According to the Thomistic view in Ontology, essence and 'the act of being' (I'm translating from a romance language) are different, in which 'to be' is the act received by the essence, which is the potency that limits the act of being.

So, my question is: if the act of being comes from God, who is Pure act of being, then where does the essence/potency come from?

Any help would be appreciated. ;)

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    Tillich said, "God is the ground of all being." Tillich, of course was a Christian Atheist. Nevertheless, he is describing 'essence'. We might be seeking an answer more characteristic to 'poetry' (the essence of philosophy). We know that God is true essence embodied in a man (Son of God, Son of Man)--Jesus. That is to say, Truth is embodied in a Man; not in mankind. This is why philosophy is so dead-ended; or is it? As Barth said, "...a word comes through." Nevertheless, man (any man) is both being and becoming. Man, created in the image of God, is 'like' God. Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 19:51
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    @DarcyDavis what do you mean by 'Christian Atheist'? Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 20:07
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    It is a good question. "Christian Atheism" first appeared just after the events of World War II. It is basically a product of despair. It asks the questions; "Where is God." "He has utterly failed to show up." "He has failed to appear 'on time'." Christian Atheism or the Death of God Movement centered around the New Theology. Adherents were Thomas J.J. Altizer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (hanged by the Nazis), Rudolf Bultmann, Mircea Eliade (a non-believing Jew), Harvey Cox, Paul Tillich, Gabriel Vahanian, Paul M. Van Buren, and many others. Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 21:53
  • @DarcyDavis but why use the noun atheism? Many believers, even in some psalms, or other biblical books like Job's, people ask where is God when destruction and evil strike them... That doesn't mean they apostatize Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 22:18
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    "Energeia, [as] presencing into the appearance, was translated by the Romans as actus", hence Actus Purus (Pure act of being) - philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/10011/5154 Commented Dec 7, 2014 at 18:58

4 Answers 4


I have not studied St. Thomas but the theory is also discussed in muslim philosophy, that's why I readily recognized the theme. My answer also comes from my knowledge of muslim philosophy but I think due to common origins between Medieval Christian and Muslim philosophy the theories must be identical.

Now to answer your question, the essence/potency doesn't have to come from anywhere, because they are nothing at all in the first place! That is, essence as limit of being is itself non-being or non-existence. Because only non-existence limits existence, while the act of being by God only creates being/existence.

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    Thanks for the interest. I just found the answer to my own question. I'm not sure if it's compatible with yours. Roughly translated, it goes as follows:«Essence only exists by being, since before having 'being', it is nothing, except only in God's 'Understanding'[??], where it is no longer a creation, but the Creator's essence. God, when creating, produces beings from nothing, as an act limited by its essence [the acts corresponding essence]; not from two different things that were separately made, and then joined, but only one thing, a compound of both potency(essence) and act(being).» Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 20:05
  • @Anoldmaninthesea., Good! And that's right. And what you wrote essentially says the same thing as I said: "essence only exists by being", that's without being essence is nothing.
    – infatuated
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 20:15
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    A further analysis that helps to clarify the reality of essence in relation to being is that, since the essence somehow has to correspond to the external being from which it was originally abstracted, it is wrong to assume that it is a purely mental entity. It is subsequently revealed that the external referent of essence is the existential limits of the being from which it was abstracted.
    – infatuated
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 6:23
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    This can also be understood by contemplating the process of logical definition when some attributes has to be necessarily negated from the subject of definition (essence), implicitly or explicitly, for the essence to become distinct from those of other beings. These negated attributes, it is then argued, correspond to the external limits of the being whose essence is being defined. So essence is non-existing in reality, in the sense that it corresponds to the actual limits of a being, and since being can only be limited by non-being, essence is in reality non-existent.
    – infatuated
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 6:33
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    I hope this helps to clarify the matter than confuse it! This must also be said that all the above statements as to the nature of essence hold true only in regards with creation not God. Because since God has no limits it can not have essence in the sense I defined above.
    – infatuated
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 6:35

I think infatuated mostly explains it well, but I wanted to pitch in a couple points:

One alternate way of thinking about/translating the same statement ipsum esse subsistens is God as "unconditioned being." When one asks "where does [God's] essence/potency come from?" one puts conditions on it (as in "we are talking about the essence that comes from X..."). Another translation is "the infinitive 'to be' existing by itself," and asking where it comes from doesn't make sense because that implies a past, which implies a conjugation of "to be," which violates the definition.

According to Thomas, for the rest of us, our essence comes from God/ipsum esse subsistens. That is, we exist, but in a conditioned state.

