Causality and Participation, by Etienne Gilson

Etienne Gilson[Queremos publicar este breve pero denso capítulo (nº 8) del libro Introduction à la philosophie chrétienne, publicado en 1960, el mismo año que Fabro publicaba Partecipazione e causalità. No solo su nombre, sino también las tesis de fondo más importantes, tienen mucho en común con el pensamiento del P. Fabro. Lo presentamos para el estudio y comparación de estos dos grandes filósofos tomistas].

creare convenit Deo secundum suum esse, quod est ejus essentia

(Summa theologiae 1.45.6).[1]

All Christian theologians teach that the universe is the work of God, who created it from nothing by the free exercise of his power. It goes without saying that St. Thomas teaches the same doctrine, but he does not present it in the same way as the others, for if he affirms along with them that the proper effect of the crea­tive act is to cause the being of creatures, his personal meta­physics of being affects the traditional data of the problem in two ways, concerning the notions of the creator himself, the act of creation, and the exact nature of its effect.

In God himself to whom does the act of creating belong? As we can foresee, the correct answer is that whatever in God is common to the whole divinity is the cause of all that exists. Nevertheless some theologians hesitate, for in the perspective of Christian the­ology the creation of the universe is not the first manifestation of the divine fecundity. In the words of St. Thomas himself, “the procession of the divine person is prior to, and more perfect than, the procession of creatures” (ST 1.45.6 obj 1). Indeed, the divine person comes forth as the perfect likeness of his source, but the creature only as an imperfect likeness. It seems then that the pro­cessions of the divine persons are the “cause” of the procession of things, and thus the act of creating properly belongs to the per­son.

St. Thomas does not deny this; quite the contrary. But we must see in what sense it is true. The Trinity as a whole is engaged in the work of creation, as is clear in the very words of the Church in the Nicene Creed. The Christian believes in the Father almighty, “creator of all things seen and unseen.” Fur­thermore, he acknowledges that all things were made through the Son, and finally that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life. So the act of creating does indeed properly belong to the persons. Nevertheless, if we carefully consider the matter, the persons operate here as including God’s essential attributes, that is, the attributes of the divine essence, which are intellect and will. A workman operates through the inner word his mind conceives and through the love his will has for the object of his activity. Similarly in God, the Father produces the creature by his word, which is the Son, and by his love, which is the Holy Spirit: ex voluntate Patris cooperante Spiritu Sancto (from the will of the Father with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit).[2] In other words, the divine persons here direct us back to the divine essence; they are indeed creative insofar as they include two essential attributes.

What do we mean by going back to the divine essence? God’s essence is being itself. Now, to create is properly speaking to cause or produce the being of things: causare, sive producere esse rerum. Let us understand this correctly, and if necessary once again recall that basic notion of esse or being, conceived as distinct from that of ens or a being; for to the Thomist it is being, thus understood, that is here in question. In fact, “Since every cause produces something similar to itself, the principle of an action can be known by its effect. Fire is produced by fire. The act of cre­ating (that is, the production of being) consequently belongs to God in virtue of his being, which is his essence (creare convenit Deo secundum suum esse, quod est ejus essentia), and because essence is common to the three persons, creation is not exclusive to one per­son but is common to the whole Trinity” (ST 1.45.6).

This notion is so to speak the very center of the theology of creation. As regularly happens every time it is a question of the notion of being, the mind hesitates between conceiving the cause from the effect, according to the philosophical order, or the effect in function of its cause, according to the theological order. The Christian philosopher does both, for he theologizes, and the theo­logian is not restrained from philosophizing. We can say, then, that since God is “being,” (esse), and every cause produces an effect similar to itself, the proper effect of God is the being of the creature. To create is indeed producere esse rerum (to produce the being of things); or, conversely, since creatures are beings because they have being (esse), we can say, ascending from them to God, that in order to be their cause he himself must be the pure act of being: ipsum purum esse. As soon as we have grasped the Thomistic meaning of the notion of esse, the two ways are nothing but the two directions of one and the same way. As Heraclitus said, the road upward and the road downward are one and the same. We shall come back to this problem. For the moment let us be satisfied to deepen the notion of creation beginning with the notion of being.

