The Revival of Scholastic Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century

Chapter IV: Scholastic Cosmology


The question of the constitution of matter is one of those fundamental problems which, in the course, of human investigation, have been most widely discussed, and of which an adequate solution will perhaps never be attained. It is one of those questions before which, according to Herbert Spencer, human reason must humbly confess its powerlessness; a question which seems to prove a mystery for the human mind and to point to the existence of the unknowable in nature.

All attempts at a solution of this great problem may be classified under two heads: they are all, in some way, connected with the two theories of Atomism and Dynamism.

The atomistic theory sprung originally from ancient Greece. According to Aristotle and Theophrastus, it is to Leucippus that we must attribute the honor of its discovery. But, as we know so little of Leucippus, and as his very existence has even been called into doubt,[1] we generally consider Democritus, his illustrious disciple, as the founder of the system.

The loss of all the writings of Democritus is indeed one of the most deplorable facts in the history of human investigation. With what burning interest would we not follow the efforts of his genius to get rid of the untenable hypotheses of his contemporaries and to reach a satisfactory exposition of the intrinsic nature of things! And still, deplorable though it be, such a loss is unhappily a fact; and our only substitute for a study of the philosophy of Democritus is to turn to its poetical exposition, tion, as given by Lucretius in his justly admired poem De Rerum Natura.

The atomistic theory has undergone, in the course of time, many profound modifications. Hard atoms and absolute void were the only elements which Democritus supposed to exist in nature. In recent times, there has arisen the idea of a universal medium, of a fluid everywhere present, penetrating all bodies, and serving as a connecting-link between the atoms.

The existence of the ether is indeed only a hypothesis, but it is a hypothesis that has been rendered very probable by scientific discoveries; and now, it may almost be considered as an established fact. At present we will not discuss the probabilities in favor of each of the particular ether theories that have been brought forward. This theme will be fully treated in one of the ensuing sections of this chapter. Suffice it to say that, although all physicists do not agree as to the inherent constitution of ether, they all unanimously affirm its existence.

Atomism admits only matter and passive emotion in nature. Still, a majority of thinkers did not deem these two elements sufficient to account for the activity which our everyday experience shows us to exist in the universe, and therefore they thought it indispensable to introduce into nature the element of force. And thus the theory of Dynamism originated.

We shall refrain from presenting the various theories held by the ancient Greeks, which might be termed dynamic. We shall not even touch upon Leibniz's famous doctrine of monads, but we shall consider as the true representative of Dynamism the Jesuit Boscovich. Instead of the hypothesis of hard atoms Boscovich proposed to consider nature as formed of unextended points, of indivisible centers of force, which mutually attract and repel each other, are therefore capable of furnishing a satisfactory explanation of the activity manifested in nature, and give us the illusion of continuous extension, in the same way as points placed very near each other might lead us to believe in their forming continuous letters.

Scholastic cosmology might be described as an intermediate position between the two systems just outlined. Its defenders reproach atomists for denying activity to nature, and contend that an explanation of all the phenomena of the world by mere matter and passive motion is forever doomed to remain a fruitless attempt. On the other hand, they consider the dynamic view to be similarly inadequate. They assert that, although passivity cannot be the only element in nature, its very existence must not be denied, and they put forward the theory of Matter and Form as the only possible explanation of the universe.

I must here confess that I have never felt for the theory of Matter and Form that unreserved sympathetic feeling wherewith I have subscribed to so many Scholastic doctrines. I cannot help regarding the Thomistic cosmology as arbitrary, assailable in many points, inconsistent with our advanced scientific discoveries. The fact that physics and chemistry unanimously adhere to some form of atomism is of great significance. Scholastics are perfectly justified in insisting on the shortcomings of Atomism and Dynamism. They are right when they assert that activity, as well as passivity, must be admitted in the composition of our world. Unhappily, the theory they propose does not rest upon cogent reasons, and therefore it should be frankly rejected, or made to undergo important modifications.

The most cursory observation, Scholastics would say, suffices to show in all matter the element of quantity. A solid may become a liquid and a liquid a gas. A body may be made to assume an infinite number of forms: its volume may be increased or decreased; it may, by chemical combination, acquire a nature utterly different from the one it formerly possessed; but in all these transformations, in all these fundamental changes, there remains the element of quantity, unchanged and unchangeable, always identical with itself, and which thus seems to be a common element in all material things.

On the other hand, we cannot help observing the greatest diversity in nature. We find in every object an immense number of peculiar, specific properties. We have before our eyes the great division of bodies into inorganic and organic. In the inorganic realm, we have solids, liquids and gases, metalloids and metals, the simple elements which chemistry has found to exist, and whose number is daily increased by scientific research. We have the innumerable combinations of those elements, and the appearance in compound bodies of properties essentially different from those of their simple constituents.

And if we turn our eyes to the sphere of life, if we consider the infinite chain of living beings, from the amoeba swimming in our blood to the more highly-developed body of man -- subjects of inexhaustible research to the scientific mind -- are we not struck with wonder and amazement?

