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

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From the preceding discussion it becomes clear that in Thomistic speculation the notion of participation expresses the ultimate point of reference both from the static viewpoint of the creature’s structure and from the dynamic viewpoint of its dependence on God. This notion takes from Platonism the idea of exemplar relationship and absolute distinction between participating being and Esse subsistens, and from Aristotelianism the principle of real composition and real causality at every level of participated, finite being. To assert, as has been done (Geiger), that Thomas holds as distinct participation by similitude (secundum similitudinem) and participation by composition (secundum compositionem), is to break the Thomistic synthesis at its center, which is the assimilation and mutual subordination of the couplets of act-potency and participatumparticipans in the emergence of the new concept of esse.Such a view compromises at its root the meaning and function of radical Diremtion of the distinction between essentia and esse.[1] In the light of the new concept of esse the couplet ens per participationem and ens per essentiam takes on a more radical heuristic value with respect to the couplet of act and potency. But since the notion of esse as act of [469-470] all acts and of the forms themselves (“actusomnium actuum et ipsarum formarum) was not known to Aristotle and is of Parmenidean-Platonic derivation, the Thomistic notion of participation constitutes in a most intensive sense (Hegelian) the Aufhebung of the opposition between Plato and Aristotle. Thus the authentic notion of Thomistic participation calls for distinguishing esse as act not only from essence which is its potency, but also from existence which is the fact of being and hence a “result” rather than a metaphysical principle. This will explain the confusion of those Thomists who, following Kant’s apriori,[2] ground both experience and apprehension of being in the act of judgment (Maréchal, Lotz, Rahner, Metz), and of those, too, who speak in rather equivocal terms of a “Thomistic existentialism.”[3] We must therefore stay with the notion of participation and avoid all equivocations and confusions: “I believe that the participationist motifs unquestionably present in the thought of [470-471] Aquinas are a more likely source for the metaphysical theory of actus essendi than in the judgmental knowledge of existence emphasized by Gilson.”[4]

The first and most fundamental division of participation is into transcendental and predicamental. The former is concerned with esse, with the pure perfections that are directly grounded in it; the latter is concerned with univocal formalities, such as genera with respect to species and species with respect to individuals. The former does not seem to present any particular difficulty, since it expresses the proper and principal meaning of participation. But the latter, too, is absolutely clear and indispensable for Thomistic philosophy, if we keep in mind the following five observations: 1) As far as their ontological content is concerned, genera and species are present in their respective subjects and must therefore be predicated essentially (secundum [per] essentiam) and not by participation (per participationem). This is the element of the Aristotelian doctrine of immanence. 2) With regard to the mode of being (and therefore the mode of being actualized in concrete reality), a genus is differently actualized in the various species according to different degrees of perfection, so that “…among the species of one genus one is naturally prior to and more perfect than the other.”[5] 3) Thus participation involves no doubt a univocal nature or essence but [471-472] only insofar as this is raised to a metaphysical level and considered as a “whole,” that is, as a complex of virtual perfections that are being divided into or participated by the various species (for the genus) and the many individuals (for the species); otherwise the metaphysical foundation for real multiplication would be missing. 4) Thomas has always kept the two kinds of participation in close relationship: “To participate is like taking a part, and so when something receives a part of what belongs to another fully, it is said to participate in it. Thus man is said to participate in animality because he does not possess animality in its fullest sense. Similarly, Socrates participates in humanity, subject participates in accident and matter in form.”[6] In this text the examples refer primarily to predicamental participation. 5) Thomas explicitly admits univocal predicamental participation in the proper sense of the term: “Whatever is predicated univocally of many things through participation, belongs to each of the things of which it is predicated, for the species is said to participate in the genus and the individual in the species. But nothing is said of God by participation, for whatever is participated is determined by the mode of the participant, and is thus possessed in a partial way and not according to every mode of perfection.”[7] Without predicamental predication there would be no ultimate reason, properly speaking, for the multiplication of either the species within a genus or of the individuals within a species, inasmuch as multiplication in any order implies a difference and a differentiation, and hence a different kind of participation in a particular formality or act: “Just as this individual man participates in human nature, so every created being participates, if I may say so, in the nature of being (naturam essendi), for God alone is his own esse.”[8] Just as static or structural transcendental participation is the composition of act and potency in terms of esse, that is, the real distinction between essence and esse, so static predicamental participation is the composition of act and potency within the sphere of essence, that is, the real distinction between matter and form in the [472-473] material world and between substance and accidents in the order of finite being in general[9].