Since the mind naturally proceeds to judge causes by their effects, our first statement will be that to create a being is to produce it from nothing: ex nihilo. In Thomistic theology that statement is often replaced with others, such as: the emanation of total and universal being, or the emanation of total being from non-being or nothing. These two statements are in agreement, but they do not bear precisely on the same aspect of the truth. The emanation of universal being often draws attention to the fact that, unlike the element of truth in philosophies such as those of Plato and Aristotle, there is nothing included in the notion of a being in general that does not owe being to the creative act. St. Thomas is thinking especially of matter, which no Greek philosopher thought of as created. On the contrary, in Christian philosophy, since matter exists it has being; so it is also an effect of God’s creative omnipotence.

The first way leads to the second. Certainly the creative act causes everything in a being, in every sense of the verb “to be.” But in its first and profound sense this verb signifies the act itself whereby a being is in some way posited outside nothingness. It is precisely this act of a being, its esse, that is the proper effect of the creative act. To produce a being (ens) in its very being (esse) is to produce it from nothing. Anything conceivable prior to creation must be something, some kind of being. But by definition every being possesses being, and since to create is to create being, that something prior to creation would itself be created. In the most profound sense, creation is the production of the total being (totius esse), because the creative act bears primarily on the esse of the ens, that is, on that which in everything included in the definition of the being makes it something that is. In a finite being there is nothing prior to that except what is not. But what is not is not even a that which. It is nothing; it is the negation of being. Hence St. Thomas’s statement: the emanation of the total being, which is called creation, takes place ex non ente, quod est nihil (from nonbeing, which is nothing: ST1.45.1).

If such is the nature of the creative act, it can belong to God alone. The effect of every other act productive of being is to cause a special way of being: being human, a tree, in motion, and so on. But creation produces being absolutely, which is the most general of all effects, since every other effect is only a particular way of being. Now the most universal effect can have only the most uni­versal cause, which is God. St. Thomas often expresses this in a statement whose forcefulness is concealed by its simplicity: being is the proper effect of God. And indeed, since the proper name of God is He Who Is, and every cause produces an effect similar to itself, created being must resemble God first and foremost because it also is a being. Hence St. Thomas’s oft-repeated statement that being is God’s first effect because it is presupposed to all other effects: illud … quod est proprius effectus Dei creantis, est illud quod praesupponitur omnibus aliis, scilicet esse absolute (The proper effect of God the creator is that which is presupposed to all other effects, namely being taken absolutely: ST1.45.5). But being cannot be said to be the proper effect of God without by the same token say­ing that God alone has the power to cause being or to create. The conclusion necessarily follows, for the first effect is the consequent of the first cause, and the first effect is being: Primus autem effectus est ipsum esse, quod omnibus aliis effectibus praesupponitur, et ipsum non praesupponit aliquem alium effectum (The first effect is being, which is presupposed to all other effects, and it itself does not presuppose any other effect: QDP3.4). So the giving of being as such must be the effect of the first cause alone acting through its own power: secundum propriam virtutem, and by this we mean, not, as in the case of all other causes, inasmuch as it would have its efficacy from another cause (ibid.). Because it is creative, the first cause is the cause of all causality.

By way of parenthesis we would point out the futility of con­troversies that claim to refute conclusions beginning with prin­ciples other than those from which they follow. The Thomist proposition: “God alone causes being,” has become a battleground among theologians of various schools, sometimes even among “Thomists.” This did not happen up to the time of the excellent Báñez, who does not seem to have been troubled by it.[3] How, they ask, can a cause produce an effect without producing the being of that effect? They are right, but everything depends on the metaphysical level on which the question is raised. St. Thomas is very far from denying that beings are able to produce other beings. Quite the contrary, no one has more forcefully asserted the proper efficacy of secondary causes, but he has no less strictly refused to grant to these causes the power to produce the very being (esse) of their effects. All causes other than God are instru­mental causes, whose being (esse) is received from the first cause, and whose causal efficacy is exercised on subjects whose being (esse) is similarly provided for them by the first cause. In other words, the causality of causes presupposes their being, which is caused by God alone, just as their effects, in order to be produced, presuppose that their matter, form, and all the elements included in their ontological structure, have been created and conserved by God. In strict Thomistic language (to which, however, St. Thomas does not always restrict himself), it could be said that the secondary cause causes everything in a being (ens) except its being (esse). Or again, and this seems to be St. Thomas’s preferred formula, the secondary cause does not cause being, but being- such-and-such or being-this-or-that. He could not compromise in this matter, for to produce being non inquantum est hoc, vel tale, would be to produce being absolutely, and this would no longer be causing but creating.

