Tunnel Vision

There are times when I really feel like the proverbial ten blind men studying the elephant. I focus on one thing, and miss how it is connected to everything else, or focus on one sense of a word and miss the richness inherent in it. Today, though, a number of things came together, and my thanks are due to Jacques Maritain’s Introduction to Philosophy, which was the proximate cause.

I’ve spent a great deal of time recently focussed on the notion of essence, and in particular the essence of a substance, and on essence as that which the intellect apprehends. Socrates is a man; that is his essence, and when I contemplate Socrates, “man” is what I apprehend.

This is all true, but the full picture is ever so much richer than that. Let us contemplate, not Socrates, but someone known personally to me. My father, for example. You can contemplate your father. When I contemplate my father, what do I apprehend?

Here’s the first thing I’ve been ignoring. As intelligible, my intellect apprehends essence; but as existing, my intellect apprehends substance. So the first thing, really, that I apprehend when I see my father is my father as a substance, something that exists in itself. He has identity. He is a real thing, a person, he has his own identity that continues through time. And then, as intelligible, I apprehend his essence, that he is a man.

But I know much more about my father than that. If that were all I could apprehend, there’d be no reason to honor my father over any random man in the street. But substance isn’t all that exists, and it isn’t the only thing that has essence.

In addition to his substance, my father also has many accidents, beings that exist within him, that exist with the support of his substance. That’s where the “sub” in “substance” comes from: substance stands under the accidents and supports him. Thus, my father is smart, strong, skilled, possessed of various experiences and relationships including that of being my father; these are accidents, but they are significant accidents. In point of fact, most of what makes my dad important to me are these accidents. Though they are not substances, my intellect can apprehend them as beings existing in the substance is my father. And these beings have essences; our relationship as father and son, for example, is a being in the genus of relation.

I can and do apprehend a vast constellation of beings and essences when I contemplate that single substance, my father. What a great and glorious thing that is!

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