When we consider with a philosophic mind these properties of matter, we see that its qualitative variety and its quantitative identity are diametrically opposite. It is this opposition that led the Scholastics to affirm that such properties must be the result of different principles.

Another argument in favor of the existence of Matter and Form, at least as strongly insisted upon as the one we have just explained, is derived from the supposed essential transformations tions that take place in chemical combinations: "Dans ce fait bien compris et sagement interprété, says Mr. Nys, est contenue comme en germe toute la théorie de l'Ecole sur la nature des corps."[2]

In a chemical combination, Scholastics are prone to say, something remains and something is changed. That something is changed -- or, in other words, that a new substance is produced-- is proved beyond any doubt by the fact that the physical properties of the compound differ essentially from those of their constituent elements. It is no less true that something remains, for otherwise we would not have a change, but a real creation. The new element is a substantial part of the compound, because it distinguishes it from its simple constituents. The stable element is also a substantial part of the compound. It is the determinable principle which, actuated by the new element, has given rise to a new substance. The new element is the substantial form; the stable element, primordial matter.

Francisco Ginebra, following Thomas Aquinas, gives of Matter and Form the following definitions:

"Form is the incomplete substance which determines matter and constitutes it in a determinate species. Matter is the incomplete material substance which, actuated by the substantial form, produces a complete corporeal substance."[3]

Matter is then, in the Scholastic system, the passive element of objects. It is the same in all material things, which acquire their diversity by means of the substantial form. But primordial matter cannot exist in a state of isolation; it is necessarily united to the substantial form, and the infinite variety of these forms is the cause of all the diversity we behold in nature.


To have a fair idea of what Primordial Matter is -- or, to speak more definitely, of what is meant by that term -- is indeed a most arduous task, one whose difficulty is enhanced still further by the unsubstantial and indefinite character of the conception itself.

This difficulty is recognized by all Scholastic philosophers and frankly admitted by one of the most ardent sympathizers of peripatetic philosophy, Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire:

"As to these abstractions," says he in the Preface to his Physics, "the most difficult point is to understand them; but, once understood, they appear neither false nor useless. Therefore, instead of rejecting this formula, one must endeavor to know what it signifies."[4]

Albert Farges, in his most valuable work on the subject, deems it helpful to give us at first a negative definition: "To say what Primordial Matter is not, says he, is a very easy thing."[5] He then proceeds to show that it is neither a substance nor an accident; and that, for this reason, it cannot fall within the group of Aristotle's categories:

"Can primordial matter be classed as one of the categories? It is clear that it cannot; as it is neither an attribute nor a complete substance, and categories do not comprise but these two sorts of realities."[6]

This passage is of the utmost importance, for Aristotle himself understood by categories the supreme genera to which the ideas of all things could be reduced, and the same view is still held by Scholastic philosophers. We are thus led to the view that primordial matter is not a reality.

The doubtful character of the existence of primordial matter was felt even in the Middle Ages. From the very works of the founders of Scholastic philosophy, many extracts might be adduced, to show how slender was the foundation whereon Scholastic cosmology was reared. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his opuscule entitled De principiis naturae, makes the following significant assertion:

"Materia dicitur quod habet esse ex eo quod sibi advenit, quia de se esse incompletum, immo nullum esse habet."[7]

It is here clearly stated that primordial matter not only has an incomplete being, but has no being at all.

In the Summa contra Gentiles, the Angelic Doctor speaks again in almost the same way:

"Ipsum esso," says he, "non est proprius actus materiae, sed substantiae totius; ejus enim actus est esse, de quo possumus dicere quod sit. Esse autem non dicitur de materia sed de toto."[8]

Other similar statements are quoted and discussed by Duns Scotus. In his treatise De Rerum Principio (Quaestio VII), he warns us against the teaching of a few authors who seem to regard primordial matter as a mere potentiality without an actual existence. Among the philosophers he thus mentions, we find the names of Plato, Aristotle, and St. Augustine. But these writers do not, according to Scotus, really teach that primordial matter does not exist. They simply have in mind the fact that, of all existing things, it has the smallest degree of actuality.

Scotus then passes to a direct proof of the existence of primordial matter, and brings two classes of arguments: the first from authority, the second from the light of reason.

The proofs taken by him from reason are four in number and read thus:

1. "Si materia non esset aliqua res actu, ejus entitas non distingueretur ab entitate et actualitate formae, et sic nullam realem compositionem faceret cum ea." 2. "Inter ens actu et nihil, non est medium; ergo si materia praeter formam non habet aliquem actum essendi, erit nihil; ergo agens creatum ageret de nihilo, cum agat de materia." 3. "Secundum Philosophos, materia est in potentia ad alia; sed secundum eos, nihil ad nihil est in potentia: ergo materia, ut materia, non est nihil; ergo habet aliquem actum de se, et si non subsistentiae, tamen existentiae." 4. "Item, posse pati ad materiam reducitur, sicut agere ad formam; sed quod non est aliquid actu, non est principium patiendi, nec fundamentum; ergo necessario materia habet actualitatem aliam ab actualitate formae in qua actualitate formae fundantur, et stabiliuntur."[9]

These four proofs are simply intended to demonstrate that, if we admit the theory of matter and form, we must regard primordial matter as something actual. There is, however, another alternative: the rejection of the theory of matter and form. This alternative, unhappily, Duns Scotus does not consider.

