Not To Be Cannot Answer To Be: The Beautiful Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas — Guest Post by Rank Sophist

What does it mean to be? As soon as we hear someone ask this question, we become suspicious. “Is this guy a pseudo-intellectual,” we wonder, “or is he trying to sell something?” But it is a legitimate question. We may ask it without the intention of signing a book deal; without being reduced to New Age babble. In this post, I hope to show that the answer to this question, far from being flighty nonsense or academic preening, is in fact subtle, intuitive and, in my opinion, truly beautiful.

To achieve this goal, I will leverage the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. Professor Briggs, with his excellent series on Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition, has already broken the ice on the subject of Aquinas; and I will use his posts as a foundation for my case here. Skeptics of Aquinas’s general framework likely will not be won over by this article. However, I’d like to invite even those critics to consider the following material, if not on logical terms, then at least on the basis of sheer aesthetic power.

As Professor Briggs has written, Aristotle saw the world in terms of “actuality” and “potentiality”. Consider: we have a glass of water that sits actually full and potentially empty. Another actual entity barges in to this scene—a stray bulldozer, perhaps, entering through the wall—, and the glass is knocked over, spilling its contents. Thus, the glass’s potential emptiness becomes actual emptiness. Very simple. Aquinas, though, was not satisfied. While he agreed that the world was divided into actuality and potentiality, he thought that something was missing: an explanation of the existence of either state.

Aristotle could not answer this question. For him, actuality was synonymous with existence. Importantly, Aristotle stated that form, when it actualized matter, created an entity–such as our glass of water. (See this earlier post by Professor Briggs for more information on forms.) Aquinas countered that we may understand a form apart from matter: we may even contemplate the forms of non-existent entities (De ente Ch. 4). Consider: in the scene above, the glass of water does not really exist. We can understand what the glass is, but this does not tell us that the glass is–that it exists. Indeed, no such glass of water does exist. So, the difference between a real glass and our concept of a glass must be that the former, quite simply, exists.

This means that existence (“that-ness”) is higher than identity (“what-ness”), and higher than any distinction between actuality and potentiality. In order for an entity to be actual or potential, it must simply be, full stop. In basic terms: existence represents the is both in the sentence “the glass is actually full” and in the sentence “the glass is potentially empty” (Summa contra Gentiles B. I, Chap. XII). Without the is, there is no identity (the glass), nor any state in which that identity finds itself. Existence is so fundamental that it has no opposite, unlike actuality and potentiality. To have existence is to be; to lack existence is to be wiped from the slate. The only opposite to existence is non-existence, which isn’t anything at all.

This raises a further question, though. If the existence of the glass is higher than its identity, then where does its existence come from? Nothing like us–entities with identities–could provide existence, since existence is prior to identity. If something with an identity caused existence, then it too would require a cause of its existence, and a vicious regress would begin. Since there is nothing higher than existence, we are left to conclude that the existence of the glass, and of everything else, comes from existence itself. What does this mean? Isn’t this nonsense? Not exactly. If there was a “being” whose identity was the same as its existence, a “being” who was nothing other than its own existence, then it would be existence itself. This might sound vaguely familiar. Aquinas sure thought so.

13. And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?

14. And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.

Aquinas uses this passage (Exodus 3:13-14) to support his conclusion that “existence itself” (“he who is”, “ipsum esse subsistens“) must necessarily be God. Existence itself would be free of any restriction, lacking in all composition, unreliant on anything else; and it would therefore be infinite. Further, it would be the source of every attribute that Aquinas predicates of existence in general: truth, goodness, nobility and beauty. But existence itself would not “be beautiful”, for instance, as if its beauty was a part of it. It would be beauty itself. And that’s not all: its beauty would be identical to its goodness, which would be identical to its truth, which would be identical to its very existence. Everything that existence itself is, it is.

Nothing can be added to or subtracted from existence itself—from God. He is the absolute fullness of all being, and He would not change or gain anything by creating things other than Himself. But He did anyway. As Aquinas tells us, God gives existence—gives his own being—to the created order. Again, though: this doesn’t change Him at all. He is our being, but we are not His being. When God grants something existence, what Aquinas calls “creation” occurs, and it’s always ex nihilo. (Recall that the opposite of existence is nothing at all.) Aquinas also makes it clear that God must at all times sustain every single thing that exists. Existence does not “stick”: it cannot ever be possessed by us. Rather, it is a gift that is quite literally infinite in magnitude.

