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FRANCISCO SUÁREZ, METAPHYSICAL PRINCIPLES, AND THE RATIO ENTIS 1

Fr. Philip-Neri Reese, O.P.


The University of Notre Dame

(Draft: Please Do Not Cite Without Permission)

Few scholastic texts, if any, can rival the Disputationes Metaphysicae of Francisco Suárez in
either their breadth or their depth. But the DM’s most impressive feature of all—at least to me—
is its methodological rigor and principled organization. Suárez was a man who understood the
axiom “it belongs to the wise to set in order” and it is clear that he took that task seriously.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that Suárez held philosophical methodology in high esteem and the
fact that historians of philosophy hold Suárez in high esteem, it is regrettably also a fact that
relatively little has been written on Suárez’s philosophical methodology. The purpose of this
paper, then, is to make some headway toward filling that lacuna.
But how can this be done? A full account of Suárez’s general philosophical method would
require a monograph, not a paper. So we will have to narrow our scope from philosophy as a
whole to some particular branch of philosophy. Since the topic of this conference is being, it only
makes sense that we investigate Suárez’s metaphysical methodology. But even this topic is too
broad, so I propose that we narrow the scope of our investigation still further and focus in a
particular way on Suárez’s account of metaphysical principles.
To this end, the paper will proceed in three parts. The first section will set the stage for
Suárez’s account of the first principles of metaphysical science by briefly surveying some of the
requisite background material—with special attention paid to Suárez’s account of the ratio entis
(§1). Section two will then offer a careful exposition of DM III.3, a text that has been curiously
neglected in recent research. As we shall see, it is in this text that we find Suárez’s ex professo
treatment of metaphysical first principles (§2). Finally, the third section of the paper will offer a
few critical reflection upon Suárez’s account (§3). This criticism will proceed along two distinct
lines: one bearing upon on the principles of ostensive demonstration (§3.1), and the second bearing
upon the principle of demonstration by reductio ad impossibile (§3.2).

§1. APPROACHING THE TOPIC

Above, I asserted that Suárez has an affinity to order. Now I need to prove it. Happily,
this is not a challenging task. The prologue to DM II begins as follows:

[I]n order that we might proceed more briefly and summarily, and treat of everything by a fitting
method, I have thought it best to abstain from lengthy explanations of the Aristotelian text, and to

1Versions of this paper were given at the Morris Colloquium on Medieval Philosophy, organized by Bob
Pasnau and held at the University of Colorado (Boulder), April 5-7, 2018, and at the conference entitled
“Being Univocal and Being Equivocal: Scotus and Suárez,” organized by Chris Shields at the Notre Dame
Global Gateway in London, July 12-13, 2018. I am especially grateful to Christopher Shields, Sydney
Penner, Giorgio Pini, and Lukáš Novák for their very helpful comments on those earlier drafts.
2

consider the things themselves with which wisdom is concerned according to that order of doctrine
and manner of speaking which is more in agreement with them. 2

Recall that at the time when Suárez was writing his Metaphysical Disputations, commentary
was still the standard genre for classroom teaching. So this passage is not so much a literary
convention or a rhetorical flourish as it is a genuine apologia—one in which Suárez’s whole
defense hangs on the importance of putting things in good order. And his promise is not an empty
one. For at the close of that same prologue he says

In the present disputation, then, we must explain the question, What is being insofar as it is being?
For that being is, is so known per se that it requires no explanation. But after the question of whether
something is, the question of what it is is the first of all, which it is necessary to assume or explain
at the beginning of any science whatsoever regarding its object. And this science, since it is the first
and highest of all the natural sciences, cannot take the ratio and quiddity of its subject as proved or
explained by another science, and therefore it is necessary to hand it down and explain it
immediately at the beginning. 3

Suárez is clearly invoking Aristotle’s account of the fundamental scientific questions


found at the beginning of Posterior Analytics, book II. 4 There, Aristotle insisted that there are four
such questions, namely: (1) whether something is, (2) what something is, (3) what something is like,
and (4) why it is like that. Since the principles of a given science are what we appeal to in order to
demonstrate why something is the way it is, the fourth question will be our chief concern. But it
cannot be our first concern. For as Suárez says in that very quote, after the subject-matter of a
science has been established, the first question that must be answered is the what-question. So
before we can dive into Suárez’s treatment of the principles of metaphysics, we should—at least
briefly—acquaint ourselves with what he says about its subject.
To make sure we’re all on the same page terminologically, it’s worth pointing out that
what the earlier Peripatetic tradition referred to as the “subject-genus” of a science, Suárez prefers
to call the science’s “object.” 5 The object of metaphysics is being—or, more precisely, being as being,

2 “Ut enim maiori compendio ac brevitate utamur, & conveniente methodo universa tractemus, a textus
Aristotelici prolixa explicatione abstinendum duximus, resque ipsas, in quibus haec sapientia versatur, eo
doctrinae ordine ac dicendi ratione, quae ipsis magis consentanea sit, contemplari” (DM II, prooemium,
Duarte, 1).
3 “In praesente ergo disputatione explicanda nobis est quaestio, quid sit ens in quantum ens: nam, quod

ens sit, ita per se notum est, ut nulla declaratione indigeat. Post quaestionem autem, an est, quaestio quid
res sit, est prima omnium, quam in initio cuiuscunque scientiae de subiecto eius praesupponi, aut declarare,
necesse est. Haec autem scientia, cum sit omnium naturalium prima atque suprema, non potest ab alia
sumere, vel probatam, vel declaratam subiecti sui rationem, & quidditatem: & ideo ipsam statim in initio
tradere, & declarare oportet” (DM II, prooemium, Duarte, 2). Emphasis added.
44 Posterior Analytics II, chap. 1.

