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

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Cornelio Fabro 15

St. Augustine developed his philosophy outside the Proclian line of thought mentioned above. Not knowing the works of Aristotle, he could not attempt a dialectical synthesis of the two philosophers; instead he directly raised Plotinian Neoplatonism to the highest level of Christian thought. Thus his notion of participation aims to provide a basis for the “catharsis” of the soul in its [461-462] approach to the divine Ideas contained in the eternal Word “the vision of which [the ideas] makes the soul extremely happy.”[1] The Neoplatonic derivations of the Greek Fathers (Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa) seem to be more profound and complex, but they had little influence on Western thought, which came into contact with Proclus’ line of dialectical participation mainly through the complex of the Areopagitica and the opuscule De Causis. This latter, after St. Thomas’ analysis of it in his commentary, was identified as an Arabic compilation of Proclus’ Elementatio Theologica (Στοιχείωσις θεολογική). One can perhaps call the theory developed in the 12th century by the famous School of Chartres through the mediation of prominent men like Boethius and Chalcidius, a “closed notion of participation.” It is a form of Platonism with a cosmic-mystic background that is based mainly on the Timaeus.

Medieval Augustinianism had established, under the authority of the great Doctor, a synthesis of elements derived from very different sources but tenaciously connected by a jealous tradition that showed its preference for Plato over Aristotle. In metaphysics it admitted, first, some sort of actuality in primary matter; later, it identified potency or receptivity with matter itself, so that matter became part of the essence of every creature: corporeal matter in corporeal creatures, spiritual matter in spiritual creatures (universal hylemorphism). Furthermore, since genus as an indeterminate logical element corresponds to matter which is the indeterminate ontological element, medieval Augustinianism admitted in every substance as many kinds of matter and form as there are logical genera and specific differences in its notion. For example, in man it admitted different kinds of matter and form for each of the following: substance, body, living, animal, rational, the individual Peter; all together, six kinds of matter and an equal number of forms (multiplicity of substantial forms). The methodological principle of this exaggerated realism consists in admitting a direct correspondence between logical and ontological order. Thus the genus is the matter while the difference is the form, and the parts of the definition are also the parts of the things themselves. [462-463]

St. Thomas, on the contrary, grasped from the very beginning the theoretical significance of the opposition between Plato and Aristotle and the absolute need to overcome it by bringing their fundamental principles and conclusions into agreement. This he did by elaborating his own notion of participation. This notion, in contrast with the Neoplatonic concordism, presents an entirely new concept and principle: it is the concept of esse as actus essendi, not to be confused with the existentia of Augustinianism and of rationalism. It is from the concept of esse as ground-laying first act that Thomas develops his own notion of participation and his entire metaphysics.

The first aspect of the Thomistic notion of participation is the Aristotelian concept of act as perfection in se and per se, and hence as ontological affirmation and positivity. Thus by its very nature act is prior to potency,[2] whether it is understood as operating activity,[3] or as form which is the first act (ἐντελέχεια) from which operation derives and to which it returns. In this view, although the corporeal essences are composed of two principles, matter and form, as “parts” of the essence,[4] yet in its metaphysical aspect essence gravitates toward the form which is the act.[5] Aquinas accepted this “primacy of act” without reservation and held the Judeo-Arab philosopher Ibn-Gebirol (Avicebron) directly responsible for the opposite view, namely, that the reality of beings is “resolved” into potency rather than into act against, therefore, both Plato and Aristotle. On the strength of his concept of act as prior to potency, Aquinas can demolish the fundamental principle of exaggerated realism. Genus and difference are concepts unified in the definition of the species and as such they cannot indicate distinct realities; rather, as expressive concepts, they both indicate simple formalities. Considered as parts of the definition that should itself be a unity of genus and difference, they indicate the same specific nature but in different ways. While the genus indicates the indeterminate element and the difference the determining element, the species indicates the determined whole of the synthesis.[6] [463-464]

