What is the ‘Cause’ of Being?

Many Thomists find great consolation in the thought that St.Thomas himself was an Aristotelian philosopher, or, if you prefer, that he was an Aristotelian insofar as he was a philosopher. It would be wrong to contradict them, for it seems as hard to refute this assertion as it is to prove it The concept”Aristotelian” is too imprecise for two dialecticians to be able to contradict each other about it The same remark applies to the concepts “Cartesian,” “Kantian” or “Hegelian.”

There would be no reason to bring up this question if in fact it did not depend on another whose solution seems to be taken for granted. Why hesitate to answer “no” to the question: Was St Thomas an Aristotelian? My point is, why do those who refuse to answer “yes” often hesitate at the moment of answering “no”? It is because the writings of St. Thomas clearly draw upon the thought of Aristotle, his philosophical technique, method, philosophy of nature, ethics, and metaphysics. So it is said that if St. Thomas had wanted to have a philosophy as independent of all religious revelation as those of the ancient philosophers, he would have chosen that of Aristotle. And there is no objection to this, except that, if St.Thomas had done this, there would only have been one more Aristotelian. We would not have a Thomist philosophy.

There can be different opinions whether it is advisable to adopt this attitude. What is very difficult to accept is the transference of this way of thinking to the past and the pretension that it was already that of St. Thomas. It is of less importance, however, whether or not we attribute to him a philosophy properly so-called, provided at least that the one ascribed to him agrees with the philosophical theses he himself explicitly taught in his theological writings, chiefly in the two Summas and the Disputed Questions. It is beyond dispute that the influence of Aristotle’s philosophy on the theology of St. Thomas far outweighs that of other philosophers. It is preponderant in the sense that, having to summon philosophy for the service of theology, St. Thomas chiefly used Aristotle’s; but what he made Aristotle say is always what he ought to say in order to serve the purposes of the theologian. And he is not the only one to serve them.

The theology of St. Thomas is changed if one imagines that it could have been linked to any philosophical doctrine whatsoever, even if it were the one the theologian judged by far to be the best of all. When St. Thomas reflects on what human reason can know about God by its own powers, without the help of the Judeo-Christian revelation, he raises the problem, not from the point of view of Aristotle alone, but in connection with the whole history of Greek philosophy; for in his eyes this comprised the entire history of philosophy, the period that followed having been little more than that of the commentators and saints. St. Thomas has sketched a general picture of this history several times. As he knew and interpreted it, it appeared to be governed by a general rule: God can be discovered only as the cause of beings given in sensible experience, and the idea that reason forms of him is more elevated to the extent that it has a deeper knowledge of the nature of his effects. In other words, we cannot discover a God more perfect than the one we are looking for. In order to find the most perfect God that it is capable of conceiving by its unaided powers, natural reason must investigate the cause of what is most perfect in sensible beings such as it knows them. Under the theologian’s scrutiny, this history appears as a progression that is not continuous but without retrogressions, and marked out by a small number of definite stages. The progress in deepening insight into the nature of beings which goes along with that of our knowledge of God follows a definite order, which is that of human knowledge: secundum ordinejn cognitionis humanae processerunt antiqui in consideration naturae rerum (The ancient progressed in the study of the nature of things following the order of human knowledge: QDP 3.5).

Now our knowledge begins with sensible things, and from them it progressively rises to the intelligible by a series of ever-deepening abstractions. The first stage corresponds to the sensible perception of the qualities of bodies. So it was natural for the first philosophers to be materialists, for the simple reason that at the start they mistook reality for what they could perceive of it with the senses. Modern materialists (“I only believe in what I can see or touch”) are simply philosophers who have not gone beyond the first stage of the philosophical history of the human mind. For them, substance is matter. They do not even conceive it as endowed with a substantial form, for substantial forms are not perceptible to the senses. On the contrary, the qualities of bodies, which are accidental forms, can be perceived by the five senses. According to the first philosophers, then, reality consisted of matter, which is substance, and accidents, which are caused by the constitutive principles of material substance or elements. They needed nothing else in order to explain the appearances of the sensible world. Let us clearly understand this position as St. Thomas himself did. If we posit matter as a substance whose elements suffice to account for all the sensible qualities of bodies, the latter are nothing else than the appearance of these qualities.

