JMC : The Physical System of St. Thomas / by G.M. Cornoldi, S.J.



IN Latin the word forma was used to signify idea, and was applied to the exemplar of a work, whether it be in the mind of the artist or expressed materially.

Nec vero, says Cicero, ille artifex, cum faceret Jovis formam aut Minervae, contemplabatur aliquem a quo similitudinem duceret, sed ipsius in mente insidebat species, guam contuens in eaque defixus, ad illius similitudinem artem et manum dirigebat. . . . Has rerum formas appellabat ideas ille, non intelligendi solum, sed etiam dicendi, gravissimus auctor et magister Plato, easque gigni negat, et ait semper esse, a ratione et intelligentia contineri; cetera nasci, occidere, fluere, labi, nec diutius esse uno et eodem statu.

The substantial form of anything is, philosophically speaking, THE LIKENESS OF A DIVINE IDEA, WHICH BEING EXPRESSED IN MATTER CONSTITUTES IT IN A DETERMINATE SUBSTANCE; as, for example, the entity whence the matter of gold is constituted in its proper substantial being. From the variety of these forms results the distinction of Genera and Species. These, adorning the sensible universe, present beautiful images of those exemplars which are in the Divine Mind. Hence Plato and Aristotle with their followers gave to those forms names that indicate order and beauty, even calling them a divine thing, a participation of GOD, the one from which every substance receives unity. And Albert the Great approves of these, adding more of his own, especially where he takes into consideration the names adapted to signify form in its twofold relations, viz, as the term of the artist's action expressed in matter, and as that which constitutes the matter in a determinate being. "The names of form," he says, "are various, inasmuch as it is the end of motion, and constitutes in being the thing formed. In the former sense it is said to be something divine, something most excellent, something desirable. . . . In the latter sense it is called form, as giving form and as distinguishing formless matter; and species, as constituting the thing in its being, thus rendering it knowable; reason, as having in it the definition of the thing; idea, paradigma, image, as proceeding from its exemplar, which is in the First Cause, because every form impressed in matter was at first in the First Mover, called by Plato the archetypal world, according to the well known words of Boetius Pulchrum pulcherrimus ipse mundum mente gerens, similique ab imagine formans. Form then, as being in the First Exemplar, is called idea; as expressed in matter it is called paradigma; and that impression, as imitating the idea, is called an image."{1}

From this one sees clearly that the degrees are in the perfection of the forms, according to the various expressions of the Divine Being communicated by these forms to corporeal substances.

St. Thomas thus distinguishes them in the second article of his Opusculum De Formis,{2} where the whole doctrine, contained in various parts of his writings, is put together.

"By means of the form," he says, "things come to participate of the Divine Being, and therefore the form also must be a certain participation and likeness of the First Act or Divine Being. . . . So that the nearer this form is in its likeness to the First Act, or the more it participates of His perfections, the more perfect it will be. Therefore the forms that participate of the perfections of the Actus Primus merely as to their being are of the lowest degree. Those that are likenesses of the Actus Primus not only by being, but also by living and being able to give life, have the second rank, under the name of animae vegetativae. The third are those that are likenesses of the Actus Primus not only in having being and life, but also in knowing, though imperfectly; and these are named animae sensitivae. These are the first that have any participation of knowledge. Lastly, those that are likenesses of the Actus Primus not only in being and living and having a sort of knowledge, but moreover in knowing with intellective cognition, constitute in nature the highest and noblest grade, though in different ways; and all of these are called intellectual substances."

One can easily conceive how a greater perfection takes into itself inferior perfections, or how an act perfect in itself contains the less perfect acts. Therefore Almighty God, Who is the most perfect Act, has in Himself the perfection of all things created and possible. The more perfect substantial form contains virtually the less perfect, till we come downwards to a form that in its perfection may be called elementary or lowest. So from unity there begins a series, each term of which is endowed with the perfection of the preceding one and something more; so that it tends towards the infinite, which it never can reach. Thus from the triangle begins a series of polygons, inclining more and more to a polygon with infinite sides, that gives us the conception of the circle, wherein we may find imaged the various perfections of the forms whence the beings in this visible created world, from elements up to man, have their proper perfection. Since then, according to the principles of this system, every individual being is one substance, so the substantial form that makes it one substance must be one. And where it is more perfect, as in man, it must contain in itself all the perfections which, apart from man, are communicated by diverse other forms to beings less perfect.

