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

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Cornelio Fabro


To the extent that participation allows one to conceive the created universe in the complexity of its natures as a reflection of divine ideas or exemplars, one may speak of participation by similitude (per similitudinem) in the transcendental order according to a relation of dependence of the finite on the Infinite. This has been expressed by Boethius in the following terms: “From these forms, which are beyond matter, stem the other forms that are in matter and make up the body. It is only improperly that we call forms those which exist in the bodies, since they are merely images. They are similar indeed to the forms that are not joined to matter.”[1] And Pseudo-Dionysius writes in this connection: “We call exemplars the substantial reasons of all things preexisting individually in the mind of God.”[2] [476-477]

In the predicamental order of finite beings there is also participation by similitude in virtue of their relations of perfection and causality, so that all beings in the universe seem to have some sort of universal affinity. This manifests itself in the form of an attraction or universal sympathy that they have for each other, inasmuch as inferior beings tend to approach superior ones as though they would aim to participate in their perfections. This ontological affinity, which orders the entire world into a cosmos, can be expressed as the principle of metaphysical continuity of beings, which Thomas has taken directly from Pseudo-Dionysius in the following formula: “Divine wisdom joins the highest of the lower to the lowest of the higher.”[3] In virtue of this principle, all created knowledge can be seen in terms of participation. Thus while the angel knows himself by his essence which becomes immediately intelligible to him, he knows the nature of other things only by means of infused species, i.e., by participation.[4] Likewise, while angelic knowledge, despite the limitations due to a creature, resembles to a certain degree the direct and intuitive knowledge of the divine intellect, man knows by participation to the second power, if we may so speak, both from the objective and subjective points of view. From the objective point of view, inasmuch as he knows through species abstracted from matter, and from the subjective point of view, because of his twofold intellect, i.e., active and passive or possible. Thus whereas the angel is essentially an intelligent nature, man properly speaking is a rational being. It is only imperfectly that man can be called intelligent, and that because of his participation in a superior form of knowing: “What is found most perfectly in superior substances, in man is found to exist only imperfectly and, as it were, by participation. Yet this little amount [or perfection] is greater than all other things that are in man.”[5] Evidence of the human mind’s participation in the angelic intellect is found in the understanding of “first principles,” which lies at the foundation of all knowledge, both speculative and practical. In the latter case, the understanding of the first principles is called synderesis.[6] [477-488]

First principles are like “seminal reasons” of all knowledge and virtue and their understanding is likened to a “divine seal” and a “spark of the soul.”

This virtue is fittingly called “spark,” for just as a spark is a small flying particle of fire, so this virtue is a small participation of intelligence with respect to the intelligence that exists in an angel. Hence also the superior part of reason is called “spark,” because it is the highest thing in a rational nature.[7]

The principles of synderesis constitute the natural law as a reflection of the eternal law of God in the human mind.

The light of natural reason by which we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.[8]

There is still another kind of participation that concerns man’s tendencies and is closely connected with the predicamental order. It consists in this, that the will, or man’s appetite in general, is morally justified in the attainment of its particular objects according to the degree of its participation in reason. “The appetite is naturally correct with respect to something, just as it is with respect to the ultimate end, inasmuch as everyone by nature wants to be happy; but with regard to other things, the correctness of the appetite is caused by reason, inasmuch as the appetite somehow participates in reason.”[9] From this it follows that moral virtue derives its character as virtue from participation in the intellectual virtue of prudence,[10] whereas vice participates in the vice of imprudence.[11] The will, once it is directed by the intellect, can direct the sensitive appetite, which is thus ultimately subject to and controlled by the directives of reason. This may explain why sensitive appetite is said to be rational by participation, and occasionally, when it follows the [478-479] lead of reason, is even called “will by participation.”[12] Even the senses, to the extent that they are rooted in the substance of the spiritual soul and contribute to the act of the intellect, manifest in their own way an imperfect participation of the intellect: “We see that sense is for the sake of the intellect, and not the other way around. Sense, moreover, is a certain imperfect participation of the intellect; hence, according to its natural origin, it proceeds from the intellect as the imperfect from the perfect.”[13] The highest among sense faculties is the cogitative power, which manifests an even greater participation of the intellect “because of a certain affinity and proximity to universal reason.”[14]

Thus from the principle of metaphysical continuity and affinity emerges a conception of the world as an orderly solidarity of all beings.

Natures which are ordained to one another are related to each other as contiguous bodies, the upper limit of the lower body being in contact with the lower limit of the higher one.[15]

This structure of the world according to the various degrees of participation proceeds in an ascending order. “Whereas bodies participate only in being, souls participate according to their nature in being and life, and intellect participates in being, life and intelligence.”[16] In this metaphysical extension of the notion of participation all the constitutive relations of being are actualized, both with regard to structure and causality, up to their highest degree. This consists in the attainment of their ultimate goal, which is imitation and similarity in being, and most of all in the joint action of an inferior substance or faculty and a superior principle. Here the Dionysian principle of metaphysical continuity is integrated with [479-480] the Aristotelian concept of participation in the object of thought (μετάληψις τοῦ νοητοῦ),[17] whose highest development is shown in the order of grace. Indeed, it is because of its participation in the dignity of the spirit that the intellectual nature “attains to unity, in which the species of its nature somehow consists.”[18] Thus, on the one hand, a spiritual essence can extend itself to all things and, on the other hand, it can ascend and reach out to the possession of God. “Only a rational creature is capable of God (est capax Dei), for it alone can know and love him explicitly,”[19] and consequently “only a rational creature is directly ordered to God.”[20] To be sure, the object of human happiness by virtue of the unlimited opening or potentiality of the spirit can be no other than goodness itself or the good by its very nature. “Man’s perfect happiness consists not in that which perfects the intellect by some participation, but in that which does so by its essence.”[21] Such is the ultimate goal that a created intellect attempts to achieve in a supreme effort.

