One of the ways that we derive acute meaning and pleasure and see beauty in life lies in our ability to experience the quiddity or essence of persons or things.

Rembrandt’s genius was his unparalleled ability to render a person’s quiddity in a single portrait.

My wife’s genius, her quiddity, lies in her ability to see a problem and devise a solution that helps another person get something they need.

The word quiddity originated in the Latin word quid meaning “what.” Quiddity was defined by the ancients as the real nature of a thing; its essence.

In medieval scholastic philosophy “quiddity” quidditas literally meant “whatness.” For these philosophers quiddity described properties that a particular substance ( say a person) shared in with others of its kind, and so entails a description by way of commonality.

The quest for a quiddity represents a romantic and idealistic human quest for meaning. It represents a way of thinking, an effort to get to a main thing, something bordering on a quest for universals, something Platonic, a quest for the Plato’s forms, something that helps us understand a complex thing in a simple way.

And yet it’s not so high flying as all that. Quiddity is smaller than universal. It is more attainable. It is that fleeting fragrance of the flower I just passed by, the honeysuckle in my backyard, experienced for a brief moment, absorbed, loved but not catalogued as eternal or forever fixed. What is the quest for beauty. 

Quiddity, at its simplest and most sensory, is a brief flash of recognition and pleasure of essence.

This is how we were meant to live, philosophically and joyfully sentient. Wise Jesus said that he came to give us life, life abundantly, life flowing over the edge of the cup. He came to empower us to experience the quality of being human, and of being one with each other and himself. He designed us to receive essences, to be in receipt of the ultimate essence, love.

But not wanting to fly too high over our own heads, although we can soar into the best things life has to offer (connection, community, love, the divine) we can also talk about this kind of thing, about quiddity, in earthy, historical, everyday, garden variety terms.

Consider Frank Loyd Wright, the famed American architect. It has been said that his architecture is organic. This is a rough and crude distinction, but it helps understand the man. The structures he designed vary widely in look, but the theme of fitting in with the environment is common to many of them.

He himself said about this:

“A building should appear to grow easily from its site and be shaped to harmonize with its surroundings if Nature is manifest there.”

“No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”

By such statements we begin to get at the quiddity of his designs, a harmony between hill and house. He built to nature. His buildings honor their environments, his “Falling Water” house being perhaps the finest example. A rushing waterfall runs out from under the house.

So why labor to identify quiddity?

For this reason: To discover the nature of a thing is to understand and to increase pleasure in living through our amazing world. It may also help us to understand evil, and injustice, but then that is another exploration for another time.

The quest for quiddity is one mechanism for increasing our understanding and pleasure. As applied to the good things of life, it is a quest to experience beauty. 

So what would it take for you and I to apprehend the quiddity present in people and things around us on a day-to-day basis?

The question is fraught with philosophical, epistemological and ontological problems.

Let’s skip those. We will never all agree on the universal essence of anything, or even on how we come to that, but what we can do is simply savor what we perceive to be the essence or essences of something in any given moment.

How might we do that? How might we dive deeper into the rich essence of experience? How might we see, know, apprehend and classify our experiences of the “other,” the “what” better?

This way: Make the choice to pause, to be in the present moment and to suck it up, straw it up into our awareness. It will take the extended pause needed to really see and hear and feel. It will take the pause that hovers over something, that lets it be for us what it is. It will take the willingness to savor the thing, the thing’s “what,” its pleasure rating, its place on the pleasure spectrum. This will have to be done without rushing on to the next moment in which the lovely, glowing, fragrant, sensuous quiddity of the previous moment is always lost.

This morning as I ground my espresso beans and packed them into the portafilter basket, I breathed them. I breathed in the sweet, poignant, nutty, earthy fragrance of ground coffee, freshly baked.

The quiddity of good espresso exists in its smell and taste, which exists in the art of how it was originally dried, baked and processed. It’s real essence is the land it came from, it’s elevation, it’s rainfall, it’s soil.

When I drink espresso, I drink it’s quiddity, it’s immediate history, the machine it was just extruded from, the water it is dissolved in, the heat that helped extract it, the ratio of water to bean. And when I drink espresso I drink its older history, the place it grew, its geography, the people who grew and harvested it. I drink a complex old-new quiddity that is reduced for me to a beautiful smell and taste that I and so many others know and love so well. And then there is the jolt, the caffeine rush, another very personalized quiddity of the much loved coffee bean.

Quiddity, the word has such a fluid sound. It easily slides into place with its definition. And it offers us a pointer, a crude gesture toward living well.

To pause, over each person and thing we encounter, and closing our eyes to breathe in an essence, a gorgeous “whatness,” the what that is right in front of us — ahhhh.

This is one way to live well.

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