We Be a Bien Being

Friday was the Memorial Day for Thomas Aquinas although — in the inscrutable wisdom of the Holy See — neither the day he was born nor the day he died (March 7, 1274). We admit to a man-crush on Aquinas, reflected in that category word cloud on your left <– . . . that keeps swirling deeper.

Thomas Aquinas

"Do Be Do Be Do!"

Here’s the thing: Not since “Pascal’s Wager” has a guy been so caricatured by history. For Aquinas to be known only as the idiot who saw something moving and said, “Hey, something had to be the First Mover!” … as though God were in the transportation business, retired … well, it’s what our friend Terry Eagleton would call disrespectful.

Why am I so sure Aquinas’ “Five Ways” are not nearly as simple as they seem? Because I’ve been working my way through the French philosopher Etienne Gilson’s explanation of them in The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, published in 1948, and my head is in flames.

First, I can’t resist this sentence: “To minds tormented by the divine thirst, it is useless to offer the most certain knowledge of the laws of numbers and the arrangement of the universe.” Science is ennobled by its certitude, says Gilson; but it remains mute in “the presence of the incomprehensible.” Metaphysics goes where science cannot, although the journey it takes is uncertain and unscientific.

We can reject any proposition that can not be tested with the scientific method. But that leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. (Like: “Why are we here?” “What started the universe?” “What is consciousness?” “Do I have a purpose?”) We can bracket these questions in the faith they may be answered some day. Or we can apply the tools of rational metaphysics so say something about them.

Gilson says something, at great length (a prolific, best-selling expert in Medieval philosophy at the University of Paris and Harvard, Gilson packs at least a quarter-million words into this particular doorstop). So what does he say, brother Marty?

In the words of Bill Clinton, it all depends on what your definition of the word “is” is. In Latin: esse. Well, the Latin word has two forms — esse (to be) and ens (being), which has no exact English (or French) equivalent in the sense Aquinas used it. Gilson translates “ens” as “act-of-being.” Aquinas wrote in Latin. Gilson says the difference between esse and ens lies at the heart of Aquinas’ metaphysical system, his conception of God.

As I understand it, any thing that exists has both essence and existence. Essence is a conceptual reality and is the way people think about and categorize that thing. Existence is what Aquinas-per-Gilson would call being-in-the-world or act-of-being. No thing can be said to “be” without an act-of-being — that is, no thing is pure essence. Only in God are essence (esse) and act-of-being (ens) identical. In everything else, they are distinct.

More than that, act-of-being precedes essence. “Being has meaning only in relation to actual existence,” says Gilson. He quotes Aquinas: “The act-of-existing is more intimate to anything whatsoever than is what determines it.” In other words, existence is an act — as Gilson says, a “verb” — and not the outward expression of some underlying essence.

Everything we know in the world is of this nature: that its act-of-being is distinct from its essence — as my own actions are different from what makes me a member of the class “human being.” And, says Gilson, “a being whose essence is not its act-of-being has not of itself the wherewithal to exist.” Which gives Aquinas a metaphysical basis to back into God’s existence by examining what we can see in the world, namely, the acts-of-being of contingent creatures.

If what I just said seems difficult, you can only wish it were that easy. And Gilson knows it: “As a concept, being is both the most universal and the most abstract of all.” Then he throws up his metaphysical mittens: “Perhaps a special gift is necessary here, one that approaches religious grace rather than the natural light of a metaphysician.”

Deep thoughts, seekers! We seem to have arrived in a location similar to Anselm, Mulla Sadra and Augustine, dancing on the edge of a screaming cavern of existence, holding in our minds and losing just as quickly an intuition that God is to be found somewhere here, now, in the essence of the esse.

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