However, God, despite being immanent in every aspect of creation, is nonetheless unknowable and unlike us. In order for something other than God to exist, it must be less than existence itself: its identity must be separate from its existence. This means that nothing we know really “exists” in the same sense as God. He is so radically different from us that we may only describe him via shaky analogy. An “infinite distance”, in Aquinas’s words, separates us from him. Yet, God is present everywhere, and everything beautiful, true and so forth provides a hint at the divine beauty and truth. God, then, is both utterly immanent and infinitely transcendent. To the rancor of certain Thomists, I would describe this as a form of panentheism.

One question remains: is it possible to know this indescribable God? Although we know that He exists, and although He is in some sense all around us, is it possible for us to see Him face to face? Yes; but discursive logic won’t get us there. At best, it tells us that He exists. To see God in Himself is the domain of supra-rational, intuitive contemplation, which was called intellectus by the ancients (Ratio and Intellectus). In this life, it is only the mystics who see God directly. Perhaps such a vision was the reason why Aquinas, near the end of his life, after an unnamed experience that he described to no one, shocked Reginald of Piperno by declaring that “all that I have written seems like straw to me.”

Regular readers will be familiar with Rank Sophist, a writer from these United States. Authors who have different ontological views, and can string pairs of readable sentences together, are welcome to submit rebuttals.


  1. Eric


    Thank you for the guest post.

    If possible, please clarify the difference between (a) our concept of a non-existing glass, and (b) the potentiality of an existing glass tipping over, which is a state that does not exist.

    It seems that in both cases we are simply imagining conditions not presently observed, i.e. that “non-existence” and “potentiality” are two words for the same thing.

    What differentiates these two cases? Perhaps some implicit difference in “difficulty” in transitioning from the currently observable starting condition to each of our imagined ending conditions (transitioning from “no glass” to “a glass” is “harder” than transitioning from “full glass” to “empty glass”)? This seems to imply an unstated assumption of efficiency, or likelihood, or perhaps some other anthropic limiting condition.


  2. Big Mike

    Very well said, thank you!

    I could be persuaded that there is a further distinction superimposed on the “actual-potential” bifurcation of “total reality”: the personal and the non-personal.

    Accepting the concept of the personal (intuitively it seems it should be obvious, but I’m not a thinker even remotely deep enough to judge the arguments for and against), and stipulating that humans have a personal phase of their existence, it must be the case that God is personal, otherwise He would be infra-human. But, since God is absolute, the person of God (whom I think of as the Universal Father), must therefore also be absolute, and thus we must exist *relative* to the Universal Father. In my opinion, this is the concept that the ancients roughly encapsulated in “Let there be light”: the personal was differentiated from the non-personal.

    So then the question is: was there ever a “time” when there was nothing but undifferentiated reality? What is the “stuff” in which potential and actual exist? Does it make sense to talk about the potential for potential? What would that be? What force decreed the potential/actual bifurcation? To me it seems we need postulate “absolute volition” as well, implying that the personal/non-personal differentiation must, in fact, be the primal differentiation of the infinite lattice of differentiation that comprises all of reality as we know it.

    Ultimately, and presumably in the infinite remote future, all this differentiation must converge back to unity, which can only be perceived (as opposed to postulated) from the perspective of time-transcendence. To my simple way of thinking, this resolution is the putative “heat death” of physical reality. I hope the Verizon man comes before then.

  3. Big Mike

    “infinitely remote” of course.

  4. JTC


    From my understanding, potential is only related to a substance that exists (in act). The substance exists and has the potential to be changed in ways according to its nature. It can only be changed by something else that actually exists. So if the glass is never overturned to spill its contents, it still has the potential to be overturned and spill.

    It’s certainly possible that a potential may never be actualized, but then you would say that something doesn’t exist IN THAT WAY. But that something still exists.

    May or may not be helpful — Rank or Briggs can likely elaborate and clarify.

  5. Eric

    JTC (and RS):


    Putting this in terms of a state machine, with the states “pile of silica” and “a glass”, and a transition path between them:

    The “pile of silica” has the potential to become “a glass”, because there is a path between the two states.

    From the perspective of the state “a glass”, if we follow that transition, is “a glass” being “created”, because it previously did not exist?

    Similarly, is it correct to claim that from “a full glass”, we are “creating” an “empty glass”?

