Chapter 3
Some Notes on the History of the
Evolution of the Intuition of Being


The phrase "the intuition of being" was Jacques Maritain’s way of describing the insight at the heart of the metaphysics of St. Thomas. We have just seen, and I have described elsewhere in God, Zen and the Intuition of Being and Mysticism, Metaphysics and Maritain, the content of this intuition, but it was an intuition of such profundity and originality that it revolutionized the Western metaphysical tradition and we have truly yet to gauge its full impact.

St. Thomas was heir to the Greek and Islamic philosophical traditions. He took this rich and complex metaphysical treasure and transformed it, and any number of historians have traced this trajectory that ended with Thomas, and some of them like Etienne Gilson in his Being and Some Philosophers have viewed the matter precisely from the point of view of Thomas’ discovery of the primacy of existence over essence.

But Thomists have always had difficulty in coming to grips with Thomas’ metaphysical revolution. Often they simply failed to see what he saw. Thomas had expressed his central insight in beautiful gemlike phrases, but he had never told us how he had arrived at this intuition, nor did he focus on its originality, or the subjective requirements for attaining it. All these things would have been out of harmony with the age in which he lived, an age in which a personal sense of self was still submerged in the objective requirements of the discipline being pursued, as witnessed by the anonymity of the creators of the great cathedral of Chartre.

The history of Thomism has been the history of the forgetting of Thomas’ insight into existence with some exceptions. Gilson, for example, has singled out a mere handful of Thomists who over the centuries he felt had grasped this insight: Thomas Sutton in the 13th century, Bernard de Auvergne in the 14th century, and Domingo Bañez in the 16th century.1

William Sutton, for example, an English Dominican, wrote a treatise "De Esse et Essentia" probably at the end of the 13th century which survived in a single copy found in the Bibliothèque Jagellonne in Cracow that was not attributed to him until 1960.2 All philosophy, Sutton tells us, depends on our knowledge of esse and essence, and it was Thomas who was the first to discover the true relationship between them. (primus fuit qui nobis hanc veritatem expressit)3 Esse, or the act of existence, is "nothing other than the ultimate and first actuality" of an essence, and is related to essence as act is to potency. Imagine, he continued, the divine esse as a sun which produces and illuminates all created things which are like diaphanous bodies which incorporate this light in the form of color.4 Esse, he says later, is received and contracted by essence.5

Quite similar sentiments were expressed by Domingo Bañez in his Comentaria en primam partam angelici doctoris some 300 years later. Indeed, Bañez’s thoughts are so similar we might wonder if he had ever read Sutton’s treatise: "These essential principles (essences) are understood only to the extent that they are ordered to esse, just as transparency is a cause of light in the sense that it makes the reception of light possible. And although esse itself, as received in an essence composed of essential principles, is specified by them, still it (esse) receives no perfection from such a specification. Rather esse is constricted and brought down to being of a certain kind, for existence as a man or as an angel is not absolute and unqualified perfection. Now this is exactly what St. Thomas has often insistently proclaimed, although Thomists will not listen: namely, that esse is the actuality of every form or nature… Insofar as esse itself is received, it is contracted and, if I may so put it, "imperfected."6

Géry Prouvost in his Thomas D’Aquin et Les Thomsismes: Essai sur l’histoire des thomismes7 does us the good service of looking at these two "existential" Thomists in considerable detail and situating them in the context of the philosophical struggles of their time.

But Prouvost has pursued this fascinating topic into the 20th century by looking at the work of Gilson and Maritain not only in his Thomas D’Aquin et Les Thomismes, but his Étienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Deux approches de l’être, Correspondance (1923-1971).8 In these works he begins to sketch a picture of a Maritain following the footsteps of Cajetan and suffering himself from a forgetfulness of esse. Maritain’s intuition of being, itself, becomes an attempt to have a concept of existence, and therefore opposed to the fundamental tenet that we know existence by a judgment. While Maritain has excessively criticized Bergson, he has managed to stay within his orbit, and the intuition of being can only end in a kind of conceptualism or essentialism. It is more akin to a spiritual grace than a genuine philosophical insight, and in any event, cannot be found in St. Thomas, himself. While Prouvost, in creating this scenario, is following Gilson for the most part, and sees these aspects of Maritain’s work more as tendencies than systematic developments, the picture that emerges is enough to cast a deep shadow on Maritain’s metaphysical work if these accusations were true. But these objections stem, it appears, from a difference in perspective that leads to a misreading of what Maritain is actually doing. Gilson, himself, put his finger on the issue quite well. Maritain considered himself a disciple of St. Thomas "because he was continuing his thought."9 Gilson felt that in Maritain’s eyes, to stick with the thought of St. Thomas was to fall into a kind of historicism. But Gilson’s conclusion in this regard, "I had never understood his true position," strikes one as an exaggeration of the kind Gilson appears to have enjoyed.

