[t]../articles/images/2323-Fly-web.jpg[et]What elements compose your essence? Beyond essential oils and soaps from a farmer’s market, colognes and perfumes from a pharmacy, and the distinctive aroma attained from a weekend camping, the philosophical concept of essence has been discussed for as long as education has existed. Academies in ancient Greece held philosophy in high regard. Those such as Plato discussed the essences of things in terms of absolute archetypal forms while others, such as Sappho, discussed the essence of love as a power both captivating and delightful. We can each speak for our personal essence as citizens while, at least in theory, we may hold something uniquely in common with our fellow AU students. The question here is whether distance students at AU have an essential difference from traditional University students.
Why should we have an essence that we share with others, though? We often resist characterizations at the best of times, especially when it involves lumping us in with strangers, so perhaps it is better to heed Bertrand Russell’s statement that “I do not myself believe that the term ’category’ is in any way useful in philosophy, as representing any clear idea.” (Russell, 192). Maybe the assumption of a shared essence is muddled and illogical. Yet we have much to gain by realizing that we are not alone in our academic travails and even, perhaps, that we are part of a unique social grouping.
Our membership in the institution of AU can remind us that we are stronger than many challenges we face as we pursue our betterment. Russell claims that “if Socrates is ill, we think that Socrates, at other times, is well, and therefore the being of Socrates is independent of his illness; illness, on the other hand, requires somebody to be ill.” (Russell, 193). While setbacks in our coursework may make us feel ill the process of betterment that AU provides surely brightens our beings in a tangible way. An essential way, to be bold. It helps to remind ourselves that, when time constraints squeeze our study time right out of the day, there is always tomorrow. That is the heart of the matter; at AU we never miss a class because class is always in session.
Finding an essential core of our selves, let alone the part of us that we share with others as AU students, may seem like a fruitless or even misguided task. David Hume (1711-1776) claimed that “for my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception” (Hume in Russell, 602). Hume suggests that we have no essence, only bundles of perceptions glued together by our consciousness for expediency. Yet intuition is a perception too; we intuitively sense things about ourselves that are hard to categorize with our sense, that is sensibly. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) famously noted that “the heart has reasons of which reason does not know” (Pascal, Church). Perhaps our AU experience forges or reveals something in each of our essences of which we were previously unaware.
However, if we share an essence as AU students, then there ought to be attributes that we share. Christian Wolff (1679-1754) stated that for things to be ontologically identical (ie to share an essence, such as students who are all being educated in the same way) “no being can have and have not a given characteristic at one and the same time” (MacIntyre, 542). His “principle of non-contradiction” began with the view that the “universe is a collection of beings each of which has an essence that the intellect is capable of grasping as a clear and distinct idea” (MacIntyre, 542). We probably all share the fact that we work on course material from home and not in a literal university, for instance. This could manifest our essence. Yet some of us are simultaneously classroom students at traditional universities. Such a contradiction suggests that Wolff’s tenet of non-contradiction is too strict if we look for statistical facts as the basis of our essence as AU students. A definition of essence is needed that includes the essential meaning of being an AU student while still including the panoply of practical ways of being an AU student.
I would suggest that succeeding as an AU student essentially involves temerity in the face of long odds. It’s not easy to achieve success at this level while setting one’s own schedule. Whether we also attend classroom courses or have jobs or raise families or write books is moot in the face of the singular fact that we are resilient enough to succeed at (hopefully all!) of our courses. To be an AU student means to have the mental stamina to succeed in at least one AU course. Those who have dropped out of courses are no longer students and those who may fail in the future are, at least for the present, still swimming the good swim towards the home stream of academic success. We may be unaware of those around us, given spatial and temporal distances embedded in the medium of distance education, yet we are bonded by the fact that we are all heading toward the same goal.
Even if we theoretically have much in common despite the isolation of our studies, why attempt to define the essence of something so personal as our educational experience? The journey is ours and ours alone, private even. A fair case can be made that it’s a stretch to try and discover an essential common denominator between the experiences of a student body as disparate as AUs. Why not just post some age, major, and gender statistics and say ’there, I’ve represented the essence of what it is to be an AU student’? Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) provides fodder to criticize the statistical view as well as my somewhat more esoteric philosophical approach to a possible essence of being an AU student. For him, “identity works against and covers deeper pure differences. It does so because of the dominance of the demand to represent in the history of philosophy” (Williams, 124). Deleuze might claim that I’m squirming down an impossible rabbit hole and that I’m trying to group things into bundles of absolutes as Plato did and, like the Roman fasciie consisting of a bundle of sticks representing the bearer of the laws, my attempts lead inexorably to a fascistic desire to speak for others rather than give them space to speak for themselves (Cartwright, online). Yet, and here is where AU studenthood is essentially a unique process of insurgence and growth against the forces of stagnation and failure, Deleuze crucially believed that “reality is a process of becoming, which involves pure differences that cannot be represented.” (Williams, 124). Statistics nor definitions can bring to light the essence of being an AU student. Our essence, I argue, is a matter of will unique in that we struggle not alongside physical classmates but along with invisible members of our academic cohort. We are becoming ourselves alone simultaneously, and paradoxically, with others.
James Williams asks the rhetorical “Do we not need to be able to represent something in order to be able to talk about it in an open and effective manner?” (Williams, 125). Considering the personal implications of our AU experience and what this means for our sense of self, it is surely a just reason to attempt to describe this essence. Our AU experience is one component of our life journey. Hopefully it is one that alters us fundamentally for the better.
Properties coinciding with our AU student status are ephemeral; the tenuous reality of our (usually) part-time status means that we may fail or, through extenuating circumstances, be forced to drop out at any time. When our time is done we will look back at our experience, to be sure, and that is where we may discover just how essential our AU experience was. Was it fleeting or indelible? Russell notes that “among the properties of individual things, some are essential, others accidental; the accidental properties of a thing are those it can lose without losing its identity-such as wearing a hat.” (431). Only time will tell whether our time at AU serves as a mere footnote in the book recording our personal ascendancy to career and personal flourishing. I’d wager that the fortitude we hone as we succeed alone can only serve us in good stead, and that essential resilience is something we will proudly affix to our identity for years to come.
- MacIntyre, A. (1967). The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Paul Edwards (ed.). Macmillian Publishing Co. and the Free Press: New York.
- Cartwright, M. (2016). Fasces Definition. Retrieved from http://www.ancient.eu/Fasces/
- Church, J. (2005). ’Reasons of Which Reason Knows Not’. In ’Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology’. Vassar Collge Retrieved from: http://faculty.vassar.edu/church/REASONS_OF_WHICH_REASON.pdf
- Russell, B. (1996/1946). History of Western Philosophy. Routledge Classics: London and New York.
- Williams, J. (2005). The Deleuze Dictionary. Adrian Parr (ed). Columbia University Press: New York.
Jason Hazel-rah Sullivan is a Masters of Integrated Studies student who loves engaging in discourse while working in the sunny orchards and forests of the Okanagan.