The first step in man’s elevation to supernatural life is faith, which is but an initial, imperfect participation because of the lack of vision (carentia visionis) of its object, the divine essence. In faith, Thomas says, “that light [of vision] is not perfectly participated.”[22] Faith, informed by charity, is strengthened and elevated by the infused gifts of the Holy Spirit, and especially by the gift of understanding, “which helps in some way to see limpidly and clearly those things that belong to faith.”[23] But the highest participation and supreme achievement of human life is beatific vision. “The last and most complete participation of his [divine] goodness consists in the vision of his essence, by which we live together socially like friends (convivimus socialiter quasi amici), for it is in the sweetness [of that vision] that beatitude consists.”[24] The constitutive element of supernatural life is sanctifying grace (lumen gratiae), which, in St. Peter’s words,[25] is “the expression or participation of divine [480-481] goodness,”[26] “the participated similitude of divine nature.”[27] The constitutive participation of grace is extended to the supernatural virtues, especially the theological, and to the gifts of the Holy Spirit on account of which the soul is no more directed by reason but by another rule “which is divinity itself participated by man in his own way, so that he does not act any more according to human nature but as if he had been made God by participation.”[28] The highest form of participation created by God is the personal union of the Word with the human nature of Christ. This has become the primary source of all participation in grace by believers,[29] inasmuch as the human nature of Christ is the close instrument of the divinity.


[1] De Trinitate, c. 2; PL 64, 1250 D; ed. H. F. Stewart and E. K. Rand (Cambridge, Mass., 1943), pp. 12, 51-56.

[2] De div. nom., c. 5, par. 8; PG 3, 824 C.

[3] Ibid., c. 7, par. 3; PG 3, 872 B. See Proclus, Element. Theol., Prop. 147; ed. Dodds (Oxford, 1933), p. 128.

[4] S.Th., I, q. 65, a. 1; De subst. sep., c. 13.

[5] In X Ethic., l. II, n. 2110.

[6] De Ver., q. XIV, a. 2.

[7] In II Sent., d. 39, q. III, a. 1. See J. Mundhenk, “Die Begriffe der ‘Teilhabe’ und des ‘Lichts’,” in Psychologie und Erkenntnislehre des Thomas von Aquin (Würzburg, 1935), pp. 8ff.; H. Wilms, “De scintilla animae,” Angelicum, XIV (1937), pp. 194-211.

[8] S. Th., I-II, q. 91, a. 2. See M. Grabmann, Der göttliche Grund menschlicher Wahrheitserkenntnis nach Augustinus und Thomas von Aquin (Münster i. W., 1924), pp. 53ff.

[9] In III Sent., d. 35, q. I, a. 1, sol. IV.

[10] S.Th., II-II, q. 47, a. 5 ad 1.

[11] Ibid., q. 53, a. 2.

[12] Ibid., III, q. 18, arts. 3 and 4. See also De Malo, q. VII, a. 6 ad 1. The doctrine owes its inspiration to Aristotle: Eth. Nic. I, 13, 1102 b 13. See R. Eucken, Ueber die Methode und die Grundlagen der aristotelischen Ethik (Frankfurt a. M., 1870), p. 19.

[13] S.Th., I, q. 77, a. 7.

[14] Ibid., q. 78, a. 4 ad 5. See also In II De anima, I, 13, n. 397: “The sensitive power, at its highest, has some share in the intellectual power of man, in whom sensitivity is joined to intelligence.” For this doctrine, which has almost been forgotten by tradition, see C. Fabro, Percezione e pensiero (2d ed; Brescia, 1962), pp. 198ff., and especially pp. 222ff., 234ff., 238ff.

[15] De Ver., q. XVI, a. 1.

[16] In l. De Causis, l. 19; ed. Saffrey 106, 11-13.

[17] Metaph. XII, 7, 1072 b 20.

[18] In III Sent., d. 16, q. I, a. 1 ad 3.

[19] De Ver., q. XXII, a. 2 ad 5.

[20] S.Th., II-II, q. 2, a. 3.

[21] Ibid., I-II, q. 3, a. 7.

[22] De Ver., q. XIV, a. 1 ad 5.

[23] In Isaiam, c. II; ed. Parm., Vol. XIV, p. 475 b.

[24] In III Sent., d. 19, q. I, a. 5, sol. I.

[25] I Petr. 3, 5.

[26] S. Th., I-II, q. 110, a. 2 ad 2.

[27] Ibid., III, q. 62, a. 1.

[28] In III Sent., d. 34, q. I, a. 3.

[29] S. Th., III, q. 19, a. 1.

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