A Taste of Existence:
An Interview with W. Norris Clarke, S.J.
on the Metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas -
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A Taste of Existence With W. Fr. Norris Clarke, S.J. 



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What does metaphysics have to do with everyday life? What happens when a New York cab driver fantasizes about winning the lottery? What special feeling transpires when a dying unwed mother gives birth? And what does a teenager stuck high on a cliff discover about "a taste of existence"?

Fr. Clarke speaks clearly about the metaphysics of St. Thomas, but instead of this subject being bookish and boring, the viewer will become engrossed in facing the deep questions of what is real, what is meaningful, and what is true that lie in the depths of each of us. His personal enthusiasm is evident as he takes us through his own stages of discovery and love of St. Thomas' metaphysics, and he gives excellent suggestions of how we, too, can begin our own journey into metaphysics.

Fr. Clarke has been the president of the American Catholic Philosophical Association and the winner of its Aquinas medal, the cofounder and editor of the International Philosophical Quarterly, has taught for many years at Fordham University, and has lectured around the country. He tackles questions like what is metaphysics, the real life experiences that are its foundation, the discovery of an existential Thomism in the 20th century, the relationship between essence and existence, the nature of matter, and more.




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A Creative Retrieval of Thomism with W. Norris Clarke, S. J. (DVD)

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More on W. Norris Clarke, S.J.

My latest article, "Conscience and the Person," Budhi (Manila), 1 (1997), 155-75, written for my Philippine lecture tour in Dec. 1998, has just been mandated by the Philippine Government Higher Education Commission as required reading for all Filipino college students (no matter what religion) as part of a course in ethics required of all students now. Not a scholarly article but a basic exposition for ordinary educated folk.

My main project well underway and almost completed (end of year) that people have been pushing me towards for years is The One and the Many: Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics, a basic high-level textbook unfolding the whole subject systematically. There are few of these left in print. Mine is intended as a creative retrieval and adaptation of St. Thomas's thought for our day. 13 chapters completed out of 18 or 19, as of end of June.

Two books by W. Norris Clarke, S.J.



W. Norris Clarke, S.J.


Notre Dame, 1994


Introduction ix

1. What Is Most and Least Relevant in the Metaphysics of St. Thomas Today

2. The "We Are" of Interpersonal Dialogue as the Starting Point of Metaphysics

3. Action as the Self-Revelation of Being: A Central Theme in the Thought of St. Thomas

4. The Limitation of Act by Potency in St. Thomas: Aristotelianism or Neoplatonism?

5. The Meaning of Participation in St. Thomas

6. To Be Is to Be Substance-in-Relation

7. Analogy and the Meaningfulness of Language about God

8. Is a Natural Theology Still Viable Today?

9. A New Look at the Immutability of God

10. Person, Being, and St. Thomas

This is a collection of ten of my most influential articles written over 46 years on central problems of metaphysics, philosophy of God, and the person, arranged in systematic order. The basic structure of my whole philosophical thought is revealed here.


The Aquinas Lecture, 1993


Marquette University Press Milwaukee 1993


Person and Being

Chapter I. Being as Dynamic Act

1. Being as Active and Self-communicative

2. Being as Relational

3. Being as Receptivity, Community, Communion

Chapter II. Application to the Person

1. The Meaning of Person

2. The Structure of Human Nature

3. The Person as Self-possessing

4. The Person as Self-communicative and Relational

5. Receptivity as Complementary to Self-Communication

6. The Person as Self- transcending

7. The Problem of Evil

The basic structure of my philosophy of the human person is laid out here. What is distinctive in this "creative retrieval" of St. Thomas's thought is the highlighting of the dynamic and relational aspect of all real being, most intensely exemplified in the person, thus opening the way to a creative synthesis between Thomistic metaphysics and the contributions of 20th century interpersonal phenomenology.




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Online Transcript:

Some stories that Fr. Clarke tells to highlight his "Taste of Existence:"
The Taxi Cab Driver
How Fr. Clarke discovered his own taste of existence
The remarkable story of one of his students


Jim: I wonder if you could start by telling us just what metaphysics is?

Fr. Clarke: I would be delighted. It’s one of the things I love to do, and I love to talk about it, too.

Let’s put it this way. To situate it inside philosophy as a whole, I would like to describe philosophy, at least my philosophy, as the systematic effort to illumine our experience in depth and to situate it in a vision of the whole. It’s not adding new facts, but it has gone down and illuminating in depth the facts that you do have, the experience that you do have, and setting it in a vision of the whole. That’s philosophy in general.

Now the metaphysics is trying to understand being reality as a whole. That’s specifically that part to set everything in a vision of the whole. That’s the specific part of metaphysics. Then other branches of philosophy like philosophy of man, philosophy of nature, etc., then take a part of reality, but also situate it in the whole. But metaphysics is precisely looking for the overall framework. The harmony, the vision of the universe as a whole, as a unity in its differences, and with some kind of harmony, the great laws and principles that govern all of being in its unity. Of course, we have to start from the being that we know, our universe, so it is a quest for understanding our universe, but then as it broadens out, the search for understand, it broadens out to take in the whole universe, in fact, in some way all possible universes even. When you get back to the source of all being, if there can be only one, then you have the source of all possible universes, so it starts off with our universe and can broaden out to a much greater.

Jim: How would a metaphysician explore these realities?

