The metaphysics of the ‘IS’: The Esse of Aquinas
This is my attempt to help people better understand Aquinas’ Metaphysics.
We have to begin with the core teaching of his Metaphysics, which is esse. To Aquinas, esse is the ‘IS’ or the existence. It is the most essential facet of a ‘being’ (note that throughout this essay we’ll use the word as a noun). In recognizing the importance of esse, we have to first understand the concept of ‘being’.
Let’s have one example to explain Aquinas’ esse, which is this sentence: The runner is running.
We say that the runner is a being. He is a being because he is a ‘someone’ (but a being can actually be anything in the realm of space and time). To Aquinas, a being constitutes two things: essence and esse.
Let’s first discuss essence because it’s easier to understand.
The essence characterizes the being: (1) as it is; and (2) as opposed to other beings.
Thus, we say that what distinguishes a runner from a singer or a dancer is his action, which is running. In this sense, a runner runs otherwise he would be someone else. Therefore, running is the essence of being a runner.
Now let’s discuss esse, the harder concept.
In the sentence, the runner is running, esse is the ‘IS’ insofar as esse is existence. The esse gives rise to the being as ‘it is’ (essence). But, as Aquinas would say, the intellect cannot understand the ‘IS’ without a reference to a being because it is the latter that justifies the former. Thus, we come to know that there ‘IS a runner’. (Note that by knowing the runner we are grasping its essence and not really the esse. This is the reason why some philosophers regard esse as within essence, which is wrong according to Aquinas)
At this point, we make it clear that we are talking about existence in general, whether in thought (Santa Clause ‘IS’ fat) or in reality (the Eiffel Tower ‘IS’ huge).
Now, what distinguishes Aquinas’ esse from other philosophers’ esse is his understanding of its nature. To him, esse is perfect in itself. The being only possesses esse and acts through it to reveal its essence. Thus, Aquinas asserts the superiority of esse over essence. (This is also the key ingredient to his position on the supremacy of God’s esse, which he deems as the First Cause of all things)
In summary, we say that through esse a being exists. Existence is pertained as an act because ‘to be’ is to exist already. And precisely because the being ‘IS’ (the act of existence) we are able to know ‘what it is’ (essence). Thus, Aquinas would say “Aguire Sequitur Esse” or “Action follows being”. But, we are not saying that the process is sequential but rather simultaneous.
I hope this helped in understanding Aquinas’ esse.
I decided to share this blog with the 'kid' as he does not w ant to open his own blog. This is how I'm becoming a little more worldly. Learning philosophy.