5 This terminological transition makes sense when we consider the character of scientia as a habit. Since the

powers of the soul are specified by their objects, and habits are modifications of powers, it makes sense that
habits, too, would be specified by a corresponding object. More a far more nuanced and careful treatment
of this transition, see Lawrence Dewan, O.P., “‘Obiectum’: Notes on the Invention of a Word,” in Wisdom,
3

(ens inquantum ens). In DM I, Suárez fixes the extension of this object: it isn’t limited to God, or to
immaterial substances, or to substance in general, or even to the entire realm of the created
categories. Rather, being as being extends to all real beings, including within itself both God and
creatures, substances and accidents.
DM I’s fixing of the extension of the object of metaphysics finds its complement in DM II’s
fixing of its intension. Here, the question is not so much what counts as a being for the purposes of
metaphysics?, but rather—as Suárez puts it in quote #2—what is being, insofar as it is being? It’s an
inquiry into the ratio entis. For present purposes, we need not wade into the weeds of the baroque
scholastic distinction between formal and objective concepts. 6 Nor need we get bogged down in
questions about whether and how the objective ratio of being really and antecedently prescinds
from the concepts or rationes that fall under it. 7 What we do need to get clear on, however, is DM
II.4’s account of what the ratio of being consists in—for it’s here that we find Suárez’s answer to
the quid sit question.
So, what is being? Suárez begins DM II.4 by pointing out that ens cannot be “defined” in
the proper sense of a “definition.” That’s because the ratio entis is the simplest and most abstract
of all rationes, and so there’s nothing prior to it through which it could be defined. 8 Nevertheless,
we can still give a descriptive account of being by explaining the meaning of the word. In this
respect, Suárez makes a crucial distinction between the meaning of “ens” when understood as a
participle and the meaning of “ens” when understood as a noun. Taken participially, “ens”
signifies the very act of being—esse—precisely as exercised. Or, to play loose and fast with the
English language, we might say it signifies “is-ing.” When taken nominally, however “ens”
signifies not the activity, but the actor, not the agency, but the agent, not the doing, but the doer.
Again, to play loose with the English, we might say that it signifies the “is-er.”So understood, ens
signifies the essence that is the proper subject of esse—whether actually or potentially. 9
So when Suárez says that ens inquantum ens is the adequate object of metaphysical science,
which sense of “ens” does he have in mind—the participial, or the nominal? The answer is clear—
it’s the nominal. Suárez says,

[I]t is clear from common use that being, even taken for a real being (as we are now taking it), is not
only attributed to existent things, but also to real natures considered in themselves, whether they
exist or not: it is in this sense that metaphysics considers being, and it is in this way that being is
divided into the ten categories. But being in this signification does not retain the force of a participle,
since a participle consignifies time, and so signifies the actual exercise of esse or existing, and

Law, and Virtue: Essays in Thomistic Ethics, Moral Philosophy and Moral Theology (New York, New York:
Fordham University Press, 2007), 403–43.
6 For the formal concept of being, see DM II.1. For the objective concept of being, see DM II.2.

7 See DM II.3.

8 “Cum dictum sit, ens dicere unum conceptum obiectivum, oportet in quo eius formalis seu essentialis

ratio consistat, breviter declarare, saltem per descriptionem aliquam, aut terminorum explicationem, nam,
cum illa ratio sit abstractissima, & simplicissima, proprie definiri non potest” (DM II.4.1, Duarte, 64).
9 “Ens ergo, ut dictum est, interdum sumitur, ut participium verbi, sum, & ut sic significat actum essendi ut

exercitum: estque idem quod existens actu, interdum vero sumitur ut nomen significans de formali
essentiam eius rei, quae habet, vel potest habere esse, & potest dici significare ipsum esse, non ut exercitum
actu, sed in potentia, vel aptitudine, sicut vivens, ut est participium significat.” (DM II.4.3; Duarte 65-66).
4

therefore this word existent can never be said of a thing that does not actually exist, since it always
retains the force of the participle of the verb to exist. Therefore, it is necessary that being in this
second signification be taken as having the force of a noun. 10

So if we want to fix the intension of the object of metaphysics, we’ll need to clarify the
ratio of “being” in this nominal sense. As a first pass, Suárez says that this sense of “being” means
“something having a real essence.” But he also thinks we can do better. Specifically, he thinks we
can further clarify both what we mean by “essence” and what we mean by calling an essence
“real.” With regard to the meaning of “essence,” he says that, qua nature, it is “the first,
fundamental, and innermost principle of all the actions and operations that agree with the thing,”
and that, qua quiddity, it is “that which is explained by means of a definition.” With regard to the
meaning of “real,” he says that to be real is—positively—to be “of itself suited to exist” and—
negatively—to “involve no contradiction and not merely be contrived by the intellect.” We can
put all this together as follows:

(1) “Being”2 =df. “something having a real essence”


(2) “Essence” =df. “that which is the first, fundamental, and innermost principle of all
the actions and operations that agree with the thing, and which is explained by
means of a definition”
(3) “Real” =df. “of itself is suited to exist, involving no contradiction and not merely
contrived by the intellect”
(4) “Being”2 =df. “something having a first, fundamental, and innermost principle of
all the actions and operations agreeing with the thing, which is explained by
means of a definition, and which of itself is suited to exist, involving no
contradiction and not merely contrived by the intellect.”