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    Just adding a bit more to your answer. I think Aquinas refers to ' to be by participation' when talking about that conditioned state, and 'to be by essence' when in the unconditioned state. ;) Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 22:50
  • Good one! Approaching the problem by reference to the "unconditioned being" is a good shortcut to solution. Btw, @Anoldmaninthesea. I'm curious about whether in the original language, the word for 'essence' is the same as the one as in "to be by essence." Because it seems to me that the latter is a different notion of essence. And for this distinction, muslim philosophers finally came up with at least two different terms for them.
    – infatuated
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 12:44
  • @infatuated In latin, or in the language I'm reading, that's spanish? Either way, I'll have to reach the end of the book to answer you. =D Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 16:15

Probably one of the greatest theologians of our time, Carl F.H. Henry, citing John Calvin, writes:

The knowledge of God is nonetheless for the sake of the good life. "We are invited to a knowledge of God not such as, content with empty speculation, merely floats in the brain, but such as will be solid and fruitful, if rightly received and rooted in out hearts" (Institutes I, 5, 9). The pious mind covets knowledge of God for the sake of reverent worship and obedience. "The right way, and the best method of seeking God" is "not with presumptuous curiosity to attempt an examination of his essence, which is rather to be adored than too curiously investigated; but to contemplate him in his works, in which he approaches and familiarizes, and, in some measure, communicates himself to us" (Ibid, I, 5, 9). "Cold and frivolous . . . are the speculations of those who employ themselves in disquisitions on the essence of God, when it would be more interesting to us to become acquainted with his character, and to know, what is agreeable to his nature" (Ibid. I, 2, 2).

In other words, "Don't look for God to take a shower." Or, better, "Don't peak at God lounging poolside."

(I would highly recommend Henry's work in Christian theology, God, Revelation, and Authority [in five volumes: 1976-1987]. He address the problem of Thomastic theology, at least partly, in his Chapter 20: "The Theological Transcendent A Priori," Volume 1.)

Nevertheless, Plato's concept of 'Form' or 'eternal substance' (eidos) is related significantly to 'essence' (ousia); also, hypostasis is substantial, concrete being between the merely actual but contingent and the realities that are merely mental. The whole picture is a 'tricotomy':

mental reality (appearance)

hypostasis: concrete being (substance)/becoming (change): 'reality'

actuality by contingency (hypokeimenon): the basic primary matter which has not yet been formed: a circling back to the original Form (Ideal). (In successful philosophy and philosophic-theologic world-life views: that which is placed in the lower story does not consume the upper (as in modernism and postmodernism); rather, it merges with it. Watch for this.)

Historic or personal movement through time begins 'top-to-down'. Reality and appearance are sometimes opposed. Time (to the Platonists and Neo-Platonists) was thought of as noema (thought or concept) and metron (measure), but not as hypostasis (the reality we experience; with this in mind, you might detect how C. Godel [Einstein's best friend] was merely a Neo-Platonist).

Hypostasis is further identified with the world spirit or world soul. It is 'essence' that gives stability to the concrete, individual thing. This is the world of substantia (substance: electrons, protons, neutrons and stuff; This is my, your world; the objective world).

Plato's 'Form' basically meant "to place under." Under what? Under heaven, God's realm. Our world is both under heaven literally and by authority (the Creator's conduct). Our world is like a world under water... a bottom world upon which one can or cannot get a foothold. It's like 'night-floundering' in Georgia swamp land, a lantern and a 'gig' in-hand. You look, feel for solid ground under and through the deep dark, dank forested swamp waters. Sometimes nothing is there, so you float. Or, you tread water (with all that stuff in both hands, better tread with your feet)! Sometimes you might feel with your bare feet the muddy bottom ooze. Yea, "That's 'bottom'." Tillich's "God, the ground of all being."

(I would highly recommend The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology [1967; 1975], Volume 1: s.v., "Form," p. 703-714.)

  • If there is a problem with Thomistic philosophy, the Catholic Church hasn't found it to be too big to prevent Thomas Aquinas from being officially proclaimed a Saint, and Angelicus Doctor... Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 20:51
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    I think Henry raises a good point. That there's a substantial difference between becoming spiritually acquainted with God -- which is stuff of worship and spirituality -- and logically examining Him via concepts of mind. But I'd argue that both of these undertakings are valuable and important. One gives us the actual fruits of connection by heart, the other enables us help other hearts to believe in what their minds is not yet convinced about.
    – infatuated
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 6:17
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    @Infatuated: excellent answer; this is the 'essence' of the matter. Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 18:19
  • +1 for an interesting read. More on ground here: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/10253/5154 - grounds for philosophising. Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 4:14

To complement user infatuated's answer, and since many may not read my comment.

Roughly translated, it goes as follows:

Essence only exists by being, since before having 'being', it is nothing, except only in God's 'Understanding'[??], where it is no longer a creation, but the Creator's essence. God, when creating, produces beings from nothing, as an act limited by its essence [the act's corresponding essence]; not from two different things that were separately made, and then joined, but only one thing, a compound of both potency(essence) and act(being).

[??] I'm not exactly sure how to translate the expression written in the original.

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