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


TO show the unity, beauty and majesty of Physical System, we must consider it, as far as the nature of this treatise will allow, in its principal relations; and creation is certainly one of them. For this purpose we shall here quote the words of a most sublime genius, where he interprets the first chapter of Genesis. What is that void and formless earth, and the darkness, and the abysses, and the waters, and the Spirit of God moving over it, of which we read in that divine book? "The Spirit of God," says St. Augustine, "moved over the water. It was not yet said that God made the water; nor can we believe that the water was not made by God, nor that it was before He had formed anything. For by Him, through Him and in Him are all things, as the Apostle says. Therefore God did make the water, and we cannot say otherwise without being greatly in error. Why then is it not said that God made the water? Did He give the name of water to that same matter which He called heaven and earth, earth invisible and uncomposed, and an abyss? Why should it not be called water, if it could be called earth, when neither earth nor water nor anything was distinct? But perhaps, and not incongruously, it was first called heaven and earth, then uncomposed earth, and an abyss without light, and lastly water. Firstly, to indicate, under the name of heaven and earth, the matter of the universe, to form which it was all taken out of nothing. Secondly, to show, under the names of uncomposed earth, and of an abyss, the nudity of forms (informitas), because the earth is the most unformed and least splendid of those things. Thirdly, to signify under the name of water that matter is obedient to the artificer; for water is more pliant than earth, and therefore matter, by reason of being pliant, was better expressed by the word 'water' than by the word 'earth.' . . . This way of signifying matter shows firstly the end, or why it was made, secondly the formlessness, thirdly the dependence on and subjection to the artificer. To the first, then, belong 'heaven and earth,' for which precisely matter was made. To the second belong the words, 'invisible and uncomposed earth,' and 'darkness over the abyss,' or formlessness without light, wherefore it was called invisible earth. To the third belongs 'the water subject to the Spirit,' and receiving therefrom order and forms. Thus the Spirit of God moved over the waters; whereby we may understand that the Spirit operated, and that water was the matter of His operation."{1} We can therefore conceive, in accordance with the saint, an immense ocean, as it were, of we know not what entity, as yet without any definite nature, so that it could be truly called neither water, nor air, nor ether, nor anything that is considered in physics. It was not divided into atoms nor determined in certain figures any more than the darkness that represents it was divided into colours. It only gives us that primitive matter which God created as the indeterminate subject, capable of receiving in itself the images of the divine archetypal ideas, which, as we showed in the third chapter, the substantial forms are.

This is how the Spirit of God (which means God Himself) applies Himself, as we may say, to this formless water, or rather primitive matter, and infuses into it His own virtue, so that in it and with it in ways innumerable He expresses Himself in more or less perfect degrees, just as a sculptor (to use a weak similitude) might express in modelling clay his own image, not by an instrument, but by the application of himself, that leaves a greater or less impress here and there. God, being infinite, cannot express Himself adequately otherwise than in His Word, Whom He generates, and Who has the same nature. In matter, whether the whole or a part, He cannot be expressed. Hence, though the grades of creatures in the corporeal universe are almost innumerable, according to the various perfections imparted to them by their forms, these creatures reflect only a very feeble ray from that ACTUS PURISSIMUS which God is and so does every other created being, however sublime and perfect. This is expressed by Dante, in the Paradiso:

Colui che volse il sesto
Allo stremo del mondo, e dentro ad esso
Distinse tanto occulto e manifesto,
Non potèo suo valor si fare impresso
In tutto l'Universo, che il suo Verbo
Non rimanesse in infinito eccesso.

* * * *

E quinci appar ch' ogni minor natura
È corto recettacolo a quel bene
Che non ha fine e sè con sè misura.{2}

And in Canto xxix. he says:

Vedi l'eccelso omai e la larghezza
Dell' eterno Valor, poscia che tanti
Speculi fatti s'ha, in che si spezza,
Uno manendo in sè come davanti.

