Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

The Exaltation of Metaphysics in John Paul II's Fides et Ratio

Mario Enrique Sacchi

The encyclical Fides et ratio of Pope John Paul II contains an unusual exaltation of metaphysics on the part of the Church's teaching. This exaltation arises in the midst of a vast spiritual crisis which depends to a great extent on the modern aggressive and persistent rejection of the science of being as such. Two paragraphs of Fides et ratio are devoted to the exaltation of metaphysics (§§ 83-84), but all the context of this document exudes the explicit aim of emphasizing the outstanding role of our science in man's intellectual life.

In Fides et ratio we find a significant testimony of the reassessment of metaphysics through the constant affirmation of the natural desire for knowledge as an impulse that lies in the same nature of the human soul. Moreover, several paragraphs of the encyclical dwells on in man's natural motion to the knowledge of truth and to the search of wisdom. John Paul II points out that our mind has an unrestrained impetus in view of a very perfect intelligence to be crowned in the intellective union with an infinite object which transcends everything of this world. From that it follows that the natural desire for knowledge implies the natural desire for God because man has received the magnificent perceptive power of his reason for he knows the first principle of everything and also of his own act of being.

John Paul II's insistence on the natural desire for knowledge has an excepcional importance because the Pope echoed here a major thesis of metaphysics. In fact, we are fully aware that the affirmation of such a natural desire for knowledge heads the famous initial statement of the Metaphysics of Aristotle: «All men by nature desire to know»(1). This affirmation is the key to understand the essence of metaphysics and the most decisive man's direction towards his union with God. That is why St. Thomas Aquinas had recourse to this metaphysical doctrine of Aristotle. Aquinas gave a broad philosophical and theological justification of this Aristotelian doctrine where lies the Thomistic speculation on the order of the acts of rational creature to his ultimate end. Therefore, the foundation of human acts in man's natural order to the intellective knowledge of God is the first and most powerful evidence of our aspiration to the eternal happiness and also the background where the moral life of human being is based properly.

The exaltation of metaphysics expounded in Fides et ratio indicates that the Church's firm opposition to the modern rejection of man's association to God through the philosophical knowledge. The new encyclical of John Paul II involves a further Catholic allegation against the long history of agnosticism advanced by the nominalist schools of the Middle Ages and extended by the main movements of modern thought. The plain truth is that metaphysics and agnosticism are irreconciliable enemies. The agnostic spirit discards the rational knowledge of God; on the contrary, metaphysics is an authentic philosophical theology for the science of the first principle and of the first cause is the same science of that which all men call God; not as known in the intimacy of his own divine life, but as the first principle and the first cause of every being, i.e sub ratione entis. That is why, above all, agnosticism is a denial of first philosophy because this science would have no raison d'être if the human intellect cannot get a certain knowledge of the divine being. Due to the fact that science is the knowledge of the causes of things under our consideration, according to Aristotle's definition of epistemic knowledge(2), the impossibility of a knowledge of the first principle and of the first cause of everything would deprive us of the intelligence of the first cause and of the first principle of the subject of metaphysics, and so the science of being as such would render nonsensical.

Now, if we can obtain a scientific knowledge of everything by means of the knowledge of its causes, but if man's metaphysical discourse could not get a certain knowledge of the first uncaused cause, according to the agnostic position, then the human soul must face up to a grave dilemma: either nothing could be known or human knowledge would be limited to a mere phenomenical examination of mundane objects. But Fides et ratio does not accept this dilemma. John Paul II says that man is capable of obtaining a metaphysical knowledge of God because He created the human being as a compound of body and intellective soul. Now, man's intellect is potentially infinite, so that through this power we can know the infinite divine principle of our own entity. Such as Aristotle has proved in his treatise De anima, the human soul is in a way all existing things for all them can be known by our mind since nothing escapes from the possibility of being reflected in our immaterial soul as in a mirror where all intelligible objects can be represented(3). On the other hand, the potentially infinite extension of human intellect has an objective correlate in the external things because its formal object is precisely being as such. However, bearing in mind that being is also predicated by analogy of the first being, the infinity of its essence is not excluded from the common object of man's intellect.

Philosophers must be presuaded that the denial of the order of rational knowledge to the intellective union with God finishes in the denial of metaphysics itself. The science of being as such could not be an immanent knowledge of man's soul if our intellective power does not order its proper act to the intelligence of the first principle and the first cause of the universe. If so, but contradictorily, it would not be the scientific knowledge of the causes of its subject.