Accordingly they do not have to be produced; they are present simply because material substance, of which they are accidental forms, is present Hence the important conclusion that, for those who espouse a philosophy of this sort, matter is the ultimate cause of all appearances. So there is no need to posit a cause of matter; or, more exactly, these philosophers are compelled to say that matter has no cause, and this, for St. Thomas, amounts to a complete denial of efficient causality: unde ponere cogebantur materiae causam non esse, et negare totaliter causam effidentem. This last remark is of great significance. To say that matter has no cause is “a complete denial of efficient causality/’ It seems that here, as so often happens with St. Thomas, he puts a bit of dynamite in our hands, while leaving to our discretion how we are to use it At the same time we see why, for as soon as we continue our reflection, we find ourselves caught up in a series of far reaching consequences. Keeping as close as possible to the text of De potentia 3.5, on which we are reflecting, the meaning of the position he is discussing is simple. The only substance is matter, which is the cause of all its accidents, and there is no other cause.

Nothing could be clearer. But from this how does it follow that the position amounts to “a complete denial of efficient causality”? It seems that we have to reconstruct the reasoning of which this is but an abbreviated form a delicate operation for which the interpreter alone must bear the responsibility. It must be done, however, if we want to understand it We propose the following: The only actual being accidents have is that of their substance. Hence the production of accidents by substance is not a production of being (otherwise the being of the substance would produce itself). On the other hand, in a materialist philosophy, material substance has no efficient cause because it is the primary being. Thus, neither substance nor accidents have an efficient cause, from which it follows that there is no efficient cause at all. If this is indeed the meaning of the reasoning, its conclusion is that efficient causality cannot be found in a universe in which the only substance is an uncreated matter. But it does not follow from this that there cannot be an efficient cause in an uncreated universe. There can be one, provided that substance is not reduced to matter. Nevertheless, even then there remains something in such a universe that will always escape causal knowledge, namely matter itself, whose existence has no explanation, though it itself explains everything else. We could not wish for a stronger affirmation of the primacy of efficient causality in the order of being.

The second stage was reached by later philosophers who began to some extent to take substantial forms into consideration. Since these forms are invisible, by so doing they rose from sensible knowledge to intellectual knowledge. This was a definite progress, for, by moving from the sensible to the intellectual order they
reached the universal. Nevertheless, this second family of philosophers did not inquire if there were universal forms and universal causes; they centered all their attention on forms of certain species. Now it was a question of truly agent causes (aliquas causas agentes), but causes that did not give being to things, in the sense in which this word applies universally to everything that is. The substantial forms in question only changed matter by impressing on it now one form, now another. This was how Anaxagoras explained the diversity of certain substantial forms by appealing to the Intelligence, or how Empedocles explained them by Love and Hate.

There still remained something unaccounted for in these doctrines, for agent causes of this sort explained well enough how matter passed from one form to another, but “even according to these philosophers, all beings did not come from an efficient cause. Matter was presupposed to the action of the agent cause” The primacy of the efficient cause stands out ever more clearly, as is fitting in an article treating of the question whether there can exist something that has not been created by God. But, as a matter of fact, we have the impression that, for St. Thomas, the creative act is as it were the archetype and perfect model of efficient causality. We do not wish to make his language stricter than he himself does, but perhaps it is not out of place to point out that here St. Thomas prefers to reserve the term causa agens to the formal cause, whose effect is to produce being of such and such a nature in a given matter, and the term causa effidens to that whose efficacy would extend to matter itself: et idea etiam secundum ipsos non omnia entia a causa efficiente procedebant, sed materia actioni causae agent is praesupponebatur (and therefore, even in their view, all beings did not come forth from an efficient cause, but matter was presupposed to the action of an agent cause: QDP 3.5).

