Author: Marco Lamanna
Part of: Suárez’s Metaphysics (coord. by Simone Guidi)
Peer-Reviewed: Yes
Published: June, 12th, 2021
DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.4934552

This entry integrates the text of Lamanna (2019)

The integrated English version of this Entry was made possible by the support of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF): SNSF-Project 100012_192559 – Applicant: Prof. Dr. Giovanni Ventimiglia (TF- Universität Luzern)

The latest version of this entry may be cited as follows: Lamanna, Marco, “Francisco Suárez’s Ontology (Science of Being)”, Encyclopedia, Mário Santiago de Carvalho, Simone Guidi (eds.), doi = “10.5281/zenodo.4934552”, URL = “”, latest revision: June, 12th, 2021.

Introduction: The Metaphysical Disputations in their Confessional Context

The metaphysics of the Spanish Jesuit Francisco Suárez (1547–1617) is mainly contained in the Metaphysical Disputations (Disputationes metaphysicae [=DM]), which he published in Salamanca in 1597. At first sight the work looks impressive: 54 disputations, with 324 sections, divided into two tomes. Its drafting was long and laborious, taking Suárez roughly 30 years to complete. The first Salamanca edition was followed by numerous reprints.

Suárez’s work on the DM was articulated, accompanying him throughout his life: a long academic pilgrimage that from his early years as a lecturer in Salamanca and Segovia (1570–1574), led him to teach theology in Valladolid (1574; 1576–1580) and Ávila (1575), then to the Roman College (1580–1585), the leading institution of the Society of Jesus during the Counter-Reformation, founded in Rome by Ignatius of Loyola himself in 1551. On his return to Spain, Suárez was again a professor in Ávila (1585–1593) and Salamanca (1593–1597), before concluding his activity in Coimbra (1597–1615), the most important university in Portugal, following an appointment made directly by the King of Spain, Philip II.

In his long teaching experience, Suárez mostly taught scholastic theology (theologia scholastica). Suárez himself informs us that epistemological and “foundational” instances were at the heart of the project of his DM: “Just as it is not possible to become a worthy theologian without having first laid solid metaphysical foundations, for the same reason I have always thought that, before writing the Theological Commentaries, […] it was worth publishing this work first […]”. [see Ratio and Discursus in DM – Engl. translation mine].

This was not an obvious choice for Suárez, even if he was Catholic and Jesuit. Here, Suárez is not simply reiterating here the ancillary role of metaphysics in theology. Rather, he proposes rebuilding theological knowledge on the concepts and categories of metaphysics, in particular those of the Aristotelian and scholastic traditions (principles/causes, substance/accident, essence/existence).

At the end of the Sixteenth century, metaphysics’ scientific primacy and legitimacy had been questioned deeply. Even in the early debates within the Society of Jesus, including metaphysics among the teaching disciplines was not an obvious or simple matter [Gilbert, 2014, p. 19].

Luther – as is well known – had pronounced an interdict (ban) against some works by Aristotle, including the Metaphysics. According to Luther’s theology, original sin had introduced a wound so deep into human reason that the ultimate truth is no longer accessible to human beings. From a natural point of view, human reason is no longer capable of truth (capax veritatis). For this reason, the only admissible theology is – according to Luther – that based on the exegesis of the Holy Scriptures, not rational or philosophical theology. Conclusions drawn by the light of natural reason on the essence of reality, the origin of the world, the nature and destiny of the human soul or, even more so, the predicates and the type of causality proper to God could only be fallacious. Accordingly, Luther went so far as to condemn the entire metaphysical tradition (not only Aristotle, but also Plato) as a history of errors and sins. Not even the coming of Christ could heal the fatal inclination to error imprinted on human reason by original sin.

Besides Luther’s interdict, during the Sixteenth century there were still elements (originating in Renaissance Humanism) hostile to metaphysics. To these was added the advent of philosophies which, like Ramism, included clear anti-metaphysical instances, such as, for example, claiming objects within logic that were traditionally pertinent to the domain of metaphysics (such as the study of being as such and its properties).

On the contrary, Suárez begins his DM not only by attesting to the legitimacy of metaphysics as a science, but also by asserting the importance of a new metaphysical foundation for theology.

