The Quarantine of the Soul During Coronavirus

The Advantage of Quarantine

When I first heard about the Coronavirus, I was wondering how big of an impact it would have upon my school, work, relationships, and my personal life. There has been a great deal of information being circulated about the virus that has led to much fear, doubt, and sadness. Many are afraid because of how the disease has ravaged Italy, China, and more close to home, N.Y. Since the spread of this virus, and its emergence in America, my work has shut down, my classes have gone online, my relationships have had to accommodate life in quarantine. Everything has been turned upside down and the freedoms that were so easily taken for granted now become deeply cherished in their absence. Normally this would be a cause for stress and anxiety, but I find that this is an excellent time to remember how frail and temporary my life is and to ask myself why I get up each morning. This requires me to persevere through a laundry pile of fears that typically lie buried beneath my regular routine of busyness –  a routine that I can no longer easily appeal to quiet my thoughts. Honestly, the ability to pause and to question is a freedom that is often taken for granted in normal circumstances; it is a freedom that emerges in the midst of our national quarantine that can serve as a refreshing turn of events to those who would take advantage of the time they have alone.

I would like to offer some suggestions on how to spend your time and value the quarantine.

Keep a Journal

Around the advent of our nation’s response to Coronavirus, I began to keep a journal about the things that I value in life, how to increase my pursuit of those things, and also how I take them for granted. I find that during a time where life is so obviously frail, it is a comforting discipline to reinforce my own life with meaning about how to live presently well for the future. Sorting through my own thoughts has been a challenge, a joy, and a comfort during this time. This discipline has been a sort of momento mori for me. Not in a morbid sense, but a sense that recognizes that the value of something is more clearly seen from the vantage point of the end. The Greek concept of happiness was something that was not informed by the moment, but by its completion. Our lives should be lived with a reverent respect for our end that informs our daily attitudes and decisions.

Talk to People

Pick up the phone. This is a good time to talk to people in your life that you haven’t talked to in a while. It is a good time to mend broken relationships, and to see how much the people around you mean. A time of crisis can be the best way to encourage a compassionate approach to those who we may be at odds with. This time can enforce a decision to love. It can also be a way to really, and kindly approach elderly people that you may know that are affected most by this quarantine. Give them a call. If you do, you may find that you are the one who is filled with comfort and warmth from the interaction.

Talk to God

With more time comes more reflection, and with more reflection you sometimes see more of yourself than you regularly want to see. Give thanks to God for His kindness toward you, and confess your sins. Learn to see that every day is a gift. Gratitude and sincerity are more visible in a time like this. I cannot say enough about this which is why I will be brief and ask you, who do you have in the end but God? Gratitude and confession are life changing. In a time of quarantine, no one is without God. He will not leave you or forsake you. Thank Him for it.

Use the Quarantine 

Many in the Christian tradition have made solitude a regular part of their Christian experience. The reason for this was so that they could cultivate the interior space to listen to God and inform their own hearts. They did this in order to have a sense of grace as they approached the difficult challenges of their lives either within themselves or out in the world. Quarantine presents itself as a difficult challenge to our lives, but a lack of external freedom is an opportunity to pursue freedom of the soul. What is important at all times, even if it is a more apparent necessity in the quarantine, is to listen to God and inform our own heart by what He says in order to virtuously meet whatever difficulty we encounter. As you spend this time alone, order your mind and resolve to do what is right by listening with a compliant heart to what God says. Seasons like this can provoke us to anger, or other passions that cause harm to ourselves and others. However, we can meet these attitudes of the heart with a sense of grace which I think is fair to call the faith of the saints. In this way use the solitude you have been given to strengthen your faith and to dialogue with God and others during this time of crisis. May you find this time of solitude that has been given to you to be a fruitful opportunity to dialogue with yourself through journaling, with others over the phone, and with God by praying His word.


PC: Photo by Brad Helmink on Unsplash

 

Thomistic Metaphysics (Podcast)

This segment is a part of the broader discussion which focuses particularly on the Metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas’s Metaphysics is thick and, at first, hard to understand; yet wading through his thought is well worth it. Thinking Metaphysically is, according to Thomas, the highest form a thought Philosophy can manage.

