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

Chapter I. Essence.

THE reader may remember an observation made further back, that Being, like every other whole, may be considered either absolutely or relatively; that is, it may be regarded either as expressive of an abstract nature as it is in itself, or as expressive of a quasi logical universal, and connoting, therefore, a relation to the in ferior wholes which are included under it. Being, under this twofold aspect, will form the subject of the following Propositions.


The objective concept of Being is one, and therefore prescinds from all and any of the particular modes by which Being is determined.


It is perhaps hardly necessary to call attention to the fact, that Being is here understood in its nominative acceptation.


The particular modes alluded to, are such as determine Being, for instance, to Substance or Accident, to Necessary or Contingent Being, and so on.

At first sight the truth of this Proposition may seem to be all but self-evident; and yet, on closer inspection, it will appear to be beset with no ordinary difficulties. For, if the objective concept of Being be one; it follows that there is one form, common to all Beings, which constitutes the objective concept. Yet it is hard to understand, how Being in the Infinite and Being in the Finite can have any common form. The same may be said of Substance and Accident; for the latter is diminished and essentially habitudinal Being, and is, accordingly, described by the philosophers as Being of Being.

Then, again, Being must be contracted to its inferior determinations by itself; for, outside of itself, there is nothing. But how can Being contract itself to such opposite determinations as the Infinite and Finite, the Necessary and Contingent, Substance and Accident, Cause and Effect? Something must be added to establish the distinction; yet nothing can be added. Furthermore, how can Being be abstracted from the particular modes which determine it; seeing that those modes must be Being and, in consequence, are included in the objective concept of Being?

Lastly, if the objective concept of Being be one; that unity must be either univocal or analogous. But it is commonly acknowledged to be analogous; and if so, there is either a contradiction in terms or, at the least, no true and proper unity. For analogy includes either distinct and diverse forms which have only some similarity of proportion; or distinct and diverse habitudes of relation to one form. To affirm unity of objective concept to the former, i.e. to analogy of proportion, is a contradiction in terms; the unity of the latter, or analogy of attribution, is no true and proper unity.

Such are some of the difficulties which surround this perplexed question. In a matter so subtle and intricate, it will be well to imitate the method of treatment adopted by Suarez, and begin with that which is easier and more clear. Wherefore,

i. It is obvious that the formal concept of Being is one; and that, consequently, it prescinds from the particular modes by which Being is determined.

Personal experience will attest the truth of this enunciation. For it needs but a cursory examination of one's own ordinary course of thought to perceive, that there is an idea of Being which is one in itself, and perfectly distinct from all special contractions or determinations of the same. We think of God as a Being, of a man as a being, of an animal or a plant as a being. The idea conveyed by the word Thing is identical with the former; yet we conceive of virtue as a thing, of a yard as a thing, of an hour as a thing, of fatherhood as a thing. Now of these the first is a quality, the second a quantity, the third in the category of When, the fourth in the category of Relation, all of them accidents. Again, the preceding examples are all taken from entities, either actually existing or, at least, conceived as such. But we also conceive of a future eclipse as a thing; just as Antichrist is conceived as a being. Yet these are not actual, but merely possible. Furthermore, on reflection it will be seen that this concept, applied to Being Infinite as to Being finite, to Accident as well as Substance, to things possible as to things actual, prescinds from all the particular modes by which Being is determined; otherwise, it could not be equally conceived of all, but would be limited to that particular determination, or those particular determinations, by which its representation is contracted. This receives additional confirmation from the fact of which we are conscious that, in conceiving Being of these objects, we are conceiving some one Form common to them all, -- that our idea is throughout one and the same. It may be hard to express what we mean in words, because the idea is so luminously simple; but it never enters into our mind to doubt that, through all the multiform applications of the concept, we understand one and the same thing, -- something which is neither God, nor Substance, nor the actually Existent; though all three, as everything else that is real, are it. This argument is confirmed by the evidence of human speech, as representative of thought. For in all languages, ancient as well as modern, there will be found to exist some word which is equivalent to our English word Being or Thing. These two words correspond to the Latin Ens, Res; and, like them, are representative of the same object. Now, as words are mere conventional symbols of thoughts; it is plain that a word stands for a concept, which must have preceded the former, at least in priority of nature. It is true that some words are equivocal, that is, are expressions of more than one idea. But this arises from the poverty or imperfection of a particular language; and is strictly local. Equivocals are not Catholic; hence the impossibility of rendering puns into a foreign tongue. Anyhow, in the words now under consideration, there is no equivocation. If it be true, then, that a word is necessarily the symbol of an idea; is it conceivable that the human family should have retained in all languages some word which is equivalent to our Being, if there were no corresponding unity of concept or idea? Again; on a closer examination of the idea, it is seen to differ from from all other ideas by its extreme simplicity. In every process of continuous abstraction, the Ultimate, beyond which thought cannot traverse, is Being. All other ideas are finally resolved into it. Take the Porphyrian tree; if the mind essays to ascend higher than the highest Genus, which is Substance, it reaches Being. It is the same if the line of abstraction be pursued in any other Category. There, in like manner, beyond the highest Genus, outstretches the transcendental realm of Being. In all other ideas there is an evident contraction. Such or such a Being with such determining notes is represented. But in the idea of Being itself all modification, all determination of whatever kind, has disappeared. Such is the teaching of the Angelic Doctor. 'As in those matters,' he remarks, 'which are the subject of demonstration, there must be an ultimate reduction to certain self-evident first principles; so must it likewise be in any investigation touching the nature of any and every thing. If it were not so, in both cases there would be an infinite process; and in this manner all science and true knowledge of things would come to nought. But that which the intellect first of all conceives as best known -- that into which all its other concepts are finally resolved, -- is Being; as Avicenna says at the commencement of his Metaphysics. Hence all other conceptions of the intellect are necessarily formed from some addition made to Being.'{1}

