God, Zen and the Intuition of Being

Appendix I: Essence and Existence


The rediscovery of the centrality of esse in the works of St. Thomas was paradoxically a brilliant effort of finding what was clearly and explicitly present in his writings. The 20th century metaphysical pioneers made use of texts such as the following: (1)

"Esse est inter omnia perfectissimum, quod ex hoc patet, quia actus est semper perfectior potentia. Quaelibet autem forma signata non intelligitur in actu nisi per hoc quod esse ponitur… Unde patet quod hoc quod dico "esse" est actualitas omnium actuum et propter hoc est perfectio omnium perfectionum ... Unde non sic determinatur esse per aliud sicut potentia per actum, sed magis, sicut actus per potentiam." (De Pot., q. VII, a. 2, ad 9um. )

"Esse est actualitas omnis formae vel naturae: non enim bonitas vel humanitas significatur in actu, nisi prout significamus eam esse. Oportet igitur quod ipsum esse comparetur ad essentiam, quae est aliud ab ipso, sicut actus ad potentiam." (Summ. theol. Ia, q. 111, a. 4.)

"Ipsum esse est perfectissimum omnium; comparatur enim ad omnia ut actus; nihil enim habet actualitatem nisi in quantum est; unde ipsum esse est actualitas omnium rerum et etiam ipsarum formarum. Unde non comparatur ad alia sicut recipiens ad receptum, sed magis sicut receptum ad recipiens." (Ib., q. IV, a. 1, ad 3 um.)

"Nihil enim est formalius aut simplicius quam esse." (Cont. Gent., I, c. XXIII. Summ. theol. Ia, q. VIII, a. 1.)

"Esse autem est illud quod est magis intimum cuilibet, et quod profundius omnibus inest, cum sit formale respectu omnium quae in re sunt." (Summ. theol., Ia, q. VIII, a. 1.)

"Sicut autem ipsum esse est actualitas quaedam essentiae, ita operari est actualitas operativae potentiae. Secundum enim hoc utrumque eorum est in actu: essentia quidem secundum esse, potentia vero secundum operari." (De Spir. Creat. a. II.)

"Ipsum esse est actus ultimus quo participabilis est ab omnibus, ipsum autem nihil participat." (De Anima, a. 6, ad 2.)

So it is clear St. Thomas is not deliberately trying to hide his central metaphysical insight. But reading is not seeing. The history of Thomistic metaphysics is filled with examples of how this existentialism, or primacy of the role of esse, has slid into various forms of essentialism. Happily, there were notable exceptions, men who struggled against this tide of essentialism. One such powerful metaphysician was Dominic Banez (1528-1604). In addition to being a noted philosopher and theologian, he was for a time the spiritual guide of St. Teresa of Avila. In commenting on St. Thomas and the relationship between essence and existence, he says:

"...essential principles are a material cause of esse since they themselves can receive the act of existing through which they are first actuated. Indeed, these essential principles are understood only to the extent that they are ordered to esse, just as transparency is a cause of light in the sense that it makes the reception of light possible. And although esse itself, as received in an essence composed of essential principles, is specified by them, still it (esse) receives no perfection from such a specification. Rather esse is constricted and brought down to being of a certain kind, for existence as a man or as an angel is not absolute and unqualified perfection. Now this is exactly what St. Thomas has often insistently proclaimed, although Thomists will not listen: namely, that esse is the actuality of every form or nature." (2)

The insights of men like Banez are islands in a tide of less profound insight. But in the 20th century Thomism found, not one isolated champion, but a group of men who reached this same central insight from different directions. Illustrative of them is Joseph de Finance in his Etre et Agir, Dans la Philosophie de Saint Thomas. In it he writes:

"The originality of St. Thomas is, according to us, to have interpreted the distinction between essence and esse by the theory of participation, and of act and potency enlarged to proportions unsuspected by Aristotle… The "real distinction," the doctrine of participation, with the theory of act and its limit, appear more and more bathed in the same light, and so complete is the intellectual satisfaction that they give to St. Thomas, so clear is the awareness he takes from their fecundity, that he does not trouble himself to prove them by laborious reasonings. But in the lucid sphere where his thought evolves, some phrases, which from the outside, seem charged with paralogisms, allow the hidden treasure of this intuition to be discovered."