Between Fidelity to Thomas and Fidelity to the Society of Jesus: the problem of Fidelity to Aristotle

During his life Suárez taught mostly scholastic theology. Since 1548, while Ignatius was still alive, we find indications (from Loyola’s secretary Juan de Polanco) aimed at giving stability to the teaching of this subject in the Society of Jesus through what was considered the “surest” scholastic theology: that of Thomas Aquinas [Gilbert, 2014, p. 10].

Suárez himself informs us the DM were published after a first group of theological Commentaries to the third part of Aquinas’ Summa theologiae (De verbo incarnato [1590]; De mysteriis vitae Christi [1592]; De sacramentis [1595]), while a second group was in the works.

However, the Society of Jesus had revised its position several times on the manner of teaching scholastic theology and reading the doctrine of Aquinas, as the documents circulating during the Suárez years attest. Within the Ratio studiorum of 1586, for example, there is a double indication: on the one hand, in the normative part of the text, the teacher of scholastic theology is oriented towards full adherence to Aquinas’ theses and instructed to hold St. Thomas’s arguments in high esteem; on the other hand, in the paragraph De opinionum delectu in theologica facultate, the teacher is obliged to adhere only to Thomas’ conclusions, without however being forced to be fully faithful to Aquinas’ text [Forlivesi, 2010, p. 80].

In some parts of the DM Suárez had shown fidelity to the directives given in the institutional and normative texts of the Society of Jesus, taking up almost literally the Constitutiones and the Ratio studiorum of 1586 [Forlivesi, 2010, p. 86]. One of these passages can be found in the Prooemium of the work: “Divine and supernatural theology, while based on divine enlightenment and the principles revealed by God, is in reality accomplished through human discourse and reasoning, and for this reason it also makes use of truths known by natural light, using them – as ministers and instruments – to carry out its discourses and to illustrate divine truths. But of all the natural sciences, the science that is first over the others and that has earned the name of first philosophy, is the one that primarily serves Sacred and supernatural theology” [see Prooemium in DM – Engl. Transl. mine].

Again, an unprecedented move. No Jesuit had ever gone this far. For almost fifty years, metaphysics was taught in Jesuit schools mainly through reportationes, that is, teachers would dictate courses at the various institutions. These were some manuscripts which did allow for a circulation of content, however limited and circumscribed. Printed texts on strictly metaphysical subjects included only the first chapter (entitled De philosophia) and some paragraphs of Benet Perera’s De principiis (first ed. 1576), which however was a treatise on natural philosophy, or the Commentaries on the Metaphysics (1577–), edited by the Portuguese Jesuit Pedro da Fonseca: these works also circulated widely outside Jesuit and Catholic contexts, with significant diffusion among the Protestant-Reformed schools and academies in central Europe as well as among the new Jesuit institutions in America.

It was evident, however, that with the publication of the DM Suárez had made available an instrument of a far different calibre than previous texts circulating in the Society of Jesus, offering a complete, true, modern treatise on metaphysics.

As Suárez himself stated, his primary interest was to orient the study of metaphysics towards scholastic theology, in an attempt to provide better metaphysical foundations for learning the issues set forth in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa theologiae (esp. Part III), and more generally for scholastic theology of a Thomistic orientation.

To do this we had to return to Aristotle and his text of the Metaphysics. Suárez made an explicit profession of Aristotelianism, in conformity with the prescriptions given by the his order’s various Rationes studiorum regarding the teaching of metaphysics: “Many certainly wish that this doctrine [metaphysics] in its entirety be brought closer to the books of Aristotle, and not only to better understand what principles of so a great philosopher it [metaphysics] relies on, but also so that its use may make it easier and more useful to understand Aristotle himself” [see Ratio et Discursus in DM – Engl. Transl. mine].

Fidelity to the instructions of the Society of Jesus, together with a profound epistemological and foundational interest in involving the relationship between theology and metaphysics, obliged Suárez to attempt a difficult task: to clarify, through his disputations, what was the best order of exposition to understand that group of doctrines (from the science of the first principles and causes to the science of the body, from the science of the divine to the science of substance) that Aristotle deals with in the books constituting his Metaphysics.

