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contemplating being

What can a philosopher’s metaphysical “intuition of being”[1] offer to society? I think the root philosophical difficulty, whenever we speak of politically contentious things, is that we have few resources with which to resist “modern philosophy’s ideological approach to politics.”[2]

How can one cultivate the right personal disposition such that one might avoid the pitfalls of ideology? How can one free oneself from closed, ideological patterns of thought about reality?

When it comes to thinking about reality, perhaps what a metaphysician might contribute to cultivating sober political thinking would be this observation: the antithesis to ideology is transcendental being.

Being can never be captured in an ideological box, because being is not a genus. As transcendental, it always escapes univocal classification. It can be contemplated analogically, and that is the gift of “the givenness of things,” which calls forth wonder from the mind that thinks about the existence of things.

In truth, “existential judgment is a kind of natural piety,”[3] and analogical contemplation attains a natural knowledge of God: namely, that He exists. The “graciousness of being” in the natural order is what allows us to reason from the existence of things to the existence of God.

This flower exists. Its ultimate source of existence is not seed, soil, or sunlight (which merely determine its relatively stable form or essence), but rather the absolute source of its being, its existence.

This natural piety, which arises in intellectual contemplation of the existential judgment, was best articulated in ancient philosophy by Aristotle. Plato had called attention to the phenomenon of our intellectual vision of the forms or essences of things. But it was Aristotle who emphasized the primacy of being and who called our intellectual vision back to earth, grounding it in the reality of “the givenness of things.”

The sheer existence of things ontologically precedes whatever relatively stable thing, on the fragile basis of its sheer being, may appear to our cognition as contracted and crystallized into its being-ness (i.e., its relatively stable “essence”).

Werner Jaeger

Werner Jaeger

Werner Jaeger argues that Aristotle knew that logic and science “can never attain to that irresistible force of inner conviction which arises from the inspired presentiments of the soul.” Jaeger writes that Aristotle “spoke more beautifully and more profoundly about the personal and emotional side of all religious life” than anyone else in the ancient world.

“Aristotle derives the subjective conviction of God’s existence from two sources: from man’s experience of the inspired might of the soul … and from the sight of the starry heavens,” observes Jaeger.

Also writing on the subject of Aristotle’s religious convictions, Anton-Hermann Chroust says that for Aristotle “man’s belief in God and in God’s existence arises primarily from an innate spiritual and affirmative strength which in its spontaneous manifestations—in its complete independence from physical or psycho-physical factors—generates in man a spontaneous, free and joyous realization that there exists, and must exist, an invisible intelligent and omniscient Being that knows everything to perfection.”

Technically speaking, for Aristotelian Thomism, the “intuition of being” (upon which is founded the demonstrations of God’s existence) is itself founded on a contemplation of ens ut primum cognitum (“being-as-first-known”), i.e., of what is given to us intellectually by the active intellect as the irreducible root of our species-specifically human cognition.

That is, the “intuition of being” is an intellectual habit of mind, an intellectual vision, a contemplation (theoria) that has been cultivated from explicit reflection upon the actual “givenness of things” which is common to everything that implicitly does exist in cognition and is given to cognition in ens ut primum cognitum.

Transcendental being is at the root of all cognition: both horses and unicorns exist for the mind; both, in some way, are. Hence being is analogous: it has many meanings. For example, existence is the common thread, despite the only analogically related modes of fictional being (unicorns) and real being (horses).

Thus the mind cannot think beyond being, unless analogically: all I can know naturally is the relative givenness of what is; yet I can analogically think an absolutely immaterial source for being (existence), somewhat like I can know the material source for the dandelions on the lawn (seeds, with a particular essence, interacting with other relatively stable essences, like soil and sunlight), but only analogically so: i.e., by distinguishing the immaterial absolute from the material relativities.

Aristotle argued against Plato for the analogy of being. Aristotle claimed that to on pollachos legetai, “being is said in many ways,” in order to protect being from a mathematical univocal classification. This univocal sort of classification is what every essentialism, Platonic or not, tends to reduce existence to.

MetaphysicsAristotle, however, was first to distinguish explicitly the properly contemplative, metaphysical habit of mind attuned to analogical thought about being. And his crucial distinction, which cultivates the intuition of being, appears not just in the Metaphysics, but in the natural piety that suffuses all his works.

Perhaps, by devoting more care in education to cultivating such an Aristotelian natural piety, we might find a cure for the ideological habits of mind that consistently distort one’s attention to reality as it really is.

Above all else, the mind by nature desires to know what is and to distinguish it from what is not. Only on this basis can it hope to finally know the path to beatitude, either in this world or the next.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


[1] Cf. John P. Hittinger, “Maritain on the Intuition of Being”, in Liberty, Wisdom, and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2002), 203-212.

[2] Robert Kraynak, review of John P. Hittinger, Liberty, Wisdom, and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory, in Claremont Review of Books (Spring 2004).

[3] Hittinger, op. cit.

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2 replies to this post
  1. But Aristotle was not in any sense a contemplative philosopher such as Plotinus for instance who was reported to frequently enter into states of mindless ecstasy.
    It could be said that Aristotle was primarily responsible for the world view that reduces everyone and everything to separate things. Which is the very essence of the de-sacralizing secular world-view which most of the contributors to this site deplore.

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