Essentially the affirmation that the idea of being, which is immediately and intuitively present to the human intellect, is God Himself. This description will be borne out and will serve as a general guide in the following historical, theological, and philosophical examination of ontologism.
Ontologism Viewed Historically. The word "ontologism" as a term generally used to describe a philosophic system is of nineteenth-century origin. It indicates one element of the basic tenet of the teaching in question, namely, that man has being (ὄν ὄντος, being) as the object of his intellect. From this fact, which ontologists take as axiomatic, another essential element of their theory is deduced: the being that is the object of the intellect is Being, God Himself. The principal defenders of this proposition in the nineteenth century were V. gioberti in Italy, G. Ubaghs in Belgium, and, to a lesser extent, O. brownson in the United States. Brownson, for example, castigates "the Christian peripatetics" for not admitting "that the universal, the necessary, the eternal, the immutable without the intuition of which the contingent and the particular are inconceivable, and no syllogism is possible, are identically the divine being, the ens necessarium et reale, or God himself" [Boston Quarterly Review, 2d New York series (Oct. 1860) 436]. A. rosmini serbati, although often called an ontologist, states explicitly: "That which is shown to our mind when it sees being and nothing else is not the living and acting God, and consequently cannot receive in any way the personal denomination of God" [Del divino nella natura, v. 4 of Teosophia (5 v. Turin 1859–74) 11].
Although ontologism was formulated under a specific title only in the nineteenth century, the theory had been favored centuries earlier. In France its great master wasN. malebranche, ably expounded by H. Gerdil, who quotes also from Thomassin and Marcilio Ficino with approval. "Only He [God] can throw light upon the [human] spirit by His own substance… it is He who rules over our spirit, according to St. Augustine, without the mediation of any creature…. One cannot conceivethat the infinite can be represented by anything created…it must be said that one knows God through Himself, although the knowledge one has of Him in this life is very imperfect" [Gerdil (quoting Malebranche), 170]. In other words, the knowledge one has of God, even on a natural plane, is dependent upon an immediate, although obscure, intuition of Him.
Malebranche's appeal to St. Augustine indicates sufficiently that the upholders of ontologistic teaching did not consider their theory as new. For them, its roots were deep in history, and, consequently, it drew its nourishment from the instinctive movement of the human spirit as expressed in the great minds of the ages. On a historical piano they appealed to Plato, to St. Augustine, and to St. Thomas Aquinas.
For St. Augustine "the forms—now ideas in the divine mind—yield their eternal truth to the mind in the light of a divine illumination in the mind. This is an exact replica of Plato's image of the sun: for Augustine, too, God is to the mind what the sun is to the things visible to the eye" [A. H. Armstrong and R. H. Markus, Christian Faith and Greek Philosophy (London 1960)]. From considerations of this kind, whose truth cannot be denied, ontologists went on to conclude that their teaching was based on that of the masters of antiquity. They found further support in St. Thomas Aquinas: "…we are said to see all things in God and to make our judgments according to Him, insofar as through a participation of His light we know and judge all things; for the natural light itself of reason is a certain participation of the divine light" (Summa Theologiae 1a, 12.11 ad 3). Although St. Thomas himself explicitly denies that the purely natural man sees God, ontologists maintain that this cannot follow from his dicta about man's participation in the divine light. According to them, being seen by the mind is either the Creator or a creature. If it is the divine light, it cannot be a creature. Therefore, it must be the Creator [cf. V. Gioberti, Degli errori di Antonio Rosmini (Brussels 1841) 37–38].
Ontologism Viewed Theologically. Among the propositions condemned by the Holy Office in 1861 as unsafe for teaching (tuto tradi non possunt ) was the statement: "At least an habitual, immediate knowledge of God is essential to the human intellect in such a way that, without it, it cannot know anything: for it is the intellectual light itself" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, [32d ed. Freiburg 1963] 2841). From a theological point of view, this condemnation was the culmination of a controversy that had raged during the previous years between "traditionalists" who maintained in various ways that even a purely natural man has an essential need of revelation, and the extremists among those who upheld the natural autonomy of human reason. Although the particular reasons for the dangers inherent in ontologism were not expressed in the condemnatory decree, they may fairly be summarized under two headings of Catholic doctrine: the distinction between the Creator and the creature, and the distinction between nature and grace.
If, as Gioberti maintains, ideas are the real things themselves, there would seem to be no place for a distinction between God and His creatures. Basically, Gioberti's principle leaves no room for a distinction between act and potency or, consequently, between essence and existence. It follows that the essence of all beings is to exist. The way is thus open for the final step to pantheism: If the essence of all beings is to exist, there must be only one Being that embraces all existence.
There is an equal danger of confusing the natural with the supernatural in the ontologistic way of regarding the nature of the object of man's natural intellect. If by nature, without reference to supernature, man is granted a direct, even if obscure, glimpse of God's reality, it is difficult to see how any grace given to him can differ in kind from the light of reason he receives in his natural creation. Moreover, if his human nature essentially demands the vision of God it would seem that the notion of grace as an altogether gratuitous gift of God to man is to be rejected. Brownson, for example, while avoiding the Scylla of pantheism, seems to be in danger from the Charybdis of naturalism. "Nothing remains [in order to avoid pantheism] but to admit that the soul has, by one and the same act, an intuition of God and itself…the Creator presents himself, in the act of creation, to the created spirit as the object of its activity" [Boston Quarterly Review (Jan. 1860) 49].
Ontologism Viewed Philosophically. Philosophically, ontologism takes its stand upon a fact open to observation, that is, the knowledge of being in general is that alone which enables man to know particular beings. Ontologists accept wholeheartedly St. Thomas's ens communissimum as the first thing known to the intellect. In order to say "the thing is something" (e.g., "the table is large"), one must first know what "is" means. Then they add: but "is" is the name of God. Therefore, one must know God to affirm anything of anything.
It is implicit in this argument that the fundamental knowledge of the human intellect cannot be abstracted from knowledge of material things or spring from the human spirit. It cannot be abstracted from material things because it is the prerequisite by which they are known, and also because being as such is not to be found in them. They are only the effects of being. Just as God precedes the creation, so knowledge of God precedes knowledge of His creatures.
It cannot spring from the human spirit because the spirit itself is created and cannot produce the infinite. According to the ontologists, consideration of material things and of the human spirit can only lead to the conclusion that the knowledge of Being, God Himself, is given to the spirit by the Creator at the first moment of its existence.
Ontologists saw their system as the only answer to the sensism of Locke and the subjectivism common to Kant and Descartes. Malebranche, by showing that the light of reason cannot itself come from the senses, intended to oppose the materialistic interpretation imparted by Locke to the adage: "Nihil est in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu"; Gioberti, by upholding the reality of the object given to the spirit from outside itself, set himself against German idealism and French psychologism, both of which are essentially subjective.
Philosophical objections to ontologism are not hard to find. The chief difficulty springs from observation. While it is true that one must know being in general as a condition for knowing anything at all (for of anything known it must at least be said: "it is something"), experience shows that this being is not Being (God, the infinite reality). If it were, what need would there be to know any finite reality?
The key to the right understanding of the relationship between the limitless being known by man's intellect and the infinite reality is best found in St. Thomas's illustration, not in the ontologistic explanation. Just as one can see the light of the sun without seeing the sun itself, so the light of reason, which is immutable truth, can be seen by the intellect without its seeing God Himself (cf. Summa Theologiae 1a, 12.11; C. gent. 3.47). Ignoring this distinction means opting for ontologism.
See Also: beatific vision; god, intuition of; illuminism; knowledge, theories of; light of glory.
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