The Charles De Koninck Project

Aristotelian Matter in an Evolutionary Cosmos

Aristotelian Matter in an Evolutionary Cosmos

A talk given by Senior Fellow Andrew Seeley to the Society for Aristotelian Studies in June 2011 at Thomas Aquinas College.


In the Theaetetus we learn that an opinion is not something easily formed, that it takes time, conversation both interior and exterior, the proper balance of daring and caution, and I might add hope, fear, joy, depression, wonder and disgust, before one commits one’s soul with confidence to an idea.  Some of the ideas in this paper I have been thinking about six or seven years, and they have gone through a number of stages of development, so that they are almost ready to be my opinion.  I am grateful to Chris and the Society for accepting my proposal to give this talk.  Both shame and friendship have contributed to my working hard to bring my thoughts to as complete a state as I can, so that I can determine through our conversation whether to commit to them or not.

I have been formed in Aristotle’s thought since my youth and managed to imbibe with it a hostile attitude towards the theory of evolution.  Likely this arose in part from my early logical studies, beginning with Porphyry’s distinction between genus, species and difference and Aristotle’s Categories.  I was also deeply impressed with the account of form and matter in the Physics, which preserved a common sense understanding of the reality of substantial change.  Evolution challenged all this by denying that the species of natural living organisms are so radically distinct from each other that they cannot turn into each other.

So I tended to read as a rhetorical excess Charles DeKoninck’s claim in “The Lifeless World of Biology”:

Having been brought up to accept the fact of evolution, I would not find it easy now to doubt that it has happened, however uncertain I may remain about the value of any particular theory devised to explain how it happened. There seems no reason why nature, ‘one mask of many worn by the Great Face behind’, could not produce living things from non-living, and higher forms of life from lower, somewhat as we build a table out of a rough piece of timber. If nature cannot accomplish something analogous to this, nature cannot be what an Aristotelian thinks it to be.

One who reads The Cosmos (and other writings) realizes that DeKoninck meant just what he said.  If DeKoninck was right, then my understanding of Aristotle’s natural doctrine was seriously deficient.  But The Cosmos did more than just implicitly accuse me of ignorance — his grand unification of Thomistic/Aristotelean philosophy and the natural sciences made an evolutionary cosmos look intellectually very attractive.

How was I misunderstanding Aristotle’s doctrine?  DeKoninck would no doubt tell me that part of the problem lay in confusing logical species with natural forms.  Logic describes how the mind prefers to think when it is in its element, as in mathematics.  Unfortunately, the natural world frequently does not live up to the mind’s desire for clarity.  Yet working through Aristotle’s natural works over the last several years has made me think that I also failed to understand Aristotle’s other sense of nature, matter, by thinking of it too abstractly.  Over the last several years, helped in particular by some texts from the De anima, I think my understanding of matter has deepened so that DeKoninck’s evolutionary cosmology looks even more intellectually attractive.  I want to share my ideas with you today, putting them to the test with you so that what is dross might be removed and what is gold, if anything, might be purified

I hope that my presentation is not too disappointing given its title and the theme of the conference.  I do not intend to go into any detail about modern physics or cosmology.  Nor do I intend to speak directly about DeKoninck’s views.  Rather, I intend to look carefully at Aristotle’s conception of matter, and argue that an evolutionary cosmos, in which the universe begins in nearly complete un-differentiation and attains to humanity through largely natural processes, not only is compatible with Arisotle’s understanding of matter, but even solves one of Aristotle’s central cosmological difficulties more satisfyingly than Aristotle could.

Even this will be more of a conclusion than the body of the talk. The body will be devoted to looking at Aristotle’s account of matter with this passage from DeKoninck’s summary of The Cosmos in mind:

 (3) Man is the raison d’etre of Matter – the Matter in every bodily being is an appetite (a desire) for the human form. For: a) every bodily being, although one in substance, has two substantial principles, viz. Prime Matter, and Form; Matter is pure potency, pure determinability; it is the same in all bodily beings – Prime Matter as pure indetermination reunites all material beings in one same matrix, which is common to them all; it is potency to all forms, from the highest to the lowest. b) Prime Matter is an appetite, a desire for the highest form (See S.Thomas in C. Gent. III. c.22)

[Explain syllogism – All beings have prime matter; Prime matter is appetite for the human form; All beings have matter which desires human form.]