Thus the logical composition of genus and difference does not by itself imply materiality; this latter must be shown in some other way, that is, from the data of experience. And even in material substances genus and difference as elements of the definition can be said to correspond to the matter and form of the concrete substance only indirectly or proportionally.[7] Genus, which is the indeterminate element of the definition, corresponds to matter, the purely potential principle; difference, which is the specifying element, corresponds to form, the actual principle. Moreover, whenever it is known from some other source that there are in existence substances which are absolutely spiritual, the genus and difference of their definition do not indicate any more two opposite ontological principles but rather the same formal reality considered first in its indeterminateness and then in the distinctive character of the individual spirits. Thus the angels or intelligences can also be said to be composed of genus and difference without thereby implying any composition of matter. For subsistent spiritual forms are endowed with the “power of understanding”—which can receive the universal intelligible forms without limits—and they receive act in exactly the opposite way (per oppositam quamdam rationem) as does matter, since this latter receives only individual forms.[8] The angels (and the human soul) are therefore simple in the essential order, inasmuch as they are subsistent forms per se, but they are composed in the entitative order, that is, of substance and accidents, of essence and the act of being. In this way Thomas has introduced a new concept of both act and potency. Whereas act is conceived simply as perfection or affirmation of esse, potency is conceived as capacity to receive perfection or as negation or privation. Two important consequences follow from this for Thomas: 1) Potency is not so named in one way alone, that is, simply as primary matter, but in just as many ways as there are of being subject to act. For potency is whatever takes on or conditions the act. Indeed potency, in addition to being primary matter, is also the human body in all its complexity: “Being a subject is not peculiar to the matter that is part of substance, but is a universal property of all potentiality.”[9] 2) Primary matter, which is pure potentiality, is only [464-465] a subject and has no act whatsoever of its own. All actuality comes to it from form, so much so that not even God can produce matter without form.[10]

From this new concept of act and potency follows the second aspect of Thomistic metaphysics, which is also the thesis that drew the most severe attack during Thomas’ lifetime, namely, the doctrine of the unicity of substantial form in all bodies, including living beings and man himself with his spiritual soul. This amounts to saying that the spiritual soul is per se and immediately the only substantial form of the human composite. A plurality of “forms,” even if ordained or subordinate to the spiritual soul, even the admission of merely one intermediary form (forma corporeitatis), would destroy the essential unity of man. The spiritual soul, as ultimate form, would be no more than a perfective and therefore accidental form. As for the theological difficulty which was the main cause of the controversy, namely, that, if one followed the Aristotelian theory, Christ’s dead body when separated from the soul could no more be called the body of Christ except equivocally (aequivoce),[11] Thomas accepts the conclusion but sees no objection in it to Christian theology. For the dead body of Christ, although indeed separate from the soul, remained at all times hypostatically united to the divinity of the Word.[12] Thomas also believes that the same rational soul, as the one and only substantial form, confers upon man not only the characteristic of spirituality but also man’s lower ontological perfections: “Thus we say that in man there is no substantial form other than his rational soul, and that because of it he is not only man, but also animal, living, a body, a substance, and a being.”[13] Hence the intellective soul is virtually the lower forms, inasmuch as it contains within itself the sensitive and vegetative powers that operate by means of the body,[14] just as in Aristotle’s view a superior geometrical figure, e.g., the square, contains an inferior one, the triangle. Essences are in fact “like numbers,” which differ according to the addition or subtraction of unities.[15] [465-466]

This is the third aspect of the Thomistic metaphysics of act, where the personal individuality of the spiritual principle is defended against the principal thesis of Averroism. The refutation of this thesis involves, as it were, two distinct moments: 1) The phenomenological moment, which is self-consciousness understood as the individual awareness that everyone has of being himself, the individual John Doe, the one who understands, wills, loves, etc.: hic homo intelligit. The intellect (and the will) is an act, individual perfection, on which depend all other values of the individual as a man who is also a person. This self-consciousness is at the foundation of all human life, of the rights and duties of each one as an individual man. Hence the need of “founding” this fact on a metaphysical basis. 2) The metaphysical moment, inasmuch as the consciousness of understanding (second act)—which is an absolute “first” in the spiritual life—can be explained only by admitting that every single man is endowed with an individual spiritual soul (first act), which at one and the same time is the substantial form of the body and outranks the body by its spiritual activities. The second act, the act of understanding, can be attributed to the individual man inasmuch as the first act also belongs to him.[16] Evidently the spiritual soul is the substantial form of the body because it is the principle of the vegetative and sensitive functions and not because it is the principle of the intellective functions by which it rises above the body and is a per se subsistent form.[17] The positive immateriality of the act of understanding affords us proof of the absolute spirituality of the human soul. Being endowed with an operation of its own that transcends the body, the human soul is a self-subsistent form to which esse belongs directly, and not in conjunction with the composite as in the case of material forms, and the soul communicates this esse to the body. Thus the immortality of the soul is proved on strictly metaphysical grounds. If the human soul as spiritual form is immediately and per se the subject of the act of being, this act or esse belongs to it in a definitive and inseparable way: “Esse properly belongs to a form, which is act…. But it is impossible that a form be separated from itself; therefore it is impossible that a subsistent form cease to be.”[18] [466-467]