As (4) makes clear, the ratio of the “being” that constitutes the adequate object of
metaphysics is “something having a first, fundamental, and innermost principle of all the actions
and operations agreeing with the thing, which is explained by means of a definition, and which
of itself is suited to exist, involving no contradiction and not merely contrived by the intellect.”
Eat it Chisolm.
So when we inquire into the principles of metaphysics, we’re inquiring into the principles
need to explain why that sort of being is the way it is. It’s to that inquiry that we can now turn.

§2. THE FIRST PRINCIPLES OF METAPHYSICS

10“Rursus constat ex communi usu, ens, etiam sumptum pro ente reali (ut nunc loquimur) non solum tribui
rebus existentibus, sed etiam naturis realibus secundum se consideratis, sive existant, sive non: quomodo
Metaphysica considerat ens & hoc modo ens in decem praedicamenta dividitur. Sed ens in hac
significatione non retinet vim participii: quia participium consignificat tempus, & ita significat actuale
exercitium essendi seu existendi, & ideo haec vox, existens, nunquam dici potest de re quae actu non existat,
quia semper retinet vim participii verbi, existo, ergo necesse est, ens in hac posteriori significatione sumi in
vi nominis” (DM II.4.3; Duarte, 66).
5

Given the importance we’ve already seen Suárez give to issues of method and order, the
careful reader of the DM might be surprised to find his treatment of the causes of being placed
after—rather than before—his treatment of its properties. Is it not the goal of an Aristotelian
science to answer the fourth of the four scientific questions by giving propter quid demonstrations
of the properties of its subject-matter? And must not propter quid demonstrations be given in terms
of the causes of that subject? Rigorous Aristotelian procedure thus seems to require an
investigation into the causes of a science’s subject prior to investigating its properties, for how
could propter quid demonstration of the latter be given without appeal to the former?
Worries such as these did not pass Suárez by unnoticed. In the prooemium to DM XII,
where Suárez treats the causes of being in general, he offers three arguments justifying his inquiry
into the topic. The third of these arguments runs as follows:

[I]t pertains to a science to consider the causes of its object. And even though not every being
comprehended under the object of this science has a true and proper cause—since God has no
cause—nevertheless everything else other than God has a cause. And in them it isn’t just their
determinate or particular rationes of being that are properly and per se caused, but even the ratio of
being itself, such that it is true to say that being as being [understood] restrictively, even if not
repetitively, does have a cause. 11

Given what we’ve seen in the previous section, that’s a striking concession. The object of
metaphysical science—“being” in the sense of #5—does not have true and proper causes. The
reason for this is that ens inquantum ens—what has real essence—encompasses both God and
creatures. As such, it’s only when we descend from the consideration of the unrestricted ratio of
being to the consideration of one of its parts (i.e., creatures) that true and proper causes can be
introduced. 12
What does that mean for the scientific character of metaphysics at the general level of
“something having a real essence”? If “being,” so understood, has no true and proper causes, will
propter quid demonstration be possible at all? And if so, what might the principles of such
demonstrations be? The answer to these questions lies in the oft-neglected third section of DM
III. 13

11 “Tertio, quia ad scientiam pertinet considerare causas sui objecti. Quamvis autem non omne ens
comprehensum sub objecto hujus scientiae, habeat veram ac propriam causam, nam Deus causam non
habet, tamen omnia alia praeter ipsum, causam habent; et in eis non solum determinatae seu particulares
rationes entis, sed etiam ipsa entis ratio per se ac proprie causatur, ita ut verum sit dicere, ens, in quantum
ens specificative, etsi non reduplicative, habere causam” (DM XII, prooemium).
12 Suárez’s distinction between a “specifying” or “restrictive” sense of being as being and a “reduplicative”

or “repetitive” sense of being as being has to do with how we understand the qua locution. When we add
“qua being” to “being,” are we narrowing the intension of the initial term, or simply reiterating it? As Suárez
makes clear in the DM XII text above, when we seek out true and proper causes of being qua being, we
must understand the qua locution as narrowing the intension of “being” so as to exclude God.
13 It is striking that in his otherwise meticulous reading of Suárez’s account of the transcendentals, Jan

Aertsen simply skips from DM III.2 straight to DM IV, leaving DM III.3 out entirely. See Jan Aertsen,
Medieval Philosophy as Transcendental Thought: From Philip the Chancellor (ca. 1225) to Francisco Súarez, Studien
Und Texte Zur Geistesgeschichte Des Mittelalters, Band 107 (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2012), 587–632.
6