At the risk of intruding too much upon the patience of our readers, we will reproduce the words of a devoted seeker after truth, of a man who strove during his whole life to reach a satisfactory knowledge of nature, to understand in a clear and definite way what, in the thought of his time, was still obscure and indefinite. St. Augustine, in that sublime work which is not only a humble confession of his life and a profound study of the human heart, but likewise a treatise in which the philosophy of his time is exposed and skillfully analyzed, considers thus the question of matter and form:

"But I, Lord, if I would, by my tongue and my pen, confess unto thee the whole, whatever Thyself hath taught me of that matter -- the name whereof hearing before, and not understanding, when they who understood it, not, told me of it, so I conceived of it as having innumerable forms and diverse, and therefore did not conceive it at all, my mind tossed up and down foul and horrible 'forms' out of all order, but yet 'forms'; and I called it without form, not that it wanted all form, but because it had such as my mind would, if presented to it, turn from, as unwonted and jarring, and human frailness would be troubled at. And still that which I conceived was without form, not as being deprived of all form, but in comparison of more beautiful forms; and true reason did persuade me, that I must utterly unease it of all remnants of form whatsoever, if I would conceive matter absolutely without form; and I could not; for sooner could I imagine that not to be at all, which should be deprived of all form, than conceive a thing betwixt form and nothing, neither formed, nor nothing, a formless almost nothing."[10]

We conjecture that the state of mind which St. Augustine here describes as having been his own has also been experienced by many a student who has tried to represent to himself clearly and distinctly what primordial matter is. It appears, in one form or other, in the writings of all the masters of Scholasticism, who, although they unanimously maintain that primordial matter actually exists, cannot fail to recognize that its actuality is indeed very weak, and even to drop here and there a word tending to show that it has really no actuality at all.

Let us now pass to a positive exposition of the nature and properties of primordial matter.

In the foregoing section of this chapter we have given the following definition, which would be accepted by all Scholastics: Matter is the incomplete material substance which, actuated by the substantial form, produces a complete corporeal substance.

All substances, according to this view, are composed of two real, distinct, unisolable principles: matter and form. Matter is the same in all bodies, and it is form, and form alone, that is the cause of the infinite variety of material things: "Omnium generabilium et corruptibilium est eadem materia."[11] Matter and form, on account of their unisolable character, are incomplete substances, and it is from their mutual union that complete corporeal substances arise.

Changes in things are classified as accidental or essential. In accidental changes, such as occur in physical processes, the form remains identical with itself. But in essential changes, such as chemical combinations, matter alone remains. The substantial form which existed before the combination ceases to exist, and there arises a new form as the cause of the new substance of which experience eviden@ the appearance.

The fact of chemical combination plays an important part in Scholastic cosmology; and, although a few Mediaeval philosophers, such as Albert the Great, taught that the elements remained in the compound, and one of the greatest among the neo-Scholastics, Liberatore, holds that the theory of essential changes in chemical processes is not necessarily connected with the Scholastic system, it is nevertheless incontrovertible that the great majority of Scholastics admit in chemical combinations an essential transformation, and we have seen how Mr. Nys bases on this very transformation his strongest argument for the existence of matter and form.

According to this view, oxygen and hydrogen do not really exist in water, as there takes place, in the act of combination, a real change of nature. The only means of knowing the truth in this matter is experience; but the most powerful microscopes show us, in the particles of a compound, the most perfect homogeneity, and the dissolvents of its simple elements have upon it no effect whatsoever. The atomistic view that an atom of water is a mere juxtaposition of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen is consequently pronounced to be arbitrary and unscientific, and unable to account for the essential difference which exists between a simple mixture and a combination.

And here Farges brings forth the example of gunpowder, in which the three elements of saltpeter, sulphur and carbon are so intimately intermingled that no microscope enables us to discern their presence. Still, the heterogeneity of the compound and its character of mixture can be shown by means of dissolvents. Water dissolves saltpeter and has no effect whatever upon sulphur and carbon; then another chemical product may eliminate sulphur, leaving carbon in a state of isolation.

On the other hand, no dissolvent of the elements of a chemical combination has any effect upon the compound. Its homogeneous character remains unaltered, and the only means of separating its elements is another chemical operation.

Mr. Farges endows primordial matter with the following properties: indestructibility, simplicity of essence, identity in all material substances, passivity, quantitativeness, impenetrability, need of a substantial form.[12]

Primordial matter is indestructible, and cannot cease to exist unless it be annihilated by an act of Divine Omnipotence.

It is simple as regards its essence, but essentially multiple in its parts. It is the cause of the extension and divisibility of bodies; it is the principle of quantity.

It is identical in all material substances, which, as we have seen, are distinguished from one another by means of the substantial form. Primordial matter is therefore the principle of all that which is common to all material substances, namely extension, divisibility, impenetrability, quantity, etc.

In all objects, it constitutes the passive principle, the principle of inertia, whereas the substantial form is the principle of activity.