Nevertheless, after the long agnostic evolution of modern thought, the capacity of human reason for knowing God according to the metaphysical method is still impugned nowadays. In this sense, some philosophers who agree with Martin Heidegger's criticism of metaphysics admit his identification of first philosophy with a certain ontotheology, as it was described in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, but those philosophers add to Heidegger's opinion a complement that they think compatible with the Thomistic theory of human knowledge of God. i.e the ontotheological failure of metaphysics as a science concerned with God could be overlooked by means of an apophatic experience of divine mysteries.

Heidegger had propounded an overcoming of metaphysics once convinced about the breakdown of its so-called "ontotheological constitution". He has thought that metaphysics would be a discipline founded on a which would speculate about being qua being and about God as an ens causa sui(4). This strange ontotheology had arisen and grown because the Sein would stay hidden in the entities of all the existing things and fallen into oblivion. Not even the philosophical concept of God could avoid this oblivion for, according to Heidegger, the Sein would not be the essence of the divinity. So, if not divine, the Sein cannot be an infinite act for Heidegger's Sein does not exceed the limits of the things existing in this finite world, a world full of beings that keep an "ontological difference" with regard to that Sein. Then Heidegger's thought about the Sein lies on the assumption that it would be something absolutely foreign to the being itself.

However, since human thinking about the Sein would need to discover its truth by means of a surmounting its hidden situation in the being, if God not be the Sein essentially finite of this world, such a thinking would not be a speculation about God either. If so, the authentic thought about the Sein would not be an ontotheology; it would be a non-metaphysical thought which overcomes the disappointment arisen from its historical oblivion in Western philosophy, especially since Plato and Aristotle --the pioneers of ontotheology, according to Heidegger-- have established a new style of philosophizing which cannot allow to think the Sein as a pure Sein, i.e. independently of its commitments with the being which the metaphysics deals with.

After Heidegger's death, the core of his criticism of the science of being as such has been adopted by some authors who compared it with St. Thomas' metaphysics. In general, these philosophers are persuaded that Heidegger's challenge of our science would affect completely and fairly the history of metaphysics, with the exception of Aquinas's own metaphysical conception. St. Thomas' metaphysics would be exempt from Heidegger's criticism of first philosophy because it would not be impregnated with the ontotheological compounds which would corrupt the remaining contributions to the science of being as such put together throughout its turbulent historical evolution.

It is said that ontotheology would deal with a concept of being which would be predicated univocally both of the creatures and of God, but a concept which would favour the fact of the knowledge of being --the formal object of the intellect-- as a perception of the Sein founded in the intelligibility of its common predication both of God and of his effects. This would confirm Heidegger's favourite opinion: the Sein would be hidden in the darkness of being, so that metaphysics, the science of being as such, would forget to think the Sein as a pure Sein because of its obstinate concealment into being. Nevertheless, St. Thomas' metaphysics would be free from this typical ontotheological deceit.

It is certainly unquestionable that Aquinas put the act of being in the vertex of his metaphysical speculation. He has demonstrated that the esse, or the actus essendi, is the first act of the being by participation and also the nature of God, the uncaused cause of all those things which are not by virtue of their own essences. The being composed of essence and act of being is an effect of the causality of the ipsum esse subsistens, which can be known metaphysically starting from the intellection of created things, but being as such is not predicated of these things and of the divine being in an univocal sense. The finite being receives the act of being within the limits of its essence, whereas God is the esse irreceptum whose nature exceeds entirely the entity commonly predicated of the creatures whose essences are not their act of being. This is a brief synthesis of the famous Thomistic theory of the real distinction of the essence and the act of being of every finite and composed thing and, at the same time, of the very perfect identity of the esse and the divine substance(5).

Philosophers who follow Heidegger's rejection of ontotheology raise the question of whether the concept of being would be also predicated of the uncaused cause of everything understood under the universal reason of the ens inquantum ens. As God transcends the ens commune predicated of all his effects, the divine being would be excluded from the notion of being as such. Therefore, if metaphysics is the science of the common being, and if its notion is not predicated of the divine being, then first philosophy would not be a knowledge of God. Moreover, we cannot get an intelligence of the deity through metaphysical speculation for God's entity is not predicated of the subject of the science of being qua being. But as metaphysics speculates about all its matters in the light of the concept of being, inasmuch as God exceeds the common being his truth would remain beyond the ontotheological intellection of the metaphysician's reach.

