Ambrose McNicholl writes:
What the Pope has in mind does not seem to be a particular fully-codified system of philosophy, nor any individual school of thought within the Scholastic tradition, but certain features of the philosophy of Saint Thomas himself which mark it as in some way rising above all particular perspective to one that is truly universal, with the result that it can be said, in some respects at least, to transcend all other philosophies while at the same time it is able to assimilate the more limited aspects of truth and reality which they express.
The openness of the philosophy of Saint Thomas is grounded in what E. L. Mascall has called “the openness of being.”
It is the human reflection of the transcendence of being itself understood primarily as existing and as explicitly grasped and affirmed.
Such openness is grounded on the intrinsic orientation of the human mind towards existence rather than on the nature of its first principles, especially if these are taken as conceptually formulated propositions.
Neither Leo XIII nor John Paul II have invited us to take the study of manuals; they want us to go back to the thought of Saint Thomas as found in his own works and re-read them in the light of the problems and context of today.
In fact, by referring twice to the actus essendi (“The Angelicum Address,” nos. 6, 7) one may gather that he [Pope John Paul II] thinks, with many others, that it will no longer do to rest content with the rather formalist and essentialist kind of Thomism that dominated the scene until quite recently.
In any case he invites the present-day Thomist to focus his thinking not just on essences or on being but also on what actually exists and on the act by which it is.
Saint Thomas offers, not just a Christian version of Aristotle, but a profoundly new and original philosophy; which means that the Thomist should see Aristotle through the eyes of Saint Thomas and not vice versa.
Having thus secured the existential underpinning of Thomistic theory, the Pope goes on to say that the mind can proceed to uncover “the inexhaustible richness” of what actually exists.
The adjective “inexhaustible” gives us one more clue as to the kind of openness which he has in mind, this time on the plane of concepts. Those used by Saint Thomas may not be adequate or sufficient to express the ontological density of reality.
There is room here for growth, as human knowledge progresses in various directions and on various levels; and its power to assimilate such new findings, without thereby losing its own nature, is perhaps the most striking characteristic of the philosophy of Saint Thomas.
Since man, in virtue of his openness to being, can know himself and his thought, he can see his thought – or, more correctly, his knowledge – in its primordial relation to being and so justify in the most radical way its claim to validity.
This claim would be contested by many, most notably by Husserl, who would accuse the Thomist of remaining within the context of the naturalistic attitude.
The Thomist might reply that it is really Husserl who is conditioned from the start by his “anti-metaphysical prejudice” which may be traced to his complete blindness to the ontological density and richness of esse ut actus as Saint Thomas envisages it; for Husserl quite uncritically takes “to be” as mere givenness and factuality.
This epoche and phenomenological reduction are indeed useful, perhaps indispensable, tools for critical reflection on the meaning that anything can have for man as it enters his experience; but they are no substitute for, much less do they rule out, the basic and intuitive drive of the mind towards what exists.
The reflections, already put forward in so concise a fashion, equip the reader to approach what must be the most commonly heard, if not also the most obvious, objection against any special favor being shown by the Church to any particular system of thought.
To act in this way, it is felt, would conflict with the catholicity of the Church; it would block enquiry along other lines or from different perspectives; it would, as the Pope puts the objection, rule out that pluralism which is implied in the factual diversity of cultures, since it would tie the thought of the Church too closely to one particular cultural tradition – the classical Greek one as developed in the Christian context of the European Middle Ages.
Quite obviously the Pope could not, on this occasion, deal with this problem under all its many complex aspects.
He goes straight to the main point at issue by noting that the philosophy of Saint Thomas differs from all others by its basic insight that the key to the full and proper understanding of reality is to be found in the actus essendi.
It is precisely the actuality of existing that transcends every possible form of being or reality.
A philosophy centered on this actuality is open, in principle, to accept all that any other philosophy can discover about the more limited aspects of reality which it takes to be fundamental; and only a philosophy so centered is capable of such universal assimilation.
No type or aspect of reality is excluded, in principle, by a philosophy centered on the actus essendi.
It is the peculiarity of esse (and of being in so far as it signifies esse) that it is at one and the same time the most universal and yet the most singular and concrete characteristic of all that is real. Everything that is real exists, but in every existing thing that which is unique and most fully singular in it is its actus essendi.
That is why the Pope can state that such philosophy is rightfully able to claim as its own all that can be known through other approaches to reality; and that, in the same way, all the truths which men can learn about reality can claim right of entry into such all-embracing philosophy.
This philosophy therefore does not exclude other approaches which uncover different aspects of reality. It does indeed regard them as insufficient of themselves, as partial and inadequate, if put forward as complete philosophies; but it can regard them as common allies and partners in the concerted effort of mankind to understand reality from every point of view.
A philosophy which sees everything in the light of the actus essendi will avoid eclecticism; it will not rely on the authority of any particular thinker – be it Saint Thomas himself or any of the “Greats” – but on the evidence of what shows itself as it is.
Hence it can claim to be realistic, both in the sense of looking first of all towards real beings as they exist, and then in the sense of fulfilling the real vocation of the philosopher.
It is saved from the unending and aimless adventure of exploring what is only phenomenal, of losing itself in the labyrinthine corridors of the mind, instead of finding its support and strength in the objectivity of the actus essendi.
Philosophy is not just thought about thought or about appearances; it is, above all, thought about what is.
The philosophy of being, as outlined by saint Thomas, can be what it appears, and appear as it is, because it starts in wonder that anything is, and only then tries to find out what it is.
As centered on is (esse ut actus), its central insights have lasting value; as concerned with what is, it is ever open to enrichment.
Ambrose McNicholl, “A Chant in Praise of What is”, Angelicum, 1980, vol. 57, pp. 172-196.