JMC : The Metaphysics of the School / by Thomas Harper, S.J.

Book II. Being.


THERE are objects of intuition, and those the noblest and most intelligible, which defy all definition and are often rendered obscure by efforts to describe them. They are to the intellectual, very much what light is to the physical, order. Light permeates everywhere, exercises an energy second to none in the vital mechanism (so to say) of nature, is the most necessary medium by which material things become present to sense, may be said to measure time for us, and to span space; yet, who can define it as it is in itself? What description of it is there, that does not cast a cloud over its simplicity?

Among these objects of purely intellectual intuition, Being occupies the foremost place. It cannot be defined; because definition supposes the intersection of two distinct and separate wholes, whereas Being includes all genera, differences, and species within its infinite extension. To whatever Category you may betake yourself, -- in whatever field of the knowable or intelligible you may will to work, -- if you should even venture upon the mysteries of a supernatural Revelation, Being confronts you everywhere and gathers all up into itself. It is the child's first thought; as it is the last unfinished, because unfinishable, thought of the philosopher. Yet it is in itself so utterly simple, so undifferential, that any description even of it is extremely difficult.

Nevertheless the effort must be made; and perhaps one of the easiest introductions to a subject which will occupy us throughout this second Book will be, to consider Being as it offers itself to the awakening intelligence of a child.

Let the child, then, teach us our first Metaphysical lesson. There is no word more habitually on its lips, in the first months of its attentive curiosity, than that of THING. 'What is this thing?' it asks at all hours and of all persons. It wants to know about every thing. A plant, an animal, a watch, -- each is to it a thing, till subsequent investigation begins to limit the sphere of extension by enlarging that of comprehension. It sets to work at differentiating; and thus resolves Thing by degrees into its Categories. It is true that this notion of the child is vague, confused, destitute of notes; but the object is one with that which Metaphysics claims as peculiarly its own. And thus the commonest experience teaches us, that the human intellect naturally intues the universal, not the singular; and that, though compelled by its substantial union with a body to perceive through the latter, its proper home is with the former. This Thing, then, is another name for Being.

It is likewise called QUIDDITY, because it is the answer to the question, What, or of what nature is this? (Quid sit hoc?)

Similarly, it is called ESSENCE, because it reveals the Being (esse) of a thing.

Again, it is called NATURE, by which, in the language of Metaphysics, is understood the principle of operation or of the tendency of each thing towards its constituted end.

Finally, in still more technical phrase it is sometimes called FORM, to signify the perfection and certitude of each thing.{1}

Now, most of these denominatives imply a resolution of this most simple idea into two elements, as it were, -- the informed, and the informing form. For, as in carpentering, the wood is the subject informed, and the proportions, parts, of a table are the form which gives to the thing its nature as a table; thus, Being is composed and decomposed by thought, so that it is considered as a thing, a reality and at the same time as that something by which it is a thing, or a reality (res); which in the School is expressed by the words Quod and Quo. Thing directly seems to represent the former, Quiddity, Essence, Nature, Form, the latter; yet with delicate shades of difference. For Quiddity and Essence are an absolute expression of determinate reality; while Nature and Form seem to denote more definitely a referribility to the subject or concrete thing, though in different ways. For Form exhibits the reality by which a thing is what it is in itself, Nature, the source of its essential energies; forasmuch as all things that are, have their own proper energy and operation.

It will be useful in this place to introduce the reader to a twofold signification of the word, Being, borrowed from the Philosopher and repeatedly referred to by the Angelic Doctor {2}; as it will serve to define the subject-matter of this science with greater precision. Being may be taken to mean anything about which an affirmative judgment can be pronounced; or it may mean that which is resolvable into the ten Categories. The former sense, which is sometimes called copulative Being, includes, as will easily be seen, mere creations of the reason (entia rationis). Thus for instance, the mind forms the judgment, that Blindness is a physical evil. Now it is plain that, in this judgment, blindness is treated as Being; for that which bears a sort of resemblance to real Being is attributed to it, and the whole proposition represents an undoubted objective truth. Yet blindness is not real Being, so neither is evil; for the one is equivalent to privation of sight, the other to privation of good. But privatives form a special class of negatives; and one can easily understand that a negation can have no objective reality. The latter of the two meanings indicated above has been already considered in the earlier part of this chapter. Real Being may be described, then, as a being which either exists or may exist outside of, or beyond, the objective concept of the intellect. It, and it alone, is the direct and formal object of Metaphysics.

Is it therefore to be understood that the Metaphysical Science altogether ignores those beings which are creations of the intellect, -- the entia rationis as they are called? By no means; such a conclusion is contradicted by experience. As a fact, it does investigate their nature too, but indirectly only and for its own purposes; first of all, because of a certain proportion which they bear to real Beings, and in order that a clearer conception may be formed of their logical formality, as distinguished from, and related to, their fundamental reality; secondly, that it may be the easier able to set forth the properties of real Being, which otherwise could with difficulty be explained; thirdly; that it may declare the nature of that reality which is the foundation of many of these logical Beings, and the intimate reason for the adaptation of the said reality to such a function. There remains yet another diversity of meaning in the use of the word Being, which is of the gravest importance. It has been reserved to the last, because it suggests the division of the subject-matter which will be adopted in the present Book:

Being may be understood either nominatively or participially. In the one case it is assumed as a noun; as for instance, when it is said that Being is either infinite or finite. In the other case it is assumed as a participle; as when we say, Being in London, he went to the Tower, or, There was not a single being at home. In this second example the word is grammatically nominative, but conceptually participial. Now, as a noun, it abstracts from all conditions of time and represents pure Quiddity or Essence, free and unconditioned; as a participle, it is the mood of a verb and, like all other moods, with the possibly partial exception of the Infinitive, connotes Time and is modified by its conditions. But Time is the measure of contingent existence which it presupposes. Consequently, Being in its participial use denotes, or at least connotes, contingent existence. Two realities are thus set before the mind, to wit, Essence and Existence. Not that these two are capable of real separation, independently of intellectual abstraction or precision; but, notwithstanding, there really is in each existing entity an Essence, Quiddity, or Nature, and there is in like manner Existence by which that being, whatever it may be, has a place in the actual order outside its causes. Though, therefore, you cannot physically divide the one from the other; yet, in the instance of contingent being, there is enough of Metaphysical distinction in the idea, to demand a parallel distinction in the objective concept. As a fact, the reality which is covered by the formal concept of Essence is, in and by itself, really distinct from that other reality which is covered by the formal concept of Existence. Hence, there is a sufficient foundation for conceiving these realities as distinct, even though in the concrete they are identical.

It is true that all real Being has a transcendental relation to existence; and, consequently, in every conceivable case real Being either exists or may exist, i.e. there is at least no repugnance in the idea of its existence. But it is by no means necessary that the concept of Being should include actual existence as its indispensable note. And here it would seem as though the illustrious Spanish philosopher, Balmez, has fallen into a serious exaggeration, if not fatal error; for he maintains that 'pure being, in all its abstractness, is inconceivable without actual being; it is existence itself'.{3} But, if this be true, if the most abstract idea of Being necessarily include actual existence and is identical with it; then, there is no room for the doctrine of possibility, and the Universe is God.{4}

To resume: two realities, really distinguished yet not two in the concrete but one, offer themselves to human thought: Essence, Existence. How are these two separable in idea? What is precisely the objective concept which is represented respectively in the two notions of Essence and Existence?

Being, in its nominal signification, represents the Essence, Quiddity. or Nature of a thing, without taking count of its existence actual or possible. It does not negative existence, be it well understood; it simply prescinds from the idea of existence. On the contrary, Being, in its participial signification, represents Essence, Quiddity or nature, as specifically determined to actual existence hic et nunc. It stands for a being that really exists, outside its proper causes. Now, unless Being essential and Being existent are synonyms, it is plain that there is a hiatus somewhere. For participial Being is a determination of nominative Being, and there must therefore be another determinating member, -- Being, that is, which is not actually existing outside its causes; otherwise, there is no determination at all. Yet it has been stated that all Essence has a transcendental relation to the being of existence; which seems to exclude the missing member. These seeming contradictions can easily be reconciled. For there is a determination opposed to existing Being; and that determination is, possible Being. But possible Being does not exclude, -- on the contrary, in its very essence it includes, -- possible existence, as will be more clearly seen later on. Merely possible Being, therefore, is a Nature or Essence, which does not actually exist outside its causes; although there is no intrinsic or extrinsic repugnance to its existing in the future. Accordingly, it is distinguished from nominative Being, in that the latter holds itself, so to say, in a state of indifference with regard to existence, while the former positively excludes actual existence. It is equally distinguished from participial Being, in that this latter formally includes, while the other as formally excludes, actual existence.

Thus, then, three transcendental concepts emerge from the foregoing analysis, mutually distinct, yet in close correlation. There is, first of all, nominative Being, widest in its periphery and complete in degree of abstraction; which is proximately determined to two distinct concepts included within it, actual or existing Being, that is to say, and possible Being. Whence it is clear that the two latter are what might be called divisions, (if such a word were strictly admissible), of the former. The three together, wil constitute the subject-matter of the present Book. There is on difficulty, however, that can be urged against such a method of treatment, which ought to be mentioned. It may be objected that possible Being is excluded from one member of the two primary determinations of nominal Being; for the Infinite positively excludes the idea of mere possibility, as contradictory to its essential perfection. This is most true; yet on the whole it has seemed more conducive to clearness of arrangement and more in harmony with the rational order of these concepts, to include the Metaphysical doctrine touching Existence and Possibility in this Book, and not to defer consideration, as is generally done, till the treatise on the Infinite and Finite has been given. One reason is, that, as existence under some form or another, either explicitly or implicitly, accompanies Being; in such sense it may be said to form an equation with it, at least in measure of extension. Another reason is, that negative possibility, -- by which is meant a possibility that does not exclude existence, -- is conceivable by abstraction, of all being, and therefore has a share of its own in the full extension of nominative Being. For even necessary and infinite Being, since it must necessarily be actual, may a fortiori be conceived as negatively possible, though not as merely possible. A third reason is, that a knowledge of the nature of possibles is a necessary preliminary to a right understanding of subsequent discussions touching contingent Being and the fundamental complex principles of Metaphysics.

In the present Book, therefore, the nature of nominative Being will form the first subject of investigation. After this will follow a discussion as to the nature, constitutives, and foundation of merely possible Being. The last subject of enquiry will be touching the nature of existence in itself, and in its relation to possible as well as actual Being.

{1} See St. Thomas, De ente et essentia, Opusculo XXX (aliter XXVI), c. I.

{2} For instance, in Opusculo supra citato, ibidem; iii, 4, ad 2; 2 Sentt. d. xxxiv, I, in c; c. Gent. L. i, c. 12, Nec hoc, &c. &c.

{3} Fundamental Philosophy, Bk. Y. ch. 4.

{4} See, in confirmation of these two distinct significations of Being, St. Thomas, Quodlibet, Q. 2, Art. 3.

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