Alfonso García Marqués

Tò tí esti, tò tí ên eînai, tò ón:

su sentido y traducción (2016)

Aristóteles - Francesco Hayez
Aristotle, Francesco Hayez

The following work is an English translation of a most interesting article by Alfonso García Marqués. I found this writing to be quite attractive, for it explores many subjects I consider fascinating: Aristotle’s philosophy, linguistic and semantic analysis in such a language as Greek, as well as its use in Antiquity, and, of course, translation. Indeed, it is everything which nurtures me, and it is what I try to share with others; yet I find myself unable to write about it. Finding, however, the opportunity to communicate that through the words of those who can, such as professor García Marqués, is, for me, the essence of this blog. I suggest visiting his web page at  Dialnet (, wherein you may find other works by him, and I wish to express my sincere gratitude for being allowed to translate his article.

Tò tí esti, tò tí ên eînai, tò ón: sense and translation

3. The translations of the Aristotelian formulas

Throughout history, we do not find unanimity in the translations for both formulas. In our modern languages, τὸ τί ἐστι has been frequently translated as quiddity (Yebra) or as the what it is or what-it-is (Tomás Calvo); τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι, as essence (Tomás Calvo, Yebra, Philippe, Treccani, Ross, Reale, Berti).33 However, in the Lalande Encyclopaedia we find essence as a translation for everything: οὐσία, τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι, τὸ τί ἐστι; and, as it happens, quiddity is also used to translate those three Aristotelian expressions.34 In conclusion, the most salient characteristic of the translations, taken as a whole, is their indistinction: essence and quiddity are used in every case.35 From a philosophical point of view, something similar has occurred: the philosophical content of both expressions has been primarily made identical.36

In spite of all this, I would dare say that in our days there is a certain tendency in almost every language to translate τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι as essence.37 We must then analyse whether such term is a good translation of the Aristotelian expression.

Tomás Calvo-Martínez
Tomás Calvo-Martínez

a) Essence and quiddity

The term essentia is a Latin creation to translate ousía. Seneca asks: “How should we translate ousía?”.38 His proposal is using the term essentia, although he finds it harsh. Notwithstanding, he appeals to Cicero’s authority, as the creator of such term.39 However, in his surviving texts, Cicero never uses this word, which is not enough to decisively settle whether Seneca was right or not, since he could have used it in lost works. Quintilian attributes the formation of this term to a certain Plautus: “Aristotle was the first to determine ten categories around which everything turns: the ousía, called by Plautus essentia, for its Latin name is none other, but it questions about whether ‘it exists’”.40 He also adds that this is a harsh word, that is, not well adapted to Latin.41 It is effectively harsh, for it is wrongly formed. The abstract essentia should have been formed not upon the infinitive (esse), but upon the present participle stem: sens, and that would have yielded sentia, acceptable as in praesentia or absentia.42

According to this, said term could well translate the long formula, for ousía is semantically one of the senses of tò tí ên eînai, and philosophically it is the closest concept, for both ousía and tò tí ên eînai are what a singular thing is in itself (what Callias is as such). In support of this translation, we may add that ousía ended up being commonly translated as substantia, and so the term “essentia” was left available as a possible translation for the long formula.

However, accepting said translation poses a serious problem in our days. Essentia ceased to be used as a translation for ousía because it took different senses foreign to the idea of ousía, namely, about a thing’s proper and ultimate reality. Concretely, it came to mean not the ground of each reality, what a concrete thing basically is in contrast to its accidents, but the what it is something abstractly considered, that is, its definition or universal characteristics. We may produce several historical examples. We mentioned the well-known Thomist distinction between being and essence. The opposition is between the thing’s essence and its real existence. For that reason, one of Thomas’s arguments is that essence is defined and known without knowing whether the thing exists or not.43 Likewise, Wolff defines essence as the first thing which is conceived of regarding an entity, namely, as an essential concept.44

In our modern languages, essence has retained this abstract sense, that is, as something common to many individuals. Thus, the Italian encyclopaedia Treccani defines essence (essenza) as “the proper and immutable reality of things, understood above all as the general form, the universal nature of singular things, belonging to the same genus or species”.45 Similarly, in his Léxico filosófico Millán-Puelles understands essence as an abstract mode of being, conceived without referring to individual reality: “An essence can be conceived without including it in an entity”.46 General dictionaries, such as the DRAE since the 18th century, consider essence as “the being and nature of things” (DRAE 1791) and propose the Latin translation natura. The idea that essence is the nature of something, that is, something general which can be defined, but not its substance, is absolutely dominant in every dictionary.47

Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Lucius Annaeus Seneca

While the translation of the long formula as essentia —understood as something abstract— became consolidated, it turned out that the tò tí ên eînai also came to be taken as something abstract. For example, Philippe explains: “tò tí ên eînai signifies a thing’s conceptual essence”.48 And García Yebra: “I believe that, in a nutshell, we may say the fundamental sense of τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι is that which we may call ‘essential concept’, namely, the essence abstractly considered, as logically prior to the thing constituted by such essence; in other words, it is the abstract content of the definition. On the other hand, the basic sense of τὸ τί ἐστι is that of ‘real essence’, as immanent in the thing and constituting it.”49

