In Pursuit of Metaphysics

Here is a paper that I turned in for my Special Readings Course on Existential Thomism. During the course of this class I realized that the basic concepts of metaphysics that were at stake were hard enough without trying to answer the positions of men like Gilson and Wippel. Consequently, while I do bring up their thought, it is only in a very cursory way.
Also, when reading the following, please remember that it is written by a student and not a master. These are my thoughts on the matter as far as I can see. The only part of this paper that I have real certainty about is the argument about the distinction between esse and essentia. You will note that this argument is a modification of the argument I gave before, and I view this as my retraction of the position that I before asserted. In particular, I grant that it is not necessary to see the existence of one necessary being, but it is necessary only to see what it would entail to be such a being.
I look forward to your thoughts and comments!

In the pursuit of metaphysics there are many challenges that present themselves to the would-be metaphysician. In contemporary thought, such challenges often arise from thinkers who oppose the very idea of metaphysics. Such thinkers as Kant and his present day adherents come quickly to mind. However, aside from these attacks from “outside” of metaphysics, there are other challenges, even for one who approaches the study with a good will. I do not speak merely of the challenges that arise from the difficulty of the matter, but there is a real question about whether metaphysics is even possible as a philosophical pursuit. A sign of the force of this difficulty is that in the eleventh book of the Metaphysics (of fourteen) Aristotle still is seeking whether there is such a science that can treat being qua being.[1]

Of particular concern to Aristotle is how to treat being qua being as something one. This will be of vital importance to metaphysics as a science. If being qua being cannot be understood as something one then there will not be one science. Nor would it seem possible to treat of first principles in a unified way and thus defend them accordingly. Consequently, it is of great importance to Aristotle that we see how to consider being qua being as something one.

This is where our present inquiry enters. St. Thomas Aquinas refers to this unified treatment of being qua being, as ens commune, or common being. In his preface to his commentary on Aristotle's Metaphysics St. Thomas refers to ens commune, naming it the subject of the science and a genus. It is the first task of this paper, therefore, to examine what ens commune is.

Not unrelated to this is the idea of esse commune. Here is an idea that pertains to the existence that all things possess. We say that all things exist; therefore it is a question to see how we are able to understand existence, which is presented to us in so many ways, in a unified manner.

This paper is not concerned with attempting to reconstruct the thought of the man Thomas Aquinas, or the man Aristotle. Rather, it is an attempt to understand the subject of metaphysics. I will, however, turn to Aristotle and St. Thomas as guides in my attempt to understand these matters. In particular, I will turn to St. Thomas, because the phrase, ens commune, is his. This however, creates a further difficulty. There is by no means a unified position of Thomists on the matter. While I cannot in any feasible way include the thoughts of all significant Thomists, nor even of many of them, I will speak to some of the challenges to my thought presented by two influential Thomists, Etienne Gilson and John Wippel.

Therefore, this goal of this paper is to see that ens commune is a genus in an extended sense and is thus an ens ratione with a foundation in things, unified through the notion of substance. The very foundation of ens commune however, is esse. Therefore, we must also see how esse can be said in common, in order to see how ens can be said in common.

First to be addressed is ens commune. It pertains to this inquiry to first examine our preliminary conceptions of ens and then to see how this idea is extended to many diverse things. From this point, we must see how such an idea can in anyway be a genus. Since, however, it belongs to a genus to be one, we must see that we are able to have a conception of ens that is one, yet pertains to all these different instances.

The second section of the paper will then look at esse commune.

Ens Commune

We will follow Aristotle's example and begin with what is more known to us and then proceed to what is more known by nature.[2] It is important, therefore, to give a preliminary consideration to this concept of ens commune. Literally translated it means common being. Ens does not, however, have any connotation of action. Rather it refers to a being, or better yet, an entity. It should therefore be always taken as a noun. Common, here, can be understood in two ways. As St. Thomas argues, a principle is said to be common either through predication, or as a common cause.[3] It remains to be seen which sense of common should be taken in ens commune.

There are a number of presuppositions that this paper will impose upon its readers, first of which is a presupposition of Aristotle's work in philosophy of nature. I will therefore be pursuing a particular path into metaphysics, which I will not here defend. My reasons for choosing to enter metaphysics through philosophy of nature are two-fold. First, this has been the traditional mode of proceeding for centuries. Second, I only see how to manifest the concept of ens commune by beginning with the philosophy of nature. I acknowledge that there are varying opinions about the necessity of treating physics before metaphysics, but I will not treat of that matter here.

