Jacques Maritain Center : A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas / by Ralph McInerny


For Thomas there is one great division in reality, that between God and creatures. St. Paul in Romans 1.19-20 tells us that pagans can from the things that are made come to knowledge of the invisible things of God, and indeed that is the message of Aristotle as well. From the changing things of this world we can come to knowledge of the Prime Mover or God.

Things are part of a vast ordered whole, the cosmos, and it may seem that such proofs take the cosmos as effect and God as cause. Not quite. We must first get clear on what is meant by things.

It seems a funny question. The word 'thing' is so elastic in its uses that it does not seem too promising to ask for a definition. Everything is a thing and things are very diverse from one another. Let's look at the way Aristotle approached the question, because Thomas thought it right as rain and adopted it as his own.

Out of Confusion

It is all too true that the world is made up of a multitude of things, whether or not more than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Recent discussions of what there is, the things that are, predictably begin with the fear of asserting that something is, which is not. And the meaning of 'nothing' is queried . Numbers and ideas and physical objects are enumerated as kinds of things and one can get the impression that they are equally evident to us. This is the wrong kind of confusion with which to begin.

At the basis of all our knowledge is sensation. The things that exist are in the first instance what can be grasped by means of our senses. Our ideas of these things are at first vague and confused. Aristotle uses the example of something first seen at a great distance but approaching us. It's something, it's alive, it's an animal, it's human, it's my mother-in-law. All knowledge moves like that, from generality and confusion toward precision and particularity.

The first and most general way of thinking of the things that are is as products of change. The world is made up of things that have come to be as the result of a change, undergo all kinds of changes in their careers, and finally cease to be as the result of a change. To call something physical or natural is to say just that. The Greek word from which 'physical' derives means growth. Nature suggests being born. Things come to birth, that is the idea, but in this use being born is not distinguished from other ways of coming into being. Whatever comes to be as the result of a change -- that is what is meant by physical or natural things.

Physical Objects

What are the first truths we can attain about physical objects? The analysis we are going to sketch is found in Book One of Aristotle's Physics. Before giving his own account, Aristotle surveys what others have had to say on the subject. This is important. The Classical philosopher -- and no one is more representative of the tribe than Aristotle -- is not interested in developing an original position. He will be guided by what others say, the many, but even more those who have reflected on the subject. At first blush, previous opinions suggest the Tower of Babel, but Aristotle finds certain common notes struck despite the diversity, and those common notes stand a good chance, he thinks, of being the truth of the matter.

It is against that background that he takes up the subject anew. What is a physical object? Something that has come to be as a result of a change. So what is change?

We need an example. Let us say you gave your nephew Orville a mouth organ for his birthday and then got out of town. Months later, having forgotten your unfriendly act, you return on a visit and are pleasantly surprised to hear little Orville render Stars and Stripes Forever in a creditable manner. Orville who once could not play the mouth organ now can. This can be stated in a variety of ways.

[1] A boy becomes musical

[2] The unmusical become musical.

[3] The unmusical boy becomes musical.

The three expressions of the same change have three different grammatical subjects. Moreover, all three expressions are of the syntactical form "A becomes B."

Sometimes the expression of a change takes the form "From A, B comes to be." So let's restate the variety in this second form.

[4] From a boy, musical comes to be.

[5] From unmusical, musical comes to be.

[6] From the unmusical boy, musical comes to be.

Some of these sound all right, but 4 rings false. Why? Because it suggests that when skill with the mouth organ puts in an appearance, the boy ceases to be. That is why 5 and 6 ring true -- unmusical and unmusical boy do cease to be as a result of the change.

We can distinguish between the grammatical subject of the sentence expressing the change and the subject of the change. The subject of the change is that to which the change is attributed and which survives the change. Something -- musical -- is denied of the subject before the change and affirmed of it afterward. The subject of the change lacks before the change what it gains as a result of the change. The subject, a lack, and a gain -- these three elements seem true of any change. They are the least we can say of a change and thus are true of every change.

These elements of change get names in Aristotle from another example he uses of a change in wood whereby from unshaped or unformed it becomes shaped or formed. Using the terms to cover all examples, Aristotle speaks of wood or matter (subject) and privation (lack) and form (gain) as elements of all change.

Little Orville moves from the back yard to the front, from pale to tan, from five feet tall to six and a half and in all such changes -- of place, of color, or size -- we can speak of matter, privation, and form. We attribute these changes to Orville because he changes in these respects, in respect of place, color, and size. But as the subject, Orville survives the change. He does not come to be as subject in any of these changes. Yet there was a time when Orville himself was not and eventually, alas, he will be no more. What of those more dramatic changes?

Substantial Change

Do autonomous units like little Orville come into existence as the result of a change? Of course they do. No one would deny that once Orville was less than a twinkle in the parental eye yet here he is playing Stars and Stripes forever on that blasted mouth organ. Would anyone deny that Orville is something one in as basic a sense as there is?

Sure. Some philosophers. Of course, they're wrong.

Aristotle knew of atomists who said that big things like Orville and cows and trees and your mother-in-law are not basic. They are not units so much as made up of units and finally of units that can't be cut up any further -- that's what 'atom' means. Orville is a swarm of atoms which are rearranged in various ways and one rearrangement leads us to say he has grown tan, another that he has gone into the backyard, yet another that there is no more Orville to talk about.

