On the Necessity of Being

Introduction by Wendy Boring

Bonaventure says: "If you wish then to contemplate the invisible traits of God in so far as they belong to the unity of His essence, fix your gaze upon Being itself, and see that Being is most certain in itself; for it cannot be thought not to be, since the purest Being occurs only in full flight from Non-Being, just as nothingness is in full flight from Being."

Original Latin

To Be, or Not to Be

Why is there something rather than nothing? What is nothing? What is Being Itself?

The twentieth-century philosopher Martin Heidegger quoted the passage above from Bonaventure’s Itinerarium in Mentis Deum [Soul's Journey into the Mind of God] in the forward to his Vom Sein: Abriss der Ontologie [On Being]. This suggests that Bonaventure's medieval text stands in a millennia-long conversation about the nature of Being.

Heidegger was drawn to two seemingly paradoxical assertions in Bonaventure’s argument: the necessity of Being Itself to thought, and fact that we are blind to Being Itself. Drawing on Platonic and Augustinian textual traditions, Bonaventure argues that just as light is necessary to sight, so is Being Itself to the operation of our intellect.

Being Itself, ipsum esse, is so absolutely certain, that it cannot be thought not to be. It is beyond all categories. It is that which comes first to the mind. It is the very foundation of all thought. It is these thoughts that Heidegger wove into his notion of the “pre-ontological awareness” of Being.

On Being "Blind to Being"

How, odd, then, that we are as "blind as bats" to its presence, as Bonaventure comments in this excerpt. Bonaventure finds confirmation of our blindnesss that which is most evident and necessary from a passage in Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “as the eye of the bat is disposed towards the light, so the eye of the mind is disposed towards the most evident things in nature.”

Bonaventure notes that we concentrate on particular beings – trees, cows, spiders – and thus miss the Being that is beyond every genus. Being Itself is like the light that makes the colors of the prism. We are so drawn to the colors, we forget the light upon which they depend.

Being and the Soul's Journey Into the Mind of God

Bonaventure puts philosophical reflections regarding Being Itself smack dab in the midst of an itinerary of the soul’s journey to God. The Itinerarium mentis in Deum, Bonaventure’s well-known mystical text, is designed to be a guide for pilgrims on a spiritual journey into God. The itinerary follows the Augustinian triad:

  • Moving outside of oneself to contemplate God in the things of the senses.
  • Moving within oneself to contemplate God in the activities of the mind or soul.
  • Moving above oneself to contemplating that which is most eternal and spiritual – Being Itself and Goodness Itself.

In the context of this journey, Bonaventure urges the pilgrim to note that Being Itself contains footprints of the divine essence which aid the soul in contemplation of God.

The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity

From the necessity of Being Itself, Bonaventure derives the essential attributes of God. This is often called the “doctrine of divine simplicity:”

  • God is the first, most-pure Being
  • God is absolutely lacking in non-being, and is therefore eternal
  • God has no composition, and is therefore simple
  • God has no defect, and is therefore perfect
  • God has no diversity, and therefore is one.
Contemplating the pure simplicity of God as Being Itself illuminates the mind and prepares it for the final two stages in the pilgrim’s journey: contemplating God as Goodness Itself and finally, passing over into spiritual ecstasy.