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


IN science as in politics innovation is now the rule. The supporters of error do their utmost to hide away by means of silence the demonstrations of truth, which would contradict their theories, endeavouring to make the friends of truth contemptible and odious by attributing to them strange and absurd doctrines which they never dreamt of advocating. So it is in the present controversy. According to our opponents the philosophy of St. Thomas is against the progress of physical science, and his modern disciples are supposed either to ignore or deny facts that are certain in modern chemistry. But will they be so good as to tell us what these facts are?

We say that a substantial transformation of the components in a mixtum, i.e. in a chemical compound, requires the components to be of different natures, with affinity to each other, as before stated. But this is an assured fact, and generally accepted as such by the chemists themselves. We say moreover that the elementary substances which compose the mixtum must be in truly physical contact, and if chemists forget to affirm this, reason will remind them. For, if the elements remained at a distance from each other, they could not possibly form one compound substance, and therefore could not operate as such. If the distance between them, however small, were absolute, they could not operate on each other at all, because, as we have clearly shewn, actio in distans repugnat.

Since then they must come into contact, their dimensions must be of the smallest. Hence the well known axiom Corpora non agunt nisi soluta. For if there sometimes is a chemical combination between bodies that are not so small, then that chemical combination is on the surface; as when, for instance, a thick bar of iron is by exposure to damp gradually changed into rust, i.e. hydrate of sesqui-oxide of iron.

In reply we are told that, according to the chemists, the elementary substances, besides differing in nature, are reduced to the condition of atoms, which have a determinate volume and weight and are placed in a certain position relatively to each other. But we have nothing to say against that. Why should we, when it agrees quite well with the principles of St. Thomas? But the elements, they say, must be atoms in order to combine chemically. Very well, but we have a clear and precise conception of an atom, and the modern writers on chemistry have not. What do they mean by an atom? According to its etymology it means that which, whatever its size may be, is not divided, and therefore among the Greeks we find the word used of a beard, or of grass, to signify being uncut. But if you take it to mean a very small substance, you will find that in modern use the smallness is arbitrary and indeterminate. Moreover in the division of bodies modern writers consider the quantity alone and we clearly shewed,{1} when treating of the divisibility of bodies, that, so considered, all bodies must be conceived as divisible ad infinitum. A true atom is indivisible, being the minimum in its own nature. It cannot, remaining what it is, be divided any more. The modern men cannot give any reason for this but St. Thomas has taught us that quantity is an accident of bodies, and that if you divide a body till the substance can no longer produce this accident, the substance, no longer having quantity, will be indivisible. We, having already explained this doctrine of the Angelic Doctor, can say, in accordance with his principles, that every species of elementary substance has its atoms, each of which must be a minimum: so that we have no difficulty about admitting, elementary atoms in the generation of mixta, i.e. chemical compounds.

Consequently, we can admit without any difficulty that the number of these atoms or elementary minima is by nature determjned for making this or that combination, from which one or another compound substance is generated. If they say that it requires two atoms of x and one of y to make the compound substance a, we have nothing to object. If they tell us that with the variation of numerical proportions the substances will vary, so be it, provided that the assertion be justified by fact.

Clearly these elements, though they are atoms or minima, i.e. reduced to the smallest possible quantity, are extended, are true bodies, are subject to universal attraction, have a deterinmate weight. Therefore we can admit the theory respecting the atomic weight of the aforesaid elements.

Also, by reason of their being truly extended bodies, they must unite not only in determinate atomic weight, but in determinate proportional volumes.

If these elementary minima occupy space, as they certainly do, each of them will be in a certain position with respect to the others. Therefore, when certain chemists propose certain symbolical figures, to indicate the place where, in order that the chemical combination may take place, the elementary atoms have to be, we do not say that such figures are in themselves absurd, though they cannot be proved by experiments.

Now, seeing that we accept these theories and all the chemical laws founded on facts, by what right can we be accused of being in opposition to chemistry and the progress of science?

But the adversaries of St. Thomas and of his followers put forward a most important point of disagreement, on which modern chemistry quite condemns the physics of the Angelic Doctor. I allude to the substantial transformation of the mixtum or chemical compound, generated from elements.