    If so, it appears that a form always requires a context. What we claim to be an object (and therefore having a form) is arbitrary. Is a thing “a mountain”, or “a large arrangement of rocks and dirt”, or “a large arrangement of atoms”?

    Consequently, it would seem that there is exactly only one “form” that truly exists: the form of “the entirety of the physical universe, including everything that can be imagined within the physical universe”.

    This form does not seem to be very useful.


  6. Big Mike

    @Eric, I wonder if “pattern” mightn’t be a better word for “form”.

    Certainly the pattern of electrons whirling around a nucleus exists in form independent of any actual instance of an atom. The pattern of an electrical field and its complementary magnetic field exists independent of an actual observable instance of one. An algorithm may exist to sort a finite set of distinguishable objects onto which a concept of “order” can be superimposed, but it need not ever have been programmed.

    Some patterns seem to be relative: we perceive a glass on a table only because we distinguish the two. A hypothetical Martian might see the arrangement differently.

    Other patterns seem to be a little more robust: the laws of gravitation come to mind; you needn’t wonder, when you see a child, whether she might eventually grow to become a stagecoach — she does not have that potential.

    The form to which you refer as the entirety of the physical universe is even larger or more robust. As you observe, it’s not something that we need worry about every day; we must deal in patterns and forms that exist relative to us.

  7. rembie

    One warning though. “Pattern” seems to restrict itself to occurrences in space and time, where form is wider. Consider “I” to be a form (auto-reference), that is neither spatial nor temporal.

  8. Ye Olde Statistician

    Technically, the drinking glass is not being ‘created’ but ‘transformed.’ Matter in the form of ‘silica (et al.!)’ was then changed into the form of a drinking glass. Matter, in this scheme, is the principle of potency while form is the principle of act. During the course of the transformation, the matter is said to be ‘in motion’ (in kinesis).

    Since for physical bodies “every thing is some thing,” we never encounter formless matter. The closest we get is something like ‘dark matter,’ ‘quantum vacuum,’ or ‘Aristotelian aether,’ which in terms of properties seem to be much the same thing.

    Transformation is X→Y. But creation is simply →Y. That is, there is nothing, not even the quantum vacuum, on the ‘other side’ of the arrow. Since a thing cannot give what it does not have at least in some analogous way, nothing can give itself existence, so that must come (and come continuously) from something else.
    + + +

    only one “form” that truly exists: the form of “the entirety of the physical universe, including everything that can be imagined within the physical universe”.

    But a lemon meringue pie does not have the form of the universe. So unless the universe is a lemon meringue pie, there must be at least two forms! Of course, the universe often seems to be a pie in the face, but that is allegorical.

    Matter is what a thing is made of and form is what makes it that thing.
    Thus a drinking glass is made of glass simply speaking and has the form of an open cylinder.
    Simple silica-lime glass is made of silica, sodium oxide, calcium oxide, iron pyrites, carbon black, and other ingredients in specified proportions in the form of an amorphous (non-crystaline) solid.
    Silica, in turn, is made of silicon and oxygen in the form of a linked tetrahedral structure.
    For silicon the matter is protons, neutrons, and electrons in the form of an atom with 14 protons, neutrons, and electrons arranged in three electron shells with four valence electrons, etc.
    A proton is made of quarks in the form of two ups and a down in three colors.
    We don’t know enough about quarks yet to say what they are made of, but that they have parts is shown by the observation that they come in different colors and flavors, change colors by emitting/absorbing gluons, etc.

    Protons and neutrons are made to the same matter, quarks. It is the number and arrangement of the parts – i.e., the form – that gives them their distinct powers and properties. The same goes for silicon vs. oxygen, and so forth. Hence, their powers and properties are said to be due to “formal causes”. (In modern speech, they are called “emergent ‘properties'”, though the term ‘property’ has been shifted in meaning since then.)
    + + +
    It only starts to get complicated with animate forms, which includes, well, animation in addition to shape/structure.

    Hope this helps.

  9. Big Mike

    @rembie: Ok, I see your point, although I would think that mathematical proofs, or, say, the set of all integers, follow patterns that are not necessarily spatially or temporally constrained. In fact, one might be tempted to think that the integers are pretty much pure pattern, and probably one of the more fundamental, arising as they do from a very basic property of reality as we experience it: the distinctness (differentiation) of objects.

  10. rank sophist

    Thanks for the kind words, everyone. I’m really grateful to Prof. Briggs for asking me to do a guest post.

