From the Latin subsistere, meaning to stand under, or to stand still, subsistence is "that mode of existence which is self-contained and independent of any subject, and also a being that exists in this manner, synonym of hypostasis, res subsistens, persona, i.e., both that which exists for itself and not in another and also the manner of existence …" [L. Deferrari, M. I. Barry, and J. Mc-Guiness, A Lexicon of St. Thomas Aquinas, (Washington, 1948) 1063]. Used as an abstract noun, subsistence denotes an order to per se existence that is proper to substances, as distinct from accidents, which depend upon a sustaining subject in order to exist (see substance; ac cident). Used as a concrete noun, subsistence denotes a substantial essence in its relationship to proportionate existence.
Related Terminology. Supposit is another term for subsistence concretely understood. Derived from the Latin supponere, meaning to put or to place under, it signifies that which underlies and supports accidental being, namely, substance with its own order to self-contained being independent of any subject. Supposit and subsistence concretely considered differ only etymologically.
hypostasis similarly designates the same reality as supposit and subsistence used as a concrete noun. It differs from supposit only in its derivation from Greek ([symbol omitted]πόστασις) instead of from Latin.
person, from the Greek πρόσωπον, meaning face, is reserved for a supposit having an intelligent nature, whether divine, angelic, or human; thus no infraintelligent supposit is a person. Person and supposit are related as the less inclusive (person—an intelligent supposit) to the more inclusive (supposit—very subsistent reality).
nature is closely connected with the notions of subsistence, supposit, etc., but is really different from them. The term nature designates a thing's specific identity, its essence. Nature answers the question What is this? and indicates the essential, dynamic constitution of a thing. Yet nature as such has no per se or immediate reference to the existential order and is defined independently of existence. But reference to the existential order enters decisively into the notion of subsistence, which cannot be defined save in terms of a certain manner of existential actuality.
Historical Development. Only in the context of early doctrinal discussions of the Incarnation did the term subsistence acquire the technical meaning, equivalent to hypostasis, that it has long enjoyed in theology and philosophy. The earliest formulations of Christian faith were all expressed in the Greek language, where, necessarily, person and hypostasis were used to express the union between Christ's divine and human natures. The union is personal, hypostatic, because in Him there is but one hypostasis subsisting in both natures.
Meeting the Western need to express Christian faith in Latin terms, ecclesiastical writers first tended to translate hypostasis as substantia, substance. boethius actually defines person or hypostasis in terms of individual substance (De duabus naturis 3, Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 64:1343). Even the great Augustine uses substantia as synonomous with person (Trin. 7.47–7.5.10, Patrologia Latina 42:941–943). Later, the Lateran Council of 649 under Pope Martin I followed this usage, calling the hypostatic union a "substantial union of natures" (naturarum substantialem unionem, H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer, 508).
But substance is, in this context, ambiguous, a potential source of confusion; for it can signify both nature and supposit. It can be said that in Christ there are two substances (natures) and one substance (person, supposit). The same Council that describes Christ's "substantial [personal] union of natures" asserts of Him "a substantial difference of natures" (Enchiridion symbolorum 507), a juxtaposition that nicely suggests the ambiguity implicit in this use of substance.
A less equivocal usage did not gain ground until about the beginning of the 5th century. rufinus of aquileia seems to have been the first ecclesiastical writer to translate hypostasis as subsistentia and to distinguish clearly between subsistence taken in the concrete and substance (Ecclesiastical History 1.29, Patrologia Latina 21:499–500), thereby removing the terminological difficulty at its root. Half a century earlier, marius victorinus had used the term subsistence, but not as a precise Latin equivalent of hypostasis or person (Adv. Arium 1.30, Patrologia Latina 8:1062–63). faustus of riez, like Rufinus, very precisely distinguished between substantia and subsistentia, using only the latter as an accurate translation of hypostasis (Epist. 7, PL 58:858). The same is true of Paschasius the Deacon (De Spiritu Sancto, 1.4, Patrologia Latina 62:13) and of Rusticus, who explicitly identified persona and subsistentia in their distinction from natura (C. Acepholos disp.; Patrologia Latina 67:1192–99, 1238, etc.).
As subsistence came to be commonly used to express the union of the Incarnation, it appeared also in documents of the magisterium. The first of such documents is the dogmatic letter of Pope John I explicitly equating subsistentia with person or hypostasis in Christ (Enchiridion symbolorum 401). The Council of Rome (680) teaches that "… Jesus Christ … subsists in two substances… meeting in one person and one subsistence" (Enchiridion symbolorum 548), so restricting the term substance to nature. The same Council speaks of "the subsistential union" (subsistentialem adunationem ) in Christ (ibid. ). In his preface to the translation of the acts of the seventh General Council, Anastasius the Librarian (d. 879) points out that he translates hypostasis as subsistentia and contrasts his usage with that of authors who had employed substantia to designate person or hypostasis (Interp. synodi 7 gen., praef.; Patrologia Latina 129:197). Eventually the conviction became universal among Latin ecclesiastical writers that whereas substance, as equivalent to hypostasis, could lead to misunderstanding, subsistence involved no such danger but carried the precise meaning of the Greek term, a conviction embraced by Pope Eugene IV and the Council of Florence (Enchiridion symbolorum 1339–46).
