Explorations in Metaphysics
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Explorations in Metaphysics

Being-God-Person

W. Norris Clarke

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Explorations in Metaphysics

Being-God-Person

W. Norris Clarke

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This collection of essays is a compilation of the thought and work of W. Norris Clarke, S.J., a philosopher inspired by the Thomistic tradition, who in 45 years of teaching and writing has delved into many of the central problems of perennial philosophy and made a significant contribution to the ongoing history of American Thomism.

The essays presented here reflect an internal unity-each essay deliberately building on the positions put forth in the preceding ones-as they progress systematically through the themes of metaphysics and philosophy of God. Clarke begins with an overall survey of what in Aquinas's metaphysics is most relevant for today, and then suggests the most fruitful starting point for a contemporary presentation of such a metaphysics. The next five essays discuss key positions in metaphysics and are followed by two essays on the philosophy of God. The final essay illuminates key themes in Clarke's most recent work on the human person. Clarke's examination of topics in all these areas is especially concerned with the notions of action and participation in existence as being central to the metaphysical study of reality. This then leads to a close study of the often misunderstood Thomistic doctrine of analogy and how it functions in the construction of a viable philosophy of God.

The overall spirit that permeates the volume is Clarke's firm conviction that the philosophical thought of St. Thomas Aquinas is an inexhaustibly rich and profound resource, and his purpose is to share this conviction with contemporary philosophers. In so doing Clarke both reflects and triggers significant new directions in contemporary Thomistic thought.