Lastly; there can be no conceivable impediment on the part of the human intellect to the unity of this formal concept of Being. For, as it can by its innate power synthesize many distinct material objects into one universal; so has it the power of abstracting from one and the same material object many forms which are really distinct in themselves, though not distinct as they exist in the concrete and individual. But more of this somewhat later on.

It follows from the arguments already advanced, that the formal concept of Being is not only one in itself, but that it is distinct from all other formal concepts which represent certain determinations of Being; so that it does not admit of multiplication in its relation or referribility to more determined or contracted concepts. For in this its transcendental relation to inferiors, it retains that unity of idea which originated in a similarity common to all the objects included under it, -- a similarity in this, that each and all have an essence, namely, that by which they must be what they are or may be. Unless this were so, then, as soon as the idea of Being were referred to its determinations, its unity would be destroyed and it would be broken up into as many formal concepts as there were determinations into which it could be resolved. In other words, it would be impossible to think of Being in relation, say, to Substance or Animality, without the idea of Being melting down into the two formal concepts of Substance and Animality. But our own self-consciousncss gives the lie to such a hypothesis. For no one supposes that when he pronounces -- to take another example, Accident to be Being, he is guilty of an identical judgment. On the contrary, he is conscious that when he thinks Accident, he has one formal concept; and that when he thinks Being, he has another. It is, further, sufficiently plain that this formal concept of Being is not merely nominal, but real. For, however true it may be, that the majority of men now, as before, often form concepts by the aid of language; yet it is no less true, that the first formal concept must have existed prior to the first imposition of the word. It is impossible even to conceive of a word which was not originally adopted as the expression of some thought; consequently, the thought must have preceded the adoption of the word. Again, as all thought is the act of a faculty which is wholly determined by its object, the existence of a thought presupposes the objects which it represents; and a purely positive thought, a positive, objective reality.

ii. The objective concept of Being is one, so as not expressly to represent Substance or Accident, God or creatures, but all together under one common form; in so far forth as they resemble each other and agree in Being.

This conclusion follows, as a sort of Corollary, from the position just established. For if there be one formal concept, there must necessarily be one objective concept; since the two are correlative, and the former receives its determination entirely from the latter. All thought is purely representative; and a representation, qua representation, is defined by the thing represented. If, therefore, the representative thought be one, the object of the thought must be one also. Furthermore: it is evident that, as a fact, all real entities, however widely separate from each other by excellence of essence on the one hand and by imperfection of essence on the other, have a true likeness to one another and come together as it were, in that they are beings, or in other words, in that they are essences, quiddities, natures, somethings.