Let us return now to the effect of the creative cause. This, we have said, is the very being of its effect. Here we encounter another notion which is very simple though often enough mis­understood – the notion of “participation.” To participate and to be caused are one and the same thing. To say that created being is participated being is to say that it is the proper effect of the uncaused being, who is God. That is why St. Thomas so fre­quently moves, without articulating the movement, from the ideas of being-in-itself and the pure act of being to those of the cause of all being, of being caused, and of being by participation. Here St. Thomas is truly “at home,” at the center of his metaphysical and theological citadel. It is in this tangle of primary notions that we discover the meaning of the principle continually advanced by him, that “that which is by another is reducible, as to its cause, to that which is by itself.” At the same time we see that the notion of being-by-another, or by a cause, is identical with that of being per modum participationis. Finally, we see clearly the bond uniting the notion of created or participated being to the Thomistic notion of God, the pure act of being. “For we must posit a being (ens) which is its very being (ipsum suum esse). The proof of this is that there must be a first being which is pure act and in which there is no composition. This unique being, then, must cause all other beings to exist, which are not their being but possess being by participation.” Those who ask if St. Thomas thought that creation is a notion accessible to natural reason alone will find the answer to their question here. And this, our theologian says, is the argument of Avicenna (Metaph. 8.7 and 9.4). He then concludes: “Thus it is proved by reason and held on faith that everything is created by God” (QDP 3.5). And this agreement [between reason and faith] is theological.

We must be on our guard here against conceiving participa­tion as the act of “taking a part” (partem capere). St. Thomas does not object to any language that is not absolutely unjustifiable, and so he will also allow this “etymology.” But the relation of the participated to the participating in his metaphysics should be understood as an ontological relation of cause to effect. If we remembered this we would have fewer difficulties in interpreting certain proofs of the existence of God, for example, the Quarta via. For, understood in their Thomistic sense, the relations of “by another” to “by itself,” which it brings into play, are relations of effects to their efficient cause or they are reducible to them. This is true even of participation in the order of formal causality, by way of resemblance, for the form itself is nothing if it does not first have being. At the source of everything there is being-by-itself, which is the cause, and beings-by-another, which are its effects. Accordingly it is one and the same thing for them to be beings, to be the effects of the first cause, and to be participations of being-by-itself. We must try to examine these notions from all angles, to see them give rise to each other, and then to embrace them in a single glance, as one single truth.

The statements bringing to mind this group of notions can be easily recognized. For example: Everything that is such by partici­pation depends on what is such universally and essentially (often cited is the well known metaphysical hypothesis: Unde si esset unus calor per se existens, oporteret ipsum esse causam omnium cali­dorum, quae per modum participationis calorem habent (Therefore, if there were one self-subsistent heat, it would necessarily be the cause of all hot things, which have heat by way of participation: QDP 3,5). Or again: Being by participation comes after being by essence. And especially: What is such by participation is caused by what is such by essence. All these propositions often occur together, so that the proof that every being is created by God ends up as a proof of the existence of God, in which all the prior metaphysical intuitions – true but imperfect – of the best meta­physicians find their perfection in the light of the Christian notion of the pure Act of Being. St. Thomas knows very well that neither Plato nor Aristotle taught the concept of creation from nothing. Being a theologian, however, and regarding everything from a viewpoint analogous to that of God (ut sic sacra doctrina sit velut quaedam impressio divinae scientiae: so that sacred doctrine bears as it were the imprint of the divine knowledge [ST 1.1.3 ad 2m]), his insight pierces the clouds that still obscured their own truth from them. We must see him at work, boldly advancing beyond Greek metaphysics, which his own thought surveys with a single unin­terrupted movement. Here it is not a question of the history of philosophies such as the philosophers conceived them, but of a sort of collective journey to the truth, under the guidance of a theologian who himself follows the light of scripture, velut stella rectrix. Let us listen to him:

We must say that everything that exists in any way is from God. For if we find anything participating in anything whatsoever, it must be caused in it by that to which it belongs by essence, as iron is made red-hot by fire. Now we have shown above (q3, a4), when treating of the divine simplicity, that God is self-subsistent being itself. Further­more, we have shown (q11, a4) that there can be only one subsistent being, just as, if there were subsistent whiteness it could only be one, since whitenesses are multiplied by the subjects that receive them. So all beings other than God are not their own being but participate in being. It is necessary, therefore, that all things that are diversified by their different ways of participating in being, which makes them be more or less perfectly, are caused by one first Being, which exists most perfectly. Thus Plato said that before all plurality there must be unity, and Aristotle says in his Metaphysics (2.1, 993b23-27) that what is supremely being and supremely true is the cause of every being and every truth, just as what is most hot is the cause of heat in everything else (ST 1.44.1).