St. Augustine goes on to explain the self-application of God in forming matter to His own image. "And the Spirit of God," he says, "bore Himself over the water, not as oil floats on water . . . . but with a certain effective and making virtue [ vi quadam effectoria et fabricatoria ], by which that over which He bears Himself is made and constructed, as the will of an artificer acts on the wood or other material on which he works, or on the limbs of his own body when he moves them to the work. But this, though the best of corporeal similitudes, is poor and almost nothing as intended to make us understand how the Spirit of God bore Himself above the mundane matter subject to His operation. Yet, among those things that may somehow be understood by men, we cannot find a similitude that could be more clearly understood, or more nearly resemble that of which we have spoken."{3}

It will be objected that, if materia prima is at first formless and then formed, we must admit an entity which has neither the nature of earth nor of water nor of anything else; an entity which has no nature at all, or, as they say in the Schools, is not quid; an entity which has no determinate figure, and therefore is not quantum, an entity which has no attributes, no accidents, no quality of any sort, and therefore is not quale. This, it will be said, is inconceivable. Now, if the doctrine were that God created materia prima first in order of time, and afterwards determined it in various natures by impression of forms, assuredly such a nec quid, nec quantum, nec quale, standing by itself, would be inconceivable and extremely unnatural, if not absurd. But, when we are told that in creation materia prima preceded the forms in order of nature only, and not in order of time, the difficulty vanishes, as St. Augustine explains with his usual profoundness. "Hast Thou not taught me, O Lord," he says, "that before this formless matter was formed and distinguished by Thee, there was nothing at all -- no colour, no figure, no body, no spirit? Not however quite nothing, but a certain informity without a species of any sort. . . Nor will this appear inconsistent to any one who can distinguish between the precedence of eternity, of time, of election and of origin -- between eternal precedence, as God precedes all things; precedence in time, as the flower precedes its fruit; precedence by election, as the fruit is preferred to the flower; and precedence by origin, as the sound precedes the singing. Of these examples the first and last are very difficult to understand; but the others are very easy. For indeed it is an arduous work, and very rarely done, to raise one's eyes to Thine Eternity, O Lord, which, being incommutable, makes the mutable things, and therefore precedes them. And then, who is sufficiently acute to discern without much labour how the sound is before the singing, seeing that the singing is the sound formed (distinct in certain forms), and that, although there can be a thing unformed, what is not cannot receive a form? Thus matter is before that which is made of it, but not first, as the efficient cause; for it does not make, but rather is made. Nor is it first by an interval of time; for even in singing we do not first emit unformed sounds, and then give them the order and form of singing, as when a man makes a casket out of wood or a vase out of silver. The wood and the silver precede in time the form of a casket and of a vase but in singing it is not so. What we hear is not firstly an unformed sound, that passes away when formed, and leaves nothing behind for art to recover. It is the very sound of the singing itself; and therefore the singing developes in the sound, which is its own sound, its own matter formed into song. Hence, as I said, the matter of the sound is prior to the form of the song not prior by efficiency, for the sound does not make the song; but by being subject to the soul that produces the song. Neither is it prior in time; for it comes forth together with the song. Nor is it prior by choice; for sound is not preferable to song, which is a sound and also a beautiful sound.

It is prior by priority of origin; for the form is not given to make the song a sound, but to make the sound a song. Let this example serve to show, before those who can understand, how the matter of things was made first, and called heaven and earth, because heaven and earth were made of it, but not made first in time, because the forms give the order of time, and the matter was unformed."{4}

The holy doctor then exclaims: "May Thy works praise Thee, that we may love Thee; and may we love Thee, that so Thy works may praise Thee -- those works which have in time their beginning and end, their rising and setting, their perfection and defect, form and privation. They had therefore successively morning and evening, partly hidden and partly manifest; for by Thee they were made from nothing, not of Thee, nor of anything not Thine, nor of anything anterior in time, but of matter concreated, by Thee created together with them; because Thou, without interval of time, didst give form to the formlessness of this matter, the matter of heaven and earth being other than the form of heaven and earth, Thou tookest the matter absolutely from nothing, and from formless matter the form of the world. Yet both didst Thou make together, so that without the interposition of a moment the form followed the matter."{5}

But we have said enough about the outcoming of primitive matter by the power of God, and about its distinction in those primitive substantial forms from which the development of the universe came successively. We have now to see what happens in the actuation of this matter in the diverse forms that distinguish it.

{1} De Gen., ad litt. i c. 2.

{2} Il Paradiso, canto xix.

{3} De Gen., ad litt. ibid. 16.

{4} Confess. xii. 3, 40.

{5} Ibid. xiii. 48

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