Yet again: since the formal concept of Being is one; the objective concept, or reality formally represented, must be one somehow. Now, that unity can only be either entitative, or collective, or formal. But it is evidently not entitative or numerical; because such unity is individual, whereas Being is common to every real entity. Neither is it collective; for how is it possible that the very simplest of all formal concepts should represent an aggregation of distinct forms or natures? It is simply inconceivable. Nothing, therefore, remains, but that it should be formal; i.e. that the form, represented and covered by the intellectual idea, should be one.

iii. The objective concept of Being prescinds from those real determinations of Being which are included under it, however primary and simple they may be. This conclusion follows as a necessary consequence from the preceding; yet, further discussion will not be out of place, as serving to throw additional light upon an abstract and difficult subject. Let it be once supposed that the objective concept of Being includes within itself any of its subject determinations or contractions, it will be necessary to determine how far this inclusion is to go. What rule or principle can be reasonably suggested, which shall justify the inclusion of one determination and the exclusion of another? But, if no such principle is forthcoming; at what point is the outstretching of this objective concept to stop? Let it be granted, for the sake of illustration, that Substance is explicitly included in the objective concept of Being, and Accident is admitted only as a sort of dependent upon the former. If Substance, why not animated Substance? if animated Substance, why not rational? Where is the line to be drawn? Yet, if no line can be drawn, it must follow from the hypothesis which is now under discussion, that the objective concept of Being is a simple agglomeration of every actual and possible reality in its distinct entirety, without the shadow of a reason for the agglomeration; than which nothing more irrational can well be conceived.

Nevertheless, there is a grave objection to the above positions, which must not be passed over in silence. For, on the one hand, it is maintained, that this objective concept of Being is real, i.e. that it is something in the object of thought; yet, on the other, it cannot but be admitted that, as it is in that object, it is really identical with ulterior determinations of Being. How, therefore, can the objective concept of Being avoid including those particular contractions with which it is objectively identified? If, on the other hand, this separation and quasi-purification should be assigned to an intellectual process; it seems to follow, as a consequence, that the objective concept of Being is logical, not real. In answer to this difficulty, it will be readily granted that the precision or abstraction of the form of Being is an act of the intellect; and that such a precision or abstraction exacts no previous distinction or real precision of forms in the objects themselves.

The mind of man, owing to the imperfection of its range and of its mode of operation, does not embrace the whole of its object in one complete and adequate intuition. On the contrary, it represents the object to itself, as it were, by parts, i.e., it represents the object now under one form, now under another. These forms are objective realities. Further, they are realities in the object conceived; but no one of them exhausts the total of reality comprehended in the object. Moreover, because they are represented by distinct ideas, they are conceptually distinguished from each other; whereas, in the material object, there need be no distinction between them. Now, these objective forms, with the exception of such as embrace purely individual notes, find their counterpart in other objects; i.e., there is a greater or less number of beings, or entities, that are like one another in this or that note or property; which gives occasion to the human mind of forming a universal concept representative of such note or property. This similarity may extend itself over a wider range in one case than in another; till it ends at last, as in the case of Being, by including all reality within the periphery of one form. It stands to reason that, as the similarity extends over wider ground, and the resultant concept rises higher in its universality, the number of distinctive forms or realities belonging to the object or objects must proportionally disappear from the intellectual representation, and the idea must become less and less comprehensive and distinct as it increases in extension. Nevertheless, that which is represented remains a reality; and a reality the more important and essential to be understood, because of its universality of range. To recur to an illustration of the same subject in the preceding Book: The man who was regarding a ship through his telescope, first of all perceived nothing but a dim shadow with an outline; then he saw it was a ship of some sort or other; then, that it was a brig. At last (as he gets the proper focus), sails, masts, rigging, colour appear, even to the name of the vessel and of the port to which it belongs. Now, who will be inclined to deny that the first shadowy outline was a reality, as far as it went? If it had not been a reality, it could not have been seen. Of course, no comparison is perfect on all sides; and this illustration squares more nearly with the direct, primitive, intuitions of the child, than with the reflex intuitions, or cognitions rather, of the, philosopher. Yet it sufficiently serves the purpose for which it has been introduced here, which was to show that, because an idea does not represent the whole reality of the object, it by no means follows that what it does represent, is not real. More than this, it serves to explain how the reality, so represented, may be considered by the human mind apart and distinct from other realities with which it is nevertheless objectively identified; just as the mere shadowy outline of the ship was first presented to the eye without the appearance of mast or sail or rope, though that outline was really identical with all of these in the object. As it is necessary to insist more particularly upon this latter point, in the investigation of the difficulty before us; let us analyze a process of ideas in the concrete. Suppose a mind that is stimulated to thought by the sensile presence of a fuchsia. By its faculty of abstraction it is enabled to consider this particular fuchsia as a thing, as a substance, as a bodily substance, as a living body, as a vegetable life, as a plant of such a definite order or species; lastly, as having such and such individual notes which distinguish it from other fuchsias. Now Being, Substance, Body, vegetable life, such a given specific nature, are in this fuchsia really all one and the same; yet who will deny tbat its Being is a reality, its substance a reality, its body a reality, its vegetable life a reality, and so on for the rest? Moreover, Being is distinct in itself from Substance, and Substance from Body; though they are all three identical in the fuchsia. It does not follow, therefore, because to various distinct concepts of one object there is no responding distinction in the material object conceived, that the objective concept, or the object as represented by the formal concept, has no distinct reality. On the contrary, it is plain that Substance, though identified with Body in the fuchsia, is in itself a reality distinct from Body in itself; otherwise there could be no substance other than corporeal, which only the extremest materialist would maintain. As a fact, unless this truth of Ideology be admitted, there is an end at once to the objective value of all universals, -- of all, even physical, classification. Both the one and the other would degenerate into mere logical figments; and science of whatsoever kind would become impossible.