To begin, it is clear that the subject of the philosophy of nature is mobile ens[4] and its principles.[5] It is this sort of ens that we are first and foremost familiar with. This is because we are composite beings and we know through our senses. Mobile ens is material ens, and therefore we know it as sensible ens. What is more, at first ens is equivalent to material ens, since anything more is beyond our experience.

Our idea of ens undergoes a radical change, however, at the conclusion of the philosophy of nature. This occurs when we prove the immortality of the human soul[6] and of the first mover.[7] What is significant about both of these is that they are both immaterial. Ens is now said in an entirely new way, since our studies in the philosophy of nature have compelled us to admit such beings. We consequently must expand our understanding of what it is to be an ens. This is what the concept ens commune attempts to do.

Now that this “new” kind of ens has been discovered, i.e. immaterial ens, it is possible that our desire to have some account of ens which is beyond that of our common experience may likewise be beyond us. This may pose a problem for ever attaining to a science of being qua being. It may be that we will only ever be able to treat of such things as principles and never in themselves. It is easily granted that I can imagine that there are such things as immaterial entia. Moreover, I can try to form some sort of picture in mind of some kind of “ensness” that all entia participate in. However, just because I am able to imagine such things, it does not follow that they correspond to the way things are. The formation of the concept of ens commune must be done very carefully if we are to uphold the rigors required of true philosophical inquiry.

Aristotle describes everything which must be included in the account of ens commune in Book IV of his Metaphysics.

So, too, there are many senses in which a thing is said to be, but all refer to one starting point; some things are said to be because they are substances, others because they are affections of substance, others because they are a process towards substance, or destructions or privations or qualities of substance, or productive or generative of substance or of things which are relative to substance, or negations of one of these things or of substance itself. It is for this reason that we say even of non-being that it is non-being.[8]

Therefore in order to have an understanding of ens that is broad enough to include, not just material being, but also immaterial being and all the affections, privations etc. that pertain to these, we must form a concept of ens that is not in any of these things. The emphasis on the “not” follows St. Thomas' division of the sciences in his commentary on Boethius' De Trinitate. There St. Thomas makes a distinction between abstraction and separatio.[9] In abstraction we consider one thing without reference to what it is in. As Aristotle says of the geometer,

He strips off all sensible qualities, e.g. weight and lightness, hardness and its contrary, and also heat and cold and the other sensible contrarieties, and leaves only the quantitative and continuous, sometimes in one, sometimes in two, sometimes in three dimensions, and the attributes of these qua quantitative and continuous and does not consider them in any other respect.[10]

Separatio, on the other hand, is judging one thing specifically as not in another. As St. Thomas says,

Thus, therefore, the intellect distinguishes one from another in diverse ways according to diverse operations, since according to the operation as composing and dividing [the second act of the intellect]; it distinguishes one from another through this: that it understands one to not be in another. But, in the operation by which it understands what each thing is, it distinguishes one from another while it understands what this is; understanding nothing concerning the other, neither that it be with that thing, nor that it be separated from that thing. Whence that distinction does not properly have the name of separatio, but only the first [distinction] does.[11]

Thus it is seen that separatio belongs to the second act of the intellect which composes and divides and it is here that we find ens commune which is a conception of ens which is not in matter and motion. It is important to note here, again, the importance of carefully and rigorously forming this concept. The second act of the intellect is where truth and falsity is first found. We do not have the assurance of the inerrant first act of the intellect. The possibility of error is therefore quite real.

It is going beyond the scope of this paper to extensively defend the truth of ens commune. Looking to Aristotle as an example, it seems that to have certainty in making such a judgment we need to reflect long and carefully over our experience. As was mentioned above, the formation of this concept and the feasibility of the science of metaphysics as a whole is in question for Aristotle into the eleventh book of the Metaphysics. Therefore, while we cannot pursue in detail the dialectic required for grasping ens commune we can examine what would pertain to such an idea in order to see how it might be true.

