We have been studying in the course of the class the evolution of thought in the Western Civilization. This study has of course started with the Greek thinkers and philosophers. Their way of thought has had a great effect on the way the whole western civilization approached life, and the fundamental concepts behind it. Plato is the philosopher that most probably had the most influence on the way thought has evolved in western society.
But his reasoning put Essence above Existence, which is in contradiction with the faith that is promoted later on by Aristotle at first, and then by the arrival of Christian thought into the western world. Plato was the first philosopher that promoted a mode in which Essence was the Urstuff, or what he would call the Good (he also called this the world of timeless ideas). Plato’s division of reality and his theory of forms have influenced all further western thought, and have also found a way to influence Saint Augustine.
Saint Augustine was trying to find a way of thought that would be in accord with his moral ideas and still would be somehow rational. He found that idea in Plato’s ideas, and most especially in Plotinus’ interpretation of those ideas in his Enneads. Saint Augustine then converted to Christianity Plato’s thought, since this thought put a higher being (that Saint Augustine identified as God) as the foundation of the universe, and thus this fit in the Christian dogma very easily.
This is where Saint Augustine became somehow contradictory with himself, since his continuous attempts to make everything a theodicy, a justification of God’s existence. Where Saint Augustine’s explanations and justification failed, Saint Thomas saw a fundamental flaw, and sought for an explanation, not in more attempts at theodicy, but in a totally different approach of the Christian dogma through the interpretation of Aristotle’s works. Indeed, Aristotle, even though he was Plato’s student and his intellectual follower, diverged on the construction of his universe.
Aristotle believed in a more Existential point of view, in which “he could discover no decisive reason for denying that the world always existed instead of being created at a point in time. ” (S. Stumpf, 1994, p. 179). This is very contradictory with Saint Augustine’s Essentialist view, and also contradictory with the church’s dogma. Saint Thomas didn’t contradict the church on many things though, since his interpretation of Aristotle retains the idea of the Unmoved Mover as God, and the fact that everything is therefore caused by God.
Still, even though he himself didn’t realize it, Saint Thomas was promoting an Existentialist view that was adhered to in part by the church. So what exactly are Essentialism and Existentialism? “The essence of a thing is what the thing is; existence refers rather to the sheer fact that the thing is. Thus when I say I am a man, the I am denotes the fact that I exist, while the predicate man denotes what kind of existent I am, namely a man. ” (W. Barrett, 1958, p. 102). Essentialism is a highly spiritual mode of viewing in which you think that Essence is the urstuff.
Essentialism has been a dominating philosophy in western thought through the Christian dogma and also in some Eastern philosophies, in which the soul is usually precursor to the flesh, and reincarnation is possible. But throughout the ages, the people who have supported the Essentialist idea of the world have tried to give their theory a foundation that would make sense, in both the real world (what Plato would call the world of appearance) and the definition in relation to the concept of God/the Good.
This justification started with Plato, and continued with Augustine, and through all the other Essentialists. Existentialism on the other hand has an approach in which the existence of the thing precedes its essence. For Saint Thomas, the basic premise that leads him into his particular view of Christianity is the following: “Man is a rational animal”. This idea of putting reason above all is common to both the Greek philosophers and those who have picked up the ideas of these Greek philosophers. Reason has been a driving force, and has mingled with Faith in the Christian religion.
But where Essentialism promotes the mingling of Faith and Reason, or Faith through Reason, since essentialist views have to use some kind of justification to explain the separation between ideas and forms. Existentialism promotes Reason before anything else. We can therefore see that Essentialism and Existentialism, even though they are but two sides of the same coin, are two completely different and separated views/constructions of reality. Saint Augustine was the first Christian thinker to delve into the Greek philosophy and incorporate it and adapt it to the Christian dogma.
He chose Plato’s view, which is an essentialist view, and thus influenced Christian dogma. On the other hand, later on in time, when the church was confronted to a rise of the works of Aristotle in the west, and that Reason was becoming an important factor, Saint Thomas adapted Aristotle’s view to Christianity. These two ways of viewing life are still very much present today, and even though, through Sartre and other Existentialists, it seems that Existentialist thinking is nowadays more popular, both ways are still present and will remain because of their inherent duality.