The third disputation as a whole is chiefly concerned with investigating the properties of
being, though it also discusses the principles through which such properties are demonstrated.14
The explanation in the prooemium of why the two come hand-in-hand is important, since it
references the text from DM XII just quoted. Suárez says,

Having explained the formal ratio of the adequate object of this science—and before descending to
particular objects by way of the various divisions of being—we need to discuss the properties that
are adequate to [being] and coextensive with it, because it is the job of a science to demonstrate
properties of its subject. Thus, we will first discuss properties in general, and then each one in
particular. But since a science uses principles to demonstrate its properties, we will also briefly
clarify which principles can or should be used in this science. And here we treat the principles of
knowing, which are usually called “complex principles,” since we will talk about the real principles
or causes [of being] below. 15

This passage reinforces an idea we’ve already seen—namely, that real, true, proper causes
of being belong to the lower-level metaphysical investigation of the science’s “particular objects”
rather than the higher-order metaphysical investigation of being in its full scope. Nevertheless,
even this higher-order inquiry employs principles of a certain kind, which Suárez describes as
“complex principles” and “principles of knowing.” If I understand him correctly, what he has in
mind are propositions that function as premises in syllogistic demonstrations. These are “complex”
insofar as they involve affirming or denying a predicate of a subject. They are principles “of
knowing” insofar as we draw previously-unknown conclusions from them.
What sorts of premises these might be depends in large part on Suárez’s account of what
sort of properties being can have, when it’s understood “that which has a real essence” and is
common to God and creatures. In DM III.1 Suárez asks whether such being can have any
properties at all, and what those properties must be like, while in DM III.2 he considers the
number of those properties and the order between them. The upshot of these investigations is as
follows: being qua being does not have “properties” in the strict sense, but rather “attributes.”
These are only logically distinct from being, but they nevertheless express real, positive
perfections of it, and so are predicated in re. 16 Moreover, the primary properties of being are three:
unity, truth, and goodness, in that order. 17 Thus, the metaphysician’s “complex principles of
knowing,” will be the primitive premises by which unity, truth, and goodness can be
demonstrated of ens inquantum ens, or that which has a real essence.

14 The title of DM III is “de passionibus entis in communi, et principiis eius,” but as we shall see, the principiis
only appear in the final section.
15 “Explicata formali ratione objecti adaequati hujus scientiae, antequam ad particularia objecta

descendamus per varias entis divisions, oportet de passionibus illi adaequatis, et quae cum illo
convertuntur, disputare; quoniam proprium munus scientiae est passiones de suo subject demonstrare. Hic
ergo de his passionibus in communi, postea de singulis in speciali dicemus; quia vero scientia utitur
aliquibus principiis ad suas passiones demonstrandas, hic etiam breviter declarabimus quibus principiis
uti possit aut debeat haec doctrina. Agimus autem hic de principiis cognoscendi, quae solent principia
complexa vocari; nam de principiis seu causis realibus inferius dicemus” (DM III, prooemium).
16 See DM III.1, passim.

17 See DM III.2, passim.


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The third section of disputation III is—annoyingly—titled “On the principles by which
the properties of being can be demonstrated, and whether ‘it is impossible for the same thing to
be and not to be at the same time’ is the first among them.” 18 As its lengthy title makes clear, our
section has a dual-optic. On the one hand, Suárez is inquiring broadly into the principles we
ought to employ when demonstrating the transcendental properties of being. On the other hand,
Suárez is specifically considering the principle of non-contradiction, raising the question of
whether it’s the first of all principles.
The section moves in five phases: first, Suárez motivates the problem at hand; 19 second,
he sets down some points of general agreement; 20 third, he reports two divergent opinions; 21
fourth, he offers his own solution to the problem;22 and fifth, he responds to various arguments
employed in the course of the dialectic. 23
To motivate the problem, Suárez points us to chapter 3 of Aristotle’s Metaphysics Γ, where
the Stagirite says that the principle of non-contradiction is the first principle into which all
scientific demonstrations resolve. But at least three arguments seem to militate against this claim.
The first and most detailed is worth quoting in full: 24

[T]he proper and intrinsic principles of a science ought to be drawn from the cause or ratio on
account of which the predicate converges with the subject. Hence, Aristotle himself teaches in book
1 of the Posterior Analytics that subsequent properties are demonstrated through prior [properties]
while the first of all [the properties] either are not demonstrated, but converge immediately with
the subject, or are demonstrated only with respect to us, by means of the definition of the subject—
and a definition is in no way demonstrated, but rather is immediately known vis-à-vis its subject.
Therefore, in every science, that [proposition] will be a first principle wherein either a primary
property is predicated of a subject, or a definition is predicated of a thing defined. And so, in the
present science, the proper and intrinsic principles will be drawn from the connection between
either the primary properties and the ratio of being, or the ratio of being and being itself. Thus,
“everything that is, is a unity” will be a first principle (since, as we have said, unity is a primary
property of being), or, surely, “every being is something having an essence” [will be a first
principle]. But “it is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be at the same time” will not [be
a first principle], because it is far too extrinsic and cannot function in proper a priori demonstrations,
but at most in arguments by reductio ad impossibile. 25

18 “Quibus principiis demonstrari possint passiones de ente, et an inter ea hoc sit primum, Impossibile est
idem simul esse et non esse” (DM III.3).
19 See DM III.3.1.

