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Tuesday, February 02, 2021


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I don't see how it's possible that existence and essence can ever be identical, as it does not seem that they are commensurate with one another.
1. Existence is fully actual for each individual thing. It cannot help but be itself. God is always God and cannot choose otherwise, and I cannot choose to not be myself either.
2. Essence, taken as a whole and unified subject, can be either actual or potential.
3. Existence has absolute unity, whereas with essence there is a decline from that unity.
4. Essence and existence cannot thus be identical for any individual.

If we are to investigate the questions raised by essence and existence, they have to be investigated as separate units, each whole unto themselves.
If existence and essence are the same, even in one instance, then we cannot investigate them as such whole units, and the entire inquiry falls apart as they must both be one and not one at the same time. If my argument holds, then essence is a decline in unity and so depends on existence and is not therefore commensurate with it.

Great article Dr. Vallicella, this is a question I have pondered as well. I agree with what you're saying, but I have a small question. You say that "In this respect, God is like a Platonic Form in which all else participates...", and I know that Thomists would also agree that we only have our individual acts of existence by some way of participation in the Divine act of Being (and that you cited Aquinas is no coincidence here). My question is this: How is "participation" understood? It seems to me, at face value, to imply some kind of pantheism in which all existing things are just limited instances of the divine essence. How would you respond to this? Thanks!


Excellent question which introduces the great problem of the One and the Many. God is Existence itself in its infinite plenitude. Now we want to avoid an absolute monism like that of Advaita Vedanta, which dismisses plurality as maya (illusion), but also a pantheism like that of Spinoza according to which creatures are accidents of the divine substance. But we also want to avoid the opposite extreme of radical ontological pluralism according to which Being exhausts itself in a pure manifold or manyness without intrinsic unity.

We want to accommodate the insight that, while there are many existents, they have Existence in common. So we could say that the many finite existents share in, or participate in, Existence which itself exists as the Paradigm Existent (and is in this sense like a Platonic Form). Essence would then be the limiting principle that 'contracts' Existence in its plenitude down to individual finite existents without of course diminishing that plenitude.

Analogy: a number of people standing in and sharing the sunlight, each with his own bit of solar illumination, which does not diminish the Sun in the least. Disanalogy: a number of people eating and sharing a pizza, which sharing destroys the pizza.

Does this avoid pantheism? Well, on the scheme I am sketching, each finite being has its own existence and its own (really distinct) essence. So each finite being differs in its existence numerically from every other one, and each from Existence itself (God). If Socrates differs in his existence from God, then pantheism is avoided.

What do you think, Jacob?

See W. Norris Clarke, The One and the Many, U of Notre Dame Press, 2001, Chapter Five.

Dr. Vallicella,

Thank you for the reply. If "participation" is just to denote the fact that existents have Existence in common, then I find that perfectly acceptable. Your Sun analogy I find extremely helpful. Each person in the sunlight has light on them, and the light on each person is particular to each person similarly to the way that "John Doe" and "Jane Doe" share humanity, such that John doesn't have *Jane's* humanity. Furthermore, even though each person shares in the sunlight and has light particular to them, the Sun itself does not lose light and is not changed or diminshed at all. I think the last part about the fact that there is no change in the Sun might be useful in terms of responding to objections against an immutable and simple God (changing knowledge, modal collapse, the usual). And thank you for the reference to Clarke, I'll check it out!


I'm very confused as to your 3-point argument, as it doesn't seem valid and 3 seems to be the only one which I think is true. For 1, if all you mean by "Existence is fully actual for each individual thing" is just that God must be God and I must be me, then that's just the necessity of self-identity, but I sincerely have no clue how the words comprising the sentence "Existence is fully actual for each individual thing" could ever mean "everything is necessarily self-identical," as these are very clearly different sentences. Perhaps I'm not being charitable in interpretation.