Fr. Clarke: That’s an interesting question. I think the metaphysician does that by starting with our present experience, and then beginning to move in two directions. In one direction to go in depth, to go down under the surface appearance and look for what is presupposed to that, and as you go down and down, you finally get in any being that’s real, you get down to the basic level – its actual existence. All the other things are things about its nature, but underlying the whole thing is its actual presence in the universe. So the metaphysician goes down first of all to begin to focus on that level. All you have to do to do that is just go through the suppositions. Your children are here, and you are here, and I can talk about you, but the presupposition of talking about you is that you are here. You are actually present. So I can focus on that – not what kind of being you are, but your actual presence here. Then you are doing the work of metaphysics because that’s the deepest level that sustains every real being. It’s also, if you move out in breadth – we were moving in depth, but you can also move out in breadth – to the whole horizon of reality. It’s also that which sums up, which is shared, by all real things. So when I get down to your actual presence, that’s what joins you in common with all beings, all real beings all over the whole universe. We reach that same level of being either by going down in depth in any individual thing, and then going out in breadth what is in common between all the real things and what is ultimately in common is that they all exist. So just by focusing on that, it’s a kind of focusing. You don’t have to go to some strange place or do some strange esoteric exercises. You just begin to look at the presuppositions. What is presupposed for everything else? And then you hit this radical level of existence, and that’s what the metaphysics is interested in. What does it mean to be? To be real? What are the basic attributes of any kind of a real being insofar as it is real? What are the laws and principles that govern all beings in their interrelationship? And then finally, do we need some source of all beings? I would say what is going on in the whole thing is a search always for the ultimate, a search for the ultimate roots. Metaphysics in a sense might be called radical thinking in the ancient meaning of the root of radical, which is radices, which means the roots. So metaphysics is radical, not in the sense of politics, but in the sense of what is the ultimate roots of everything, so it is radical thinking in that sense, and what drives the whole search, the whole inquiry, is what I would put at the very basis of metaphysics, and that is the unrestricted, radical dynamism of the human spirit, intellect, and will, the radical dynamism of the intelligence wanting to understand all that there is to know about all that there is. Anybody who has an intelligence, human or angelic, or divine – would already know it – but any intelligence, because it is an intelligence ordered towards the understanding of being. Because of that it has a deep dynamism and drive to try to understand all of being with no limits. So it is that radical drive that leads on the metaphysician, always looking for ultimates where there is no further presupposition. So the metaphysician is never satisfied until he gets to ultimates where mind is quiet. So that’s why when you are going down in depth inside of being, you keep going until you hit the ultimate root, the actual existence of the thing. So when you go out in what is common, you keep going until you reach the limit beyond which there is only non-being. So the search for being takes in the entire realm of reality, whatever is real, and the only thing beyond that, in quotes so to speak, is non-being, so you’ve reached an ultimate there. So it’s that drive of the mind to know. You may ask, well, how do you know you have such a drive of the mind, or is that just peculiar to some people? It may be a matter of temperament to have an explicit awareness of that, but I think everybody has that drive of the mind – the mind towards being is true, it’s knowable, it’s intelligible, and then the will towards being is good.

The Taxi Cab Driver

I can give you a little example of how we all have this dynamism of unrestricted search for the good. For example, you could do it in the order of intelligence, but it is more striking in the order of the good. Some years ago I was in a taxi cab in New York, and this taxi driver was very talkative which they sometimes are. I hate to just waste time in idle conversation, so I decided to direct the conversation. I asked him if he was happy. He said, "Well, no, I’m not happy. I have all kinds of problems." I said, "What would you need to make you happy?" "A million dollars. That would pay off my debts and solve my problems." "All right," I said, "now you’ve got it. Now what?" Then he built himself some houses. I said, "Fine. There’re all built. You’ve got those. Now what?" Then he thought a bit, and said he’d get himself a wife. I said, "Fine, now you’ve got her." Then he said he might get a couple in different parts of the world, in different parts, so to speak. I said, "Fine, you’ve got them all now. Now what?" He went on and on, traveling, etc., and then all of a sudden he stopped, and he looked around. I thought we were going to get hit in traffic, and he looked around and said, "Say, what’s really going on here? I can’t seem to get to the bottom of this. What am I really looking for after all?" Absolutely magnificent. Then I started to talk. "I can’t seem to get to the bottom of this." What he was experiencing was the drive of the mind where you first get hold of the whole spirit – this is the will searching for the good – but we search of the good, and then we get hold of some finite good. At first we are satisfied, we enjoy it, we explore it, then we reach the limits of it. As soon as we reach the limits, the spirit rebounds further. As soon as it recognizes it has hit a limit, it rebounds further. And then it gets the next one, and explores that, explores that. As soon as it reaches the limits of that – it rebounds further. And this rebounding goes on and on. Each time you reach a finite good, and then you can finally sit back and totalize the whole process. Nothing finite is every going to satisfy me. Each time I reach the finite, I rebound further. What’s further? Just as somebody inside a prison – whenever you are inside of a limit, and you know it as a limit, you always tent to rebound further. "To know a limit as a limit," as Hegel said, "is already to be beyond it." In intention and longing, at least, if you are inside a prison, then you are longing to be outside of it. If you don’t know you are being limited by being inside of a prison, then you’re all right. As soon as you discover the limit – you rebound again. That’s an indication we have a deep dynamism that can only be satisfied, finally, by the unlimited – the unlimited horizon of all being and of all goodness. So that’s the deep drive, that’s the dynamo behind the whole enterprise of metaphysics. So it starts going that way, and it is looking for ultimates, so it goes quickly, trying to find the deepest in each thing, and then the most common framework of everything, and then you’ve reached the horizon of being beyond which it is not limited because beyond it is just nothingness. That’s the drive that gets you going, and you go down in depth, and then out to the furthest horizons, and then, if you need to go up finally to explain, you might have to go up. I tell my students that if they are going to do metaphysics, they need two pieces of equipment to get at the local sports store: a pair of wings and a diving suit. The diving suit to go down into the depths of being, and a pair of wings to take off and go to the furthest reaches. Being is the ultimate and beyond it is just non-being.

Jim: How did you first get interested in the metaphysics of St. Thomas?

Fr. Clarke: When I was a child I always used to have a longing to understand. I used to climb trees, get up to all the high places I could – just trying to understand, sort of sit there looking over things. metaphysicians back through history very often have been associated with mountains. Big metaphysicians have always loved mountains. I didn’t know that, of course, but St. Thomas was brought at the age of six up to the great monastery of Monte Cassino, to be educated by the Benedictines, and that’s way up at a height overlooking the surrounding valleys, but the connection with metaphysics and heights is when you are high up like that, you can see how everything fits together – all the valleys and mountains – they all fit together to make a pattern. When you are down low you can see the individual parts, but you can’t see how it fits together, and that physical overview vision seems to be a kind of analog of seeing how the whole universe fits together. I had that desire first. Then when I just started to study philosophy over in the Island of Jersey with the French Jesuits, we had a wonderful faculty back in 1936-39 just before the War. We got the last boat back before the War – rather a close call. We had a wonderful group of professors, and there was a wonderful dynamic, fairly young professor of metaphysics who was a Thomist, and he introduced me to the really dynamic contemporary Thomism. I just loved it, and expanded like a flower in my mind, and so that got me interested in St. Thomas. Then I read a couple of the great books that sort of made me as a philosopher. One was Joseph Marachal, the Belgian Jesuit, who wrote The Point of Departure of Metaphysics in French in five volumes. He went all through the history of philosophy, always looking at each philosopher from the central point of view of St. Thomas, what he was missing. So there was a kind of thread going through it leading up to St. Thomas, and St. Thomas as a synthesis, and then going on further. That was a tremendous illumination to me, getting a central point of view and the whole history of philosophy, and St. Thomas a the most synthetic and powerful metaphysical thinker to be able to put that together. So that had a tremendous influence on me.

