Finite Being

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Finite being, deriving from the Latin finis for end, boundary, or limit, means the same as limited being. It can be understood in either a quantitative or a qualitative sense. Examples of the former are things limited in dimensions, weight, or speed; these are known through experience and present no special difficulty. The qualitatively finite, as opposed to this, designates a limited possession of some perfection that admits of levels or degrees. As a concept it has long been present in the philosophical thought of both East and West, although it underwent a noteworthy evolution at the beginning of the Christian era.

Notion of Finite. For classical Greek thought the finite was the perfect, which meant the completed, the determinate or well-defined, or the intelligible (since definition itself is delimitation). The infinite, as opposed to this, was the imperfect, the unfinished, the indeterminate and formless (matter), or the unintelligible. "Nature," said aristotle, "flies from the infinite, for the infinite is unending or imperfect, and nature ever seeks an end" (Gen. animal., 715b 14). It was only in the early centuries of the Christian era, influenced first by philo judaeus and the Neoplatonism of plotinus, then by Christian thinkers, especially clement of alexandria and gregory of nyssa, that the present notion, of qualitative infinity as the supremely perfect, begin to appear and to be applied to God. From this point on, the finite was understood to be a lower level of being, one that possessed in a limited (and therefore imperfect) way some attribute or property that Infinite Being (God) posessed in an unlimited (and therefore supremely perfect) manner. Finite thus became a primary notion for describing the status of creatures, all of which are by nature finite, as compared with their Creator, the infinite plenitude of all perfection.

Explanatory Principles. What is required to explain the existence of something finite? It is a fundamental tenet of Christian philosophers, and of almost all metaphysicians of both East and West, that no finite being can be self-sufficient or self-existent, but must depend on Infinite Being as its ultimate source. Limitation in a being's nature always requires some higher cause outside of that being, since no thing can determine its own nature to possess this or that degree of perfection and no other. If it did, it would then be at once cause and effect of its own self. By the same token, if the cause is itself finite, it requires still another cause. Since a causal chain where all the members are only finite in nature can never contain an adequate cause for any of the members, ultimately there must be an infinite source that possesses the perfection in question, not from another, or by participation, but of its own nature and in unlimited fullness. From this infinite source all the finite possessors of an attribute receive it or participate in it, each according to its own finite capacity.

Thus the first requisite for something to be finite is an external cause, ultimately an infinite cause. The second requisite is a composition of elements within the being itself that results from and reflects the limiting action of its external cause. According to St. thomas aquinas (De pot. 1.2; ST 1a, 50.2 ad 34; 75.5 ad 1, 4) and the Thomistic school, possession of some perfection, a participated perfection, requires a duality or composition of two correlative, but nonidentical, elements within the finite being: one to explain the participated perfection, which of itself has no particular limit since it is found in different beings in different degrees; the other to explain the limited capacity of this particular participant. St. Thomas utilized the terms potency and act, found already in Aristotle with a somewhat different connotation, to describe this internal composition of a limiting principle with the perfection that it limits.

How the Finite Is Known. Since finite is essentially a relative or comparative term, a being cannot be known as finite except by comparison with something more perfect. Opinions differ as to whether the ultimate term of comparison can be merely another finite being or whether it must be some kind of infinity. Claiming that it is unnecessary to have explicit knowledge of God as infinite being before recognizing that creatures are finite, theistic philosophers have commonly argued from the finitude of creatures to the infinity of God. In recent times, however, some Christian philosophers, e.g., Maurice blondel, Joseph marÉchal, Karl Rahner, and Johannes Lotz, hold that to know a being explicitly as finite, one must refer simultaneously, if only vaguely and implicitly, to something without limits, such as being and goodness. Drawing their inspiration partly from the Augustinian tradition, partly from St. Thomas, and partly from the insights of modern philosophers like hegel, they point out that to know a limit as a limit is at least to think of or desire the unlimited.

Despite minor differences, Catholic philosophers and theologians agree that man's knowledge of the finite, for the mind able and willing to recognize it, points towards the infinite source and final end of all being, god.

See Also: infinity of god; limitation; potency; god, proofs for the existence of.

Bibliography: f. suÁrez, Disputationes Metaphysicae, Disp. 31, sect. 13 in Opera Omnia, Vivés ed. v.26. w. n. clarke, "The Limitation of Act by Potency," The New Scholasticism 26 (1952) 167194. g. giannini, Enciclopedia filosofica (Venice-Rome 1957) 3:5458.

[w. n. clarke]