Reading: Essence and Existence
taken from
God, Zen and the Intuition of Being

There is an old pine tree I walk by almost every day. Often I am preoccupied and scarcely see it. Then it's a tree like any other tree. My subliminal naming it "tree" takes the place of any genuine awareness or contact. But some days as I go by it seems to be saying, "Wake up and listen to me. Really look at me, and don't just call me a tree and go on your way." And if I heed this silent message I become aware of this tree as a unique individual. I notice the power of its trunk, and the fissures in its bark. Each branch and needle reaches out. This pine is saying, in its own way, "I am. I am. I am." And if I listen closely to it, this one message has two distinct aspects. The "I" speaks of what it is. It is a tree and not a flower, or a blade of grass. This is what the ancients called essence. The second aspect, its "am", is the fact of its existence. It is. It exists. It stands outside of nothingness and at each moment defies it. The tree exerts and exercises the rich, silent, motionless energy that is existence.

These two words, essence and existence, are the best way to explore the content of the intuition of being. Their surface meanings are easy to grasp. Essence is what a thing is, and existence is that it is or that it exists, and what a thing is is not the same as that it is. There are two distinct attitudes of mind involved, one when we name something and the other when we assert that it exists. The "what" and the "that" form two basic ways in which our mind tries to make sense of the things around us, or put in another way, they are two distinct aspects of things that the mind grasps and tries to come to terms with. (1)

Yet, usually, essence is in the forefront. This is the face things present to us. We distinguish one thing from another and even oppose one thing to another. An elephant is not a carrot, and we don't expect anyone to confuse the two. But we rarely if ever stop and consider the ultimate nature of the whats we are constantly making use of.

What makes an elephant an elephant must be different from what makes a carrot a carrot, or else they would be the same. But what makes a what to be ultimately a what? What makes a what ultimately to be a what cannot be a particular what, or else all whats would be the same, and we know this is not true. In short, what if we asked an admittedly very strange question: what is the whatness of whats, the essence of essences? What makes a what to be a what? It cannot be a particular what, for no particular what or essence can be the foundation of many different essences.

If we seriously ask ourselves about the whatness of whats or the essence of essences we can travel to the brink of the intuition of being by upsetting our facile complacence that says we really know the things around us. And metaphysics is meant to instruct us in these kinds of things, and so we will look at the answer of St. Thomas as Maritain presents it, but just reading the words is no guarantee they will make sense. They are meant to be read in light of the intuition as an explanation of it.

If essences don't contain their own final meaning, the only place left to look for it is in that other fundamental stance towards reality by which we assert that something exists. But this time we have to go beyond the common sense notion of existence applied to each essence as a final boost that brings the pre-existing essence into actual existence.

If essences cannot explain each other, then the explanation must be rich enough to encompass all essences. If we are forced to look to existence for an explanation of essence, then the one thing that existence cannot be is an idea, concept, what, essence or form. In this sense, existence is no-thing. It must possess an ontological richness and density that goes beyond the whole order of essence.

But is it really possible to penetrate beyond the level of essences? If we leave the plateau of essence, don't we, indeed, fall off toward nothingness? Are we finally forced to admit "that existence is an unknowable upon which metaphysics builds without itself attaining to it?" (2) Maritain refuses to stop here. If anything, this kind of perception is but the tiniest taste, or better, the intellectual preparation for the intuition of being itself. Existence is not simply a limit that we asymptotically approach, but it is the most real of all reality. St. Thomas wrote in his Summa Theologicae: "Existence itself is the actuality of all things, even of the forms themselves." (3) The intuition of being is not only a realization of the non-essential nature of ultimate reality, it is a glimpse of the positive abundance and richness of this reality we call existence.

What, then, is the essence of essence? It is a certain capacity to exist. Maritain calls essences "positive capacities of existence" (4) and says: "the very intelligibility of essences is a certain kind of ability to exist." (5) The revolution inaugurated by St. Thomas was the transformation of essence which had been considered the ultimate principle of metaphysics because it indicated the central intelligibility of something. He brought this conception of essence into relationship with a higher principle, which was the act of existence: "...potency (essence, or intelligible structure already achieved in its own line of essence) is completed or actuated by another act of another order which adds absolutely nothing to essence as essence, intelligible structure, or quiddity, yet adds everything to it inasmuch as it posits it extra causas or extra nihil." (6) What is at stake here is a transformation of the whole essentialist perspective. Essence is displaced from the center of the metaphysical stage and the much more mysterious reality of existence takes its place. Essence is a certain capacity to exist. It stands in relationship to existence as potency to act, and essence is the potentiality for a certain degree of existence. Existence is what actualizes these different potentialities so that there are actually existing things. Existence is an act or energy whose richness exceeds the whole order of essence and founds it. It admits being realized in this and that way because it exceeds every particular manifestation. "Existence is perfection par excellence, and as it were the seal of every other perfection... Doubtless of itself it says only positing outside of nothing, but it is the positing outside of nothing of this or that." (7) The intuition of being is a perception of the transessential amplitude of existence in relationship to essence. What existence posits is not an accidental quality added to a somehow pre-existing essence. Essences do not exist in themselves. They do not have any actuality. They only exist in relationship to existence as potentialities for existence. The ultimate root of their intelligibility lies not in themselves but in what Maritain called the superintelligibility of existence.

Up to The Metaphysics of St. Thomas in one easy but not simple lesson
Back to God, Zen and the Intuition of Being