The Mystery of Matter

Chapter 10: Being and Action

     Norris Clarke on Carlo
     A Historical Aside
     Substantial Change
     The Dynamic Nature of Form and Formal Cause
     God and the Metaphysics of St. Thomas



Norris Clarke on Carlo 

In 1957, when Carlo gave his brief response to the paper by Gerald Phelan - and drew inspiration from Phelan's ideas on the relationship between essence and existence - Norris Clarke was the other respondent. Later in 1964, Carlo's article on essence and existence appeared in the International Philosophical Quarterly, co-founded and edited by Fr. Clarke who, in 1966, wrote the preface to Carlo's The Ultimate Reducibility of Essence to Existence.

But this wasn't just a case of proximity. Only someone steeped in the existential Thomism that had appeared around World War II would understand what Carlo was driving at, and Norris Clarke in those days was a philosophy student at the French house of philosophical studies on the Isle of Jersey under André Marc, a noted Thomist metaphysician.

Clarke found Carlo's book exciting. Though Thomists agree about the real distinction between essence and existence in all creatures, in actual fact they understood it in different ways. In the more traditional one, common among the great commentators on St. Thomas with the exception of Bañez, essence still kept "a certain ontological positivity" as if existence were added to it from without "as actualizing the perfections conceived to be somehow the contribution of the essence in itself." (1) This could be called the "heavy" or "solid" view of essence.

In the other view, which Carlo is radically presenting, essence is an intrinsic limitation of esse itself, and this is the view that Norris Clarke follows, for it seems most in line with a full understanding of the primary role existence plays in the metaphysics of St. Thomas.

"But the special metaphysical daring of the author comes out in the new chapter he has added on the nature of primary matter, interpreted as nothing but a limiting or negating mode of esse itself, instead of as some positive ultimate subject really distinct from both form and esse." (2) This position flows out of Carlo's view of the relationship between essence and existence, and addresses "one of the most tenacious holdouts of pure Aristotelianism in Thomism," and one which Thomists have paid little attention to and would, no doubt, feel uncomfortable with. (3)

Fr. Clarke goes on to give us a fine but densely packed commentary on Carlo's view of matter:

"Yet, despite my reluctance to abandon my own long-established and convenient categories, the more I reflect, the more advantages I see in interpreting substantial change as simply a shift from one essential mode of esse to another, within the continuity of esse itself, seen not just as accidentally but as essentially plastic, elastic, transformable, without importing any new positive metaphysical principle over and above esse plus a graded series of negations. It seems to me - and here I am going beyond the explicit analyses of the author to embark upon my own reflections - that the permanently valid essential of the argument put forward by Aristotle for prime matter is the necessity of some essentially indeterminate and determinable principle to explain substantial change. But the two other requirements added on by Aristotle himself, those of radical passivity and radical imperfection of this principle of continuity, seem to me to have been introduced not from the pure logical and metaphysical exigencies of the argument but from two further premisses proper to his own philosophical and cultural outlook: namely, that all perfection, including activity, is rooted in form, the principle of determination and intelligibility, and that the infinite, or the indeterminate in general, can only be a principle of imperfection. Once one eliminates these two extra premisses, the indeterminacy required for substantial change could just as well be that of the one principle of perfection, which does not necessarily have to remain fixed at one essential mode of perfection but can slip, so to speak, under the action of causal influences, from one essential level of limitation to another, as though it were a fundamental energy capable of being molded or channelled in infinitely diverse ways." (4)

For Aristotle, as we have been seeing, being equals form. Therefore, in substantial change if one form disappears and another comes to be, there must be some non-formal principle to account for the continuity that is observed. But to be non-formal in Aristotle's universe is to be pure potency or prime matter with all the difficulties that such a conception brings in its wake.

