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Colloquia Manilana 2003

The Oblivion of Being:

An Overview of Metaphysics

and Mysticism in Aquinas,

Eckhart and Heidegger

Ernesto A. Lapitan Jr., O.P.




One of the most serious charges that Heidegger leveled against the entire history of Western philosophy is Seinsvergessenheit or the oblivion of Being. This oblivion of Being is very evident in the philosophical field called metaphysics. It is rather quite paradoxical that metaphysics whose subject matter is Being can be forgetful of Being. However, according to Heidegger, it is precisely because Western metaphysics is concerned with the difference between Being and beings that metaphysics has forgotten that which grants the difference. It is the dif-ference that grants the difference between Being and beings that Heidegger says is and should be the concern of thought. In Heideggers reckoning only the Pre-Socratics came close to thinking about this dif-ference and after them the entire history of Western philosophy has not thought about this dif-ference.

Thomas Aquinas, one of the pre-eminent thinkers on Being has not escaped this charge of Seinsvergessenheit. In his metaphysical system, Thomas thought profoundly of the difference between Being and beings. He has said that Being is preeminent because in it the concepts of essence and existence are one. Beings essence is its existence. Whereas in other beings, the concept of existence is not included in their essence; existence comes as a sort of addition. In short, they are merely contingent beings, their existence depends upon the bestowal of the ipsum esse subsistens. This kind of thinking of Thomas Aquinas is radical and different from the rest of the secular thinkers. Consequently, he equated Being with God, a being whose essence it is to exist. It is on this point that Heidegger claims that Aquinas has not gone out of the metaphysical and theological mode of thinking and thus falls into the trap of the oblivion of Being.

Caputo1 in his intrepid work entitled Heidegger and Aquinas: An Essay on Overcoming Metaphysics makes a confrontation between Heidegger and Aquinas. In his introductory remarks, he has noted that most of the Thomists who have undergone a confrontation between Heidegger and Aquinas have failed. This is so because the method of confrontation they have applied is that of word for word and text for text. Obviously, under such conditions, Aquinas cannot escape the charge of Seinsvergessenheit, for even in this kind of thinking Aquinas moves within the Being-beings difference but does not go beyond it. Caputo suggests, therefore, that we look into the mystical element of Aquinass thinking, for it is in there that we find the thinking that is not forgetful of Being.

The texts that Aquinas handed down to us must be read and deconstructed in the light of the experience of Being. The texts should give way to the ipsum esse subsistens. This mode of thinking can be visually seen in a painting of St. Thomas done by the fifteenth- century Flemish painter Justus of Ghent that hangs at the Louvre. In this painting, the hands of the saint are very prominent for they are at the center of the painting. A closer look at the hands reveals that the right index finger is pressing the left thumb, as if the magister is teaching some pupil a point. But even though the hands occupy a central position in the painting, the whole figure of Aquinas must be taken into account. The figure is a picture of stark serenity. Aquinas is calmly seated with everything seemingly unperturbed by anything. If the hand were a picture of ratio, then the whole figure is a picture of intellectus. Thus, Caputo explains that

the way in which one can meet the Heideggerian critique of St. Thomas is to meet it on its own grounds: not by showing that "existential metaphysics" satisfies everything which is required by the "thought of Being" and eludes the oblivion of Being - for it does not; but rather (and this all the commentators have missed) by showing that in St. Thomas metaphysics itself tends to break down and pass into a more profound experience of Being - even though the elaborate machinery of St. Thomas Scholasticism tends to conceal this fact.2

With this, Caputo is eager to show that Aquinas knows a step back out of metaphysics and in fact has overcome metaphysical thinking.

Caputo shows that Aquinas can escape the charge of Heidegger by appealing to the mystical experience. His arguments have carried him forward to considering Eckhart as the middle term between Aquinas and Heidegger.3 He claims that the fullness of the Thomistic arguments on mystical experience can only be seen through the consideration of the arguments of Eckhart. It is Eckhart who unfolds the possibility of Thomistic mysticism.

It is interesting to note that a way out of metaphysics is mystical experience. Mysticism escapes the objectifying lenses of metaphysics and views Being in its pristine form. Caputo argues that "mysticism, though not identical with thought, lies outside the sphere of influence of the principle of sufficient reason and, like thought itself and genuine poetry, is a non-representational, non-metaphysical experience of being. Mysticism too takes a step back out of metaphysics".4 In Caputos view then mysticism can be way out of oblivion of Being, but in another respect we find mysticism to be not the same as thought. Here in this paper, an overview of metaphysics and mysticism in Aquinas, Eckhart and Heidegger will be explored. As a corollary, it will be determined whether mysticism is a sufficient means to step back out of metaphysics thus escaping the Heideggerian charge of Seinsvergessenheit.