The doctrine which has been here enforced is strikingly confirmed by the teaching of the Angelic Doctor. 'That which is common to many,' he says, 'is not anything over and above the many, save to the reason only; just as animal is not something distinct from Socrates and Plato and other animals, except to the intellect, which apprehends the form of animal, stripped of all its individualizing and specificating notes; for man is that which truly is animal. Otherwise it would follow that in Socrates and Plato there would be more animals than one, to wit, animal itself in common, and man in common, and Plato himself. Wherefore, much less is Being itself in general, anything other than the existing things themselves, save in the intellect alone.'{2} That is to say, the human intellect may represent Plato to itself either as Plato, or as a man, or as an animal; but between Plato and man and animal in Plato there is only a distinction of reason. For, in him, the animal is the same as the man, and both are the same as the individual Plato; though animal, considered in itself absolutely, is something really distinct from man, regarded in the same way. In like manner, Being, in a particular object, is really identical with the individual nature of that object, as, for instance, with its body, with its life, and so forth; though Being in itself is really not life, nor body, nor substance, but something distinct from and above all the three.

It follows, that the objective concept of Being is formally one and free from all the determinations or contractions which it virtually contains, not only in itself absolutely, but also in its relation or referribility to its inferior determinations. For, if its form or nature be one; it must preserve that same unity of form in all those more determinate forms of which it is predicable.


Of the three principal difficulties proposed at the outset of this Proposition, the second and third will find their discussion and solution in the Propositions immediately to follow.

IN THE FIRST DIFFICULTY it was argued, that a common form or Essence which shall include in one the Infinite and Finite is an impossibility, by reason of the absolute disproportion between the two. For Being, as it is in God, and Being, as it is in things contingent, are so opposed to each other, that there is hardly a single attribute predicable of the one, whose opposite must not be predicated of the other. Moreover, the Infinite in itself, and of itself, seems to exclude the possibility of its being associated with the Finite under a common denomination.