When I first encountered this claim, I was taken aback.  I had always thought of prime matter as potency for all forms, but never as appetite for the human form.  In fact, speaking of prime matter as “appetite” seems right away strange. Perhaps it is a cute metaphor, but we ought not to argue philosophical positions metaphorically, right?  Yet Aristotle does connect matter with desire in the last chapter of Book I of the Physics, when he says that other thinkers who had kind of seen the material nature had still missed the boat.  Aristotle devotes an entire paragraph to identifying the material cause as what desires form.

But for these [thinkers], it happens that the contrary desires its own destruction.  And neither can the species desire itself, because it is not lacking, nor [can] the contrary [desire it], for contraries are destructive of each other.  But this [which desires] is material, as the female [desires] the male and the base the noble.  Yet it is not in virtue of itself base, but is so accidentally, and it is not in virtue of itself female, but is so accidentally.

Perhaps this is merely a metaphor which Aristotle uses here to address the Platonists on their own terms.  But DeKoninck seems to think it is much more.  So in the bulk of this paper, I want to follow up on this psychological metaphor or analogy, using what Aristotle says about psychological potencies in De anima II.5 to understand better matter and its potency.


I. Matter in the Timaeus

Since Physics I.9 seems addressed to the Platonists, I will begin by looking at the understanding of matter as found in the Timaeus.  In this passage, Plato presents an argument for the “formlessness” of the material principle, one that seems plausible at first.

…If the model is to take every variety of form, then the matter in which the model is fashioned will not be duly prepared, unless it is formless, and free from the impress of any of these shapes which it is hereafter to receive from without. For if the matter were like (homion) any of the supervening forms, then whenever any opposite or entirely different nature was stamped upon its surface, it would take the impression badly, because it would intrude its own shape.

In this passage, Aristotle might point out an understanding close to but falling far short of his own.  Matter is formless in itself, Aristotle might say, but is it because it is unlike form?  Would it’s likeness to some form cause it to “intrude its own shape” when an opposite nature came to it?  Is matter properly prepared by making it free from the impress of any form?  I want to argue that this passage exhibits just the sort of confusion of matter and privation that Aristotle criticizes in the Physics.  For if matter is unlike form, then to desire form would be either to desire its own destruction or to receive the form without being changed at all.  Aristotle says rather that “matter is close to and somehow is substance.”  Only because it is like substance or form can matter be understood to be fulfilled rather than destroyed or unaffected by form.

Aristotle’s analogous illustrations – as the female desires the male, as the base desires the noble — illuminate this.  A slave can desire to live with a master only because he is like enough in substance, he is rational enough to understand commands given to him.  He can also recognize that the master’s life is perfect, and that his own perfection as a human being lies in sharing in the master’s life.  The slave is prepared for this life by being freed from the barbarian ways in which he exists as he tries to live on his own.  But the more important preparation lies in being trained, in having his limited share in rationality developed, so that he can understand and execute the master’s commands promptly, perhaps even gladly.  Even more so is this true in the case of the female, who desires to share the life of the male. On the animal level, she desires to generate; on the human level, she desires, as Aristotle indicates in the Politics, to rule.  Her nature is ordered to do these things, but she cannot accomplish them on her own.  Similarly, matter is like form enough to find its fulfillment in being formed, yet it is incapable of bringing itself to be united with form.  It needs to be prepared, to be freed from what is accidentally holding it back and to have its potency for form developed.

The idea that matter might be like form is central to Aristotle’s discussion of food in the De anima and the De Generatione.  In both cases, he raises the question of whether the food is like or unlike that which it feeds.  Growth and nutrition demand a change of substance of the food (321a34) – grass does not feed the horse as grass but as horse tissue.

And this increase is due on the one hand to the accession of something which is called ‘food’ and is said to be contrary to flesh but on the other hand the transformation of the food into the same form as that of flesh….  For in one sense, ‘Like grows by Like’, but in another sense, “Unlike grows by Unlike’.  De gen. 321b36

Clearly the grass must undergo a substantial change at the end of which it is flesh, and so is “like” the horse.  But it can’t be flesh beforehand, nor can it become flesh before being incorporated into the animal.  In De Generatione, Aristotle solves the difficulty by saying that the grass is potentially that which is growing but actually other, and so “unlike”.  Otherwise, he says, we would be witnessing a substantial change rather than a growth.  But when incorporated as actual flesh, the grass is like.