Aquinas: Intellectus supra rationem

Much of what has been written by Aquinas belongs to the realm of ratio.5 It signifies the faculty of conceptualization, rationalization and discursive argumentation. Ratio therefore refers to the activity of the mind that methodically seeks to put everything under a certain structure. It is a structure through which we see and analyze things. On the other hand, intellectus is beyond the grasp of ratio. On a more radical level, the mind does not only stop at argumentations, it moves beyond to a more mystical plane, it seeks beatific union with the Creator.

In Aquinas, this mystical level is not evident in his writings. It should be sought from the silence that occurs between the lines of his voluminous works. It must be heeded from those supposedly last words that he uttered before he achieved union with his Creator: omnia quae scripsi, videntur mihi paleae respectu eorum, quae vidi et revelata sunt mihi. Towards the end of his life, Aquinas seems to have experienced Being itself. In Caputos words,

Thomas has passed from the sphere of representational thinking, from the sphere of the concepts, judgments, and ratiocinations of the Summa, into the realm of the unconcealed, the clearing (Lichtung), the sphere of light and manifestness. He passes from the chatter of discursive reason to the silence of thought, from calculation to thought.7

It is in this silence of the mystical experience that Aquinas was able to overcome the lure and trap of representational thinking. It is this mysticism that is the way out for Thomas Aquinas from the Heideggerian charge of Seinsvergessenheit.

Another mode of looking at Aquinass way out of metaphysics is through the examination of esse. The notion of esse is actually non-conceptualizable. It escapes the grasp of reason which is at home with categories and definitions. We speak of esse in terms of the essence-existence distinction. In Thomistic metaphysics, essence is different from existence in created beings. Thus, created beings are said to be contingent since existence is not part of their definition. Their existence comes from outside. Only in God do we find essence and existence identical. Its very essence is to exist. But the esse of the ipsum esse subsistens cannot be comprehended. In the terminology of the negative theology of Aquinas we can only say that God is but we cannot say what God is. Indeed God exists but we can never know what is this existence. Thus, esse points out to something beyond that cannot be properly spoken about.

The metaphysics then of Aquinas belongs to the sphere of ratio. For his metaphysics is aimed at understanding the whole unity. But this metaphysics has a tendency to become intellectus yet it can never attain this level as long as it is embedded in a scientia practiced by men whose mode of thinking is "rational." Metaphysics can only point out towards mysticism. "Mysticism is the terrestrial fulfillment of metaphysics, even as union with God is its celestial fulfillment".8

The philosophy of St. Thomas is essentially religious as argued by Rousselot. And this religiosity is not at odds with its intellectualism. The intellect is not only a faculty of devising concepts and weaving arguments. But the intellect is also a capacity for the divine, a capax dei. It is in the intellect that the unity of the soul with God is accomplished. Here we can see that the intellect is also religious in character.9 It is in this sense that the mind can be said to be not merely and primarily an intellectual faculty but that it seeks to unite itself with the divine. The mind naturally tends toward beatific vision.

There is a lack of a theory of mysticism in Thomas Aquinas. In Aquinas, the word mysticus implies something mysterious and hidden, hence it is something that cannot be easily conceptualized. His treatment of mysticism can be gleaned from his discussions on rapture in De Veritate and Summa Theologiae. In ST II-II, 175, 1, he defines rapture as a kind of violence, an action applied by an external agent to a nature that makes it move beyond its natural capabilities. Mystical rapture happens when the soul is elevated to a level of intellectuality that exceeds its natural powers. Ordinarily, man gains knowledge through the senses but in rapture, the senses are suspended and knowledge is immediately grasped, an immediate face-to-face vision is granted. This face-to-face vision is possible only in the lumen gloriae.10 This is an instance wherein the divine essence itself shines upon the soul. This happens in two ways: "In one way through the mode of an immanent form and that is how it makes the blessed holy in heaven. But in another way in the mode of a transient passion, as was said about in the light of prophecy."11 In many instances, the mystical experience of the many biblical figures happens in the second manner. And our earthly existence can only attain transient passion, the immanent mode can only be attained when one merits a face-to-face vision with the divine in the heavenly realms. All men, by virtue of their intellect, are capable of attaining this vision, for the experience of God is the natural and supernatural end of intellectus itself.

