"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

REALITY—A Synthesis Of Thomistic Thought

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


The problem we treat here, that of the fundamental objective foundation of the Thomistic synthesis, merits greatest attention.

The depth of thought in the Middle Ages stands revealed in the importance they gave to the problem of universals. Does the universal idea correspond to reality, or is it a mere concept, or is it, lastly, just a name with a mere conventional meaning? Do our ideas agree with the objective reality of things, or are they mere subjective necessities of human thought and language?

This fundamental problem, which certain superficial minds look on as antiquated, has reappeared, under a new form, in the discussions relative to the question of fixed species, and still more notably in the discussion on absolute evolutionism. The primary reality, the universal principle—is it something absolutely immutable, or is it on the contrary, something identified with universal change, with creative evolution, with a God who evolves in humanity and the world? On this problem traditional realism is radically opposed to subjective conceptualism and to nominalism.

The importance of this problem of the universal stands out most clearly in its relation to the principle of contradiction. Aristotle sees in this principle the primordial law of being and of thought, Locke sees in it nothing but a solemn futility, and Descartes thinks that God could have created a world where this principle would not be true. These different conceptions arise, it is clear, from different forms of solving the problem of universals. This radical discord at the very roots of human thought vividly illumines the meaning and importance of traditional realism.

Hence we proceed here to recall the essentials of this problem in relation:

a) to the absolute realism of Parmenides.
b) to the absolute nominalism of Heraclitus.
c) to the limited realism of Aristotle and St. Thomas. [1352].

Contradiction And Exaggerated Realism

The first man on record as having seen the primordial importance of the principle of contradiction is Parmenides. But, in enthusiastic intuition, he gave to the principle a realist formula, so absolute as to deny all facts of change and multiplicity. "Being exists, non-being does not exist: from this thought there is no escape." Thus, for him, the principle affirms, not merely the objective impossibility of simultaneous contradiction, but also the exclusion from reality of all changing existence. Being, reality, is one, unique, and immutable, ever identified with itself. It could be changed, diversified, multiplied, only by something other than itself, and something other than being is non-being, and non-being simply is not. Nor can being commence to exist, because it would have to arise either from being or from non-being. Now it cannot come from being which already is. Nor can it come from non-being which is not, which is nothing. Beginning, becoming, is an illusion. Thus does absolute realism of the intellect lead to the mere phenomenalism of sense knowledge.

Aristotle, we recall, solved these arguments of Parmenides by distinguishing potency from act. The actual statue comes from the wood which is potentially the statue, the plant from the seed which potentially is the plant. Being is an analogous notion, not univocal, and is found only proportionally in potency and act, in pure act and in beings composed of potency and act. Parmenides could not distinguish being in general from the divine being. Of the divine being only is it true to say that it is unique and immutable, that it can neither lose nor gain, that it can have no accidents, no additions, no new perfections.

What led Parmenides to this confusion? It was the supposition, at least implicit, that the universal as such, as it exists in the mind, must likewise be formally universal in the mind's object. The conditions of thought must be likewise the conditions of reality.

What Parmenides said of being Spinoza says of substance. Being exists, said Parmenides, non-being does not exist. Substance exists, says Spinoza, because in substance existence is an essential predicate. Hence, instead of saying: If God exists, He exists of Himself, Spinoza affirms a priori the existence of God, the one and only substance.

But all absolute realism, including Spinoza's restriction to substance, leads by reaction to nominalism. Plurality of substance, plurality of attributes and faculties, are mere sounds. There is but one unique and eternal substance, says Spinoza, even while the finite modes of that substance follow one another eternally. Were Spinoza consequent, he would agree with Parmenides. He would deny all reality to these modes, and admit as real only the one unique and substantial being, which can lose nothing and gain nothing.

In attenuated form, absolute realism reappears in the ontologists who admit the a priori proof of God's existence, because they claim to have intuition of God, and see in Him the truth of first principles. They say: "Immediate knowledge of God, at least habitual, is so essential to the human intellect, that without that knowledge it can know nothing. For that knowledge is itself man's intellectual light." "That reality which is in all things, and without which we know nothing, is the divine reality." "Our universal ideas, considered objectively, are not really distinguished from God." [1353].

Exaggerated realism, to conclude, tends to confound being in general with the divine being. Hence it turns the principle of contradiction into a judgment, not essential but existential, or even confounds that principle with the affirmation of God's existence. "Being exists" becomes equivalent to: "There exists one sole Being, which cannot not exist."

Contradiction And Nominalism

Heraclitus, according to Aristotle, denied the objective validity of the principle of contradiction or identity, because of the perpetual mobility of the sense world, where everything changes and nothing remains absolutely identical with itself. The arguments of Parmenides who, invoking the principle of identity, denies multiplicity and change, become from Heraclitus' point of view, a mere play of abstract concepts, without objective foundation, and the principle of contradiction a mere law of language and of inferior discursive reason, which employs these more or less conventional abstractions. Superior reason, intuitive intelligence, rises above these artificial abstractions, and reaches intuition of the fundamental reality, which is a perpetual becoming, wherein being and non-being are identified, since that which is in the process of becoming is not as yet, but still is not mere nothing.