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Année
1992
ISBN
9780268077327
1
What Is Most and Least Relevant in the Metaphysics of St. Thomas Today
My purpose in this paper, written for a symposium at Fordham University commemorating the 700th anniversary of the death of St. Thomas Aquinas (1274), is to attempt a critical sifting and reassessment of the rich metaphysical heritage handed down by St. Thomas in order to discern what is most relevant and fruitful in it for the philosophical thinking of our own day. Such an attempt also implies, inevitably, a negative discernment as to what is less relevant, less fruitful, less accessible for contemporary thought—if indeed still valid at all—in this heritage. Both facets of this enterprise are bound to be controversial, but more especially the second.
Yet I think the risk must be taken. The substantive content of St. Thomas’s metaphysical vision is extremely rich and profound, as I think those will agree who have been willing to take the time and effort to make themselves at home in it. But it also seems to me a fact, as a teacher, that there is a serious block to the accessibility of this content for the ordinary educated contemporary thinker, even Christian, who has not been exposed to long scholarly specialization in the texts of St. Thomas, the history of medieval philosophy, and the subsequent history of Thomism. Thus students ordinarily find St. Thomas one of the most difficult of Western philosophers to approach directly on their own in his own texts, without the help of very ample introduction and detailed commentary.
This arises from the fact that St. Thomas’s thought comes to us encased in a whole tightly knit technical framework of Aristotelian logic, terminology, methodology of scientific knowledge (in the Aristotelian meaning of science), and scientific worldview (philosophy of nature), which was once the common patrimony of the thinking West but is now so difficult of access without a long apprenticeship that few contemporary thinkers are willing to invest the time and effort required, especially since the limitations of the technical framework are now more evident. What is needed, therefore, if the substance of the thought of St. Thomas is to enter in any significant way into the bloodstream of contemporary philosophical reflection, is an operation of “detechnicalizing” this thought, i.e., of lifting it out of its forbidding technical armature to put it in simpler terms more directly accessible to the ordinary lived experience and language of reflective Western thinkers today. I am well aware that the profound rethinking and retranslating necessary to carry out this detechnicalizing successfully is itself quite a difficult and tricky business and one that might be rejected in principle by those who believe on philosophical grounds that content and a given technical methodology and language are in principle interdependent and inseparable. Still, I think the risk is worth taking and that something like it has been going on in fact with most of the great thinkers of the past whose thoughts have become part of our intellectual heritage, like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, etc. I do not mean by this, however, that the thought of St. Thomas can ever become easy to assimilate without a profound effort of rigorous and systematic thinking or that his general methodology of proceeding from observable experience to hidden explanatory principles and causes, guided by first principles, should be laid aside—this is in fact one of its greatest strengths. I mean rather that the technical apparatus required should be revised or built up anew in simpler and more streamlined terms, as arising more naturally out of our own contemporary experience and language. For all conceptual frameworks must be embedded in some concrete cultural form of life, and such forms of life are bound to change significantly over a period of centuries. The present essay is a modest attempt to assist along this difficult but, I think, highly fruitful enterprise, from the viewpoint of one who has meditated on both Thomistic and modern thought for some forty-five years.
The main themes I would like to single out as the most relevant and fruitful for nourishing our philosophical thought today are the following:
1) The intrinsic correlativity, or connaturality, that exists between the human spirit, in its two main facets of intellect and will, on the one hand, and the realm of being, on the other. This correlativity is summed up in the two first principles of the intelligibility of being and the goodness of being, and constitutes a basic matrix of harmony within which the destinies both of man and of the material universe take on their full meaning.
2) The existential meaning of being, focused on actual existence conceived as an inner act and the immanent source of all perfection in any being, an act diversified in different beings according to diverse modes of essence. Stemming from this is the close relation between being and action, where action is seen as flowing from real being as its natural self-manifestation and therefore becomes the criterion for distinguishing real from merely mental or merely possible being.
3) The explanation of the one and the many within being, which is solidary with the above conception of being, namely, the theory that all finite beings participate in the act of existence as central unifying perfection of the universe, through composition with diverse limiting modes of essence, all deriving from a single ultimate Source, which is pure unlimited plenitude of existence.
4) The notion of person as the highest mode of being, being become self-possessing through self-consciousness and self-determination (freedom).
5) The dynamic notion of substance as unifying center of attributes and operations and active principle of self-identity through change.
6) The notion of substantial potency as the condition of possibility of the intrinsic unity of complex wholes in nature.
7) The theory of efficient and final causality, which binds together the universe into a system of interacting, goal-oriented agents, giving to and receiving from each other by means of the central bond of all communication, which is action.