Suárez did not conceal a certain dissatisfaction with the way commentators of the past had treated and exposed metaphysical questions. At the same time, Suárez’s dissatisfaction also addressed Aristotle (though not openly), or at least those who had ordered the books of Aristotelian Metaphysics in that way: on this – as is well known – there are different accounts and stories ranging from Andronicus of Rhodes to the disciples of Eudemus of Rhodes, and even to a cataloguing by Esichius at the Library of Alexandria, where the Aristotelian works had arrived because they were brought by the peripatetic Demetrius of Phalerum [on these latest findings see Berti, 2019, p. 47–49]

To give vent to his dissatisfaction, Suárez draws up most probably from Giacomo Zabarella (esp. De natura logicae and De methodo) the distinction between methodus and ordo. In metaphysics, too, it is necessary to distinguish the method of acquiring knowledge from the order in which the various known objects must be exposed [see Ratio et Discursus in DM]. Unlike Pierre de la Ramée (Ramus), who had reunified these two levels within a single method, Suárez was convinced of the necessity to distinguish the two levels, at least in his treatment of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

The DM begin therefore with the project of preparing a new order and a new arrangement for the doctrines presented in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. In addition to the order, Suarez also decided to change the model for his exposition, rejecting the traditional way of commentary on Aristotle’s works and focusing on the genre of the disputation. The aim of this complex operation was threefold: 1. to improve the understanding of Aristotle’s texts (e.g. the order and arrangement of his Metaphysics); 2. to re-launch the capacities of metaphysics, at the end of a century that had widely discredited or delegitimized it; 3. to propose a re-foundation of (scholastic) theology through the lexicon of Aristotelian metaphysics.

The Status of Metaphysics and of the Science of Being

In the DM I, Suárez begins by discussing the nature and status of metaphysics. The places cited range from Books 1, 4, 6 and 11 of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. As is well-known, in those places Aristotle defines metaphysics as “prudence”, “wisdom”, “first philosophy” and “theological science”. Naturally, Suárez hadn’t the slightest suspicion that the final lines of the Book 6 (part 1) of Metaphysics – where “theological science” (“natural theology” in Suárez’s words) is mentioned as the “first philosophy, and universal in this way, because it is first” [Metaph VI, 1, 1026a29] – could have been interpolations, i.e., portions of text posthumously added, not written by Aristotle.

It should be noted from the outset that Suárez, from the very first pages of his DM, while exhibiting a certain fidelity to Aristotle’s text and Aquinas’ commentary, actually endorses a wide-ranging series of options, from Avicenna to a Jesuit colleague during his years at the Roman College, Benet Perera.

First of all Aristotle: after saying metaphysics can be defined as wisdom because it “deals with the root causes of things” [DM I, Engl. Transl. mine], in reality Suárez decides to postpone his exposition of principles and causes until Disputation XII.

This is a significant choice, which distances Suárez from a faithful exposition of the first book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics [see e.g. Metaph I 3, 983a24-983 b7 or Metaph II 2, 994a1–ff.], but above all it generates novelty when compared with Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Metaphysics, in particular with what Aquinas exposes in the Prooemium to the work. Extending the prescriptions of the Ratio studiorum of his time, Suárez aim at explicit continuity with not only Thomas’ theology, but also the metaphysical model of Aquinas. Thus, after the manner of Thomas, Suárez supports the formal unity of metaphysics (understood as the science of being) with theology, placing both as parts of a single science: “Metaphysics is simply the science of a single species. This, in fact, is what Aristotle clearly seems to understand throughout the Prooemium, that is, in the first book, chap. 1 and 2, of Metaphysics, where he always speaks of this science as a single science in his own species, and attributes to it – as one and the same – the names and attributes that agree with it partly because it deals with God and intelligences, which is why it is called theology or divine science and philosophy first; partly because it deals with being as such and its first attributes and principles, which is why it is called universal science and metaphysics. It is then called wisdom because it understands all this in itself, and takes into account the first principles and the first causes of things. […] it is therefore necessary that all these things be understood in one and the same science. This is also what Aquinas teaches in his commentary on the cited passages of Aristotle, especially in the prologue to Metaphysics, and so do the other commentators, ancient and modern” [DM I.3.9 – Engl. Transl. mine].

However, compared to Thomas, that Suárez no longer places God and intelligences as “common and universal causes” of the subject of metaphysics (real being) cannot escape notice. Thomas also admitted a cause for a being in its universality, which human reason could reach by abstracting from individual and particular beings: this cause could only be God, understood as the total cause of the subject-matter of metaphysics (being). The science of being must therefore always find its guarantee and foundation in theology, according to Aquinas.