It remains, therefore, to see how what has been said of ens commune illumines the initial claims made by St. Thomas, namely that it is a genus and the subject of metaphysics. It seems clear that ens commune cannot be a genus in any strict sense of the term. Ens can in no way be a genus, since it is said equivocally of various categories. A fortiori, ens commune will not be said univocally. However, in St. Thomas' De Veritate he makes an argument for a broad sense of genus.[12] He justifies his claim with the authority of Scripture, where God and humans are said to be in a genus.[13] A fortiori, we are able to use genus loosely when speaking of ens commune.

To fully justify this particular use of genus, it seems necessary that there be some basis for calling ens commune one. It would be unfitting to place any chance grouping under a genus, even said in a broad sense. If there is no basis in the things, then anything can be a genus. Therefore, it seems clear that there must be a basis in things for calling something a genus. It would seem to follow then, that if there were some way in which something could be understood to be as one, even as it was said of many, that then there would be a basis for calling it a genus.

Aristotle, as has been said, concerns himself with the question of the unity of the subject of metaphysics in book eleven. Aristotle first manifests that, "everything that is may be referred to something single and common."[14] However, at this point it seems that "is" is said in an equivocal manner. Aristotle goes on to argue that the contrarieties also may be referred to the first contrarieties of being. However, every pair of contrarieties is examined by one science. Then, he rules out the other sciences as in sufficient to treat of ens qua ens, all of them being concerned with ens under a particular account. It remains, therefore, to metaphysics to treat of ens qua ens. Having examined the nature of contrarieties, and seen how they are also referred back to something one and common, "since all that is is said to be in virtue of something single and common." It would seem therefore, that what is single and common is substance. For example, all accidents exist and are entia through substance. Therefore, in so far as something is an ens, so it must belong to substance, either as substance, or as an accident, or the contrarieties. Aristotle hints at this in the text above, from Book IV, where we see that all of these things we call being are referred to substance. Therefore, we have found a basis for considering ens commune as one.

This conclusion seems to grant further insight into how we should understand common in ens commune. It seems here that we should understand it as a kind of formal cause, for ens commune is the account given of what makes something to be an ens. This cause, however, should not be understood as external to the thing, but rather as an intrinsic cause. Here we may draw an analogy to the concept of animal. Animal may likewise be seen as an intrinsic formal cause, since it belongs to the account of what it is to be something, but cannot be found as separate from the account of such things either. This would seem to be the case for other genera as well.

From what has been said, there appears to be grounds for considering ens commune as an ens ratione. For the account of why it is common seems to belong more to our conception than to things themselves. However, there is a distinction among entia ratione. There are some which are without a foundation in things and some that do have a foundation in things. Non-being is an example of an ens ratione without a foundation in things. It is, as it were, the exemplar of non-existence. It is a negative concept which we conceive of in the mode of substance, but is not directly based on any experience. Time, on the other hand, is an ens ratione with a foundation in things. Time, according to Aristotle, is "the number of motion according to before and after."[15] Consequently, it is a being of reason since it depends on there being some mind for it to exist. However, it is not without a direct foundation in things, since it is measuring something real viz., motion. Ens commune therefore seems to belong to those entia ratione with a foundation in things; for ens is most of all real, though the account of it common belongs to our conception. This does not mean, in any way, that this concept is made up, or not based in something real. Rather it refers to the limited way of understanding that we possess. Therefore, ens commune is an ens ratione with a foundation in things.

The mode of this section has been largely dialectic in an attempt to manifest the course of thought that is required for the formation of the concept of ens commune. Many of the conclusions, therefore, do not necessarily conclude with complete certainty. It does seem clear from what has been said, that ens commune is an attempt by our mind to find a broad account of ens which is not restricted to matter. Moreover, it seems clear that if such a concept is formed that it can be based on a loose notion of genus. Finally, the account for its unity, though briefly and summarily given, seems to provide sufficient grounds for calling it one. What is left quite uncertain is how ens commune can be the subject of metaphysics. That ens commune is an ens ratione likewise lacks to certainty that one would require before agreeing to such a claim. These two claims are quite involved with one another. If ens commune is an ens ratione, then it seems difficult to see how it is fitting matter for a science. Likewise, the grounds for calling it common and an intrinsic formal cause are left uncertain, since these were used to arrive at ens commune being an ens ratione.

