In A.D. 2011 the Congregation for Catholic Education, at the direction of Pope Benedict XVI, issued its Decree on the Reform of Ecclesiastical Studies of Philosophy. The terms of this Decree apply to schools and departments of theology and philosophy residing in Roman Catholic Universities which are selected by dioceses for the theological formation of presbyteral candidates, diaconal candidates, and lay ministers.
The Decree consists of two parts. The first part is made up of the sixteen paragraphs constituting its new material. The second part consists of those parts of the Apostolic Constitution Sapientia Christiana (A.D. 1979, Pope John Paul II) addressing these same issues and which are, either, retained in whole or are modified in the current Decree.
The purpose of the articles which appear here is to present the parts of this document in sequential order and to offer additional commentary. The articles here will begin with the presentation of the first paragraph of the first part of the Decree. Subsequent articles will present/address the next part of the Decree. Scrolling down through the articles will bring the reader, in reverse order, to all parts of the document already considered.
Decree, Part 1, Paragraph 3:
II. The “Original Vocation” of Philosophy
3. Philosophical trends have multiplied in the course of history, showing the richness of the various rigorous, sapiential searches for truth. While ancient wisdom contemplated being from the perspective of the cosmos, patristic and medieval thought offered a deeper, purified vision, identifying the cosmos as the free creation of a God who is wise and good (cf. Wis 13,1-9; Acts 17, 24-28). Modern philosophies have particularly emphasized human freedom, the spontaneity of reason, and its capacity to measure and dominate the universe. Recently, a certain number of contemporary schools of thought, being more sensitive to the vulnerability of our knowledge and our humanity, have focused their reflection on the mediating roles of language [Footnote 3] and culture. Finally, moving beyond Western thought, how could one forget the numerous and sometimes remarkable efforts to understand man, the world and the Absolute made by different cultures, for example Asian and African cultures? This generous exploration of thought and language, however, must never forget that it is rooted in being. “The metaphysical element is the path to be taken in order to move beyond the crisis pervading large sectors of philosophy at the moment, and thus to correct certain mistaken modes of behaviour now widespread in our society.” [Footnote 4] From this perspective, philosophers are invited energetically to reclaim philosophy’s “original vocation”: [Footnote 5] the search for truth, and its sapiential and metaphysical characteristic.
[Footnote 3] Cf. Fides et ratio, n. 84.
[Footnote 4] Fides et ratio, n. 83.
[Footnote 5] Cf. Fides et ratio, n. 6.
Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy. Metaphysics is the study of Being. Other ways of saying the same thing is that metaphysics is the study of existence, of being as being, of existence abstracted (and considered apart from) those things which exist and in which being is found.
It might seem or sound strange to speak of considering “existence separate from the things within which existence is found”, because it might appear that we always consider only what actually exists. However, it is often the case that we consider things separate from the actual things in which they are found. For example, in nature there are no triangles; there are only shapes which resemble triangles. These triangular shapes in nature or in the things which humans make, can asymptotically approach but never reach being triangles. Triangles, mathematically defined as a shape with three straight sides and whose three interior angles added together equal 180 degrees, does not physically exist. The triangle, the shape with three straight sides the interior angles of which equal 180 degrees, exists only as a mental idea, as a mental abstraction from the things within which the triangular shape is found. None of these triangle shapes in nature or in human construction, ever attain the perfection of three straight lines or an exact interior angularity of 180 degrees. We simply cannot draw lines perfectly nor measure out angles perfectly. And even if we could, fluctuations and indeterminacy at the atomic quantum level of reality, makes it impossible for the shapes we construct to remain in such actual physical perfection.
Similarly, metaphysics is the consideration of being separated from (or abstracted from) the things within which being is found. Metaphysics is the study of being as being in itself.
Now, among creatures and all things created by God, existence does not actually exist separate from these things. In the cases of created things, when we think about their being or existence, we are truly abstracting their being from their actual physical reality. Such a consideration is an abstraction; a step away from reality.
However, the situation of considering being when we think about God is different. God is that entity whose essence is being. Another way to say this is that God is that Being which is completely and only being; complete, perfect, finished, actual. So, when we consider God’s essence, we are considering existence as an actual “thing” in and of itself. The important fact here, as it relates to the discipline of metaphysics, is that in considering divine Being, we are considering an actual “thing”. When we consider God’s existence, we are not considering an idea-abstraction from some other thing within which that existence is found. God, and our consideration of God, allows us to realize that being can be considered as an actuality; not just as an abstraction from reality.
Aristotle (384 to 322 B.C.), though he was an agnostic or possibly an atheist, nonetheless believed that one could study being-in-itself as an actuality. He believed being as being, existence, existence in itself can be meaningfully considered apart from the things within which being is found. Though he knew that in the physical world existence is only found in actual existing things, he was of the mind that the existence of the thing which exists, and the essence of the thing which exists are equally important aspects of that thing. Therefore, for Aristotle, it made as much sense to consider the existence which “this orange here” has in common with the existence of “my friend George” and with the existence of “that rock there”, even if that orange no longer actually exists because it has been eaten or George no longer exists as George but only as a corpse in a grave.