The supplanting of "substantial" by "subsistential" in describing the union of natures in Christ had both theological and philosophical advantages. Theologically the unambiguous subsistentia removed the danger of a monophysitic interpretation conceivably lurking in the formula: "In Christ is a substantial union of natures." Philosophically the new terminology pointed to the need for investigating the relationship between substance, understood as nature, and subsistence or supposit, and existence. These investigations have not by any means resulted in agreement among philosophers about these relationships, and over the centuries many opinions have developed. Here only three more widely accepted opinions are considered, viz, the Thomistic explanation and the explanations of Scotus and Suárez.
Thomistic Explanation. Nowhere does St. thomas aquinas treat subsistence systematically or completely. His opinion must be pieced together from passages in his various works, but the following points explicitly taught by him are basic in the Thomistic account of subsistence. (1) "In things composed of matter and form … nature or essence and supposit differ"; the difference is real because the supposit adds extraneous elements to the nature or definition, notably individual matter (Summa theologiae 1a, 3.3). (2) In created immaterial substances (e.g., angels), there is some real distinction between the nature and the supposit because the supposit somehow includes existence and other predicable accidents. "In an angel they [nature and supposit] are not the same because the angel has accidents over and above what pertains to its species; the very existence of the angel is other than its essence or nature; and it has other accidents that certainly pertain to the supposit but not to the nature" (Quodl. 2.2.2). In general, therefore, "in creatures the essence is really distinct from the supposit" (In 1 sent. 5.1.1). (3) Only in God are supposit and nature really identical. "In God alone there is no accident outside His essence, because His existence is His essence …; therefore in God supposit and nature are the same" (Quodl. 2.2.2), although they are "rationally distinct" (Summa theologiae 3a, 2.2). St. Thomas's general norm is clear; namely, supposit is really distinct from nature when the nature is not its own existence, but is identical with nature in God, because God's nature is His existence. (4) Nevertheless the supposit is not to be confused with existence. "Existence is not included in the notion of supposit," although "existence pertains to the supposit" in a way in which it does not pertain to nature (Quodl. 2.2.2 ad 2). (5) As between supposit and existence, the latter is posterior in the order of nature. "Existence follows the person or supposit" (Summa theologiae 3a. 17.2 ad 1). Hence, the order of nature is first individual nature, then subsistence, and finally existence.
From these insights Thomistic commentators, e.g., John Capreolus and Tommaso de Vio cajetan, constructed a theory of subsistence favored by Thomists generally. Subsistence is described as really distinct from essence, or nature, in the sense that to nature it adds a real mode, namely, a transcendental order or relationship to existence. Abstractly considered, subsistence is this order to existential actuality; concretely considered, it is the essence so ordered. The notion of nature-ordered-toexistence has analogous unity as applied to divine, angelic, human, and infrahuman natures, so that while the relationship itself may be different in each case, the common notion is proportionately verified in all substantial natures.
Cajetan expressly teaches that in created, material natures supposit really differs from nature because, for one thing, supposit includes something real, but extrinsic to itself, which the nature does not include, namely existence, for existence is the act of the supposit. Similarly as to created, immaterial substances, "because in them… existence really differs from nature, which [existence] is primarily the act of the supposit, it follows that in them supposit differs from nature" (De ente et essentia, 5.9). Supposit includes esse per se "as its proper act through which it would have to be defined, but the nature… does not" (Comm. in Summa theologiae 1a, 3.3). Reference to existential actuality is (and defines) the supposit; the formality of nature abstracts from all such reference. Even in divinity the Persons, or supposits, are constituted by distinct relationships of origin, i.e., of actual being, within the one divine nature. The divine nature as ordered to being begotten is the Son; the same nature as ordered to begetting is the Father; and the identical divinity as ordered to being breathed forth in love is the Holy Spirit. In the entire reach of subsistence from the most material reality to the all-spiritual God, subsistence names natures as ordered to actual being.
Yet the relationship is different as the hierarchy of beings differ. Because in God the existence to which His nature is ordered in distinct ways is really identical with His nature, each Person is really identical with the divine essence. Among angels, the supposit really differs from the nature precisely because the existence to which it orders nature is really distinct therefrom. As potency is really distinct from, but related to, act, so is the supposit vis-à-vis existence. Among material substances, subsistence is even more complex. Even prior to ordering nature to existence, it brings to nature a termination making it apt for existential ordination. So the material supposit includes as intrinsic to itself the principles that individualize the nature, real modifications of the material substance, yet distinct from its essence. Hence material subsistence has the twofold function of terminating nature and of ordering it to existence (see Cajetan, loc. cit., Comm. in Summa theologiae 3a, 4.2; Capreolus, In 1 sent. 4.2.1, In 3 sent. 5.3.3).
