The intensive hermeneutics of Thomistic philosophy: the notion of participation, by Cornelio Fabro (I)

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Cornelio Fabro 11

[The review of metaphysics, March 1974, volume XXVII, Nº 3 issue Nº 107, 449-490]


[449] In the platonic tradition, the term “participation” signifies the fundamental relationship of both structure and dependence in the dialectic of the many in relation to the One and of the different in relation to the Identical, whereas in Christian philosophy it signifies the total dependence of the creature on its Creator. The term participation has played an extensive role in Patristic and medieval speculation.

The starting point or stimulus for an interpretation of Thomism by means of the notion of participation—an interpretation that was unusual and entirely neglected by the tradition—was first of all the controversy about the so-called “analytic nature” of the principle of causality. This arose toward the end of the last century and continued through the first decades of our century within Neoscholastic (and Neothomistic) philosophy. Although some philosophers (De Margerie, Fuzier, Laminne) had already defended the synthetic nature of the principle of causality, that is, its novelty and consequent irreducibility to the principle of contradiction, nevertheless the rationalistic solution was always dominant. This rationalistic tradition conceived the principle of causality as derived from the principle of sufficient reason, which in turn was derived from the principle of identity-contradiction (Descoqs, Maritain, Garrigou-Lagrange). On the other hand, the “synthetists” (e.g., Sawicki, Hessen, and Geyser) placed themselves directly behind Kant and Schopenhauer and openly broke with the traditional interpretation which they accused of subordinating the understanding of reality to [449-450] abstraction[1]. In so doing, the synthetists made no secret of their adherence to the Kantian apriori. A new way had therefore to be sought to resolve the impasse.

Yet the convincing and decisive moment was the realization that, in an attempt to solve crucial issues of the constitutive relation between God and creatures, between the Infinite and the finite—such as those concerning total dependence (creation and divine motion), radical structure (composition of essentia and esse) and fundamental semantics (analogy)—St. Thomas had placed the Platonic notion of participation at the very foundation of the Aristotelian couplet of act and potency. The theory was then advanced, which both text and context have supported and clarified, that the very notion of ens and that of esse as intensive emerging act, sprang in Thomism from within that same notion of participation and marked the definitive overthrow of both classic and scholastic essentialism (formalism). The real composition of essentia and esse, fought against by scholastic philosophy and diverted by historical Thomism into the modal distinction of essentiaexistentia, was thus placed at the center of the Thomistic interpretation of the real[2] on the level of the transcendentality of Hegel’s Diremtion and Heidegger’s ontologische Differenz.

Extensive and prolonged research, spurred by the insistence upon interiority in modern thought, led to the discovery of a corresponding perfect coherence in the structure of causality[3]. The newly [450-451] advanced theory found its confirmation in the continuous and ever-increasing references in Thomistic texts to the Neoplatonic tradition, especially that deriving from Proclus (Pseudo Dionysius, De Causis). Yet this latter tradition was itself overturned by the elevation of the ensesse over and above the Good and by the consequent emerging synthesis of essentiaesse and of the formal-exemplary causality of Plato with the formal-efficient causality of Aristotle. This was therefore a new synthesis[4] and such that it could not be reduced either to Plato or Aristotle, not to Hellenistic or Christian Neoplatonism.

It is true that the importance of Aquinas’ thought in the evolution of the human spirit is beyond question, just as is the importance of St. Augustine’s thought. However, it must be admitted that neither the Augustinian nor the Thomistic school has always resisted the desire for system (concupiscentia systematis), and for the best known Thomists this is a system with an ever more noticeable Aristotelian background. The endless discussions from the 14th to the 16th century between Thomists[5] and anti-Thomists offer an impressive array of arguments aiming at the defence of the theses of their respective schools, rather than the dispassionate study of the much more important issue of the “foundation” and original meaning of Aquinas’ attempt at a new synthesis: the speculative meeting of Plato and Aristotle on the level of Christian creationism. It is in this sense that the new Thomas-Forschung has resolutely moved in [451-452] our direction:

On the other hand, the doctrine of participation, which is clearly derived from Neoplatonism, has scarcely been mentioned by those of his [Thomas’] interpreters who have insisted on its Aristotelian origin. This same doctrine is considered as central and analyzed in great detail by many recent commentators, who are not afraid to see in it, along with Aristotelian and Christian features, important elements of Neoplatonic origin. This is not surprising, since many texts of Proclus and the Liber de Causis, in addition to writings by St. Augustine, Boethius, the Areopagite, and many Arabic sources following the same line of thought, were available to him[6].

