Cornelio Fabro on the Distinction and Composition of Essence and Esse in the Metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas

By Wippel, John F. | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Cornelio Fabro on the Distinction and Composition of Essence and Esse in the Metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas


Wippel, John F., The Review of Metaphysics


CORNELIO FABRO IS WIDELY RECOGNIZED for the important contribution he has made to our knowledge of the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas through his exposition of the major role played by the notion of participation in the thought of the angelic doctor. Fabro's first major book on participation considered statically (La nozione metafisica di partecipazione secondo San Tommaso d'Aquino (1)) appeared in its first edition in 1939. And in 1961 Fabro published his treatment of participation dynamically considered under the title Participation et causalite selon S. Thomas d'Aquin which, he explains, resulted from work he did while holding the Cardinal Mercier Chair at Louvain in 1954, and which also appeared in an Italian version at about the same time (1960). (2)

According to Fabro there is a very close connection between what he calls transcendental participation considered statically and the real distinction between essence and esse (actus essendi) in Aquinas. This connection will become more evident in some of the arguments considered below which Fabro finds in Aquinas's texts in support of such a distinction. For the sake of context it will be helpful to recall that, basing himself especially upon an important text from Aquinas's Commentary on Boethius's De Hebdomadibus, lect. 2, Fabro finds Thomas distinguishing between what Fabro himself calls predicamental participation and transcendental participation. Thomas's text reads:

   To participate is, as it were, to take a part. Therefore when
   something receives in particular fashion that which belongs to
   another universally, it is said to participate in it, as man is
   said to participate in animal because it does not possess the
   intelligible content of animal according to its total universality;
   and in the same way, Sortes participates in man. In similar fashion
   a subject participates in an accident and matter in form because
   the substantial or accidental form which in terms of its meaning is
   universal, is determined to this or to that subject. In like manner
   an effect is also said to participate in its cause, and especially
   so when it is not equal to the power of its cause, for instance if
   we say that air participates in the light of the sun because it
   does not receive it with the brightness whereby it is present in
   the sun. (3)

In this text Thomas offers a preliminary description of participation--to receive in particular fashion that which belongs to something else in universal fashion. Then he distinguishes different ways in which participation may occur: (1) as man (a species) is said to participate in animal (a genus) because the species does not possess the intelligible content of the genus according to its total universality, or as Sortes (an individual) participates in the same way in man (a species). In such cases, a notion or concept that is less extended shares in without exhausting the intelligibility of a notion or concept that is more universal in extension and, therefore, the participation in question pertains to the order of concepts and may be referred to as logical. (2) In like fashion a subject participates in an accident and matter participates in form since in each case, an accidental form or a substantial form is restricted to a particular subject, whether this be a substance, or whether it be prime matter. (3) An effect is said to participate in its cause, and especially when it is not equal to the power of its cause.

In both the second and third types the participation is not restricted to the order of concepts but applies to the order of reality. Moreover, in both examples of the second type, the participation results in a composition in the order of reality, whether of a subject and an accident, or of matter and form. Yet, as Fabro brings out, participation of the second type is restricted to the order of being insofar as it is divided into the predicaments. Hence one may call this "real predicamental participation. …

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