My Mind III: What is Essential(ism)?
The Covid-19 or Corona virus pandemic has made us all think about what essential work is. We may even have come to realize what is essential in our lives. As the immortal line that is the secret of the fox, in Antoine de Saint-Exupréy’s brilliant novella tells us, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” That is a line that deserves its own essay/book/thesis, but, here it is just the line that opens our door to Essentialism.
The things that are essential vary from person to person. The attributes that form the essence of something can be subjective as well. It is hard to nail down exactly what the, “reason to be”, is even for simple things, like an electron for example. Electrons are, for the most part, invisible and essential though the essence of them is still difficult to determine. We keep finding new things about them, and how they interact in our world, to shape our reality. It is, objectively, more difficult to nail down the essence as things become more complex, say in a human being for example. Our emotions and feelings are things that are most often invisible to the eye but are essential parts of what make each of us the individuals we are. We all have emotions and feelings, yet they effect us differently. Viewed as a whole species could our emotions collectively be our essence, or is it our ability to reason or our biological needs or our soul/spirit aspect? You see what I mean about it becoming more difficult to define.
The Little Prince is a masterpiece that helps us to define ourselves, through the use of a story. Following the title character as he leaves his home on asteroid B112 all the way to Earth with all of his experiences on the journey. He had always been alone until a rose started to grow on his small planet. Then he had his rose for company and to care for. He decided to go on this journey and leave his rose, but the lessons that he learned while away, I am sure made his existence on his little planet all the sweeter when he returned. We are, all of us, on a journey that is life and looking through our experiences at all the things we have learned so far have helped to make each of us who we are up to this point. We cannot explain everything we have learned, or the essential part of ourselves, so easily to others. Our actions can show it but, the motivations behind those actions are invisible to the eye.
Plato, the agreed upon father of Essentialism, postulated that; What makes a specific thing, that specific thing, and different from another thing, is its essence. Aristotle, is another that helped Essentialism along as he tried to categorize the natural world. Finding and naming things according to each things perceived essence. Aristotle, was doing this work at a time in human history where many things in the natural world around still did not have a name, this was essential work!
One way to look at Essentialism, is that there is a perfect form or essence of each thing, all other things of this nature can strive to be like this perfect form, (Plato). This way of thinking brought about the school of Aestheticism, which took off in a tangent that Plato most definitely would not have intended! Aristotle, on the other hand took the essence of things in a very natural way. He ordered things according to their essence. So, to keep it simple, there are lots of different types of trees, but all trees are trees and all trees are plants. It was the start of Classification. Socrates at this point would probably ask, “Why do we care?”. Well, by caring about the essence of things we humans were able to define things and form a deeper understanding of what surrounds us. Years of study and further refinement have led us to a deeper understanding of the properties, good or bad, of the things in the world. The development of Science as we know it today.
Another way of looking at it is they way many people do today. Taking for granted that everything is made up of smaller things formed together in such a way to give them the properties that they have, we look at essence differently and take essentialism to mean, what is the minimum of what is needed, for life or a specific project, is then essential. The minimum required then forms the essence. There have been several books written about this. One such example is by Greg McKeown “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less”. I leave that to you to read if you are so inclined. Modern essentialism is a yearning to return to a more simple way of life. It asks that we get off of the treadmill of amassing stuff and producing work for works sake. To only do things of value. This then raises the question, “Of value to whom”?
That brings us back to our little prince, his rose and the secret of the fox. If the fox is right and what is essential is invisible to the eye, and I for one think that he is, then how do we go about finding this invisible thing? The answer is in the discovery the little prince made about his rose. You see, he thought at first that his rose was special because it was unique. He discovered through his journey that roses are not uncommon. He also discovered that it was not important that it was unique, what was important was his love for his rose. It is our love, and all that love entails, that is essential. When we look at the question from far away, then break it down to its essence, we learn that love is all that really matters. Good thing for us that we all hold within us an infinite capacity of love, we only have to journey within to tap into it, letting it shine out in the things we do.