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


What comes into being as the result of a change is a compound of matter and form. Some features of physical objects or natural things are true of them because their matter, others because of their form. It is because matter and form thus explain features of things that they are called causes.

That sounds a bit odd to us, perhaps, if we have been taught to think of cause as all but synonymous with efficient cause. A cause may seem simply what initiates a process, gets it started. On reflection, however, we can see that this identification is, in its own turn, odd.

The Table of Elements is made up of constituents of things, thanks to which they behave in this or that way. A certain activity is natural to a thing because of its make-up, and elements enter into its make-up. In this sense we have been taught to think of the constituents of a thing as causes too.

The efficient cause, the mover, say, is other than and extrinsic to the moved. The moved reacts the way it does to being moved because of what it is. There are intrinsic causes as well as the extrinsic moving or efficient cause. We can see that so far we have three causes, the material and formal and the efficient. But for Thomas, the most important cause of all is the final cause.

That for the sake of which something is done, the end or goal, is what prompts the mover to move and thus for a form to come to be in matter. For Thomas, as for all Aristotelians, the end is the cause of the other causes.

All the causes now mentioned fall into four familiar divisions. The letters are the causes of the syllables, the material of artificial products, fire, etc. of bodies, the parts of the whole and the premises of the conclusions, in the sense of 'that from which.' Of these pairs the one set are causes in the sense of substratum, e.g., the parts, the other set in the sense of essence -- the whole and the combination and the form. But the seed and the doctor and the adviser, and generally the maker, are all sources whence the change or stationariness originates, while the others are causes in the sense of the end or the good of the rest; for 'that for the sake of which' means what is best and the end of the things that lead up to it. (Physics II.3)

Aristotle concludes this passage with some satisfaction. "Such then is the number and nature of the kinds of cause."

Does Nature Act for an End?

The causality of the end, final causality, what is called teleology, is introduced to explain natural events. If there is any feature of Thomas's view of the world that would appear to have been replaced by later ways of understanding nature, it is teleology.

That human beings act for the sake of an end would be pretty generally admitted, although some might take this to be only a superficial remark, the real wellsprings of action being the unconscious or environment or genetics. To speak of nature as acting for an end, however, smacks of anthropomorphism.

When we speak of the function of our senses or the role of this or that organ, we are invoking purposes, ends, teleology. We do it all the time. Especially, one might say, in science. If organisms sometimes malfunction it is because they usually function as they should. But if scientists regularly invoke purpose and function, as a group they deny that they seriously intend to speak of nature as ordered to goals or ends.

It is interesting to speculate on the reasons for this insistence. Often the rejection of teleology is taken to be essential to scientific explanation. Why this should be so, however is unclear. If full and complete accounts of natural events could be given without reference to functions and goals, a case could be made for the mandatory expulsion of teleology. But if it is smuggled in even while it is being denied, one wants to ask what the motive is.

One pretty obvious reason is that a scientific explanation is often taken to be one that excludes any reference to a first cause of nature -- that is, excludes any reference to God. Certainly the divine causality could scarcely function as a specific explanation. Why is grass green? God made it so. True as that is, it is also true of every other feature of the universe. Aristotle introduces the Prime Mover -- "Whom all understand to be God," as Thomas notes -- to account for the realm of nature in its totality. He rejected a mechanistic view of the cosmos. He does this because he sees a stark alternative: things come about either by chance or for the sake of the end. But the natural world is the realm of regular lawlike occurrences. What come about by chance is random, not regular. The conclusion is clear. "If then it is agreed that things are either the result of coincidence or for an end, and these [regular occurrences in nature] cannot be the result of coincidence or spontaneity, it follows that they must be for an end" (Physics II.8).

Coming about by Chance

In the natural order, some things always come about in the same way, others for the most part. There is a third class, as well, things which are said to come about by chance. Some events or effects are ascribed to chance as to a cause. How did it happen? By chance. Is this really an appeal to a cause or the claim that no cause should be sought?

We can think of the role of luck in human affairs to get clear on the matter of chance in nature. From time immemorial men have noted the role of luck, good and bad, in their lives. We need an example.

Fifi LaRue, seeking relief from the academic grind, decides to play a therapeutic round of golf. When she arrives at the first tee, she finds no one there, so she sets off alone. She bogeys the first and second holes and on the third, a par three, unwisely uses a four wood and overdrives the green by twenty-five yards, her ball disappearing into a wooded area with dense undergrowth. Not one to let a new ball go without a search, Fifi wades into the wild, using her wedge as a makeshift machete. Ten minutes of fruitless search go by and an annoyed Fifi brings her club fiercely down, half burying the head in the ground. There is a clinking sound. Curious, Fifi scrapes away the weeds and dirt when what to her wondering eyes should appear but a steel case. She unearths it, lashes it to her golf cart, takes a double bogey and goes on. In the privacy of her room, she pries open the metal case. It is full of United States gold coins. In subsequent days, despite national coverage, no claimants come forth. Fifi is rich. How can we explain the change from penurious to loaded?