Unlike Thomas, in Suárez theological science can no longer aspire to the title of “universal science”, assigned it Aristotle, even hypothetically [Metaph VI 1, 1026 a29–32]. The only universal science for Suárez is the science of the being, which includes God as a kind of being in general: as a ‘first and uncreated being’ or ‘being-infinite’, God can only be intended – according to Suárez – as a species of being in general. It must be said, however, that God is certainly the most eminent species of all: Suárez, in fact, in an attempt to emphasize divine eminence and primacy, defines God as the extrinsic principle and primary or principal object (obiectum praecipuum) of metaphysics. However, like the sciences that study other species of being, such as the being that is ‘body’ (physics), the being that is ‘quantity’ (mathematics) or the being that is ‘cosmos’ (cosmology), theology (that studies the being ‘God’) must also be considered a “special” science: in particular, according to Suárez, it must be placed as the “special” part within the metaphysics [see DM I.3.2 and 9].

Despite his fidelity to Thomas Aquinas, Suárez seemed to orient his metaphysical model more towards Avicenna, though without declaring it. The Jesuit Suárez was looking for an intermediate solution between Thomas and Avicenna: his placement of God as the principle and principal object of metaphysics was an extreme attempt at mediation. The theme was Suarez’s attempt to resolve the oscillation – in Aristotle’s Metaphysics and the over thousand-year-old tradition of its commentaries – between the science of being and the theological science. It should be noted, however, that Suárez believes it possible to treat God as a subject only when one enters the “special” part of metaphysics, which opens with the division between infinite and finite being, and then deepens with Disputations XXIX and XXX, which deal respectively with the existence and essence of God as the first and uncreated being.

The exposition of metaphysics had to give precedence to the study of being in its universality, together with its principles (mostly epistemic: such as the principle of non-contradiction) and its properties (in particular the transcendental concepts), although by nature God precedes the concept of being, as Suárez recalls: “it is not even necessary to give something or some reason of being that precedes God by nature, but it is sufficient that this is given according to abstraction, that is, according to the consideration of the [human] intellect […].” [DM I.1.13 – Engl. Transl. mine].

A metaphysics built on the distinction between the concepts of genus and species – in which being plays the role of a universal or “trans-generic” concept and God had to be counted among the quasi-species or among the properties of being – corresponded to the model by Avicenna, originally drawn upon by Al-Fārābī. For Thomas Aquinas God (together with the immaterial and separated substances) was not conceivable as a “species” of being, but as a cause that provided/donated being (also being in general): “Therefore, it must be the office of one and the same science to consider the separate substances and being in general (ens commune), which is the genus of which the aforementioned substances are the common and universal causes” [Thomas Aquinas, Prologue in Commentary on the Metaphysics].

It must be said, however, that following a division of metaphysics according to genus and species, even more radical results could be obtained. The Jesuit Benet Perera, for example, had proposed to distinguish the universal or general science of the body (first philosophy) from the particular or special science of God (theology), as if they were completely independent and autonomous sciences. In this way the formal unity of metaphysics with theology was broken. Suárez’s solution was instead more moderate. With the Metaphysical Disputations it was possible not only to preserve (natural) theology within metaphysics (as a “special” part of the latter), but also to direct the science of being more clearly towards the (rational) science of God. Against the division of metaphysics provided by Perera, a continuity can be established between Suarez and the Jesuits in Coimbra, who seemed to disqualify this division as illegitimate and not authentically Aristotelian [see Prooemium, in Commentarii Collegii Conimbricensis Societati Jesu In octo libros Physicorum Aristotelis, 1594, q. 1, a. 2 – on this text see also Mário S. de Carvalho 2009, esp. p. 51].

Real Being: a Notion Common to God and Creatures

Also in the DM I, Suárez discusses and excludes some of the main solutions and interpretations given regarding the extension of being as such, the subject matter of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. The Jesuit had aimed first of all to exclude [opinions I and II] that the appropriate object of metaphysics could include not only real being but also accidents and reason [DM I.1.2-7]. It is later excluded [DM I.1.8-17] that being as such mentioned in the fourth book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics could be limited to God [opinion III] or immaterial beings, God and the separated substances [opinion IV]. Finally, Suárez excludes that the science of being should be a science limited to the study of the ten categories (opinion V) or to the main one: substance [opinion VI].

