The Diffusiveness of Being


Norris Clarke writes: “It is proper to every being, insofar as it is in act, to overflow into action, to act according to its nature, whether such action be free or necessitated in its modality” (Explorations in Metaphysics, p. 46). To be is to be active and energetic; to be is to communicate being and reveal being; to be is to enter into community with other beings and thus form a universe. Hence while we can notionally distinguish between a being’s act of existence and its activities, in fact the two are indivisible. If something never acted, it would be indistinguishable from a nothing.

Beings go out of themselves into action for two reasons, suggests Clarke. Each being is rich in actuality. Each exists and therefore possesses some measure of ontological perfection and seeks to share this perfection with others. But each being is also poor in actuality, limited and incomplete, existing in a composite state of act and potentiality, and therefore needs other beings for the realization of their being and perfection. This metaphysical dynamism of giving and receiving structures the universe and indeed makes the universe a universe:

Not only does every being tend, by the inner dynamism of its act of existence, to overflow into action, but this action is both a self-manifestation and a self-commmunication, a self-sharing, of the being’s own inner ontological perfection with others. This natural tendency to self-giving is a revelation of the natural fecundity or “generosity” rooted in the very nature of being itself. We are immediately reminded of the ancient Platonic tradition—well known to St Thomas—of the “self-diffusiveness of the Good” (bonum est diffusivum sui, as the Latins put it). What St. Thomas has done is to incorporate this whole rich tradition of the fecundity of the Good into his own philosophy of being, turning this self-diffusiveness, which the Platonic tradition identified as proper to what they considered the ultimate ground of reality, the Good, into a property of being itself, of which the good now becomes one inseparable aspect (or transcendental property). Whereas in Platonism, and especially Neoplatonism, being itself is only a lesser dimension of the Good, for St. Thomas the good is a derivative property of existential being itself, expressing more explicitly the primal dynamism of self-expansiveness and self-giving inherent in the very nature of being as act of existence. The primacy always lies with existence for St. Thomas. Nothing can be good unless it first actually is; and from the very fact that it is, it naturally follows that it is good, since the act of existence is the root of all perfection in any domain, “the actuality of all acts, and the perfection of all perfections.” (pp. 48-49)

Diffusiveness of being—some readers will think of the writings of the sixth century theologian and mystic Dionysius. For example:

The cause of all things through an excess of goodness loves all things, produces all things, perfects all things, contains and turns all things toward himself, divine love is good through the goodness of the Good. Indeed love itself which produces the goodness of beings, pre-subsisting super-abundantly in the Good, did not allow itself to remain unproductive but moved itself to produce in the super-abundant generation of all. (Celestial Hierarchy 4.10.159)

Dionysius was a significant influence on the metaphysical reflections of St Thomas Aquinas, but as Norris notes, Thomas broke from the Neo-Platonic structure, in which the One is identified as the Good and being identified with finite being. Thomas instead identifies the Good as Being, while retaining Dionysius’ emphasis on diffusiveness. (If anyone is interested in this topic, I recommend Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas by Fran O’Rourke.) The diffusiveness and generosity of created being thus reflects the diffusiveness and generosity of the Holy Trinity. Norris elaborates:

It is true, of course, that in St. Thomas’ participation universe, as in the Neoplatonic one, the self-diffusiveness of all finite participated beings can be traced back to its primal source, the infinite essential goodness of God himself, who, as pure Subsistent Act of Existence (isum esse Subsistens), is also Love itself. And revelation here gives us a marvelous further insight, inaccessible to strictly philosophical penetration, into the interior depths of the divine self-communicativeness within its own being, manifesting to us that it is of the very nature of the divine being self-communicativeness within its own being, manifesting to us that it is of the nature of the divine being to pour over into two supreme eternal acts of self-communication of the perfection of its nature, first from the Father to the Son, then from the Father and Son together to the Holy Spirit: the procession of the Son of Logos according to self-knowledge, and the procession of the Holy Spirit according to self-love. The rest of the universe dimly imitates, each thing in its own way, this infinite fullness of self-giving. But it still remains that this mysterious inner process of thoughtful, loving self-communication is not a free decision but belongs to the very nature of the Supreme Being as pure Subsistent Act of Existence. If we try to pursue this trail further, why Being itself should be self-expansive Love, all trails end in the silence of the Mystery. The Ultimate Fact that Being is identically Love precludes all further explanatory moves and serves as the ultimate explanatory reason for the entire dynamic nature of the universe. (p. 49)

Eastern Christians will immediately raise the filioque flag. Is Norris’s presentation dependent upon it? I would not think so, as evidenced by Dionysius’ own formulation of the divine diffusiveness. Both the Eastern and Western traditions agree that the trinitarian One freely and fittingly communicates itself in the creation of the many, and the many, in turn, reflect in action the creative self-giving of the One. In the words of Thomas: “Hence if natural things, insofar as they are perfect, communicate their goodness to others, much more does it pertain to the divine will to communicate by likeness its own goodness to others as far as possible” (ST I.19.2).

