Gilson on Existence and Essence

‘Why, Saint Thomas asks, do we say that Qui est is the most proper name among all those that can given to God? And his answer is because it signifies “to be”: ipsum esse. But what is it to be? In answering this most difficult of all metaphysical questions, we must carefully distinguish between two words which are both different and yet intimately related: ens, or “being”, and esse, or “to be”. To the question: What is being? the correct answer is: Being is that which is, or exists. If, for instance, we ask this same question with regard to God, the correct answer would be: The being of God is an infinite and boundless ocean of substance. But essse, or “to be”, is something else and  much harder to grasp because it lies more deeply hidden in the metaphysical structure of reality. The word “being”, as a noun, designates some substance; the word “to be” – or esse – is a verb, because it designates an act. To understand this is also to reach, beyond the level of essence, the deeper level of existence. For it is quite true to say that all which is a substance must of necessity also both have an essence and an existence. In point of fact, such is the natural order followed by our rational knowledge: we first concieve certain beings, then we define their essences, and last we affirm their existence by means of a judgment. But the metaphysical order of reality is just the reverse of the order of human knowledge: what first comes into it as a certain act of existing which, because it is this particular act of existing, circumscribes at once a certain essence and causes a certain substance to come into being. In this deeper sense, “to be” is the primitive and fundamental act by virtue of which a certain being actually is, or exists. In Saint Thomas’ own words: dictur esse ipse actus essentiae – “to be” is the very act whereby an essence is.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘God and Philosophy’, p. 63-64)

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