Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Disfigured Face: Thomistic Ontology: Existence Distinct from Essence

METAPHYSICS AFFECTS ETHICS perhaps is the conclusion of Professor Cortest's first chapter in his The Disfigured Face: Traditional Natural Law and Its Encounter with Modernity. The science of being affects the science of doing. Who we think we are, and what we think of reality, affects how we act. Modern man does not know how to act, largely because he does not know who he is or even what is (that, or he thinks he can make himself whatever he wants to be and has not stable, informing nature that ought to guide him). St. Thomas Aquinas did not suffer from the modern malaise which has deracinated or uprooted man.

At the heart of the natural law theory of St. Thomas Aquinas is his ontology. Ontology, a word which comes from Greek ontos (ὄντος = of being) and logia (λογία = study, science, theory), is the science of being. Since at least the time of Christian Wolff (1679-1754), "ontology" has been distinguished from "metaphysics" generally, and now is regarded as part of "metaphysics," along with its other components "psychology" and "cosmology." At the center of St. Thomas's ontology was the proposition that essence is really distinct from existence, that existence was the preeminent ground for the discovery of truth, and that existence was for every thing other than God, whose essence is existence, a sharing in existence as a gift of God. God it is "who properly causes existence in creatures, just as it is fire itself that sets other things on fire. And God is causing this effect in things not just when they begin to exist, but all the time they are maintained in existence, just as the sun is lighting up the atmosphere all the time the atmosphere remains lit." (Cortest, 12, quoting S.T. Ia, q. 8, art. 1)

"Thomas considered 'being' the first and most fundamental object known by reason." Cortest, 1. Being is, in fact, at the heart of the thought of St. Thomas and the one he referred to as "the Philosopher," Aristotle. "There is," Aristotle says in his book Metaphysics, "a science which investigates being as being and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature," ἔστιν ἐπιστήμη τις ἣ θεωρεῖ τὸ ὂν ᾗ ὂν καὶ τὰ τούτῳ ὑπάρχοντα καθ᾽ αὑτό. Arist., Met., 1003. To on hē on. Being as being.

Certainly since the Enlightenment, and even spottily before in the Renaissance, the underlying philosophical views of both Aristotle and St. Thomas, who relied on Aristotle, have been increasingly rejected. The French positivist Auguste Comte saw metaphysics as a passing stage, sort of as like an intellectual teenager (theology being the infant), in the development of human intellectual knowledge. In his lectures on metaphysics, Theodor Adorno, who was no fan of metaphysics (or ontology), noted, probably accurately enough, that "metaphysics is used in almost the entire non-German-speaking world as a term of abuse, a synonym for idle speculation, mere nonsense and heaven knows what other intellectual vices." Theodor W. Adorno, Metaphysics: Concept and Problems (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 1. Before Adorno, Nietzsche called those who dabbled in metaphysics "Hinterweltler," "backworldsmen," perhaps an allusionary word play, in that Nietzsche's term sounds strangely like "Hinterwäldler," or "backwoodsmen." (Ontology or metaphysics is not the only area that has suffered abuse by moderns. The notion of natural law has been equally the subject of deprecation. One need only think of the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, who called natural law "nonsense on stilts," or Associate Supreme Court Justice Holmes, who all his life "sneered at the natural rights of man." )

The rejection of the Thomistic ontology is unfortunate because it rejects the particular contribution of St. Thomas to metaphysics, specifically, his emphasis on existence (esse, "to be," that a thing is) as really (and not only mentally) distinct from essence (essentia--the "what" of a thing; its quiddity) in his metaphysics of being. For St. Thomas, both "essence" and "existence" were important concepts to distinguish in thinking about reality because, other than God in which they were identical, in created things they were really distinct things. Further, St. Thomas taught that truth is more principally grounded in the existence (esse) of a thing, rather than in its essence, veritas fundatur in esse rei magis quam in ipsa quidditate. St. Thomas, I Sent., d. 19, q. 5, a. 1. Unfortunately, at least initially, St. Thomas's views on ontology faced stiff competition from the nominalism that had infected the brains of scholars. More popular in the 13th [correction, 14th century] century seemingly was the thought of Ockham, and Ockham rejected the extra-mental distinction between essence and existence as meaningless, in fact non-existent, therefore equating both of these concepts. Cortest, 5. Ockham could not put it any plainer:
We have to say, therefore, that essence (entitas) and existence (existentia) are not two things. On the contrary, the words "thing" (res) and "to be" (esse) signify one and the same thing.