Once we change our perspective these kinds of objections fade away. Maritain, however much he was interested in what St. Thomas said, was not a historian, but rather, a creative metaphysician with his eyes on the future. It can profit us greatly to look at his own metaphysical thought from a historical perspective. It reached, for example, a critical turning point in 1932 when he began to consider the subjective side of doing metaphysics, which led to his formulation of the idea of the intuition of being. Clearly, this was something new in Thomistic metaphysics, but its content consisted of the same insight that St. Thomas had had. In fact, a case could be made for considering Maritain a pioneer in the 20th century rediscovery of the primacy of existence in the metaphysics of St. Thomas. When Gilson revised his Le Thomisme during World War II, what inspired his turn to an existential Thomism? It is certainly worth examining the role that Maritain’s Preface to Metaphysics played in such a development, as well as the work that Joseph de Finance was carrying on under Gilson’s direction. I think that a careful examination of the matter will show that Maritain not only rediscovered Thomas’ insight for himself and helped make it known, but took a crucial next step by asking about the subjective requirements that would help us arrive at it, and the concrete approaches that could bring us closer to it. And at the end of his life Maritain took still another step, and began to ask whether it was possible to cultivate this intuition. How else are we to truly confront the problem of the forgetting of existence within Thomism if we don’t look at this subjective side? Maritain, in short, used the philosophical language of St. Thomas and his commentators in a fluid way, and tried to evoke with it a response in us so that we could see this mystery of being. Did St. Thomas talk formally of the intuition of being? No. But that matters little. What Thomas saw is what is paramount, and the history of Thomism has demonstrated how what he saw, many of his followers failed to see. And it was crucial that someone finally break the silence and ask why didn’t they see? This is what Maritain did. The next step becomes, how do we learn to see? And that is the question that a historical examination of the evolution of the intuition of being leads us to.

But if this intuition is so central to metaphysics, then we should not be surprised if on occasion it appeared far beyond the frontiers of Thomism. Indeed, the intuition of being has been subject to a great metaphysical experiment. It appears that the same Greek and Islamic tradition that St. Thomas drew upon and which went on to develop independently of the West in places like Persia, flowered there in the work of the Mulla Sadra who discovered in his own way the primacy of the act of existence. We could say that both Thomas and Mulla Sadra distilled the tradition and came independently to the same conclusion

If, then, we were to draw up a historical worksheet it would read:

  1. What is Thomas’ relationship with his philosophical predecessors, whether Greek, Christian or Muslim in regard to his insight into the primacy of existence?
  2. From the 13th to the 20th century, just what Thomists actually understood what Thomas had seen in this regard?
  3. Just how did the rediscovery of Thomas’ insight take place in the 20th century?
  4. Where else can this same intuition of being be found? We can look not only to the case of Mulla Sadra, but to some fascinating parallels that have grown up independently in Buddhism and Hinduism.10

The intuition of being is the fiery magma out of which a living Thomist metaphysics emerges, and therefore the question of how to cultivate this insight is of the greatest importance. Even the posing of such a question helps to counterbalance a too historical view of Thomism in which it has become a historical artifact. In final analysis, to paraphrase Maritain, the whole history and the elaborate conceptual development of the Thomist metaphysical tradition is pointless if we do not end up seeing, if we do not glimpse, with the help of St. Thomas, or Gilson, or Maritain, the living mystery of existence.




  1. Prouvost, Géry. Étienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Deux approches de l’être, Correspondance (1923-1971). Paris: J. Vrin, 1991, p. 143, note 3.
  2. Senko, W. "Un traité inconnu," in Archives d’histoire doctrinate et littéraire du moyen age. Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, Paris, 1961.
  3. Ibid., p. 260
  4. Ibid., p. 252.
  5. Ibid., p. 258.
  6. Domingo Bañez, The Primacy of Existence in Thomas Aquinas, translated by Benjamin S. Llamzon, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1966, p. 25.
  7. Prouvost, Géry. Thomas D’Aquin et Les Thomsismes: Essai sur l’histoire des thomismes. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1996
  8. Prouvost, Géry. Étienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Deux approches de l’être, Correspondance (1923-1971).
  9. Ibid., Postface, p. 275.
  10. See Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue, Chapter 6.

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