Esse Commune

The concept ens commune, though hard and abstract, nevertheless seems to be relatively well known and common compared to a seemingly closely related concept, esse commune. Now, part of the very difficulty here is that these two ideas may not even be properly distinguished. It is important to recognize that esse commune is distinct from esse as it belongs to any particular ens. Such a distinction seems to be at least implicitly denied by such thinkers as Etienne Gilson and John Wippel, both of whom want to hold that the esse of each thing arises from a judgment of the intellect. In the words of Gilson, “First a knowing subject apprehends what the given object is; next it judges that the object is.” While it is beyond the scope of this paper to attempt a refutation of such a position, it will be my purpose to manifest a different account of how we are able to form the concept esse. The concept of esse commune arises as a judgment in the second act of the intellect, and presupposes esse in the first act of the intellect. Lest I be accused of making mere counter assertions, I will attempt to indicate ways in which this account seems to be superior to the one provided by Gilson and Wippel.

In order to proceed with more clarity we will first distinguish clearly what is meant by the three central concepts found in this paper, ens, essentia, and esse. I will insist on using the Latin terms throughout, and this is for two reasons: First, the English term “being” being ambiguous can cause more confusion than clarity. Second, the Latin terms are all etymologically related, which aids in better manifesting the relationship between these concepts.

Ens is here taken to mean some thing. Normally we would consider this to be an existing thing, though it is possible for there to be an ens ratione, or a “being of reason,” as seen above. A closely related English word is entity. The problem with entity, however, is that if can often connote substance. Ens, however, has no such limitation and can refer to substance or accidents. As St. Thomas says, following Aristotle, “Ens per se is said in two ways: one way as that which is divided into the ten genera, another way as that which signifies a true proposition.”[16]

St. Thomas, in the same work as quoted above, goes on to define essentia, or essence. He gives six or seven different definitions. We will focus on two of the definitions. The first is what is commonly considered the definition of essence, that is, the whatness or “quiddity” of a thing. The second definition is the definition proper to the metaphysician and is the last definition that St. Thomas gives of essentia. “But essentia is said according as that through which and in which an ens has esse.[17]

This final definition of essentia leads to another important term and one with which this section will be particularly concerned, namely, esse. This concept is difficult in its very simplicity. Literally it is the Latin verb “to be.” However, as is manifest by St. Thomas' use of the term in the definition of essence, it does not need to always be considered as an infinitive verb, but it takes on a more substantive quality and can, accurately enough be translated as existence. To use all of these terms in relation to one another we can say, “An ens has an essentia, through which and in which it has esse.”

As was implied earlier, this section is going to proceed on the basis of an assumption. Stated succinctly, this assumption is that the ens is the object of the first act of the intellect. That is to say, that we know things not just the essences of things or the ideas of things. While I hold that this position is a necessary principle to all thought and can be manifested it has nevertheless been rejected explicitly by Modern philosophers such as Descartes, Locke and Kant in a very a radical way. Thinkers such as Gilson have a more subtle rejection of such a position and they attempt to hold that only essence is present in the first act of the intellect and that esse is a later judgment, as was said above. What is more, Gilson and Wippel argue that this is the thought of St. Thomas.

One of the texts of contention is in St. Thomas' Summa Theologiae. There St. Thomas says “Ens first fall into the conception of the intellect.”[18] It might seem obvious that St. Thomas is explicitly stating the opposite of what Gilson and Wippel contend that he holds. However, Gilson argues that ens is in the first act of the intellect only in an accidental way. That is to say, ens can only be present in the intellect by means of a joining of its parts through a judgment that something exists.

The problems with holding such a position are vast, however, I will at this point only suggest that we take St. Thomas to be speaking a little more straightforwardly, and accept that ens is present in the first act of the intellect as abstracted from some real ens.

It follows, therefore, that if it be the case that ens can be present in the first act of the intellect, we need not make a judgment that a thing is, or is not. Rather, it is immediately evident that the thing we are looking at is an existing thing; that such things are the only things possible for us to look at, so that we are, as it were, compelled to see and know real things.

While I will candidly admit that I am making this assumption, and this makes for an evident weakness in my argument, I nevertheless hold that such an assumption should be more easily held than what is implicitly that of Gilson and Wippel. Both of these thinkers seem to approach their metaphysical inquiry assuming the distinction between essentia and esse. This assumption results in two immediate difficulties. The first is that if one begins with this distinction, then he is unable to appreciate the importance and force of such claims. In order to make such a distinction an argument should be made that would show that an absurdity would arise if we did not posit such a distinction. This is the only sort of argument that can be expected when dealing with things that are so principle to our understanding. At the very least, an argument should be made showing how it is possible to make such a distinction. The second difficulty is that it confuses the order of knowing and the order of being. The distinction between esse and essentia is first in the order of being, but it is among the last distinctions made in the order of knowing.