Thomism as an Approach to Philosophy (PODCAST)

This is part one of a series on Thomism. Herein we discuss the definition, principles, and doctrines of Thomas Aquinas and his philosophy.

References:

(1) Charles Taylor: A Secular Age. https://www.amazon.com/Secular-Age-Charles-Taylor/dp/1522665056

Taylor’s work is a helpful overview of the distinction referenced in the podcast between the way contemporary man relates to the world and the man in Thomas’s own day.

(2) James F. Anderson, An Introduction to the Metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas. https://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Metaphysics-St-Thomas-Aquinas/dp/089526420X

This is a great volume and translation of Thomas’s views on Metaphysics.

 

Ghost Machine: A Brief Phenomenological Portrait

I am an empiricist, and a limited one at that: I learn of the world through what I can touch. My fingertips are restless seekers for the relevant, the pertinent, the titillating and tantalizing; my palms the throne for the tiny window through which I view the world. Tiny it is, but what a light shines through it. Hours of effort are now condensed into a few-second swipes; I pay my bills, I read the Scriptures, I converse with those I love through it and with it and by it. Do I need anything else? It becomes difficult to see why I would. Everything I require is ready-to-hand.

Eventually, I engage in a phenomenological curation of reality. My perception, altered by the digital stream, begins to view the world outside that window as something to be melded to my liking. In the same way that I unfollow dissenting views, I learn to tune out those with whom I disagree. I imagine myself as bold, because I’ve got silicon courage; who needs wine to speak truth when a comment section will do? The beautiful shades in perfectly designed bedrooms, captured in a square photo, become my litmus test for authenticity. How long did it take that person to capture that “vulnerability”? It doesn’t matter; that’s what I want my life to look like. The comparison game has never been so easy.

Hours. And hours. And hours. They pass by and still I’m staring, still I’m stuck, still my thumbs have done all the talking and my eyes all the doing. My companion calls to me when finally I put her down. There’s something else I need to do, something I forgot, something…it would be different if I only ever entertained myself. But this companion of mine provides so much utility. She streamlines my life. And what else could be better than maximum efficiency in every area of daily existence?

And yet. 

I’ve lost my capacity for deep, sustained thought, for single-tasking. It’s easier to see what other people have accomplished than to make my own art. I used to communicate through more than memes and 140 characters. Where is my focus? My creativity? My passion? Where is my ability to engage in conversation without irony, without mockery, without a thousand tiny icons to represent my emotions? Where is meaningful action, purposeful reflection, silence, solitude, solicitude —?

I don’t know. I think I may have lost them in my ghost machine.

Thomistic Metaphysics III: The Esse-Essentia Distinction

           So far in this series, we have covered two aspects of Thomistic metaphysics: first, being qua being as the subject of this science [1]; second, act and potency as intrinsic principles of being. [2] With these two aspects in view, we’ll move on in this article to the esse-essentia distinction, as found in Aquinas’ On Being and Essence. [3] That is, the distinction between existence and essence, as intrinsic principles, in a particular being. In this treatise, Aquinas investigates the meaning of the terms ‘being’ and ‘essence’ as it relates to various kinds of existents:

 Since being and essence are the things first conceived of by the intellect, as Avicenna says at the beginning of his Metaphysics 1.6, in order to avoid errors
arising from ignorance about these two things, we should make plain the
difficulties surrounding them by explaining what the terms being and essence
each signify and by showing how each may be found in various things and
how each is related to the logical intentions of genus, species, and difference.
[4]

