Existence, Essence, and the One and the Many

The problem of the one and the many, writes Norris Clarke, “is the ultimate paradox of being and the deepest and the most fundamental problem of all metaphysics, of every intellectual effort to achieve a total, unified vision of all reality” (The One and the Many, p. 72). Perhaps I may have once known this back in my undergraduate days, when I took a few courses on ancient Greek philosophy; but all of that has been long forgotten. Not surprisingly, there­fore, my initial response to the above quote is, what problem? Over the past three millennia, metaphysicians have been staying awake until the wee hours of the morning obsessing over this conundrum, yet I haven’t given it a moment’s thought in my entire life. Plato I’m not.

When we expand our intellectual horizons to apprehend the whole of reality, we are con­fronted with a vast multitude of beings. We note their similarities and dissimilarities. On the one hand, every being is similar to every other being by virtue of their being. Each is real. Each claims our attention by its sheer existing. On the other hand, each is dissimilar. Each is this one as opposed to that one. A is, B is, C is; but A is not B, B is not C, C is not A. The is is the presupposition of the not. A, B, and C cannot be compared except on the basis of a shared reality. “Total diversities,” Clarke comments, “with nothing whatsoever in common between them, are incomparable, in fact unthinkable” (p. 74). He suggests we spend a few minutes mulling over this simple but basic metaphysical principle. Just try to imagine a universe populated by beings that are completely different. In fact we cannot. To apprehend beings is to apprehend the primacy of existence itself. We apprehend the many and are immediately drawn to the one.

Clarke believes that the most compelling and illuminating solution to the problem of the one and the many was articulated by St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century: finite beings participate in the infinite activity of existing (esse). Thomas writes:

Every perfection of any being whatsoever belongs to it according to its act of existence (suum esse). For no perfection would belong to a man from his wisdom unless he actually is wise, and so of all other attributes. Therefore according to the mode in which a thing has existence is its mode of perfection; for according as the act of existence of a thing is contracted to some particular mode of perfection, either greater or lesser, it is said to be more or less perfect. Now if there is something to which belongs the total power of being (tota virtus essendi), no perfection that belongs to anything whatever can be lacking to it. And so God, who is identical with his own act of existence … possesses his act of existence according to the total power of existence itself. Therefore he can lack no perfection that belongs to any being whatever. (Cont. Gent. I.28)

Being itself is offered to creatures to be participated in before all the other participations of God. Whatever perfection a creature may have, it receives through a participation in God, who is, as it were, offered to all beings that they may participate in him; but he is first participated in with regard to Being itself [ipsum esse] prior to any other perfection: thus Being itself per se is more ancient, that is, more primary and noble than Life itself. (De div. nom. VI.i.633)

The bond of unity in which all beings share is the activity of existing, and this existing derives from the ultimate source of reality, Ipsum Esse Subsistens—the One who simply is his activity of existing, with no limiting essence.

I am, you are, it is—that something is expresses what is most fundamental in our experience of the world. Beings stand out from nothingness by their existing. Clarke’s metaphysical vision invites us to move from the brute fact of existence, as an attribute shared by all beings, to the inner act that grounds it. “This inner act of existence,” he explains, “is not reducible to an essence or mode of being, a what, nor a mere static state, but a dynamic act of presence that makes any essence or nature to be real, to present itself actively to other real beings” (pp. 79-80). To be is a verb, not a noun. Whereas most Western philosophers have focused their attention on the essences of things (what things are), those within the Thomistic tradition have focused on the existential action by which things present themselves to the world.

The solution to the one and the many is beginning to peek through: in their multiplicity and diver­sity, beings are finite participations in the infinite pleni­tude. “This participation,” explains Clarke, “is mediated through the metaphysical composi­tion of esse, the act of existence, and essence as particular limiting mode—a composition found in all beings save one, the Infinite Source, who alone possesses this perfection in unlimited intensive plenitude as pure Subsistent Act of Existence” (Explorations in Metaphysics, pp. 12-13). Clarke thus advances a Platonic structure of ontological participation, modified by the metaphysical Thomistic twist. Think of essence as the principle that finitizes and restricts the unlimited fullness of Being. Essence holds onto and shapes the intensive energy of existing (virtus essendi). It may thus be understood as a receptive and determina­tive capacity that allows so much be-ing but no more, or to speak a bit more metaphorically, “the restrictive channel along which flows and expresses itself the encapsulated energy of the act of existence” (One & Many, p. 151). But be sure not to think of it as a preexisting con­tainer into which being is poured. Essence without an act of existence would be zilch; an act of existence without a defining essence would be nothing in particular (… or the infinite fullness of Being). Esse and essentia are joined together simultaneously to form particular realities—there can’t be one without the other. Nor should we think of the creaturely act of existing as identical to the divine act of existing:

The act of existence (best understood as the “activity of existing”) which is participated in diversely by many different essences is not to be understood crudely as the one infinite act of existence of God himself, which is somehow divided up among creatures like pieces of a pie. God has no pieces nor can he lose his infinite fullness by created more beings. Each particular act of existence is a new one, fresh out of the oven, so to speak, which exists only as correlated with its own particular limiting essence, not first in an unlimited state, than afterwards limited. We are not “parts” of God. But each one is limited, not because it is an act of existence, but because it is correlated with its own limiting essence. Yet all are analogously similar, because they all participate in the common perfection of existence as active presence. They all share in an objective similarity that cannot be denied and needs the same term to express it: real. (pp. 85-86)

The one and the many—so far we have been looking at the problem from the point of view of finite beings. Is it clear to you how Clarke’s proposal purportedly solves it? What if we were to look at the metaphysical conundrum from the point of view of the transcendent Creator?