We can now conclude that it is evident that the term essence, in our languages, points towards the abstract, the definition, the universal. And as we have said with Aristotle, τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι questions about what it is being for Callias, what Callias is as such, what Callis is himself (ipse). Therefore, we can only conclude that such translation is inadequate.50 And in spite of the current tendency to translate the long formula as essence, such translation in untenable, for essence does not express the concrete reality of something, but what is abstract, the common features of all the individuals in a species.

If we look at the other translation, quidditas, we find ourselves in the same situation. Quidditas was a Medieval creation based on the interrogative quid, and was coined to denote what something is abstractly, what can be conceptualised and defined out of something. Thomas Aquinas explains that “the name quiddity is taken from the sense of the definition”.51 Hence, quidditas was frequently used to translate the formula tò tí esti, which is the question about the what of something, in a universal sense. Therefore, quiddity (or quidditas) is likewise an inadequate translation for τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι.

Detail of The Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas - Francisco de Zurbarán
Detail of The Apotheosis of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Francisco de Zurbarán

b) Proposed translations

If we concentrate only in the short formula, the situation is not so complicated. This formula enquires upon what is abstract, the definition. We should remember —as explains Aristotle— that animal is part of Callias’s what it is. Consequently, there would be nothing wrong with translating τὸ τί ἐστι as quiddity or as essence, as has been frequently done. However, given that in our language —just like in all others— it is common to find the question “What is it?”, which means exactly the same as τί ἐστι, and that, besides, it can be nominalised with the masculine article [neuter article in English] (the what it is), thus creating a parallel to the Greek formula, I think it would be unproblematic to adopt a literal translation. Furthermore, having typographic resources such as italics (or special voice inflexions when speaking) at hand, I would hold that the best translation for τὸ τί ἐστι is: the what it is. In fact, this formula says semantically the same as the Greek one, and also preserves its grammatic structure.

The translation of τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι poses greater difficulties. In addition to essentia and quidditas, the Latins used quod quid erat esse as a common translation. Such is the case of Moerbeke, as well as Bessarion.52 Those who are not utterly well-acquainted with the Latin language may find it strange to translate τὸ as quod. Actually, the complete Latin formula would be “id quod est quid erat esse”, that is, “what it is what it was being”. But, as is customary in Latin, the preceding pronoun and the verb “to be” are omitted, and so we have the coined formula: “[id] quod [est] quid erat esse”.53 And logically, in parallel with the Aristotelian text, there appears the object in dative or genitive (unicuique, singulis, singuli, homini, etc.), or even rarely in accusative (quod quid erat esse unumquodque).54 Regarding the use of the imperfect, I have found no explanation whatsoever in the Latin commentators.

How should we translate, then, that formula into our languages? Is there any term which can sufficiently express it? To begin with, we should point out that Aristotle meant to use that formula to express something which, I believe, cannot be said otherwise. Saying what it is being for me or what it is being for each one: there is no other way to express that. I think that trying to search in the ordinary use of language for a word which may express such reality is a futile enterprise. Therefore, the only possible translation is that made by some Latins: the what it was being (quod quid erat esse). Besides, as I have mentioned, we can always rely on typographical resources or voice inflections in oral speech.

What should we do about the imperfect? I consider we should keep it and make clear the sense I explained before. Being aware of the particular uses of our imperfect is not a bad idea for me. If the students in the example of the secret agent instructor are able to understand what the lesson is about by merely hearing that today they are discussing the who it was, then we can perfectly understand the Aristotelian formula when we read that we have to enquire upon the what it was being. Consequently, I think that translating τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι as the what it was being is a good translation.55

Perhaps someone may object that such formula could make the texts cumbersome, and hence we are left longing for a single word which may sufficiently convey the content of that expression. To this I would reply that Aristotle used this formula in his writings, the Greeks kept using it and the Latins —at least a group of them— did so as well, so I consider we should also do the same. Furthermore, I would even argue it is not desirable to use a single word in translation: if the Stagirite said τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι and in our language we can calque the formula, even with the imperfect, yielding exactly the same sense it had in Greek, wherefore should we not do it? We would have a formula saying semantically the same as in Greek, in addition to being morphosyntactically parallel. To sum up, I think the expression the what it was being is not only a good version of the τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι, but an utterly perfect translation.