But with St. Thomas being equals existence, and form, itself, can be reduced to existence, and is utterly transparent to it, as it were, as a certain capacity for existence. This capacity is positive inasmuch as it is a real limitation of existence taken in itself, and thus makes the thing to be this or that particular being, but it is wholely negative in terms of its own reality outside of existence. This allows substantial change for St. Thomas to be rooted in existence. One form can give way to another because there is a non-formal principle that they are both rooted in, but now this non-formal principle does not have to be below form, but it can be above form. Instead of substantial change demanding prime matter, it can be understood in terms of existence. Then substantial change becomes simply "a shift from one essential mode of esse to another, within the continuity of esse itself..." Matter expresses the elasticity of a substantial being towards existence. Essences are the primal stages of how esse expresses itself, but within those primal stages there are secondary stages rooted in what we call material beings as an expression of the imperfection, or lack of intensity, of their being. This lack of intensity, or this plasticity in relationship to existence, is what we call matter. In this regard they stand in contrast to spiritual creatures which possess existence through their forms in such a way that they can never lose it. Material things simply don't have that intensity of form. They contain a substantial potency to substantial existence. They can lose their very being and be transformed into something else. This potency to substantial existence is matter. It is not something separate from substantial form, but an aspect or limitation or negation of it rooted in its limited capacity for existence.

Fr. Clarke will continue:

"And it seems to me profoundly stimulating and fruitful to the metaphysician to make the effort to try and think spatial distance as really only the defective presence of what we call material beings or bodies to each other, and to rethink the multiplicity of parts of an extended material body as nothing more than a deficiency or limitation in the concentration, unity, and power of a form (itself already only a limited mode of esse), as a further relaxing or partial disintegration (as Plotinus would put it) of the pure concentrated unity-presence of esse in its plenitude. Hence I think Thomists and all serious metaphysicians have only to gain by taking up the challenge of Professor Carlo to think through reality in terms of the powerful unified vision he proposes in this book." (5)

We could call matter, itself, "a deficiency or limitation in the concentration, unity, and power of a form," and this deficiency is the root of multiplicity, quantity, space and time. Not all potency is matter in this sense. Purely spiritual creatures which realize their natures upon their creation still retain a certain potency in regard to new perfection. Matter exists only below the threshold of a certain intensity of form. It is a deeper root of potency among creatures who must step-by-step become what they are meant to be, and can even lose their very being. St. Thomas will say, " matter is actuated by means of change and motion, and since every change and motion may be reduced to local motion, as the primary and most universal type of motion, as proved in the Physics, it follows that matter is present only in those things in which there is potency to place." (6)

What is beginning to emerge is a metaphysical view of the universe. It is a fundamental "weakness" of the form, which is matter, and from this lack of intensity comes the existence of part outside of part, and space and time, in short, our universe in which material creatures intimately interact to become what they were meant to be, and to realize a grand design.

A Historical Aside

In 1952, Norris Clarke wrote a masterful article called, "The Limitation of Act by Potency: Aristotelianism or Neo-Platonism?" (7) which had as its principal purpose the illustration of the important role that neo-Platonism had played in St. Thomas' metaphysics, and the article was part of his own process of assimilating the existential Thomism that he had been studying.

But this article can provide us with some valuable insights into the differences between an Aristotelian and a Thomist understanding of matter. just as Thomists have fought over the relationship between essence and existence, they have argued over the interpretation of the Thomist axiom: act is not limited except through potency, "i.e., no act or perfection can be found in a limited degree in any being unless it is conjoined with a really distinct limiting principle whose nature is to be a potency for that act." (8) And Thomists assumed that this principle was part and parcel of Thomas' Aristotelian heritage.

But Fr. Clarke, by some careful historical detective work, discovered that this principle does not exist in Aristotle. For Aristotle, as for the Greeks before him, the perfect is complete and thus, the imperfect infinite. 11(T)he role of form or act is to impose a limit on the formless infinity of matter in itself, and thus confer upon it determination and intelligibility." (9) For Aristotle forms are multiplied by being received in matter. The form is "a stamp or die, fully determined in itself, which is stamped successively on various portions of an amorphous raw material such as wax or clay." (10) The notions of potency and act are limited to explaining substantial change.