The final stage was reached by another group of philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, and their schools. Having succeeded in taking into account being itself in all its universality, they alone posited a universal cause of things on which everything else depended for its being. St. Thomas, whom we are trying to follow literally in all this, directs us here to St. Augustine’s De dvitate Dd 8.4;2 but what is important is that our theologian would place in one and the same group philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, even though the latter often contradicted the former. The remark also applies to those who afterward formed their schools (Plato, Aristoteles et eorum sequaces), for among the followers of Aristotle whom he must have had in mind are Avicenna and Averroes, whose numerous disagreements are well known. But this is of little importance here, for the point at issue is whether there can exist something that is not created by God. So all the philosophers who posited some sort of universal cause of things (aliquam universalem causam rerum) are unanimous in supporting the theological conclusion that there is no being that is not created by God. This is the teaching of the Catholic faith itself, but it can be proved by three arguments. Here we have a striking example of the transcendence of theological wisdom and a priceless lesson for those who want to understand the very liberal and complex attitude of St. Thomas with regard to philosophies, including Aristotle’s as well as Plato’s.

The first philosophical reason for affirming a cause of universal being that St. Thomas appeals to here is based on the principle that, when one thing is found in common in several beings, a single cause must be responsible for its presence in them. Indeed, the presence in common of the same thing in several different
beings can be explained neither by their differences nor by a number of different causes. Now, being (esse) belongs in common to all things, for they are alike in that they are, though they differ from each other in what they are. So it necessarily follows that they do not possess their being from themselves but from one single cause. Note the invaluable precision St. Thomas brings to his own thought: “This seems to be Plato’s argument, who required that a unity precede every plurality, not only in numbers but even in the nature of things.”

The second argument is taken from the degrees of being and perfection. The first simply affirmed the one as the cause of the many; this argument affirms the absolute, or the supreme degree in every genus, as the cause of everything that differs more or less within the same genus. It is the degree of participation in a genus that demands the affirmation in the genus of a supreme term, the single cause of its unequal participations. We immediately recall the quarta via of the Summa theologiae (1.2.3), but with a remarkable modification. In the Summa the fourth way leads directly to the existence of God, for if there are beings that are more or less beings, there must be a supreme being that is the cause of the being and all the perfections of all other beings. In the article of the De potentia (3.5) that we are following here, the final conclusion is different: “But it is necessary to posit a single being that is the most perfect and most true being. This is proved by the fact that there is an entirely immobile and most perfect mover, as the philosophers have proved. Hence everything less perfect than it possesses its being from it” Here the prima via comes to reinforce the quarta via of the Summa and brings it to its conclusion.

We should pay close attention to the limits of the services St Thomas expects here from the philosophers. It is enough for his purpose that both Plato and Aristotle rose to the consideration of universal being and that they assigned a single cause to it More exactly, it is enough for St. Thomas that these philosophers had the wisdom to assign a single cause to one of the transcendental properties of being as being, whether it was unity for Plato or goodness and perfection for Aristotle. These properties are universal attributes of being, and St. Thomas honors these philosophers for having concluded that they must necessarily have a single cause, but he does not ascribe to either of them a metaphysics of creation. Plato and Aristotle explain everything about being except its very existence.

The third argument leads us as close to existence as the philosophers have ever approached it It is the following: What exists by another is reduced to what exists by itself as to its cause. Now the beings given in experience are not purely and simply being. We cannot simply say of any one of them: it is. We must always say: it is this or that We shall have to return to this important fact For the present it will suffice to recall that there does not exist any simple being (that is, simply and solely being) that is given in experience. What is only a certain way of being, or a being of a certain species, is clearly only a certain way of participating being, and the limits of its participation are determined by the definition of its species. If there are beings by way of participation, there must first be a being in itself: est ponere aliquod ens quod est ipsum suum esse, that is, a first being which is the pure act of being and nothing else. Hence it is necessary, St. Thomas concludes, “that it is through this single being that all other things exist which are not their being but have being by way of participation.” He then adds, ‘This is the argument of Avicenna/3. [Avicenna, Liber de philosophia prima sive scientia divina 8.7 and 9.4, ed. S. Van Riet, 2 vols. (Louvain: Peeterc; Leiden: Brill, 1977-1980), 2: 423-433, 476-488.J]

There are few articles of St. Thomas that enable us to see more clearly how he understood the work of the theologian. He himself does not need a proof in order to know that everything that exists has been created by God. Faith suffices for him to be sure of it The sed contra of his article, which he takes from the Epistle to the Romans 11:36, is a reminder of this: “Everything is from him through him and in him.” But theology, as he understands it, seeks to join to the certitude of faith rational certitudes whose purpose is to prepare the mind to receive it, or, if it has already received it, to give the mind some understanding of it In any case, it is not a question of pretending that the philosophers have reached precisely the object to which faith gives its assent But the conclusions of reason and the certitudes of faith are in agreement and harmony, to such a degree that the development of problems in the course of history shows us that progress in philosophy’s way of raising and resolving them gradually approaches the meaning of the truths of faith. In the end, if it does not reach these truths, it has a presentiment of them.