What is implicit in the assumption of this section is that esse must in some way be present in the first act of the intellect. How it is present can be made clear by considering what an ens is. Let us turn to the definitions of ens that we looked at earlier. “That which is divided into the ten genera” and, “That which signifies a true proposition. St. Thomas goes on to explain the differences between these two definitions.

However, the difference between these two is that, since by the second way everything about which an affirmative proposition can be formed can be called a being, even if it posits nothing in re, by this way privations and negations are called beings; for we say that affirmation is opposed to negation, and that blindness is in the eye. But in the first way, it cannot be said that anything is placed in re. Whence, tin the first way, blindness and such things are not entia.[19]

Therefore, we see that in the first way of using ens we can only talk about existing things, i.e. things that have an act of esse. Therefore, if ens is present in the first act of the intellect, then esse is implied in the concept.

It is important to note, that while esse is present in this first act of the intellect, nevertheless we do not grasp the concept of esse in distinction from the essentia of the thing unless we make a further judgment. That is to say, granted that the concept of cat that I have has come from an existing cat, and that I do not need to conclude to its existence, nevertheless, it is a further operation that allows me to see that there is a distinction between the of the cat and its esse. We see that there are certain things that are possible to either exist or not exist, as in the case of generation and corruption. We see therefore that the essentia of this thing has a certain kind of independence from whether or not the thing exists. I can see that this cat did not exist and will not exist in the future. Further, I can see that no cat had to exist and that no cats could exist in the future. In short, I can see that the existence of cats is wholly dependent upon the causality of another. Therefore, we begin to see the possibility for positing a distinction between the quiddity of the thing and its existence.

The distinction between the concept esse commune and essentia is a fundamental distinction in things, but is by no means first in our order of knowing. It is important here to point out that this distinction does not arise from an abstraction; rather it arises from a separation and this is the proper act of the second act of the intellect. It is a separation precisely because it considers esse as not with the essentia. Abstraction, on the other hand, merely considers one thing without considering another. It seems probable enough that such a judgment is possible to make. It is quite another thing to see that this is a true judgment.

The distinction between esse and essentia has often been touted as St. Thomas' great contribution to metaphysics. This position, however, is challenged by the clear fact that Boethius makes this distinction in disputed question, “How can substances be said to be good insofar as they are since they are not substantial goods?” also known as De Hebdomadibus. In the Regula of the text he lays down that “esse and that which is are different.”[20]

However this historical question resolves, it is clear that St. Thomas made much of this distinction, and made arguments for this distinction; by no means considering it self-evident. Notably he argues for this distinction in his treatise De Ente et Essentia. In context, he is discussing separated substances saying,

Although [separated] substances are forms only, without matter, nevertheless there is not every kind of simplicity in them. Nor are they pure act, but they have an admixture of potency. And this is clear thus: For, whatever is does not concern the understanding of an essentia or quiddity comes from outside and makes a composition with the essentia, because no essentia can be understood without the things which are parts of its essence. However, every essentia or quiddity is able to be understood without this: that something is understood about its existence (esse). For, what a man is or a Phoenix is, is able to be understood and nevertheless it is possible to be ignorant as to whether it has existence (esse) in the natural order. Therefore it is clear that existence (esse) is other than essentia or quiddity.[21]

This is a very important and easily misunderstood passage. The principle claim that I want to defend regarding this passage is that it concludes only with the force of logical necessity, and does not place a real distinction in things. It is essential, therefore, to see that when St. Thomas speaks of a Phoenix, he is not speaking of a mythical bird, but rather a bird that is (or is at least thought to be) real.

