with the help of the first principle. If it cannot be done easily, it can at least be done successfully. Some even do it with the mastery of virtuosos that compels admiration, but they gain’ from it nothing but an abstract sketch of a possible metaphysics. At best, they give themselves the pleasure of picturing it to themselves after the event, portrayed all at once in a kind of synthesis that enables them to embrace it with a single glance.
But at that moment it is lifeless; they should not have gone about it like this in the first place. From this arises the deadly conflict between the mode of exposition and the mode of invention. For those who “exhibit” are very rarely those who invent; or when they are the same, while exhibiting they conceal from us their act of invention, so that we ourselves do not know how to reinvent by following in their footsteps, which is, however, the only way to learn. Then, too, when lectures are afflicted with this curse, we see students learning without understanding, while others lose confidence in their own philosophical abilities, even though the best proof of these abilities is that students at least realize that they do not understand.
These tendencies are particularly hard to explain in masters who claim to follow Aristotle’s philosophy and defend its sound empiricism against the idealism of their contemporaries. Professing in all matters to begin with experience, it is paradoxical for them to turn away from it in metaphysics, whose principles govern the whole body of knowledge. Nevertheless, Aristotle’s work is there, and if one is not interested in how it was constructed, the repeated statements of its author should be a sufficient warning of the danger.
Speaking of the absolutely primary rules of judgment, namely the principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, Aristotle points out that each scientist uses them as valid within the limits of his own science (Posterior Analytics. 2.11, 77a22-25). When it is a question of the knowledge of reality, one does not reason about reality from principles but in agreement with them and in their light.