Does a Phoenix Have an Essence?

In a well-known passage from his little metaphysical treatise On Being and Essence, Aquinas illustrates his famous essence-existence distinction with the example of a fictional creature, the phoenix: 

For all that does not belong to the concept of the essence or quiddity, is coming to it from the outside and makes a composition with the essence, because no essence can be understood without those things which are the parts of the essence. But every essence or quiddity can be understood without something being understood about its being; for I can understand what a man is or a phoenix, and still not know whether it has being in reality. Therefore, it is manifest that being is something different from essence or quiddity.

In short, I can know what a phoenix is (i.e., its essence) without knowing whether or that a phoenix is (i.e., its actual existence).

This argument has bothered me for a couple of years, and for a couple of distinct but related reasons. The first has to do with Aquinas’s own thought, and the second having to do with Tolkien. First, Aquinas’s argument about the phoenix has never struck me as consistent with Aquinas’s otherwise metaphysical realism and existentialism (with its adherence to the primacy of the real and the actual), but seems to have more in common with the essentialism of Avicenna. To say that I can know the essence of something in isolation from the question of its actual existence is to insinuate that I somehow have an access to the nature of things that bypasses their existence and my experience of that existence. In brief, it makes the intellectual apprehension or understanding of a thing’s essence to be “existence-optional” (which is on its way to making the essences of the things themselves to be “existence-optional”).

A second concern is a Tolkienian one, which is that the parity of man and phoenix in Aquinas’s above illustration overlooks the obvious fact that one of these is an essence created by God whereas the other is a fictional “essence” sub-created by man. And if its “essence” is of a sub-created being, then it stands to reason that its existence can only be a sub-creative existence.

2 thoughts on “Does a Phoenix Have an Essence?

  1. It might be helpful to rephrase it a bit – from the fact that we can talk about something that doesn’t exist, say, a phoenix, and know what it is, it doesn’t follow that a phoenix exists somewhere in the world.

  2. Acknowledging my ignorance here, I wonder about the sense in which Aquinas is using the terms ‘essence’ and ‘know’?

    What follows is more a matter of myself trying to think my way through this, as far as I can, than an attempt to offer any intelligent commentary :-)

    The statement that “ I can understand what a man is or a phoenix” seems to me to relate to the idea of distinguishing. Not to know everything about what a man is or a phoenix, but to know enough to be able to distinguish between a man and something very like to a man – that knowing the essence of a wolf and a dog will allow you to distinguish between them. Knowing the essence of a phoenix would then mean to know enough to be able to identify it as a phoenix if you should encounter it.

    If this is so, then it seems to me that Aquinas, by suggesting that you can know the essence of something without having seen the thing itself, says that you can know the essence of an elephant without having ever encountered one if you are capable of correctly identifying the elephant when you first meet it?

    Wouldn’t that place your knowledge of the essence of the (unmet) elephant on the same level as your knowledge of the phoenix – the difference is not in the ‘essence’ (in this sense of it) or in your knowledge of it, but in the existence of the things themselves.

    On the other hand … my children can generally tell that I am walking by their room simply by hearing my tread – does this mean that my tread is the essence of myself? I wouldn’t like to think so ;-)

    But that is all presupposing that I have understood Aquinas’ use of ‘essence’ correctly in the first place.

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