Epistle 20. Posted on 2019-06-03.
At first, essence may seem like a concept about which one should be skeptical, but it has a logical definition, at least as it is used here:
Essence: The essence of any body is the conjunction of all of its qualities, where a quality is a property that the body has with conceptual necessity.
If a body must have a property, that property is a quality of that body, and that quality is part of the essence of that body. For example, every instance of fire generates heat, and it is conceptually impossible that any instance of fire does not generate heat. Consequently, generating heat is a quality of any fire, and participates in the essence of any fire.
By conceptual necessity, I mean that the proposition that such a body does not have that quality involves a contradiction. And since it is contradictory and therefore impossible not to have that quality, it is conceptually necessary that the body is so qualified.
As an example of essence at the cosmic level, every body in the cosmos is qualified as extending in four dimensions — space and time. If any body lacks any of those four dimensions, it does not exist, at least not as a body. A circle is an example of something that occurs only in thought, because it has only two of three spatial dimensions — it lacks depth. Hence, a circle is abstract rather than concrete, conceptual rather than physical.
The essence of any body is a useful concept, once one is familiar with it. An important application is that one must be able to define the concepts contained in a proposition in order to evaluate its truth value. For example, the proposition that “The sky is blue,” includes two concepts: a sky and a blueness. The definition of any concept requires two qualities, the genus and differentia, or in Stoic terminology, a common quality and a peculiar quality. As such, every concept is defined with part of the essence of its denoted body. The definition of a bachelor is an unmarried man, and so any bachelor is both qualified as unmarried and qualified as a man.
Marcus Aurelius (Meditations 3.11) advocated defining every body experienced as the causing object of an impression, because the applicable definitions strip that body of its superfluities and allow one to consider its essence. I conjecture that Stoic essence includes any quality, rather than strictly the common quality and peculiar quality in its definition; I base this — in part — upon the Stoic Categories.
Essence applies to anything embodied, and therefore anything existing. It applies to a particular body, as well as to a category of bodies. For example, my neighbor — fastidious Fred — has his own essence; he also participates in my concept of a neighbor, which is a category of bodies that consists of all neighbors. As with a definition, essence applies both to nouns and non-nouns, such that non-nouns must be converted to common nouns. Fastidious Fred is certainly fastidious, which is an adjective, and yet fastidiousness has its own essence. There is an essence of fastidiousness, of Fred, and of neighbors. Every body in the cosmos has its own essence, and participates in other essences when qualified or disposed.
By extension, the essence of anything inessential may be pondered without contradiction. It may be inessential that one body participates in a category of bodies, disposed according to that category, but that category of bodies has its own essence, whether or not the current body in question participates in its concept. In fact, the Stoics did this quite a bit by studying the essence of virtue (think excellence), which is itself merely a disposition, albeit an important one.
The essence of any body is its identity. A change in essence is a change in identity, which is also described as the destruction of the previous identity. For example, Cindy has a brother named Chad. Chad has a stroke and becomes comatose. Cindy talks with Chad’s doctor about life support and the severity of his coma. She defines a human as a rational animal, and defines rationality as both experiencing impressions and representing impressions with symbols. If Chad has permanently lost consciousness, his brain may or may not be experiencing sensory impressions, and he has certainly lost the conscious ability to symbolize impressions. According to Cindy’s definition of humanity, her brother’s identity as a human has been destroyed. Chad may retain some of the qualities of the essence of a human, such as DNA, but has lost other qualities. To Cindy, Chad no longer qualifies as human. She has made her decision regarding life support.
Essence allows deductive inferences to unobserved members that participate in that essence. If every human is qualified as having a birthday, and you have never before experienced my neighbor fastidious Fred, you may deduce that fastidious Fred had a birthday, conditional upon the fact that fastidious Fred is human. This is deductive rather than inductive inference, because it is conceptually necessary that fastidious Fred was born.
In philosophical counseling sessions, essence seems to come up all the time, although it is never the main attraction. Chances are good that you will learn about your essence, or the essence of something important to you, such as the essence of life, your career, or a loved one. According to Plutarch (c.46 AD – 120 AD) in On Stoic Self-Contradictions (18), Chrysippus of Soli (c.279 BC – c.206 BC) concluded that vice is the essence of unhappiness, and that to live viciously is to live unhappily. If you seek happiness, it benefits to study that conceptual connection, and later to know it.
Essence allows one to distinguish between that which is conceptually necessary, and that which isn’t. These non-necessities go by many names, including dispositions and superfluities. Often, much of life is wasted on superfluities, and life becomes more efficient and peaceful without these unnecessary distractions, thanks to investigating the essence of everything important.
The opposite category may be even more interesting. Studying the essence of a goal or purpose reveals qualities about its obtainment. When a person knows that it is conceptually necessary to perform act x in order for goal y to obtain, it becomes one’s duty to act accordingly. Many people claim they want to be happy, but do not act accordingly. Essence is that key.
Another benefit of looking at everything in your life through the lens of essence is the surcease of many sufferings. It will be discovered that many sources of bother become deprived of their cunning capacity, robbed of their ruse, when regarded as conceptually necessary. Oftentimes, realizing that something is necessary also absolves it of blame. After all, who could be bothered that 2 + 2 = 4 — or by any other necessity — and call themselves sane? Did a liar deceive you? But what else would you have a liar do? Return your focus to what matters. Would you be happy? Then study that essence and behave accordingly.
I hope that you will begin to consider the essence of everything encountered. Benefit thereby.
Vale (pronounced WAH-lay is Latin for “Farewell”),
- ◊ Conceptual Modality
- ◊ Contradiction
- ◊ Definitions
- ◊ Plutarch, On Stoic Self-Contradictions, 18
- ◊ Purpose
- ◊ Stoic Therapy Blog