The other great book was that of Blondel’s Action, his famous 1893 Action, which was all the dynamism of the will, this time towards the infinite, all through the finite. So that was very powerful. Marachal’s book, he was the founder of transcendental Thomism, that is, Thomism that builds on the dynamism of the spirit, the a priori condition, somewhat like Kant but more realistic. Marachal was built on the dynamism of intelligence towards being, and Blondel’s book was built on the dynamism of the will towards good. Those two different points of view were given the same view of the human spirit. Then the metaphysics worked out all the details. So that’s what caught me, and sort of blew my mind. My mind was blown from then on. I just loved metaphysics, and so I’ve taught it ever since. What I got over there partly was what is called existential metaphysics, existential Thomism, and that’s a very important thing in the more dynamic contemporary Thomism. The existential Thomism is one that realized, which was not recognized by the early disciples, who thought St. Thomas was just an Aristotelian with a Christian adaptation, but he was much more than that. Aristotle was still focused on form and essence, as the center of gravity of all reality. St. Thomas penetrated through to the act of existence, as deep of an essence and the most profound component of all reality so there was a shift of the center of gravity in St. Thomas from essence and form which had been there in all the Greeks - essence and form were the principle things, and the good – but a shift to existence as the more radical center of gravity and the unity of all reality. That highlighting of existence, he was one of the few, if not the only, great philosopher in history who has done that, really, to focus on existence explicitly. They all take existence for granted, of course. They take it for granted and forget about it, and examine what things are like and how they work, but he insisted on putting it in the center. Existence is the central piece of the whole thing. Then God become pure act of existence, and all creatures limited acts of existence. So that viewpoint of everything centered around existence is called existential Thomism. It was brought in by Gilson in 1939 in his famous Preface to the 5th edition of his Thomism book, by de Finance, the French Jesuit in 1939, and brought in by a number of Thomists all around 1939. So I was just getting the beginning of that when I went back to graduate studies. I soaked myself in that. That’s quite a richer and deeper kind of understanding of St. Thomas that the people before didn’t quite get hold of clearly. So it is really a 20th century understanding of St. Thomas, and the texts are clear now, but it took time to recognize that point in St. Thomas.

Jim: Were there any metaphysicians between the time of St. Thomas’ death and the rediscovery of existential Thomism in the 20th century that caught the inner meaning of St. Thomas’ metaphysics?

Fr. Clarke: Well, see, St. Thomas, himself, didn’t stress his originality. Everybody wants to be original and new. That was not the attitude of the medieval philosophers. They first wanted to situate themselves in tradition, and then sort of expand it a bit. So he didn’t stress the originality. He just quietly interpreted other philosophers as leading up to what he was saying. So he didn’t stress his originality. He stressed his strong dependence on Aristotle which was just coming into the medieval Christian world, and was a great threat in its pure form. He was an opportunity and a threat because part of Aristotle was quite incompatible with Christianity. So he was trying to assimilate and show how you could adapt Aristotle. So he didn’t stress, "I’m original. I’m doing something entirely new." The first disciples missed it. One of his great disciples, Baņez, the Spanish Dominican, a commentator, caught it early in the 17th century, but couldn’t get the other commentators and Dominicans to share it, so he once in great frustration cried out and said, "St. Thomas cries out existence, existence, and the Thomists refuse to listen." They didn’t get it. He got it, and it got lost. Now Gilson has republished in English a translation of that part of his commentary on existence, Baņez on existence. He got it, and the others didn’t get it. They got part of the vision, but not really the full one. So he was not highlighted. That was the point. It was there, the essence and existence distinction was there, but not the highlighting of existence as the guts, the perfection of everything. Essence still had its own perfection which existence realized, but St. Thomas says that the act of existence contains all of perfection, and essence just limits it down. So it is the centering on existence which is a very dynamic notion because the act of existence in St. Thomas is immediately the center of activity. That’s one of the richest things, that any being insofar as it exists, he says, tends to pour over and communicate itself to others. Every being is self-communicative insofar as it can. So as soon as you have a real being, it tends to pour over through action to communicate itself and share itself, and get in touch with other things. So to be is to be an active presence, a power-filled presence, filled with energy and power that immediately starts to flow over according to the essence like a river flowing through banks. So if you want every finite being, it is like a channeled funnel of existence. It’s got this energy inside, and the energy goes out according to the mold or the pattern of the essence. So it is a highly dynamic notion, and God, Himself, this has taken over really the whole neo-Platonic tradition of the self – diffusiveness of the good. Plato and Plotinus didn’t attach that to being which was a lesser notion for them, a more limited essence. The good was the ultimate for them, and the good was naturally self-effusive, generous, self-communicating. St. Thomas took over that tradition and put it right into existence, itself, and the good is a function of existence. Now he took over that whole dynamic, so every being is necessarily, is naturally, self-communicative and expansive. That’s what makes the universe. A universe means in Latin, uni versum, turned towards one, turned towards unity. If things didn’t act, they would just be isolated monads, here and there, sort of like in a darkness. They wouldn’t know each other. But as soon as they are, they act and interact. That’s what connects up all the beings of the universe. They pour over in their activity and hook up with each other, communicate, share, receive and give, and there you have an actively communicating universe. So that’s the universe of real existence. A being that doesn’t act might just as well not be at all. That’s one of the most profound things. You say, couldn’t you have a being that doesn’t act? Well, there’s no logical contradiction. To think that through is the kind of thing a metaphysician would do. Let’s suppose that you had a being that didn’t act. Would that make sense? Well, first of all, nobody else could know it was there because the only way you can know something is real is by the fact that I know that I’m real because I act. I know other things are real because they act upon me. If the thing didn’t act upon you, there would be no way of knowing it exists unless you are God the Creator. So a thing might exist if it didn’t act, but it might just as well not exist. It makes no difference whatsoever to the universe. It would be impossible to know it, and it would be indistinguishable from nothing. It would be a perfect waste of time to have beings that didn’t act. What we want to know about things is what kind of actors are they? If I know one of your children, here, it is no good just to see them from the outside. I want to know hat kind of people they are, what kind of character and personality they have, how they act. What kind of actors are they? When you know anything, you always want to know what kind of an actor it is. We don’t realize that, but to know the nature – what is a tree? A tree is something shoots out roots and arms and branches and leaves, slurps up water from the earth. It does a lot of things. So every being is a doer, a characteristic kind of actor. That’s how we know things. That’s how we know the essence of a nature, so action is absolutely essential. It’s the key to all knowledge. The whole of the Thomistic theory of knowledge can be summed up in a single sentence. All knowledge of the real is an interpretation of action. Period. And the disastrous thing is the modern philosophy of epistemology from Descartes on, they cut the bridge of action, dropped out action, and you have all the problems of the bridge, ever since Descartes didn’t trust the external world, tried to reduce it all to innate ideas, and then Locke and Berkeley said what we know are ideas. Then you have the problem of how to get to reality. So they all cut off action. You say, how do you know? You’ve got these pictures inside of a museum, but who knows where they come from? If they just stand statically, there’s no way. You have to catch them in their incoming action, and then you can refer them back to the outside. So action is a real key just to the universe as being, and unified, but also to knowledge, to the universe.

