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SOME FRANCISCANS ON ST. THOMAS' ESSENCE-EXISTENCE DOCTRINE Introduction Edgar Hocedez, a Jesuit, once spoke of what he termed the "enigma of Thomism": how come no one doubts that Giles of Rome held a real distinction of essence and existence whereas the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas on the matter has been debated for seven centuries?1 Modern Thomists have answered the enigma by distinguishing a real distinction doctrine proper to St. Thomas from the real distinction doctrine of Giles of Rome. At the risk of oversimplifying, we can say that Giles' distinction is characterized by the following features: i) existence is a thing (res); ii) essence is separable from existence; iii) "demonstrations" of Giles real distinction doctrine. Perhaps the easiest way to understand Thomas Aquinas' own real distinction doctrine is to realize that the above features are completely absent in Aquinas' version: Thomas never speaks of esse or existence as a thing, never speaks of the separability of essence and existence, and never attempts to "prove" his real distinction. Whatever the real distinction doctrine of St. Thomas is, it is not the same as the doctrine of Giles. After his study of St. Thomas' writings, Etienne Gilson views Aquinas' doctrine as "the properly Thomistic answer to the classic problem of universals."2 Whether we call it a "real composition" or a "real distinction" doctrine, Gilson is convinced that such is the authentic teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, provided we understand the doctrine correctly. Observes the French scholar: The composition is 'real,' because its result is a res (a thing), and the distinction is also 'real,' because its act of existing is what makes that thing to be, not a mere quiddity, but an actually real 'being.' In short, what 'real' composition or distinction seems 1 Edgar Hocedez, S.J. "Introduction historique," Aegidii Romani Theoremata de Esse el Essentia (Louvain, 1930), p. (101). 8 Etienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, 2nd ed. (Toronto, 1952), P- 171· 284GERMAIN KOPACZYNSKI to mean in the texts in which Thomas Aquinas himself uses such expressions, is that the existential actuality which a subsisting being owes to its own 'to be' is radically other than what, in the substance itself, makes it to be 'such a thing.'3 If majority rule prevailed in philosophy, the question of a real distinction between essence and existence in the writings of St. Thomas would be answered with a resounding yes by Thomists. Modern research by Gilson, Fabro, and Forest — to name but a few — seems to have solved the question once and for all, despite an occasional article to the contrary.4 Where do we find the key texts spelling out Aquinas' unique version of the real distinction? Father Norbert del Prado, staunch defender of Thomas' doctrine as the key to Christian philosophy, lists no fewer than a dozen such texts in his magnum opus on the question.5 Sister Mary Clark goes even further, seeing a real distinction in St. Thomas as "omnipresent."6 For the purposes of this article, let us assume that such are the claims of discipleship; perhaps Thomists tend to read a real distinction of essence and esse into the texts of their master. I do not claim this is so, but it may be instructive to see what the adversaries of a real distinction between essence and existence have to say concerning the texts of the Angelic Doctor. Among the foremost adversaries of Thomism in general and of the real distinction in particular are the Franciscans. Admittedly, our approach is indirect and roundabout . Yet it will prove instructive for several reasons. First, a study of Thomas' opponents will clearly corroborate what Gilson, Fabro, del Prado, and a host of other Thomists have been saying all along concerning the presence of a real distinction doctrine in the works of Aquinas. Second, we shall discover those texts of St. Thomas in which even his aversaries clearly see a real distinction between essence and esse being spelled out. Third, we shall observe that the language predominant in the 8 Ibid., pp. 171-2. 4 For example, Francis Cunningham, S.J., "Averroes vs. Avicenna on Being," The New Scholasticism, 48 (1974), 185-218. 6 Norbert del...


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