Being as Act II
The distintion of St. Thomas had accumulated many precedents.
The distinction of St. Thomas had accumulated many precedents. Boethius had already distinguished esse from quod est, ie what an entity is and the fact that it is. Thus we can distinguish between asking ourselves what is an entity (quid sit) and asking if an entity is or is not (an sit). It is not the same defining what a cat is than affirming that a cat is. Avicenna in turn distinguished the Creator – as necessary being (necesse esse) – from the creatures (possibilia esse et non esse).
And it was finally William of Auvergne who first made the distinction between essence and existence. Aquinas, following Avicenna, states that “in the creature, the essence of a thing and its Being are not the same” and understands this as a case - unpredicted by Aristotle – of potency and act. This distinction makes sense of the participation by which creatures are part of God’s Being and definitely determines God’s Transcendence as first Principle.
The foundation of the divine being as essential Being leads the act-potency composition to a field that was not predicted by Aristotelian philisophy. But it would be equally permissible to say that setting the highest perfection of Being in God – and participated in creatures – would be a Platonic version of the Thomistic distinction. So we can speak about an Aristotelian or Platonic version of the novelty that Aquinas exposed, as long as we observe that Aristotelism and Platonism are, in this case, nothing but known grammars which expressed a metaphysically new element that, additionally, overcame the genuinely Greek horizon of comprenhension.
Aquinas did not develop the real distinction between essence and act of being, at least, not in a direct way but always referring to it in terms of simplicity of the Divine Being and composition of the created entity. All compositions serve him to highlight the real difference between the Divine Being and the creature: if he distinguishes the entity from its existence, he will speak about the composition of essence and act of being; if he distinguises the entity from its essence, he will speak about the composition of matter and form; and if he distinguishes the entity from its operation he will speak about the composition of potency and act. But all these compositions serve him mainly to distinguish the composite entity from the most simple Being which is God.
The novelty lies neither in the participation nor in the causality thesis, but in the fact that Aquinas pours the core of creational metaphysics in both theses, which is none other than the distinction between essence and act of being. Essence is its own being in God while, in creatures, essence is different from its act of being. The clear distinction consists in the radical difference between the Uncreated being and the created entities, and not between the simple/composited being or its various applications. It is important not to confuse the fact that the essence of the created entity is not “its” Being with the fact that the essence of the created entity is not “the” Being.
In the first case we are facing creational metaphysics, since we place the onthological difference between Him and those creatures which are not “their” being in the identity by which God is “its” being. In the second case, the identity by which God is “the” essential being confuses creation with formal participation, since the meaning of being is here unique for God and the creature, although essential in God and participated in creatures.