DE&E: Chapter 3:2

Thomas continues describing the essence of a thing. There’s a lot packed into this short paragraph:

The nature, however, or the essence thus understood can be considered in two ways.

OK; we’ll take them in turn.

First, we can consider it according to its proper notion, and this is to consider it absolutely. In this way, nothing is true of the essence except what pertains to it absolutely: thus everything else that may be attributed to it will be attributed falsely. For example, to man, in that which he is a man, pertains animal and rational and the other things that fall in his definition; white or black or whatever else of this kind that is not in the notion of humanity does not pertain to man in that which he is a man.

In other words, Socrates is a man; and when we say that we say that he is a rational animal, and that he is a being composed of matter and the form of humanity. We do not address his color, wisdom, ethnicity, cleanliness, location, or what have you.

This is not a surprise; these things are clearly accidents. So why bring it up here?

Hence, if it is asked whether this nature, considered in this way, can be said to be one or many, we should concede neither alternative, for both are beyond the concept of humanity, and either may befall the conception of man. If plurality were in the concept of this nature, it could never be one, but nevertheless it is one as it exists in Socrates. Similarly, if unity were in the notion of this nature, then it would be one and the same in Socrates and Plato, and it could not be made many in the many individuals.

Aha! If the essence were many, then it can’t be one; and yet it is one in Socrates. Thus, Thomas avoids nominalism. But if the essence were a unity, then it would be one in the same in Socrates, Plato, me, you, and Thomas himself, and we would all be one Man, rather than many men. Thus, Thomas avoids Platonic idealism. I suspect he got this example from Aristotle; and I wonder if it tickled Aristotle to use Plato in this context.

Instead, quantity evidently isn’t a concept that applies to essences.

OK, that was the first sense; what’s the second?

Second, we can also consider the existence the essence has in this thing or in that: in this way something can be predicated of the essence accidentally by reason of what the essence is in, as when we say that man is white because Socrates is white, although this does not pertain to man in that which he is a man.

So anything that can be predicated of this man can be predicated of Man in general. I fancy what he’s talking about here is the extension of the term man: in this sense, Man consists of all men with all of their accidents.

3 Responses to “DE&E: Chapter 3:2”

  1. Your first comment about Socrates is out of place. Thomas is considering essence in the absolute sense, to which pertains animal and rational and whatever is included in them, like animate, body, etc, beyond any individual.

    Accidental predication can be done of the essence as it exists in the particular. It is accidentally true to say, “man is white” because this man is white. But it is not true to say that of the essence absolutely considered, even in an accidental way, because those considerations are beyond the absolute essence – everything not pertaining to it absolutely is denied.

    But if we’re talking about the essence in the absolute sense, then no accidental predication is true.

  2. Will says:

    Let me be clear on this: my example involving Socrates is out of place because the discussion has no place for individuals, is that it? We’re talking about essence in its absolute sense, not about individuals.

    I think I understood that, actually, though the example was flawed; I don’t yet see how talking about Socrates led me astray.

    The part that’s confusing me, then, is the “man is white” part. If it’s (accidentally) true to say that, then it’s equally true to say “man is black”, “man is brown”, and so forth, because some individual men are black and brown. OK; but why not say “Some men are white”, or “Man can be white”? “Man is white” may be true in a sense, but it strikes me as a misleading sense.

  3. Correct, when discussing the essence in the absolute sense, the individual is irrelevant. That’s all I meant, not that it was wrong or anything, just wrongly placed.

    “Man is white” IS true in a sense – in what sense? accidentally, which is WHY it strikes you as misleading – in fact, this is exactly what the Sophists use to argue things. This goes back to the predicables – a thing can be predicated of another accidentally, or properly (always but not essentially), or essentially (always and only), which itself can be either generically or specifically.

    The key is to realize IN WHAT WAY this is true, and that is accidentally only.