In contrast, for St. Thomas forms are not limited in themselves. They possess a certain infinity in their own order, and they are not only received by matter, but also limited by it. But then, where did the axiom, act is not limited unless by potency, come from? Fr. Clarke traces it, in part, to Plotinus and neo-Platonic sources like the Liber de Causis from which Thomas took the motif of participation-limitation, and in part, to the Aristotelian concept of potency and act. But Thomas combined these ideas in a highly original synthesis, and then applied them to the relationship between essence and existence, as well as to that between matter and form. But this elaborate process of synthesis, which can be traced in St. Thomas' writings, can help explain why his doctrine of matter was not completely in focus. It also allows us to see something more important. Form, and therefore, formal cause, exists in a much more dynamic way in St. Thomas than it could in Aristotle, for it is related to the highest metaphysical principle. This dynamism only increases if we accept Carlo's view of matter, for the whole reality of matter, if matter is an intrinsic limitation of form, is thus taken up into form, and enriches It, just as form, itself, is taken up into existence. But back to our deciphering of a Thomist view of matter.

Substantial Change

We have already seen how Fr. Clarke had teased apart the Aristotelian view of substantial change. It demands some "essentially indeterminate and determinable principle" which can now be identified with existence, and the Aristotelian requirements of radical passivity and radical imperfection can be dropped. But how well does this view of substantial change hold up under scrutiny? For an answer we can turn to an article that he wrote in 1974 on the 700th anniversary of the death of St. Thomas called, "What Is Most and Least Relevant in the Metaphysics of St. Thomas Today?" (11)

The idea of substantial change is basically a sound one. We see that one thing actually is transformed into another, and yet there is a continuity between them. The idea of substantial form, or formal causality, is equally valid. Without it there would be nothing to hold something together and give it its distinctive character, and we would be left with a reductive mechanism that even science is beginning to repudiate. The whole is, indeed, more than the sum of its parts. A tree is not simply a collection of atoms, but it is a living organism. We have been seeing how Aristotle tried to reconcile these two genuine insights, and arrived at the notion of prime matter, or pure potency. There can only be one fully actual substantial form if the unity and the existential reality of the being is to be safeguarded, but does this demand, as its counterpart, prime matter? Does the substantial form have to actualize matter down to its bedrock in the sense that matter must be conceived of as pure potency?

And we have already seen in the exchange between Ernan McMullin and Norbert Luyten that the traditional Thomist doctrine on substantial change includes the notion of what St. Thomas called virtual presence. Here is how Fr. Clarke puts it:

" is clear enough that in all the organic wholes we know which emerge out of transformation processes, the component elements which are integrated into the new higher unity do not have their characteristic structures and activities entirely wiped out down to pure indetermination, but abide somehow in a latent subordinate way, which St. Thomas himself describes as a "virtual presence," such that they can reappear again if the higher complex breaks down... If "pure potency" means that what passes over is totally denuded of any determination whatever, then it seems to me it goes beyond what is required to handle the problem. But if "pure potency" does not mean the latter, then the term is dangerously misleading. That is why I prefer the terms "substantial potency," or "determinability at the substantial level."" (12)

The phrases "substantial potency" or "deteminability at the substantial level" are, in fact, the same as Thomas' characterization of matter as potency to substantial existence, and as Carlo has made clear, these descriptions are best conceived as intrinsic limitations of substantial forms in regard to their existence.

Fr. Clarke continues:

"Complex unities are so strong that the lower elements integrated within them are not merely accidentally united; the unifying substantial form penetrates deep into the very substances of the components, so that they lose their autonomy of being and action. Yet these components can still retain some latent plural presence, not totally dominated and integrated, which is precisely "in between" pure indetermination (or pure determinability) and merely accidental determinability. There seems to be no adequate term for this somewhat messy, but I believe more realistic, "in-between" state in the Thomistic system." (13)

This mysterious "in-between" state cloaks a very important aspect of material things. They are meant to interpenetrate and form a whole, which we call the universe.

