Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Anthropology of Aquinas's 'De Ente et Essentia.'

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Anthropology of Aquinas's 'De Ente et Essentia.'

Article excerpt

While students of Aquinas's metaphysics have long profited from the De ente et essentia(1) students of his anthropology have turned their attention to his more explicitly psychological texts.(2) Yet the De ente et essentia is not without anthropological interest. Much of chapter five's analysis of created intelligence concerns the human soul's form and esse composition; the preceding chapters abound with references to man(3) as a natural composite defined by genus and species. Moreover, the very examination of definition itself constitutes no small part of the opusculum's program. In view of the fact that Aquinas's one explicitly logical and metaphysical treatise is filled with arguments bearing on man and the human soul, this work's anthropological dimension and implications deserve to be carefully studied.

At first Thomas appears simply to reiterate Aristotle's definition of man as a "rational animal."(4) In doing so Aquinas would seem to restrict himself to a definition worked out in the terms of classical naturalism. Yet in light of the very metaphysical revolution that the De ente et essentia itself initiates, it would be surprising if this definition of man is his final word. In fact a careful reading reveals that all the "rational animal" passages cluster in chapters 2 and 3.(5) This definition is nowhere found, explicitly or implicitly, in chapters 4 or 5. This sudden silence is doubly surprising in light of the fact that the latter two chapters thematically discuss the human soul; they do so, moreover, in the full light of his esse-essentia analysis. The theme of inquiry in the second and third chapters, on the other hand, is not specifically the soul or man, but any composite ens and its essentia; and the investigation is conducted in the limited light of the matter-form analysis. Aquinas, then, defines man as a rational animal precisely where the human soul is not the specific topic of his inquiry and when his explicitly metaphysical tools of analysis have not yet come to light.

The second and third chapters analyze ens and essentia as they first come to sight quoad nos.(6) As such, these chapters are concerned with the principles of composition rather than with the act of existence. From this perspective there is no need--as there will be in later chapters--to differentiate the human soul from the other physical forms. Clearly, the standpoint in these early chapters is natural philosophy, while the horizon of the later chapters is metaphysics. Any interpretation of Thomas's teaching on the human soul in the De ente et essentia which neglects the developmental character of the work, ignores its shift from physics to metaphysics, or treats its initial formulations as final syntheses, distorts his understanding.

In this paper I hope to show that Aquinas's adoption of Aristotle's "rational animal" understanding of man is partial and limited. Thomas understands that it is not his last word on the subject but his first word. "Rational animal" is the definition proper to physics; Thomas's fuller anthropology is rooted in his metaphysics. I will argue that, in the larger perspective of metaphysics, he understands man to be an "incarnate (difference) spirit (genus)."(7) My attempt to recover the De ente et essentia's fuller anthropology will proceed in the following steps. First, I will trace the "rational animal" definition back to its roots in physics and logic. Secondly, I will show that Thomas transcends this definition because it is incapable of doing justice to the full human riches discovered by the ascent to esse. Thirdly, I will examine the repercussions of this ascent to esse on his anthropology. Finally, I will show that this opusculum's anthropology is continued in his later writings, especially the Summa theologiae.


Chapters 2 and 3 in the De ente explore essentia in terms of its signification of composite substance and its definition by the logical intentions. …

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