Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Form, Being, and Participation

Participation in St. Thomas refers to the relation of a potential principle to its actuating principle, in any composite being. Participation occurs on at least these two levels: existential and essential. On the existential level, we say that essence is to existence (esse) as potency to act; therefore essence is said to participate in existence. In seeking to define essence or quiddity, St. Thomas notes the connection between esse and essentia: “Sed essentia dicitur secundum quod per eam et in ea ens habet esse.” (De Ente et Essentia) The fundamental meaning of essence, then, is that through which any existing thing has existence; it is the potency for the actuality which is existence, or esse. Participation describes the relationship between these two principles from the aspect of their relative universality: esse, being, considered in itself, is simply the most unlimited and universal actuality – it is the act of all actualities. The manner in which esse is “instantiated” in an essence is more limited and particular than esse considered in itself, such that no existing essence, nor even the sum of all existing essences, can exhaust the possibilities of being, so long as essence and existence are distinct. This relationship of particular to universal is described as a relationship of participation.

A analogous explanation applies on the essential level, that is, within the very essence itself, when the essence is composed of matter and form. Matter is to form as potency to act, and the actuality of form is a certain analogy to that of existence, but within the essence itself. In this case, participation describes the relationship of matter to form, inasmuch as matter individuates a form which, considered in itself, is something universal; and thus no individual matter-form composite, nor the sum of all such individuals, will exhaust all the possibilities of the form. Form, which considered in itself is unlimited and universal, becomes limited and particular when it is received in matter. Accordingly, there is a relationship of particular to universal, a relationship of participation.

Already, St. Thomas has done something to unite both the Platonic and the Aristotelian conceptions of participation and substantiality: each concept, with modifications, is explained with reference to the other. For example, the composition of a substance by matter and form is described also as the participation of matter – or in another sense, of the substance as individuated by this matter – in the form itself. St. Thomas extends this also to the composition of essence and existence – a distinction not found explicitly in Aristotle, but which certainly has its roots in Plato and the Neoplatonic tradition: essence – or the existent that has this essence – is said to participate in existence itself. What is crucial here is the emphasis that St. Thomas places on the simultaneous separation and unification of a substance and its form – or of an existent thing and its existence: a substance is not the same as its own form or essence, although it is what it is only in virtue of the inherence of the form in it; likewise, an existent is not the same as its existence, although it only exists (quite obviously) because of its existence. The emphasis on the non-identity of a thing with its form, and likewise its non-identity with its very being, is a characteristically Platonic emphasis. In Plato, this emphasis is often taken to amount to the dualistic claim that form and being subsist by themselves apart from their instantiations, in a separate “intelligible world,” so to speak. I think this reading of Plato is unnecessary, although it is understandably difficult to reconcile the transcendence of Platonic form with the immanence of Aristotle's forms in concrete substances – and for a similar reason, it is difficult to reconcile the transcendent Being, of which Plato speaks in the Sophist, with the being or esse which St. Thomas' describes as subsisting only in existent things. But St. Thomas himself has found a way to speak of form and being as both transcendent and immanent, as really prior to their participants but only discoverable in them.

St. Thomas distances himself from the supposedly Platonic doctrine of subsistent forms in order to avoid the error that God, who alone is pure actuality – unlimited being, and unlimited form – is unequivocally the very act of being of His creatures. This error is essentially pantheism; it amounts to the claim that God enters into composition with essence and with matter, as the being of essence and the form of material things. This is an error that may easily result from a first attempt to reconcile the transcendence and the immanence of actuality – as either being or form – in relation to its participants. The naive Neoplatonist will satisfy himself that God's transcendence has been maintained when He asserts that God's absolute and independent subsistence in Himself is in no way compromised when He enters into His effects so as to make them real. In fact, however, this is not to assert that creatures are real, but that their reality is simply speaking nothing other than the reality of God; their very being, their act of existence, is nothing other than God Himself. Having no reality in themselves, creatures become nothing more than the appearances of God through clouds of nothingness. Such a pantheism may congratulate itself for maintaining both the transcendence and the immanence of being/form/God; but it denies reality to the world in its own right.

Perhaps some philosophers' consciences will allow them to accept this, but not St. Thomas'. St. Thomas makes another crucial distinction between the esse that does not subsist except in existing things – or esse commune – and the ipsum esse subsistens that is God Himself, in whom there is no composition of essence and existence, or matter and form, or act and potency of any kind, but who is pure actuality, in whom essence and existence are not distinct but identical. Every actuality other than God is always the act of some potency, always the form of some matter, or the being of some distinct essence; it never subsists in itself, because it is always in relation to some potency, it is always an element of some composition. But it remains, in some sense, transcendent, insomuch as it is the common image or impression of the divine actuality itself upon some receptacle – that is, essence or matter – and thus the term of some relationship of participation. Transcendence belongs first to the divine actuality, which is the first exemplar or paradigm of all created actualities; and insofar as they are images of this first actuality, they share in its transcendence, as common to a multiplicity of participants beneath them.

St. Thomas thus succeeds in preserving the Platonic instinct for transcendence, but with a clarity not always possessed by the Platonists themselves. They recognized the transcendence of form and of being, but often failed to distinguish between the transcendence of form-as-image and the transcendence of form-as-paradigm, i.e. divine exemplar – at the very least, they did not see through to the full consequences of this distinction. Plato himself was aware of this difficulty, as he wrestled with the tension between transcendence and immanence in his self-critical dialogue, the Parmenides. Thomas resolves the difficulty by conceding a limited transcendence to form and being as they subsist in individual existents, and in positing an absolute and paradigmatic transcendence that subsists in itself in the divine being. Moreover, in this very endeavor, St. Thomas likewise succeeds in preserving the Aristotelian instinct for immanence, and the internal composition of substances, but with a considerably keener sense for the other-reference of things than Aristotle ever seemed to cultivate. The concepts of participation and substantiality end up coinciding in an unexpected and marvelous fashion.

It may not be clear yet how much of this directly clarifies or builds on anything from the previous post – on determinacy according to St. Thomas and Charles DeKoninck – but there are certainly patterns and coincidences to be observed here. The two degrees of negative indetermination occur at the existential and the essential levels: 1) at the existential level, because essence and existence are distinct, and thus the existence of an essence is contingent and indeterminate – it may or may not be; 2) at the essential level, because within the essence itself, in some things, there is a composition of matter and form, in which matter is the principle of indeterminacy: the form of matter is not determinate, but may be this or that form; matter is in potency to all forms, this is not fixed. This observation about determinacy and indeterminacy will necessarily affect the mode of participation – both of essence in existence and matter in form. I hope to pursue this more closely in another post. 

In the meantime, however, I hope to devote the next post to something slightly different. I want to briefly drop the highly technical discussion and talk briefly about why any of this is important. I won't be able to entirely distance myself from the technical terms, but I can at least try to make them more tangible and relevant. Stay tuned.


  1. I am a new reader of the blog and am very impressed with your handling of Thomistic philosophy. I also found your 'about' section very moving in its own way.

    Do any of your posts touch on comparisons of Thomas Aquinas with St. Gregory Palamas? (If this is a question you're asked often, my apologies!)

    Best and God bless

    1. Thank you, you are very kind. I haven't yet gotten acquainted with Palamas yet, but I have seen some treatises comparing the two, and I imagine it is a subject that will very likely show up someday in my own researches. I am very interested in eventually exploring St. Thomas' relationship to the fathers in both the East and West.