‘Essence’ and God



In Plato’s ontology there is an indissoluble linking together of the notions of being, self-identity, intelligibility, and immutability.1 Being — Plato’s ουσία — is understood to mean stability of essence or intelligible form: to be really is to be permanently self-identical.2 The platitudinous quality of this ancient (and valid) interpretation may well dim one’s eyes to its present relevance. For Augustine, as a Christian thinker, could not have employed this notion of being without, as it were, existentializing it. For God said in effect not that He is “essence,” but that He is esse (Exodus 3 : 14); and nothing is more “existential” than the Christian God and the Christian universe. It is true that Augustine largely retains a Platonist terminology, even calling God the “supreme essence” (summa essentia).3 And who denies his emphasis upon immutability and self-identity as definitive marks of “true being”?4) Nevertheless, since Augustine’s “essence” is the existent, the “supreme essence” is the supremely existent, viz., God. Evidently this is tantamount to affirming what the Thomists call the identity in God of “essence” and “existence.” No point in Augustine’s metaphysics is more strongly stressed than this: God is “is”: est [Deus] est. That is why He is immutable and possesses the other transcendental perfections as well: “Cum enim Deus summa essentia sit, hoc est summe sit, et ideo immutabilis sit …”5 In other words, the supreme “essence” is the supreme act of being, and that is why It is immutable.


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  1. 1.
    E.g., see Timaeus, 27 D; Sophist, 249 A; Phaedo, 78 D; cf. R. Demos, The Philosophy of Plato (New York: Scribner, 1939), p. 160; A. E. Taylor, Plato (London: Archibald Constable and Co., Ltd., 1908).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Phaedo, 78 D; see above, Chapter IV, p. 26.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    E.g., in The City of God, XII, 2 (PL 41, 350).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See above, Chapters II and V.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The City of God, XII, 2 (PL 41, 350).Google Scholar
  6. 1.
    “Quae cum ita sint, Deus qui summe est, atque ob hoc ab illo facta est omnis essentia, quae non summe est (quia neque illi aequalis esse deberet, quae de nihilo facta esset); neque ullo modo esse posset, si ab illo facta non esset.” The City of God, XII, 5 (PL 41, 353).Google Scholar
  7. 2.
    The Trinity, III, 9.16 (PL 42, 970); On Christian Doctrine, I, 32 (PL 34, 32); On the Manichean Way of Life, I (PL 32, 1335) et alibi passim. See above, Chapter III, p. 20.Google Scholar
  8. 3.
    “Nam si nulla essentia in quantum essentia est, aliquid habet contrarium, multo minus habet contrarium prima ilia essentia, quae dicitur Veritas, in quantum essentia est. Primum autem verum est. Omnis enim essentia non ob aliud essentia est, nisi quia est. Esse autem non habet contrarium nisi non esse: unde nihil est essentiae contrarium. Nullo modo igitur res ulla esse potest contraria illi substantiae, quae maxime ac primitus est.” On the Immortality of the Soul, XII, 19 (PL 32, 1031); italics added.Google Scholar
  9. 4.
    “Est igitur Deus suum esse …” Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, 3.4; “in Deo non est aliud essentia … quam suum esse.” Summa Contra Gentiles, I, cap. 22.Google Scholar
  10. 1.
    In a contrary sense, see E. Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, tr. Shook (New York: Random House, 1956), p. 93; French text in Le thomisme, 5th ed. (Paris: Vrin, 1944), p. 136.Google Scholar
  11. 2.
    On the origin of technical expressions for “a being” (ens), “essence,” and “existence,” see E. Gilson, “Notes sur le Vocabulaire de l’être,” Mediaeval Studies, VIII (1946), pp. 150-158; see also J. Owens, C. Ss. R., The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, 2nd printing (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1957), PP. 66-68.Google Scholar
  12. 3.
    E.g., Commentary on Psalm CXXXIV, 4 (PL 37, 1741). Despite the difficulty of finding this precise meaning in the letter of the Hebrew text, the fact remains that the metaphysical conclusion that God is subsistent esse coincides with the Christian conception of Him as the Supreme Being. On this problem of textual exegesis, see G. Kittel, Bible Key Words, Eng. trans (New York, 1958), II, 63, n. 4; and M. Bourke, “Yahweh, The Divine Name,” The Bridge, vol. III (Newark, 1958), pp. 271-287.Google Scholar
  13. 4.
    Augustine’s wrestling with it is expressed most fully and poignantly perhaps in his Commentary on St. John’s Gospel, XXVIII, 8.8-10 (PL 35, 1655-57).Google Scholar
  14. 1.
    E. Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1952), p. 206.Google Scholar
  15. 2.
    E. Gilson, op. cit., p. 31. (See above, Chapter I, p. 5.)Google Scholar
  16. 3.
  17. 2.
    “… Quid sit ipsum esse, dicat cordi, intus dicat, intus loquatur; homo interior audiat, mens capiat vere esse: est enim semper eodem modo esse … res enim quaelibet, prorsus qualicumque excellentia, si mutabilis est, non vere est; non enim est ibi verum esse, ubi est et non esse.” On St. John’s Gospel, XXXVIII, 8.10 (PL 35, 1680); italics added; “… IIIe enim summe ac primitus est, qui omnino incommutabilis est, et qui plenissime dicere potuit: “Ego sum qui sum”; et, “Dices eis, Qui est, misit me ad vos” (Exodus 3: 14). On Christian Doctrine, I, 32 (PL 34, 32).Google Scholar

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© Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Netherlands 1965

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Villanova UniversityUSA

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