2 is quite vague. If by "essence" you mean "the kind of thing that the subject is," then it can't be taken as a whole and unified subject, since a whole and unified subject is a composite of essence and existence, unless it is God. Unless by "essence" you mean the supposit, then sure, but then the latter half of the premise is false, since a unified subject is necessarily an actual one. A unified subject which is potential is just a 'potentially' unified subject, so it is not 'actually' unified.

3. I agree here that essence is a principle of potency/limitation in a thing, but when the Thomist (for example) says that God's essence is identical to His existence, it means that what limits God's existence just is His existence. But His existence is Existence itself, so His existence is limited by Existence. That means Existence is self-limiting, and self-containing. Existence must be self-limiting and self-containing because the only other option is for Existence to be limited/contained by something beyond Existence, but nothing is beyond Existence. Nothing can't do anything! So things which have really distinct essences and existences have their existences limited by something really different than their existence (their essence), whereas God's existence isn't limited by anything other than His existence.

An alternative way to think about it is that if God's essence and existence are identical and He is only limited by Existence, then He is really just unlimited, since there is nothing beyond Him to limit Him. Now we don't have to think of essence as a limiting prinicple as your premise 3 says, we could just say that essence is the quiddity of the thing or "what it is." Now to say that God's essence and existence are identical is just to say "what God is is identical to that God is." The essences which serve as limiting principles are those which God knows in virtue of knowing Himself as infinite and conceptually dividing Himself into an infinite number of finite things. Some of these finite divisions of Himself include essences, and so when He creates ex nihilo He gives existence to some of these finite essences, which accounts for the real distinction between a composite thing's essence and existence. At least, this is my theory on how Thomistic metaphysics works.

Jacob wrote,

>> If "participation" is just to denote the fact that existents have Existence in common, then I find that perfectly acceptable.<<

That is not what I am saying. Participation is one explication of the idea that existents have Existence in common among several. That existents have Existence in common will be accepted by many. Some will say that Existence is a concept that existents fall under; others that existence is a property that existents instantiate; still other that Existence is a set of which existents are members. Each of these theories is worthless as I could easily show.

Another reference to help you understand Thomist particupation: F. van Steenberghen, *Ontology,* Nauwelaerts, 1970.


I really should have been clearer with premise 1. If we can identify essence, then essence has an identity. If each things identity actually is its identity, then essence actually is essence. If essence is itself, it cannot in any sense also be existence. It also follows that if essence does not have an identity, it does not exist.

So far as it goes for your third point, if there is no distinction in God between His essence and His existence, then God Himself cannot distinguish between them as they are not apart from Him as the First Thing. As the First Thing, God cannot find the distinction between them outside of Himself, since He is first. So the distinction can never be made. Here, Thomist appeals to God's omnipotence cannot even get off of the ground, because omnipotence requires that such a distinction be possible so that God can create that which He is not.

Hi Dr. Vallicella,

Is the real distinction the only possible way to account for contingent existence? For example, why can't Socrates contingently exist because there are or can be things that can cause him to exist or to cease existing? This is why abstract objects exist necessarily—not because their natures are identical to their existences, but because nothing can cause them to exist or to cease existing.

There are also difficult problems with the real distinction. Either the real distinction applies to Socrates's existence or not. If it does, then we're off on a vicious regress. Your response to this is to appeal to the distinction between derivative and underivative existence, but this doesn't work. It doesn't work because Socrates's existence is presumably a part of him, and so if his existence itself has a distinct essence and existence, these will also be part of him. This means the vicious regress, assuming it terminates at all, terminates inside Socrates.

On the other hand, if the real distinction doesn't apply to Socrates's existence, then since his existence isn't God, then it's false that the only exception to the real distinction is God. This also raises the question of why the real distinction fails to apply to Socrates's existence but not Socrates himself.

Another problem with the real distinction is this: None of Socrates's parts exist prior to his existence. Given that Socrates's essence is part of him, his essence is posterior to his existence. If so, then what can his essence add to his existence? To exist at all is to exist in a specific way, and so it seems essence can do no metaphysical work here, being explanatorily "too late" so to speak.

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