Finally, primordial matter, not being able to exist in a state of isolation, stands, by the same fact, in need of a substantial form. Still, matter does not join itself indistinctly to any kind of form, but has a special aptitude to choose the form which suits it best. And we are thus led to the theory of the hierarchy of forms, corresponding to the various degrees of perfection and development in primordial matter.

"The more elevated in the hierarchy of beings the form is," says Farges, "the more must matter be prepared by a series of intermediate forms, which gradually dispose and elevate it. And this is true in the order of physico-chemical phenomena as well as in the biological order. And in no case could disproportionate elements be united, as, for example, a human soul with the organism of an ape."[13]

Thus far we have spoken of primordial matter in a general way, without taking into account the various divisions given by Scholastic philosophers, both in the Middle Ages and in our own day. We do not think these divisions indispensable to a thorough comprehension of the theory, and neo-Scholastics are unanimous in considering many of them as useless subtleties. We cannot, however, abstain from enumerating the most important among them, and we feel confident that such an enumeration will give a more comprehensive view of Scholastic thought, and easily make us understand the drift of that teaching.

The first division which suggests itself is that of primordial and secondary matter.

Secondary matter is the complete material substance modifiable by accidents, as, for example, any chemical substance. Primordial matter is the incomplete material substance which, actuated by the substantial form, produces a complete corporeal substance.[14]

We can easily see by these definitions that primordial matter alone is matter strictly speaking. The so-called secondary matter is any material object as it exists in nature, after having been actuated by the substantial form: it is matter as understood by the plain man, but it must be carefully distinguished from the materia prima of the schoolmen.

Another well-known division of matter is the out of which, the in which, and the about which.

Primordial matter is out of which relatively to the complete substance, or to the substantial form which is educed from it. The body of a brute, for example, is the matter out of which its soul is evolved.

Primordial matter is in which with regard to the substantial form considered as united with it, and forming with it a complete substance. In this sense, the body of a brute is the matter in which its soul exists in a state of indissoluble union.

Finally, primordial matter is about which with regard to the efficient cause by whose action it is produced. The body of a brute is thus the matter about which generation is concerned.

Matter out of which has also been subdivided into passing and persistent matter. Thus, the matter of the wood submitted to the action of the fire is passing; while the matter of the wood used by the carpenter to manufacture a piece of furniture is persistent.[15] Not only is this subdivision of little account, but it seems to be based upon a wrong interpretation of the terms, inasmuch as primordial matter is persistent in both cases, and that which is really passing is the substantial form.

But the divisions of matter which show Mediaeval subtlety at its best are to be found in Duns Scotus.

A singular view on this subject had already appeared in the eleventh century. The celebrated Jewish philosopher, Ibn Gabirol, had advanced in his principal work, Fons Vitae, a startling theory of universal matter, according to which all substances, spiritual as well as material, were to be regarded as composed of matter and form.[16] This strange doctrine was later on adopted by some Christian writers and became one of the leading characteristics of the Franciscan school.

Almost two centuries after the death of lbn Gabirol, the first Franciscan teacher of theology in the University of Paris, Alexander of Hales, expressedly taught in his Summa Theologiae that spiritual substances are composed of matter "quae nec est subjecta motui nee contrarietati."[17] The same view was maintained by St. Bonaventure,[18] and also by Duns Scotus:

" Ego autem ad positionem Avicembroni redeo; et primam partem, scilicet quod in omnibus creatis per se subsistentibus tam corporalibus quam spiritualibus sit una material teneo, sicut ostensi in praecedenti quaestione."[19]

With that distinguishing subtlety which forms the essential characteristic of his philosophy, Duns Scotus introduces a new division of the materia prima. He divides it into materia primo-prima, materia secundo-prima, and materia tertio- prima. The materia primo-prima, or materia metaphysica, seems to be identical with the universal matter of Ibn Gabirol and of the Franciscan teachers. It is absolutely indeterminate and exists in all beings, incorporeal as well as corporeal.

The materia secundo-prima, or materia mathematica, is defined as the subject of generation and corruption:

"Est subjectum generationis et corruptionis, quam mutant agentia creata, seu Angeli seu agentia corruptibilia."[20]

The materia tertio-prima is defined as the matter of any particular natural agent:

"Dicitur autem miteria tertio-prima materia cujuscumque artis, et materia cujuslibet agentis naturalis particularis, quia omne tale agit veluti de aliquo semine, quod quamvis materia prima sit respectu omnium, quae per artem producuntur, supponit tamen materiam, quae est subjectum generationis, et ulterius aliquam formam per naturam productam, aliter nulla ars quid quam operatur."[21]

To sum up in a few words:

The materia primo-prima, or metaphysical matter, constitutes the passive principle of all finite beings, spiritual as well as material.

The materia secundo-prima is the passive principle of corporeal substances only, and is called mathematical because it is the base of extension and quantity.

The materia tertio-prima is the matter of the plain man, and does not differ from what we have elsewhere termed secondary matter.