Thus, after more than forty questions [in the Summa theologiae], one of the five “ways” to God,[4] which are so often reduced to their bare dialectical outlines, is unexpectedly presented as a philosophy of being, a theology of esse, a metaphysics of creation, participation, and causality. Nothing could give us a better idea of the theologian’s perspective, from which truths are given as contained one within another, like their objects themselves, whose being is only conceivable by Being.

This is because discursive reason can only explore the wealth of the first principle by successive and separate probes. A dialec­tical process is needed to clear the entrances to it, then passageways, finally by deliberate reflections to provide those unifying insights whereby that which reason had to distinguish is reunited in the intellect’s simple glance. Then we no longer have the simple anticipation we had at the start of a wealth to be itemized; neither do we have the open display of the many goods it conceals. Rather, we should speak of reconstituting by a mental process the unity of being, as though sight could reunite the spectrum of colors in white light without losing them from view.

The person who makes an effort to reflect on the principles from within will avoid entering into futile controversies about the number and order of the ways to God, the question whether each is a proof distinct from the others, finally the problem of the exact moment in the development of the Summa when the demonstra­tion of God’s existence is really completed. There are as many ways to go to God as there are modes of being, and the develop­ment of any one of these ways could go on to infinity, like meta­physics itself. Being is inexhaustible.

Since we have no other possible method, let us retrace the thread of our reflections. [Q]uodcumque ens creatum participat, ut ita dixerim, naturam essendi: every created being participates so to speak in the nature of being (ST 1.45.5 ad 1m). What is this natura essendi but God?[5] We have then a created universe with a nature entirely its own, since every special being, by the very fact that it is being, participates in the nature of the divine being, not as a part participates in a whole but as an effect participates in its efficient cause. Created, then conserved by an action of the same nature as that which created it, a secondary being subsists at each moment of its duration only by the divine efficacy. If we are imbued with this notion, we face a new series of consequences that lead us to the heart of the Thomistic universe in its most literally sacred character.

It becomes clear that God is directly, essentially, and inti­mately present to the being of each of his creatures.

Since the first effect of God is the very being of things, the divine efficacy extends to creatures directly and immediately: First, because creation is God’s own special mode of causality, and therefore in this case nothing comes between the cause and its effect Second, because there is nothing the creature itself can receive without first receiving being. All the particular properties of being presuppose it. It is certain, then, that by his efficacy God is immediately present to each of the effects he produces.

Now God’s efficacy, power, and will are the divine essence itself. Where God’s efficacy is present, there also is his essence: ubicumque est virtus divina, est divina essentia (QDP 3.7). So it is literally true to say that God is present to beings by his very essence. Moreover, it should have been possible to infer this con­clusion directly from the fact that in the Blessed Trinity creation properly is the work of the divine essence, which is the divine esse itself. Thus the following propositions follow in sequence: God is his being; since every efficient cause produces its like, the proper act of Being is to cause being; caused being subsists only by the continuance of the creative action; created being is a participation in creative Being; finally, creative Being is present by its very essence to the created being that subsists only through it.

The above series of propositions clarifies the unique role played in this theology by the notion of being (esse), whose arche­type and model, if we can use these terms, is God himself, as he revealed his name in Exodus. We should often recall this central point in the doctrine. We cannot form a correct notion of being as long as the mind does not make the effort to conceive it in the pure state, free of all connection with an added essence and sufficient to itself, without the addition of even a subject to sup­port it and constitute a being with it. Words are hopeless, but we can think correctly what they fail to say well. Language reaches its extreme limit when the metaphysician dares to say that God is not really a being (ens) but pure being itself (ipsum purum esse).