             In the first chapter, Aquinas distinguishes between two meanings of the term ‘being,’ as per Aristotle [5]: the first signifies that which is divided into the ten categories—substance, quantity, quality, relatives, somewhere, sometime, being in a position, having, acting, and being acted upon [6]—while the second signifies the truth of propositions. The former mode of signification necessarily posits something in reality (i.e., an existent of some sort) while the latter mode does not necessarily posit anything in reality but rather refers to “anything…about which an affirmative proposition can be formed.” [7] ‘Being,’ then, is predicated more properly according to the first mode of signification rather than the second, since ‘being’ (Lt. ens) means ‘to be,’ with the assumption of meaning to-be-in-reality. ‘Essence’ originates from the first signification of ‘being’, since this “is what signifies the essence of a thing.” [8] Now ‘essence’ here “signifies something common to all natures through which the various beings are placed in the various genera and species.” [9] Aquinas also mentions the other terms generally equitable with ‘essence,’ such as quiddity (referring to the whatness of a thing), form, and nature. Since the proper subject of being is substances, it follows that “essence…is properly and truly in substances and is in accidents only in a certain way and in a certain sense.” [10] Then an essence exists when it is in a substance and a substance is of a particular sort when it contains an essence. This sets the stage for Aquinas to demonstrate the distinction between esse and essentia—that is, between the intrinsic principles of existence and essence. Aquinas’ formulation of this distinction comes in chapter four:

Whatever is not in the concept of the essence or quiddity comes from outside the essence and makes a composition with the essence, because no essence
can be understood without the things that are its parts. But every essence or
quiddity can be understood without understanding anything about its
existence: I can understand what a man is or what a phoenix is, and
nevertheless not know whether either has existence in reality. Therefore, it is
clear that existence is something other than the essence or quiddity, unless
perhaps there is something whose quiddity is its very own existence, and, if
so, this thing must be one and primary. [11]

           Aquinas’ distinction arises from a consideration of addition to the concept of an essence. If the concept of an essence is added to extrinsically (that is, from outside the concept of the essence) then a composition is formed between the concepts of the essence and whatever is added to it. This is because in such cases an essence cannot be understood without reference to its parts. Take the Aristotelian definition of man as ‘rational animal.’ This is what is called a composite concept, since animal is not contained within the concept of rational, neither is rational per se contained within the concept of animal. Thus, in order to understand the human essence, one must have reference to the composition of animal with rationality. This is why Aquinas says “no essence can be understood without the things that are its parts.” However, it seems to be that an essence can be understood without any reference to its actual existence or not. Aquinas gives the example of a man and a phoenix: the essence of each is understood by the reader without any necessary connection to actual existence. The example of a unicorn is also applicable here. When the word ‘unicorn’ is used it signifies a concept whose definition amounts to ‘a horse with a horn extending from its forehead.’ However, despite the comprehension of the concept of the essence in question here, there was no necessary reference to its actual (or not) existence in reality in order to comprehend it. From this, Aquinas concludes that “existence is something other than the essence or quiddity.” [12] This is what is meant by the esse-essentia (existence-essence) distinction: that existence is not identical to essence in reference to particular existents.

           This difference between existence and essence seems to be predicated on the composition of the particular existent in question, since there would only not be such a difference if there were an existent whose essence would necessarily entail existence or, to use Aquinas’ language, “something whose quiddity [or essence] is its very own existence.” [13] Correspondingly, any such existence would necessarily be a simple being—that is, not composed of parts—since “the essence of a simple thing…cannot be signified except as a whole, as in this case…the quiddity of a simple thing is the simply thing itself.” [14] Such an existence is, as Aquinas famously states, ipsum esse subsistens—that is, self-subsistent being itself. [15] Conversely, in a composite being the essence is really distinct from its existence since the essence does not necessarily entail existence. This was previously discussed with regard to unicorns: the essence of the word (i.e., the concept) is understood without any necessary reference to its actual existence. Therefore, these two things (namely, existence and essence) are not identical in a composite being.

          From this, we can ascertain a few things with regard to the relation between existence and essence: first, in a simple being there is a real identity between existence and essence, such that the two signify the same thing—the existent itself; second, in the same there is a conceptual distinction between existence and essence, since the concept of ‘to be’ and ‘to be a sort’ are different but in this case they have the same referent; third, in a composite being there is a real distinction between existence and essence, such that they two signify different things—the intrinsic principles by which a thing is and is a certain sort; fourth, in the same there also is a conceptual distinction since the difference between the concepts remains.

