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


Cornelio Fabro 37

To the Platonic doctrine of participation based on imitation and transcendence, Aristotle opposed the immanence of the form in sensible substances and the causality of the individual singular in the process of natural becoming. At this point Greek thought did not seem to offer any way out of the impasse in which it found itself. Indeed, if Aristotle was right in vindicating the reality of sensible substance, this latter could not be viewed by him as the perfect substance. As a matter of fact, he himself admitted above the material world the existence of spiritual substances, whether Intelligences or souls, as moving principles of the stars.[1] Nevertheless the radical opposition between Platonic participation and Aristotelian causality rendered impossible an adequate explanation of the foundation of the real. From a dialectical standpoint, a solution could be reached either by meeting the requirements of causality from within the doctrine of participation, or by clarifying participation by means of causality. This latter has been the course followed by pure Aristotelianism (e.g., Alexander of Aphrodisias), whereas the former has been the way followed by Neoplatonism and the one that has exerted a greater influence on the shaping of Western Christian thought. This derivation is expressly affirmed by Eusebius, who, despite his usual critical attitude toward Aristotle, dwells on the subject with a certain delight.[2]

The endeavor as well as the distinctive feature of Neoplatonism is to show the fundamental agreement or harmony between Plato and Aristotle and to explain Aristotle’s anti-Platonic polemics solely in terms of Plato’s inadequate mode of expression (through poetic metaphors, myths, and the like) rather than in terms of doctrinal differences in the solution of fundamental problems. In the struggle between Neoplatonism and the fast-growing Christianity, the attempt to establish major agreement between the two greatest Greek philosophers that would go beyond their verbal differences, amounted to no less than a defense of the Greek ideal of wisdom against a foreign religion based on purification from sin by means of Christ’s redemption. [457-458]

It can be said that Neoplatonism, while adhering to the fundamental principle of participation, transforms its structure by absorbing from within the Aristotelian criticism together with its underlying principles. The harmony between Plato and Aristotle is already asserted by Ammonius, Plotinus’ teacher, who, in a fragment of a dialogue on Providence written by Hierocles, is credited with the explicit use of the “intensive method.” This consists in a higher synthesis whereby the fundamental principles of two opposing doctrines are reconciled.[3] This new criterion is explicitly assumed in the Latin world by Boethius, who transmits it to the Christian Middle Ages both as a task and as a program. He writes:

I will translate into the Roman language all Aristotle’s works that will fall into my hands, as well as their commentaries…. I will also translate into Latin and comment upon all the dialogues of Plato. Once this is done, I will not disdain to bring the statements of Aristotle and Plato into some sort of a harmony, in an attempt to show that, far from disagreeing in everything, they agree in many things, and especially in their philosophical teaching.[4]

The theme of a doctrinal agreement in the teaching of Plato and Aristotle is handed down to Arabic Neoplatonism almost systematically and is extended to all sections of philosophy, to the point of reducing the difference between the two philosophers, as Alfarabi indicates, to one of method. Whereas Plato has chosen analysis, Aristotle has opted for synthesis. Thus Aristotle becomes “the follower and perfecter, the helper and counselor of Plato.”[5] In the Renaissance this conciliatory tradition is being constantly upheld (Gennadius or George Scholarios, Bessarion) and a campaign is waged against those who, following the lead of Alexander (Plethon), cling to the theory of opposition and assert the incompatibility of the teachings of the two philosophers.[6]

The endeavor to work out an agreement between Platonic transcendence and Aristotelian immanence has a decisive effect on the metaphysical notion of participation. It involves certain funda-[458-459]mental steps according to which the “convergences” between the two philosophers are brought out and set in relation to ever more comprehensive and unifying principles as transition is made from Greek Neoplatonism to rigid Islamic monotheism and ultimately to the creationist theory of Christianity. Such processes and attempts remain, however, at a purely experimental stage and assume the form of a more or less eclectic reconciliation until Aquinas introduces his original notion of esse as an intensive act which offers the ultimate ground for the doctrine of participation.

Indeed, by the celebrated doctrine of the three Hypostases of Intellect, Soul, and Life, (νοῦς, ψῦχέv, Zωή), an attempt is made by Plotinus and Neoplatonism in general to reduce to a minimum the distance between transcendence and immanence. Thus Aristotle’s νοῦς is made to coincide, as far as its contents is concerned, with Plato’s ὄντος ὄν, inasmuch as it itself is a multiplicity of ideas. Just as without the Ideas there is no true science or true reality, so without Intellect (Aristotle’s νοῦς) there can be neither science nor reality. Intellect is, in effect, the supreme principle of the world inasmuch as, by thinking itself, it thinks of a “multiplicity.” Without the multiple, thinking is indeed impossible. In turn, this multiplicity of “thoughts” cannot be derived by Intellect from the sensible world but solely from itself. The existence of Plato’s Ideas (the εἴδη νοητά) is thus justified through a process whereby Aristotle is transformed, or rather overturned, by means of an Aristotelian principle.