Eckhart: The Godhead beyond God

One of the most famous mystics of the Middle Ages that led a spiritual revolution in the Rhineland is Meister Eckhart. He is famous and at the same time notorious to Church authorities because of his radical theological outlook; an outlook that goes beyond the conceptualizations of his times and borders more on mysticism. Because of his radical views, Church authorities condemned some of his propositions as heretical.

Eckhart speaks about the supreme "is-ness" of God. By this, he means that Gods characteristic is being. And in being alone lies all that is all. Since God alone is, then all things are in God and from Him. Outside of Him there is nothing and without Him nothing truly is. All creatures then are nothing compared to God. Since in Him is all existence then there is no darkness in God, all is light and being. On the other hand, creatures are darkness and nothingness. When Eckhart speaks of the nothingness of the creatures, he does not speak of absolute nothingness but a relative nothingness, that is, they are completely dependent on God.12 This argument echoes the Thomistic view of esse as the absolute existence and the essence of the creatures as not containing existence. This fundamental tenet of Eckharts mysticism is strikingly affirmative: in the terminology of the ancient Church, kataphatic.

However, there is another side to Eckharts mysticism, for from such a kataphatic viewpoint, a corresponding apophatic theology must also be developed. This negative correlative of positive theology must be seen in the light of what Eckhart understood as Gottheit (Godhead). Eckhart, like many of his predecessors in the Christian Neoplatonic lineage, was fascinated by the identity of unity, being and intellect in God. From here, Eckhart would go on to emphasize the unity of God. His emphasis is so strong in such a way that it is sometimes perceived that the unity of God is higher than the Trinity, and at the very least logically prior to it. It is the unity of God that guarantees the divinity of the Persons. This divine unity Eckhart identifies as the Gottheit. And what is the difference between Godhead and God?

Everything that is in the Godhead is one, and of that there is nothing to be said. God works, the Godhead does no work; there is nothing for it to do, there is no activity in it. It never peeped at any work. God and Godhead are distinguished by working and not-working.13 

This description of the difference between God and Godhead are surely beyond ordinary comprehension. Given the metaphysical mode of thinking that prevails in the West during Eckharts time, it can be said that when he speaks of God, he means the God of metaphysics, that God that grants being and existence to other creatures. When he speaks of Godhead, he means the God beyond the grasp of metaphysics. Godhead is the God of mysticism, for the true God cannot be comprehended by any conceptualizations. Thus, the Godhead does not work nor is there any activity in it.

This view is also expounded by Eckhart when he says that the Godhead "becomes" God only when creatures become creatures. Before creation, there was no concept of God, "the unnameable Tri-unity was what it was within the incomprehensible "inner," interpersonal life of Thought, Word and Love united in the undifferentiated Gottheit".14 God is then understood as a concept that was "created" by the creatures. Only creatures can conceive of God. This happens when they realize their createdness, that their essence is not essentially divine. Thus, to recognize "God" is also a recognition of ones creatureliness. In connection with this, Eckhart put forward another daring expression when he says the following words,

Therefore let us pray to God that we may be free of God, that we may gain the truth and enjoy it eternally

Therefore I pray to God to make me free of God, for my essential being is above God, taking God as the origin of creatures.15

Another important aspect of Eckharts apophatic theology is the nothingness of God. This kind of thinking denies attributes to God only in the same sense that we can apply these attributes to creatures. From this perspective God is not light to the mind, on the contrary, He is darkness. Because of this the Godhead is unknown and shall never be known. This theme echoes that of Philo and later developed by St. Gregory of Nyssa and the later theologians of the Alexandrian and Augustinian schools. Eckhart expounds the view that Gods being is not simply being in any way that is comprehensible to the intellect. God does not lack being but transcends it. In this kind of theology, we can see a play that is working: compared to God, creatures are nothing; compared to creatures, God is nothing.

In this framework of mysticism of Meister Eckhart, how can we attain the Gottheit? The attainment of the Godhead and subsequently the way out of metaphysics can be seen in the spiritual discipline of the Meister. This discipline of the Meister is encompassed by the two arms of the active aspect, abgeschiedenheit and its passive complement gelassenheit. Both aspects are two sides of the same coin, so to speak.

Abgeschiedenheit means radical detachment, and it means detachment in every aspect of human experience: the detachment of the self, of others, and even of God. Radical detachment is radical poverty that involves the bodily, mental and spiritual aspects. It requires emptying ourselves of the baggage that we have acquired in the course of our existence. All things in us should be stripped in order that the Nothingness of God can come in.