As Gyula Klima says in his review of Anthony Kenny's Aquinas on Being notes

However, for Aquinas, the fictitious character of phoenix was by no means a known fact. After all, Isidore of Seville, whom Aquinas frequently cites, discusses the phoenix along with birds known to exist (such as eagles and ostriches).[22] Also, the examples with which Aquinas groups the phoenix-example together are obviously real, natural phenomena (man, eclipse). Therefore, when Aquinas is talking about understanding the essence of the thing without knowing the existence of the thing, he means understanding the real essence of a real thing... but not knowing whether the real thing in question actually, at the moment of our consideration, exists.[23]

The other place where St. Thomas mentions the Phoenix with a natural phenomena is in his commentary on The Sentences where he says, “For there are certain natural things about which the esse is not understood, which is clear from this: that it is able to be understood while being ignorant of whether it exists, just as the Phoenix, or an eclipse or some such things.”[24] Here it is clear that St. Thomas is referring to Phoenix as a natural thing, and clearly not as something made up, but it is only questionable whether it exists now.

Again, St. Thomas uses Phoenix as an example in his commentary on Aristotle's De Caelo. “However, nothing prohibits an individual which is the only one in one species to be generated and corrupted, just as the say about the Phoenix.”[25] Here the force of the example would be lost completely if the Phoenix were not an existing thing.[26]

That he would use the Phoenix in this way (that is, as a real thing, though possibly not existing at this time) is in accord with reason. It would be an error to try to conclude to the distinction between essentia and esse just from the fact that I can make up some creature in my mind since, act precedes potency. As St. Thomas says,

For, since each and every thing is intelligible according as it is in act as is said in Book IX of The Metaphysics, it is necessary that the nature itself or the quiddity of a thing be understood. Either according as it is act itself, as it belongs to forms and simple substances; or according as that which is the act of the thing, as composite substances through their forms; or according as that which is in the place of act, just as prime matter through a certain disposition towards form and a vacuum through the privation of place. And thus it is that, from each and every nature has its account.[27]

This is to say that, we cannot make up an essence and pretend that it is even possible that such a thing would exist. We can only know that it is possible that something exist by seeing that it actually exists. We know the actuality of the thing before we know its potency. For example, I can say the words “greatest prime number.” Each of these words makes sense in themselves and taken as a whole. However, I cannot be sure that such a thing is possible until I have seen or proven it to be the case. In this case, it can be shown that “greatest prime number” is actually an absurdity, and in no way can exist.

Therefore, it would be pointless for St. Thomas to bring up Phoenix if he thought that this was a mythical bird. He must be thinking of it as a bird that may or may not be existing at this time, but the essence of which one is able to know in some way. An example that would be more palatable to our modern ears is the Dodo bird. I know the essence of the Dodo bird in someway, but this is separate from its existence.

At this point, it is important to see that St. Thomas argument only concludes with the force of a logical distinction. Just because I think of the essence of man and Phoenix (Dodo) separate from the existence of these things, does not mean that this is a real distinction in the things. How can I be sure that this is not some limitation that pertains to my human intellect? Why can I not just say that existence is self-determining?

St. Thomas sees that this argument only concludes about a logical distinction, and therefore he goes on saying,

“Unless, perhaps, there is some thing whose whatness is existence itself; and this thing can be only one and first, since it is impossible that there be made a plurification of something except by the addition of some difference, as the nature of the genus is multiplied in the species, or by the is that the form is received in diverse matters, as the nature of a species is multiplied in diverse individuals, or by this that one thing is absolute and another is received in something, just as if there were a separated heat, by its very separation it would be other than heat not separated.”[28]

He then goes on to point out that if such a being were posited which is subsisting esse, this esse would not be able to receive any difference, because then it would no longer be esse alone, but esse with some form. St. Thomas concludes, therefore, that there could be only one such a thing. It is necessary, therefore, that every other thing must have its esse as distinct from its essentia.

Now the argument concludes about things, and we are able to see the necessity for positing this distinction in things. It is only by resolving to one whose essentia and esse are the same, that we see with certainty that these must be distinct in things. This being said, this argument in no way requires that we see that such a being (namely one that is subsistent esse) exists. That requires further argument.

What follows from this judgment wherein we are able to separate essentia and esse is that this concept esse must necessarily be commune, for it is not being considered as the esse of any particular essentia, since its esse has been separated from the essentia. Such a separation, if it is to be properly made, means that the esse must be considered without any of the determinations proper to the essentia. The essentia is what gives the determination of this thing. Therefore without such a determination it is being considered generally, or commune.

We are therefore able to give an account of the text which seems to give most credence to the Gilsonian position, where St. Thomas says that essentia pertains to the first act of the intellect and esse to the second. That is, the first act of the intellect is said to pertain to essentia, because it abstracts the essentia from the thing. Esse pertains to the second act of the intellect, because we are not able to form the concept of esse as distinct from the essentia, until the second act of the intellect.