Cardinal Bessarion - Justus van Gent
Cardinal Bessarion, Justus van Gent

4. Tò ón, ens and ente [entity]

The third expression I wish to discuss is τὸ ὄν. It goes without saying that this is the present participle of the verb “to be”, that is, a verbal adjective. That means that anything which can be said to “be” can also be said to be ὄν. In other words, not only horses and dogs are entities, but also each of their physical parts, their motions, the sparkle in their eyes, their attractions and fears, their being in a place, either lying or standing, what they could have done but did not, etc., etc. Needless to say as well, we should not confuse the participle (ὄν) with the infinitive (εἶναι).

Semantically speaking, suffice it to say that the Greek verb “to be” did not have an abstract meaning of existence or being in general —no language is born philosophical—, but more properly being in a place.56 Yet not even an abstract being: it meant occupying a concrete place (or being at hand or somewhere). This becomes evident by turning to the compounds of the verb εἰμί or its Latin parallel “sum”: πάρειμι (I am present); ἄπειμι (I am absent); πρόσειμι (I am next to); adsum (I am present); absum (I am absent), desum (I am missing, I am not at hand), insum (I am inside), obsum (I am against, I obstruct), etc. From there, it underwent an abstraction process, resulting in the sense of a reality’s pure presence or occurring or being; or simply said, what in Spanish we call to be or to exist.57

a) Common translations

When the Latins were faced with the task of translating this term, they found that the verb “sum” lacked a present participle. There certainly had existed one: sons, but its meaning had altered to mean damaging, harmful, and it became utterly unrelated to the verb “to be”. Having lost that participle, they created another one: sens, which is attested in these compounds: praesens (present), absens (absent), and their corresponding abstracts praesentia (presence), absentia (absence). However, they had also lost this second present participle, even before they began becoming familiar with Greek philosophy, and so it was not available as a direct translation of ὄν. This is why, besides using the expression quod est or id quod est (that is; that which is), they coined the neologism ens. Nevertheless, in contrast with the authentic present participles they had had, this neologism was not well formed, since the participles are not based on the infinitive, but on the present stem. Hence, the correct procedure would have been to recover sens, which, being fully alive in its compounds, would have worked semantically and grammatically well. On the contrary, the faulty neologism would never become fully integrated into their tongue. Five centuries after its creation and use, Boethius barely resorts to it. In almost all of his works, he writes quod est or id quod est, and —as far as I know— he only uses ens in the translation of Isagogé and its commentary. Anyway, I believe that after having used an authentic (albeit faultily created) present participle for two thousand years, we can consider the Latin version to be valid and immovable.

The problem comes with its translation into our languages, since most of them regularly lack present participles, such as occurs in Spanish, French, Italian, English, etc.; therefore, a present participle tells us very little, it has no resonance in our languages. In Spanish, we use ente [entity], directly taken from Latin, as a translation for τὸ ὄν. From a grammatical perspective, this word is a noun —not a participle— and this implies two serious drawbacks: neither it admits a neuter, nor it can accompany a noun. This means we cannot say lo ente [the entity], nor unos escritores entes [some entity writers]. Besides, from a semantic point of view, I do not think that in Spanish it means now —or has ever meant— the same as ὄν or ens. Therefore, in spite of having spent forty years studying metaphysics, when I hear that its subject matter is entity qua entity, I still think of this formula as foreign to our language, saying almost nothing.

Nowadays, it tends to be translated as “what is” and, in the plural, as “the things which are”.[1] First of all, we should remark that the Spanish word cosa [thing] does not seem quite proper. Few Spanish speakers would say that dreams, motion or something’s brightness are things. But also, translating such a widely used and vital word in philosophy by means of a circumlocution poses some permanent problems. Even the Latin expression quod est itself gives rise to ambiguity, hence sometimes we need to use id quod est; but in Spanish the situation becomes unsustainable. Saying that “there is a science which studies that which is, in so far as it is”[2] sounds unintelligible to me, and still worse than saying: “there is a science which studies the entity qua entity”.

Occasionally, τὸ ὄν has been translated as “ser” [“being”, literally, “(the) to be”], given that in Spanish we say “el ser” [“the being”] and “los seres” [“the beings”] (“human beings”), wherein “ser” is not the verb’s infinitive, but a normal (not verbal) noun. This translation, plus the disadvantages of ente (the fact of being a noun, not a participle or an adjective), only contribute to greater confusion, for now there is no distinction between the infinitive εἶναι, esse and the participle ὄν, ens. Furthermore, ὄν does not just allude to things or beings, but to much more. The same goes for thing: no one says that hair colour or a sparkle in the eyes are beings.
William of Moerbeke’s translation, MSS

b) Proposed translation

Faced with this situation, I would dare make the following proposal. Among the surviving remnants of the old Latin participles, we have a precious one: existent. Despite the fact that the Academia de la Lengua [Academy of Language] expelled this authentic participle from the conjugation of existir [to exist], I consider it an authentic present participle. To begin with, it counts with all three genders, as every adjective does (el, la, lo existente); and it can also be easily used in its adjectival function: “the existent poets during Homer’s time”; “the existent gas reserves underground”. And from a semantic point of view, there is no doubt that it means “existing”, i.e., “that which exists”. And, of course, it admits the plural. And even though it lacks a plural neuter form (the neuter has no plural in Spanish), the masculine sufficiently covers the whole extension: the existents are, with no restriction whatsoever, everything which exists in any mode or manner.