Jim: How should we conceive the relationship between essence and existence in this existential Thomism, and how does this relationship point to the existence of God?

Fr. Clarke: Once you have taken a look at all of reality and what is common to all, and see that everything is, each thing is real, you have to say of it always two things: this is real, this exists, that exists, the other thing exists. You have to say something common of all of them, is, or exists, or whatever term that you want to use in a language, or whatever way they express existence, that something common that must be said of every single thing that’s real. Otherwise there’s despair there. So that’s the statement that you make of every one, every being compared to every other being. You have to get a synoptic vision. Any being like my own self compared to every other being – you have to make two statements about it. It is, but it is not the others. It is, but it is such, so it is not that. This is, but it is not that. So it is like all things in that it exists. It is unlike everything else in that it is this, and not that. Those two aspects, the is, which is common, and the this, which is unique to each one. Those are two attributes that must be said of everything real, at least if you have more than one. If you just had one, you would just say, "it is," that’s all. As soon as you have more than one, you have to say, "it is," and "this is not that." Then when you examine those two, then you discover they are irreducible to each other because they are contraries. They are not contradictions, but they are contraries because one negates something. You couldn’t have things that are common like each other by the identical property by which they differ. That doesn’t make sense. It’s not because they are different that they are like. That doesn’t make sense. Otherwise you would say if John Smith exists precisely because he is just John Smith, then everything that exists would have to be John Smith. That’s what makes him exist, or if he exists because he’s John Smith, then everyone would be the same, but it’s not true because others have existence and they are not John Smith. So these must be objectively irreducible aspects in a thing. The thisness, and then the existence which it shares because the existence is shared by others so it can’t be just unique here. So then you have to go down in the engine room of beings and say, in each being except possibly one, there must be some kind of internal structure where there’s a "this" that makes it this particular being, which helps it to share existence, and then have that in common with which it shares with all beings. So you have an internal structure of that which makes things unlike, and that which makes things like, and you call one the act of existence, and the other you call essence. Then you try to relate those two together. Could you conceive of existence as something, a minimum, common level, and then you add on all the different essences? That won’t work because anything you add on, unless it already exists, you are adding nothing, so existence can’t be a minimum. Then you would be adding on nothing to it, so there would be no addition. Existence must be an all-enveloping maximum, and then you would have to distinguish things by subtracting, so you can say, "This is, but only so far." So by putting existence as the basic all-enveloping perfection, and then essence as being a limit, progressive limits, then you can work it out. Everything has existence, and yet it is distinct. So you couldn’t do it by adding on to existence, because you can’t add anything on to existence that doesn’t exist. It would be just mental. So existence becomes the maximum, and then you subtract. So if you had, for example, God thinking up the universe, He would think up images of Himself, this is like me, but it’s not eternal, it is not infinite, etc. So all the different beings would be existence with a set of minuses, more minuses or less minuses, existence, but the only one that would be existence unqualified would be the divine name, I Am. Period. No buts. No qualifications. Just I Am. As Gilson said, when you have said that, you have said everything, but you don’t know it yet.

How do you get to necessity, that there is one being that is just pure act of existence? Well, you proceed through the analysis of all the others except perhaps one, would have to be finite because whenever you distinguish being, you say this being is not that being, necessarily one of the two must lack something that the other has. Otherwise they just coalesce into identity. Whenever you say this is not that, one of the two must lack something. It is impossible to have more than one pure infinite being. Every being in the universe except perhaps one must be finite to distinguish it from all the others. Could every being be finite or limited existence? That’s not going to work because then you do one of the basic Thomistic – a sense to God – that no finite being can be self-sufficient. No finite being can explain why it is this much existence and no more. If it were self-sufficient, it would be the ultimate source of existence, and then it doesn’t make any sense that it would give existence to itself in some limited way. So as soon as it is limited, it means it can’t explain why it exists in this limited way rather than in some other way possible. It would need something to select it out. It couldn’t choose its own limited mode of existence. So the limitation points to the fact that there is something beyond it, and therefore if no finite being can be self-explanatory, you must ultimately get that the only being that is self-sufficient is going to be the infinite plenitude of existence. Anything less points you further. So by working from the finitude of limited existence, everything would have to be limited existence except possibly one. That would be distinguished from the others precisely because they are limited. So there could be one and only one pure act of existence that is unlimited. You say, well, there must be that because the finites can’t explain themselves. So that’s how you move it. All the others are participated beings, and they can’t explain why they have this limited degree. They also can’t explain why they all share the same property. If you take any set of beings that share the same real property, you say, now why are they similar? St. Thomas says whenever you have two beings that share the same property, either one causes the other, or they are both caused by a third. Why is that? It is not because beings are different that they are similar. You can’t say it is because beings are different that’s why they all share existence which is similar. That doesn’t make sense. It can’t be because they are different that they are similar. It can’t be because they are many that they have got this unity. So to explain the similarity of all real beings, you have to go back to some one source which contains that, is the source of it, and then gives it to all the others. It is not because they are many that they are one, and similarities are a form of unity. So from these two reasons: a limited being can’t explain why it is limited, and secondly it can’t explain why all the beings share this unity. You must get back to one source for that. For those two reasons you trace back the multiplicity of being, you trace back the compositions of essence and existence, back to a source of pure, unlimited existence, and then you stop because then there is nothing further to ask about that. In other words, it doesn’t demand anything further. You would like to know more about it, but it is completely self-sufficient, so it doesn’t need anything further, so this dynamism of the mind then comes to a rest from that point of view because there is no further to seek. It is the unique, ultimate infinite source of all being, and then your questions stop there in regard to explanation.