Contrasted with primordial matter, or the passive principle of all things, there is in them all an active principle called substantial form. It is the form that causes all beings to be what they are, that ranges them in determinate species. Unlike matter, it is not the same everywhere, but is found with a greater or less degree of perfection according to the excellence of the being it constitutes. There is therefore a countless multitude of substantial forms correlative to the multiplicity of things.

Inorganic bodies possess forms of the lowest order, and we reach more perfect forms as we ascend in the scale of beings. In the vegetable kingdom, the form is the vegetative soul, also called the principle of life; in animals, it is the sensitive soul, far more perfect, material however and doomed to perish with the animal frame to which it is joined. In man, the substantial form is the spiritual soul, which is, by its nature, intrinsically independent of matter, and cannot be affected by the death of the body. Although changeable in its operations and capable of development, it is, as to its essence, absolutely immutable and, by consequence, destined to continue in existence throughout all eternity.

Besides the substantial form, Scholastics admit accidental forms which, like color, figure, etc., are accidents which modify the complete substance.

In the foregoing section, we have already hinted at some of the properties of the substantial form. We have spoken of the hierarchy of forms, corresponding to the various degrees of perfection in primordial matter. We have also seen that, whereas matter is in all things the passive principle, the substantial form is the principle of activity:

"The first essential attribute of the form is to be the principle and the source of the activity or energy which we find in corporeal substances, now in potency, now in actual operation.[22]

Of the remaining properties of the substantial form, the most important are the following two: its simplicity, and its need of primordial matter.

The latter may have been easily inferred from the exposition given in the preceding section. Like primordial matter, the substantial form does not and cannot exist by itself in nature:

"The material form has an innate need, and, if such a figure be allowed, a natural desire, 'appetitus naturalis' for matter, because, according to the will of the Creator, it cannot exist without that natural complement which gives it a body, a definite place and a sensible expression.[23]

About this unisolable character of the substantial form perfect unanimity does not, however, exist among the schoolmen. All Scholastics are unanimous in maintaining that the form is essentially joined to the matter in all corporeal things; but whether the same holds true of spiritual beings is a very controverted question. We have seen how Duns Scotus, following lbn Gabirol and the Franciscan school, attributes matter to all beings, and terms materia primo-prima what might be described as immaterial matter.

The great majority of Scholastic philosophers reject Duns Scotus's theory on this point, and affirm with St. Thomas that, in spiritual beings, form exists without matter. But as, according to St. Thomas, matter, and not form, is the principle of individuation, it follows that there cannot exist two angels of the same species. St. Thomas unequivocally admits the inference:

"Si ergo angeli non sunt composti ex material et forma, ut dictum est supra, sequitur quod impossibile sit, esse duos angelos unius speciei: sicut etiam impossibile esset dicere, quod essent plures albedines separatae, aut plures humanitates, cum albedines non sint plures, nisi secundum quod sunt in pluribus substantiis."[24]

This deduction might lead us to conclude that, at the death of the body, human souls will be deprived of the principle that made them separate individuals and will be one and the same. Such a conclusion would either overthrow St. Thomas's theological view of eternal life, or be a reductio ad absurdum of his theory of form. But he meets the objection with a most remarkable subtlety by saying that the souls of men will ever remain distinct, because, although they will be separated from their material frames, they will still retain a certain habitudo ad corpus which will be sufficient to distinguish them from other souls.

The remaining property of the substantial form is its simpllicity. It has been remarked that primordial matter, although it is the principle of quantity and divisibility, possesses a certain simplicity. It is simple in its essence and essentially multiple in its parts. The substantial form is likewise simple in its essence, but, unlike primordial matter, it is endowed with simplicity as regards its parts.

On this point an explanation seems, however, indispensable. All material beings fall under two great classes: they are either organic or inorganic. An organic being is admitted by all Scholastics to be really one hence it possesses but one form but inorganic beings are not endowed with the same character of unity. They are merely aggregates of simple parts, called molecules or atoms, each of which has its own individual existence. It is therefore to the molecule or to the atom that the simplicity of form belongs.

Simplicity of form understood in this manner has been unanimously accepted in the school; but a certain number of philosophers have thought it necessary to admit in organic beings some subordinate forms destined, not to destroy the simplicity which the substantial form possesses, but to give more consistency to some points which, in the ordinary Scholastic doctrine, seemed to be inconsistent.

The doctrine of the plurality of forms was maintained by Henry of Ghent. He admitted in man, besides the rational soul, a subordinate form, which he named forma corporeitatis or mixtionis, and to which lie attributed the function of causing the great variety of our organs and the substantial organization of matter. He proved its existence by the following argument:

"Aliter enim nihil homo in generations hominis generaret substantiale, sed tantummodo corrumperet.[25]

This forma corporeitatis was said to exist in the embryo before the appearance of the spiritual soul, and to continue to exist in the body after death, until decomposition takes place. Not long afterwards the same doctrine was rendered famous by Duns Scotus. This subtle thinker maintained that the substantial form determines matter to a mode of being, but does not determine it perfectly, and leaves in it a certain potentially, or aptitude for a higher form. And when matter arrives at the possession of this higher form, the inferior form continues to be present; so that, the more perfect the matter is, the greater the plurality of forms with which it is endowed.[26]

The same view appeared, in a more or less modified form, in later Scholastic thought. Lessius, Conninck, Mayr and others admitted in animals a certain number of partial forms, which they called forms of the bones, of the flesh, of the eyes, etc. They similarly spoke of the for~ms of leaves and roots in plants. However, the great majority of Scholastics, following St. Thomas, teach that living organisms cannot possess more than one substantial form. They assert that the forma corporeitatis is impossible and unnecessary.