Ideo dicendum est, quod entitas et existentia non sunt duae res. Sed ista duo vocabula 'res' et 'esse' idem et eadem significant.
Ockham, Summa Totius Logicae, 3, 2, 27. Ockham also emphasized the particular, and did not believe in abstract essences as having any sort of reality; in short, he was a nominalist. (Though unrelated to the issue of ontology, Ockham also was a voluntarist in morality, believing the will to be preeminent over reason in law.)

As Cortest notes, if "essence" is studied without regard to "existence," then one loses contact with reality and ventures into a world of mere abstraction, of concepts, of the mere possible or potential. On the other hand, if "being" is considered a sophomoric abstraction, a verbal flatus, and all thought is focused on the particular existence, then we are unable to grasp universal realities or the concept of "nature." St. Thomas, like a clever helmsman, steers us between the Charybdis of a Kantian or Hegelian idealism, and a Scylla of a Humean or Lockean empirical superficialism.

Francisco Vitoria

For a time, Ockham and his followers carried the day, perhaps finding ultimate expression in the Lutheran boil that burst open spewing forth all its puss when the recalcitrant, troubled, disobedient Augustinian friar nailed 95 theses on the Cathedral doors in Wittenberg, shattering Christian unity. But slowly, surely, largely as a result of the work of Cardinal Cajetan (Tomasso de Vio) (1468-1534) and Francisco de Vitoria (ca. 1492-1546), the Thomistic spirit was revitalized. Cajetan, the diminutive Dominican with a prodigious mind, is probably the most celebrated of all the Thomistic commentators. Francisco de Vitoria, commonly regarded as the father of Spanish Thomism, completely reformed the curriculum at the University of Salamanca, replacing the Sentences of Peter Lombard with the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas as the principal text for the study of theology.

Nobody could have foreseen the harvest that Vitoria's decision to sow Thomist seeds instead of Lombardian seeds into the furrows of the minds of his students. The names of those who came from, or have ties to, that school are profuse, and they ripened largely in Dominican and Jesuit habit, and fed the disciplines of moral theology, political philosophy, economics, and international law: Domingo de Soto (1495-1560), Martín de Azpilcueta (1491-1586), Domingo Bañez (1528-1604), Diego de Covarrubias y Leya (1512-1577), Tomás de Mercado (1525-1575), Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566), Luis de Molina (1535-1600), Juan de Mariana (ca. 1535-1624), Melchior Cano (1509-1560), and Francisco Suárez (1548-1617). From Spain, the Thomistic revival rooted itself into all Europe, affecting all manner of men and all manner of sciences.

Francisco Suárez

Cortest acknowledges that the last mentioned of the Salamancan greats: Francisco Suárez, the Doctor eximius, the exceptional Doctor, is "perhaps the greatest philosopher in the Thomistic tradition," and yet, "he differed profoundly from the Angelic Doctor [Thomas Aquinas] in his metaphysics." Cortest, 9. There is, in short, a school, distinct from Thomism, called Suarism. For Cortest, one of the fundamental distinctions between Aquinas and Suárez was precisely in the Thomistic distinction between essence and existence:
The primacy of existence, so fundamental for Aquinas, is lost with Suárez, for whom essence and existence can both be either potential or actual. . . . For Suárez, all being is reduced to essential being; existence is always subordinate to essence."
Cortest, 9. From the Thomist teaching that gave preeminence of existence over essence, Suárez went rogue. Suárez understood being primarily as essence, and this tended to deprecate the true character of being, of existing. "Therefore," Suárez concluded in his Disputationes Metaphysicae, XXXI, s. vi, 23, "it must be said that essence and existence are the same thing but that it is conceived of under the aspect of essence." Dicendum ergo est eamdem rem essse essentiam et existentiam, concipi autem sub ratione essentiam. Suárez had, in a way, come back full circle to Ockham.

From the point of view of the Thomist, this is a massive mistake. The mistake arises from seeing being as a noun rather than a participle. Cortest, 9. (One may recall that Ockham saw existence or being (esse) as a form of a verb, not a noun.) The mistake arises out of Suárez's taking for granted that his verbum mentis, the word in his mind, "corresponds exactly to what it represents, even when he uses it to conceptualize the principles of being itself." Cortest, 10 (quoting David M. Knight, SJ, "Suarez's Approach to Substantial Form," The Modern Schoolman 40 (1962): 238)

Is being, existence, esse, "to be," a verbal, nounal, or participial concept?