Scotus and Suárez. In the view of duns scotus, subsistence, or personality, is nothing positive but a simple negation of dependence in being, such dependence as characterizes accidental realities. "Human nature is not completely personated (personata ) by anything positive…. For personality is required ultimate aloneness (solitudo ), or the negation of actual and aptitudinal dependence on a person of another nature" (In 3 sent. 1.1.17; cf. Quodl. 19.3). In this view, whatever is so independent in its actual being as to be incommunicable to another is a supposit; subsistence is the lack of dependence called incommunicability. This independence Scotus conceived as "not … anything positive" but a simple "negation of dependence." Because Christ's humanity was and is communicated to, and dependent upon, the being of the Son of God, that humanity has no human subsistence, or personality. Other humans are human persons because de facto their human nature is not communicated, or communicable to another.
With this opinion F. suÁrez disagrees. For him subsistence is not a mere negation "but comes formally from some positive ratio which … is added to the nature as a nature actually existing." With Thomists, Suárez agrees that subsistence is a positive perfection; contrary to them he holds that it is posterior to existence (De Incarn. 11.3), even though existence means "to have entity in physical reality and outside the causes [of the existent]" (Disp. meta. 34). To a substance as actually existing, subsistence can be added because existence itself is quasi-potential. It can be either independent of any sustaining subject—the mode of existence found in substances and called subsistence—or an existence that is dependent upon a sustaining subject, verified of accident and called inesse or inherence (ibid. ). Therefore subsistence is incommunicability "that excludes only communication to another, as to the ultimate term of existence, which term in created things is conceived as necessary to the complement of existence" (De Incarn. 11.3) in the sense already indicated, viz, that existence is determinable to either an independent or dependent mode. Subsistence, for Suárez, is the final term or complement not of a substantial essence but of existence itself (est ultimum complementum in ratione existendi ). Whether subsistence be considered existence plus the mode of incommunicability, or merely the mode itself, is a mere "disagreement about words" (Disp. meta. 34).
Philosophical Relevance. Scholastic discussions about subsistence, the person, and the supposit can seem to moderns so abstract, metaphysical, and obscure as to have nothing in common with present philosophical moods and interests. These latter emphasize the existential, the contingent, the empirical; and no one has ever experienced a mode or empirically encountered "the order of nature to existence."
Yet the centuries-old discussions concerning subsistence have value for modern philosophical thinking. In the first place, scholastic theories about subsistence are honest human efforts to account for an aspect of reality. The experienced world is an intriguing combination of the necessary and the contingent, the constant and the variable, the empirically encountered and the purely intelligible. For natures are universal; yet every encountered nature is both singular and contingent. Essences are constant and immutable, yet all experienced reality is variable. In science and philosophy men look for meaning, intelligibility, and truth; yet what they seek lies beyond the ambit of empirical methodology. Subsistence is, for the scholastics, the real bridge between the world of immutable, intelligible, universal essences and the world empirically encountered, the world of contingency, of flux, and of the singular. Admitting the respective validity of each order—the essentialist and the existentialist—the scholastic finds in subsistence a highly intelligible and reasonable reconciliation of the two facets of reality, the order of the one to the other.
Second, much modern philosophizing is homocentric, preoccupied especially with the limitations and urgent problems of the human condition. The doctrine of subsistence implies that every person, every supposit is actually, formally constituted by confrontation with existential, transsubjective reality. The person, the "I," is dynamic relationship to existential actuality, to the world of anguished limitations. Since, according to scholastic accounts of subsistence, this is the metaphysical constitutive of the person and the supposit, it follows that in the operational order the person, as such, is more or less perfected according to his more or less total and realistic acceptance of, and adjustment to, the real situation in which subsistence places him. This outlook gives a reasonable, metaphysical basis to the modern philosophical yearning for perfection achieved through commitment to the existential condition.
Most significant is the scholastic doctrine of person as verified of the Persons of the divine Trinity. Supposit, or subsistence, in general means the relevance or order of nature to existence; proportionately, divine supposits, or Persons, are constituted by divine relationships of origin, that is, by the divine nature's having really, mutually distinct relationships to divine being. In effect, each divine Person is constituted by a relationship to the other Person or Persons; without this note of relationship to another, divine Persons, or supposits, are inconceivable. And the distinct relationships are rooted in God's understanding and love. If to this one adds the revealed truth that created persons are to the image of divine Persons, he gains the insight that every created person can achieve his own fulfillment and perfection only in relation to other persons, specifically the relations of understanding and of love. This is at once ancient Christian truth and the most modern doctrine, rendered divinely meaningful and intelligible.
See Also: subsistence in christology.
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"Subsistence." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/subsistence
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