The fourth aspect of Thomistic metaphysics is the affirmation of real distinction in all creatures between essence and the act of being (esse), which is the end result of the new concept of act. Today this is considered to be the key to the entire Thomistic system. While in Thomas’ early works this teaching shows a direct dependence on Avicenna’s “extrinsic” metaphysics, in his more mature works the distinction is the result of a better understanding of the primacy of act through the notion of participation. This involves two distinct points: 1) Pure perfection (perfectio separata) can only be one, and esse is the first perfection and the act of all acts;[19] hence subsisting esse is only one and this is God, whose essence is to be. 2) All creatures are beings by participation, inasmuch as their essence participates in the esse which is the ultimate act of all reality; hence the essence of creatures is related to esse as potency is to act.[20]

It is with this notion of participation that Thomas can overcome Augustinianism. He shows in fact that the soul and created intelligences (angels), although simple as far as their essence is concerned, are composed as creatures in the order of being. Likewise, by using this same notion of participation and the consequent metaphysical composition, he can vindicate against Averroism the absolute dependence of the intelligences on God through creation and conservation.[21] [467-468]

Finally, the notion of participation provides the formula for the analogy between creatures and their Creator: “Creatures are said to resemble God, not by sharing a form of the same specific or generic type, but only analogically, inasmuch as God is being by his very essence, and other things [are only beings] by participation.”[22] In this latest conception of Aquinas esse is no longer the accidens of Avicenna, but rather the immanent act of the substance or esse substantiale, which is the proper effect of divine causality.[23]

A twofold consequence can be derived from the Thomistic metaphysics of act. First, the multiplication of the individuals within the same species (predicamental participation) can be explained through the principle of individuation, which is found in the potential part of the essence as determined by its “corporeity” (materia signata quantitate). Second, the doctrine of the principle of subsistence of beings by participation can be referred to esse as to the “actus substantiae”: “Properly speaking, esse… is only attributed to the substance that subsists by itself.”[24] The purely spiritual substances, i.e., the intelligences according to philosophers, the angels according to theology, are each one their entire species, for they lack the principle of individual multiplication which is matter.

In his later works Thomas fully adopted the thesis of Simplicius that there is a fundamental agreement between Plato and Aristotle.[25] This agreement is born out of the notion of participation, which provides the ultimate basis for the theory of act and potency and thus overcomes the obstacle of Greek dualism. The Thomistic synthesis is absolutely original: it accepts the metaphysical nucleus of Platonic transcendence (notion of creation, composition of esse and essence, doctrine of analogy) and welds it with the act of  Aris[468-469]totelian immanence (the unity of the substantial form, the intellective soul as substantial form of the body, the doctrine of abstraction).

The originality of the dialectic of esse was fully developed by Aquinas especially in his later works because of a more direct knowledge of some Neoplatonic writings, such as those of Proclus and Porphyry. In De substantiis separatis (1272-73) he solves the classic Neoplatonic problem of the accord between Plato and Aristotle through his “new” notion of participation. This he does in Chapter 3, De convenientia positionum Aristotelis et Platonis, where he shows the agreement of the two philosophers on such important doctrines as the real composition of essence and esse in creatures, the absolute immortality of spiritual substances, and the notion of divine Providence, while in Chapter 4, De differentia dictarum positionum Aristotelis et Platonis, he shows that their differences concern only very secondary points.