Consequently, if someone says that metaphysics is “the science of the existent as such”, I think it can be understood better than with any of the other two expressions I have recently mentioned. And if we translate τὸ ὄν ἐστιν as “the existent exists”, I believe this can be understood somewhat clearly. Plus, we could even keep the verb “to be”: “the existent is”, since the current use of our language still admits “to be” in a predicative sense: “The earthquake was in Japan”, “The explosion has been on the first floor”, “The meeting will be on next Friday”, “It is three in the afternoon”, “Languages are meant to be spoken”, “How much is the kilo of ham?”, “Is it or not?”, etc. It seems difficult to me to interpret the verb “to be” as copulative in uses such as these; our verb “to be” still holds, more or less, the existential character.

Does this translation have any drawbacks? I believe the most salient one is that the verb “to exist” is not copulative, and therefore it has no correspondence with the Greek or Latin verb “to be”. This is why it seems as if the only possible answers to the question “whether it exists” were yes or no, but not more or less. The question about being, for its part, can be answered in a variety of ways. Hence, I consider we should not translate ὄν (ens) exclusively as existent. I say exclusively because I think the best idea would be to have a dual translation: entity and existent. Expelling the term “entity” from our philosophical and cultural heritage would be an utterly improper proposal, in my opinion. I consider it necessary to retain entity because, together with the Latin equivalent ens, it has been used for millennia and, in Spanish, it has been dominant for centuries; besides, it retains its connection —more clearly in Latín, more confusingly in Spanish— with the verb “to be”. It is, therefore, a fundamental term. But its use does not preclude the additional use of existent, which, for the grammatical and semantic reasons I have mentioned, constitutes a good version of ὄν.

This is, then, my proposed translation for ὄν, ens: keeping the double entity, existent, using both terms interchangeably.

Aristotle - Francesco Hayez
Aristotle, Francesco Hayez


I wish to set forth very briefly the conclusions reached and the proposals made in this work.

About τὸ τί ἐστι and τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι

  1. The common translations have been essence for τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι and quiddity (quidditas) for τὸ τί ἐστι. But there has also been a notable indistinction, since both terms have been used to translate the two formulas. The only different expressions are those replicating the Greek structure: what it is (quod quid est), sometimes hyphenated (what-it-is), and the what it was being (quod quid erat esse), though this formula has hardly ever —not to say never— been used in Spanish.
  2. The short formula poses no special philological problems. The long formula, on the other hand, makes unexpected use of an imperfect past tense. The use of the imperfect has given rise to lengthy philosophical discussions, but with little philological clarification. I have argued that the imperfect in Greek (Latin and Spanish) is not a past tense strictly determined upon the speaker’s time, but an imperfectum, an unfinished tense, with no clear beginning or end, and therefore atemporal. Besides, it is used in free indirect speech to reproduce what has been explicitly said and even —this is the key feature— to reproduce what is already known, but left unsaid. Whenever someone leaves a meeting, we ask: “What was her name? (= What did she say it was her name?)” or “Who was it? (= Who is the one who has just left?)”; understanding, of course, that it was, is and will be her name; or that she was, is and will be.
  3. Although it is often said that Aristotle never clarifies the sense of the long formula, he actually does in Δ 18, and even in comparison with the short formula. The long formula was introduced in the Lyceum, in contrast with the Academy’s short formula. The new question which had arisen was: what is it being for each singular individual (ἑκάστῳ, unicuique). Thus, it is constructed with a dative (or sometimes with a genitive). The short formula asks about what something is as such in an abstract sense; in other words, the answer to the question “What is Callias (as such)?” is “Animal”, which is identical to the answer to what is Bucephalus (as such): “Animal”, although the complete answer would be different for Callias and Bucephalus, but not for Callias and Theaetetus. The long formula, on the contrary, asks about what it is being for an individual as such; namely, “What is it being for Callias as such?”. The answer is what he himself is in himself, that is, Callias (philosophically, in Aristotle it would be: his living), which of course is something unique: Callias’s living is not Bucephalus’s living nor any other man’s living.
  4. The translation of τὸ τί ἐστι well could be quiddity or essence, for it means what a subject is as such and abstractly, but I think we could abide by what Aristotle literally says: the what it is. We can even rely on typography (or on voice inflexions in spoken speech). Besides, this would allow us to translate Aristotle’s clarifications (what something is as such, etc.); if we use terms like “quiddity” or “essence”, those passages in Aristotle become tautological and superfluous.
    Given that τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι is something concrete, what an individual is in his uniqueness, there is no Greek, Latin or Spanish term —perhaps in no language at all— conveying this sense. Therefore, we should retain the Aristotelian formula, and in past too. Just like in Spanish, when we speak about “Who was it (the person who has just left)?”, we can say that the relevant thing is the who it was and not what the individual did or said, in translating τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι we must stick to the past: the what it was being, implicitly understanding that the underlying question is: “What is being for this individual?.