20 See DM III.3.2-3

21 See DM III.3.4-5.

22 See DM III.3.6-10

23 See DM III.3.10-11.

24 We can skip the other two arguments at present, since they reappear later as the two divergent opinions

of III.3.4 and III.3.5.


25 “In contrarium autem esse videtur primo, quia propria et intrinseca scientiae principia sumi debent ex

causa seu ratione ob quam praedicatum convenit subject; unde idem Aristoteles, 1 Posterior., docet
posteriorem passionem demonstrari per priorem, primum vero omnium, vel non demonstrari, sed
immediate convenire subjecto, vel solum quoad nos demonstrari per definitionem subjecti; definitionem
autem ipsam nullo modo demonstrari, sed immediate cognosci de subject. Sic igitur in omni scientia
8

It would be hard to overstate the importance of this passage. Not only does it confirm our
earlier conjecture that we should understand principles of knowledge to be syllogistic premises,
but it also specifies two different ways in which such premises might be constructed. Moreover,
it gives us metaphysical examples: “everything that is, is a unity” and “every being is something
having an essence.” Further still, Suárez personally endorses this line of argument later on in the
text.
The next step in the dialectic considers points of agreement and disagreement regarding
various opinions on the matter. There are two points upon which all parties agree: (1) that
metaphysics must have per se nota first principles through which the properties of being are
demonstrated, 26 and (2) that there must be more than one such principle.27 Both claims are
methodologically motivated: the two premises from which a conclusion is drawn will themselves
be known either per se or per aliud. If per se, then we have two first principles. If per aliud, then each
premise must itself be demonstrated, in which case the process of resolution repeats. But since
resolution cannot go on forever, the process must come to a stop with two first principles. 28
As Suárez notes, it follows from these points of agreement that Aristotle’s claim regarding
the premier status of the principle of non-contradiction must be interpreted so as not to imply
that it is the only per se nota principle arrived at by way of syllogistic reduction. He suggests three
possibilities: either it is “first” because we understand it better, or it is “first” because it is more
universally used, or it is “first” because it is in every way indemonstrable. 29
But for two distinct groups of thinkers, even these possible avenues of reinterpretation are
not enough to save Aristotle’s claim. According to one opinion, we find a principle simpler than—
and so prior to—the PNC, namely, the principle that “every being is a being,” or, alternately, the
principle in which the definition of being is predicated of it. 30 According to a second opinion, the

primum principium erit illud, in quo vel prima passio de subject, vel definitio de definite praedicatur; ergo
et in praesente scientia principia propria et intrinseca sumenda erunt ex connexione primae passionis cum
ratione entis, vel rationis entis cum ipso ente; erit ergo hoc primum principium, Omne quod est, unum est,
quia unum est prima passio entis, ut diximus, vel certe hoc: Omne ens est habens essentiam. Non ergo est
illud: Impossibile est idem simul esse et non esse, quia illud est valde extrinsecum, et non potest deservire ad
proprias demonstrationes a priori, sed ut summum ad reductionem ad impossibile” (DM III.3.1).
26 “In hac re omnes conveniunt in metaphysica (sicut in aliis scientiis) necessaria esse aliqua prima principia

per se nota, quibus passiones demonstrentur, sive sit de passionibus transcendentibus entis ut ens est, sive
de proprietatibus specialioribus aliquorum entium, ut sunt intra latitudinum formalis objecti
metaphysicae, juxta ea quae in prooemiali disputatione dicta sunt” (DM III.3.2).
27 “Secundo, ex hac ratione conclude videtur, haec principia non tantum unum, sed plura, et ad minus duo

esse debere, saltem quoad hoc, ut sint propositiones immediatae et a priori indemonstrabiles” (DM III.3.3).
28 I have combined and slightly tightened the reasoning given at the end of DM III.3.2 and the beginning of

DM III.3.3.
29 “Igitur in alio sensu potest inquiri principium caeteris prius, scilicet vel quia est nobis notius, vel quia in

usu seu causalitate est prius et universalius, vel quia omni modo indemonstabilius, et in hoc sensu est
controversia inter auctores, quodnam sit primum metaphysicum principium” (DM III.3.3).
30 Suárez attributes the formulation “every being is a being” to Antonio Andreas, a follower of Scotus. This

line of thought connects to the second argument against Aristotle back in DM III.3.1. After criticizing the
proposed principle as redundant and uninformative, Suárez suggests that this position might be
9

problem with the principle of non-contradiction is its negative formulation. Since every negation
presupposes a prior affirmation, the correct first principle ought to be the affirmation that
“everything either is or is not.” 31
Suárez’s own answer to the question sides with neither of these two opinions. Instead, he
begins by making a distinction between two kinds of demonstration: “ostensive” demonstration
and demonstration by reductio ad impossibile. Ostensive demonstration is required for science per
se, and moves necessarily from the essence of a thing to its properties or from the cause of a thing
to its effects. 32 Demonstration by reductio, Suárez says,

is not per se necessary [for science], but is sometimes applied on account of human deficiency,
ignorance, or impudence. It is useful for proving and guaranteeing not only conclusions, but also
first principles, which cannot happen in the prior way because [first principles] do not have an a
priori middle term through which they can be proved, since they are immediate [principles].
Nevertheless, their truth can be shown by deducing an impossibility and convincing the intellect
so as to assent to them. In fact, in every genus of demonstration, even though the principles are per
se nota and demonstrate a conclusion a priori, the strength of the inference is grounded virtually in
a reductio as impossibile, namely, because it cannot happen that the same thing should be and not be
at the same time, or that two contradictories should simultaneously be true. 33

