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


Cornelio Fabro 11

Whereas Platonic vertical participation is actualized merely as imitation of the Idea and hence as a fall, as it were, into non-being and the phenomenon, the Aristotelian horizontal causality is like an endless repetition of universal essence in the singulars. The result is that both theories tend to emphasize formal univocity. In contrast, the Thomistic notion of participation, founded in esse as supreme intensive act, makes it possible to pass from finite to Infinite Being through analogical discourse, which has in participation its beginning, middle, and conclusion.

There is in the first place the analogy of proportionality, which considers beings, such as creature and creator, accidents and substance, from a static viewpoint, that is, from the viewpoint of the contents of reality which they actually possess (in facto esse). This is a purely logico-formal way of considering beings. It comes at the end of the speculative synthesis and, in the Thomistic conception of reality, is undoubtedly valid. The proper structure of a creature is that of a being by participation, whereas it belongs to God to be esse by nature or subsistent esse. A creature is a being by participation on a twofold level: in the transcendental order, inasmuch as it is a composite of essence and esse, and of nature and subsistence; in the predicamental order, because of its composition of substance and [481-482] accidents, and, in the case of corporeal substances, of matter and form. To the extent that a created substance is composed of essence and esse, it is as far removed from God, the esse subsistens, as it can possibly be, and in this respect the terms “creature” and “God” admit of no measure or comparison. But since the essence of a creature has also its own participated act of being (actus essendi), its actualization is not merely a relation of extrinsic dependence; rather, it is based on the act of esse in which it participates and which it preserves within itself and is the proper terminus of divine causality. We have here two proportional similarities which correspond to one another. Just as to Being per essentiam corresponds, as act, Esse per essentiam, so to being by participation corresponds, as act, participated esse. Similarly, while the principal mode of being, i.e., subsistence, belongs to substance, so the secondary mode of being, i.e., inherence rather than a proper esse or actus essendi, belongs to accidents. It is this static analogy of proportionality that is expressed in the tension of similarity-dissimilarity according to the Platonic view of the vertical “fall” of being, which at the same time is a multiform extension of the inexhaustible fullness of God. Furthermore, it is precisely through this static analogy of proportionality that beings obtain, within their order, the proper consistency of esse, since each being has its own essence which is actuated by its proper act of participated esse. This view is in sharp contrast with the metaphysical theories of Dionysian-Avicennian inspiration according to which God himself is the esse of all existing beings. For Aquinas, not otherwise than for Heidegger, the difference between Being and essents is founded on the esse, as intensive emergent act, that is diversely participated in by each being.[1] [482-483]

In contrast to static analogy of proportionality, there is the dynamic analogy of intrinsic attribution. While the former expresses in its own way a relation of similarity, the latter expresses mainly a relation of foundation and dependence of beings on esse. The analogy of proportionality emphasizes, as it were, the Aristotelian aspect of the immanence of esse in beings; the analogy of attribution, on the other hand, stresses the Platonic aspect of radical dependence of participant beings on the pure perfection that is separate from them. Obviously the analogy of attribution, in the sense that has just been explained, is ground-laying with respect to the analogy of proportionality, for it seizes and expresses the esse of being in its emergence as participated act with regard to the unparticipated Act. In this sense it can be said that analogy of proportionality presupposes, and is based upon, analogy of attribution. This amounts to saying: 1) that esse does not belong to creature (ens per participationem) otherwise than by participation in the Creator (Esse per essentiam); 2) that esse does not belong to accident (ens secundum quid) otherwise than by participation in substance (ens simpliciter).

The intrinsic relation of the two kinds of analogy can perhaps be expressed in the following terms: “Everything is therefore called good from the divine goodness, as from the first exemplary, efficient, and final principle of all goodness. Nevertheless, everything is called good by reason of the likeness of the divine goodness belonging to it, which is formally its own goodness, whereby it is denominated good.”[2] Thus analogy of attribution accomplishes the ultimate [483-484] “resolution” of metaphysical discourse by relating the many to the One, the diverse to the Identical, and the composed to the Simple. It is at the same time the answer to the problem of the Parmenidean One within the creationist theory. Through his notion of intensive esse and the consequent distinction between esse and essence in creatures, Thomas not only duly emphasizes the difference between esse and being, but he also succeeds in making God’s presence in creatures more active and meaningful than in the panentheistic theories of Dionysius, Avicenna, Eckhart, Cusanus, Spinoza, and Hegel. Whereas in these latter theories God as Being is the Act as Essence of essences, in Thomas’ view God as Esse per essentiam is the principle and actuating cause of esse per participationem, which is the proper, actuating act of every real essence. Accordingly, the metaphysical background of this kind of analogy includes two distinct aspects. The first and more evident is the causal derivation of participated being from the Esse per essentiam in which it is grounded, or the relation of dependence of the former on the latter; the second and more profound aspect is the presence of the Esse per essentiam in participated being in virtue of his total causality and his “coming down to” and “getting into,” as it were, created being itself. The Thomistic formula, per essentiam, per potentiam, per praesentiam,[3] expresses most effectively, along with the presence of the Absolute in created beings, the highest degree of dependence of the finite on the Infinite.