8) The relation to God, the ultimate Source and Goal of all being, the keystone which holds the whole universe together in a unity of being, intelligibility, and goodness.
In the brief time at my disposal I shall obviously not be able to develop all these themes in detail. I shall be content to call your attention to their centrality and point out some key implications.
I. THE NATURAL CORRELATIVITY OF SPIRIT AND BEING
At the root of the whole Thomistic vision of the universe and its systematic articulation are the dual principles of the intelligibility and the goodness of being. This means that spirit—all spirit, and therefore human spirit too in its modest analogous way—is intrinsically oriented by its very nature toward being, i.e., has a natural aptitude and drive to know all being (being as intelligible) and to be fulfilled by it (being as good). It means also that the reciprocal is true: being itself has a natural intrinsic aptitude to unveil itself to mind, to be brought into the light of consciousness, and to fulfill the drive of the spirit towards its self-actualization or self-perfection. This double correlative aptitude, this connaturality between spirit and being, is the fundamental matrix of harmony which makes possible the unfolding of the entire intellectual life in all its forms, including the whole enterprise of science, and the entire practical and moral life in the human search for happiness. “Being is intelligible” is the first dynamic principle of the intellectual life, and “The good is to be done and evil avoided” is the first principle of the moral life, presupposing of course as its implicit foundation that being itself is good. In what follows we shall focus on the first principle of the intellectual life, the intelligibility of being, as more immediately germane to our purposes of the construction of a metaphysics.
There is no doubt that St. Thomas holds this basic principle and that it is the secret dynamo energizing the whole movement of his thought to work out a systematic explanation of the world, as the transcendental Thomist movement has so convincingly shown. And in this he shows a profound kinship with St. Bonaventure and most, if not all, other medieval thinkers. But there are two main difficulties which modern thinkers run into in trying to get at and critically evaluate this doctrine when they approach him through his own texts. The first is that he rarely lays out the whole doctrine and its implications formally in a single synthetic presentation for its own sake. Rather he presupposes it as a common background already known and lived out of, constantly using it as a supporting principle, which he formulates often enough but usually piecemeal in the form of technical expressions such as “Being is the formal object of the intellect,” “Truth (i.e, ontological truth, or intrinsic intelligibility) is a transcendental property of all being,” etc., with an occasional synthetic sweep such as in the splendid article 1 of the De Veritate. What is needed for our day is to lay out this whole underlying doctrine clearly and as a unit, and in more general and easily accessible terms than the technical vocabulary of St. Thomas, which does not always allow the vast scope of the doctrine and its dynamic view of intelligence to shine through.
But once one attempts to do this from a strictly philosophical point of view a second difficulty arises. This is a methodological problem which St. Thomas himself, writing as a theologian using an already presupposed underlying metaphysics, did not have to face and in any case did not face explicitly, although he gives many indirect hints. How does one establish philosophically such a radical a priori as the correlative aptitude of mind for being and being for mind, which is the presupposed condition for the whole quest of philosophy itself and indeed for any meaningful use of intelligence, whether theoretical or practical? St. Thomas himself, writing as theologian able to draw upon all of philosophy as he wishes, grounds it in the doctrine of the creation of all things by God as Logos: all being is intelligible because the Source of all being is identically both the fullness of being and the fullness of intelligence, and all other beings proceed from God by an act of free creative intelligence and love. Thus there is nothing in their being which has not been first thought through and through by this divine intelligence, making them apt to be rethought, however imperfectly, by all finite intelligences. This doctrine is available to St. Thomas both from Christian Revelation and as the final conclusion of metaphysics. But neither source is available to philosophers to help them validate this principle as the a priori condition of all philosophy at the beginning of their quest. And formal proof is obviously out of the question, since all proof presupposes it.
The only way left is the way that St. Thomas himself seems at times to be practicing but never formally expounds, that is, the way of unveiling, uncovering, what is already present or accepted as existentially lived, as a “form of life,” the commitment to which is an indispensable condition for rational human living and the denial of which involves one in implicit or “lived” contradictions. This method was occasionally practiced by the ancients and medievals, in particular by Aristotle and St. Thomas in defending the principle of contradiction against would-be deniers. But the generalization of this method, especially the linking it up with the notion of a form of life, has come into clearer focus in our own day, through the work of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and other existential phenomenologists, and in particular by the school of Transcendental Thomism, initiated by Joseph MarĂ©chal in the 1930s and followed up by Rahner, Coreth, Lonergan, Donceel, etc. To sum up, the strength of St. Thomas’s thought here lies in the recognition and content of the principles of the intelligibility and goodness of being as the dynamic lived a priori of the human mind and will; its weakness lies in his own mode of presentation and justification.
II. THE EXISTENTIAL ANALYSIS OF BEING