To penetrate the meaning of St. Thomas, we must think philosophically: but the empirical mind is offended at being required to do that, and follows the easy teaching of Epicurus, which amounts to this: That the world is an innumerable quantity of atoms, gifted somehow with extension and capable of knocking against other atoms, or of being knocked against by them. The only difference between these atoms is that some are smooth, some pointed: yet their agglomeration in a certain number gives us all the different substances that are. This is quite clear, but certainly not reasonable: and Cicero, following the principles of Plato and of Aristotle, ridicules it in the person of a certain Amafanius. Tam vero physica, he says, si Epicurum et Democritum probarem, possem scribere ita plane ut Amafanius (in company with the modern Epicureans, who make all inorganic things and all living things, including men, come out of atomic aggregations.) Quid est enim magnum. quum causas rerum efficientes sustuleris, de corpusculorum, ita enim appellant atomos, concussione fortuita loqui? Nostra tu physica nosti, quae continentur ex effectione et ex materia ea quam format et fingit effectio. (Acad., ii.) In these last words the Physical system of matter and form is clearly meant. Moreover he says further on: De natura rerum ita dicebant (Plato and Aristotle), ut eam dividerent in res duas, ut altera esset efficiens (in other words, the form:) altera quasi huic se praebens (i.e. the matter), ea quae efficeretur aliquid. In eo quod efficeret, vim esse censebant; in eo autem quod efficeretur, materiam quamdam; in utroque tamen utrumque. Neque enim materia ipsa coalescere potuisset, si nulla vi contineretur, neque vis sine aliqua materia. Nihil est enim quod alicubi esse cogatur. Sed quod EX UTROQUE id jam corpus nominabant. (Acad., vi.) Here he clearly acknowledges the fact that all bodies are constituted of two principles really distinct, viz., matter and form. Anyone who can read Latin and understand the meaning of words must see that. The conclusion is that, like Cicero, we must reckon this Epicurean chemistry among the chatterings of quacks, as also the Darwinian system, which is founded on it.

When we affirm the fact that a true chemical compound is a body generated by the chemical combination of elements differing from each other in their nature and that the body generated therefrom differs from its elements, do we not say what is said expressis terminis by every modern chemist, seeing that all of them find therein precisely the difference between chemical compounds and mere mingling of things? Moreover we express an incontrovertible fact, inasmuch as the nature of a body is the principle of operation that determines its species.

"True," they say, "elements of different natures are required for the generation of a chemical compound: but chemical compounds decompose into their own elements. This upsets your formula that compounds differ in nature from their elementary compounds."

Yes, we do say that the elements are of different natures, and that the mixtum or chemical compound decomposes into its elements -- e.g. that water when decomposed becomes oxygen and hydrogen, that in the water there is no trace of the elements oxygen and hydrogen. Therefore we have to say that in the water the oxygen and hydrogen exist, but not as such. But then, how do they exist?

There are three ways in which a thing may exist in another thing: viz., formaliter, in potentia, virtualiter. It exists in another thing formally (formaliter), when it exists there in its own form. The likeness of St. Thomas, for instance, exists formally in the block of marble out of which it was sculptured, and a chicken exists formally within the shell of a fertilized egg after incubation. If that block of marble has not yet been sculptured, the likeness is only in potentia, because the artist may sculpture it into the likeness of St. Thomas or of any one else; and if the egg were not fertilized, the chicken would remain in potentia. A thing exists in another in virtute, when it is there neither formally nor merely in potentia, but has in itself an inner virtue by which it, and nothing else, can or should proceed therefrom; as, for instance, in a fertilized egg there is an inward virtue by which, given the requisite conditions, a chicken is formed of the same species as that whence the seminal virtue was derived.

We say then, first of all, that the elements of a chemical body, are not formally in it, because if they were so, the chemical body would be nothing more than an aggregate of different substances; which is contradicted by fact. Secondly, We say that they are not there merely in potentia, because the said chemical body cannot decompose into any other elements. It follows then that the elements are in the mixtum in virtute, because the mixtum has an inward disposition to decompose, under certain circumstances, into those elements, and not into any others.