Notice that reductio-style arguments can be employed to prove even per se nota first
principles. Presumably, this does not violate the Aristotelian interdict against demonstrating first
principles because it is a demonstration of a different kind. In the order of ostensive
demonstration, per se nota principles like “everything that is, is one” or “every being is something

strengthened by substituting the self-predication of ens with a proposition in which the definition of ens is
predicated of ens: “Apparentius ergo loqueretur, si loco entis sumeret aliquam definitionem, vel
descriptionem explicantem rationem entis, eamque de ente praedicaret; nam, licet propositio, in qua
definitio de definite praedicatur, non est identica, sed doctrinalis, quia in ea conceptus distinctus de confuse
praedicatur. Et hoc modo favet huic opinion ratio dubitandi in principio posita” (DM III.3.4).
31 “Alii dicunt non illud Aristotele positum, sed hoc, Necesse est quodlibet esse, vel non esse, esse primum

principium omnium propter rationem supra tactam, quia hoc est affirmativum, illud vero aliud
negativum” (DM III.3.5). The argument “supra tactam” Suárez refers to here is the third argument against
Aristotle in DM III.3.1.
32 “Igitur, ut quaestioni respondeamus, distinguiere oportet duplex genus demonstrationis: unum dicitur

ostensivum, aliud deducens ad impossibile. Primum est per se et directe ad scientiam requisitum; et in eo
proceditur a causis ad effectus, et ab essentia rei ad passiones demonstrandas; loquimur enim in scientia a
priori et propter quid; nam quae est a posteriori, non resolvitur in principia de quibus nun agimus, sed in
experientiam potius.
33 “Secundum demonstrandi genus per se necessarium non est, sed interdum adjungitur propter hominis

defectum, ignorantiam, vel proterviam; et utile est non solum ad conclusions, sed etiam ad prima principia
persuadenda et probanda; quod in priori modo fieri non potest, quia, cum sint immediata, non habent
medium a priori, per quod probentur; tamen ad impossibile deducendo ostendi potest eorum veritas, et
convince intellectus, ut eis assentiatur. Imo in omni genere demonstrationis, quamvis principia
demonstrent a priori conclusionem, et per se nota sint, vis illationis virtute fundatur in deductione ad
impossibile, scilicet, quia fieri non potest quod idem simul sit et non sit, vel quod duae contradictioriae
simul sint verae” (DM III.3.6).
10

having an essence” are indemonstrable. But in the order of demonstration by reductio, such
principles can be proved. Moreover, the order of demonstration by reductio seems to take
precedent over that of ostensive demonstration, since the validity of the latter’s inference is
grounded in the former’s demonstrative force.
The distinction between these two orders allows Suárez to give two answers to the
question about metaphysical first principles. For ostensive demonstrations—which Suárez
explicitly identifies with a priori demonstration—the first principles will be drawn from either the
ratio of being, or from the ratio of its primary properties. 34 The former will be used to demonstrate
primary properties, while the latter will be used to demonstrate subsequent properties. 35 Though
he does not mention the example of “every being is something having a [real] essence,” Suárez
does officially endorse the argument from DM III.3 in which it appears. This would seem to be a
first principle of the first kind. Suárez does not give an example of the second kind, though a
principle like “every unity is something undivided” would seem plausible. Thus, with respect to
ostensive demonstration, Suárez agrees with the common opinion that there must be more than
one first principle, and that the principle of non-contradiction is among them.
When it comes to demonstration by reductio ad impossibile, however, Suárez is prepared to
vindicate Aristotle’s claim regarding the primacy of the PNC. It is this principle, he insists, and
not those suggested by the adherents of the two opinions discussed above, that serves as the
ultimate terminus for resolution in the order of reductio ad impossibile—for until this principle is
posited, reductio arguments will remain incomplete. 36 Moreover, Suárez goes on to affirm that the
principle of non-contradiction is the absolutely first principle of all because of the role it plays in
proving ostensive first principles. He also rejects Fonseca’s claim that reductio arguments should
be called a priori: they proceed not from causes, but from extrinsic middle terms, and so would
thus seem to be special kinds of quia demonstrations. 37
In this way, Suárez is able to offer a careful account of two different kinds of scientific
demonstration, each requiring its own sort of first principles. The solid arguments of his
predecessors can be verified in one order of demonstration, while their faulty conclusions can be
denied as illicitly shifting to the other. Ostensive metaphysical demonstrations will be direct, a
priori, propter quid demonstrations proceeding from the ratio of being to unum, verum, and bonum,