What difference, if any, does it make?
Taken as a participle, being signifies "the act of existing as exercised and is the same as the actual existent." Looked as a noun, it means "the essence of a thing which has or can have existence (esse) and it can be said to signify existence itself not as exercised in act but in potency or aptitude." Thus, taken as a noun, the objective concept of being is that which is or can be, that which has a real essence prescinding from actual existence without excluding or denying it.
Cortest, 9-10 (quoting John P. Doyle, "Suarez On the Reality of the Possible," The Modern Schoolman 45 (1967): 36-37) To view existence as a noun, rather than a participle, is to sort of fold the concept of existence into essence. And thus existence becomes, not an independent, extra-mental reality, but becomes the difference between essence potential and essence actual. According to Cortest, the result is to fragment being and take us somewhat out of reality. Metaphysics is the "science of possible being," and no longer the science of "actual or real being." We sort of walk out of the boundaries of authentic Thomistic ontology and its moderate realism. It sort of shatters the chain of being, in fact being itself, into virtually infinite shards.

It also affects Suárez's view of individuation (i.e., what makes individuals individuals?). Traditionally, the individual expression of an essence (say, "Socrates," as an individuation of "man.") was the result of matter or particular existence of an essence. But for Suárez, "neither matter nor existence constitute the principle of the individual." Cortest, 11. For Suárez, "accidents contain within themselves their own principle of individuation," and this "leads logically to the conclusion that a being contains within itself a multiplicity of individuating principles." Cortest, 11. By looking at accidents and substance thus separately, Suárez "destroys the very unity that most characterizes the Aristotelian-Thomistic conception of substance." Cortest, 11. Man was hacked up into many parts, and was no longer whole.

Why is this subtlety important? Is this just subtlecraft? Cortest answers:
On this foundation [of existence being really distinct from essence, and being the preeminent metaphysical principle for understanding reality], an epistemology and an ethics are developed. In fact, the Thomistic system [of knowledge and of morality] can be understood as a series of logical extensions from this premise.
Cortest, 11. The eventual effect was to divide the world of thought into two: either those who relied only on existence, focusing only in individual existent things, neglecting essence, or those who relied only on essence, neglecting existence. The former are the empiricists. The latter are the idealists. Both views have significant effect on ethics, that is, affect one's view of the natural law.


  1. If I understand the distinction between essence and being correctly, "Things exist" is being. "Essence" is what distinguishes and differentiates or unites "things that be". I can see the difference between being and essence. Being just answers "It exists" and essence describes what it is. All men share the same essence but some men have ceased to be, some men exist now, and some men will come into existence.
    (With all men existing in the hereafter, some in heaven and some in hell.)

    Did I get this right?

  2. Yes, I believe you got the distinction right. At least you understand it the way I understand it.

  3. Ockham lived in the 14th cen., not the thirteenth. And voluntarism does not maintain that the "will is superior to reason in law", but simply that the will is superior to the intellect; what this means varies from thinker to thinker: Henry of ghent thinks the intellect is a sine qua non cause of volition, while Scotus holds that intellect and will both are essentially ordered to volition. the connection with the (natural) law is that there are certain aspects in scripture that look like God is contradicting the 12 commandments: ordering abraham to kill isaac, having the israelites rob the egyptians, etc. Aquinas had held that God simply redefines the moral law, for reasons such as 'god is the true owner of all property, therefore he reassigned their ownership to the israelits.' Scotus, however, found this unacceptable, and argued that the first table of the ten comm. is necessary, as it looks to God, but the second is contingent, as it pertains to human affairs. One needn't then resort to aquinas' convoluted explanations.

    Also, aquinas' own views on the distinction of essence and existence are not at all clear; the quote from ockham cited above is actually an attack on giles of rome, not aquinas.

    this book sounds like the usual thomistic triumphalist "narrative", hardly different from the less credible 'radical orthodoxy' movement. such narratives bite two ways: if ockham is the cause of nominalism, then aquinas is the cause of ockham and also a cause of nominalism. Sadly, such narrators never bother to read actual scholarship. I might add, at its heyday, the university of Salamanca had a chairs devoted to Ockham, Durandus and Scotus in addition to Aquinas.

  4. what is the nature of the distinction you want to prove here? is it real or intentional distinction? because i think this is important in understanding suarez's and the thomists' standing.