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  • Aquinas on esse commune and the First Mode of Participation
  • Jason A. Mitchell

THOMAS AQUINAS’S commentary on Boethius’s De hebdomadibus divides participation into three modes and provides examples for each mode. The first mode of participation concerns something particular or less universal participating in a more universal notion, like an individual participating in a species or a species in a genus. The second mode involves a subject participating in a form or act, which is determined to the subject. Examples include a subject participating in its accidents and matter in form. The third mode regards an effect participating in its cause, especially when the effect is not equal to the power of its cause. This is exemplified by air participating in the light of the sun.1 Aquinas makes the threefold distinction while expounding Boethius’s axioms on the diversity of that-which-is (id quod est) and being (esse) and the participation of that-which-is in being. In another work, Aquinas holds that the relation between finite being (ens) and being (esse) is one of participation: being (ens), the participant, is that which finitely participates in esse, the participatum.2 Aquinas goes on to say in his Boethian exposition that esse does not participate in something according to the first two modes. He explicitly states that ens, which he clarifies as most common, [End Page 543] does not participate in esse, which is also most common, as the less common participates in the more common, but rather that it (ens communissimum) participates in being itself (ipsum esse) in the way that a concretum participates in an abstractum.3

Interpreters have struggled to understand exactly what Aquinas means by this type of participation between concrete and abstract and to determine which of the three modes of participation corresponds to the relation of participation between finite ens and esse. With regard to participated esse, John Wippel has noted that Aquinas speaks of participation in esse in three different ways: as participation in esse commune (the act of being considered in general), as participation in actus essendi, and as participation in esse subsistens (God).4 In the end, Wippel holds that all three of these participations are cases of the third mode to the exclusion of the other two modes.5 For Leo Elders, participation in esse is through the second and third modes.6 Tomas Tyn also holds that ens participates in esse [End Page 544] according to the second mode.7 For Rudi te Velde, Aquinas has tacitly introduced a fourth mode to account for the participation between ens and esse.8 Ralph McInerny seems to hold two different positions: participation of ens in esse is either according to the second mode9 or is irreducible to any of the three modes.10

Even the modes of participation themselves have been interpreted in different ways. Louis-Bertrand Geiger sees the first two modes as examples of his distinction between participation by similitude (which concerns the essence) and participation by composition (which concerns being).11 Cornelio Fabro, on the other hand, sees the first two modes—which he calls “formal-notional” (first mode) and “real” (second mode)—as cases of static-structural participation, while the third mode is interpreted as a dynamic-causal participation.12 At the same time, Fabro holds that the first and most fundamental division of participation is between univocal-predicamental participation [End Page 545] and analogical-transcendental participation.13 Univocalpredicamental participations include those between an individual and its species, a species and its genus, a substance and its accidents, and matter and form. Analogical-transcendental participation concerns the participation of a substance in its act of being (actus essendi) and the participation between the creature (ens per participationem) and God the Creator (esse per essentiam).14

It should be noted that Aquinas provides at least two other divisions of participation in his works. One occurs in his commentary on the Letter to the Colossians in the context of distinguishing the first three orders of angels—seraphim, cherubim, and thrones. There Aquinas writes,

For one thing can participate in another in three ways: one way, receiving the property of its nature; another way, insofar...


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