This has been called the "Hang on to the brush, I'm taking away the ladder" form of argument. In order to know what you mean by something, one you will mention things like Orville, his uncle, the dog, and so forth. The next step is to sy that they are not really ones but made up of things that are really one. The real ones, the atoms, are one in the sense derived from Orville, his uncle, the dog, and so forth. In short, if Orville isn't a unit, there is no way we can explain what is meant by calling an atom a unit.

This is not, of course, a rejection of the view that big things have smaller components and that our knowledge of big things increases as we come to know more of their components. Rather it is a good example of Aristotle's insistence that progress in knowledge is made by way of addition to what is already known, not by abstraction from or denial of it. Things which undergo change in respect of place and color and size are called substances.

The assumptions of the discussion then are two such things as Orville and trees and dogs are fundamental natural units and they come to be as a result of a change.

The task is to see how what we already know of change can be used to cast light on the coming into being of substances.

Prime Matter

Substantial change is analyzed by arguing by analogy from the changes substances undergo in their qualities or accidents. The subject of the changes analyzed up until now is a substance. What is gained by the change does not make the substance to be a substance, but only to be in a certain respect, here as opposed to there, tan as opposed to pale, fat as opposed to thin. To what subject can the change thanks to which Orville comes into existence be attributed?

If any change involves a subject, privation, and form, then substantial change must do so. But if that subject is itself a substance, then to-be-Orville relates to it as to-be-tan relates to Orville. And then the change is not a substantial one, but an accidental one. The subject of substantial change must be similar but not identical to that of accidental change. It cannot be itself a substance. To underscore this, Aristotle calls it prime matter.

Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare, if Edna St. Vincent Millay is right, but no one, least of all Aristotle, has ever seen prime matter. It is known to be on the basis of the comparison we have just traced. If there must be a subject of any change, if substances come to be as the result of a change, and they do, there must be a subject to which substantial change is attributed. That subject cannot be matter or subject in the usual sense, that is, a substance. The subject to which substantial change is attributed is thus called prime matter.

It will be noticed that Aristotle makes appeal to no special experience in this analysis. He is setting forth the implications of what anyone knows. He makes no assumptions that are not in the public domain. At the end of the analysis we know what we did not know before, but the new knowledge was implicit in what we already knew.

Moreover, prime matter is not like the atoms of the Greek atomists, although both are such that you cannot just look at them. Unlike the atoms, whose acceptance requires that we stop meaning what we say of Socrates and Fido as basic units, prime matter is recognized as the necessary condition for our ordinary talk being true. If prime matter prevented ordinary talk that would count heavily against it as it does against atomism.

Needless to say, what we have come to know by means of this analysis is of glittering generality and is hardly what we would be content with. This is the first step in natural science, not the last.

Once more we see a characteristic of what we are calling the Classical view. Certainties and clarifications need not be once and for all. Just as we can be quite clear about plane figures and not yet of the distinctions between circles and squares and triangles, just as we can get clear about triangles and still not be clear on the difference between scalene and isosceles triangles, so we can be clear on the principles of change in general and have made only a first step on a long, long trail to particular knowledge of natural kinds.

We began by identifying the physical or natural thing as that which has come to be as the result of a change. We can now say that the result of change is always a compound of matter and form. If you hear this referred to as hylomorphism, don't worry. Hyle is the Greek word for wood and morphe means shape or form, so the fancy term means only that what has come to be is shaped wood, or formed matter, or a combination of matter and form.


The Principles of Nature

[2] He uses the following argument to prove that there are two essential (per se) principles of nature. What natural things are and come to be from per se and not accidentally are called their principles and causes; but whatever comes to be is and comes to be from a subject and a form; therefore the subject and form are per se principles of everything that comes to be in nature.

That what comes to be in nature comes to be from subject and form is proved thus. Those things into which the definition of a thing is analyzed are that thing's components: what something is analyzed into are its components. But the account of what comes to be naturally is resolved into subject and form: for the account of musical man is resolved into the concept of musical and the concept of man, since anyone seeking to define musical man will have to provide definitions of musical and of man. Therefore what naturally comes to be is and comes to be from subject and form.

[3] Then when he Aristotle says Est autem subietum, etc., he adds a third accidental principle.

And he says that, although the subject is numerically one, in type and concept it is two. . . because man and god and every matter has a certain number. We can consider the subject itself, which is something positive, from which something comes to be per se and not accidentally, like man or gold, and we can consider what inheres in it as an accident, such as contrariety and privation, e.g., unmusical, unshaped. The third principles is species or form, as its arrangement is the third principle is species or form, as it arrangement is the form of the house, and musical is the form of musical man, etc., etc.

Form and subject, then, as per se principles of what comes to be naturally, but privation or the contrary is an accidental principle, as being accidental to the subject. Thus we say that the builder is the per se efficient cause, but musical is an accidental efficient cause of it insofar as the builder happens to be musical. So too, man is the per se cause, as subject, of musical man, but not-musical is its accidental cause and principle.

[4] Someone might object that privation does not inhere in the subject when it has received the form and that privation ought not therefore be called an accidental cause of being.

To which it can be said that matter is never without privation, because when it has one form it is deprived of another. Thus when something which comes to be, musical man, say, is in the process of becoming, the subject, insofar as it does not yet have the form musical is the privation of musical; so not-musical is an accidental principle of the coming to be of musical man. But when this form is joined to it, the subject is in privation of another form; therefore the privation of the opposite form is an accidental form of being.

It is clear that Aristotle does not mean that the privation which he holds to be an accidental principle of nature is an aptitude for form, or an inchoative form, and any sort of imperfect active principle, as some think, but the very absence of form or the contrary of the form which inheres in the subject.

Commentary on Physics, Book One, lesson 13.

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