Now St. Thomas taught that we cannot perceive naturally God's essence in itself because the enormous disproportion existing between his dazzling intelligibility quoad se and the weak powers of our natural reason in view of the knowledge of an object infinitely distant of our diminished entity of effects of his causality. According to this Thomistic doctrine, some authors think that, if all our intellective perceptions are reduced to the concept of being, and if God transcends the common being, metaphysics --the science of being as such-- must keep silent with regard to the mystery of a deity which cannot be predicated of the concept of being. Now, if so, how can we avoid the relapse into agnosticism? Is the human reason compelled to limp when the horizon of the act of being impedes the knowledge of the uncaused cause placed beyond the objective borders of the common being?

Philosophers who admit Heidegger's criticism of metaphysics think that St. Thomas had eluded these queries through an explicit overcoming of ontotheology. Whereas Plato and Aristotle had reduced the pure act to the common conception of being, instead Aquinas' theological theory would include another way of knowing the divine essence. The Thomistic approach to God would not be an ontotheological speculation of the uncaused cause of all caused beings, such as traditional metaphysics has tried unsuccessfully to speak about the divine being throughout the history of Western philosophy, but a process of another kind whose particularity would be its apophatic character. Thus God can be known by man's intellection, but not as a being. So, we can know God as something unknown and ineffable. He would be seen in a penumbra beyond the beings where his mystery would surpass every entity and also the esse which we attruibute to his essence for lack of a uncontaminated name with the imperfections of the act of being participated by creatures. As a consequence of that, St. Thomas' apophatic thought would be free from the ontotheological vice which reduces God to the concept of being.

The apophatic way would allow our mind to know God as something unknown, but provided that man's intellect gains access to the "gloominess of ignorance" and meditates plunged into the "dark night" of intelligence. It would be in the midst of these shadows where the excellence of the divinity would show the brilliance of its infinite remoteness with respect to the act of being speculated by ontotheologist metaphysicians. It would be so because the act of being, as speculated in the metaphysics as the act of the common being, would gather all the intelligible things in the brightness of their presumed univocal conception, although without avoiding the obstruction of the negative way that takes us to the knowledge of the unknown God. Therefore, man cannot obtain a knowledge of God if he has unfounded hopes of the doubtful goodness of the ontotheological structure of metaphysics. On the contrary, we can know the divine being by means of an apophatic thinking, which would be the only sort of thinking suitable for grasping the mystery of the Deus ignotus (cf. Act. 17:23), a divinity that refuses to remain itself locked in the schemes of the science of being qua being.

Nevertheless, knowledge is an essentially afirmative act. I know the horse in afirming that it is such as it is. Instead if I say "the horse is not a lion", this statement is not false, but for the fact that I deny that the horse is not a lion I do not know what is a horse. As Aquinas pointed out, the nature of negation calls for it always be later than the affirmation: Affirmatio naturaliter est prior negatione(6). Even more, St. Thomas wrote that the affirmative knowledge is most worthy than the knowledge which depends on negative demonstrations. The foundation of this Thomistic theory lies in the relationship of our affirmations with being that is because its participation of the actus essendi, whereas negations, on the contrary, are related both to being and non-being, although their relationship with being --for non-being, absolutely considered, is unknowable-- in a certain way participates something of affirmative propositions(7).

As all the human knowledges, metaphysical intelligence also responds to these epistemological rules. The knowledge of the first philosopher is an affirmative one of being as such because his intellection starts and sustains itself with the supreme affirmation of every intellect: being is. It is not in vain that the fundamental knowledge gotten by our intellect is that things are. Thereby, as metaphysical intelligence progresses through its scientific discourse, all its jugements, now affirmative, now negative, find their basis in the aformentioned affirmation with an absolute necessity. But when the science of common being must face up the main aporia of its investigation into the causes of caused being, the etiology contained in the theorems of metaphysics concludes affirmatively that all the caused things depend necessarily on a first uncaused cause.

In his demonstration of the incaused cause, the metaphysician answers the question an est by means of an apodictical reasoning whose conclusions are reached through consecutive affirmations. It is true that this reasoning also includes several negations, as it happens in every intellective process ruled by the first principles of intelligence, especially by the principle of non-contradiction, but the presence of these negations in the demonstrative argumentation does not hinder that the conclusion of the theological discourse be an affirmative knowledge of God: quod Deus sit. However, the human reason does not satisfy its own natural desire of knowing only by affirming the uncaused cause. St. Thomas asserted that once known the cause of things investigated by the human intellect, our intellectual power does not content itself with the mere determination of the existence of such a cause for the natural desire for knowledge drives it to search for a knowledge of the very essence of that uncaused cause(8). Now, does it mean that the science of being as such, once deduced affirmatively that God is, can likewise advance towards the obtaining an affirmative knowledge of his essence, a knowledge about quid est Deus?