Gelassenheit means abandonment or "letting go." The attitude of abandonment is the perfection of radical detachment. It is the abandonment of everything that can distract the person from the receptivity to God. It is necessary then to let go of everything. Even our images of God should be removed for they are but concepts and distinctions fabricated by the mind.

What Eckhart then is saying in his mysticism is to get rid of ourselves of anything that is conceptual and thus metaphysical. The concepts that we have of God since they are primarily abstractions of the mind are hindrances to the consummation of the mystical experience. God is indeed beyond God, beyond any name that the mind applies to him.


Heidegger: Being and Nothing

Martin Heidegger is a once and a future thinker. His thought will never be equaled and his mind always goes out beyond his time. There is an unmistakable mystical ring in the writings of Heidegger. As Caputo argues, there is a structural analogy between the writings and thought of Heidegger and Eckhart.16 The writings of the mature Heidegger on Being border more on the limits of philosophy. Indeed, Heidegger even claims that his thinking is beyond the regions of philosophy. For Heidegger, "thinking" is different from "philosophy." Heidegger identifies philosophy with the thought-structures originated by Plato and Aristotle that have permeated the entire history of Western philosophy. Heidegger thus speaks of philosophy in an entirely metaphysical sense. He categorizes philosophy as a striving towards the Being of beings. It is "mans attempt to think beings in their common properties, to isolate the Beingness (Seinheit) of being, their most general features such as idea (Plato) and energeia (Aristotle)."17 For Heidegger, the matter of thought is the history of Being as it unfolds in history. This is the Being that unfolds itself across different epochs. Heideggers concern then is the event of manifestness, the Ereignis, the unveiling and concealing of Being, the historical happening of Truth from the early Greeks to the present. In Heideggers reckoning, only the thinkers preceding Socrates came close to thinking. For thought to occur, one must make the leap outside the sphere of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. In short, it must go beyond the concepts formed by the mind. Metaphysics must give way to thinking, and for Heidegger this thinking is akin to mysticism.

Heideggers forays into thinking have brought him into the realms of nothing. The "Nothing" does not merely mean "null and void." Nothing is differentiated from beings - it is no-thing, not even any thing/being at all. In classical logic, "nothing" is a negation of something, but for Heidegger, "nothing" is something experienced and encountered. It is a "fundamental experience," an experience that detaches us from the sphere of things.18

How can "nothing" be encountered? Heidegger says that in anxiety we can experience the lost of everything that is significant. Anxiety is not the same as fear. Fear has an object. But anxiety has no particular object. One is not anxious about a particular thing. In the state of anxiety, a person is broken off from his activity of daily existence and come face to face with that which is nothing at all. In anxiety does one experience real calm, because it fosters a break from the daily activities. Anxiety here is not to be taken as a pathological illness, but is to be understood in Heideggerian terms as an ontological experience and as such it is to be seen as a disclosure of that which is other than being. In the experience of nothing, the fact that something is, that something is there, arises.19

Nothing is a revelation of being. In it do we find the distinctiveness of being. It is a process that comes to pass in and with beings. It cannot be thought outside of beings. Therefore nothing belongs to the concept of being, and as Heidegger, following Hegel, asserts that it is the same as Being itself: "Pure Being and pure Nothing are the same."20 Nothing is an approach to the question of Being. Without this nothing, which is the same as Being, then every being would fall into beinglessness, for a being is never without a Being.

How can one attain pure Nothing that is also at the same time pure Being? Heidegger says that pure nothing can be attained through thinking. It must be reiterated that for Heidegger the task of thinking is different from the metaphysical enterprise. The task of thinking is to go beyond Western metaphysics that is preoccupied with the manipulation of beings. Thinking is to meditate upon Being as such. Metaphysics can never meditate upon Being as such. This new thinking has nothing to do with willing. This composure is the Heideggerian counterpart to Eckharts gelassenheit. Heidegger tells us that Dasein when it spends itself in thinking meditates upon Being and Being alone. He puts aside all representations to engage in a non-representational thinking on Being, thus leaving metaphysical reasoning behind. In this kind of thinking, the only way to gain access to Being is to let Being be and let it address Dasein. Dasein is thus impotent to think Being. It must surrender its will unto Being.