Thus the best way to think the whole universe of real beings as both one and many is from the point of view of God, the infinite fullness of pure unlimited existence, and the one ultimate Source of all being, as actively intending and willing to share, to communicate, his own fullness of being with many other limited beings, each according to its own limited degree or capacity (essence), each corresponding to a distinct idea or plan in the mind of God for sharing his own unitary fullness with many. The unity of existence in the many participants derives from the unitary fullness of the Source and the single idea, intention, will to communicate this to many according to different modes or manners of being. (p. 87)

The one who is One is primary; the many, secondary and derivative. That which binds beings—in all of their manifest diversity, variety, multiplicity, and differences—is their act of existence; and this act, this beingness, directs us to the transcendent source who is infinite aseity and inexhaustible plenitude, “the act of all acts and perfection of all perfections” (Aquinas). The unity of the many can only be convincingly explained by their participation in the God who is absolute Being.

The Rig Veda: “Brahman is the unborn in whom all existing things abide. The One manifests as the many, the formless putting on forms.”

Thales: “All things are from water and all things are resolved into water.”

Heraclitus: “All things come out of the one, and the one out of all things.”

Zhuang-tzu: “Great thinking sees all as One; small thinking breaks down into the many.”

Plotinus: “It is precisely because there is nothing within the One that all things are from it.”

Ibn Arabi: “Glory to Him who created all things, being Himself their very essence.”

Radhakrishnan: “We have the universe of individuals which is not self-sufficient and in some sense rests on Brahman, but the exact nature of the relation between them is a mystery.”

Segue to the Holy Trinity.

(6 February 2017)

(Go to “Analogy of Being”)

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8 Responses to Existence, Essence, and the One and the Many

  1. David says:

    Thank you for this insightful series Father, I am looking forward to its future installments.

    Clarke’s clarification that being and action are not logically identical is important. Would you say that Clarke’s position is that, while logically distinct, they are in fact strictly inseparable? Or is it just that they are *typically* inseparable (and will be in a non-defective substance), but that theoretically something could have existence without communicating its existence?

    The example I am thinking of is consciousness. Now consciousness normally seeks to be active – to impose its will on the world, to communicate – but it seems that it could at least theoretically exist without this activity – a mind that feels but does not act does not seem to be a contradiction in terms, in the way that a universe of particles that had no effect on each other would be.

    If not active, consciousness is at least receptive. For consciousness to exist – at least if the principle of causality holds – it must be conscious *of* something (even if you’re a brain in a vat or ‘pure’ consciousness unconnected to an external world, I would argue that, as a composite being, you are experiencing a part of yourself)

    Could we then say that being is active *or* receptive (and usually both)? So ‘to be’ is to be relational, to either give or receive? Or must being *always* be active and there is something in the nature of consciousness that I am missing?


  2. LC says:

    Norris Clarke is one of my top 3 favorite philosophers; hands down. That said, is blurb about the creaturely act of existing vs. the Divine act of existing (esse vs. Esse) is one I could never quite buy into. Another existential Thomist,Gerald Phelan, went further and contended “There is no being, esse, save the divine being, Esse, and all beings participate in it.” Phelan goes on: “Existing from all eternity in the Esse of God, creatures emerge by the will of the Creator into another mode of being (esse), limited, determined, restricted but nevertheless not separated, though distinct, from the divine mode.”

    I think Phelan was willing to follow existential Thomistic logic to its conclusion, something Clarke appeared hesitant to do. These lines are from Phelan’s essay “On the Being of Creatures” (which is part of his “Selected Papers”)-I can’t recommend it enough!


  3. brian says:

    LC, Ulrich is excellent, but a difficult read. You might take a look at DC Schindler’s excellent companion book which is a kind of paraphrase/synopsis that is more accessible.


  4. simon says:

    This is an amazing piece.

    I have often found myself somewhat speechless by the awareness that across diverse cultures there are voices testifying to the underlying unity of all things. It is the singular insight that has prevented me from becoming a hard reductionist and has kept me inspired. Of course, life and the mind are good examples of wholes that are not strictly reducible to their antecedents (there’s a tell in that statement). The cellular granularity of the brain is undeniable, but our experience of ourselves and others is fluid at the level of the whole person. I understand that the instinct behind the Daoist, preSocratic, Hindu, Muslim quotes is to live and move in the experience of the Mystery that yields ‘10,000 things’. Common sense dictates a world of billiard balls, but the the ‘simple eye’ sees the unity among the parts.

    I really want to move my understanding and life as an Orthodox Christian in this direction.


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