With regard to analogy, it is not possible to distinguish, as has been done for static and dynamic participation, between predicamental and transcendental analogy except in a limited sense. This consists in limiting, if one wishes to do so, predicamental analogy to the relation between substance and accidents and reserving transcendental analogy for the relation of creatures to their creator. This becomes even clearer if we note that the phrase “predicamental analogy” seems to involve contradiction, since it is precisely the predicamental order that seems to constitute the sphere of formal univocity. Predicamental participation is therefore, strictly speaking, confined to univocity. The genus is actualized in the species by [484-485] means of the specific difference. The individuals of the same species possess the same specific constitutive characteristics, and what distinguishes them is their individual notes. Here is where the principle of predicamental participation obtains: “Whatever is predicated univocally of many things through participation, belongs to each of the things of which it is predicated, for the species is said to participate in the genus and the individual in the species.”[4] And from the formal point of view it must be said that here the ratio applies in equal fashion, for here there is “division of a genus into its species which equally share in the generic nature.” This is in contrast with the analogous ratio, which is predicated of one primarily and of others in a secondary way (secundum prius et posterius).[5]

Yet, regardless of what has been said, this predicamental participation would not be true participation, which it really is, if it were not somehow founded upon, or related to, analogy of being. This obtains when the species, and especially the individuals, are considered no longer on a purely logical level but rather as modes of being in concrete reality. Thus, when seen from this metaphysical aspect of reality, Peter and Paul participate unequally in human nature, that is, each one shares humanity in his own way, inasmuch as each one, as previously seen, has a different esse.

The reason for this is that, since two things must be considered in a being, namely, its nature or quiddity and its esse, there must be in all univocal things a community of nature but not of esse, for any one esse is only in one thing. Hence human nature is not in two men according to the same esse. Hence also whenever a form signified by name is esse itself, there can be no question of univocity, for even being is not predicated univocally.[6]

For this reason we have defended the analogy of being with respect to individual singulars as within its normal scope since being as such cannot be but individual and singular. Thus predicamental partici-[485-486]pation functions as an intermediary and a notional bond between formal univocity and real analogy. However one point must be made clear. The transition from the predicamental to the transcendental order is made solely through the intensive emergent esse, which is the only transcendental medium.

There are therefore three moments in the grounding of the truth of being upon the notion of participation, and they are all linked together: composition, causality, predication. All three are founded upon and related to esse, which binds them together as universal act.

The metaphysical determination of esse as actus essendi in the sense of act of all acts, is proper to Aquinas and constitutes the transcendental foundation of the metaphysics of participation. This has been discovered by the strictly metaphysical method of resolution or reduction (per resolutionem or per reductionem),[7] as Aquinas often calls it, of accidental predicamental acts to substantial form and of both accidental and substantial acts to the more profound substantial act which is esse. It has also been discovered by the method of the absolute reduction of the act of being by participation to the esse per essentiam.[8] This is a kind of transition, as well as upward movement, from the given to act and from the finite to the Infinite. The latter is no longer considered here as a given or as contained but rather as a giver and container, the act present in every act, the perfection of all perfections, and consequently as an invitation for man to direct his thought and aspirations toward the Absolute.