Jim: Before you talked about essence being related to existence…

Fr. Clarke: as a limit, as a limiting principle, an act of existence limited down to just so much existence and no more. So it is a principle of limit.

Jim: Then what could be said about matter?

Fr. Clarke: Matter is actually a further kind of limitation. The two components in all the things we know are form and matter, form or structures of matter that makes it to be this kind of being, and then matter which puts it in the material world and enables many different examples of a given species. Form is a kind of intelligible unity of the nature of the thing, the form of our oak tree, the form of a human being, gives a set of properties shared by the species, and that’s the intelligible unity. Now matter is a dispersal of that in an extended stuff. Matter is essentially something extended in space, parts outside of parts. So that’s a kind of imperfection of the unity of form. It is spread out into parts. So matter is a further limitation. Just a form would be a finite spirit like the angels, concentrated energy, not infinite, but concentrated energy, transcending space. Once you put it down into a body, then it is sort of spread out and diluted, so to speak, spread out across space, so that is a further limitation. So matter in a sense is a second kind of limitation. The first limitation of existence is by form. The second limitation is spreading it out in space. It exists, but it is not altogether as much, like inside of us. It takes time for the instructions from the brain to reach all the way down to the body and the toes, and so forth. Our bodies are present, but not totally present immediately. It takes time to unify them. They are spread out, in other words, so matter is a further spreading out of form. It is a second kind of limitation. However, there is an advantage, though in matter. If God in planning the universe, why would He think up material things? Well, this is not in St. Thomas. This is my own theory. God in Himself, as we know not from philosophy but from Revelation, is a tri-personal unity. There is an internal communication of God, Father to Son, and both to the Spirit, so that is an inter-community of persons – all perfectly equal. Now suppose God wanted to say, "I’d like to make a universe," and He makes all kind of angels and spirits, but each one is going to be different. "Suppose I want to make a society, a universe where there is a society of equals where you could have a democracy., where you could say all men by nature are created equal." How are you going to have many different members of the same species all equal and yet many? Well, for St. Thomas you couldn’t do that if you just had pure spirit, pure finite form, because then, like an angel for St. Thomas, each angel exhausts its own species. Gabriel is Gabrielity. But no man or woman is humanity. What’s the difference? If you just had the pure form there’s no way of getting another one like that unless you changed the quality – made a different kind of form. But matter allows you to multiply and reproduce the same specific form over and over again in other parts of matter because matter just adds quantitative spatial differences in space and extension, but it doesn’t give you qualitative changes. So if you bring in a principle of matter, then you can multiply individuals of the same form all over the place as long as you have more material. Then you can get equals because matter, the extension in space, gives quantitative differentiation, but not qualitative yet, and therefore you can have the same special reproduced. Then you can have equals. Then you can have a democracy. So the condition of possibility for having beings that are equal, equal, and can share in the society of equals, is having a material universe. So the angels can’t imitate God because the angels are all qualitatively diverse from each other, not the same species. God says, "Well, I’d like something where they are all equals." And He had to make matter. So that’s one reason for the material universe. It enables societies to be, and all the things we know around us, all are individuals of which there are many of the same species – trees and acorns and atoms and all that. That enables a democracy of equals.

Jim: After the Second Vatican Council, Thomism seemed to undergo an eclipse. Why did this happen?

Fr. Clarke: Well, I was right in the middle of all that because I was brought up in Thomism when it was in its hey day, and what we call in this country at least a bit of a triumphalistic spirit of Thomism. And all over the seminaries, that was the thing, and in most of the Catholic institutions, St. Thomas was the great authority that you were recommended, and supposed to teach, and it was very common. But then, after the Second Vatican Council, and it had been beginning before, trying to try new things, and a playing down of authority. So what happened then, the door was open, so to speak, to appreciate all kinds of other traditions, including religious traditions, and then the young Catholic scholars just sort of broke away from St. Thomas. They didn’t refute him. They just lost interest and moved out into all kinds of other things. They were trained principally in phenomenology, existentialism, and various things, so they just sort of moved away from St. Thomas, and they were a bit ticked off, or turned off by the authoritarian aspect that had come into Thomism. This is the one great authority. That was very bad news, and St. Thomas never would have liked that. He was a revolutionary in his own day. Several of his doctrines got condemned, sort of officially, not by the whole Church, but by the Bishop of Paris, so they had to rescind those when they canonized him. They couldn’t have a saint with doctrines condemned. They thought he was too dangerous, so he was not just a traditionalist. But any way, he became this Church authority, and finally there was a break, a revolt, against that authority in many fields, so the young philosophers just moved away, and were trained in all kinds of other things, and Thomism went down very precipitously during that time. It had gotten tied up, too, I think, with being a little bit of a ghetto Catholic mentality to hold together the unity.

Jim: Today as you go around the country and teach metaphysics and give lectures, what sense do you get of the interest in St. Thomas, especially among young people?