34 “Dicendum ergo est imprimis, ad demonstrandum a priori passiones entis de ente, prima principia
sumenda esse vel ex ratione ipsius entis, vel ex prima passione ejus ad demonstrandas posteriors; et hoc
convincit discursus in principio factus” (DM III.3.7).
35 “Unde si passiones entis sunt ita inter se connexae, u tuna ex altera oriatur, illa, quae fuerit prima,

constituet unum principium ad demonstrandas alias; si vero (quod fieri interdum potest) plures passiones
sum ratione entis immediate connectantur, solum per ipsam rationem entis poterunt de ente demonstrari
(DM III.3.7)
36 “Secundo dicendum est, in alio genere seu modo demonstrandi per deductionem ad impossibile, primum

principium, in quo totus ille modus demonstrandi nititur, esse. Impossibile est idem esse et non esse. Hoc per
se notum est, quia omnis deduction ad impossibile in hoc tandem sistit, quod sequitur idem simul esse et
non esse, et quandiu ad hoc non deducitur, non est satis demonstrata impossibilitas; postquam vero ad hoc
deductum est, ibi sistitur, tanquam in ultimo termino resolutionis, et notissimo principio” (DM III.3.8).
37 “Sed non video cur deductionem ad impossibile vocet a priori, cum non sit ex causa, sed per extrinsecum

medium” (DM III.3.9).


11

its primary properties or attributes. Demonstration by reductio ad impossibile will feature in


metaphysics as indirect, a posteriori, quia demonstrations, proving the truth of ostensive first
principles like “every being is something having a real essence” and serving as the ultimate
inferential ground for ostensive demonstration. We would be hard-pressed to find a more
detailed account of first principles in any scholastic author.

§3. SOME CRITICAL REFLECTIONS ON SUÁREZ’S FIRST PRINCIPLES

I would like to close this paper on Suárez’s account of the first principles of metaphysics
with two brief lines of critical reflection. These are intended less as combative take-downs than
as genuine points of personal puzzlement arising from my reading of Suárez. In particular, I
would like to raise some questions regarding (1) his account of the first principles of ostensive
demonstration, and (2) his account of the first principle of demonstration by reductio.

§3.1 Reflections on Ostensive Demonstrative Principles. I’m puzzled by Suárez’s example,


“everything that is, is a unity,” in the long quotation from DM III.3.1. The subject term of this
proposition, quod est, is obviously intended as a stand-in for ens. But is it playing the role of a
definition, or of the definitum (i.e., is it standing in for the ratio entis, or just for the word “ens”)? If
the latter, then we seem to have a case in which the property is, as Suárez says at the beginning
of the quote, “not demonstrated, but instead converge[s] immediately with its subject.” But it
would strike me as supremely odd if the attribution of unity to being turned out to be
indemonstrable, when Suárez had just affirmed in the prooemium to DM III that “it is the job of a
science to demonstrate the properties of its subject.”
So perhaps we should not interpret quod est as a synonym for ens, but rather as standing
for the ratio entis (i.e., “omne ens est quod est”). In this case, unity would be “demonstrated only
with respect to us, by means of the definition of the subject” (i.e., being). But then it seems like
Suárez’s second example of a first principle should have been “every being is a thing that is”
rather than “every being is something having a real essence”—otherwise, the resulting syllogism
would have four terms and would fail to demonstrate. 38 But, as we have seen, DM II makes it
abundantly clear that “something having a real essence” (and not “what is”) is Suárez’s preferred
account of the ratio entis. Thus, the correct formulation of the first principle wherein the ratio entis
is predicated of ens ought to be “every being is something having a real essence.” As such, his
demonstration ought to read as follows:

EVERYTHING HAVING A REAL ESSENCE IS A UNITY


EVERY BEING IS SOMETHING HAVING A REAL ESSENCE
EVERY BEING IS A UNITY

38The syllogism would read “everything that is, is a unity; but every being is something having an essence;
therefore every being is a unity”—obviously invalid.
12

While I do hold out hope that Suárez might embrace this as the better demonstration, 39 I
worry that my reason for finding such a demonstration attractive may be very different from his.
For a Thomist, the subject-matter of metaphysics encompasses all of creation—including both
substance and accident—but excludes God. In other words, being qua being for the Thomist
means categorial being. And as we have seen Suárez himself affirm, such being has real and proper
causes. Moreover, since the Thomist also affirms a real distinction between essence and esse
(something that Suárez denies), the Thomist will identify essence, along with esse, as a real
intrinsic causal principle of ens. Thus when I look at that demonstration, I suspect that I’m seeing
something Suárez doesn’t: a true, proper, full-blooded causal demonstration. And it’s for
precisely this reason that I can distinguish between quod est—which I would call a merely nominal
definition of ens—and quod habens essentiam realem—which I would a causal expression of the ratio
entis.
But what grounds could Suárez have for making such a distinction? If the ratio of “quod
est” is the same as the ratio of “quod habens essentiam realem,” then the two phrases will be
synonymous and we get the first problem I raised. But if the two phrases are not synonymous, in
what do their rationes differ? 40

§2.2 Reflections on Demonstration by Reductio. Regarding Suárez’s account of demonstration


by reductio ad impossibile, I have two worries. The first has to do with his general account of reductio
demonstration, while the second concerns the claim that the principle of non-contradiction is the
first principle of reductio-style arguments.
As we have seen, Suárez disagrees with Fonseca’s claim that reductio argumentation
constitutes a unique sort of a priori demonstration and instead insists that such demonstration
proceeds a posteriori. But in a peculiar passage from DM III.3.6—the one distinguishing a priori
arguments from a posteriori arguments—Suárez says that all a posteriori arguments resolve chiefly
into experience. 41 This seems to raise two serious problems.