This radical nominalism of Heraclitus reappeared among the Greek Sophists, Protagoras in particular and Cratylus. It emerges again among the radical nominalists of the fourteenth century, and in our own day among absolute evolutionists, under an idealistic form in Hegel, under an empiric form in many positivists. Hegel's universal becoming leads him to nominalism as regards the notions of being and substance, leads him to deny all reality in substance, divine or created.

In the Middle Ages, Nicholas of Autrecourt had expressed the first principle thus: If something exists, something exists. [1354] Nicholas and Parmenides are antipodes. The principle of contradiction has become a mere hypothesis. Beneath the words, "If something exists, something exists," lies a mental reservation, running somewhat as follows: "But perhaps nothing exists, perhaps our very notion of being, of reality, is without validity, even in the possible order, perhaps that which to us seems impossible, a squared circle, for example, or an uncaused beginning, is not really impossible in extra-mental reality, perhaps uncaused beginning, creative evolution, is the one fundamental reality."

The principle of contradiction thus forfeited, the principle of causality, having no longer ontological value, becomes a mere law of succession. Every phenomenon presupposes an antecedent phenomenon. Proof for the existence of God becomes impossible. Let us listen to Nicholas: [1355].

"Natural appearances can give us hardly any certitude." "Nothing can be evidently concluded from another thing." "The two propositions, God is and God is not, signify, only in a different manner, the same thing." "These two conclusions are not evident. If there is an act of understanding, then there must be an intellect; if there is an act of will, then there must be a faculty of will."

Absolute nominalism, we see, has led to complete skepticism. Many scholars, who wished to harmonize St. Augustine with Descartes, failed to see that Descartes is profoundly nominalist when he declares that the principle of contradiction depends on God's free will, that God could have made a world wherein two contradictories would be simultaneously true. Imagine Augustine admitting this! Descartes' idea of divine liberty is an idea gone mad.

Further, if the principle of contradiction is not absolute, then the formula of Descartes himself loses all real validity and becomes a mere mental phenomenon. [1356] If I can deny this principle, then I may say: Perhaps I think and do not think simultaneously, perhaps I exist and do not exist, perhaps I am I and not I, perhaps "I think" is impersonal like "it rains." Without absoluteness of the principle of contradiction I cannot know the objective existence of my own individual person.

Some years ago Edward Le Roy wrote as follows: "The principle of contradiction, being only a law of speech and not of thought in general, applies only in what is static, particular, and immobile, in things endowed with identity. But just as there is identity in the world, so is there also contradiction. Fleeting mobilities, beginnings, duration, life, which, though not in themselves discursive, are transformed by discourse into contradictory categories" (Le Roy, Rev. de Met. et de morale, 1905, pp. 200 ff. ).

Now by this road, as by that of radical nominalism, we arrive at absolute evolutionism, or then at complete agnosticism. "If something exists, then something exists." Then we must continue: But perhaps nothing exists, perhaps everything is in flux, perhaps the fundamental reality is uncaused becoming, perhaps God is not eternal, but only arriving in humanity and the world.

Contradiction And Limited Realism

According to traditional realism, as formulated by Aristotle and Aquinas, the universal idea exists in the sense world, not formally, but fundamentally, and of all ideas the most universal is that of being, on which is founded the principle of contradiction. This principle is not a mere existential judgment, but neither is it, as nominalists would have it, a mere hypothetical judgment, nor, as the conceptualists maintain, a mere subjective law of thought. It is simultaneously a law both of thought and of being. It excludes not only what is subjectively inconceivable, but also what is objectively impossible.

This limited realism does not, like Parmenides, stop short with saying: Being is, non-being is not. Neither does it say with nominalism: If something exists, then of course it exists, but perhaps our notion of being does not allow us to know the fundamental law of extramental reality. No, limited realism claims to have intellectual intuition of the objective extramental impossibility of a thing which, remaining the same, could simultaneously be and not be, the impossibility, say, of a square circle, or of an uncaused beginning. Its positive formula is: Being is being, non-being is non-being. Its negative formula is: Being is not non-being. Positively expressed, it is the principle of contradiction. Both formulas express the same truth. [1357].

"No one can ever conceive," says Aristotle, "that one and the same thing can both be and not be. Heraclitus, according to some, differs on this point. But it is not necessary that what a man says be also what he thinks. To think thus would be to affirm and deny in the same breath. It would destroy language, it would be to deny all substance, all truth, even all probability and all degrees of probability. It would be the suppression of all desire, all action. Even becoming and beginning would disappear, because if contradictories and contraries are identified, then the point of departure in motion is identified with the terminus and the thing supposed to be in motion would have arrived before it departed." [1358].