The Jesuit’s outcome is to place real being (ens reale) as the subject-matter of metaphysics. This is an abstract notion from real beings, which includes – according to Suárez – God and creatures. In this way, metaphysics excluded the being of reason from its subject-matter, preserving for itself the status of “real science”. The real being also allowed metaphysics to maintain a privileged relationship with theology and God, given the framing of what is “real” within the realm of divine creation, which goes from the Creator to creatures. It is no coincidence that in the initial reception in Schulmetaphysik of DM’s science of being, there were those who interpreted Suárez’s model as excessively realistic and restrictive, by opposing it to those who – like the Reformed Theodor Zwinger or Clemens Timpler – had instead extended the object of metaphysics far beyond entity, including not only the being of reason, but also non-being (non ens), negations and even the concept of pure ‘nothing’ (nihil) [see Göckel, 1609, pa. I, c. 2, q. 1, pp. 9-10]. It is no coincidence that with respect to similar metaphysical models, more unbalanced towards what is just mental and not-created by God, Suárez wanted to emphasize the definition of “science of being as a real being”: a canonical and traditional position, like that of the Jesuit, assumes – if read in this context – the connotations of a sort of defence of ontological realism with respect to more “noetic” (mental) models of ontology.

At the first interpretations that followed, Suárez’s science of being therefore presented itself as markedly realistic, in opposition to the projects carried out mostly by the Calvinists (C. Timpler, J. Lorhard, M. Martini, J. Clauberg), who aimed to include what is noetic and mental within the subject of ontology, through concepts (the so-called “supertranscendentals”) more extensive than the real being, such as the concepts of ‘intelligible’ or ‘thinkable’ (cogitabile). Before being a historiographic category (see e.g. Gilson [1988], Courtine [1990]), the so-called “noetization” of ontology was therefore first of all a criticism against the first ontologies of the Calvinists: in 1608 the Lutheran Thomas Wegelin accused the Calvinist ontology of being a “cerebral” (cerebrosa) ontology, i.e. mental, fictitious and not real [Wegelin, 1608, f. B2r].

On the contrary, Suárez’s science of being: 1. did not admit supertranscendentals (i.e. concepts extended beyond the field of real being, able to include also mental, non-existent and contradictory objects); 2. preserved the identity between intelligible and being, stating that only what has a real being is properly intelligible, not beings of reason (DM LIV.1.1); 3. supported a regime of synonymy between the transcendental concepts of ‘being’ (ens), ‘thing’ (res) and ‘something’ (aliquid), unlike those ontologies that made ‘something’  or ‘thing’  concepts with a wider extension than being.

This tendency to realism seems to be confirmed, within the first Disputations, even when we move from being to essence. Suárez maintains that essences derive their ontological reality from the fact of existing (or having existed) in actual (extramental) reality, first of all as definitions of an individual that has existed in a given moment in time. On this is based the distinction between being as participle (ens ut participium) and being as noun (ens ut nomen), which Suárez draws from Tommaso de Vio (the Cardinal Cajetanus), Francesco di Silvestro da Ferrara (the Ferrarese) and Pedro da Fonseca: “This is also evident from common usage, since, if someone says ‘Adam is’, it means that he exists; but, strictly speaking, such a verb possesses, included in itself, its own participle, in which the above proposition can be resolved. On the other hand, it results from common use that being, even considered as a real being (which is what we are now talking about), is not only attributed to existing things, but also to real natures considered in themselves, whether existing or not: that it is which is then the way metaphysics considers the being, dividing it into the ten categories. In this sense, however, being does not retain the sense of participle, since the participle always involves a signification of time, and in this way it means the actual exercise of being or of existing; therefore this term, existing, can never be said of something that does not exist in act, since it always retains the sense of participle of the verb to exist: it is therefore necessary that being, in this second signification, is taken as a noun” [DM II.4.3 – Engl. Transl. mine].