(1) Suárez clearly affirms that demonstration by reductio resolves into the principle of
non-contradiction. But the PNC does not resolve into experience. Thus, there
seems to be a conflict between Suárez’s general account of a posteriori
argumentation (which resolves into experience) and his specific account of
reductio-style arguments (which do not).
(2) At least when applied to reductio argumentation, Suárez’s claim that all a posteriori
arguments resolve into experience just seems false: both mathematics and formal
logic employ reductio argumentation regularly without appealing to experience.

39 Disappointingly, no argument even remotely close to this one appears in DM IV.4.3, where Suárez proves
that unity is an adequate property of being.
40 Textual evidence for the synonymy of the two phrases might be found in DM II.4.15, in which Suárez

states that ens understood nominally is synonymous with res and differs only etymologically. If res is
synonymous with quod est, transitivity requires that quod habens essentiam realem must be so as well.
41 “loquimur enim in scientia a priori et propter quid; nam quae est a posteriori, non resolvitur in principia

de quibus nun agimus, sed in experientiam potius” (DM III.3.6).


13

Part of the difficulty here seems to lie in the fact that reductio arguments are a kind of
counter-factual reasoning, and counter-factual reasoning doesn’t fit nicely into the standard a
priori/a posteriori argumentative divide. On the one hand, counterfactual claims are not analytic.
On the other hand, counterfactual claims are not the objects of direct experience. Still, Suárez may
have some good grounds for grouping reductio arguments as a posteriori, insofar as they rely on
claims about how the world actually is—claims which, for the most part, are objects of direct
experience. In other words, reductio arguments might be said to reduce to experience indirectly,
at least on the whole. Nevertheless, this defense is not universally applicable—as problem (2)
above makes clear. Thus, at least some of the tension I have highlighted remains unresolved.
My second worry regarding Suárez’s account of demonstration by reductio has to do with
the primacy that he gives to the principle of non-contradiction within the order of such
demonstration. That he affirms an asymmetry between the two demonstrative orders is clear
from the text: the order of ostensive demonstration has multiple first principles, while the order
of demonstration by reductio has just one—the principle of non-contradiction. But why Suárez
affirms this asymmetry is less clear. Couldn’t we run the very same argument marshalled in the
case of ostensive demonstration against the reductio ad impossibile? Doesn’t every quia argument,
just like every propter quid argument, require two premises with three unique terms? And if so,
doesn’t that mean that the principle of non-contradiction, on its own, will be insufficient to
produce a demonstration by reductio? It seems unavoidable to me that there should be multiple
first principles in both orders of demonstration.
Since I do not know how Suárez would respond to these lines of criticism, I would like to
close by suggesting an alternative way to think about the order of demonstration by reductio: we
ought to insist that reductio arguments are quia demonstrations, but deny that all quia
demonstrations need to reduce to experience. Rather, it is enough that the demonstration should
take an effect as one of its premises and then reason back to the cause of that effect as its
conclusion. Consider the following syllogism, which I take to be (at least akin to) the final step in
every reductio: 42

EVERY IMPOSSIBLE CLAIM MUST BE DENIED


¬ FP IS AN IMPOSSIBLE CLAIM
¬ FP MUST BE DENIED

Neither premise in this argument requires appeal to experience. The truth of the major
premise rests upon the principle of non-contradiction, while the truth of the minor premise results
from the preceding stages in the reductio (i.e., assuming the denial of the first principle we are
trying to prove (¬ FP), showing that such a denial entails a contradiction, and concluding that the
denial of the first principle is an impossible claim). But the impossibility of ¬ FP is an effect of FP’s
veracity. Moreover, the denial of ¬ FP in the conclusion is nothing other than an assertion of that
very veracity. Thus, the conclusion of the syllogism is actually the cause of truth of the minor
premise.

42Perhaps a more felicitous construction than the one I have provided is possible, but I doubt that such a
better alternative would have the effect of invalidating the argument that follows.
14

Would such an account require us to say that Aristotle was wrong to assert that the PNC
is the first principle into which all demonstrations must be resolved? I think not. Although it will
be true that every valid argument requires two premises, and so the principle of non-
contradiction cannot be the only first principle, what the above syllogism shows is that the
ultimate form of reductio-style quia analysis will always place the principle of non-contradiction
in the position of the major premise and it will place the denial of some per se nota principle in the
position of the minor premise. While the latter will vary in content, the former will not. As such,
the principle of non-contradiction will have priority in the order of reductio resolution akin to the
priority of the essential/causal definition of the subject in the order of propter quid resolution (since
the property being demonstrated—unum, verum, bonum—will similarly vary from demonstration
to demonstration). Moreover, there is nothing probable or dialectical about such an argument.
Both premises are necessarily true, and so the reductio ad impossibile will be genuinely
demonstrative. Such an account will thereby safeguard the reductio demonstration’s role of
guaranteeing and proving the first principles of ostensive demonstration.
But whether any of these suggestions would be satisfying to Suárez, I leave to the
Suárezians to answer.