This brings to a point where we are able to see the superiority of this position over the Gilsonian position. According to Gilson, the second act of the intellect supplies esse to the essentia as cognized. If this were so, however, the esse could only be esse commune, because it is supplied by the second act of the intellect which separates esse from essentia. Thus the Gilsonian position is confronted with two difficulties. It seems they can either hold that there is a common act of esse for all things, or that esse is somehow formally determined by the essentia with which it is joined. The first option seems patently false. The second position is not as immediately able to be seen as wrong, but is clearly rejected by St. Thomas when he says that “Esse is the most formal of all things.”[29] For the essentia would have to determine the esse to be this act of esse.

Therefore we see that the first part of the thesis for this section has been shown, namely, that the concept of esse commune arises from a judgment in the second act of the intellect. The second half, namely that the esse of things must be present in the first act of the intellect has been argued for, if not demonstrated. This part of the thesis was argued by attempting to manifest certain inconsistencies and difficulties that arise when it is denied. The first difficulty that arises is that ens would seem to be in the mind in only an accidental way, and this would give us a precarious hold on reality. Second, the Gilsonian position seems to be assuming the distinction between essentia and esse, which, as was shown, involves a great deal of argumentation to resolve to such a distinction. Finally, we saw that Gilson and Wippel seem to have a challenge before them to explain how exactly the esse of the second act of the intellect, which was shown to be esse commune, is able to be joined to the essentia of a thing.


From the above we are able to discern another, prior principle of unity for the concept of ens commune. We do not have to just resolve to substance and the principle of unity, but we are now able to resolve to that which is the most formal principle of substances, and therefore of all entia: esse.

As St. Thomas says, and as was quoted above, esse is the most formal among all things. The argument for this is based on the idea of act. Form is first seen in relation to matter and is known by that which makes something to be such. This means that it determines matter. Determination, however, pertains to act, since that which is potency would not be in potency if it were already determined. Therefore, we can understand form as act. That, however, which is most act, is esse because it is what makes something to be. It therefore can be said to be most formal.

We are able to resolve to esse precisely because it is this most act. All things have existence through some act of esse and as was seen, when separated from essentia we have the idea of esse commune. Here we are able to think of act without any determination. We know that we can make such a separation, because there is a real distinction between essentia and esse in things. Therefore we are able to see the principle whereby substance is that to which all entia pertain, since esse must be had through or with reference to substance.

We see therefore, that further light is granted to some of the open ended question that were had about ens commune at the conclusion of the first section. We see that, while it seems to true to call ens commune an ens ratione with a foundation in things, nevertheless, its foundation in things is strongly rooted, in that it is based on that principle which is most act, esse. Therefore, it seems that we can have greater confidence in looking towards ens commune as the subject of metaphysics. If such ideas can be obtained with certainty, it is then, and only then, that we are able to begin a true science of metaphysics.


[1] Metaphysics 1059a21

[2] Physics

[3] Super De Trinitate Q. 5 a. 4

[4] The English word “being” is ambiguous in its usage. I will therefore use ens throughout this paper in order to signify an entity.

[5] Ref

[6] De Anima 430a 23

[7] Physics 267b 24-25

[8] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1003b6-11

[9] Super De Trinitate Q.5 a3

[10] Metaphysics 1061a 30-36

[11] Ibid. emphasis added. Sic ergo intellectus distinguit unum ab altero aliter et aliter secundum diversas operationes; quia secundum operationem, qua componit et dividit, distinguit unum ab alio per hoc quod intelligit unum alii non inesse. In operatione vero qua intelligit, quid est unumquodque, distinguit unum ab alio, dum intelligit, quid est hoc, nihil intelligendo de alio, neque quod sit cum eo, neque quod sit ab eo separatum. Unde ista distinctio non proprie habet nomen separationis, sed prima tantum.

[12] De Veritate Q.1 a. 4 ad s.c. 8

[13] Acts 17:28 The Vulgate reads thus: ipsius enim et genus sumus.

[14] Metaphysics 1061a10

[15] Physics 219b1-2

[16] Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia. Cap. 1. Ens per se dupliciter dicitur: uno modo quod dividitur per decem genera, alio modo quod significat propositionum veritatem.