The Dynamic Nature of Form and Formal Cause

Norris Clarke is not done helping us understand some of the metaphysical principles which can clarify the nature of matter and form. In recent years one of his principal fields of interest has been the dynamic nature of being. This is a theme he has explored in Person and Being, and in various articles such as "Person, Being and St. Thomas," "To Be Is To Be Self-Communicative," and "Action As The Self-Revelation of Being." (14)

Just as Carlo attempted to complete St. Thomas’ new view of matter, Fr. Clarke is trying to bring out explicitly the dynamic character of being according to St. Thomas. Action flows naturally from being, and is characterized by the nature of the being from which it comes. Without action the universe would go dark and silent, for things would be closed in upon themselves, and there would be no universe at all. "A being that did not manifest its existence and essence to others by some form of self-revealing action would make no difference at all to the other beings in the universe, and hence might just as well not be at all." (15) "Not only does every being tend, by the inner dynamism of its act of existence, to overflow into action, but this action is both a self-manifestation and a self-communication, a self-sharing, of the being's own ontological perfection, with others. This natural tendency to self-giving is a revelation of the natural fecundity or "generosity" rooted in the very nature of being itself." (16)

But this self-expression of beings has its counterpart in their receptivity to each other. " ... (A)ny being capable of receiving these influences immediately become a receiving center for the surrounding world, a kind of crossroads information-receiving center for the universe as it impinges on that particular location." (17) Beings, therefore, are the receiving sets for the "information, contained within this incoming action," (18) which information is literally an impressing of the form of one being upon another. Immediately these kinds of phrases begin to evoke associations with the notions of information we have seen in people like Bohm, but now the concept of information is being presented from a metaphysical point of view rooted in the very nature of being itself.

Nowhere is this process more evident than in our intellectual knowledge:

"There is first the incoming ontological intentionality of action itself into the knower, which tends naturally to produce a self-expression, a similitude, of itself in an apt receiver. This similitude, which is a self-expression of the agent projected through its form, leaving the being's matter and actual existence behind, is not the physical or natural being (esse naturale) of the agent, which remains within itself, but a projected similitude, (an esse intentionale) received in the knower according to the mode of the knower, and, when recognized as a natural similitude, image, or sign of its source, points back by the whole dynamism of its relational being to the source from which it came and of which it is the projected self-image. The second, complementary movement of cognitive intentionality now occurs when the consciousness of the knower, fecundated or informed by the image brought into it by the incoming intentionality of action, recognizes it explicitly as a sign or message from another and reaches out dynamically in the cognitive order, through the mediation of the sign, to refer it by an intending relation back to the thing itself from which it came." (19)

This is pure Thomism, and it is much closer to the kind of interconnectedness that Bohm, Sheldrake and Jung are trying to articulate than the static and inert substances of Descartes and his successors. It is that modern view of substance that scientists have reacted against and has tempted them to turn to process-type philosophical solutions to account for the dynamism and interconnectivity of what they are discovering. But as Fr. Clarke is insisting, being, itself, is dynamic. Or put in another way, form and formal cause are dynamic, and action is the self-revelation of being.

God and the Metaphysics of St. Thomas

The God of the metaphysics of St. Thomas is no God of the gaps driven from one unexplored corner of the universe to another by the inexorable march of science. That kind of God is a God made over in the image and likeness of science. Nor is the God of St. Thomas' metaphysics the Christian God of Revelation appended to it out of faith. God is the very center of Thomas' metaphysics, its irreplaceable heart woven into his understanding of essence and existence, a God we can gain some knowledge of by the highest exercise of human reason.

Fr. Clarke in "Is Natural Theology Still Possible Today?" in 1988 explored this metaphysical knowledge of God. (20) First he cleared away the philosophical obstacles to even believing that such a knowledge was possible that had been heaped up by the deconstructionists, empiricists, and neo-Kantians. Then he presented the classical arguments of St. Thomas, but in fresh language, and reinvigorated with metaphysical insight. The most radical metaphysical question addresses the very existence of things. "Why do they exist at all in this way that they do exist?" (21) The answer unfolds in three steps:

1. Something must have always existed, for if there were a time at which there was absolutely nothing, something could never have come to be, for something cannot come out of nothing. Among existing things there must be one that is self-sufficient for its own existence. Something that is not self-sufficient depends on another for its existence, and a whole series of this kind of dependency still leaves us with a need for a self-explanatory being. "It follows, therefore, that somewhere along the line, either at the head of the series or outside of it, supporting the whole, there must be at least one self-sufficient being, which is the initiator (not necessarily in time) of the causal flow of existence into all the others in the series." (22)