Parallel to the division of static participation in its structural framework and dependent on it, is the division of dynamic participation as causality, inasmuch as being by participation stems from the being that exists by its very nature (esse per essentiam). There is then, in the first place, causal participation, which is the production of the common esse of all creatures by creation. Aquinas has thus reversed the principle of emanationism, ab uno nisi unum, which, as he himself observes,[10] amounts to the theoretical justification of polytheism. It is beyond doubt that the transcendental aspect of creation affects the whole finite being in its actual reality, its essence as well as its esse: “By bestowing esse, God produces also that which receives the esse, and thus there is no need for him to operate out of something that was already in existence.”[11] However, from the viewpoint of its transcendental foundation, the position of essence is quite different from that of esse, even though both of them come from nothing through the same creative act of God: “From the very fact that esse is attributed to a quiddity, not only esse, but the quiddity itself is said to be created, for before having esse, [the quiddity] is nothing except perhaps in the mind of the creator, where it is not a creature but the creative essence.”[12] The metaphysical [473-474] status of essence is therefore subordinated to esse:

An essence is called good in the same way as it is called a being. Hence, just as it has esse by participation, so it is good by participation. Esse and good taken in general are simpler than essence because they are more general, since they are said not only of essence but also of what subsists by reason of the essence and even of accidents themselves.[13]

That this is the relationship between essence and esse in Thomistic philosophy seems to be beyond question: created essences stem from the divine essence through divine Ideas, and this derivation is formally by way of exemplarity. Furthermore every essence, although an act in the formal order, is created as potency to be actualized by the participated esse which it receives, so that its actuality is “mediated” through the esse. Esse is the act that constitutes the proper terminus of transcendent causality (creation, conservation) and it is by virtue of this direct causality of esse that God operates immediately in every agent.[14] Hence the derivation of participated esse from the esse per essentiam is direct, and along strict metaphysical lines, as grounded act from grounding Act. In fact, the participated actus essendi, precisely as participated, is intrinsically dependent on God. But once it has been created, and as long as it is not being annihilated, it remains an actuated act to the full extent of its metaphysical import. It belongs therefore to God to be the cause of esse by virtue of his very nature.

It should be clear at this point that causality as transcendental participation extends to both creation and conservation,[15] to form as well as to matter.[16] While Platonism thought of matter as non-ens, Thomas teaches that matter participates in form and hence also in ens.

Causality as predicamental participation, on the other hand, is concerned with fieri, which is the becoming or development of created reality within the order of genera and species. Here is where obtains the principle of Thomistic metaphysics “form bestows esse” (forma dat esse), which seems to invert the causal relationship existing in the transcendental order. Form, as is well known, is the proper act of [474-475] the essence of finite things by which they acquire their degree of reality and perfection and are thereby disposed to receive the actus essendi. This principle, which is obviously of Aristotelian origin, has therefore a twofold meaning. In the first place, form bestows formal or specific esse, inasmuch as it is the constitutive act of every real essence either by itself, as in simple substances, or in conjunction with matter, as in material bodies. This is true whether the form is understood as form of the part, e.g., the soul, or form of the whole, e.g., humanity. In this sense the principle obtains that form bestows formal esse or, stated otherwise, it is the form that constitutes predicamental being in its ontological order, that is, in its real order, since it is essence that confers reality, while form is the principle quo, determining the essence: “The form is indeed compared to esse itself as light is to the act of illuminating or whiteness to the actuality of being white” (comparatur enim forma ad ipsum esse sicut lux ad lucere, vel albedo ad album esse).