It is impossible because if it were a substantial form animating the body before the appearance of the spiritual soul, as its supporters maintain, the spiritual soul, inasmuch as it would thus be united to a substance already complete, could not be a substantial, but only an accidental form.

It is unnecessary, because, according to Scholastic philosophy, a form of a higher order gives to the matter to which it is joined not only the characteristic properties it possesses by its nature, but also all properties belonging to the forms of a lower order. Our spiritual soul, for instance, gives us not only spiritual faculties, but also the sensitive faculties of the brute and the vegetative life of the plant.[27]

This exposition of the theory of the substantial form demands as a complement a few words about a formula often met with in Scholastic treatises: Forma educitur e potentia materiae.

With the exception of the human soul, all substantial forms are intrinsically dependent on matter, and, for this reason, are called material. Still, they do not exist in matter actually, but potentially; for otherwise changes would be only accidental, not substantial. These forms are not created, inasmuch as creation is the production of a being from nothing, and substantial forms are produced out of pre-existing matter. Now, observing what occurs in substantial changes, we see that, in order that the change may take place, it must be accompanied by some determinate conditions. On the appearance of these conditions a new substance is produced. This mode of production is what Scholastics call eduction out of the potency of matter.[28] The spiritual soul alone is not educed in this manner. Being by its nature spiritual, it is intrinsically independent of the body and is created immediately by God.


It is only with the greatest reserve that one can enter on discussing the constitution of matter. So many brilliant minds have grappled with this stupendous problem, only to give up its solution in despair, that many think it a mere waste of time to try to drag Nature's secret from her pent-up bosom.

Such a proceeding, however, is but the position of despair and can hardly be justified.

Any existing thing can be understood, because to understand (intus legere) is to know a thing as it is, to read its most intimate nature. It is not meant by this assertion that, in our actual condition, we can be omniscient. Things which do not fall within the sphere of our experience will forever remain unknown to us; but, in the constitution of this material world, there is apparently nothing lying beyond the grasp of our intellectual powers. An adequate explanation of the constitution of matter does not therefore seem an impossibility, although we frankly admit that it has not been yet reached, and we doubt whether our triumph on this point will ever be complete.

It has always seemed to us that Dynamism is somewhat fanciful, and the relatively small number of followers it has gained among men of science cannot but confirm us in the same view.

According to P. G. Tait,[29] the most fatal objection to which it is exposed is that it is incapable of explaining inertia, a distinctive -- perhaps the most distinctive -- property of matter. This remark is not absolutely devoid of value, as the manner in which Dynamism accounts for inertia seems rather arbitrary. Still, we do not think that Tait does full justice to his opponents' view, nor can it be maintained that the dynamic explanation of inertia is altogether valueless.

According to Dynamism, nothing exists in nature but centers of force, whose essence is to act. The action of one of these centers will be prevented from producing its natural effect if it is counteracted by the resistance of another force of equal and opposite value. And thus the state of equilibrium will arise and will be a mode of tension. Inertia is thus explained in this system not by the absence, but by the equilibrium of forces.

A greater deficiency of Dynamism is perhaps its incapability of explaining extension. The centers of force it admits in nature are unextended. By being conglomerated in countless numbers, they give rise to an apparent, illusory extension, in the same way as points, placed side by side, may lead us to believe in their forming continuous letters.

The comparison just given, first proposed by Boscovich himself, simply ignores the difficulty. Points placed side by side may lead us to believe in their forming continuous letters, provided each of them possesses a certain extension. If the points are altogether unextended; if, as regards extension, each one is nothing, their sum will also be nothing, and no illusion of continuous letters will be possible. This is precisely what takes place in Boscovich's system. His centers of force either are in contact with one another or they are not. If they are, they co-penetrate one another, and there is no extension. If they are not -- besides the fact that the so-called heresy of distance action is then involved -- we have a series of points, none of which has extension; and as each one, in so far as extension is concerned, is thus nothing; as between them there is only void space, which is equally nothing, we cannot conceive how from the union of those countless nothings a something -- even as an illusion -- can arise.

The atomistic theory presents likewise a large number of difficulties that baffle our powers, of observation and reasoning and leave us face to face with the dreadful sight of our utter insignificance. Mere atoms in the universe of matter, we took pride in our intellectual omnipotence. We looked on the towns we had built, the rivers we had spanned, the oceans we had crossed. We saw with delight thunder and lightning yield to our caprice. We then called ourselves the kings and lords of Nature. Undeceive thyself, 0 man! thy body is but an atom and thy mind is powerless. The lowliest fact of nature is for thee a mystery, and the more thou shalt study, the more clearly shalt thou see that ignorance is thy destined lot.