[1] St. Augustine, 83 Quaestiones, q. 46, “De Ideis,” PL 40, 29. See Hans Meyerhoff, “On the Platonism of St. Augustine’s ‘Quaestio de Ideis’,” The New Scholasticism, XVI (1942), pp. 16-45.

[2] Metaph. IX, 8, 1049 b 4ff.

[3] ἐνέργεια: loc. cit., 1050 a 21-23.

[4] Metaph. VII, 10, 1034 b 2ff.

[5] Metaph. VII, 11, 1036 b 12.

[6] See In VII Metaph., l. 9, n. 1463.

[7] De ente et essentia, c. 3; ed. Baur (Münster in W., 1926), p. 24, 6.

[8] De spir. creat., a. I ad 2 and ad 24; ed. Keeler, pp. 13 and 19.

[9] De subst. sep., c. 8; ed. Francis J. Lescoe (West Hartford, 1963), p. 76.

[10] Quodl. III, q. I, a. 1.

[11] See De An. II, 412 b 21.

[12] See Quodl. II, q. I, a. 1 and ad 1.

[13] De spir. creat., a. 3; ed. Keeler, p. 44, 1ff.

[14] See S.Th. I, q. 76, arts. 3-5.

[15] See De An. II, 3, 414 b 28; Metaph. VII, 6, 1043 b 34.

[16] It is the substantial principle of intellection. See De unit. intell. c. Averroistas, c. 3, 80; ed. Keeler, pp. 50ff.

[17] See ibid., c. 3, 60; ed. cit., p. 38.

[18] S.Th. I, q. 75, a. 6. See also ibid., q. 50, a. 5.

[19] De Ver., q. II, a. 3; S.Th. I, q. 4, a. 1 ad 3 and ad 2. The principle of perfectio pura is a dominant theme in Liber de Causis which was also known as Liber Aristotelis de expositione bonitatis purae. Cf. O. Bardenhewer, Die pseudo-aristotelische Schrift ‘Ueber das reine Gute’ bekannt unter dem Namen ‘Liber de Causis’ (Freiburg i. Br., 1882), p. 163. Thomas develops the dialectic of perfectio separata when dealing with the composition of essentia and esse. See for example C. Gent. II, 52; De spir. creat. 1, and especially his comment on proposition IV of Liber de Causis (Lectures 4 and 5).

[20] “It is indeed necessary that every simple, subsisting substance be either its own esse or participate in esse. But a simple substance that is subsisting esse itself cannot be but one, just as whiteness, if it were subsisting, could only be one. Therefore every substance that comes after the first simple substance participates in esse. But whatever participates [in another] is composed of that which participates and that which is participated in, and that which participates is in potency to that which is participated in. Hence every substance, no matter how simple it may be, if it comes after the first simple substance, is in potency to be (est potentia essendi).” In VIII Physic., l. 21; ed. Pirotta (Naples, 1953), No. 2491. This is a well-known text in the Averroistic school.

[21] S.Th. I, q. 44, a. 1 and ad 1; ibid., qq. 104 and 105.

[22] S.Th. I, q. 4, a. 3 ad 3. Fundamental analogy is therefore strictly metaphysical and expresses a constitutive and grounding relationship of entia to the Ipsum esse; it is the analogy of plurium ad unum. See Fabro, Participation et causalité, pp. 597ff, It. ed., pp. 496ff. For the foundation and division of analogy see pp. 607ff. In La doctrine de l’analogie de l’être d’après Saint Thomas d’Aquin (Louvain-Paris, 1963) B. Montagnes also emphasizes the theology of intrinsic attribution against the traditional interpretation of Cardinal Cajetan. See “Compte Rendu” by C. Fabro in Bulletin Thomiste, XI (1964), pp. 193-204.

[23] Quodl. XII, q. V, a. 5.

[24] Quodl. IX, q. II, a. 3 and ad 2: “Esse is that in which the unity of the supposit is grounded.”

[25] See De subt. sep., c. 3; ed. Lescoe, pp. 51ff. and 54ff.

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