In the De anima, Aristotle seems to suggest a different, though not incompatible, answer.  In II.4, Aristotle presents reasons for and against saying that Like is fed by Like.  The reason one would think like is fed by like is that growth, as we see in De Generatione, occurs through what is like, that is, flesh grows by adding more flesh, not more grass.  Others point out, however, that Like cannot be fed by Like because the food must be changed and digested in order to feed it.  But Like things do not alter one another. Put fire to water, and it will heat it while being cooled itself. But put water next to water, and nothing happens.  So the food must be unlike what it feeds.

Aristotle’s solution is simply put:  “Whether the food is what finally is added or what is first makes a difference.  If both, the one as undigested, the other as digested, in both ways it can be called food.  For as undigested, contrary is fed by contrary, while as digested, like by like.”  (De anima II.4, 416b3)

This sounds like the De generatione, except that he insists on calling both ends of the digestive process “food”.  Calling flesh food for flesh sounds strange; food is what we call that which is not yet incorporated into the body.  We can think of the steak as food, or we can think of aliment, i.e. just the nutritional portion that gets separated out through digestion, as food.  Aliment would be like flesh in one sense of the word drawn from the Metaphysics, for “it has the majority of or the more important contraries which the other thing has.”  But aliment is not yet flesh; it needs to become flesh.  If it is like flesh, how would Aristotle get over the objection that what is like something is to that extent unalterable by it?

In the next chapter of the De anima, Aristotle raises similar questions about sensation. I have found the distinctions he makes here among different kinds of potency very helpful in understanding both this particular question about food, and matter generally.  The chapter contains his general treatment of sensation, and begins by asking how it is that sensation, which seems to be a certain kind of suffering or alteration, can be like what is sensed, as Empedocles and others seemed to think.

Aristotle first points out that the sensitive part of the animal exists, of itself, only in potency; it can’t bring itself into act.  It must be acted on by a being in act, which will make it like itself.  In material changes, likeness, it seems, is achieved only after having suffered.  But is sensing a suffering?  To address this question, Aristotle introduces two senses of being potentially something else, which he illustrates through the act of knowing.  One who can learn something but has not yet potentially knows in one sense, while one who has learned but is not thinking potentially knows in another sense.  These two kinds of being potentially are subject to two different kinds of changes.

Both the first ones, therefore, are knowers in potency, but the one is altered through learning and often changing from the contrary state, while the other from having sense or grammar, but not being at work, [changes] to being at work in another way.  dA II.5 417a30-b2

He goes on to say that the second kind of change is not properly called an alteration.  Alteration involves becoming other than what you are, but for the knower to begin thinking his knowledge is rather the completion of being what he is.  It is not a suffering, because it is not does not involve the destruction of a contrary; rather it is “the saving of a being in potency by a being in actuality….” [417b4] [See Physics VII.3 for other “not alterations”.]  Thus, there is no specific difference between the subject and the term of change.  They are different, but only as the potential is different from the actual, which, in specific terms, is really a likeness: the potency is not destroyed, but saved “by something similar, in the way that potency is in relation to actuality.”  Such changes are not really “alterations” or “otherings” either, for the change does not make the subject other than it was, “for the progress is into itself and into actuality”. [417b8]

Aristotle applies to sensation these distinctions about potency and likeness drawn from knowledge.  As the man goes through learning to knowledge to actual knowing, so the animal through generation develops the power to sense from the contrary privation, at which point it is ready to be led into act the moment it is aroused by an actual sense object.  During the generative process, including organ development, sensation exists potentially in the way a boy can potentially lead an army; but once the organs have developed, it is like a general. [417b32] Therefore, we can say of the sensitive power, as we had said of material change, both that “the unlike suffers” (namely in generation), “while having suffered, it is assimilated and is like that.” [418a5]

These distinctions allow Aristotle to solve the problem about how like can suffer by like. Like is impassible to like, when both are in actuality. But like can be fulfilled, though not really alter, when what one is in act, the other is in potency. The learner by learning and the sense powers through generation become like in potency what their objects are in actuality.

Can this distinction help us understand what Aristotle means by saying that digested food is like what it feeds?  I think so, at least to an approximation.  [I could say more about this.]  When a horse eats grass, it attacks what is unlike it.  Through the digestive process, it overcomes the various contrarieties of grass, changing it into blood. Now blood is at least much less unlike flesh.  It also much closer to being like it, that is, to being in potency what flesh is in actuality.  If you ask Aristotle about blood, “What is it?” nothing seems so appropriate an answer as “flesh in potency”.  If you don’t understand flesh, you don’t understand blood.  This is different than grass – at least on first glance you can understand what grass is without any reference to horse.  If this can be so with food, perhaps it can be so with other substances, such as the unfertilized chicken egg, a substance whose essence is “prepared to be a chicken”.

