David Bentley Hart: “…actus essendi subsistens…”


In purely theoretical terms, the question of the transcendent source of reality is an ontological—not a causal—question: not how things have come to be what they are, but how it is that things exist at all. And none of the customary post-Christian attempts to make the question of being disappear can possibly succeed: even if physics can trace all of time and space back to a single self-sufficient set of laws, that those laws exist at all must remain an imponderable problem for materialist thought (for possibility, no less than actuality, must first of all be); all the brave efforts of analytic philosophy to conjure the ontological question away as a fallacy of grammar have failed and always will; continental philosophy’s attempts at a non-metaphysical ontology are notable chiefly for their lack of explanatory power. In the terms of Thomas Aquinas, there is simply an obvious incommensurability between the essence and the existence of things, and hence finite reality cannot account for its own being. And if this incommensurability is considered with adequate probity and clarity, it cannot fail but lead reflection towards something like what Thomas calls the actus essendi subsistens—the subsistent act of being—which is one of his most beautiful names for God.

Of course, very few persons ever have an occasion to think of reality in terms so abstract. But I suspect that this recognition of the sheer fortuity of existence—the sheer impossibility of anything’s essence ever being adequate to its existence—is what a certain sort of phenomenologist would call a “primordial intuition.” Though we may not all have concepts available to us to understand it, all of us experience from time to time that kind of wonder that for Plato and Aristotle is the beginning of all philosophy, that sudden immediate knowledge that existence is something in excess of everything that is, something not intrinsic to it, something strange in its familiarity and transcendent in its immanence. This is an awareness so obvious that there may never be a theoretical language sufficiently limpid and innocent to express it properly, but in it is a wisdom basic to all reflective thought. To fail to see it requires either an irredeemably brutish mind or a willful obtuseness of the sort that only years of education can induce. And this, I venture to say, is why atheism cannot win out in the end: it requires a moral and intellectual coarseness—a blindness to the obvious—too immense for the majority of mankind.

2 thoughts on “David Bentley Hart: “…actus essendi subsistens…”

  1. I praise you on your comments on Aquinas’ notion of actus essendi. And I wish to ask your permission to use them in my blog and in my writings. You can visit my blog at [http://aquinasactusessendi.blogspot.com] and also you may want to take a look at my Helium.com article Does God Exist? at [http://www.helium.com/items/1200915-does-god-exist]

    Orestes J. Gonzalez

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