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Per Caritatem

Non intratur in veritatem nisi per caritatem. St. Augustine




Gilson on Henry of Ghent on Divine Ideas, Esse Essentiae, and Related Topics

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

August 5, 2006

Gilson has a brief but dense section in his Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages on the very interesting figure, Henry of Ghent. According to Henry, the divine ideas are not created and are themselves God. They have no subsistence of their own and no actual being besides that of God (p. 450). Yet, “since an Idea represents a possible creature, it can be said to be distinct from God at least to the extent that it is in him a distinct object of cognition” (p. 450). We may also say that (1) “God first knows his own essence in itself;” (2) “in the very act by which God knows his own essence, he knows all creatable things according to the being they have in his own knowledge of them;” (3) “God knows the being which possible creatures have in themselves and as distinct from his own being” (p. 450). Being that is “proper to the creature considered in itself,” Henry calls “essence.” An Idea then is the combination of the “essence of each possible creature” with the “content which defines it.” An Idea “represents a possible imitation of the divine essence. As such, this ideal essence has a being of its own; otherwise it would not be the idea of a possible creature; it would be the self-knowledge of God qua God. Its being, however, is not an actual being added to that of God. It is the being that belongs to a known essence precisely inasmuch as it is known. The being of an essence taken precisely qua essence is what Henry calls ‘being of essence’ (esse essentiae)” (p. 450). As Gilson explains, Duns Scotus will strongly criticize this doctrine. Gilson also notes that Henry rejects Avicenna’s understanding of the actualizing of essences (a necessitarian conception). “In the doctrine of Avicenna, God has a will, but his will cannot not consent to the consecutions of Ideas which eternally unfold themselves in the divine mind. While God is thinking the intelligible order of all the possibles, they come to be according to the same order; the eternal speculation of God is eternally being actualized by his will” (p. 451). In contrast, Henry’s view claims that God freely creates certain possibles. In addition, “the fact that God freely chooses from amongst an infinity of possibles does not affect the content of their essences; it simply turns their being of essence into a being of existence, which is the proper effect of creation” (p. 451).

Also, according to Henry, the act of creation and the divine being are in God not distinct. “In creatures, creation is nothing more than their relation to the cause of their actual being. What we call existence is nothing else than being itself taken as an effect of this causal relation. There is therefore no such thing as a distinction or composition of essence and existence.”[1] […] To Henry of Ghent, an existent is simply a possible being actualized by its cause. Once actualized, it is an individual in its own right; each created form is in a fully constituted subject (suppositum) which is distinct from all the other ones in virtue of its very unity. A being is distinct from the others because it is one; it is one because it is not divided from itself; consequently, every actual being is individual in virtue of a ‘twofold negation’: a negation which denies of every being all difference with respect to itself, and a negation which denies of every being all identity with any other one. As can be seen, Henry answers the problem of the cause of individuation by a description of its effects (p. 451).

(1) What is Scotus’ criticism of Henry’s doctrine of esse essentiae? Any other relevant Henry of Ghent contrasts/comparisons with Scotus are quite welcome (Garrett, where are you? : )
(2) What is the ultimate telos of the Divine Ideas—actual existence as distinct from God’s own being? If so, does that cause difficulties in regard to creation being a “free” creation of God?

[1] In a footnote, Gilson further elucidates Henry’s position: “In God, every creature has its own being of essence, but, naturally, not its being of existence, so it can have no composition of essence and existence in God. In itself, it has the same being of essence which God eternally knew he would create outside of his own intellect. Its actual existence precisely consists in being a created essence; in other words, its existence is its essence after it has been created. […] Consequently, there is no distinction of essence and existence in created beings. ‘Esse’ is not ‘res aliqua super essentiam creaturae.’ If esse is added to essence, is it a substance or an accident? It cannot be an accident because, before its creation, there is no essence to receive existence. In fact, existence is not an extrinsic participation by mode of inherence, it is produced by creation. Strictly speaking, only God is his own existence. Creatures are not their own existence in the same sense; what is true is that creatures are not really distinct from their own esse. Their existence does not happen to their already existing essence (in God, it has no existence of its own); it is ‘an effect of the creator in that which receives being.’ Nevertheless, since an essence as such is something else than an existing essence, their distinction in our mind is not only of reason, it is that of two notions (non solum ratione differunt sed etiam intentione). This means that it takes two distinct conceptions to signify as essence and an existent” (note 44, p. 761).

One Response so far

Great post!

I don’t know that I have any answers to your questions, but I do have a really interesting article by Steven Marrone about Henry’s (qualification of) illuminationism and the idea of being that might be pertinent to your interests. shoot me an email (shane*dot*wilkins*at*gmail*com) and I’ll send it your way.

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