This is the third of three posts I’m doing on Kevin Hart’s reading of Aquinas as an ontotheologian. For an introduction to these posts, please see the first one. The second post is here (just below the present one). This last post just picks up where the second left off.
There is another respect in which Hart understands Aquinas to be an ontotheologian. Hart is troubled by Aquinas’s assertion that God is his own act of existence, Deus est suum esse (TS, 255. Cf. CG, I, 22; ST, I, 45, 5, ad 1; 61, 1). At first Hart gives the impression that he sees this as an affirmation of God’s aseity. “Now when Aquinas claims that God is His own act of being, we have an unequivocal statement of God’s uniqueness: He is the one being whose existence coincides exactly with His essence” (TS, 255). However, in the sentence which immediately follows, Hart says that Aquinas’s assertion “propounds one of the strongest possible statements of onto-theology” (TS, 255). Unfortunately, Hart’s explanation for why he draws this conclusion is not very clear. Perhaps the contrast that Hart will subsequently suggest between Aquinas and Meister Eckhart will be of some help in understanding Hart’s reasoning on this point.
Hart observes that Eckhart reverses Aquinas’s formulation of the relationship between God and esse. Instead of holding that Deus est suum esse, Eckhart says that Esse est Deus. According to Hart, by this reversal Eckhart insists, “contra Aquinas, that the act of being is God (or, less archly, that Being properly belongs only to God)” (TS, 255). The logic by which Hart arrives at this conclusion is fuzzy as is the criticism that he intends to make of Aquinas. Does he wish to say that, for Eckhart, only God truly is esse whereas esse cannot rightly be predicated of anything else? If this is the case, then it seems that he is making Eckhart out to be a kind of Spinozistic monist and pantheist (which, in fact, Eckhart may very well tend toward). Neither Aquinas nor any Thomist would be tempted by this understanding of the divine. Or is Hart saying instead that, for Eckhart, God is esse in all its purity and other things can only exist through this Esse, by participation, and that the esse predicated of them, though real, bears the most distant of analogies to the Esse of their cause? If this is Hart’s meaning, then precisely how is Eckhart’s doctrine appreciably different from Aquinas’s, since this view of things is classic Thomism? Is there a third way of reading Hart’s reading of Eckhart? I invite proposals.
By the time of the second edition of The Trespass of the Sign in 2000 Hart showed signs of possibly having changed his mind about Aquinas. In the introduction to the new edition he added an interesting qualification: “I doubt that Saint Thomas developed his theology in any simple or straightforward sense along the lines of onto-theology, but that is another matter and one to be explored elsewhere” (TS, xxi). I am not aware of any other places where Hart has looked further into the matter, so we do not know whether and to what extent he might want to retract some of his earlier statements about Aquinas. This possible self-critique of Hart aside, however, I think that it is evident that those earlier statements are indeed questionable.