This is the knotty point of our problem. Philosophers who admit Heidegger's criticism of metaphysics raise the question within the following antithetical terms: on the one hand, theological philosophy proves that God is and subsequently demonstrates the attributes of divine nature; on the other hand, these philosophers exploit some statements of St. Thomas which would deny the aptitude of man's reason for knowing God's essence. So the struggle would be unavoidable for God's pure act, which is his own essence, being the highest mystery quoad nos, cannot be known through the perceptive potency of our natural reason. But in spite of the impenetrability of this mystery, metaphysicians seek the intelligence of the secrets of the divine nature to such an extent that want to reach an affirmative knowledge of the subsistent pure act of God's substance.

The problem lies on the desillusion of some philosophers with regard to the human possibility of an affirmative knowledge of the divine nature. They think that such an affirmative knowledge would be impossible because the infinite distance which separates the creatures from God would not allow to perceive his substance. So, an affirmative metaphysical knowledge of God would imply an arrogant offence against his mysterious essence. That is why the unknowability quoad nos of his nature drive us to this alternative: either it must be rejected the theological suitability of metaphysics as a result of its irreverent aspirations to show itself as an affirmative knowledge of God's essence, or our knowledge of God must be restricted to an apophatic experience limited to a negative approach to his mysterious unknowability. In a word, it would be abolutely necessary that God be reached by means of a mode of knowing really distinct from metaphysics, the science of being such as it was exalted in Western philosophical tradition.

Now then, the simple fact that some philosophers deal with this question as philosophers, makes clear that they are overrunning the matter of sacred theology, a matter they cannot speculate as mere philosophers or inquantum huiusmodi. Even more, metaphysics cannot solve that question. After the solution of the question an est through the affirmative demonstration of the first uncaused cause, quod omnes Deum nominant, the science of being as such advances in view of the deduction of the divine essence's attributes starting from the same conclusions of those arguments through which the first philosopher inferred that God is. In this sense, all the theoretical argumentation of philosophical theology about the uncaused cause is rulled by the three ways originally outlined in the Corpus areopagiticum and later promoted by St. Thomas to their highest scientific expression: the viae causalitatis, negationis et eminentiae. But why metaphysics cannot solve the problem of the scope of man's knowledge of the divine essence? It would be wrong to think that its solution would not be possible through metaphysical analysis because its supposed powerlessness with regard to the evaluation of its own cognitive virtues. In fact, our problem has been affected by further complications by reason of the opinions of Christian authors who deal with it on the assumption that so they would act as metaphysicians, but in this case, against what they think, it is plain that these philosophers, not inquantum huiusmodi, but inquantum Christiani, are carrying out an apologetical task which belongs to sacred theology exclusively. They act as experts in sacra doctrina because theologize about the several ways by means of which man can know God, now through the own power of our natural reason, now through this same reason elevated by the divine grace of faith, now through a permanent comparison between these two modes --natural and supernatural-- of knowing the uncaused cause of metaphysics, which is the same God who revealed himself his mysterious truth to all men for their eternal salvation.

The metaphysician is conscious of the scope of his science. In fact, metaphysics deals with its own principles because it is not only an epistemic habit, but also a true wisdom. But first philosophy deals with itself, with its principles and with its analytic process without exceeding the knowledge that human reason can obtain about its perceptive act by means of the efficacy of its natural capacity for knowing. So, in the measure that our intellect is in potency with regard to a supernatural object which cannot be known naturally by man's mind, in this same measure the science of being qua being cannot demonstrate if and how such an objet is knowable by human reason. Much less metaphysics can demonstrate the attributes of the essence of something supernatural whose transcendence makes impossible for the first philosopher its speculation within the subject of our science, i.e. the being commonly predicated of everything.

Notwithstanding, the natural limits of metaphysical knowledge do not hinder entirely the possibility of a certain knowledge of the essence of the incaused cause. It is not necessary to have recourse to sacred theology to know it for metaphysics manifests itself this aptitude of its scientific function. So, once demonstrated that there is a God, metaphysics deals immediately with the question quid est Deus. In this new phase the science of being as such concludes that the affirmation of the first unmoved motor, of the first uncaused caused, of the being absolutely necessary, of the first principle of being of all the creatures and of their perfections, and of the governor of the universe allows to us to predicate of his nature several attributes knowable with certainty by our natural reason. So, man's intellect speculates about God's essence making use of the ductility of the three ways described by the Pseudo-Denys and Aquinas, every one of them empower human reason to obtain naturally a certain knowledge of God's substance.

