Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Se. M. Ed, Ph.D.

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

( The  riddle  that the seed precedes the tree. or tree precedes the seed)

“My thought is me: that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think… and I can’t stop myself from thinking. At this very moment – it’s frightful – if I exist, it is because I am horrified at existing. I am the one who pulls myself from the nothingness to which I aspire.”

― Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

Sartre, Kierkegaard and other existentialists believe that existence precedes essence.  Perhaps never before had such a concept been put forth.  Down the ages the contrary belief has been held.  Almost every thought system, every philosophy believes that essence precedes existence.  So it is good to understand it in depth.

It was Plato who said that the surrounding world is a world of essences – ideas, values, ideals, thought etc. and the purpose of life is to discover these essences. Essences are already there and they precede existence. Even existence is an embodiment of an essence – the self, which is a part of an universal essence – the self.

The Theory of Forms ( Theory of Ideas) typically refers to the belief that the material world as it seems to us is not the real world, but only an “image” or “copy” of the real world. The forms, ,are archetypes or abstract representations of the many types of things, and properties we feel and see around us, that can only be perceived by reason .In other words, Plato was able to recognize two worlds: the apparent world, which constantly changes, and an unchanging and unseen world of forms, which may be the cause of what is apparent.

Everything has two principles that explains its being, essence and existence. In all beings except for God, these principles are both required in order for the actually existing individual thing to be. Each is distinct from the other, yet this distinction is a real, not merely logical, one.

Essence may be described as the “what” of a thing. It is the quiddity of the thing, that which is known about it by our forming of a concept. It is a formal principle since for material reality, it is abstracted by the human intellect. Hence, it is a universal principle making many material individuals to be of the same kind). But, it is obvious upon reflection that “what a thing is” and “that it is” are completely different statements.

There are, then, two principles; we should say, mind and matter, of which mind is the true reality, the thing of most worth, that to which everything owes its form and essence, the principle of law and order in the universe; while the other element, matter, is secondary, a dull, irrational, recalcitrant force, the unwilling slave of mind, which somehow, but imperfectly, takes on the impress of mind. Form is the active cause, matter is the cooperative cause. It is both friend and foe, an auxiliary and an obstruction, the ground of physical and moral evil, of change and imperfection.

According to Plato the ideas or forms  are not mere thoughts in the minds of men or even in the mind of God  ; he conceives them as existing in and for themselves, they have the character of substantiality, they are substances ,real or substantial forms: the original, eternal transcendent archetypes of things. The particular objects which we perceive are imperfect copies or reflections of these eternal patterns. Men may come and men may go, but the man-type, the human race, goes on forever.

The principle, of the Platonic ” matter,” forms the basis of the phenomenal world; as such it is the raw material upon which the forms are somehow impressed. It is perishable and unreal, imperfect, non-being whatever reality, form, or beauty the perceived world has, it owes to ideas. Some interpreters of Plato conceive this Platonic ‘ ‘ matter ‘ ‘ as space ; others as a formless, space-filling mass.

The dispute over essence and existence has a long and storied history in the Middle Ages. For medieval thinkers these concepts form the backbone of nearly every other metaphysical concern they have. The scholastic tradition looks to Boethius and Avicenna to go beyond an Aristotelian system that sees little need to make a distinction between essence and existence. Through the writings and disputes of Thomas Aquinas, Giles of Rome, and Henry of Ghent among others, a highly sophisticated debate took form about the nature of this distinction: whether it is real, rational, or somewhere in between. Amid the highly technical debates ranging from Boethius to Suarez, medieval thinkers knew that it was in the precise and technical formulation of the relationship between essence and existence that such critical issues were to be decided.

All  schools of philosophy that were born  before Sartre and other existentialists believes that the seed precedes the tree. And it seems logical  and  natural . But Sartre says  tree  precedes the seed. By and large, every  thought-system says that essence precedes existence;  without essence or soul , existence is not possible. But Sartre   asserts that existence comes first and essence later .HE BELIEVES THAT IN THE ABSENCE OF EXISTENCE ESSENCE CAN NOT BE MANIFESTED.

Existentialism is a revolt against any kind of determinism and an affirmation of the free nature of man. They affirm that existence is prior to essence that man is fundamentally free to create his essences. As Sartre himself explains his concept to us, “what is meant here by saying that, ‘existence precedes  essence ? “It means that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and only afterwards defines himself. It mean, as the existentialist sees him is indefinable; it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterwards will be something and he himself will have made what he will be…”

Jean Paul Sartre’s classic formulation of existentialism–that “existence precedes essence”–means that there exists no universal, inborn human nature. We are born and exist, and then we ourselves freely determine our essence. Some philosophers commonly associated with the existentialist tradition never fully adopted the “existence precedes essence” principle.

Sartre maintains that man can never comprehend the true meaning of his own existence unless he presupposes there is no God. For when we being with the premise that there is God, then we must conclude that man possesses an essence which precedes personal existence

Thus Sartre rejects classical atheism which suppresses the idea of God but retains the notion that men possess a common, rational mature or essence. This position, Sartre believes, is inconsistent with atheism because it retains all the significant elements of theism and refuses to accept the individual responsibility for self-creation which all true atheism implies.

The very question of the nature of man is a meaningless one for the existentialist. In both of the sections above it was emphasized that man has no “nature” as such but rather that he must create his own essence. Man is nothing more than what he makes or himself. Perhaps, then, it might be more accurate to speak of certain characteristics, state, or conditions which man creates for himself or into which he is thrown.

