Fall 2004

Personal Singularity and the Communio Personarum: A Creative Development of Thomas Aquinas' Doctrine of Esse Commune

Adrian J. Walker

"To be a person is to be a member of a communio personarum."



God is the unity of being and love. In him, substance and the fully conscious act of loving are one. By the same token, each of the three divine persons, who is identical with the one divine substance, is his conscious act of loving the other two.2 And if that is the case, then it follows that the personal singularity3 of Father, Son, and Spirit is constituted wholly within communion.4 But we human beings are not God. Apparently, then, we human beings must first begin to exist in ourselves—and then, only much later, if at all, go out of ourselves in a fully conscious act of loving (and being loved). It would seem, in other words, that, whatever might be true about God, in our case personal singularity cannot be constituted even partly, let alone wholly, within communion. Communion cannot be the context in which personal singularity arises and makes sense, but can be only the result of the action of already constituted personal singularities. Communion cannot embrace the whole arc of our personal existence, from conception on, but can only follow upon our conscious acts of love. Or, at least, so it has seemed to many.

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1. For two friends: R. G. and F. U.

2. Richard of Saint Victor, in his De Trinitate, helps us to see the “logic” of this claim. Richard argues that God, as the fullness of being, is also the fullness of charity. Absolute being is absolute goodness, and absolute goodness is absolute love. Now, as Richard famously argues in Book III, love comes to perfection, not just when two love each other, but when those two love each other by jointly loving a third, a condilectus, or “co-beloved,” in Richard’s felicitous terminology. If, then, God’s being is his love, and his love is his being, then—as Richard makes clear in Book IV—the Trinity just is God’s way of being the unity of substance and conscious love that he is. What Richard is saying, in other words, is that there is never a time when God exists outside of love, and that is why there is never a time when he exists other than as tri-personal. But the converse is also true: there is never a time when any of the divine Persons has not always already existed in love, which is to say, in communion with the other two divine Persons. To be sure, Richard insists in Book IV that the divine Persons, as persons, are mutually incommunicable. Indeed, the very definition he gives of a divine Person is “incommunicable existence of the divine nature.” And yet, because to call the divine persons “existences,” as Richard understands the term, is to say that they are one in substance, but distinct in how they share that substance with one another, the divine persons’ incommunicability turns out to be the “obverse” of their being always and wholly invested in the acts of giving and/or receiving that constitute them. And that, once again, is how they are, singly and collectively, the one God in the coincidence of substance and love that makes his being personal through and through—where, to repeat, that being cannot be personal unless it is also tripersonal. It would be easy to show that Aquinas, while constructing a very different trinitarian “model” from that of Richard, nonetheless arrives at the same conclusion. As Thomas explains in Summa theologiae I, q. 29, a. 4, the divine persons are so many “subsistent relations.” Insofar as Father, Son, and Spirit are really distinct, Thomas is saying, their distinguishing “content” is, in each case, a different relation, or relational direction, rather than a different substance. Elsewhere, Thomas says that the “notional acts” that are peculiar to single persons, such as active generation, are only rationally, and not really, distinct from the relations that constitute them. But note the implication of all this: the divine being, Thomas is saying, is a coincidence of substance and relation; and to say that each of the persons is God is to say, not just that he possesses the one divine substance, but that he is what God is, namely, a being constituted in the coincidence of selfbeing and relation, of substance and love. If the divine Persons are subsisting relations, and those relations are really identical with the notional acts, then the Persons are their acts of sharing the one divine being with one another—and, indeed, it is by so doing that they are the one divine being together. For Aquinas, too, divine being is love.

3. By “singularity” I will mean in this paper the unmistakable uniqueness of the person. It is a common conviction of the classical tradition of Christian thought that some principle internal to the person himself is at least a necessary condition of his having such unmistakable uniqueness. Different authors explain this principle differently, of course. One thing is clear, however: everyone in the tradition agrees that the principle of personal singularity, whatever it is, is of the metaphysical order, that is, has to do with the very being of the person, seen as irreducible to material process. In what follows, I will be working within the horizon of this traditional consensus and so will be wondering about the metaphysical constitution of personal singularity. That having been said, I will also be trying to show that personal singularity is not only not opposed to communion, but is, so to say, its “flip-side.” Personal singularity, in fact, is not just bare individuality. Rather, it is something that integrates in itself the values of both the individual and of the universal—while transcending the order in which their opposition exhaustively determines the field of possibilities. The unique, my thesis will be, is precisely what is universally available without diminution of its uniqueness. Why? Because being is love. In order to show that being is love, and that this grounds the possibility of a communional account of personal singularity, I will be drawing in a special way on Thomas Aquinas. His doctrine of esse commune, roughly, “common being,” I will try to argue, offers us the resources we need for reconciling communion and singularity metaphysically within a horizon in which being is love.