Therefore they who accuse us of believing that a mixtum cannot be generated without the annihilation of its elements, or that nothing but materia prima remains in it, speak ignorantly, because the re-appearance of the elements by resolution of the mixtum clearly shews that somehow they had remained. The, illustrious Cardinal Toledo (Lib. II. De Gen. et Corr.) deduces the existence of the elements precisely from the fact that the mixtum is resolved into them. Patet, he says, quod quae resolvuntur componuntur ex illis in quae resolvuntur. Quumque in resolutionibus non sit processus infinitus, oportet fateri esse corpora non resolubilia in alia corpora. Talia igitur erunt elementa. Not only must the compound be capable of resolving into its elements, but the elements must be found in the mixtum, for at Chap. I. he says, TRES CONDITIONES DEBERE INESSE ELEMENTO. PRIMA ut ex eo aliquid fiat. . . Secunda, ut insit in re quae fit. Tertia, ut sit primum ex quo fit res, et ultimum in quod dividitur. Adverte autem, quod debet esse elementum simplex, id est non resolubile in partes differentes specie: non enim repugnat elemento dividi in partes quantitatis, ut literae elementa sunt dictionum, et partes habent literae ipsae.

Certain it is then that the elements do exist in the mixtum, and equally certain that things exist in it, as we have said, neither formaliter, nor merely in potentia, but in virtute. That they are virtually there is proved by the fact that something within disposes the compound for decomposing into the elements from which it was generated, and not into any others. Formae elementorum, says St. Thomas,{2} manent in mixto non actu, sed virtute: manent enim qualitates pro price elementorum, licet remissae, in quibus est virtus formarum elementarium. Et hujusmodi qualitas mixtionis est propria dispositio ad formam substantialem corporis mixti; puta formam lapidis, vel animati cujuscumque.

Thus does the Angelic Doctor shew that the nature of the component elements is changed into the nature of the mixtum: but let us go a little further into his meaning.

What is meant by the substantial form of the elements and of the mixtum? The substantial form is the active principle that specificates a material being [esse], and it differs in the different beings [entia] that have different natures. This substantial form, specificating the being [ens], is not immutable, but can be changed by a proportionate external agent. When the specificating principle has changed, the being [ens] cannot remain unchanged: and therefore when the substantial form of the elements is specifically changed, so as to become the form of a mixtum, changed must the elements be into the nature of that mtxtum.

These substantial forms are not subsistent forces, neither are they made identical with the matter which they inform: but each of them, with the matter which it informs, constitutes one ens.

Each ens (as we have shewn when speaking of qualities) has certain qualities, generic or specific, rooted in its substantial form. Therefore every element has its qualities, according to the nature of its substantial form, and every mixtum has its qualities according to its form.

Now the internal disposition of a subject to be actuated through extrinsic action by one form, rather than by another, is reducible to the genus of quality. Quidquid recipitur, says an old and wise adage, per modum recipientis recipitur; and hence an external agent operating on an ens will, as to its form, produce a change in proportion to its qualities. But when one ens changes into another, the qualities that preceded the change are not isolated and without a foundation in any substantial form. The new form beginning becomes the foundation of those qualities that were in the preceding form; and the preceding form ceases to be when the new form begins, because it is not conceivable that, even for a moment, there should be neither the old form nor the new -- no form at all. As the weight of a waggon presses continually on its wheels, and is never without a fulcrum, though the spokes are moving in succession, so do the qualities of an ens continue to exist in a succession of different substantial forms: and the fact is clearly shown in the generation and corruption of inorganic bodies, of plants, of animals, and even of man. Rightly then was it said that the qualities of the elements are the disposition to the form of the mixtum or compound, and that such qualities remain after the generation of the mixtum: and therefore that they are the inner cause by which, under the action of a cause that destroys the substantial form of the mixtum, the elements of which it was constituted reappear. But these qualities cannot reappear with their primal energy; for they are no longer the elements in their own natures, but qualities relaxed or neutralized.

Synthetically then, we say this 1. The concurrence of various elements in the generation of a chemical compound is undeniable. 2. Undeniable is it that in the compound there exists a principle of activity different from that which was in each element. 3. It is a fact that, by reason of this change of the principle of activity, the nature and substance of the mixtum are different from the nature and substance of the elements, and are said to be so by the chemists, who therein precisely find the difference between a chemical combination and a mere mingling of different things. Let us accept these facts then as reasonable, and endeavour to explain reasonably the phenomenon of substantial change in the elements, however difficult it may be. Certain men, however, wishing to follow the variable opinion of so-called scientists, admit the facts, yet with a strange incoherence deny the substantial change, because they cannot explain it, though, as we have seen, it is essentially connected with those facts. "Had it been known," says a modern writer, "that we can obtain safe and sound from the new body, by chemical analysis, the two or more substances in whose combination it originated," (here he cooly ignores the fact that the Scholastics did know it), "they would have said, as we say now, that it is not easy to explain how and why the intimate union of two substances gives to the total thereby produced qualities so very different from those of the component substances; but that does not confer on us the right to suppose a change of nature and essence in those substances."