Taken in its second meaning, which is more proper and is closely connected with the first one, form is said to bestow esse, inasmuch as it is only the real essence, determined by form as by its formal act, that is the true subject of the actus essendi:

Further, ipsum esse is compared even to form itself as act. For in things composed of matter and form, form is said to be the principle of being in that it is the complement of the substance whose act is ipsum esse, just as transparency is in relation to air the principle of illumination in that it makes air the proper subject of light.[17]

Clearly, then, form is the true cause of esse but only within its order, inasmuch as it is the predicamental mediator between created finite being and the esse per essentiam, which is the First Cause.[18]

From this it is not difficult to make a step further and look into the crucial and so much debated problem of the “concurrence” of divine causality with human freedom. Created will, as secondary [475-476] cause, is truly the total principal cause of choice, but this presupposes the influence of the First Cause which is even more so the principal and total cause in its own order. This is the transcendental order that embraces, from its very foundation, the being of a creature and the operation that is grounded in it. The following statement is enlightening: “Since the form of a thing is within the thing, and all the more so as it is prior and more universal, and God himself is properly the cause of universal being which is innermost in all things, it follows that God operates intimately in all things.”[19] Properly speaking, the relation in question does not consist merely in the fact that God concurs with created freedom, but rather in the realization that just as he founds created freedom in its esse, so he founds it in its operations. He does so by embracing, as it were, man’s free will and the act proceeding from it in its totality, without thereby interfering with the action of the secondary cause which remains the total cause[20] in its own order.


[1] See Fabro, La nozione metafisica di partecipazione, pp. 12ff.; Participation et causalité, especially pp. 63ff.; It. ed., pp. 58ff.

[2] Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, A 599.

[3] See the substantial criticism of B. Lakebrink in his work, Klassische Metaphysik: Eine Auseinandersetzung mit existentialen Anthropozentrik (Freiburg i. Br., 1967), especially pp. 17, 28ff., 58ff., 127, 140, 262ff. The defenders of the transcendental interpretation of St. Thomas, who maintain that judgment is the first and only way of grasping the esse, rather than direct apprehension as grasping the fact itself of existing, can do so only by forcing the texts. “Saint Thomas never clearly says that the esse ‘comprehended’ by the act of judging is the unique, distinct, ontologically ultimate act of a thing rather than (or as well as) its facticity. He never affirms that our knowledge of the character of the metaphysical act of existing is grounded in our judgmental apprehension of it.” Cf. G. Lindbeck, “Participation and Existence in Interpretation of St. Thomas,” Franciscan Studies, XVII (1957), p. 22. In fact by deriving the actus essendi, understood in the nominalistic sense of existence, from the act of judgment, the neoscholasticism of Maréchal and his school (Lotz, Rahner, Marc Coreth, Brugger, Metz) has accepted the modern principle of immanence and attempts to introduce the “principle of the transcendental” into both dogmatic and moral theology. For Rahner’s peculiar interpretation of Thomistic texts and contexts see C. Fabro, Karl Rahner e l’ermeneutica tomistica (Piacenza, 1972—a new edition is in preparation). While Rahner takes his inspiration directly from the thematic of Heidegger’s existential Kantianism, B. Lonergan (cf. Insight, Verbum) accepts his “transcendental” directly from the Kritik der reinen Vernunft. See G. Sala, Das Apriori in der menschlichen Erkenntnis, “Studien über Kants Kritik der reinen Vernunft und Lonergan Insight” (Meisenheim am Glan, 1971), especially pp. 330ff. For the ambiguous nature of such a trend see James B. Reichmann, S.J., “The Transcendental Method and the Psychogenesis of Being,” The Thomist, XXXII (1968), pp. 449-508. See also the review of this study in Rassegna di letteratura tomistica (Naples, 1971), pp. 145f.