[17] Ibid. Sed essentia dicitur secundum quod per eam et in ea ens habet esse.

[18] Aquinas, St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, I Q.5, a.2, c. Ens primo cadit in conceptione intellectus.

[19] Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia, Cap. 1. Horum autem differentia est quia secundo modo potest dici ens omne illud de quo affirmativa propositio formari potest, etiam si illud in re nihil ponat; per quem modum privationes et negationes entia dicuntur; dicimus enim quod affirmatio est opposita negationes entia dicuntur: dicimus enim quod affirmatio est opposita negationi, et quod caecitas est in oculo. Sed primo modo non potest dici ens nisi quod aliquid in re ponit; unde primo modo caecitas et huismodi non sunt entia.

[20] Boethius, De Hebdomadibus.

[21] Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia Cap. 3. substantiae quamvis sint formae tantum sine materia, non tamen in eis est omnimoda simplicitas nec sunt actus purus, sed habent permixtionem potentiae. Et hoc sic patet. Quicquid enim non est de intellectu essentiae vel quiditatis, hoc est adveniens extra et faciens compositionem cum essentia, quia nulla essentia sine his, quae sunt partes essentiae, intelligi potest. Omnis autem essentia vel quiditas potest intelligi sine hoc quod aliquid intelligatur de esse suo; possum enim intelligere quid est homo vel Phoenix et tamen ignorare an esse habeat in rerum natura. Ergo patet quod esse est aliud ab essentia vel quiditate.

[22] Cf. Isidore, Etymologies, XII. Also, Clement of Rome, First Epistle to the Corinthians, Ch. 25. There he speaks of Phoenix as a real bird when he says, “Let us consider that wonderful sign [of the resurrection] which takes place in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries round about. There is a certain bird which is called a phÅ“nix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives five hundred years. And when the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die, it builds itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays a certain kind of worm is produced, which, being nourished by the juices of the dead bird, brings forth feathers. Then, when it has acquired strength, it takes up that nest in which are the bones of its parent, and bearing these it passes from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis. And, in open day, flying in the sight of all men, it places them on the altar of the sun, and having done this, hastens back to its former abode. The priests then inspect the registers of the dates, and find that it has returned exactly as the five hundredth year was completed.

[23] Kilma, Gyula. On Kenny on Aquinas on Being: A Critical Review of Aquinas on Being by Anthony Kenny. International Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 44, No. 4, Issue 176 (December 2004) p. 579.

[24] Aquinas, Super Sent., lib. 2 d. 3 q. 1 a. 1 c. Quaedam enim natura est de cujus intellectu non est suum esse, quod patet ex hoc quod intelligi potest cum hoc quod ignoretur an sit, sicut Phaenicem, vel eclipsim, vel aliquid huismodi.

[25] Aquinas, In De caelo, lib. 3 l. 8 n. 4. nihil autem prohibet individuum quod est unum tantum in una specie, generari et corrumpi, sicut de Phoenice dicunt.

[26] This is not to say that the argument would fail if it turns out that the phoenix were a bird of legend. Only that the example would.

[27] Aquinas. Super De Trinitate, Q. 5 a. 3 c. Cum enim unaquaeque res sit intelligibilis, secundum quod est in actu, ut dicitur in IX metaphysicae, oportet quod ipsa natura sive quiditas rei intelligatur: vel secundum quod est actus quidam, sicut accidit de ipsis formis et substantiis simplicibus, vel secundum id quod est actus eius, sicut substantiae compositae per suas formas, vel secundum id quod est ei loco actus, sicut materia prima per habitudinem ad formam et vacuum per privationem locati. Et hoc est illud, ex quo unaquaeque natura suam rationem sortitur.

[28] Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia, Cap. 3. Nisi forte sit aliqua res, cuius quiditas sit ipsum suum esse; et haec res non potest esse nisi una et prima, quia impossibile est, ut fiat plurificatio alicuius nisi per additionem alicuius differentiae, sicut multiplicatur natura generis in species, vel per hoc quod forma recipitur in diversis materiis, sicut multiplicatur natura speciei in diversis individuis, vel per hoc quod unum est absolutum et aliud in aliquo receptum, sicut si esset quidam calor separatus, esset alius a calore non separato ex ipsa sua separatione.

[29] Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputate De Anima, Q. 2, ad 17.


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