Adam is a being in the participial sense because he is an individual who existed in act and in time, or – as contemporary ontologies would say – because he is “instantiated” at least once in extramental reality [as to an analytic reading of Suárez’s metaphysics see Acquaviva, 2017]. Metaphysics, however, cannot deal with being as participle, that is, individual and in act, first of all because, following Aristotle, one cannot make science of the individual, because the excess of determinations present in a single individual would make one lose the fundamental requisite of generality/universality that necessarily belongs to a science. Suárez’s choice then falls on being as a noun, which is composed of an essence originally abstracted from an individual (which has been at least once) in extramental reality. In the case of ‘Adam’, the being as a noun that derives from it is ‘man’, that is, a ‘rational animal’: this is the essence that is abstracted from the individual ‘Adam’. If being according to the participial sense (ens ut participium) is therefore composed of an existence plus the essence, being taken in its nominal sense (ens ut nomen) consists instead of the essence minus the individual existence. We can understand in this way why Suárez attributes to the nominal sense of being the title of real essence, marking a semantic novelty with respect to the doctrines of his predecessors (de Vio, Ferrarese, Fonseca): a real essence is such because, according to Suárez, it has an intrinsic “aptitude to exist” (aptitudo ad existendum). In its negative definition a real essence is what “does not imply any contradiction in itself, nor is it a mere invention of the intellect” [DM II.4.7 – Engl. Transl. mine].

How, on the other hand, could it not be so? At least in the first Metaphysical Disputations both the aptitudinal being and the intrinsic non-contradictory nature of a real essence seem to derive from the fact that the latter has been the essence of (at least) an individual who really existed (as being as a participle) in extramental reality in a given moment of time.

Suárez’s decision then becomes that of basing the treatment of metaphysics only on beings understood in a nominal and non-participial sense, that is, on real essences endowed with a merely aptitudinal existence. Being as a noun is in fact a notion common both to God and to creatures, in the sense that a real essence can be obtained (through a process of abstraction) only from what exists or has existed in time, that is, in extramental reality (such as God and his creatures): “[…] also because being taken as a noun is common to God and to creatures, and can be truly affirmed of God, while potential being can in no way be affirmed of God. Neither can it be affirmed, in the very sense of existing creatures as such, since they are not already in potency, but in act whereas being can be affirmed of them – both as a participle and as a noun – since, although they possess an actual existence, it is also said, with truth, that they possess a real essence, regardless of this, without denying it, from their actual existence” [DM II.4.11 – Engl. Transl. mine]. The aptitudinal existence (ens ut nomen) – proper of a real essence – is obtained through abstraction from the actual existence (ens ut participium); it can therefore only maintain a constant aptitude towards the actual being from which it originally came.

However, as we shall see, the position regarding the ontological status of the essence will undergo a significant development in Suárez’s DM, especially when from the “general part” of metaphysics we move to its “special part”, analyzing the relationship between essences (understood as ‘possible’) and the divine mind [DM XXX–XXXI].

Between Archaeology and Etiology: the Priority of Principle over Cause

The doctrine of principles and causes is postponed in Suárez’s treatment with respect to the order in which it is found in the first two books of Aristotle’s Metaphysics: for Suárez metaphysics had to be first of all ontology, and only secondly a science of causes. Such a postponement reflected the need Suárez felt to improve, through his Disputations, the exposition and understanding of the metaphysical themes and objects presented by Aristotle. This, however, did not mean that Suárez was less interested in archaeology (doctrine of principles) or etiology (doctrine of causes). The doctrine of principles and causes is in fact given a considerable role and space, involving as many as sixteen Disputations: the treatment of principles and causes concludes, moreover, the general part of metaphysics and the first of the two tomes of the work, the one dealing with being and its more general properties (such as being applicable to all other real beings).

The opening of the discussion is DM XII, divided into three macro sections dedicated respectively to the relationship between the notion of cause and that of principle (Section 1), to the reason or definition of common cause (Section 2) and to the division of the different species of cause (Section 3). From the latter opens the entire Suarez’s investigation that from the material cause of substance and accidents [DM XII–XIV], passes through the formal case [DM XV–XVI], up to the more substantial description dedicated to the efficient cause [DM XVII] and the different ways of its causation [DM XVIII–XIX], then again to the creation [DM XX], to conservation [DM XXI] and to the concurrence of causes [DM XXII]. We then come to the Disputations dedicated to the end [DM XXIII–XXIV] and to the exemplar cause [DM XXV]: in the latter we can see a certain reception of neo-platonic themes, which occurs in particular through Bonaventura da Bagnoregio, while Suárez is intent on adhering to the thesis that considers the exemplar cause a species or subclass of the efficient cause [DM XXV.2.8 – see on this Schmid, 2014, p. 299]. Two Disputations close this picture: one on the relationship between cause and effect [DM XXVI], the other on the comparison between causes [DM XXVII].