A great difficulty facing the student of Aristotle, as also St. Thomas, is the degree to which you need to read all their works in order to understand any one [Waldstein, Metereology IV, perfect is what reproduces].  I think the account I have given above fits with a number of other parts of Aristotle’s works, which I will mention here. But I cannot go into them in detail, and each provides its own difficulties of interpretation.  If I am wrong about one, I might be wrong about the whole account.  Yet the whole picture provides some support for the interpretations of each passage.

As Aristotle points out in Metaphysics VIII.4, each thing has its own proper matter, which the naturalist should identify if he is to proceed rightly.

We must not forget that even if all generated things are generated from the same primary constituent or constituents and if the matter as a principle is the same for all, still there is matter which is proper to each thing, for example, for phlegm the proximate matter is the sweet or fatty….

The proper matter arises earlier in the process of generation, so that it seemingly must be prepared first, before the perfect substance may come to be.

In Meta IX.7, Aristotle seems to suggest that matter in this sense properly is said to be a substance potentially. The chapter opens by saying, “We must now specify when something is potentially another thing and when it is not….For example, is earth potentially a man?  No, but rather when it becomes a seed, and perhaps not even then.”  It is important to see that not everything is potentially something else, even if it arises earlier in the process of generation. Only that is potentially healthy “when nothing in it prevents the healing”. Or, turning to architecture, when “nothing in its parts, which are its matter, prevents them from becoming a house, and if nothing need be added or be taken away or be changed, then this is potentially a house.”   Properly “being-in-potency” is said of that which has everything it needs in order to become “being-in-actuality”.  [St. Albert – only one motion needs to occur.] This seems close to what has been said above about food through comparison with the knower – what is properly in potency is what is like, what is of the same kind.  And the matter becomes prepared by becoming like the composite.

The proper matter for each thing is in potency to it, and is even understood most completely in its relation to what it can become.  Then it seems right to say about it, at least metaphorically, that it desires, it yearns for that which will make it to be actually what it already is but is not yet; it yearns to be saved from its non-being by that which is.  For they are meant to be one and the same, as Aristotle points out in Meta VIII.6.   Those who think they have to account for the composition of matter and form, as though they are two different things, are in error.

But, as we have stated, the last matter and the form are one and the same; the one exists potentially, the other as actuality….So there is no other cause [of unity], unless it be the mover which causes the motion from potency to actuality.


II. The desires of prime matter

So far, I hope that this presentation has helped us to understand better why Aristotle speaks of matter as desire for form.  But has it helped us to understand why prime matter should be called desire for the human form?  Or has it really made it less clear, because it seems that properly the human ovum (or, as Aristotle would see it, the human semen), if anything, should be called desire for the human form?  And, after all, DeKoninck says prime matter is potency for all forms; it is pure indetermination, so that, as potency, prime matter has no order to a specific substance.

We might understand this better if we look again at De anima II.5.  Having said that the knower is not changed but really saved by knowing, Aristotle also says that learning should not really be considered an alteration either, or at least only in a limited sense, “for it is a change to the state and nature.”  He seems to mean that a learner, who is not in a position to produce knowledge of himself, is yet the sort of being that should be able to do so.  If nature is a principle of motion and rest, and the motion appropriate to the learner is knowing, before learning, he is only very imperfectly a nature, that is, a principle of motion and rest.  So while learning does involve development and real changes, these are not forcing the learner into another state; rather they complete the very nature of the learner, by bringing him to the full state of potency for knowing, and for this reason, “All men by nature desire to know.”

[Warning – Turgid prose and tangled matter approaching]

Does Aristotle think of prime matter in a similar way?  I think so.  Aristotle’s most direct treatment of prime matter is found in De Generatione I.3. In this chapter, Aristotle addresses two questions which he thinks are related and together help us to get a grasp on matter’s mystery.  He raises two questions which he considers interconnected. First, how do we understand the matter which underlies changes among the elements to be “potential substance”?  Secondly, why do generation and corruption go on forever without exhausting the matter? What kind of power can “potential substance” have such that, though things are always being destroyed, something else replaces them?