Ancient Atomism admitted nothing but atoms and void space. In order to avoid the assumption of distance action, the hypothesis of a fluid called ether was subsequently introduced. A mere hypothesis at first, when invoked to explain only the phenomena of light, the theory of ether was strengthened almost indefinitely when Clerk Maxwell showed that the phenomena of the electromagnetic field can be explained by an ether identical in nature with the luminiferous medium.

The great discovery of the English scientist was still further confirmed by the experiments of Hertz, who detected the existence and measured the speed of the electromagnetic waves, thus laying the foundation upon which the edifice of wireless telegraphy has recently been erected.[30]

There seems thus not to be the slightest doubt as to the existence of ether. But, if we advance one step further and try to investigate its inherent constitution, we will flnd ourselves involved in darkness and condemned to nescience.

Some physicists have regarded ether as composed of minute particles, of a sort of atoms, infinitesimal in comparison with those of ordinary matter, but still atoms. This view was held bv Lord Kelvin, by Whetham,[31] and taken as the current ether theory by Herbert Spencer, who gave it as a proof of the unknowable character of the reality which surrounds us in nature.[32] The same view has been defended in February, 1907, by Mr. Véronnet, in the Revue de Philosophie. These are Mr. Véronnet's words:

"The electrical theory obliges us to reduce matter and its phenomena to a system of attractive and repulsive central forces, called electrons. These forces are obliged to act at distance, inasmuch as they are found in the atomic or granulous state. They form discontinuous centers, and ether itself is constituted ky them."[33]

It is clear that, as an explanation of distance action, ether, thus understood, simply shifts the question. If it is composed of minute particles, these either must be separated by absolute void, and we are thus brought back to our starting-point, or they demand a second ether to explain the first, and we must admit an infinity of similar fluids, of which each and all are absolutely valueless as an interpretation of distance action.

The opposite view, more generally maintained nowadays, is that ether is not composed of atoms separated by void space, but is itself absolutely continuous. This conception is repeatedly edly expressed by Joseph Larmor, in his famous work: AEther and Matter:

"All that is known (or perhaps need be known) of the aether itself may be formulated as a scheme of differential equations defining the properties of a continuum in space, which it would be gratuitous to further explain by any complication of structure."[34]

The same conception is also entertained by Sir Oliver Lodge, who sums up in the following words his own view on the subject:

"As far as we know, it (ether) appears to be a perfectly homogeneous incompressible continuous body, incapable of being resolved into simpler elements, or atoms; it is, in fact, continuous, not molecular."[35]

Now, is this second view in any way more satisfactory than the first? Our knowledge of nature shows us that the essential difference existing between solids, liquids and gases, is due to the greater or less degree of continuity of their structural particles. In the gaseous state a molecule freely passes from one molecular system into another. A diminution of temperature lessens the vibratory motion of the molecules, which are then reduced to a definite system, and are limited in their motion by the molecules surrounding them. The result is the liquid state. A further decrease of temperature draws the molecules still nearer to one another. Each one enters the sphere of action of the others, losing thereby the possibility of translatory movement, and becoming limited to orbital motion. A material object becomes therefore more and more solid in proportion as its continuity increases. If ether be perfectly continuous, it must be incomparably more solid than any other object. That this is not the case is almost an evident truth, inasmuch as if ether were endowed with such a degree of solidity, it is inconceivable how movement in it would be possible.

Modern physicists reply to this objection by saying that we must not conceive ether as an ordinary material substance: "The properties of aether, says Sir Oliver Lodge, must be somewhat different from those of ordinary matter."[36] We doubt whether this remark will seem convincing. Ether is either material, or it is not. If it is material, it must be, like matter, composed of particles -- either continuous or discrete -- and the laws which apply to matter in general must apply to it also. If, on the other hand, it is not material, it is inconceivable that it may act upon matter, or be a connecting-link between atoms.

Whatever may be the view we accept as to the nature of ether, we are thus facing enigmas whose solution seems to be far beyond the reach of our present knowledge and to be destined to be a puzzle to human thought for many a future generation.

Let us not, however, conclude from these remarks that our knowledge of nature has not been increased by science. Although the unknown still exists, positive results have been obtained, especially in these last years, to such an extent that we may seem justified in the hope that what is still mysterious for us will be revealed to the rising generation.

The first great step toward an actual knowledge of matter was made by John Dalton. He revived the hypothesis of atoms to explain the fact that the elements of a compound combine in definite proportions, and suggested that these proportions represent the relative weight of the atoms.

As the atomic weights of many elements were found to be multiples of that of hydrogen, Prout supposed that the atom of hydrogen was the ultimate basis from which all substances were made. This suggestion, however, implied that the equivalents of all substances should be integers, which was not confirmed by experience, and Prout's view was forcibly abandoned. Such was still the situation when, in 1897, J. J. Thomson detected, in the cathode rays of a vacuum tube, corpuscles about one thousand times smaller than the atom of hydrogen. These corpuscles were shown to be identical whatever might be the nature of the tube or of the gas it contained. Vast was the field opened to science by this astounding revelation. The newly-discovered corpuscles were found to be atoms of electricity, were called electrons, and recognized as the long-sought-for ultimate basis of matter, as the sub-atoms which, grouped in various ways, give rise to the chemical atoms of all material objects.