About τὸ ὄν

  1. The Greek present participle was rendered in Latin as ens, which is certainly not well formed, but it is the new present participle they created. In Spanish, it has been translated as ente [entity], and we should consider it a good translation. It is not acceptable to translate ens as ser [being, literally the to be], for it adds to the confusion between the infinitive and the participle.
  2. Notwithstanding, the term “ente” poses the problem of being a noun, not a participle, and it is still foreign to Spanish. The formula “science of entity qua entity” does not say much. That is why new translations have been proposed, namely, “that which is” and “the things which are”. These translations are certainly more expressive, but they cause tremendous difficulties in the translation and intellection of ordinary texts; for instance, when it is said that “there is a science which studies that which is, in so far as it is”.
  3. I propose to introduce the term “existent” (the existent, the existents) as a translation for ὄν, without leaving aside the old translation; that is, keeping the interchangeability of both words as two equally valid (and complementary) translations. The advantage of existent is that it is an adjective still working as the present participle of “to exist” (even though the Academia de la Lengua has excluded it from its verbal conjugation), which enables using it in neuter and plural form, and with nouns (“the existent poets in the times of Aristotle”). And the great advantage is that the semantic content is expressive for Spanish speakers, while retaining quite well the sense of ὄν, Thus, I think that if someone hears that metaphysics studies the existent qua existent, he may better understand what is said than with the other translations.
    However, I insist on not excluding entity, for it is a consolidated translation, while existent presents its disadvantages too: “to exist” is not a copulative verb and, hence, it does not offer the same flexibility as “to be”. Consequently, I consider that alternating between entity and existent as two complementary translations may be the best solution to translate τὸ ὄν, ens.
Aristotle statue


[33] Tomás Calvo, Metafísica, 57; Yebra, “Prólogo”; M.-D. Philippe, Une philosophie de l’être est-elle encore possible? (Paris: Téqui, 1975), vol. II, p. 10; L’Enciclopedia filosofica Treccani: Ross and Reale (Aristotele, Metafisica. Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 1993) in their respective editions of the Metaphysics. Enrico Berti, Nuovi studi aristote- lici (Brescia: Morcelliana, 2005), vol. I, p. 415 (in all of his works). This does not mean that the philosophical explanations, such as Berti’s, are mistaken; on the contrary, they are extraordinarily precise and valuable. Berti is undoubtedly one of the most conspicuous contemporary interpreters of Aristotle; this however does not prevent him from abiding by the dominant translation in his versions.

[34] André Lalande, Vocabulario técnico y crítico de la filosofía. Buenos Aires: Librería El Ateneo, 1953. For instance, in the term form. Thomas Aquinas also uses essentia and quidditas as synonyms, cf. De ente et essentia, c. 4, n. 26.

[35] Thus Reale, in his version of the Metaphysics, translates both expressions as essence (essenza), adding individual essence in some cases for the τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι (for example, in Δ, 18). Now well, if the essence is something abstract in our languages, what does “individual abstract” mean, what could an individual essence be?

[36] Referring to the predication of the answer to both formulas, Thomas Aquinas writes: “And these two modes of predication are of the same kind, for the definition and the part of the definition are predicated of each thing in itself, for the same reason” (“Et hi duo modi sub uno comprehendentur, nam eadem ratione definitio et pars definitionis per se de unoquoque praedicantur”), in Met. V, 18, lect. 19, n. 1054 (I quote from Marietti’s edition, Milan, 1964). Thomas considers the long formula as the whole and the short one as the part, but it is clear that philosophically they are the same: an expression of what Thomas calls essentia.

[37] For instance, in the aforementioned translation of Alexander’s Commentary to the Met., coordinated by Movia, the 11 translators always render the long formula as essenza. Similarly, in David Bostock’s edition, Aristotle, Metaphysics, Books Z and H. Oxford: Clarendon, 2003.

[38] “Quomodo dicetur οὐσία?,” Epistula 58, 6.

[39] “Ciceronem auctorem huius verbi habeo, puto locupletem”, ibid. There he also appeals for justification to the elegance and eloquence of a certain Fabianus, who had also used it. I return to Fabianus two notes further down.

[40] “Ac primum Aristoteles elementa decem constituit, circa quae versari videatur omnis quaestio: oùaiav quam Plautus essentiam vocat (neque sane aliud est eius nomen Latinum), sed ea quaeritur an sit,” Quintilian, Institutio, III, 6, 23. I quote from Alfonso Ortega Carmona’s bilingual edition, translation and commentaries, Salamanca: Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca, 1997-2000.