The principle of act, as Heidegger has rightly observed, is crucial in the development of Western thought. The answer to Heidegger’s problem is found in Thomas, provided this is sought within his view of the ultimate metaphysical determination. For it must be admitted that the Thomistic notion of act, which culminates in esse as the actus essendi, is the synthesis of the Platonic ijdea and of the Aristotelian ἐντελέχεια ἐνέργεια with which it shares the characteristic [486-487] of immanence. A creature has therefore its own participated actus essendi which enters into real composition with essence as its transcendental potency. God, on the other hand, is the esse per essentiam or separated esse which is both transcendent and grounding. The Platonic principle of the idea or separated perfection[9] holds true only with regard to the esse as the act of all acts and of all forms, which was unknown to Plato as well as to Aristotle. This principle of separated perfection is eminently of Platonic origin and must be integrated with the Aristotelian principle of the emergence of act. Both principles are indeed founded on the synthetic Thomistic principle of participation. But despite his general acceptance of the Platonic principle of separated perfection, Thomas follows Aristotle in rejecting its application to the forms as such and, going beyond Aristotle who does not know esse as act, applies it exclusively to esse. Thus Esse ipsum or Esse subsistens is God himself who is the first, immovable, and separated Principle situated, as it were, at the summit of eternity (in arce aeternitatis). Hence God, as pure esse, is the grounding Act that is ever present in all acts, the present that actuates every presence. Likewise, God is the first and total cause, and he is at once both transcendent and immanent. He is transcendent but in a way quite different from a Platonic idea; similarly he is immanent but in a manner different from that of the Aristotelian act. He is immanent in the sense that he is the actuating, grounding principle of being, and not merely something accidentally contained in it. He is transcendent as the emerging incomparable act that is beyond all space, time, and measurement, for he is all in himself and [487-488] all things are in him, from him and for him. In other words, he is the being whom all men have called God.[10]

Very appropriately then Scheler, as he reflects on the metaphysical grandeur of man in the writings of his maturity, refers to Aquinas, along with some other great geniuses like Plato, Dante, Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, and Goethe, as representative of the idea that man concentrates in himself the whole of creation. Quoting Thomas, he writes: “The essences of all things are interwoven in man, in whom they find their solidarity. Homo est quodammodo omnia, as we read in St. Thomas.” This is the ideal Renaissance man as microcosm. “To aspire to culture,” continues Scheler, “means therefore to search with loving concern for an ontic participation and a communion with all that is essentially cosmic in nature and in history, and not merely to search for an accidental existence and a particular kind of being (Sosein). It means, as for Goethe’s Faust, to want to be a ‘microcosm’.” Explaining further the meaning of this kind of participation, he writes:

We say: to know is to establish a relation of being and, more specifically, a relation of being that presupposes the forms of being of the whole and of its parts. It is a relation of “participation” of an essent in the reality of another essent…. The mens or spirit (Geist) means for us the x or the plexus of the acts of the knowing subject by means of which such participation is possible.

And he adds immediately:

The root of this x, the determining moment of the movement toward the completion of the acts that lead to a certain form of this participation, can only be the parti-cipation that transcends itself and its own being. This is what we call “love” (Liebe) in its most formal sense. Without a tendency in the essent to proceed by itself and enter into participation in another essent, there can, generally speaking, be no knowledge whatever. And I do not find any other name to express this tendency except “love” or dedication―the breaking of the limitations of one’s own being and essence through love.[11]

This is what in Scheler’s phenomenological terminology is called [484-485] “love for the essential” (Liebe zum Wesenhaften)[12]: hence vital experience, contemplative enjoyment of the object in the immanence of the subject of the forms. Hence also the identity of essence and existence and the attempt to draw St. Thomas into scholastic essentialism to which, under a subverted form, modern thought has been prisoner. Scheler is the essentialist of intuitionist vitalism.

On the opposite side, but on the same formal plane, is Heidegger, who is to be credited, however, for having made the fundamental resolution (resolutio in fundamentum) of the vacuum created by essentialist thought, including Scheler’s notion of “love for the essential.” Heidegger’s being of the essent (Sein des Seienden) has no ground or foundation other than the giving of itself as “presence of the present” (Anwesenheit des Anwesenden). This is a new kind of identity of essence and existence but in an inverted form, as compared to that of Scheler, for it shows a tendency toward the outside of a world that is given as pure history (Sein-Zeit and Zeit-Sein).[13] Instead of the participation that is Scheler’s Platonic mediation of love, we have here the resolution-dissolution of the essent into the nothingness that is Scheler’s “veil” of being. Heidegger’s being is therefore in a continuous process of falling, and by this falling it repeats and renews unceasingly its own presence, which is but the world’s giving of itself to man in an unlimited and meaningless revelation. Briefly, it is a being whose only limitation and meaning consist in its relationship to the definitive nothingness that is death (Sein zum Tode). By taking away being as presence definitively and totally, death shows the actual invasion of nothingness and the nonsense or rather the impossibility of any kind of participation, and [489-490] consequently, of any kind of transcendence of Act as metaphysical principle and telo”.