Fr. Clarke: Excellent question, and I am delighted to answer that. The young people now had never heard of St. Thomas as an authority. All that is gone because even their own professors don’t teach them Thomism most of the time, and so that great burden on St. Thomas of being the official authority is gone. The students don’t know anything about that. So they come to him fresh and open, and when I taught in Santa Clara in California, the University of Santa Clara, my students there were just amazed. They said, "Where has this man been? Nobody gives us any visions like this." The modern philosophers – one will say you can’t know this, others will say you can’t know that. What can you know is not clear, and they are all doing piecemeal work. Nobody gives us great visions like this. So they were just enthralled with this, but it was because I presented St. Thomas in the great seminal ideas, not heavy technical armature that he developed from Aristotle. He is very difficult to approach just on your own. You have to have someone to guide you in and simplify and streamline from all the heavy technical terminology. Once that’s done, the ideas can blossom, and I found students just get very excited at this great unifying vision, and Sr. Mary Clarke who is an old friend of mine – not a relative – she’s been teaching for years – a great Thomist – she is now teaching at NYC a course in medieval philosophy. They rarely have that, but they decided to do it, and she is teaching that and principally St. Thomas, and she says the students love it, and they say, "This makes sense." They say you can get some kind of a unity in your life this way. It makes sense. It argues that it is close enough to our experience, and a lot of the things you read now are so esoteric they can’t make sense out of them, but they just loved it. They said we ought to have two classes a week rather than one. So it is like this idea of a unified vision which is so tremendously lacking in our contemporary world. We have the pursuit of the part, some have called it the fascination of the part, as opposed to the vision of the whole, and we’ve gone in for the piecemeal specialization in the part. So people are in pieces. They got all about the parts, but how does it all fit together into a whole? Nobody is going to tell them. Some philosophers say, "We don’t do that kind of big vision anymore. We do careful piecemeal work." But as somebody said, maybe Jefferson, the people perish when there is no vision – a vision of the whole. That’s the thing that they miss, and that they find in St. Thomas, a vision of the whole. That’s why the book I wrote is called The Universe as Journey. That’s a single, powerful, tremendous image summing up in a sense the entire metaphysical vision of the universe according to St. Thomas. It’s a great archetypal image that people can understand. The universe as journey, the sense of all beings, we just pour out from God, the many from the one, as though God throws them out in an adventure and a journey. They go out first, and then as soon as they exist, He pulls them back towards Himself by the pull of the good, and the pull of the good that is seeking each their finite good, but all those goods participate ultimately in the infinite, so the whole universe is then trying to find its way back to God, too, and man along the way, as a key point in that. In fact, the material world couldn’t get back to God without man because material world doesn’t have knowledge, self-consciousness, and love so it can’t know that it is on a journey and imitating God. So the human being as deep into matter should take up the whole of matter, try to understand it, realize it’s on a journey, refer it back to the source with acknowledgment of love and gratitude to the source. Then the material world comes back through man, through the human being, back to its source. But that’s a tremendous image summing up the universe.

Jim: If you would think of teaching St. Thomas’ metaphysics today, or maybe the word is not teaching, but almost initiating somebody into this inner vision, how would you go about that if you really wanted to communicate this inner vision that you obviously are seeing?

Fr. Clarke: I think you would first get people in touch with their drive to know. They first of all have to want to know, and without any restrictions, so the theme song of the metaphysician is, "Don’t fence me in." Get them in touch with that longing to know, and get that moving, and then just start to go down in depth, and then out, and then just call their attention to what is all around us that we take for granted and then forget about, the "is." As Shelley said, "The mist of familiarity obscures from us the wonder of our being." Existence is so familiar. It is common to everything, that we just sort of forget about it, and it drops out of sight. To open their eyes again, to recognize the wonder, as Heidegger said, the wonder of all wonders that anything at all exists. To wake people up You have to wake people up to look not just at the fact of existence, but the act of existence. To wake them up to the wonder of existence. You can do that by various examples.

How Fr. Clarke discovered his own taste of existence

I can tell you my own discovery. What I love to do is I ask my students, "How did you, if you did, wake up to existence, the wonder of existence?" And you get remarkable stories sometimes.

Well, I’ll tell you how mine happened. When I was about 14 or 15, I used to love to climb up to high places, so I used to climb up the pillars of the George Washington bridge that had been built not too long before. I used to climb up from the river bed all the way up to the road bed, which was about 300’ up those pillars. It’s not that terribly difficult. You need good rubber-soled shoes and cool nerves. You have to be like a monkey. I couldn’t do it now, but I had a lot of courage at that time, so I would climb up and then go across the bridge, and then climb up the Palisades on the other side. There are places to climb there – the 500’ Palisades. On one occasion I was climbing at a place where it said, "Do not climb. Dangerous." Well, that was an invitation to me to go up, so I climbed up there. I got about two-thirds of the way up, and then I got stuck. I couldn’t reach further, and I couldn’t go down. As you know, climbing is easier to go up than to go down because your eyes are closer to going up. I was stuck. The cars had stopped on the road below, and they were yelling at me, "Come down!" I said, "I can’t come down. I’m stuck." And then the police came, and they said they were going to arrest me. I said, "Fine, I’d love to be arrested. Come up and get me." Of course, they weren’t going to venture up. So I just couldn’t get down, and I couldn’t see how to get up. They said they’d come and let a rope down. Then I thought, "Gee, I’ll get arrested. The family will be disgraced. I’ll be thrown in jail." So I figured I’ve got to do something, so I noticed there was a little sort of a bulge of rock, and I could see around it that there was a place for my feet – a foothold. If, if, there was a handhold if I swung around, if there was a handhold, I would be able to make it, and I could escape up, but I couldn’t see. So I took my eyes and my hands, and swung out into space, and around. Luckily, you can see there was a handhold. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here. So I caught it then, and made my way up, and escaped into the bushes. By the time the police came they couldn’t find me. I’d disappeared. But as I swung around into space, I got sort of a taste of existence in my mouth there – how sweet it is to exist. And then I did catch it, and I held on to it, but I was at the point of disappearing. And when you can lose something, you suddenly wake up to its value. When you are just going around and there is no threat to you, you forget all about the wonder of your existence. But actually, you know, we are not in charge of our own existence. We could lose it at any moment. So I got the taste of what it means to exist, and I’ve never forgotten that. Racing riders of racing cars have told me they love going full speed up around the track, and if they were to go further, they would go off and be killed. At that point, they say, they get the taste of existence. It can come from the loss of a dear one, or it can come from total boredom – not bored with this or that, but a radical boredom with everything. They you bump into existence. So there are various ways, negative and positive. You have to wake up to the wonder of existence, and that can really blow their minds when it hits them. You have to lure them into it, so you get to say that they shouldn’t say, "a horse exists, a tree exists." You should say, "Existence there is horsy. Existence here is human." Everywhere there is existence. Or here is an existent in the horsy mode. So you suddenly see existence isn’t added on. It’s the all-enveloping, and then it is modified here and there. So it is this great fundamental thing that is a perfect wonder because none of the things around us have to be. So that’s what they call an awakening to existence.