It is from Aristotle that we receive, as stated in his Metaphysics, the definition of metaphysics as the study of being as being and the attributes of being. From this definition and Aristotle’s thoughts about metaphysics spring the Roman Catholic and scholastic disciplines of metaphysics, blossoming during the late Medieval and early Modern periods (roughly A.D. 800 to 1400) but also continuing to today.
A special note must be made of the second half of Aristotle’s definition regarding “the attributes of being”. Aristotle believed that wherever there is existence, there are certain qualities or properties or attributes which also are always present. One he mentioned was unity or oneness. This idea of the attributes of being will eventually evolve into the scholastic metaphysical idea of the transcendental properties of being; or more simply, the transcendentals. The transcendental properties of being are unity (oneness), goodness, and truth. Quite likely, beauty is another transcendental property of being. Possibly, thing(ness) and other(ness) are transcendental properties as well. The idea here is that to consider being or existence necessarily requires one to think of, to know, to become aware of the presence of unity, truth, goodness, beauty, and possibly other and thing(ness).
Aristotle did not name his writings about the consideration of being as being, Metaphysics. This title was given to this book by librarians, possibly at the great library at Alexandria in Egypt, many hundreds of years after Aristotle. It received this title, metaphysics, because of the placement of this “book” among the works of Aristotle collected by the librarians. The word metaphysics literally means in the Greek language “after (the) physics”. This work by Aristotle on being as being was placed after his writings on physics. The English word physics is derived from the Greek word pronounced foo-ceese which literally means the-way-(physical)-things-are. Aristotle considered actual physical things to be what is most knowable, in opposition to his teacher Plato, who considered immaterial things such as gods or ideas or numbers or the forms of actual things to be what we could most clearly understand. Aristotle’s belief that actual physical things (which physics studies) are most knowable, may be the reason the librarians placed first the text dealing with the realities of physical things (the physics) and then followed it with the text dealing with the existence of those things considered separate from the physical things within which that existence was found; i.e. the metaphysics.
Because existence is part of what allows one to know the reality, the truth, of what a given thing really is, metaphysics is an essential piece of the activity of understanding and knowing. Metaphysics is at the root of that tool of reasoning called categorization. Categorization is the logical exercise which is the basis of all sciences and of all disciplines which engage in the “sapiential search for truth”.
Though knowing both the material essence and the existence of actual physical material created things are equally important, there is a very real difference between the essence of things and the existence of things. The essences are what make things different. Essences are the description of the differences of those things; that is, essence is what gives individuality. Essence is what makes an orange different from a person and what makes this orange different from that orange. In considering existence, regardless of things whose being is considered; that existence (or those existences) is (are) always the same existence. Existence is existence. The essence of George and the essence of that orange in the fruit bowl; not so much.
Today, the word metaphysics is used to speak of various types of attempts at knowledge acquisition which do not involve categorization. Such types of “knowing” involve mystical or outside-reality or behind-reality type elements. Examples of such “metaphysical” activities include the use of crystals in meditation, the use of psychedelic substances, pyramidal forms, voodoo, zen, other types of meditation or contemplation, new age philosophies, leaving the body by means of an immaterial silver cord and considering things from that perspective, extra-sensory perceptive abilities. Because these forms of knowledge-acquisition do not use logical categorization, it is not possible using rational means, to confirm or deny the validity of their discoveries.
These non-categorical sapiential searches for truth are not what is meant by the Aristotelian or scholastic or Roman Catholic tool of knowledge acquisition called metaphysics. Sometimes, the word ontology is used to refer to this same Aristotelian or scholastic metaphysical tool of knowledge acquisition. The “onto” is derived from the Greek participle pronounced ontos which is a part of the Greek verb meaning “to be”. The “logy” is derived from the Greek word pronounced logos, which means word or reason or study. Thus, ontology is “the study of being”.
Though not the only one, but among the most important, Saint Thomas Aquinas (A.D. 1225 to 1274) utilized the metaphysical ideas of Aristotle in his theological considerations of various dogmas and doctrines of Roman Catholic Christianity. Using Aristotelian ideas provided Thomas an intellectual flexibility to discover other truths present in Roman Catholic beliefs but which were not yet fully realized. For example, by defining the conscience as the intellectual (i.e. categorizing) mental activity based on experience judging what the goods are which should be done and what the evils are which should be avoided, and then distinguishing conscience from will, and then combining this idea of conscience with the idea of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is what allowed Thomas to formulate what we today refer to as freedom of conscience: the primacy and duty of a person to follow (act in accordance with the insights provided by) one’s own well informed conscience.