The exhaustiveness with which Suárez tries to delineate his doctrine of principles and causes has not, however, escaped debate and interpretation, particularly among his contemporaries. In the first place, it seemed evident – especially to some scholars of the French area [see Carraud, 2002, pp. 102–166] – that the causes in Suárez precisely because of their exposition after the transcendental concepts [DM IV-XI], were to be counted among the transcendental themselves. The founding nucleus of this reading is to be found in the Suarezian statement [DM XII], in which the Jesuit defines causality “a certain property of being as such” (ipsa causalitas est veluti proprietas quaedam ens, ut sic): it should be noted, however, that Suárez never goes so far as to state clearly a full incorporation of causes into the transcendental concepts. However, like the transcendentals – which are transcategorial predicates of real beings and not of beings of reason – the noun ‘cause’ can also be attributed to God and creatures (or at least some of them), that is, to real beings. The same cannot be said of ‘effect’ instead: God cannot be effect, but only cause.

It should be remembered, however, that those were the years in which the debate about divine self-causality (God as the cause of itself) would developed, in which God – according to a positive conception of aseity – could be conceived as the cause and effect of himself. It will be Descartes in his Metaphysical Meditations, then also in the responses to Jan de Kater’s (Caterus) objections, who will affirm divine self-causation in the manner of a efficient causality. In criticizing Descartes Caterus drew up Suárez and the DM (see Agostini, 2008, pp. 306-310). After Descartes Spinoza came to support a conception of God as causa sui: in this direction the notion of cause obtains the maximum possible strengthening because from divine self-causality one goes so far as to place God as the immanent cause of all reality.

Suárez instead endows the notion of principle with a greater extension than that of cause: in the manner of Aristotle, the Jesuit maintains that every cause is principle, but not every principle is cause; the cause is therefore an internal class of principles [Colacicco, 2014]. However, Suárez articulates this theme differently from Aristotle: firstly by providing a general definition of cause, valid for all types of causes, based on a theory of the influence of neo-platonic derivation (“cause is a principle that infuses being into another”); secondly by clarifying that there are principles that do not infuse being into another and that for this reason they are not causes; thirdly by arguing that, unlike causes (which act within real beings only), some principles are also applicable to beings of reason and privations [DM I.4.25].

Around these problems other interpreters have put the theological component – particularly dogmatic – back at the centre, showing how deeply this had marked Suárez’s intentions, with the intention that the Jesuit himself had given himself to “point out to the reader, almost by finger, how metaphysical principles should be referred to and adapted to the confirmation of theological truths” [Ratio et discursus, in DM – Engl. Transl. mine]. God is therefore conceived first of all as principle, because in the Trinity the Father is principle, together with the Son (Christ), of the procession of the Holy Spirit, not the cause of the latter, according to the theology of the Latin Fathers [Colacicco, 2014, p. 288].

The Possible Anchored to or Independent of God

The fourth centenary (2017) of Suárez’s death was an opportunity to see the extraordinary development of Suarezian studies in recent years. After decades in which literature had mostly solidified a reading of Suárez under the banner of “essentialism”, that is, the primacy/priority of essence (for instance É. Gilson, J.-F. Courtine, J.-L. Marion, L. Honnefelder) and the non-contradictory intrinsic to the actual existence, more recently readings have tried – in some cases – to overturn this interpretation, speaking of an “existential integralism” [Pereira, 2007, p. 101–114, esp. p. 110] by Suárez. Similar interpretations underline the priority (ontological and logical) attributed in many passages of the first DM to the participial sense of being with respect to its nominal sense and to the aptitudinal existence.

At least in the places where Suárez proposes his ontology – the first three Disputations – it is possible to say that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: in the sense that if the primacy/priority of actual and participial existence over aptitudinal and nominal existence is evident, however, it is also true that Suárez fixes and circumscribes the treatment of metaphysics to being in its nominal sense and (real) essences, which make abstraction from individual and actual existence.