[41] “Et haec interpretatio [rhetorica] non minus dura est quam illa Plauti ‘essentia’ atque ‘entia,’” Quintilian, Institutio, II, 14, 2. The same idea about the harshness and creation of essentia and ens appears in VIII, 3, 33, but in this case attributed to Verginius Flavus (“Multa ex Graeco formata nova, ac plurima a Verginio Flavo, quorum dura quaedam admodum videntur, ut [quae] ‘ens’ et ‘essentia’: quae cur tanto opere aspernemur nihil video, nisi quod iniqui iudices adversus nos sumus: ideoque paupertate sermonis laboramus. Quaedam tamen perdurant”). In his bilingual edition, Alfonso Ortega says nothing about this change of attribution.

There is much confusion regarding this Plautus or that Verginius Flavus. The Latin edition in The Latin Library: mentions him as Plautus (II, 14, 2 y III, 6, 23) and as Sergius Plautus (VIII, 3, 33); Forcellini (Lexicon totius latinitatis. Patavii, 1864-1926), as Sergius Flavius (term essentia). Most probably, not to say surely, this is the Stoic Papirius Fabianus Plautus (first half of the 1st century AD), whom Seneca mentions as Fabianus in his letter LVIII, 6, pointing that he is one of the recent authors who use the term essentia. Cf. Christian Daniel Beck (ed.), Allgemeines Repertorium der neuesten in- und auslandischen Literatur fur 1826 (Leipzig: Carl Gnobloch, 1826), vol. II, p. 127 and said edition by Alfonso Ortega, vol. IV, p. 63 and vol. V, p. 196.

[42] We discuss the Latin present participle infra on section 4.

[43] “Quicquid enim non est de intellectu essentiae vel quidditatis, hoc est adveniens extra et faciens compositionem cum essentia, quia nulla essentia sine his, quae sunt partes essentiae, intelligi potest. Omnis autem essentia vel quidditas potest intelligi sine hoc quod aliquid intelligatur de esse suo; possum enim intelligere quid est homo vel Phoenix et tamen ignorare an esse habeat in rerum natura. Ergo patet quod esse est aliud ab essentia vel quiditate,” Thomas Aquinas, De ente et essentia, c. 4, n. 26. I quote from Opuscula philosophica. Turin: Marietti, 1954.

[44] “Essentia definiri potest per id quod primum de ente concipitur et in quo ratio conti- netur sufficiens, cur cetera vel actu insunt vel inesse possint,” Christian Wolff, Philosophia prima sive Ontologia (Veronae: Nova, 1789), n. 167. On the essence as something wholly abstract in Wolff, cf. Etienne Gilson, El ser y los filósofos (Pamplona: Eunsa, 1979), p. 174-184.

[45] Treccani, Enciclopedia italiana, word: essenza in

[46] Antonio Millán-Puelles, Léxico filosófico (Madrid: Rialp, 1984), p. 239. See also: “What is limited has a mode of being —an essence—…”, p. 238.

[47] A partial exception would be the Covarrubias (Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española. Madrid: Luis Sánchez, 1611), for it vaguely states: “Essence, the being of things, graecê [in Greek] οὐσία, de ente et essentia”.

[48] Philippe, Philosophie de l’être, vol. II, p. 10 in note. (Emphasis added.)

[49] Yebra, “Prólogo”, p. XXXVIII. (Emphasis added.)

[50] I am perfectly aware that I am deviating from the usual interpretation —patently reflected in the recently cited text by Yebra— that the τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι is the universal, while the τὸ τί ἐστι is the particular. Thus, for instance, in Frede/Patzig: “It is necessary to understand it [the τί ἐστι] … as something individual,” Michael Frede and Günther Patzig, Il libro Z della Metafisica di Aristotele (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2001), p. 176.

[51] “Quidditatis vero nomen sumitur ex hoc quod per definitionem significatur,” De ente, c. 1, n. 3.

[52] For Moerbeke, see Yebra’s edition of the Met. The Iunctine edition of Averroes I have mentioned presents two versions of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, one by Cardinal Bessarion and the other by an unspecified author (Paulus the Isrealite?, Iacobus Mantinus?). Bessarion’s translation of τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι is quod quid erat esse (for example, in Z, 3, fol. 157 F), while the other translator renders it as essentia (in Z, 3, fol. 157 G) or quidditas (A, 18, fol. 132 D).

[53] In my opinion, the best translation would have been “ipsum quid erat esse”, for the ordinary way of metalinguistically nominalising in Latin is by putting the pronoun ipsum (neuter of ipse) before. The great translator Boethius, whose mother tongue was Latin and whose philological and humanistic culture were not huge, but immense, systematically uses this resource. In a philosophical context, in the first propositions of De hebdomadibus: “ipsum enim esse nondum est” (prop. 11); “ipsum esse nihil aliud praeter se habet admixtum” (prop. 13). And in philological contexts: “Cum vero dicit ‘non currit’, ipsum quidem cursum videtur auferre, sed utrum sedeat an iaceat. non relinquit” (In De int. I, 308 D). I quote from Patrología latina. Paris: Migne, 1847. Moerbeke usually preferred to use quod, yet sometimes uses ipsum: “. de ipso quid est (περὶ τοῦ τί ἐστιν) dicere et definite coeperunt” (Met. A, 5, 987a, 20-21).