           There is also a connection between the esse-essentia distinction and the act-potency distinction, which shows how being, existence, and essence relate to actuality and potentiality as states of being and intrinsic principles. Esse, or the act of existing, is labeled as corresponding with actuality since it is that by which a thing is. This is what is meant by calling it an intrinsic principle: esse is an actuality whereby any given thing exists, or is in act. The state of being-in-act is co-referential upon the possession of esse. For this reason, it is the actuality of all actualities, since any act is metaphysically dependent upon this first act of esse. In this sense, esse is the very core of “being” since being, according to its proper sense, “posits something in reality.” [16] And something only exists in reality insofar as it has the intrinsic principle of esse, the first act of all actualities.

            Essence corresponds to potentiality since it delineates what sort a thing is without per se any reference to its actual existence. This goes back to Aquinas’ argument for the esse-essentia distinction in the first place: that which the act of existence refers to necessarily posits something in reality, whereas essence does not necessarily posit something in reality. However, there is more to essence’s correlation than a further elucidation of the original distinction. In correlating essence with potency, essence is then said to limit esse by virtue of their union in the form of composition. This mirrors the act-potency relation, since act (while not metaphysically dependent upon potency) is limited by its composition with potency. [17] Now, in this relation of esse to essence, what is occurring is that the essence is brought into being (or posited in reality) by virtue of its union with the act of existence. It is important to note that these two intrinsic principles are contained within a particular existent: they remain distinct but united since the existent is composed of them. This is important for understanding the precise nature of essence as limiting the act of existence: the act of existence is, as it were, indefinite. This is clear from the fact that esse in the Latin is the infinitive form of the verb sum, meaning ‘to be’ as well as from Aquinas’s usage. [18] This is why I previously described it as the very core of “being,” since it is, above all else, that which is posited in reality. Since this act of existence is per se indefinite, it can only be limited by the essence to which it is united. The act of existence is concretized, as it were, by its composition with a given essence. This essence, then, becomes the subject of existence or, more precisely, it is the individual instantiation of the essence which exists. This is called individuation in medieval philosophy. The essence, therefore, seen in itself as in a state of potency is actualized by its union or composition with esse.

– Michael Hall

 

Notes:

[1] For an overview of being qua being as the subject of metaphysics see Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, IV, lectio. 1. https://dhspriory.org/thomas/Metaphysics4.htm#1.

[2] For an overview of the act-potency distinction see Thomas Aquinas, On the Principles of Nature, c. 1.  https://aquinas.cc/369/371/~67.

[3] Thomas Aquinas’ On Being and Essence is accessible here:https://aquinas.cc/364/366/~121.

[4] Aquinas, On Being and Essence, pr. https://aquinas.cc/364/366/~1.

[5] See Aristotle, Metaphysics, V.7. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/metaphysics.5.v.html.

[6] For an overview of Aristotle’s ten categories see Louis F. Groarke, “Aristotle: Logic,” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, eds. James Fieser and Bradley Dowden,  https://www.iep.utm.edu/aris-log/#H2; Joe Sachs, “Aristotle: Metaphysics,” in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, eds. Fieser and Dowden, https://www.iep.utm.edu/aris-met/#H5. For an overview of Aristotle’s Categoriess ee Paul Studtmann, “Aristotle’s Categories,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/aristotle-categories/.

[7] Aquinas, On Being and Essence, c. 1.  https://aquinas.cc/364/366/~5.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., c. 4. https://aquinas.cc/364/366/~74.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., c. 4. https://aquinas.cc/364/366/~73.

[15] Ibid., c. 4. https://aquinas.cc/364/366/~74.

[16] Ibid., c. 1. https://aquinas.cc/364/366/~6.

[17] See my previous post on the act-potency distinction. https://thereformedphilosopher.com/2018/12/25/thomistic-metaphysics-ii-the-act-potency-distinction/.

[18] See “Introduction,” in Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence, 2nd Ed., trans. Armand Maurer (Canada: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1968), 7-27.