If we then move from general metaphysics (ontology) to special metaphysics (natural theology), we see a gradual evolution in Suárez’s understanding of the status of essences. In the “heart” of Suarezian natural/rational theology [DM XXX-XXXI], the narrative becomes, so to speak, “evolutionary” and is distinguished in at least three “moments”. i) Firstly Suárez clearly maintains that (possible) essences, before being created by God, are nothing (omnino nihil), that is, they do not deserve any ontological statute: not only the being of existence, but also that of essence would therefore be totally dependent on God’s causation, that is, contingent. In this sense, Suárez rejects Capreolus’ thesis that God would create from an existential nothingness (ex nihilo), but not from an essential nothingness [see DM XXI.2.4–6]. ii) Secondly, Suárez affirms that some essences, though never possessing actual existence, nevertheless enjoy an ontological status because they are present in the divine mind, as ways (i.e. exemplars or truths) through which God thinks of Himself: the foundation-anchoring in God would guarantee such essences a being, even if they were never found in any individual or in extra-mental reality [DM XXI.12.10–fol.]. Both these theses are quite traditional and are found, in their basic nucleus, already in Thomas or later in Descartes. iii) Thirldly, Suárez goes up to the extreme hypothesis of a detachment of such essences (possible) from the divine intellect: there would therefore exist essences, which are true and possible even independently of God [DM XXXI.12.40]. Because of their intrinsic necessity, such (eternal) truths would force God to think so. As is well known, Descartes would take up a position against the radicality of this Suárezian thesis, in a letter to Marin Mersenne (dated May 6, 1630): eternal truths “are true and possible only because God knows them as true and possible, and not, on the contrary, are they known as true by God as if they were true independently of Him”; “one must not therefore say” – as the Jesuit Suárez maintains instead – that “if God did not exist, nevertheless those truths would still be true” [Descartes, 2005, n. 31, p. 151 – see also Gatto, 2015, p. 233–234].

Beings of Reason and Analogy

In the last DM (LIV) Suárez comes to deal with the beings of reason. The exclusion from the object of metaphysics (real being) did not mean that metaphysics could not or should not deal with these kinds of mental beings. Suárez is convinced that it is precisely the comparison with what is real that makes it possible to clarify the statute and characteristics of a being of reason: such a comparison makes it possible to establish, for example, whether a being of reason has any foundation in reality (cum fundamento in re) or not. This leads to the initial position that beings of reason are not real beings and are not in themselves intelligible, because they are like “shadows” of real being (umbrae entium). However, the noun ‘being of reason’ foresees the use of the concept ‘being’. Suárez states in this regard that it is only for a relationship with a real being that being of reason can be called ‘being’: this relationship is a relationship of analogy.

It is a “weak” analogy, of proportionality says the Suárez, which must be distinguished from the “strong” analogy reserved instead to the relationship between real beings, first of all to God and creatures. Only by discovering the analogy with real beings can a being of reason be somehow knowable. But it is, in any case, a relationship of analogy and not of equivocity that Suárez uses to explain the relationship between the real being and being of reason. Suárez legitimizes his position in this regard through Aristotle. If  “there are many senses in which a thing is said to be, but all refer to one starting-point,” [Metaph IV, 2, 1003b5–6] then even the being of reason can be traced back to being (through analogy): Aristotle goes so far as to affirm that “it is for this reason that we say even of non-being that it is nonbeing” [Metaph IV, 2, 1003b10–11].

References & Bibliography

Primary Sources

  • Aristotle, Metaphysics, transl. by W.D. Ross – also available online:
  • Göckel 1609 = Rudolph Göckel (Goclenius), Conciliator philosophicus (Kassel: Mauritius)
  • Suárez 1597 = Francisco Suárez, Metaphysicae disputationes = DM (Salamanca: Renaut), in Opera Omnia, Editio nova, XXVIII voll., par C. Berton, Parigi, Ludovico Vivès (rist. 2. voll., Olms, Hildesheim 1965). digitalizated by S. Castellote Cubells / M.A. Renemann – also avalaible online:
  • Thomas Aquinas = Commentary on the Metaphysics, transl. by J.P. Rowan (Chicago 1961) – also available online:
  • Wegelin 1608 = Thomas Wegelin, Disputatio theologica de Cristo (Tübingen: Gruppenbach)


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