In their excellent trilingual edition of Porphyry’s Isagoge (Barcelona: Anthropos, 2003), Juan José García Norro and Rogelio Rovira explain: “τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι: quod quid est esse (in the Scholastics, the formula quod quid erat esse is much more common than this translation by Boethius): essence”, p. 117. Actually, Boethius uses the formula id quod est esse, for instance, in the translation of Isagoge IV, 14 and in the corresponding commentary. In the case of that passage, he needs to use the formula in genitive depending on a noun (pars), so he writes: “et quod eius quod est esse rei pars est”, which in our language’s order, for us Spanish speakers to better understand, would say: “et quod est pars ‘eius quod est esse’ rei”; that is: “and what is part ‘of what it is the being’ of the thing”. Thus, given that in the commentary to that passage he needs the accusative for the sake of grammar, we can see his formula more clearly: “illae tantum quae ad id quod est esse proficiunt”. In conclusion, Boethius uses the present (est); and instead of the demonstrative ipsum, he uses the anaphorical id, which requires him to write the relative quod instead of the interrogative quid, which would have been the correct choice and would have allowed him to use ipsum. I quote the commentary on the Isagoge from Documenta catholica omnia:

[54] Met, Z, 4, 1029b, 14 (Moerbeke’s translation).

[55] Notwithstanding that in a translation ad usum Delphini we may express it in present or make the formula explicit: the what it is being for each one.

[56] I am indebted to professor Tomás Calvo for his suggestions on the primitive sense of the verb “to be”, referring explicitly to Homer. It seems, indeed, that when we read for example in Book V that “everything was covered with sea foam, for there were no harbours, no haven for the ships, nor coves, but cliffs, rocks and reefs”, we are not to understand that there were or existed no harbours in general, but that they were not there, that all there was in there were reefs. Thus, it is not strange that, if Plato desires to make his ideas real, he finds himself in need of a place, a kósmos noetós, where to locate them. Even today in our languages, whenever something exists, no matter how spiritual or vague it is, we ask where it is. For instance, we say that, if God exists, he is in Heaven; or that the souls of the dead must be somewhere.

[57] I am not discussing here the copulative use. I just point out that, in that process of abstraction, i. e., of dispensing with the concrete and real, the verb “to be” —besides its existential meaning— assumed the role of a mere grammatical marker to indicate that the adjective did not have an adjectival or adjacent function, but a predicative (or attributive, as some say in our days) function. Greek and Latin word order, together with some structures such as the use of the dative, must have favoured such process. A phrase like “panis bonus nobis est”, which originally must have meant “we have good bread at hand”, “among our belongings we have good bread”, without dative, gives rise to “panis bonus est”, which can be understood either in an existential (“there is good bread”) or a predicative sense (“bread is good”). This is why in Latin, if the adjective necessarily has predicative value in a given context, the verb “to be” is so frequently omitted, for it becomes superfluous.

[58] So does Calvo in his translation of Met. Cf. p. 57.

[59] Calvo’s translation, Met. r, 1, beginning, p. 161.


a) Sources

Alexander of Aphrodisias, “Commentario alla Metafísica di Aristotele, a cura di Giancarlo Movia, testo greco a fronte.” Milan: Bompiani, 2007.

Alexander of Aphrodisias, In Aristotelis Metaphysica commentaria. Berlin: Berolini Typ. et impensis G. Reimeri, 1981. (M. Hayduck, ed.)

Aristotle, Metafísica. Madrid: Gredos, 1980. (Trilingual edition by Valentín García Yebra.)

Aristotle, Metaphysica, double Latin translation in Aristotelis Opera cum Averrois commentariis (Venetiis: Apud Iunctas, 1562-1574), vol. VIII.

Aristotle, Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Oxford: Clarendon, 1958. (W.D. Ross, ed.)

Aristotle, Metafísica. Madrid: Gredos, 1994. (Tomás Calvo Martínez, ed.)

Aristotle, Metafisica. Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 1993. (Giovanni Reale, ed.)

Aristotle, Aristotle, Metaphysics, Books Z and H. Oxford: Clarendon, 2003. (David Bostock, ed.)

Aristotle, De anima, en «Opera», ex recognitione Inmanuelis Bekkeri, edidit Regia Academia Borussica (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1960), vol. I.

Aristotle, Sobre las partes de los animales, translation by Rosana Bartolomé, in:

Aristotle, De partibus animalium, en «Opera», ex recognitione Inmanuelis Bekkeri, edidit Regia Academia Borussica (Berlin: W. de Gruyter 1960), vol. I.