The remarkable story of one of his students

If you want to, I could tell you how one girl in my class discovered it. I asked them to write on that, and this was just an ordinary girl in the class, simple, nothing extraordinary, nothing dramatic. When she wrote this paper it really blew me away. She said, "You can use this paper, but you must never give my name." When she was 17 she fell in love with this fellow, and had this great infatuation, but he was violent. He would beat her up, but she couldn’t break off from him. Then finally she became pregnant, but she decided to carry the baby through – not to have an abortion. Her parents were very supportive and really praised here. They were very comforting. So she carried the baby through, but then when she was delivering the baby, it was a very difficult delivery, and she almost died. She said she was just about slipping out of consciousness and going when she heard the little cry of the baby newborn, and in the contract of her life slipping away and the new life coming, she caught the preciousness of existence. That was her discovery. It was a hard way to do it, but you can see why she didn’t want her name to be used. I had no idea. Then she gave the baby away. I had no idea this girl had been through this, but she deeply appreciated existence from the fact she was about to lose it, and then this new existence. So those are cases when you wake up to what we ordinarily just simply take for granted.

Jim: Can you see a role for the metaphysics of St. Thomas in understanding the new theories of the universe that the physicists are proposing?

Fr. Clarke: Well, I think so because for one thing the vision of St. Thomas shows the universe as one, as having a powerful unity, and the new physics, the big bang, is all drawing the universe back. It is not just separate things, but is drawing them all back into great unifying laws and back even to a single source. So the universe in the modern science is turning out to be much more powerfully one than we suspected before. That’s one thing.

Also it comes back to simpler and simpler and simpler laws, and all the multiplicity of particles comes down to fewer and fewer, and finally the particles sort of get fused together almost at that initial state, so you are coming down to something almost like pure energy at the beginning. In the Thomistic vision, what is common to all things is the radical energy of existence. It can be conceived like an energy because it is an act of presence. It isn’t a form or structure. It is an act of presence, and immediately expands like an act of energy so that the most radical thing in St. Thomas is the energy of existence, and in the modern physics, what is the great underlying unity turns out to be more and more some kind of radical physical energy so the physicists describe it as transformations of energy. Notice the two elements there. Form, different forms, corresponding to essence, transformations of something is not a form of energy which is a kind of oppositive form. So that’s a radical energy that is the unity of all the universe that is through transformations of this mysterious one kind of energy there. So that is somewhat of an analog of existence as the common unity which is beyond all forms and structures. Existence is not this form or that form. It is precisely a richness beyond it which is limited by form, and the energy for the physicist is not a form. It takes now this form and now that form. So there is a kind of analogy there. And then the notion of potentiality is very basic in Thomisticism. Things have a potentiality which then unfolds into actuality, and then to understand in the quantum physics today that, at least in the sub-atomic particles, they are not the same in the reality as the way we know them. When we get to know them through an experiment, they snap into a more determinate state so that by doing the experiment, the experimenter gets into the act, and so things are completed, so to speak, by the knower – the physicist getting into relation with them by an experiment. So that then the question is, what are the things before we do the experiment? Now the experimenter is a part of the whole situation in all the new physics. It isn’t as though you can observe the universe at a distance just what it is in itself. No. When you observe it, you also change it and modify it, so we are all woven together now. Then the question is, what could the universe be when we are not observing it? Some say it is a total blank. In St. Thomas you can very well say. What you have there is objective potentiality – potentialities that if we get into connection with them, they will show up this way. We used to think of the electron as a little planet spinning around the nucleus like a sun. That’s not the case any more at all. When we are not observing an electron, the electron isn’t here or there. It is an energy pulse all around the nucleus at once. You can’t say exactly where it is. But when we do an experiment on it, the wave packet, they say, collapses and it comes into little tiny electrons here and not there with a definite mass and so on. The electron shows up when we do an experiment. Well, what is it before we do an experiment? Well, you’d have to say it is a real potentiality that when you do an experiment it will show up as an electron. The wave will show up as an electron.

But potentiality can never be described empirically. The only thing you can describe empirically is an actuality. You can’t describe the potentiality of something. If your daughter over there, for example, can sing, you can say, "She can sing." There is no way of describing her ability to sing as an ability. I can’t peer inside her and see that. No. I just see the vocal chords. What I can describe is when she sings actually, then I can describe it. Since she is actually singing, then I can say she must have the ability. But the ability can’t be described empirically, but it’s there. So that enables you to talk about the real world without trying to give a measurement of it independently of the observer. The world is real potentialities ready to show up this way under observation.

Jim: Can you tell us some of your favorite metaphysical writings, things that you find exciting?

Fr. Clarke: I would like to mention some of the articles that were especially influential. The one I like very especially is this one called, "Action as a Self-Revelation of Being: A Central Theme in St. Thomas." That really brings out the dynamic character of existence as pouring over into self-communication, and with the wide applications of that. It goes all the way up into theology, too. The very highest being is essentially self-communicative love, that tremendous image of God as self-communicative love, and every being is in some way an image of God because it is a participation, so every being would share in some way in that drive to self-communication, and every conscious being into self-communicative love in some way. So that’s a very rich one.