Doesn't our narrative tell us how it came about? Fifi found a fortune because she had the good sense to play golf. Her errant shot on the third hole is the cause of her being in the brush. Her anger at losing her ball causes her to strike the ground and thus discover the buried treasure. Those are the reasons or causes of what happened. True as that seems, we would nonetheless note that not everyone who plays golf finds a fortune; not everyone who overdrives a green finds buried treasure; not every irate linkster strikes metal let alone a metal box filled with money when he buries a club in the turf. If these are causes of what came about, and they are, they are causes of a very peculiar kind.

Each of these causes is aimed at some goal other than finding treasure. If Fifi had not gone golfing, had not overdriven, had not half buried her club, she would not have found the money. But the aim of golfing is not to find buried money, nor is this the goal of any of the actions that enter into Fifi's round. By doing what she does for the purposes she has, she happens to find the money. Finding the money happens to Fifi when she is golfing. That event is related accidentally to the activity in which she is engaged for a purpose. Fifi is the accidental cause of finding the money because it is a result accidentally related to the goal she seeks. The event, of course, is rare. If student golfers are constantly coming upon buried treasure while golfing, we would speak differently of what has happened. Fifi might be surprised, but regular golfers would not be.

What is ascribed to luck is accidental to what is sought, is rare and is significant, that is, good or bad for the agent. If a cobra had fallen off a passing circus train and taken refuge in the weeds behind the third green, Fifi might have been bitten and died; her bad luck accidentally related to her golfing as was her good luck in our original story.

Being rare is not enough to qualify as a chance event. Fifi might have been out on the course with a metal detector -- say she does this every evening and finds her share of lost fountain pens, pennies, and safety pins -- but tonight, bonanza! Rare as this outcome may be, it is what she seeks to bring about. We would call her lucky, maybe, but a difference beween this story and the original one is vast.

Chance in Nature

If nature acts for an end and not everything in nature comes about always or necessarily, there will be rare occurrences when nature fails to do what she regularly does. Some natural events will be said to come about by chance, say, a freak or monster, when nature does not achieve her aim. The aim is read from what usually happens.

Given this understanding of chance, it is no surprise that the suggestion that the world of nature can ultimately be ascribed to chance is summarily rejected. The chance event must ride piggyback on some action which intends a given end. Chance presupposes teleology and cannot replace it.

But is that what is meant by chance when someone (Monod) todays says the whole shebang is due to chance? Often what is meant is statistical improbability. That life should begin is a billion (or more, much more) to one shot. However true that is, it does not settle whether life was meant to begin. It is the rare acorn that becomes an oak. It is statistically improbable, but for all that it is intended.

Surely there is no need to say that these pre-Modern features of Classical natural philosophy do not make up a rival account to natural science. The Classical philosopher, of course, assumes that there is continuity between what everyone already knows about the world around us and scientific theories. It is the rare though existent bird who holds that science is destined to replace our ordinary knowledge of the world. It is no part of the Classical view to prefer common sense to science, as if they were rivals. The assumption is that both are part of our knowledge of nature.

The notion of accidental causality is also crucial for turning aside another and more radical assault on Classical accounts of the natural world. Very early on in the efforts to understand the natural world there were those who maintained that the natural world must be an illusion since change is impossible.


The Four Causes

From what has been said it is clear that there are three principles of nature, namely, matter, form, and privation. But these are not sufficient for generation.

What is potentially cannot make itself actual, as copper which is potentially an idol does not make itself an idol, but a workman is needed if the potential idol is to emerge into actuality. Form cannot draw itself forth from the potency of matter (I mean the form of what is generated, which we call the term of generation); form is found only in the thing once made, what acts is involved in becoming, when the thing comes to be. That is why there must be some active principle apart from form and matter and we call it the efficient or active or moving cause or that whence comes the start of motion.

Because, as Aristotle says in Metaphysics II, whatever acts only acts by intending something, there must be a fourth, namely that which the agent intends, and this is called the end.

Notice that, although every agent both natural and voluntary intends an end, it does not follow that every agent knows the end or deliberates about the end. Knowledge of the end is necessary when action as are not determined but can go either way, as with voluntary agents. They must know the end in order to determine their acts to it. But the actions of natural agents are determined, so they need not choose what is for the end. Avicenna gives the example of the harpist who need not deliberate about each plucking of the strings since his acts are determined by him; if not, there would be a pause between notes and a resultant dissonance. Deliberation then is a feature of voluntary rather than of natural agents. So, arguing from the greater, if the voluntary agent sometimes does not deliberate, the natural agent never will. It is possible therefore for a natural agent to intend an end without deliberating about it: to intend means nothing more than have a natural inclination to it.

It follows from all this that there are four kinds of cause, namely, the material, efficient, formal, and final.

Although Aristotle says in the Metaphysics that whatever is a principle is a cause and vice versa, in the Physics he posits four causes and three principles. Causes are both extrinsic and intrinsic. Matter and form are intrinsic to the thing in that they are the parts constituting the thing; the efficient and final are called extrinsic since they are outside the thing. Only intrinsic causes are called principles. Privation is not included among the causes because it is an accidental principle, as has been pointed out. When we say there are four causes we mean per se causes, to which accidental causes are reduced, because the accidental is always reduced to the essential.

On the Principles of Nature, Chapter 3

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