But the journey in this speculatively radical direction has just begun; besides, it must overcome the resistance of a prevailing formalistic tradition.

One philosopher who was decidedly on his way to seeing in Thomas the metaphysical tension of act and potency grounded in the notion of participation, was Marsilio Ficino, the prince of Humanism of the Quattrocento. In his major work, the Theologia Platonica[7], he acknowledges the principal theses of Thomistic metaphysics and, while recalling the notion of participation, he fights against the triumphant Averroism with the same arguments used by St. Thomas, whom he calls “the bright light of Christian theology.” Had his voice been heard, many useless disputes within the orders would have been avoided. [452-453]


[1] The first research, which resulted in the discovery of the formula of participation, was stimulated by the theme of a contest announced by the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas in 1934: “The principle of causality: its psychological origin, its philosophical formulation, and its necessary and universal value.” The content of my study, awarded first prize by the Academy, was published under the title, “La difesa critica del principio di causa,” in Rivista di filosofia neoscolastica, XXVIII (1936), 102-41 and reprinted in my volume, Esegesi tomistica (Rome, 1969), pp. 1-48.

[2] The constitutive participation of the structure of the real is the subject of my work, first published in 1939, La nozione metafisica di partecipazione secondo S. Tommaso d’Aquino (3d ed.; Turin, 1963), which includes three distinct parts: I. Historical foundation of the notion of participation; II. Fundamental implications of the Thomistic notion of participation; III. Inner development and contents of the Thomistic notion of participation.

[3] The complex and difficult notion of dynamic participation is the subject matter of my second volume devoted to the study of Thomistic participation, Participation et causalité (Paris-Louvain, 1960; Italian edition, Turin, 1961), which contains the results of twenty years of research. The work includes the following parts: I. Formation of Thomistic esse; II. Causality of esse; III. Dialectic of causality.

[4] In his work, Die neuplatonische Seinsphilosophie und ihre Wirkung auf Thomas von Aquin (Leiden, 1966), the distinguished scholar K. Kremer attempts to reduce Thomism to Dionysian Neoplatonism along the lines of the School of Chartres, with a view to achieving a synthesis of Thomism and immanentism. In the author’s view, Christian Neoplatonism would maintain that God himself is the Esse of creatures according to the classic formula of Pseudo Dionysius: Autos esti to einai tois ousi (De divinis nominibus, c. V, par. 4; PG 3, 817 D). Kremer admits therefore that his interpretation must leave aside (!) the Thomistic distinction of essentia and esse. See our critique in “Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Thomism,” The New Scholasticism, XLIV, No. 1 (1970), pp. 69-100. The article appeared also in my volume, Tomismo e pensiero moderno (Rome, 1969), pp. 435-60.

[5] For the history and nature of these controversies see C. Fabro, “L’obscurcissement de l’esse dans l’école thomiste,” Revue Thomiste, LXIII, No. 3 (1958), pp. 443-72. See also Fabro, Participation et causalité, pp. 280ff.; It. ed., pp. 603ff.

[6] See P. O. Kristeller, Le Thomisme et la pensée italienne de la Renaissance (Montreal-Paris, 1967), pp. 24, 29. In n. 12 of p. 29, which lists the bibliography on Thomistic participation, the author characterizes the study of R. J. Henle, Saint Thomas and Platonism (The Hague, 1956), as “fort utile” but such that “se limite à une étude des textes de saint Thomas où il parle explicitement de Platon ou des platoniciens.” The author shows an even greater disappointment with Gilson’s position on this question: “Gilson traite de la participation chez saint Thomas seulement dans une petite note (Le Thomisme [Paris, 1948], p. 182, n. 3) et affirme ‘que participer, en langage thomiste, ne signifie pas être une chose, mais ne pas l’être’. Or, en langage platonicien, participer signifie et être une chose et ne pas l’être en même temps, et la ressemblance d’une copie à son archétype ne comporte pas une ressemblance réciproque.” It will be seen presently that “to participate,” in a Thomistic sense, is but a continuous growing of positivity on all levels of being and acting.

[7] P. O. Kristeller must again be congratulated for having thrown some light on this point. See Il pensiero filosofico di Marsilio Ficino (Florence, 1953), pp. 147, 159ff., 184, 192, 208 and passim. For a direct comparison between the doctrines and texts of Aquinas and M. Ficino see C. Fabro, “Influenze tomistiche nella filosofia del Ficino,” Studia Patavina, III (1959), pp. 396-413. Reprinted in Esegesi tomistica, pp. 313-28.

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