Essence Matters

By Dan Snyder

A dusty concept now set aside by productive people, the notion of essence and the possibility of the essential appears extra to the tasks of living and enjoying, or the pursuit of happiness. Truly, this old concept may stand in the way of immediate gratification.

An idea that the early Greeks who concerned themselves with the ‘ontos’ or the world of beings had been musing upon, eventually to be brought forward and described by Aristotle in order to arrest Plato’s seemingly endless progress rolling into the meaning of the term ‘good’, essence provides a starting place. The stipulation of this additional concept, essence, makes us separate the ‘essence’ of goodness from the application of the concept when talking about good actions, good feelings, good times or even a good pizza. The idea was that something in its essence was completely comprehended. This does not mean, though, that things are completely comprehensible, though they do indeed possess an essence. Here is where we get exasperated.  What good is an ‘essence’ (the essential) if we can’t totally grasp it? Think of the essence of a Grandmother, or of a day at the beach, or simply (ha!) of man.

When we approach this problem directly, we can’t tell if man is an animal who is particularly reasonable, or if he is a god who is particularly insane.  We do know, however, the difference between an ape and an angel—intuitively. It is this role of intuition that embarrasses the spirit of our age. Bertrand Russell, in A History of Western Philosophy, confuses the reality and utility of essences as an old idea of Aristotle’s that has no content (commenting on the empty ‘essence’ of essence), and proclaims (needlessly, I think, given the first assertion) that he has no use for the idea. To Russell, and all materialists, essences make no sense since they smack of the question “why?” Heraclitus would say, “Thus the dog also barks at what he doesn’t understand.”

An essence can be understood as a root or wellspring of being for any given instance of a thing. As a root, we can talk of a ‘radical’ basis. The realization of the history of the word ‘radical’ leads us to the Latin ‘radix’.  Radix to Radical, the history of usage reveals the intuitive fascination with essence that illustrates the survival of a pointy-headed Greek idea through the intervening years of Roman pragmatism. Radicals are problematic. Now we are on the threshold of something strange.

Radicalization in current rhetoric is a term applied to the process whereby a harmless person becomes a dangerous terrorist. It appears that pursuing a root, or essence, renders one unfit for society. I wonder what sort of plant man is that he has such strange roots. In order to think of this, I must concern myself with essences. In this case, what is the root, or essence of man? In which direction does the center lie?  Should our thought move to the observable things, as in sociology, or toward the axiomatic, as in philosophy? Apparently, the modern age is engaged in a willful forgetfulness, whistling past the graveyard of ghostly but apprehensible essences, substituting ‘identities,’ leaves instead of roots, that seasonally flourish and die along with their fashionableness.

Ignorance of the essential leads to inadvertent trivialization.  The unrooted, inconsequential and temporary is the realm of things non-essential.  But what is the essence or root of Man? “Know thyself…”

Consider man to be an amphibian. He resides in the stars or surges from the muck, in either context appearing essentially different. As an animal, he is different because he is rational.  As an eternal, he is different because he is aware of and contingent in time. When he regards himself as a god or ignores his own incomprehensibility, he devours his fellows. When he sees himself in the dust, he lifts others to the heavens. Rootedness depends on essential understanding, and much of man’s essence depends on what he believes, either by choice or by faith. Radicalization is the path of authentic life, horrifying or beatific. Ignore essence by blinding yourself to conscience and intuition, and you will surely gravitate to the roots of the essential animal who regards himself as a god.

Practically, this means that the enlightenment habit of empiricism and cult of objectivity must be leavened. The serious reengagement with the unknowable but perceptible objects of intuition must be cultivated in students. This is not to be confused with asserting principles of human dignity, or marching for social justice, activities that illustrate the need to fill the hollowness of materialism with positive assertions. Consider that we are in the habit of dividing the study of logic into formal and informal categories. This abdication of the realm of apprehension to the category of informality is misleading and evidence of capitulation to the assertions of those who believe that man is the measure of all things, the boast that all things can be experienced comprehensibly. This is inadvertent, but true. Material logic, the study of the coincidence of what can be said with the realm of what is, reminds us of Adam’s naming of the beasts in Eden.  This is a radical activity, stretching toward the incomprehensible but describable essences that assert the reality of creation, whose purposes are veiled but nonetheless present.

Φύσἰϛ κρύπεσθαἰ φἰλεἰ  (nature likes to be hidden)

“Things keep their secrets”  —Heraclitus.

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