Once the obstacle of the “separation” (χωρισμός) of the Ideas from things is removed, Plotinus faces the difficulty offered by the lack of causality in the Ideas. He decides to resolve this through his doctrine of emanation (πρόοδος) and particularly through his doctrine of “World soul.” He teaches that the Ideas, which proceed from νοῦς, are given, as it were, to the matter of the soul, and that the soul, as a principle of movement, is also responsible for the origin and destruction of the things formed by the Ideas in matter. On the other hand, the Ideas themselves, according to Plotinus, are endowed with quality and quantity, motion and rest, so that sensible things depend on the Ideas, from which they derive their movements and changes of quality and quantity according to their nature.[7] [459-460]

Yet the syncretism of the Neoplatonic notion of participation has a more profound meaning than may at first appear. It aims to go beyond Plato and Aristotle and regain the fundamental truths of Presocratic philosophy represented by men such as Empedocles and Pythagoras, and especially by Parmenides, from whom the problematic of the notion of participation took its starting point. It is within this trend of thought that the “dialectical method” attains prominence and reaches its highest point in Proclus, whose triadic process starts from the One, goes on to multiplicity, and ends up in Being. The novelty of this dialectic, explicitly introduced into the notion of participation, consists in the importance given to “negativity” as a moment within the process and consequently as the foundation of the dialectic itself.[8] The negations (ἀποφάσεις) are in effect not to be taken merely as “privations” but rather as productions that determine their contraries, in accord with the principles laid down in Plato’s Parmenides. Proclus affirms indeed that “the method of negations (τρόπος τῶν ἀποφάσεων) is excellent; it conforms to the dignity of the One; its function is primary; it far transcends all things in the unknowable and ineffable excellence of simplicity.”[9] Proclus’ work represents the greatest attempt at a solution of the speculative antithesis between Plato and Aristotle and replaces the negative alternative proposed by Alexander.[10]

In general it can be said that Arabic Neoplatonism develops the notion of participation mainly through the ascending (toward the One) intuitive method that stems from Plotinus and Porphyry and is handed down through Augustine to the medieval schools directly inspired by him. The Thomistic notion of participation, on the other hand, takes its direct inspiration from the more rigorous descending dialectical method of Jamblichus and Proclus through the intermediation of the speculation of Pseudo-Dionysius and the Arabic opuscule De Causis.

In their attempt to harmonize the contrasting viewpoints, the Neoplatonists had been preceded by the Stoic Poseidonius, who, [460-461] especially in his commentary on the Timaeus, had already endeavored to achieve a synthesis between theology and mathematics.[11] The speculative innovation of the new approach to the notion of participation worked out by Neoplatonism in its two main directions has had a more or less noticeable influence on modern thought, as will be seen in the course of this paper. Moreover, the originality of, as well as need for, such an innovation is far from having been exhausted. It consists, first, in the fact that it does away with the fracture between Being and the One, and secondly, in the realization that knowledge has been raised to the level of being by developing its own unlimited power (vis) within the plenitude of being and life. Thus Neoplatonism has succeeded in bringing about a theoretical development, completed in its own way, of the Parmenidean principle of the relation between being and thought. It is worth noting in this connection that through the new notion of participation brought about by Neoplatonism, the mediation of the contrast between Plato and Aristotle is effected in its crucial point (the doctrine of νοῦς) by direct recourse to Aristotle himself. That is why more recent historiography, especially under the influence (positive and negative) of W. Jaeger, accepts the theory of continuous development from Plato to Aristotle and Neoplatonism, in such a way that Aristotelian metaphysics itself appears to be profoundly indebted to Platonism. “What has for centuries been interpreted as general metaphysics (‘doctrine of being-as-such’) originated in Aristotle as another presentation of this [Platonic] excessively realistic Ableitungssystem.”[12]


[1] See De caelo, III, 2, 285 a 27ff.

[2] Praep. Ev. XV, 7; CB 43, 2, Mras II, 365, 5ff.

[3] See Photius, Bibl., French trans. by M. N. Bouillet, Les Ennéades de Plotin (Paris, 1857), I, pp. xcivf.

[4] Boeth., In 1. Arist. De interpretatione, l.II, prol.; PL 64, 433.

[5] F. Dieterici, Alfarabi’s philosophische Abhandlungen (Leiden, 1892), pp. 3, 17ff.

[6] See B. Tatakis, La Philosophie byzantine (Paris, 1949), pp. 281ff. The study of P. O. Kristeller, “Byzantine and Western Platonism in the Fifteenth Century,” in Renaissance Concepts of Man (New York, 1972), pp. 86-109, is more precise and better documented.

[7] See A. Covotti, Da Aristotele ai Bizantini (Naples, 1935), pp. 226ff.

[8] See Hegel, Geschichte der Philosophie, ed. Michelet (Berlin, 1844), II, p. 66.

[9] Theol. Plat., 1.II, c. 10; ed. Portus (Hamburg, 1618), fol. 109.

[10] See the explicit statement of Simplicius, In de caelo, III, 7, 306 a 1; ed. J. J. Heiberg, 640, 20ff. The text is reported in full in my volume, La nozione metafisica di partecipazione, p. 60, n. 1.

[11] See K. Reinhardt, Kosmos und Sympathie (Munich, 1926), especially pp. 61ff.; M. Pohlenz, Die Stoa (Göttingen, 1948), I, especially pp. 208ff.

[12] Ph. Merlan, From Platonism to Neoplatonism (The Hague, 1953), p. 169. In his conclusion the author writes: “It is perfectly legitimate to speak of an Aristoteles Neoplatonicus.” Ibid., p. 195.

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