ANSWER. It has sometimes been said, by way of an answer to this difficulty, that there is indeed nothing in common between God and His creatures, if the Infinite Being be apprehended as He is in Himself; but that such intuitive cognition is not given to man in the actual order, or indeed as by any exigency of man's nature. God is only known to man in and by His works; and such imperfect apprehension of Him admits a certain community of form between the Infinite and the Finite as conceived by human thought. But this supposed answer, so stated, sins by defect alike and by excess. It sins by defect. For, though it is true that human concepts of God are primitively derived from His creatures, yet they do not rest there; otherwise, they could never reach His infinity. And, though the nature of that Infinity is incomprehensible, -- nay more, inapprehensible, -- by human thought; yet, by process of reason, human thought does climb to the FACT that God is infinite; and when it has reached so far, the difficulty of concluding the Infinite and Finite under one common form, confronts it. It sins likewise by excess; since it can never be admitted, that there is nothing whatsoever that is in any way common between the Creator and His creature. For, as universal efficient Cause, God must at least virtually precontain whatever there is of Being and Truth and Goodness in His works; so that there is at least a causal unity such as exists, -- to make use of a most unworthy illustration, -- between the spider and its web. Yet such an intimacy of relation, which is suggestive of a certain community by way of communication on the one hand and of acceptance on the other, is objectively true; and therefore, perfectly independent of the subjective imperfection of the concept. The only satisfactory answer to the objection is based upon this last observation. It may be safely said that God, in the act of creation, primarily in order of nature, produced outside Himself beings or essences which were partial, imperfect, graduated imitations of His own infinite Essence. These creatures are distinguished in their various orders, and, within one and the same order, are distinguished from one another by individual differences. Yet all agree in this, that they are essentially of such sort as they are, i.e. that they are essences or quiddities as opposed to nothings. In like manner God is Essence: therefore, there is a conceivable term of thought really and truly common to the Infinite and the Finite. Neither does it affect the legitimacy of such abstraction, that there is an infinite chasm between essence in the Creator and essence in the creature; because that chasm intervenes as the consequence of the determination of Being, and therefore cannot affect the antecedent abstraction, unless it should be that between the Essence of the Infinite and that of the finite there is no common note of similarity. But it is plain that, as a fact, there is; and, consequently, it is possible to abstract Being from the Infinite and Being from the finite in such wise as that both are Being. It is not strictly true, therefore, to say that there is no proportion of any kind between the Infinite and the finite; for there is a proportion due to the causal dependence of the latter on the Former. This conclusion is amply confirmed by the testimony of experience; for, while we attribute Being to God and Being to all finite entities severally as well as collectively, we are intimately conscious that, by Being, we understand a definite reality which is truly attributable to the Infinite and proportionally to the Finite, yet expressly exhibits neither. Of Being in this fulness of its universality no contradictory, or rather opposite, attributes can be affirmed, since it is equally indifferent to either extreme; and that opposite attributes are predicable of the primary determinations of Being, which are themselves necessarily opposites, is only the fulfilment of a natural anticipation.

The difficulty of finding a common term to include Substance and Accident, by reason of their disparate nature, is a much less serious one than that which has just been treated. For, though it is true that Accident is diminished Being, or, as it has been termed, Being of Being, because in its essential nature it exhibits a transcendental relation to Substance, and cannot naturally exist unless by inhesion in the latter; nevertheless, there can be no doubt that, over and above its relation to Substance, it has an essence or quiddity of its own, in which that relation, or referribility rather, is included. There is no one who would deny that colour, e.g. or a moral action, or a thought, is something; though neither of these is Substance, since it cannot possibly exist according to the natural order by itself, but postulates some subject of inhesion. And yet there have been some philosophers who, led captive by this difficulty, have not scrupled to maintain that Being immediately and expressly represents Substance, while including Accident by a sort of virtual concomitancy. But, surely, such a theory contradicts the witness of common experience; for, to many minds, more especially to such as have been exclusively engaged in the study of physical phenomena, it may still be questionable whether Quantity is a Substance or an Accident. They have been unable to determine the point for themselves; yet evidently they have not a moment's difficulty in deciding that Quantity is something. But what does this show, if not that both the formal and objective concepts of Being, or something, are distinct from, and independent of, the formal and objective concepts of Substance or Accident? Further: If Being immediately represents or exhibits Substance, while including Accident by virtual concomitancy; then, in whatever case Being is predicable, there, by reason of the supposed identity, Substance with its virtual inclusion of Accident will be predicable also. But everything is either Being (i.e. something) or nothing. What follows? God is Being; therefore He is Substance with its virtual inclusion of Accidents. Smoothness is something; therefore it is a Substance with its virtual inclusion of Accidents. The substantial union between soul and body is evidently something real, and really distinct from either soul or body, of which it is the union; therefore, this union in and by itself is Substance with its virtual inclusion of Accidents. But, plainly enough, these several propositions are simply absurd.

{1} De Veritate, Q. I, a. I, in 0.

{2} Gent. L. I, c. xxvi, 4.

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