Atheistic existentialism…states that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept and that this being is man, or, as Heidegger says, human reality. What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself.

Philosophical Proof from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica

Basic Argument:

             Whatever a thing has besides its essence must be caused by the constituent principles of that essence or by some exterior agent.

             Consider a created thing. It is impossible for a created thing’s existence to be caused by its essential constituent principles because nothing can be the sufficient cause of its own existence if its existence is caused.

Therefore, a created thing has its existence different from its essence.

             God is the first efficient cause.

As the first efficient cause, anything God has cannot be due to an exterior agent. C3. God’s essence is identical to his existence.

Secondary Argument:

             Existence is that which makes every form or nature actual. Existence is actuality as opposed to potentiality.

             There is no potentiality in God; only actuality.

             God is his essence.

Since God is actuality his essence is existence.

In fact, all philosophical quarrels are childish. Even the biggest philosophical battles have been fought over a problem which can be summed up in a child’s question: “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” It is really around this small question that all the great battles between philosophers have taken place. Those who raise this question are stupid, and those answering it are  even more stupid.

But those who know will say the chicken and egg are not two. What is an egg but a chicken in the making? And what is a chicken but an egg fulfilled, come to its fullness? Egg and chicken hide each other in themselves. The question of who precedes who is the meaningful is egg and chicken are two separate things. The truth is that they are the same. Or we can say that they are the two ways of looking at the same thing. Or they are two different phases, tow states of manifestation of the same thing. Similarly, seed and tree and not separate. Neither are light and dark. Nor are  birth and death. They are two of looking at the same thing. Maybe, because we don’t know how to see a thing rightly, we see it in fragments.

We can now say that at some unseen level of their existence the egg and the chicken happen simultaneously, but it is not visible with our necked eyes.

It is something in our way of looking at things that the egg is seen first and the chicken afterwards. If we have the eyes to look the things in their totality it is not difficult to see them simultaneously. But the way we are, we will say it is something impossible; it defies our reason and logic.

Through the example of quanta physics,  an insight can be develop through scientific logic.

Within the field of physics, energy and matter, natural forces are studied and observed. During the early 1900s, this field began to look at the subatomic particles that make up the physical world. Up until this time, energy was considered to be made up of waves that followed a flow

This theory takes into account the interrelationships that exist between waves and particles–or energy and matter.

Further exploration into the quantum realm reveals the same concepts are at work when solid materials are examined. The electrons contained within a material’s atomic structure were once considered particle-type entities that maintained their form as they circled an atom’s nucleus. A closer examination revealed the electron to be moving in and out of a wave-particle state as it circled the nucleus. These waves and particles appear according to a certain frequency and wavelength that vary according to the type of element being studied . When observed at this level, particles and waves are found to be interchangeable forms that transition on a continual basis

There is a great difference between a particle and a wave. It they called the electron a particle, it could not be a wave. If they called it a wave, it can not be a particle. Quanta means that which is both a particle and a wave simultaneously. This  quanta is a mysterious phenomenon; it is both a particle and a wave, an egg and chicken together..

Actually existence and essence are two ways of looking at the same thing. Because of our limited perception, we divide the same thing into fragments. In fact, essence is existence and existence is essence. They are not two separate phenomenons. So it is wrong to say that essence has existence or that God has existence, because then it means God and existence are separate. No, if we understand it rightly we should say ; God is existence,

It is utterly wrong to say that God exists. We say a flower exists because tomorrow this flower cease to exist. But will God ever cease to exist? If so then he is not God. One who will never cease to exist cannot be said to have existence We can say that we exist , because we will certainly cease to exist  somewhere in future .But it is an error of language to say that God exists, because he is ever and ever and ever. It is utterly wrong to say God exists; the right way to say it is: God is existence.

But language always put us in difficulty; it is in the very nature of language, In fact , even the phrase ; God is existence; is erroneous, because the word ; is ; between God and existence creates a schism and confusion. It on one side is God and on the other is existence and the two are related by the word; is; This word really divide God into two – he and existence – which is again wrong. So even the word ;is; has to go . We had better say God means is-ness, God, means being, God means existence. The word ‘is ‘is also a repetition; it is repetition to say God is. ; Is; means God ; is-ness is God or God is  is-ness. That which is, is God. But language has its own limitations; it is created for the dualistic world.

Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon absolute truth….Through words and concepts we shall never reach beyond the wall off relations, to some sort of fabulous primal ground of things, -Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of The Greeks .p.83

This is the reason that one who knows wants to keep away from the trap of words and remains completely silent. The moment he says something, he at once separates himself from what he says; what he says becomes an object. But, in fact, he who says and what he says are one. Under the circumstances, there is no better way than to keep quiet.

“What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be.”

― Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism


Ayer, A. J. (1990). The Meaning of Life and Other Essays. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh .(1985) Krishna,The Man and His Philosophy ,Rajneesh Foundation International. Oregon.  U.S.A

Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, Massachusetts & London: Harvard University Press.

Cooper, D. E. (1999). Existentialism: A reconstruction. (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.

Gilliat, P. (1996). Spiritual education and public policy 1944-1994. In R. Best (Ed.), Education, spirituality and the whole child (pp. 161-172). London: Cassell.

Heidegger, M. (1996). Being and Time (Joan Stambaugh, Trans.). Albany: State University of New York Press.



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