Under this heading I would like to single out two main points that render St. Thomas’s conception of being distinctive in the history of metaphysics and also highly relevant today. The first is its uncompromisingly existential character, which has given rise to the term “existential Thomism,” coined in the 1940s when Gilson and others first brought into the open this long-neglected aspect.1 The second is the close link of action with being, so that action (in the widest sense) flows naturally from any actually existing being—and only from such—and hence serves as the necessary and sufficient criterion for distinguishing real from merely mental or possible being.
By the existential analysis of being I mean St. Thomas’s interpretation of the immanent constitutive structure of real being as a synthesis of essence as determining mode and the act of existence (esse, the “to-be” of a thing) as the central core of perfection in every being and the bond of similarity that links it in community with every other being in the universe. The stress on the act of existence as ultimate immanent or intrinsic principle of perfection in every being, including God, is what is distinctively new in the doctrine: “Ens dicitur ab actu essendi” (being receives its name and meaning from the act of existence).2
Other notions of being in the history of metaphysics have tended—and outside of the existentialists still tend—to analyze the positive perfection of being and its intelligibility almost exclusively in term of form and essence, the what-it-is of a being. The aspect of actual existence, or actual presence, of things, if given any explicit attention at all, is treated as a kind of indispensable but intellectually opaque fact impervious to any further intrinsic analysis. If any further analysis is offered, it usually proceeds from what I might call an extrinsic point of view, i.e., either (1) from the point of view of the relation of a being to a knower who affirms the fact of its existence as “outside” or independent of the knower’s own knowledge of it; or (2) from the point of view of the relation of a being to its cause: something is real if it exists as a fact “outside of its cause(s),” or, in the case of God, if it exists “of its own essence, as uncaused,” to cite traditional scholastic expressions. I might add that it is a source of endless wonder to me to observe how this apparently obvious dimension of actual presence has been either ignored, or acknowledged and then brushed under the rug without further development, or reduced to essence, intelligibility, or some other attribute, by most of the great metaphysicians in the history of thought. Even Aristotle, committed realist that he is, after clearly affirming that the prime analogate of being is singular, existing, active substance, proceeds to carry on his entire explicit analysis of being in terms of substance, form and matter, change, and efficient and final causes. Existence plays no further technical role in his metaphysics.
The two main advantages of St. Thomas’s existential interpretation of being which seem to me most significant for us today are the following: 1) In penetrating beyond the mere fact of existence of some being, affirmed by a knower distinct from it, to the inner act of existence within the being itself, which objectively grounds the true affirmation about it, he has provided a far more intrinsic analysis than hitherto available in more essence-oriented, essence-dominated, conceptions. For the first time the fact of actual existence as immanent act and perfection is formally and technically integrated into the metaphysical analysis of the constitutive structure of being, being thereby “unveiled” as constituting the very root of all the ontological perfection within a being, including its intelligibility. The latter now appears as the very light of existence itself shining through the manifold prism of essences recognized as diverse modes of active presence.
Such a conception of being is required, it seems to me, if we are to do justice to the legitimate insights and exigencies of the personalist and existentialist movements, which quite justly insist on the unique concrete individuality of every real thing—especially persons—as actually existing centers of action and irreducible to anything universal or abstract or merely intelligible. At the same time, since this conception of being includes form and essence as interior modes determining the act of existence, hence as also intrinsically constitutive of the real, it avoids the sharp dichotomy between essence as principle of intelligibility, on the one hand, and existence as irrational brute fact, on the other, which we find in so many forms of existentialism. In a word, what St. Thomas has succeeded in doing is to shift the center of gravity in the constitution of the real from form and essence to actual existence as inner act, without thereby letting go of the intelligibility of being; for existence itself, as the direct participation in God’s own essential perfection, has now become the root of intelligibility itself, mediated to our finite intelligences through the spectrum of finite forms.
2) In focusing on the supra-formal, supra-essential factor of the act of existence as the root of all perfection and the all-pervasive bond of unity in all beings, St. Thomas has also made it possible to include the entire range of reality—from the most evanescent subatomic particle, that burns out its being in a micro-second flash, to the infinite and eternal plenitude of God—under one completely positive viewpoint, yet without being forced to constrict the mystery of the divine Infinity into our own limited categorical concepts. For the notion of God as pure Subsistent Act of Existence, transcending all limited forms and essential modes, is by that very fact clearly understood as transcending all our limited categories which allow of direct conceptual representation, yet at the same time without breaking the bond of similarity between the divine Being as Source and all finite beings as diverse participations in the one all-pervasive perfection of existence.
In a word, this allows God to remain at once radical Mystery but yet not “W...

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