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


DIFFICULTIES direct and indirect are put forward against the true physical activity of bodies. The indirect difficulties are put forward by the followers of the Mechanical system, in a vague and abstract manner, to support their own opinion: and these we have sufficiently refuted. We shall now answer the direct arguments against the doctrine itself, and begin by quoting from Malebranche.

"If," he says, "anyone supposes that there are in bodies entities distinct from matter, and has not a distinct idea of matter, he will easily be led to imagine that these bodies are the true and chief causes of those effects which are seen to happen. Nay, that is the opinion of ordinary philosophers, who, to explain these effects, argue that there are substantial forms, real qualities and other like entities. But if we set ourselves to consider the idea of the cause or the power of operating, we cannot doubt that it represents a something divine. For the idea of a sovereign power is the idea of a sovereign divinity, and the idea of a subject power is the idea of an inferior divinity, but still a true divinity, at least according to the judgment of the pagans, always supposing it to be the idea of a true power or a true cause. One admits then, something divine in all the bodies around us, when one admits forms, faculties, qualities, virtues, or real beings capable of producing certain effects by force of their nature; and thus, one is insensibly brought into agreement with the pagans, by reason of respecting their philosophy. True it is that faith recalls us to our duty: but perhaps it may be rightly said that in this, if the heart is Christian, the mind is fundamentally pagan.

"Moreover it is difficult to persuade ourselves that we ought neither to fear nor love true forces, beings that have the faculty of operating on us, of punishing us by pain and rewarding us by pleasure. And since true adoration is in love and fear, it furthermore becomes difficult to persuade ourselves that we ought not to adore them. . . . The feeling that we ought to love or fear where there is a true cause of good or evil, seems to be so natural and just, that on no account ought we to throw it off. Therefore, given that false philosophical opinion which we are endeavouring to destroy, viz., that the bodies around us are true causes of the good and evil experienced by us, reason would seem to justify a religion like that of the pagans, and approve of universal dissoluteness of manners. It is true that reason teaches us not to adore leeks and onions, for instance, as the Supreme Divinity, because we are not made completely happy by having them, nor completely unhappy by not having them; and therefore the pagans never rendered the same honour to them as to the Supreme Jove, on whom all this divinity depended. . . . But though we should not be justified in rendering supreme honour to leeks and onions, we may always give to them some particular adoration. I mean that we may have a regard for them, and somehow love them, if it is true that somehow they can do us good, in proportion to which they should be honoured."{1} Alarmed at the sight of so frightful a precipice, he uttered a cry of warning to the scholastics, and, imploring them to have pity on themselves, proposed, as the only means of escape and security, his Mechanical system.

Were his accusations true, we should have to shed bitter tears over the memory not only of Aristotle and Plato, but also of St. Augustine and the other Fathers and Doctors of the Church, who would, all of them, have been deluded by pagan philosophy, and have, all of them, taught idolatry.

Strange it is that Malebranche should have made those charges against experience of facts, against reason, against the authority of so many great men, illustrious by their wisdom as by their holiness, and strangely too, (considering that he was a Catholic) against the teaching of the Catholic schools, which the Church, as the greatest theologians testify, has so approved as to make it her own. What can we say about him? Certain it is that, owing to his antipathy to matter and form, he looked upon everything else as unimportant, and spoke like a madman; so that answering him is a sheer waste of time.

Our acknowledging a principle of physical activity in corporeal substances will not make us idolaters, as long as we admire in the creatures endowed with it the goodness of God, Who gave and preserves their Being and their power of operating, and cooperates with the operator. There is no danger of our falling into idolatry while, by the order, beauty, variety and magnificence of those things, and by all that strictly proceeds from their activity, our minds are raised up to the infinite perfection of the Cause Who produced them and made them operate. You would never dream of saying that because the sun's rays are not the sun, they are not bright. Rather would their beauty invite you to contemplate that ocean of light from which they come.