Thus in this system the human soul, through being a form superior to all others in the visible creation, contains in itself virtually their perfection, which it therefore can communicate to matter, while, through being spiritual, it is like the separated substances (the angels), but inferior to all of them, and is as a link that binds the corporeal substances with the incorporeal, the visible with the invisible, a link that joins beings without sense and beings with sense to the order of purely intellectual beings. Therefore it is the most perfect expression made in matter by the First Act, Who is God. It is a divine inspiration, a principle which, though intellectual, can nevertheless transmute the slime of the earth into vegetative and sentient substance. "The soul," says St. Thomas, "is on the confines of the separated substances which are incorporeal, and of the material forms which are corporeal; for it is the lowest of incorruptible forms, and therefore is partly separated from matter and partly in matter."{3}

Hence the essential difference between materia prima and the material form and the subsisting form. Materia prima is the determinable principle of corporeal substances. The substantial form is the determining principle, the act that constitutes matter in a determinate nature. A substantial form is either inseparable from matter, and is called material, or separable from matter, and is called immaterial. This quality of being separable from matter is called subsistence, and the forms endowed with it are called subsistent.

The forms of which we have hitherto spoken are called substantial, in contradistinction to those which are called accidental forms; for, as the former constitute substances in their first being as such, so do the latter bring to them, without changing their nature, a second and accidental being.

"Some things that are not, may be," says St. Thomas, "and some already are. That which may be, but is not, is said to be in potentia. That which already is, said to be in actu. The being of a thing is two-fold, essential or substantial, such as being a man, which is called Being simpliciter and accidental being, such as a man being white, which is called Being secundum quid. . . . That which makes the substantial being in actu is called the substantial form, and that which makes accidental being in actu is called an accidental form. And, since generation is motion towards a certain form, as there is a twofold form so is there a twofold generation. Generation absolutely simpliciter answers to a substantial form. Generation secundum quid answers to an accidental form. So that the substantial form of a thing is said to make it be simpliciter, as a man comes to be, or is generated; but the accidental form makes it come to be, not simpliciter but in this or that way, as a man who is fair is said to have been born fair, in contradistinction to having been born simpliciter. This twofold generation implies a twofold corruption, viz. corruption simpliciter and corruption secundum quid. Simple generation and corruptlon go not beyond the genus of substance; but generation and corruption secundum quid are in all the other genera of accidentals."{4} Clearly, then, on the death of a man or a brute or a plant, the substance of the man or of the brute or of the plant ceases to be the substance that it was, as water does when decomposed into its elements. These are examples of absolute corruption; whereas, when a man loses his colour, the brute its healthiness, the plant its vigour, or the hot water its heat, the substances remain while the accidents change, and the corruption therefore is not a corruption of the substance, but of something that is in the substance.

Hence it follows that matter can pass from one form into another, by reason of not having the form into which it will pass. If the matter, for instance, which now is wheat had already the substantial form of flesh, how conld its transformation into flesh be intelligible? When we think of a substance in its actual being, we have only to look at the two principles of matter and form; but if we think of it in its production, we must also consider the privation of that form, by which privation the matter is, so to speak, affected. St. Thomas says: "In order that generation may take place, three things are required, viz, a potential being, which is matter (materia prima); the want of actual being, which is privation and that which makes a thing actually to be, which is the form. Thus, for instance, when an image is made of copper, the copper which is in potentia to the form of the image is the matter. The want of figure is privation. The figure that makes it an image is the form. Not, however, a substantial form; for the copper had an actual being previously as copper, a being not dependent on having this or that figure. It is an accidental form ; and so are all artificial forms, because art works at those things only that have their own natural being. There ar three principles of nature therefore, viz. matter, form and privation; the form being that for which .generation takes place. The other two belong to the term from which generation is. Hence matter and privation are the same thing in their subject, but differ in our minds; for the same thing that is copper is unfigured before it receives the form of an image, but in one respect is called copper, and in another respect is called unfigured. Wherefore privation is said to be a principle, not per se but per accidens, because it coincides with the matter."{5}

Having now considered separately the two principles of every corporeal substance, we shall pass on to consider the same together, as constituting the nature of such.

{1} In II. Phys., 17.

{2} This Opusculum De Formis was formerly printed as an appendix to St. Thomas's Commentary In Libros Physicorum.

{3} Opusc. 45, De Pluralitate Formar., P. i.

{4} Opusc. De Principiis Naturae.

{5} Ibid.

<< ======= >>