This is nonsense. He might indeed tell us that the fact is difficult to explain, but it is irrational to contradict oneself by affirming a fact and then denying it in other words.

Some will say that we are insisting too stiffly on the importance of substantial changes. But, indeed, the question is of the greatest moment. It is disgraceful to profess error in science, especially when it opens the door to errors universal and most pernicious. He who errs about the essence must err about the powers and operations, because the powers and operations of things are derived from their essence.

By reason of having denied that the essence of bodies is composed of matter and form, a considerable number among the cultivators of the physical sciences rushed into atomism and evolutionism and that monistic theory which is downright materialism, in which they are already admitting that all is matter and motion, from which, after accepting the famous principle of "stored motion" in organic and inorganic things, they fall so low as to agree with the physicist Voght, that thoughts are to the brain as the bile is to the liver. "In that struggle of the spirit which is now going on," says Haeckel, in his autobiography, "the war-trumpet announces the dawn of a new day that will end the conflicts of the middle ages. In the war, undertaken in the name of truth" (which is extinguished now in almost all the universities), "the theory of evolution takes the part of heavy artillery. Before the heavy blows of this monistic artillery the tents of the dualistic sophisms (i.e. soul and body, form and matter) tumble down. The proud edifice of the hierarchy and the rock of the Infallibility-dogma shake and fall like houses of cards. All the libraries of ecclesiastical science and retrograde philosophy vanish before the enlightening theory of evolution.{3} Bois-Raymond, denying the composition of matter and form, body and soul, discourses in the following fashion: "Suppose that all the atoms which constituted Caesar were by mechanical art put in their proper places (this, according to atomists would be a substantial composition) and that on them were impressed their velocity and their direction. We say that Caesar would then reappear in body and soul. The artificial Caesar would at once have the same sensations, the same desires, the same thoughts that its model had when he stood by the Rubicon. Its memory would be full of the same images. It would have the same faculties, inherited and acquired. Suppose that, at the same instant, the same mechanical work were done in several places by the same atoms of carbon, hydrogen, &c., how could so many Caesars be distinguished from each other except by reason of the place in which they were made and equalized?"{4}

The professor and senator Moleschott, who is now{5} grieving over the deaths of his wife and daughter, does not call this hypothesis absurd, nor does he object to the theory of thus making up an animated Caesar, but he cannot see his way to find the means of doing so. Such are the illustrious men who now fill our professorial chairs. If such principles were universally admitted, there would of course be no religion; for there would be no reason, and without reason religion is impossible. Such are the weapons used by these teachers against the Holy See, against the Church, against religion, against God. They put nonsense in the place of truth, and then say that religion and faith are irreconcilable with science. Who can fail to see that these questions are of the greatest moment? On them depends, not merely the progress of science, but even its very existence.

In this treatise on the Physical system of St. Thomas we have explained those doctrines only of the Angelic Doctor that were less known, most important and that closely concern biology and anthropology, on which we had enlarged before. We might have touched upon a fundamental point respecting the distinction between essence and existence: but inasmuch as this requires to be discussed well -- has difficulties in it more than a few, chiefly owing to the cavils of objectors, and has been sufficiently explained by us in the Civiltà Cattolica (Serie xii. Vol. vi. p. 305), we refer the reader thereto. And so we stop here, hoping that what we have written will serve, not only to remove many inveterate prejudices against the ill-known Scholastic doctrine, but also to make scientists pause on the edge of the abyss and reconsider their teaching, which indeed is so bad that the errors taught in former times are comparatively unimportant.


{1} Chapter XX.

{2} Summa, P. i. Q. lxxvi. a. 4 ad 4.

{3} This inflated abuse of matter and form will serve to shew what he, et hoc genus omne, think about the importance of the doctrine. Verbum sapienti.

{4} Les Bornes de la Philosophie Naturelle.

{5} I.e., when Father Cornoldi was writing this chapter. -- Trans.

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