But the sun diffuses its rays by necessity of nature, whereas God, of His own most free and bounteous Will, imparts a likeness of Himself to the secondary causes, that operate according to that Will. Of His pure goodness, as the Angelic Doctor says, He, Who has no need of anything, (because His perfection does not depend on anything external,) has communicated to other beings also the dignity of being a cause. As to the only proof put forward by Malebranche in support of his charges, viz., that if created substances operated physically, they would do good or harm to us and be worthy of love, in which the adoration due exclusively to God consists, our answer is that it proves nothing, unless we wish to maintain that loving parents, relations and friends is giving them divine adoration. What he meant by saying that, if we believe in substantial forms and therefore in physical activity, we might love leeks and onions, we cannot understand. He ought to have known that love, as here understood, is a rational, not a sensitive affection, and therefore is only for those who have the dignity of a person, which irrational creatures have not.

Modern teachers bring forward another objection, by which many are deceived. "Who," they say, "can form a conception of this form, this principle of physical activity? Is it a body or a soul? You will not allow it to be a body, therefore it must be a soul: and thus the world would be populated with souls, as many souls as there are atoms." This objection, though obtruded on us now, is of an earlier date, having been used by more than one Cartesian as a valid argument against scholastic philosophy. Descartes, as is well known, laid down a criterion of truth, viz. "That which is contained in a clear and distinct idea is true." From which we pass on quickly to this other: "That which is not a clear and distinct idea is false." But this, if admitted with all its consequences, is as destructive to faith as to science. Destructive it is to faith; for we should have to reject as lies all the mysteries of faith, because we cannot have a clear and distinct idea of them. Of its being destructive to science we have a proof before us. They began by asking what these forms and principles of activity are. We cannot have a clear and distinct idea of them; and therefore according to them, they do not exist. We cannot have a clear and distinct idea of one principle of life in plants: and therefore plants are a clashing together of inert atoms. But we cannot have a clear and distinct idea of the anima of brutes, which is neither a spirit nor a body. Therefore they are machines artificially put together, and all their movements are mechanical. And what can we say about the union of the human soul with the body? However much we may try, we cannot succeed in forming a clear and distinct idea of that. We must therefore say that the human soul is only present to the body, or at most directs it, like the engine-driver of a locomotive, without communicating to it any true force. And who can form a clear and distinct idea of the human soul itself, as a spirit quite without form and figure? We should have to say that it is the phosphorus of the brain, and that its movements are our acts of reasoning and will. And how can we have a clear and distinct idea of the of things, of their origin mutual action, of the order and the laws to which they are subject? It is much more convenient to get rid of the difficulty by reducing all this to human ways of thinking. And then, who can venture to say that he has a clear and distinct idea of God -- a Being spiritual and immense, free and immutable, most simple and infinite? It is easier to acknowledge no God other than the world itself, and leave the world without God. What else? The very idea of Being is then so thickly veiled, that its essence, modes, origin and properties become impenetrable: and yet Being cannot be altogether denied. And so we come to universal doubt, as the first step in philosophical discovery, or rather to Hegel's principle that Being is Non-Being; which crowns the edifice, and has the one good effect of making it no longer possible for the opponents of the old philosophy to understand each other.

We cannot, in fairness, be expected to say anything in reply to men who stigmatize as false everything of which, by reason of not ascending from effects to causes, from operations to operators, they cannot in their own mind form a clear and distinct idea. As to the particular difficulty alleged, it is a curious thing to hear people repeat that we cannot possibly have a clear idea of physical activity, of substantial forms, of attraction, and therefore that all this must be voted to be a chimera (or, as some say, fictitious, abstract beings, or realized abstractions); when for so many centuries the brightest geniuses have attested the contrary, and even now, so many noble thinkers find therein the foundation of that one philosophy which, besides being the handmaid of theology, can be fruitfully applied to explaining the phenomena of nature. What shall we say in particular to the followers of the Dynamic system, who cry up the clearness of their forces, which are qualities without a subject? Or what shall we say to the Mechanic school with its inert atoms, from whose incomprehensible whirlings come forth wholly and in its parts, the nature, order and beauty of the Universe?

The general objections brought against the forms and physical activity of substances are reducible to the two above mentioned. Of the special objections to this or that mode of activity we shall treat in their proper places, when we come to speak of the various forms under which that activity shows itself.

{1} Rech. de la Ver., I. vi. p. ii.

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