In conclusion, if we compare Thomas’ notion of being to that of Heidegger, we see that their positions show the greatest affinity and the greatest diversity. They both agree in denouncing the neglect of esse and in their radical insistence on grounding beings on esse as the act of the essent (Sein des Seienden). There is, however, a fundamental difference in their understanding of Sein. Heidegger conceives Sein as the actuality of an essence that is the inverted cogito, a consciousness, namely, that is entirely expressed in the world as Dasein and goes beyond Hegel’s principle, Das Aeussere ist das Innere and vice versa. There is indeed, in Heidegger’s conception, no more distinction between external and internal, but just one way of seeing Sein, which is immersed in time, as Kant intended it to be. In contrast, Thomas understands being as the metaphysical act that is participated in every act, while it itself does not participate in any act. As such, it can serve as a point of departure for the speculation of him who, while himself existing in time, is searching for the Absolute beyond time and is seriously concerned with the problem of his ultimate destiny.

University of Perugia.


José M. Artola. Creacion y Participation. Madrid, 1963.

Beck. Der Akt-Character des Seins. München, 1965.

De Finance. Être et agir dans la philosophie de S. Thomas. Paris, 1945.

Fabro. La nozione metafisica di partecipazione. 1st ed. Milano, 1939. 3d ed. Turin, 1963.

―――. Participation et causalité. Paris-Louvain, 1960. It. ed. Turin, 1961. (The two editions contain notable differences in the arrangement of material and in contents; the Italian edition has also indices of terms, authors, sources, Thomistic texts, both quoted and referred to, and an analytic index.)

―――. Esegesi tomistica. Rome, 1969.

―――. Tomismo e pensiero moderno. Rome, 1969.

B. Geiger. La participation dans la philosophie de S. Thomas. Paris, 1942.

Hayen. L’intentionnel dans la philosophie de S. Thomas. Bruxelles-Paris, 1942.

Kremer. Die neuplatonische Seinsphilosophie und ihre Wirkung auf Thomas von Aquin. Studien zur Problemgeschichte der antiken und mittelalterliche Philosophie, I. Leiden, 1966. (Cf. “Compte Rendu” by C. Fabro in The New Scholasticism, XLIV (1970), pp. 69-100.)

Krenn. Vermittlung und Differenz. Vom Sinn des seins in der Befindlichkeit der Partizipation beim hl. Thomas von Aquin. Rome, 1962.

Lindbeck. “Participation and Existence in the Interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas.” Franciscan Studies, XVII (1957), pp. 1-22, 107-125.

Montagnes. La doctrine de l’analogie de l’être d’après Saint Thomas d’Aquin. Louvain-Paris, 1963. (Cf. “Compte Rendu” by C. Fabro in Bulletin Thomiste, XI (1964), pp. 193-204.

Io. Mundhenk. Die Begriffe der “Teilhabe” und des “Lichts” in der Psychologie und Erkenntnislehre des Thomas von Aquin. Würzburg, 1935.

Ocáriz. Hijos de Dios en Cristo: Introducción a una teologia de la participación sobrenatural. Pamplona, 1972.

Oeing-Hanhoff. Ens et bonum convertuntur. Münster i. W., 1953.

Carl J. Peter. Participated Eternity in the Vision of God: A Study of the Opinion of Thomas Aquinas and His Commentators on the Duration of the Acts of Glory. Rome, 1964.

Scheller. Das Priestertum Christi. Paderborn, 1934. Especially pp. 59ff., “Quellen der Anteilnahme bei Thomas.”

Siewert. Der Thomismus als Identitatssystem. Frankfurt a. M., 1939.

Söhngen. Thomas von Aquin über Teilhabe dürch Berührung, in “Die Einheit der Theologie.” München, 1952.

Ulrich. Homo Abyssus: Das Wagnis der Seinsfrage. Einsiedeln, 1961.

Various Authors. De Thomistische Participatieleer. “Studa Catholica.” Nijmegen, 1944.


[1] I fail to understand how the intensive esse of Aquinas could have been identified with Heidegger’s Dasein, which is essentially a temporal presence (In-der-Welt-sein). “The Heideggerian Dasein resembles the Thomistic esse which is the object of metaphysics, not the Hegelian conceptual esse extensivum but the esse intensivum of Cornelius Fabro, the notion of existence as the Thesaurus of the Perfection of Being. The Thesauric Being grasped by an intellectual intuition is not the most impoverished being like the Hegelian Pure Being, but precisely the richest of being.” Yet the author of this passage admits immediately afterwards that Heidegger proceeds within the framework of the modern cogito, which cannot be affirmed of Aquinas. See William E. Carlo, “Metaphysics, Problematic or Science: Methodology vs. Science,” in The Nature of Philosophical Inquiry, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, XLI (Washington, D. C., 1967), p. 137. This same thesis, which in our opinion is absolutely groundless, is developed by the author in his volume, The Ultimate Reducibility of Essence to Existence in Existential Metaphysics (The Hague, 1966). We only wish to point out that for Thomas the object of metaphysics is not esse but ens (cf. In IV Metaph., I. 1, n. 529ff.) as “id quod habet esse.” For the author’s other arbitrary textual interpretations see the book’s review by C. Vansteenkiste in Rassegna di letteratura tomistica (Naples, 1969), pp. 117ff. While disputing with the present writer, Carlo affirms: “We have an intuition of esse in the existential judgment grasping the object of metaphysics” (op. cit., p. 96). This, as we have previously stated, is the thesis commonly accepted by the followers of Maréchal (Lotz, Coreth, Brugger, Marc, Rahner, Keller, Puntel), who ground ens on the esse of the copula as referred to the judgment of existence, more or less on common ground with Kant, Wolff, and nominalistic scholasticism (cf. Fabro, Participation et causalité, pp. 280ff.; It. ed., pp. 603ff.). Yet even Carlo admits that for Thomas “verum sequitur esse rerum” (op. cit., pp. 99f., n. 1.). What, then, is the rationale of his reasoning?

