From Essence to Existence: Pondering the Glimpse of Being

And the question which has always been raised, in times of old and still in our day, and always embarrasses us, is ‘what is being?’ – Aristotle

I’ve noted previously that our common sense approach to reality leads to a kind of intuition of “being” as that highest of all unities. Everything that is is, as Parmenides put it. Saying it this way, however, is liable to misunderstanding. “Being” is not simply what we come to at the end of a kind of exploration of the world. That is, our concept of “being” is not simply a convenient organizing concept that we invent once we’ve noticed the extreme variations of reality and tried to group them. Yes, it is a concept that we come to once we consider how it is that we organize our experiences of reality. But it also stands as the foundational and assumed concept that we have as we experience reality. When explore anything in the world, we already assume some “thing” is, some “thing” has being. In that way, it is a kind of first notion for us.

Thomas Aquinas: “That which falls first in our coming to know is “being” (ens). Whence, whatsoever is apprehended by us, we attribute “being” to it” (ST, I-II, q. 55, a. 4, ad. 1). And, in a statement with very great metaphysical implications:

Therefore, the intellect, since it is one power, has one natural object, of which it has knowledge essentially and naturally… Now this is no other than being. Therefore, our intellect knows being naturally, and whatever is essentially comprised under being as such; on this knowledge is based the knowledge of first principles, such as ‘nothing is at once affirmed and denied,’ and the like. (SGC, II.83)

We presume “being” in all our intellectual dealings (so much so that Thomas thinks even the law of non-contradiction—the most foundational axiom of reasoning itself—depends on this notion of “being”!). So, in a somewhat strange state of affairs, we presume “being” all the while we traverse that trail toward a discovery of “being.” And precisely because the presumption of “being” is so foundational, so near to us, it too creates a sort of fuzziness about the concept. It is as if, then, “being” stands at once so close and at the same time so far off as to be doubly blurred.

Noticing this—that “being” is both assumed and discovered—is not, as I’ve said, doing metaphysics. It is, though, orienting us to it. We need that initial intuition of “being,” however blurred it is. Once we take note that there is something “there” to be blurry, which has until now only remained in the very peripheries of our knowledge, we can begin to focus on it, adjusting the eyes of our mind to the new light (I prefer Aristotle in much, but Plato is irresistible at times).

To Be and What To Be, That is the Distinction

The first rule (2nd axiom) of Boethius’ De Hebdomadibus states, somewhat cryptically: “To be” and “what is” are diverse. As with Parmenides’ statement, this axiom, which seems at first too obscure to be of any use, turns out to be a key distinction indeed. To appreciate it, though, requires at least two kinds of mental moves (what the ancients referred to as abstractions, but that term is now probably more misleading than helpful).

The first mental move takes place in the consideration of the kinds of questions we instinctively ask in the formation of our ideas of particular things. I say instinctively because this is usually not operating at the conscious level, at least at the beginning stages. Take, for example, the idea of tree. In the formation of that idea—admittedly a very complex process, but I leave that to the side here—we instinctively ask “what is a tree?” The process of forming the idea, from the juvenile and imprecise stage to the studied and scientific, consists in giving an account of what it is that makes a tree a tree and thus not any other kind of thing. We list off certain elements or qualities that are essential to making a tree a tree.

Notice, though, what has happened in this process. In considering what a tree is, I do not need to give any consideration to whether a tree is. That is a legitimate question, of course, but quite a separate question. I can consider the concept tree quite apart from considering whether or not a tree exists. This means that I can—or, more accurately, just do—distinguish whatness from thatness. To use the older language, I distinguish essence from existence.

That is the first mental move (abstraction one). Of everything that we conceive we distinguish between what it is (its essence) and that it is (its existence). (To preempt objections: let’s qualify here, of everything we conceive in the created order—though I don’t actually think we need that qualifier).

Having made the distinction, we might now ask whether “being”—the being that we have only hitherto intuited in a blurry glimpse—is essence or existence? In our everyday parlance, we use the term ‘being’ of both. I might say, “that is a very strange looking being there” (I might say that, but probably not as I don’t normally speak so archaically), or “you cannot treat him that way, he is a human being.” In both these cases I am using the term “being” to refer to a kind of thing, its whatness.

I might also say, “Being with you is a great pleasure,” or “she was just being funny.” In these cases the term is clearly not used to refer to a kind of thing. Rather, it is referring more to a kind of thatness. But to see this more clearly, it may help to take an example from another verb—this will illustrate the second mental move (abstraction two).

Act as Actuality

Consider the term “running.” By it, I may refer to someone who is running: Peter is running. But it may also refer to the act of running, better signified by the infinitive “to run.” In this latter case, no agent is specified (neither is time or place specified, hence “infinitive”). With “to run” we are considering the act in itself, not any agent performing the act.

Here, again, we need to be careful with what is meant by “act.” Normally what is meant is something like, “that which some agent does.” When I say running is an act, then, it would normally be taken to mean that running is an action done by some runner (Peter). But, of course, this means that Peter precedes the running and is the cause of the running. Now notice that we are back to thinking about the agent of the act, the doing as it relates to the doer. What we want to think about is the act, not as caused by an agent, but as an act.

There is an older sense of “act.” Put admittedly roughly, an act in this older sense is a completed movement from a potential to its realization. It refers to that completed movement from a “could be” to an “actual.” In the case of running, the act of running, again in the older sense, is not merely the motion of the agent as caused by the agent. It is the realization, or actualization, of the motion. That is, what was merely a potential of running is now, while Peter is running, actualized. The infinitive “to run” removes the runner, time and place, and focuses on the actualization of the motion, the act.

In this second mental move, then, we think about an act, not so much as an action but as an actualization. Hard as that is to wrap the mind around, it is key for gaining clarity on the difference between “being” as existence and “being” as essence. The former is captured better with “to be” and ought to be understood as an act, as in the case of “to run.” “To be” does not point to any particular being, but to actualization itself. It removes all individual things, times and places, etc., and points to actuality itself. And actuality is a completed movement from what was only potential to now being “is”.

And so, we have now moved beyond the realm of beings and into the realm of being. We are no longer considering beings, individuated essences of discrete entities. We have arrived at being as “that which actualizes all potential essences.” That is, “being”—the kind of being studied in metaphysics—is existence, not essence (or, not primarily essence).

This may still seem a dim view of being. But it is surely an improvement on the kind of intuition that led us to both the highest of unities and the presumption of all conceptions. We can at least now say, being is the actuality of all things.

Before moving on to what may further be said of being, we need to take up another puzzle about it. We may say of everything that is, “it is,” but it is quite apparent that not everything that is is in the same way. We’ll take this up in the next post.

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine. He holds a PhD from St. Louis University, a MAHT from Westminster Seminary California. He, his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids live in Southern California.

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