    If possible, please clarify the difference between (a) our concept of a non-existing glass, and (b) the potentiality of an existing glass tipping over, which is a state that does not exist.

    It seems that in both cases we are simply imagining conditions not presently observed, i.e. that “non-existence” and “potentiality” are two words for the same thing.

    I’d like to add one little bit here, even though JTC, YOS and others have done a great job answering. The glass that we consider conceptually does not exist, but the concept of the glass does exist, in a sense. When we consider non-existent things, such as the idea of “non-existence” itself, we are considering what Aquinas calls “logical beings”. The concepts exist but their referents do not.

    Potentiality is not a logical being, for the obvious reason that it exists, to a certain extent, in every identity-existence (essence-existence) and form-matter (act-potency) compound. If it did not exist, then Parmenides would be right, and change would be an illusion. So, the difference between potentiality and non-existence is that potentiality really does exist, even though it is not “actual”. If I’m not mistaken (although I might very well be), Prime Matter (pure potentiality), which is one half of every material being, is a real “being” and not merely a logical one.

  11. Keith B

    One question remains: is it possible to know this indescribable God?

    “Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the LORD.”

  12. bob

    OK. I think I have it. If a bulldozer runs over a full glass of water that exists, it loses its whatness and becomes a pile of broken glass. It becomes what it is, and it does not exist.

    If you understand all this stuff, can you pick up more chicks?

  13. Rich

    “This means that existence (“that-ness”) is higher than identity (“what-ness”), and higher than any distinction between actuality and potentiality.”

    I don’t get the use of “higher” here. It might just be a metaphor but my antennae suggest it’s a lead in to Anselm’s ontological argument. Wouldn’t “prior to” be better?

  14. “If you understand all this stuff, can you pick up more chicks?”

    You can actually pick up ALL of the chicks (that potentially exist).

  15. Ye Olde Statistician

    “If you understand all this stuff, can you pick up more chicks?”

    Which reminds me of a farmer’s joke involving a horse, a mud puddle, and a John Deere tractor.

  16. Ken


    RE: If you understand all this stuff, can you pick up more chicks?

    A) use one’s hands gently so as not to injure the little darlings, or

    B) for the non-feathered variety, keep your back straight & use your legs.

    All factual & verifiable & useful [insofar as it goes] info to be sure…and about as useful as pretty much all conclusions generated by philosophical analysis.

    On a serious point, consider the inherent flaw:

    “One question remains: is it possible to know this indescribable God? Although we know that He exists,…”


    There is no objective proof. That’s why its called “faith.”

    And that’s why some groups are so resistant to science (denying evolution, the Big Bang; thinking Earth is 6000 – 10,000 years old, etc.) and why some groups concoct things like the Creation Museum and its assertions founded support no more robust than a tabloid’s criteria [yes, they do have some “criteria”] for accepting a headline — those are all contrivances to concoct some proof to reassure a particular faith held by a particular ‘faith holder.’

    All this philosophizing about the status/existance of some situation is like people that made a signficant purchase who later wonder if they got snookered–by themselves as much as anyone–and could have gotten a lower price/obtained a more suitable mix if features/etc. if only…. and then talk on & on about seeking reassurances.

    People having true faith (even having faith much smaller than a mustard seed) have absolutely no need or interest in developing proofs to buttress their faith. They’re there already & have better things to do…and do them.

    Proof, or the search for proof–which is what all this philosophizing is about–is for doubters. Just like Thomas.*

    * He was that guy that needed to touch the wounds in the guy he was talking to to validate that the guy he was talking to was really the guy he [Thomas] thought he [the guy] was. Even seeing isn’t always believing–and that’s order’s magnitude better than flawed philosophizing founded on certain precepts of “faith” presented as “fact” (e.g. “we know” when the fact is we assume on “faith” (when one builds on a postulate to prove, to any extent, the postulate, that’s cirucular reasoning & thus fundamentally flawed).

  17. rank sophist


    You appear to be extremely ignorant on this subject. Your knowledge of Christianity seems to be limited to American fundamentalism. We do know that God exists, through logical arguments. And real Christians do not subscribe to that bastardized definition of “faith”. I recommend that you learn more about the subject before making yourself look ridiculous again.

  18. DAV

    Perhaps this segment from the Catechism of the Catholic Church is causing the confusion.

    159 Faith and science: “Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth.” “Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.”

    There are almost 500 similar passages.