The existence of the electrons has been repeatedly evidenced by experience, and it has received a strong confirmation by the recent discovery of radio-active substances.

The first observations on radio-activity were made by Becquerel, who, in 1896, discovered that compounds of uranium affect photographic plates through an opaque covering. The labors of Mr. and Mrs. Curie, of Mr. Rutherford, and other distinguished men of science, have thrown the desired light on the subject.

It is now well known that uranium, radium, thorium, and a few other metals constantly emit three types of rays, known as the alpha, beta, and gamma rays. The beta rays have been most successfully studied, and are known to consist of negative corpuscles, or electrons, projected with the velocity of light. The alpha rays have been shown to consist of positively charged bodies, projected with a velocity of about one tenth of the velocity of light. The gamma rays are the only ones whose nature is not yet fully known. The results of experience incline us to believe that they are analogous to Rontgen rays and consist of wave-pulses traveling through ether with incredible velocity.

The study of radio-active substance has also made known the fact that not only atoms are divisible and composed of electrons, but that real changes take place in the atoms themselves, by a process of disintegration, followed by a regrouping of the electrons, and that new substances thus arise from elements chemically simple.

From uranium and thorium products have been obtained, considerably more active than those metals themselves. To these new substances the names Of uranium-X and thorium-X have been given. But further observation has shown that these highly active products little by little lose their activity, and that the metals from which they were obtained regain at the same time the energy they had temporarily lost.

These interesting phenomena have been explained by the fact that all radio-active substances have high atomic weights, are therefore of a great complexity, and thus very instable. They constantly undergo a process of disintegration of which their radio-activity is the result. One or more particles are detached from the atom, and the atomic equilibrium is thus momentarily lost. Finally, the electrons arrange themselves differently attain a new temporary equilibrium, and give rise to the substances stances known as thorium-X and uranium-X.

No doubt is therefore to be entertained as to the real changes that take place in the atoms themselves. And these changes bring to our minds the possible realization of the dreams of the Mediaeval alchemists, at which, for so long a time, we have been wont to smile. If the atom is a complex structure which, on the occurrence of certain conditions, is disintegrable, there is nothing absolutely impossible in the transmutation of one metal into another. The only question is to bring about the conditions which the atomic disintegration necessitates. Do such conditions exist for all chemical elements? We are not inclined to believe it, but their existence is not an impossibility, and the hope of the Mediaeval alchemist was not so preposterous as we have been taught to believe.

The facts which modern science may look upon as established truths are the following:

All substances, physically considered, are composed of molecules, which may be termed physical units, contain one or more chemical atoms, and, by their incessant motion, give rise to heat and other physical phenomena.

The molecules are composed of atoms, or chemical units, which, by their regrouping in different manners, give rise to the various. compound substances and are indivisible by chemical processes.

Finally, these atoms are nothing but groups of ultimate units, or electrons, which are the same for all substances, and, by their arrangement in different ways, form the simple elements which, until recently, had been believed ultimate.

The recent views as to the structure of the atoms, which we have briefly described, present a certain likeness to the Scholastic theory of matter and form. This theory, by means of some modifications, might even be brought into perfect harmony with these Scientific results.

The modifications I have in view are the following:

Let us call primordial matter the mass of electrical units, or electrons, which have been shown to be, the ultimate groundwork work out of which all material elements are built.

Let us call substantial form the different arrangements of these ultimate units, to which the variety of material substances is due.

Primordial Matter will thus be the same in all things. The diversity of nature of the various substances will be due to the substantial form.

Our theory will be more in harmony with the spirit of Aristotle, who, in explaining matter and form by means of brass and a statue, implies that it is a real entity, and not an abstraction, that he has in view.

All the facts upon which the Scholastic doctrine of matter and form is based will be satisfactorily explained. The stability of quantity under all modifications of bodily substances will be accounted for by the fact that the ultimate units, although arranged in different ways, are still present in the same number.

As for the hypothesis of substantial changes in chemical combinations, it must be frankly abandoned. The atom of water must not be regarded as a homogeneous substance, but as a mere juxtaposition of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. The permanence of the elements in the compound is universally admitted by chemists to-day. It is involved in the electron theory and has received a new confirmation from the phenomena connected with radio-activity. A study of the compounds of radio-active metals has shown that the rate of emission of the radiations depends only on the quantity of the element present, and is not affected by the amount of inactive substance which the compound contains. It is thus made clear that in a metallic compound we have not a substance composed of homogeneous atoms, but that the very atoms of the simple elements are juxtaposed and form new molecules. To Farges's objection that, in the case of a mere juxtaposition, the dissolvents of the simple elements should be effective, we will answer that dissolution is a physical -- not a chemical -- process, that dissolvents can act only on physical units or molecules, and that the atoms which, by their juxtaposition, form these molecules, being chemical units, are separable only by chemical processes.

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