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.

Mimetic Desire as Self-Annihilation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 49

In the previous post I argued that, despite St. Thomas’s denial of its possibility, it nevertheless seems consistent with what he says elsewhere that Satan could have fallen by desiring (suicidally) equality with God. This, in any event, is how Satan’s fall has been interpreted by René Girard, whose theory of mimetic desire Hayden Head has applied to Tolkien’s portrayal of evil. According to Girard, the suicidal desire for the essence of an “other” is implicitly involved in all such imitative desire: when we desire objects, things, people, status, or the like, we do not desire them so much for themselves as we do for the much more sordid, envious reason that they are possessed by an “Other.” This means that desire for the object is in essence a desire for or towards the rival possessor of the object, meaning further that it is in fact the possessor who is the true object of desire. Entailed in this desire is an awareness that the rival, as the desired object, also stands in a position of superiority over the desirer. This acute awareness of one’s own inferiority Girard refers to as the “ontological sickness”: in coveting what the other desires, a person is in fact coveting the other’s own “essence,” and so in doing so sacrifices something of his own being. In his application of Girard’s analysis of mimetic desire to Tolkien’s fiction, Head writes of Melkor in particular that he

is driven by a desire to imitate Ilúvatar and wishes to claim the ultimate prerogative of Eru, which is the capacity to create. And though he possesses as much “being” as a contingent creature can possess, though he is more powerful than his fellow Ainur, nevertheless, Melkor is not content with any “being” less than Eru’s ultimate being. Like Satan’s doomed attempt to rival God, however, Melkor’s attempt to emulate Eru only serves to bring about his fall… Having failed to acquire the light of Ilúvatar, Melkor… is left with the bitter consolation of “fire and wrath,” dim parodies of Ilúvatar’s creative fire. (Head, “Imitative Desire,” 141-2)

Implicit in Melkor’s desire for the Flame Imperishable, in short, is the desire to supplant and to become his rival, Eru. His desire is the “ontologically sick” and self-annihilating one of having an essence and existence other than one’s own. As Thomas points out, however, such a desire is in effect a desire for the annihilation of one’s own being. As Tolkien himself puts it, the envy and “hatred of God… must end in nihilism” (Morgoth’s Ring)

The Suicide of Self-Deification

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 48

In the previous two posts we saw how suicide in Tolkien’s fiction enacts a kind of world annihilation. To return our attention to the Ainulindalë and the question of creation, the suicidal division between self-and-self and self-and-God may already be observed in Melkor’s hubristic desire for the Flame Imperishable. In his discussion of how the devil first “sinned by seeking to be as God,” Aquinas carefully qualifies his meaning to avoid the suggestion that, in doing so, the devil sought to be “equal” with God. According to Thomas, the angels sought to be “as God” not by equality, but rather by likeness, the basis for this distinction being that, first, the angels would have known equality with God to be intrinsically impossible for any creature, and second, that even if such equality were possible (or at least thought to be possible), in desiring it the angels would have been desiring a nature or essence other than their own, and thus would have been effectively desiring the abolition of their own being, a desire contrary to every nature (ST 1.63.3). (See also On Evil 16.3, “Whether the Devil Sinned by Desiring Equality with God.” As Thomas puts it in his article in the Summa on why evil is not or has no nature, “good is everything desirable; and thus, since every nature desires its own being and its own perfection, it must be said also that the being and the perfection of any nature has the character of goodness” (ST 1.48.1).) “Consequently,” Thomas summarizes, “no thing of a lower order can ever desire the grade of a higher nature, just as an ass does not desire to be a horse; for were it to be so upraised, it would cease to be itself.” For Thomas, in short, the desire that the devil may have had for God’s own power to create nevertheless could not have involved a desire to be equal with God, inasmuch as he would have known such an eventuality to have entailed his own non-existence. The creaturely desire to be God–or any other creature, for that matter–is a form of suicide.

Yet Thomas does not seem to have been consistent himself in his claim that no being can desire the realization of circumstances that would entail its own destruction. As it is, Thomas goes on in the same passage to recognize that there are moments (not applicable to the angels, given their incorporeality) when the “imagination plays us false,” leading a man to believe that by acquiring a “higher grade as to accidentals, which can increase without the destruction of the subject, he can also seek a higher grade of nature, to which he could not attain without ceasing to be.” Toward the beginning of the Summa, however, in his discussion of “whether good is prior in idea to being,” Thomas entertains the objection that good must be prior to being because it is more universal, a point illustrated with the case of Judas, of whom Scripture says that it would have been better for him not to have been born. To this objection Thomas replies that it is not the non-being of a thing itself that is ever desired; rather, its non-being is desired for the sake of the removal of some other evil in something else, which is to say, for the sake of the being of something else, and so “even non-being can be spoken of as relatively good” (ST 1.5.2 ad 3). Thus, it would seem consistent with Thomas’s own principles to say that the devil, in desiring to create, desired to be equal with God, and thus in a sense desired his own non-being, not for its own sake, but as a perceived condition for his gaining something good in itself.