2. "No self-sufficient being can be finite." (23) If a being has a limited mode of being, then there must be a reason why it is this and not that. "Why this being, or this whole finite world-system, in fact, and not some other? A principle of selection is needed to select this mode of being from the range of possibilities and give actual existence (energy-filled existence) to it according to this limited mode (or "essence," as the metaphysician would say). But no finite being can select its own essence and confer existence on itself. For then it would have to pre-exist its own determinate actual existence (in some indeterminate state), pick out what it wills to be, and confer this upon itself. All of this is obviously absurd, unintelligible. It follows that no determinate finite being can be the self-sufficient reason for its existence as this determinate being. Therefore it requires an efficient cause for its actual existence as this being. But, since we cannot go on to infinity in finite caused causes, we must eventually come to some Infinite Cause of these finite beings." (24)

3. "There can be only one such being infinite in all perfections." (25) If there were two, what would differentiate them? One would have to lack something that the other has, and thus, be in some way less than it and not infinite.

This kind of reasoning can be applied to the universe as a whole as a particular kind of limited system. Then we can ask, "Why, then, this determinate one rather than some other?" "There is no way for the system itself to fill the gap in its own intelligibility, to illuminate the sheer brute fact of its own limited existing thisness." (26)

Fr. Clarke, after conversations with scientists at a colloquium held at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, was inspired to come up with a more radically existential version of this classical reasoning. But even here he realized that all these kinds of arguments for the existence of God demand a special kind of metaphysical seeing and insight. This is what Maritain called the intuition of being, and Fr. Clarke elsewhere called "a taste of existence." (27) This kind of insight allows us "to bring clearly into focus the actual existence of this universe in all its fresh wonder and originality. This means getting beyond the mere epistemological recognition of the fact that this universe exists. We must look deeper into the very intrinsic actuality, the active presence within the existing beings themselves, which is the ground for our epistemologically true judgment about them. This is what St. Thomas calls by his own original term, "the act of existing" (the actus essendi or the esse, the to-be, of things). And this actual existence within real beings is not to be looked upon as some minimal, static factual state, but as an active presence, presence-with-power, as power-filled, energy-filled presence." (28)

His new argument runs like this: Does any determinate essence or system of essences contain within itself its reason for existence? "(N)o determinate essence (or system of essences), no model of reality, can specify or prescribe its own actual existence.. As St. Thomas puts it, all such determinate essences are radically "contingent," i.e., neutral or "indifferent" (not the happiest term) to existence or non-existence - they can either be or not be. Hence it is that they need a cause of a totally different order from that of essence or model, a cause in the existential order that is a source of energy-filled existence and can communicate it to others, a cause that can bring them out of their contingent neutrality to exist - which really means out of their pure intelligible possibility - and "real-ize" them into the real order of energy-filled existence. Of themselves they have no necessary link with their existence; it is a sheer brute fact that they are. But they have no resources anywhere inside them to explain why in fact they do exist. They need an actualizing-energizing cause outside of themselves to lift their essence-models to real existence." There must be one being "that contains actual existence as constitutive of its very essence, whose essence is energy-filled existence itself in all its unrestricted fullness, unreceived from any other, in a word, existence itself in its very source." (28)

Fr. Clarke is exposing the bedrock on which St. Thomas' various arguments for the existence of God stand. But it is possible to sharpen even more the language used here. The words "neutral" or "indifferent" belong, as he well realized, to the "thick" or "heavy" school of how Thomists conceive the relationship between essence and existence. It is possible to replace that language with Carlo's more radical one. Then essences are no longer neutral or indifferent to existence. The whole thrust of the reality they have is to be potencies or capacities for existence. In this way they are intrinsic limitations of existence contracting it to be this or that existing thing. The fundamental structure of the relationship between essence and existence as St. Thomas conceived it is the argument for the existence of God. If our metaphysical sight is keen enough, the very "limited existing thisness" of the universe as a whole and its creatures, its birds and stones and stars, allows us to see that we are surrounded by and are, ourselves, existence as limited. Then all things point with the very weight of their being, by their deepest ontological structure, by the fact that they exist in this or that limited mode, to existence as unlimited, which is the metaphysical name of God.




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