The Thomistic renaissance depended on seeing into these terse but brilliantly polished phrases of St. Thomas which are filled with the light of the intuition of being. It meant going beyond the surface acceptance of these metaphysical gems coated, as it were, with the dust of long familiarity, and allowing them to shine with all their original splendor.

In the years following this period of metaphysical creativity surrounding World War II, there have been other attempts to clarify and purify the language of the relationship between essence and existence. One particularly interesting one is the work of William Carlo, The Ultimate Reducibility of Essence to Existence. (3)

"Essence is not something extrinsic to existence which limits and determines it in the way that a pitcher shapes its recipient liquid, but essence is rather the place where existence stops. There is nothing in water which is not water. There is nothing in an existent which is not existence. Essence is the intrinsic limitation of esse, the crystallization of existence, bordered by nothingness." (4)

He likens existence to a stream rushing down a mountainside which is suddenly frozen and then chopped into pieces. There is nothing there but the frozen water, which is distinguished by the place where it stops and the marks of the ax.

"This is what we mean when we say that essence is the intrinsic limitation of existence. It is not that which limits esse, it is the limitation of esse; it is not that which receives, determines and specifies esse, it is the very specification itself of existence." (5)

Carlo stresses how essence cannot be conceived as something in itself; "…it is the intrinsic limitation of esse, the point at which existence stops, bordered by nothingness..." (6) But this is not a completely negative view of essence.

"Essence is not a positive being apart from the existence of which it is the limitation, but it is definitely a positive principle of philosophy when understood as the intrinsic limitation of esse. Its function can be designated by affirmative terms, contraction, refraction, channeling of perfection, specification, determination." (7)

The Thomists have a difficult problem maintaining the insights that are an integral part of their tradition, and it is no easier for other Western philosophical traditions to come to grips with the mystery of existence. And this is true even when their concrete experiences lead them to its very threshold. We have already seen how Maritain made use of some of these concrete approaches as potential paths to the intuition of being, but it is also possible to arrive at the very threshold of this intuition and somehow fail to grasp it. Sartre, for example, in La nausée has a powerful scene where Eleutherius, seated on a bench in the public garden, sees the root of a chestnut tree.

"I forgot that it was a root. The words were gone… It took my breath away. Never, before these last few days, did I have a presentiment of what "to exist" meant… Ordinarily existence conceals itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is ourselves, one cannot say two words without speaking of it, and in the end it is untouched… If someone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered in good faith that it was nothing, barely an empty form which came to be added to things from outside, without changing anything in their nature. And then, behold, all at once, it was there, it was as clear as day: existence had suddenly come to light. It had lost its inoffensive air of an abstract category: it was the very stuff of things, this root was moulded in existence. Or rather, the root, the garden trellis, the bench, the thin grass of the lawn, all that had disappeared; the diversity of things, their individuality, was only an appearance, a gloss. This gloss had melted; there remained monstrous and soft masses in confusion - naked with a dreadful and obscene nudity." (8)

Instead of the intuition of being leading to the existence of God, God Who is existence Himself, it is aborted and fails to take wing. Maritain, who cites this passage in his Moral Philosophy, comments:

"A strangely ambivalent intuition of being, authentic and authentically metaphysical in its basis, and turning immediately to the monstrous, to the intolerable, in disgust even more than in fear, under the lamp of atheism." (9)

And what allows one experience to open up to the intuition of being while another fails? Cannot our inner, and not necessarily reflexively conscious, moral and religious aspirations play a primordial role?


  1. These texts are taken from the notes of de Finance's Etre et Agir. Other incisive texts can be found in Fabro and Gilson.
  2. The Primacy of Existence in Thomas Aquinas, p. 25. Another and earlier place to look for this kind of insight might be in the treatise on De Esse et Essentia attributed to Thomas Sutton around the end of the 13th century. See Senko, "Un Traité Inconnu."
  3. See Phelan's The Being of Creatures and the commentaries by Carlo and Norris.
  4. The Ultimate Reducibility… p. 103-4.
  5. Ibid., p. 104.
  6. Ibid., p. 103.
  7. Ibid., p. 139.
  8. As cited in Maritain's Moral Philosophy, p. 162-163.
  9. Ibid., p. 374.



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Appendix II