    Sounds like faith first; reasoning second. Oddly, reason appears linked to science here.

    OTOH, this may be one of those English sounding things that aren’t really English. Special terms, etc.

  19. rank sophist

    There are almost 500 similar passages.

    Sounds like faith first; reasoning second. Oddly, reason appears linked to science here.

    OTOH, this may be one of those English sounding things that aren’t really English. Special terms, etc.

    You, also, have a lot to learn. Faith does not mean what you think it does–“belief in the face of lacking evidence”–and so your example is irrelevant. It has a very clear-cut definition descended for thousands of years until today. But I’m not going to go into it, because I know that you really don’t care either way.

  20. David Hume

    rank sophist,

    Does the universe have a beginning? How do you know this?
    Must every event have a cause? If so, do you have free will?

    BTW, you have a lot of growing up to do.

  21. Briggs

    David Hume,

    You can’t be the original, or you wouldn’t have asked these questions, to which there are well known answers. As homework, read the series reviewing The Last Superstition we did a week ago.


    Exactly so: all knowledge must begin in unprovable truths, which we take “on faith.” This we proved many times.

  22. DAV


    That’s just the point. When faced with a proposition that can neither be proven nor disproven would imply that it would be logically consistent. That’s all that’s been done here over the last few posts. It’s just a belief. Can it be shown that atheism is logically inconsistent?

    Look at the many Theories of Everything. They all appear logically consistent. Does that mean they are all proven?

    You, also, have a lot to learn.

    Undoubtedly but you really should stop using that and similar as fallbacks. In poker they are called tells. In the meantime, contrast the definitions of arrogance and humility.

    You’re right in one sense, though. I don’t have a deep-seated belief either way. Perhaps this puts me in a position to know when one side has gone too far.

  23. rank sophist

    Does the universe have a beginning? How do you know this?

    This is not relevant to the post, though. Aquinas does not ask whether or not the universe has a beginning, nor does he, with this, propose to demonstrate it. He is merely saying that everything must at every moment be created from nothing.

    Must every event have a cause? If so, do you have free will?

    This collapses the ontico-ontological difference, in Heidegger’s terms. I was talking about ontology, which has nothing to do with the ontic; and so this question is not relevant to the post.

    BTW, you have a lot of growing up to do.

    That I am not willing to put up with the trolling of DAV–with whom I have attempted to reason in the past–, nor with the New Atheist logorrhea of Ken, says nothing about my age.

  24. 2Kevin

    Alfred Korzybski gives Aquinas a good run for his money.

  25. Denier

    rank sophist,

    > We do know that God exists, through logical arguments.

    Is this for real? ‘We’ do not know any such thing. A 12-year old could see straight through the ‘logical’ arguments you use. Almost every line in your article contains false assumptions and assertions. Example:

    > the opposite of existence is nothing at all

    Why does “existence” have to have an opposite?

    Your article is ‘actually’ nonesensical but has the ‘potential’ to mislead the easily misled.

  26. Zia

    “Why does “existence” have to have an opposite?”

    What you need to do is show that existence has no opposite, identify his argument and then how that undermines the argument. Maybe instead of opposites, you can think of it as a metaphysical fork in the road. One path is existence, the other path is nonexistence. But what determines which path is taken?

  27. Sander van der Wal

    A glass cannot exist without it being in one of its potentials, but it is possible for the number of actual, existing glasses to be zero. In fact that was the state of affairs before glasses were invented. There was also a short time between the invention of the glass as a form, and the creation of an actual glass.

    Existence then means that there could be at least one glass, but it doesn’t mean that there must be at least one glass. We might not have thought of it yet, or have found that the thing has no use and wasn’t worth the effort to create an actual one. Identity is then the identification of particular instances, attaching an integer to them.

    For the forms that exist but have no actuals this means two things. It is either not possible for it to exist, so there are zero actuals, or it is possible but when you count the actuals, you still end up with counting zero actuals, because they haven’t been made yet by us, or are not made naturally (like stars are made naturally). There is no difference between the zero of impossible forms and the zero of possible, but not actual forms.

    There are quite a lot of forms for which it is obvious that it is impossible for the actuals of both forms to exist at the same time. Take the Allah and Brahman forms for instance. It is possible for one of them to be actual, but they cannot both be actual, because their attributes are different (you cannot both reincarnate and live once at the same time). They can both be non-actual without any problem at all.

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