Then I’ve done one on the person. To be is to be self-communicative, St. Thomas’ vision of person being where I bring out the three aspects of to be a person: to be self-possessing in the order of knowing oneself, self-awareness in depth. Then in the order of action, self-determinism, or self-governing of our own lives, moral response, taking charge of our own lives and being responsible, self-governing. And then to be self-communicative we must share what is in us to share, and to get in relation with others. And in a sense what you don’t share, you are going to lose. The only things you can really hold on to are the things you are willing to share. That seems to be the law of being. To the extent that you are, you tend to communicate it. If you don’t communicate it, it will get sedimented over and buried down, and you’ll sort of lose it. And then the third aspect is self-transcendence, going beyond oneself, and finally taking on the great center of the universe as one’s own center, a kind of de-centering of self-centeredness. That’s the great mystery of the ultimate personal development in all the great spiritual traditions. So that’s one that I like because it goes right into the applications to the person of the dynamism of existence. To be a person you must communicate and share with others. That’s the law of being, of every being. You can violate the laws of traffic, but you can’t violate the laws of being without getting sort of crushed yourself. So those two – action, and how that applies to the person, the dynamic interrelated notion of person, and everything as an image of God which is essentially self-communicative love. That’s the nature of God. Inside of God are the three persons, and then giving to the universe. So those are two very central things that get from metaphysics of being in general down to the person. So that’s very central. In that particular one it opens out to all the contemporary contributions of the personalists, the existential personalists – Martin Buber, etc. – the I-Thou subjectivity. That comes in. St. Thomas didn’t develop it in the same way as the moderns, but it is there in the sense that every person must be self-communicative, and sharing. Those two are some of my favorite things. Then in this very recent book of mine, The Universe as Journey, conversations that don’t look too serious there, but actually I give a basic chapter in there on fifty years of metaphysical reflection, my fifty years of thinking over metaphysics. In there I develop a great unifying symbol of the universe as journey. The many, all creation, coming out of God, sort of the road out, the exodus, so to speak, and then the road back, all the universe being pulled back to God through the pull of the good, and that’s the way home. So there is the leaving home, and the returning home. That theme of journey is one of the great archetypal images, as you know, in all of literature, and all back through history, the journey. Jung says it’s the fundamental archetype of the psyche. We have to leave home, find our own identity, leave the parents, but then when you reach mid-life you have to return again back home again, back to your sources. So that’s a great image I develop in that book. Then three other professors give their own papers discussing partly my thought, and their objections, and so on.

There’s another one that I’ve done. This is my book on the philosophy of God. In here I develop first the great unrestricted dynamism of the human spirit towards God in the first chapter. The second chapter, the ascent of the mind to God in St. Thomas through finitude and participation. And the third chapter is something that has been a fairly important part of my metaphysical life, the dialogue with the contemporary process, philosophers and theologians, which is quiet different from St. Thomas. They are against an immutable God. They say that’s a god uninvolved. I try to show how Thomism would adapt and take in the best of their insights without losing a great deal of what I think they lose in their process because their process God is not really a creator and source of being. So that dialogue with the process people is the third, and many of them have said it is the most serious dialogue of the Thomist with the process movement. So those are things I have been interested in.

Jim: What do you see as the future of St. Thomas’ metaphysics?

Fr. Clarke: Well, it’s not going to be popular with the professional philosophers. It requires quite a bit of training of getting back into that medieval spirit to see where he started from, and they’re not willing to do that. They’re all into the more particular modern things so that it’s not going to become popular among the professional philosophers. However, I think the students are more and more looking for more synthetic visions of the whole so it is quietly coming back as one option, one kind of alternative vision, which they might like to look at. It is quietly spreading. Now, strange to say, one of the best ways of getting a job in philosophy when you finish your Ph.D. is to say you are a specialist in St. Thomas. That would have been astonishing to hear some years ago, but that’s now the case because so many places would like to have somebody representing St. Thomas – not the whole department – but that’s coming back now. A recent university of St. Thomas in Houston just graduated their first Ph.D.s, and people said they’d never be able to get jobs – all snatched up quickly, no problem So even places like Columbia and Princeton are having a seminar between them on ethics, and they want to do it on Aristotle and St. Thomas’ ethics. One of the leading figures in the country, Alistair McIntyre, a "hot property," as they say now, went over to study St. Thomas during the summer in Oxford with his old classmate, Fr. Herbert McCabe, the Dominican, to study St. Thomas because he has been drawn into that more and more if you can’t solve the things without something like a natural law. So it is coming back, especially through ethics. They are very interested in the Thomistic theory of virtue and ethics and natural law. It is coming in through there rather than through the metaphysics. But they will be drawn to the metaphysics through the ethics. He’s got a strong place in ethics around the country steadily growing. The metaphysics is behind the scenes, but that is just quietly spreading so that will be in there as a real appeal to students, and there will always be, then, a slightly growing number of professors who will be able to do that and will sue that as part of their repertoire. So it won’t be dominant any more, but it will be a respected part of a pluralistic philosophy department.

Jim: What kind of advice would you give to people who have had their own taste of existence, and now want to study St. Thomas’ metaphysics on their own?

Fr. Clarke: Well, there’s a new tool now that has come out that was never available before. It just came out a few weeks ago. (1990) This is a new condensed translation of the Summa Theologia, the great central work by an English Dominican, and he has presented the Summa Theologia in a new, modern form in paragraph form instead of all the questions and articles which breaks it up so much, and he has cut it down to one-sixth of the total volume. He has dropped out all the structure of questions, objections first and then answers, and just gives you a running paragraph style, treating of the whole doctrine. It’s all St. Thomas, but he has dropped out a lot of special questions like the rituals of the old law. If there is a very important answer to an objection, he’ll weave it right into the text. So for the first time students can actually read a continuous presentation of St. Thomas’ doctrine on a given point without all this broken up structure, the medieval disputation structure. It is a single volume of 700 pages that condenses the entire Summa Theologia of St. Thomas’ thousands and thousands of pages. It is a wonderful tool put out by Christian Classics publishers in Westminster, Maryland. It costs $78, but a serious person could just quietly read it. It has all the theology and philosophy in there.

But then they would have to read various modern things. Gilson’s book, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, is one way to start. Gilson also has The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas with his special famous new chapter on existence that was only in the fifth edition and then on. They could read some of my works. There were various Thomistic textbooks, but they have all gone out of print now. So one has to look around under some guidance to find some good readings to introduce one into this existential and the neo-Platonic. I would stress that St. Thomas is not just Aristotelian, but also comes from the neo-Platonic participation metaphysics in essence and existence, so he is not just Aristotelian. The student could find a good bit of that in the bibliography of my works and in my articles, and I would refer to other works there. So it is one place to start. They could start immediately with my bibliography, and that would lead them around to various others.

Jim: Thank you, Fr. Clarke, for spending this time with us.


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