The metaphysical knowledge of God is fundamentally affirmative since the key of its philosophical intellection lies in this statement: God is. Starting from this affirmation, metaphysics rises to the intelligence of the attributes of his essence. So, it infers that God is one, simple, immutable, eternal, wise, true, good, provident, etc. Still, the primacy of the metaphysical affirmation of God is diminished by the weakness of human reason for knowing appropriately a being whose nature is absolutely simple; hence the via negationis is an indispensable resort to complement concomitantly the human shortness of our affirmative knowledge of the divine essence. This is a testimony of the frailty of our philosophical reasoning in its order to the accomplishment of the science of being as such by means of the intellective union of man's mind to the first and supreme truth.

The absolute primacy of the affirmative metaphysical knowledge includes the necessity of negative jugements like complements of the rational process ordered to the demonstration of the attributes of the divine essence. St. Thomas has stated fittingly this primacy of the affirmative knowledge when he has interpreted the scope of Pseudo-Denys apophatic theology. Aquinas said that nothing can be denied of God is we have not a certain affirmative knowledge of his nature. That is why the author of the Corpus dionysianum wrote that the divine names mean positively God's essence, although they cannot hide the deficiencies and the imperfections of the words of our human language when we use them to signify those things predicated of the Creator's nature(9). Men's language does not mean God's essence through names taken from an intelligence of his nature such as that the saints have in patria in seeing him face to face, but starting from the knowledge of created beings we perceive during our life in this world(10).

This attack against a metaphysics wrongfully confused with the ontotheology rejected in Heidegger's works leaves open only one way to obtain a certain knowledge of God, that is to say an apophatic approach to his mystery, but this way is not of a philosophical nature. This apophatic way is closer to a mystical experience which presupposes the supernatural revelation of God's truth, but if not founded in such a revelation, it dissolves in an esoteric gnosticism or in an outlandish theosophy. However, the fact is that metaphysics is not a science of mysteries. It is a philosophical science whose principles are taken from natural evidences; not from the divine revelation, so that the apophatic way appears as a claudication of a man's reason which has desisted from knowing the things and their first uncaused cause according to the only one way capable of arriving to this end, namely metaphysics.

In Fides et ratio John Paul II exalted metaphysics just at that moment when the science of being as such is being confuted once more by reason of its supposed ontotheological vices. The clash of this pontifical exaltation of metaphysics and of the apophatic way to a non-metaphysical knowledge of God is beyond all doubt. In short, this apophatic way is a renewed restauration of the old agnostic trend grafted widely on to the modern thought once the nominalist tendencies had undermined the foundations of first philosophy. But Pope John Paul II has just confirmed that the Church thinks that metaphysics, in spite of its innumerable detractors, is still alive in the heart of philosophical speculation.


1. Metaphys. I 1: 980 a 21.

2. Cf. Analyt. post. I 2: 71 b 9-12.

3. Cf. De anima III 8: 431 b 21.

4. Cf. M. Heidegger, «Die onto-theo-logische Verfassung der Metaphysik», in Id., Identität und Differenz (Pfullingen: Günther Neske, 1957), pp. 35-73.

5. A masterly explanation of this thesis can be read in the book of N. del Prado O. P., De veritate fundamentali philosophiae christianae (Fribourg, Switzerland: Ex Typis Consociationis Sancti Pauli,1911).

6. In I Peri hermen., lect. 1, n. 10. Cf. lect. 8, n. 3; and lect. 39, n. 8.

7. Cf. In I Post. analyt., lect. 39, n. 5. Cf. n. 8.

8. Cf. Comp. theol. I 104.

9. «Intellectus negationis semper fundatur in aliqua affirmatione: quod ex hoc patet quia omnis negativa per affirmativam probatur; unde nisi intellectus humanus aliquid de Deo affirmative cognosceret, nisi de Deo posset negare, non autem cognosceret, si nihil quod de Deo dicit, de eo verificaretur affirmative. Et ideo, secundum sententiam Dionysii, dicendum est, quod huiusmodi nomina significant divinam subs-tantiam, quamvis deficienter et imperfecte» (De potent. q. 7 a. 5 resp.).

10. «Considerandum est quod nomina, cum sint a nobis imposita, sic significant secundum quod res in cognitionem nostram cadunt. Cum igitut hoc ipsum quod Deus est, sit supra cognitionem nostram, ut ostensum est, cognitio autem nostra commensuretur rebus creatis, nomina a nobis imposita non sic signi-ficant secundum quod congruit divinae excellentiae, sed secundum quod convenit existentiae rerum crea-tarum» (In I De div. nomin., lect. 1, n. 29).