At the same time this shows us how difficult it is to tie the thought of St. Thomas to one single philosophy. Plato, Aristotle, Avicenna are three different philosophers, and without wishing to deny that their philosophies are connected, they are certainly not the same. It is impossible to hold the three philosophies at the same time, as if a metaphysics of the One could at the same time be a metaphysics of Substance and a metaphysics of Necessary Being. There could not be three equally primary principles. Nevertheless, we have just seen St. Thomas call to witness these three metaphysics to show how “it is proved by reason and held on faith that everything is created by God.” How are we to understand this way of philosophizing? To those who accuse it of philosophical incoherence, some reply that Thomism is an eclecticism, but this acknowledges the incoherence with which its opponents reproach it Like every being, a philosophy must be one in order to be. A philosophy is not one if it is made up of pieces borrowed from different philosophies and more or less skilfully sewn together. Each of these pieces takes its meaning from the whole philosophy from which it is extracted; so it could not unite with other pieces taken from philosophies with different meanings. The unity of a doctrine is not necessarily inflexible; it can take its riches wherever it finds them, provided they are truly its riches. The unity of a philosophy, and consequently its existence, is recognized by the presence of a kind of intelligible thread, a golden thread, that runs through it in all directions and from within binds together all its parts. Philosophers worthy of the name are not rhapsodists, sewers, bone-setters.

In reply, it can be said that the doctrine of St. Thomas is not a philosophical but a theological eclecticism. The expression would be more satisfactory if it were not contradictory. A doctrine whose elements are the result of a theological choice is necessarily a theology. Wherever it is present and active, theology rules. Besides, if the theologian who made the choice were content to sew together again the pieces such as they are, from which he claims to fashion a philosophy, it would suffer from the lack of unity and being endemic to all eclecticisms and, to make matters worse, the principle governing the choice of pieces would no longer be philosophical and strictly rational. The attitude of the theologian is profoundly different He does not resort to the light of faith in order to create a philosophy that would have unity, but rather, in order to proceed to a critique of the philosophies he will use to create a body of theology that would have unity. What is in question here is not the unity of
faith but the structural unity of the theology as a science. In this regard it is very true that St. Thomas’s debt to Aristotle exceeds by far what he owes to any other philosophy, perhaps even to all other philosophies combined; but it is none the less true that, as a theologian, the sole object of his endeavor is to establish a theology, not a philosophy. Whatever philosophical unity the doctrine thus created will have will come to it from a light higher than that of philosophy. The reason it can use several without risking incoherence is that it is not tied to any one of them, that it does not depend on any one of them, and that it first transforms whatever it seems to borrow from them.

Nothing can take the place of a personal meditation on a text like that of De potentia 3.5 (but there are many others), in order to come in real contact with the practice of the theologian and to appreciate the nature of his work. St. Thomas reveals himself there to be neither a Platonist, an Aristotelian, nor an Avicennian. If we delve deeply into these three philosophies, we see that no one of them conceived the notion of creation ex nihilo, including the creation of matter. But as they bathe here in the light of theology, we see them reveal richer philosophical possibilities than they seemed to have in the minds of the philosophers who first conceived them. The meaning of the five ways to the existence of God, the meaning of the three arguments for the universal causality of the primary being, in the last resort do not originate in any of these ways or arguments. Their source is a definite notion of God and being whose light, shining from a mind impregnated by faith, suffices to transform the philosophies it touches. But these matters can be appreciated only with the experience that comes from long study. Virtuosity in dialectics, rather than making their demonstration possible, stands in the way of demonstrating them well.

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