The Diffusiveness of Being

“It is proper to every being, insofar as it is in act,” Norris Clarke writes, “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 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).

(1 February 2017)

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