[4] See Lindbeck, art. cit., p. 102. The progress of Neothomism from the controversial gnoseological questions—especially promoted by the Louvain school (Mercier and Noël in the Thomistic sense; Maréchal and his followers in the Kantian sense)—to the foundation of Thomistic metaphysics on the notion of participation, is the object of a study by Hellen J. John. See her article, “The Emergence of the Act of Existing in Recent Thomism,” in International Philosophical Quarterly, II (1962), pp. 595-620. Referring to the thesis defended by Geiger (La participation dans la philosophie de S. Thomas [2d ed.; Paris, 1942]), the author observes that “his technical elaboration of the subject in terms of two distinct systems of participation, participation by composition and participation by similitude, gave less occasion for attention to the originality of St. Thomas’ conception of esse” (ibid., p. 611). The author’s observation bears particularly on the real distinction between essentia and esse, which expresses the most profound and characteristic aspect of Thomistic metaphysics and to which Geiger has given little consideration.

[5] Quodl. II, q. III, a. 6. This doctrine is of Aristotelian origin. See Metaph. X, 4, 1055 b 25; Phys. I, 4, 189 a 3. See its development in Fabro, La nozione metafisica di partecipazione, pp. 161ff.

[6] In Boeth. de Hebd., 1. 2, n. 24; ed. Taur., p. 396 b.

[7] C. Gent. I, 32 Amplius2.

[8] S. Th. I, q. 45, a. 5 ad 1. It is worth noting that predicamental participation is placed in the protasis, whereas transcendental predication is found in the apodosis.

[9] For a complete exposition of the two kinds of participation in the sense we have explained cf. Quodl. II, q. II, a. 3. See also De ente, c. 6; ed. Baur. p. 47, 1: “From this it follows that he [God] is not in a genus, for whatever is in a genus must have a quiddity other than its act of being (esse), since the quiddity or nature of a genus or species does not differ by reason of its nature in the beings of which it is the genus or species, whereas the act of being (esse) is different in different things.” For other texts cf. A. Pattin, De Verhouding tussen Zijn en Wezenheid en de transcendentale Relatie in de 2e Helft der XIIIe Eeuw (Brussels, 1955), pp. 25ff, pp. 27ff.

[10] See In l. De Causis, 1. 3; ed. Saffrey 18, 14ff.

[11] De pot., q. III, a. 1 ad 17. For an analogous situation of matter with respect to form see ibid., a. 5 ad 3: “This argument [Objection 3: “Every action terminates in an act…”] proves that prime matter is not created per se; but from this it does not follow that it is not created under a form, for it is thus that it has actual being.”

[12] De pot., q. III, a. 5 ad 2. A parallel text, but in an inverted order, is to be found in De Ver., q. XXI, a. 5 ad 5: “A creature is from God not only in its essence but also in its act of being (esse), which constitutes the chief characteristic of substantial goodness; and also in its additional perfections, which constitute its absolute goodness. These are not the essence of the thing.”

[13] De Ver., q. XXI, a. 5 ad 6.

[14] S. Th. I, q. 8, a. 1.

[15] Ibid., q. 104, a. 1.

[16] Ibid., q. 45, a. 4 ad 3.

[17] C. Gent. II, 54: tertio.

[18] See Fabro, Participation et causalité, pp. 344ff.; It. ed., pp. 330ff., 470ff. In a pertinent, although somewhat isolated and accidental, reference to St. Thomas, Heidegger reduces the “presence of God” in things to God’s causality (Nietzsche [Pfulligen, 1961], II, p. 415). Causality is indeed the foundation for our knowledge and affirmation of the presence of God, but it is through creation that God is present precisely per praesentian “inasmuch as all things are bare and open to his eyes” (S. Th. I, q. 8, a. 3). Heidegger does not mention this kind of presence.

[19] S. Th. I, q. 105, a. 5.

[20] “It is also apparent that the same effect is not attributed to a natural cause and to divine power in such a way that it is partly done by God, and partly by the natural agent; rather, it is wholly done by both, according to a different mode, just as the same effect is wholly attributed to the instrument and also wholly to the principal agent.” C. Gent. III, 70. See Fabro, Participation et causalité, pp. 488ff; It. ed., pp. 424ff.

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