(Go to “Existing is more than Existence”)

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10 Responses to The Diffusiveness of Being

  1. Michelle says:

    As someone who, until this blog, had never heard of Clarke, and had only a rudimentary understanding of the platonic, aristoltelian, and existential philosophies that are foundational to his thought, I found this pdf to be helpful. It wasnt to hard for a layman like myself to understand, and it has helped me with this series of blpg posts:

    https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://www.anselm.edu/Documents/Institute%2520for%2520Saint%2520Anselm%2520Studies/Fall%25202009/7.1BordenSharkey.pdf&ved=0ahUKEwjUsePezvHRAhVm5oMKHabZC70QFggtMAU&usg=AFQjCNFFyBORGhpuPkXOaIef7eXhl63OTw&sig2=EB9HPJZMLpEAs0UgeMPkPQ

    Not sure if this link is going to work. The title is “How can Being be limited? W. Norris Clarke on Thomas’ limitation of act…,” if you want to google it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      This is very timely, Michelle. Thank you for sharing this article.
      My next post (I think) will attempt to briefly summarize Clarke’s participation metaphysics.

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  2. Robertson says:

    I love Clarke’s emphasis on being’s self communicating nature. However, I will say that, as with all Thomists, I don’t really ever get how discussing God as Being as opposed to Beyond Being, is major development or improvement. It just seems like a creative way of saying the same thing.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I tend to agree with you, Robertson, but at this point my philosophical ignorance is laid bare for all to see. 🙂 I came across this passage in The One and the Many just yesterday:

      The doctrine of Transcendental properties developed piecemeal in Western thought. Plato and Neoplatonism introduced unity and goodness as attributes of every reality, descending by participation from the supreme One-Good. But they did not include being itself in the list, because “being” for them signified a limited intelligible form as part of the whole system of intelligible essences defined by relation to each other. But the ultimate One and Good was above this whole realm of determinate essences or forms, hence “beyond being,” as they put it (though not beyond reality in the broadest sense), and even beyong intelligibility itself in the ordinary sense of clear rational concepts; the One and Good is known only by a mystical ecstasy of the soul beyond reason. (pp. 291-292)

      Clarke’s explanation, if accurate, explains why the Byzantine Fathers emphasized so strongly the incomprehensibility of hyper-ousia divinity and hesychastic experience.

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Not so sure we can draw that conclusion about the Byzantine Fathers’ position, I don’t think we can simply lay neoplatonic metaphysics over Christian apophatic theology and practices. The reason for divine incomprehensibility in Late Antiquity Christianity is neither the absolute neoplatonic remoteness and alienation of the One which cannot relate to the sensible without intermediaries (else it would not longer be ‘one’), nor the platonic distortion intrinsic to the sensible world.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Robertson,

      Following Plotinus’ the One was understood to be beyond even being itself, beyond Plato’s Forms, beyond the Good, and these (including the One) were part of an elaborate hierarchy of realities. To identify God with being (or better, the ‘act of existence’) is to topple the neoplatonic hierarchy along with all the intermediaries, and ground creaturely being in the act of divine existence Itself.

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  3. brian says:

    Clarke as I read him basically takes Existential Thomism, emphasizes participation metaphysics drawn from neo-platonism, and adds a personalist dynamic. The first two he would claim are intrinsic to Thomas’ project. I surmise the latter is part of his own “creative retrieval” which is why he sometimes calls himself a “Thomistically inspired” metaphysician.

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  4. One would like to see more discussion regarding whether or not God could possibly not create. It seems if you follow the idea that “being is essentially diffusive” you’d have to say that God must necessarily create – at least something.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Clarke is clear to distinguish his view of the diffusiveness of being from the necessitarian view of Plotinus. At one point he also discusses the position of Aquinas regarding the freedom of creaiton. Interestingly, he appears to be more drawn to the view of St Bonaventure: given who God is as eternal love, it was fitting that God should create a world distinct from himself. Unfortunately, he only devotes one or two paragraphs to this important question.

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  5. Robert Fortuin says:

    Malcolm,

    Diffusion does not denote necessity as there’s a coincidence of desire and possession in God. In Gregory of Nyssa’s words, ‘when It looks within Itself, It wishes for that It contains and contains that which It wishes.’

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