Now we can conceive a finite being more clearly as composed of that which it is and a participation, by way of effect, in pure subsistent being. In us, being must be really other than essence because there is a being that is nothing but Being. Undoubtedly the direct consideration of finite being is enough to demonstrate its contingency, but here it is a question of the metaphysical structure itself of this contingent being. For all Christian theologies profess the contingency of finite creatures, but only one discovers the root of this contingency within them in the impossi­bility of the act that makes them exist to be Being purely and simply. All the basic theses of metaphysics come together here, for that which is, but is not Being, would not subsist for a moment without the immediate presence of the creative essence. The uni­verse is composed of essences, no one of which is Being, but they are all beings because they exist and endure outside nothingness as effects of Him Who Is.

This doctrine has a metaphysical sobriety of astonishing gran­deur. Many reproach it for not speaking enough to the heart, but they do not know what they are saying. For the heart to speak, or for us to speak to it, it must first exist. Even keeping within the order of affectivity and feeling – an order so legitimate in itself – what heart should not be content to know that it is so imbued with the divine power that it is nothing but its effect? Is there a closer dependence on a cause than to be an effect that depends on it for its very being? It is on this account that we live, move, and have being in Him.[6] God has only to stop willing us for us to cease to exist The devotion would indeed be poor that failed to do justice to the feeling of this dependence, which, far from excluding those of heart and will, includes them and is their foundation. This is truly the greatest of all dependences. Within finite being, God keeps vigil with his power: the pure presence of Being to a being, which is ens only in virtue of Esse.

This metaphysics of being, moreover, is far from excluding a metaphysics of love, for why does God will nature and the human race except that he loves them? These reflections have their place, and when they arise they lose nothing by resting on a view of the world and God that is their foundation. God dwells in the very essence of the universe in which the Christian lives. Failing to understand that, we are in danger of missing the meaning of the central theses of theology, including those that directly govern the Master’s teaching on the cooperation of God with the activity of creatures and on the economy of grace itself.

We could not make too great or too frequent an effort to meditate on the meaning of conclusions whose value diminishes to the point of disappearing when we fail to give them their full significance. God is in everything because he acts in everything, and wherever a being acts, there it exists: Ubicumque operatur aliquid, ibi est [ST 1.8.1 sed contra]. God’s effect in a being is being, which he bestows because he himself Is. He creates and conserves this effect in things as long as they endure, as the sun causes light in the air as long as it is day. As long, then, as a thing has being, God must be present to it, depending on the way it has being. Each of the other perfections has its value, but it would be nothing without being. Moreover, God is first present to his creature at its very center; he touches the being in its very core: Unde oportet quod Deus sit in omnibus rebus, et intime (So God must exist in all things, and most intimately: ST 1.8.1).

Such is the nature of this theology of causality, based on the theology of the act of being. Nothing could be more simple: By his essence God exists in all things inasmuch as he is present to them as the cause that gives them being: Est in omnibus per essentiam, inquantum adest omnibus ut causa essendi (ST 1.8.3). The other truths about the universe are important, but all of them come after this one, since God is present wherever there is being, and where God is not there is nothing. We must form the habit of reflecting on these truths, first on each of them in itself, then all together in the very process in which they give rise to each other, beginning with the proper name of God. Only then does the universe itself begin to reveal its secret, and no longer only why it is but what it is.


[1]  “…to create belongs to God by reason of his being, which is his essence.”

[2]  From the liturgy of the Missale Romanum.

[3]  According to Báñez, God alone produces being (esse); secondary causes can produce beings but without their acts of being: see Do­mingo Báñez, Scholastica commentaria in primam partem ‘Summae theologiae’ s. Thomae Aquinatis 1.3.4, ed. Luis Urbano, Biblioteca de Tomistas españoles 8 (Madrid and Valencia: Editorial F.E.D.A., 1934), pp. 154-158. See also Gilson, Elements of Christian Philosophy (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1960), pp. 175-176.

[4]  That is, the fourth way.

[5]  Cf. St. Anselm, Monologium 3, in Opera omnia, ed. Francis S. Schmitt, 6 vols. (Seckau: Abbatial; Edin­burgh: Thomas Nelson, 1938-1961), 1: 15-16.

[6]  See Acts 17:28.

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Comments 2

  1. y Dios siendo “infinita existencia ” igual tuvo la capacidad de “pensarse a si mismo”?

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