[2] S. Th., I, q. 6, a. 4.

[3] Ibid., q. 8, arts. 1-4. See Fabro, Participation et causalité, pp. 509ff.; It. ed., pp. 470ff.

[4] C. Gent. I, 32 Amplius.

[5] See S. Th., I-II, q. 88, a. 1 ad 1. The ultimate ratio of the analogy between beings and esse is therefore metaphysical participation which throws light on the doctrine of the transcendentals and distinguishes it radically from the so-called modern transcendental. Cf. C. Fabro, “The Transcendentality of ‘Ens-Esse’ and the Ground of Metaphysics,” International Philosophical Quarterly, VI, (1966), pp. 389-427.

[6] In I Sent., d. 35, q. I, a. 4. See Fabro, La nozione metafisica di partecipazione, pp. 168ff.

[7] “All things must be traced to one first principle… by which they are coordinated.” De Pot., q. III, a. 6.

[8] This is in contrast with Heidegger’s Sein des Seienden which is intrinsically finite. See C. Fabro, “The Problem of Being and the Destiny of Man,” International Philosophical Quarterly, I (1961), pp. 407-36. Reprinted in Tomismo e pensiero moderno, pp. 135-64.

[9] In this sense the principle of perfectio separata has a structural meaning in Thomistic philosophy (cf. De ente, c. 5: “calor separatus,” Baur 42, 18-43, 6; C. Gent. I, 43: “albedo per se existens,” Leon. minor 41 b; De div. nom., c. V, 1. 1, n. 629: “si esset albedo separate”; “, Prop. III: “albedo simplex, si esset separata”; ibid., Prop. IX: “si albedo esset separata,” ed. Pera, nn. 80, 235; ed. Saffrey 22, 11 and 66, 3; Quodl. II, II, 3: “lux separata”; ibid. III, VIII, 20: “albedo subsistens”; De subst. sep., c. VI: “forma, si separata consideretur,” Perrier 150, par 43). The typical Platonic element in these examples consists in the separatio, that is, the consideration of the form-quality as subsistens and hence as something distinct and unique. This separatio, which Platonism attributed to the simple forms as such and Aristotelianism ascribed only to the intellective forms (νοῦς and intelligences), is resolved by Aquinas into the act of all acts that is esse.

[10] “And this is what everybody understands by God” (I via); “to which [cause] everyone gives the name ‘God’” (II via); “this [necessary being] all men speak of as God” (III via); “and this [supreme being] we call God” (IV via); “and this [first intelligent being directing all things to their end] we call God” (V via). S. Th., I, q. 2, a. 3.

[11] M. Scheler, Bildung und Wissen, 2d ed. by Maria Scheler (Frankfurt a. M., 1947), pp. 6 and 24ff.

[12] See M. Scheler, “Vom Wesen der Philosophie,” in Vom Ewigen im Menschen (2d ed.; Leipzig, 1923), I, p. 68; 4th ed., I, pp. 67f.

[13] This identity is found in a recent writing by Heidegger, Zur Sachs des Denkens (Tübingen, 1969), pp. 16ff. The attitude of some contemporary scholastic philosophers who, following the lead of Johannes B. Lotz, insist on the resemblance between Heidegger’s Sein and the Thomistic esse, can only be explained in terms of their adherence to the scholastic essentialism of the plexus essentia-existentia and a consequent neglect of the Thomistic esse and the Thomistic notion of participation. See, for example, H. Meyer, Martin Heidegger und Thomas von Aquin (Paderborn, 1964) and the more cautious, although somewhat equivocal, study of B. Rioux, L’être et la vérité chez Heidegger et Saint Thomas d’Aquin (Paris, 1963), especially pp. 126ff.

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