Aristotle, De partibus animalium, Latin translation by Theodorus Gaza, in Aristotelis Opera cum Averrois commentariis (Venetiis: Apud Iunctas, 1562-1574), vol. VI, 1.

Aristotle, Traité sur les Parties des Animaux. Paris: Bibliotèque Philosophique, 1945. (Translation by J.-M. Le Blond.)

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus, De hebdomadibus, in Patrologia Latina. Paris: Migne, 1847.

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus, In De interpretatione, in Patrologia Latina. Paris: Migne, 1847.

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus, In Isagogen Porphyrii commentaria, in Documenta Catholica Omnia:

Cicero, Marcus Tullius, De finibus, in The Latin Library:

Cicero, Marcus Tullius, Tusculanae disputationes, in The Latin Library: http://www.

Kant, Immanuel, Crítica de la razón pura. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1978. (Pedro Ribas, ed.)

Lucretius, Titus, De rerum natura, in The Latin Library:

Plato, Le Banquet. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1976.

Plato, Banquete. Madrid: Gredos, 1986. (Translation by C. García Gual et al.)

Plato, El banquete, in (no further information or references).

Plato, Simposio, in Tutti gli scritti. Milan: Rusconi, 1991. (Giovanni Reale, ed.)

Porphyry, Isagoge. Barcelona: Anthropos, 2003. (Trilingual edition by Juan José García Norro and Rogelio Rovira.)

Quintilian, Institutio oratoria. Salamanca: Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca, 1997-2000. (Bilingual edition, translation and commentaries by Alfonso Ortega Carmona)

Quintilian, Institutio oratoria, in The Latin Library:

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, Ad Lucilium epistularum moralium libri XX. Milan: Rizzoli, 2000.

Thomas Aquinas, Expositio in Metaphysicam. Milan: Marietti, 1964.

Thomas Aquinas, De ente et essentia, in Opuscula philosophica. Turin: Marietti, 1954.

Wolff, Christian, Philosophia prima sive Ontologia. Veronae: Nova, 1789.

b) Philological instruments and studies

Academia de la Lengua española, Diccionario de la lengua española:; for the historical editions of this and other dictionaries: ntlle/SrvltGUILoginNtlle.

Aubenque, Pierre, Le problème de l’être chez Aristote. Paris: P.U.F., 1962.

Beck, Christian Daniel (ed.), Allgemeines Repertorium der neuesten in- und auslan- dischen Literatur fur 1826 (Leipzig: Carl Gnobloch, 1826), vol. II.

Berti, Enrico, Nuovi studi aristotelici. Brescia: Morcelliana, 2005.

Conde, Isabel, “Más sobre el imperfecto: τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι», Revista Española de Lingüística, num. 19, fasc. 1 (1989), p. 85-109.

Courtès, P., «L’origine de la formule tò tí ên eînai», Revue des Sciences Philosophiques et Théologiques, XLVIII (1964), p. 169-197.

Covarrubias, Sebastián de, Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española. Madrid: Imp. Luis Sánchez, 1611.

Daiber, Dietrich Lorenz, “Las traducciones medievales de la Metafísica de Aristóteles: un problema de hermenéutica,” Observaciones Filosóficas (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, December 2006), p. 1-20.

Forcellini, Aegidius, et al., Lexicon totius latinitatis. Patavii, 1864-1926.

Frede, Michael and Patzig, Günther, Il libro Z della Metafisica di Aristotele. Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2001.

Garay, Jesús de, Los sentidos de la forma en Aristóteles. Pamplona: Eunsa, 1987.

García Yebra, Valentín, “Prologue” to his edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Madrid: Gredos, 1980.

Gilson, Étienne, El ser y los filósofos. Pamplona: Eunsa, 1979.

Herrero Llorente, Víctor-José, “Filología y lingüística en la obra de Séneca el Filósofo,” Lenguas clásicas, num. 205-207 (1969) p. 1873-1889.

Inciarte, Fernando, Tiempo, sustancia, lenguaje. Ensayos de metafísica. Pamplona: Eunsa, 2004. (Lourdes Flamarique, ed.)

Lalande, André, Vocabulario técnico y crítico de la filosofía. Buenos Aires: Librería El Ateneo, 1953.

Millán-Puelles, Antonio, Léxico filosófico. Madrid: Rialp, 1984.

Ortega y Gasset, José, Apuntes sobre el pensamiento, su teurgia y su demiurgia, in Obras completas (Madrid: Alianza editorial y Revista de Occidente, 1983), vol. V.

Philippe, M.-D., Une philosophie de l’être est-elle encore possible? (Paris: Téqui, 1975), 5 vol.

Rubio, Lisardo, Introducción a la sintaxis estructural del latín. Barcelona: Ariel, 1976.

Treccani, Enciclopedia italiana, in:

Don't miss out!
Blog subscription

Get a notification on your e-mail with each new post

Invalid email address
You may cancel the subscription at any time