Hence we must hold absolutely this fundamental law of thought and of reality, a law founded on the very notion of being. That which is, is, and cannot simultaneously not be.

Granting, then, the principle of contradiction, we must likewise grant that there is more reality in that which is than in that which is in the process of becoming and which as yet is not; more in the plant than in the seed, more in the adult animal than in the embryo, more in being than in becoming. Hence the process of becoming is not self-explanatory, it presupposes a cause. Evolution, becoming, is not identified with the primary and fundamental reality, as A is identified with A. Becoming is not identical with being. That which is in the process of becoming as yet is not.

Hence in man's order of discovering truth, the principle of contradiction is both his first and his last step. As first step, it says: "That which is, is, and cannot simultaneously not be." As last step, on the highest level of discovery, it says: "I am He who is."

This is no a priori proof of God's existence, nor even of God's objective possibility, because we must first know sense realities, from which alone, by the road of causality, we can rise from this lower analogue of being to the supreme analogue of uncreated reality. But the first step in discovery: "That which is, is," corresponds to the last step: "I am He who is." [1359].

But if we follow Descartes in doubting the absolute necessity, the objective validity, independent of God's decrees, of the principle of contradiction, if we maintain that the Creator could perhaps make a squared circle, then we cannot possibly maintain even "I think, therefore I am" as an objective judgment, nor can we find any valid a posteriori proof of God's existence. If, on the contrary, we maintain the absolute necessity of this principle, we find that the supreme reality is identified with being as A is identified with A. The supreme reality then, is not becoming, is not creative evolution, but is Being itself, ever identical with itself, in whom alone is essence identified with existence. This profound view of the initial truth, of the principle of identity founded on the notion of being, leads necessarily, first, to the primacy of being over becoming, second, by the road of causality, to the supreme truth: I am He who is, who cannot but be, who can lose nothing, who can gain nothing.

Parmenides confounded the initial truth with the ultimate and supreme truth. Heraclitus, denying the initial truth, closed all approach to that supreme truth. Limited realism, penetrating the meaning and the range of the initial truth, its inner union with the primacy of being and hence with the principle of causality, leads us naturally and necessarily to the supreme truth. [1360] Any true philosopher, it has been said, has at bottom one sole thought, a root thought whence all his ideas branch forth. The root thought of traditional philosophy is the principle of identity and contradiction, of the primacy of being over becoming. This primacy, expressed initially and implicitly by the principle of identity, reaches complete and definitive expression in affirming the existence of God, being itself, wherein alone essence is identical with existence: I am He who is.

Realism And The Principle Of Causality

Unlimited realism, as conceived by Parmenides, and in attenuated forms by Spinoza, starts from pseudo-intuition of the Supreme Being and arrives at the negation of causality and creation, God being all reality. Absolute nominalism reduces the principle of causality to a law of the phenomenal order. Every phenomenon presupposes an antecedent phenomenon, conventionally called its cause. Hence there can be no first cause, nor any miracle, because the so-called miraculous phenomenon would have to have a phenomenal antecedent, since there can be no supraphenomenal intervention of a divine cause.

Against the pseudo-intuition of the unlimited realists, including Malebranche, nominalism holds that the first object of human intelligence is the brute fact of existence of phenomena. To this it adds: If anything really exists, then it is, but perhaps, properly speaking, nothing is, everything is in a state of uncaused becoming, a mere series of brute facts, all unintelligible.

In limited and traditional realism, the first object of human intelligence is not God, who is its highest object, is not merely the brute fact of existence, but the intelligible being of sense objects, wherein, as in a mirror, we can discover a posteriori, by the road of causality, the existence of God.

Thus we explain the ontological validity, not merely of the principle of contradiction, but also that of causality. It is just as impossible that the contingent being be contingent and not contingent as it is that the triangle be not a triangle. And just as we cannot deny that characteristic of the triangle which makes its three angles equal to two right angles, so we cannot deny that characteristic of the contingent being which presupposes a cause. [1361] In other words, existence is incompatible with an uncaused contingent being. [1362] Such a being would be absurd.

Our sense of sight knows the brute fact, the phenomenon of color, but our intellect knows the intelligible reality of that fact. Man's intelligence, the lowest of all intelligences, has as object the lowest level of intelligible reality, the intelligibility of the sense world, wherein, as in a mirror, it knows the existence of a first cause, of God. [1363].

In the ascending order of discovery, we thus formulate the principle of causality: All that begins, all that is contingent, has a cause, and in last analysis a supreme cause, an uncaused cause. In the descending order, thus: All beings by participation depend on the Being by essence as on their supreme cause. That which is being by participation is not its own existence, since we must distinguish the subject which participates from the existence which it receives and participates. Peter is not his existence, but has his existence, received from Him who alone can say: I am He who is, I am existence itself." [1364].

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