Man must sacrifice and give itself up to the truth of Being. Now this sacrifice is a "thanking" of Being by Dasein for the "grace" and favor which Being has bestowed upon Dasein by giving itself up to Dasein as a matter of thinking

The appropriate response of Dasein to a grace is thanking, and its thanking consists in not squandering this gift but in actually engaging in "thinking."21

And as we have said thinking as thanking is a thinking that is surrendering. In giving up all one actually attains all.

One can see that Heideggers way is similar to the mystical view expounded by Eckhart. Like the mysticss way, Heidegger calls for a non-representational approach to Being and not a conceptual or rational determination of it. The way to Being is not through some ground or first principle as what metaphysics proposes. The way to Being is through an abyss or nothingness. "Heideggers way to Being is not the way of discursive reason, but the way of meditative stillness and total openness to that which is wholly other than beings, to the simply transcendent.22 Being is beyond the grasp of philosophy but it can be attained in mysticism.

Heidegger and Mysticism

The affinity of thought to mysticism in Heidegger cannot simply be dismissed. However, to say that Heideggers thought redounds to a mystical experience is an overstatement. Caputo23 does not deny the presence of mystical elements in Heideggers thought. Nevertheless, he emphasizes more on the "elements" and not on mysticism. The difference between Heidegger and the mystics, in this case Aquinas and Eckhart, are obvious enough. When the mystics talk of abyss and the like, it is not an absolute bottomless pit or perdition rather it is a divine abyss. Thus, this leap into nothingness is a leap of faith. It is a leap wherein one falls into the hands of the Creator. However, Heideggers abyss is of a different kind. It is an abyss that plays on an eternal danger. It is an abyss where one cannot be sure. It is actually a bottomless pit where there is no ground at all. Unlike the nothingness of the mystics that actually ends up in God, the nothingness of Heidegger remains elusive. "The worlds darkening never reaches to the light of Being."q


1 John D. Caputo, Heidegger and Aquinas: An essay in overcoming metaphysics (New York: Fordham University Press, 1982).

2 Caputo 1982, 8.

3 Caputo 1982, 275.

4 Caputo 1982, 13, cf. note #4.

5 Ratio is understood here as reason.

6 "Everything which I have written seems like straw to me compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me."

7 Caputo 1982, 253-254.

8 Caputo 1982, 265.

9 Pierre Rousselot, The intellectualism of Saint Thomas, trans. James OMahony (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1935), 217ff.

10 light of glory.

11 ST II-II, 175, 3, 2.

12 Richard Woods, OP, Eckharts way (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 46-48.

13 Woods 1990, 47 quoting DP 26. References to Eckharts German and Latin works have become almost standardized. Josef Quints critical edition of the German works are abbreviated as DW (Deutsche Werke) followed by Roman numerals for volume number and Arabic numerals for sermon and page numbers. Quints 1955 modernization is referred as DP (Deutsche Predigten) with Arabic numerals indicating sermon and page numbers. Similarly Ernst Benzs edition of the Latin works are abbreviated as LW (Lateinische Werke) followed by Roman numerals for volume and sermon number and Arabic numerals for page numbers.

14 Woods 1990, 96.

15 Woods 1990, 97 quoting DW 52.

16 John D. Caputo, The mystical element in Heideggers thought (New York: Fordham University Press, 1986), xvii.

17 Caputo 1986, 3.

18 Caputo 1986, 19.

19 Martin Heidegger, "What is Metaphysics," Basic Writings, Revised and expanded edition, ed. David Farrell Krell (London: Routledge, 1993), 100-101.

20 Heidegger 1993, 108 quoting Hegels Science of Logic, Volume I, Werke III, 74.

21 Caputo 1986, 27.

22 Caputo 1986, 29.

23 Caputo 1986.


Aquinas, Thomas. Summa theologiae. 5 Volumes. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, 1981.

Caputo, John D. Heidegger and Aquinas: An essay in overcoming metaphysics. New York: Fordham University Press, 1982.

_______________. The mystical element in Heideggers thought. New York: Fordham University Press, 1986.

Heidegger, Martin. "What is Metaphysics," Basic writings. Revised and expanded edition. Ed. David Farrell Krell. London: Routledge, 1993.

Rousselot, Pierre. The intellectualism of Saint Thomas. Trans. James OMahony. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935.

Woods, Richard, OP. Eckharts way. Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1990.








Ernesto A. Lapitan Jr., O.P. is a member of the Dominican Province of the Philippines. He holds a Licentiate in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the Pontificio Istituto di Studi Arabi e dIslamistica (PISAI) in Rome, Italy.

Colloquia Manilana 2003