Without addressing these questions, I want to take a look at a third question Aristotle raises at the end of the chapter:  Is the matter of the elements, say that of air and that of water, the same or different?  “Perhaps the solution is that their matter is in one sense the same, but in another sense different.  For that which underlies them, whatever its nature may be qua underlying them, is the same:  but its actual being is not the same.”  [Also, Physics I.9 – they thought what was one in nature was also one in potency.]  This is not one of Aristotle’s clearest solutions.  Does he mean that the matter is one in potency, but the actualities of the diverse elements differ?  That does not seem likely for he wishes to say that the matter of each is different in itself.  Given our earlier discussions (and following St. Thomas’s suggestion here), we might say that though the underlying must be one, yet its potency is other when it exists as air than when it exists as water.  If this is right, we are led to distinguish matter as an underlying nature from the potencies which it exhibits.  I think this is supported by Physics III3, where Aristotle says that the body, though it is one in number, contains two distinct potencies, one for being healthy and another one for being ill.  To this I might add Physics I.9 and perhaps Metaphysics VIII.4.

So we see that, perhaps, not only does prime matter help us understand the possible intellect, but the reverse is also true.  Like the intellect, which is per se a tabula rasa with no pre-existing knowledge, prime matter of itself has no one determinate, real potency.  Yet, it is a nature in which different real potencies can be developed.  This leads to a further question:  Does prime matter, like the intellect, have an orientation, a nature, such that the development of a potency or potencies is a completion of its nature?  The same chapter of De Generatione suggests yes.  Aristotle raises the question of why, if corruption implies generation, we tend to call some things corruptions and not generations.  Certainly when animals are born, a generation has occurred, and when they die, a corruption occurs.  In his day (and maybe still in ours), people said that when water becomes air, a corruption has occurred, and when air becomes water, a destruction has occurred. Aristotle thinks there is some truth in this, although most people wrongly make the distinction on the basis of what is most sensible.  They think that water becoming air is a corruption because air seems to be nothing.  Although this is false, the reverse is true, for air is more of a being than water, and so water becoming air is rather a generation than a corruption, although it implies also the corruption of water.  So, prime matter in becoming air becomes something, but when becoming water ceases to be something.  I think it, then, fair to say that prime matter is a nature which becomes something as it progresses towards the most substantial of the elements, fire, but corrupts as it recedes from it.  And, as the learner desires to know without always having a real potency to know, so prime matter, while not always being fire in potency, always desires fire, always is in need of that culmination.

I hope that we can now see why Aristotle might say that prime matter is desire for fire. But that leaves us far short of DeKoninck’s claim that prime matter is desire for the human form.  So let’s see ways in which we might push Aristotle further.  First, I will raise the question of whether the nature of matter is ordered towards fire as a culmination.  Aristotle doesn’t address this question explicitly as far as I know. But Metaphysics VII.16 might suggest that fire itself is not the end, for it seems in this text that the elements are essentially parts, both of the whole of their kind (all fire together) and perhaps of more complex beings.

It is also evident that most of what are regarded as substances are potentialities.  These are the parts of animals (for none of them exists separately, and when separated, even then, they all exist as matter), and earth, and fire, and air; for none of them is one, but they exist like a heap until they are transformed and a unity is produced out of them.

Fire and the other simple substances are rather potentialities than substances.  For they lack an intrinsic definiteness that is an important mark of substance.  There is nothing intrinsically one about the glass of water in front of me, nor about a fire burning on the hearth. Clearly, more can be added without effecting a substantial change.  So then what is fire?  Is it essentially the active principle of growing things but existing separately?  In this way, it might be like our human skin tissues grown in culture, or kidneys awaiting transplantation.  Clearly these are not any different in their definition.  A kidney is a part of a man, even if we can artificially keep it alive apart.

That might be more than what Aristotle wants to suggest.  Such an account would face the problem of the natural local motions.  Each of the elements has its own natural place in the cosmic order, such that they are related as most material to most formal, with fire at the top, closest to the celestial bodies to which it is kin. [“Fire is most akin to form because it is borne towards limit.” De Gen II.8.]  In fact, the distinction about the two kinds of potency, those of the learner and the knower, play a central role in Aristotle’s account of the natural local motions in Physics VIII.  Just as the learner fully comes into its nature when it is a knower, and is then saved by becoming knowing, so air becomes fire and then immediately is born up to its place as to the completion of its generation.  By nature the elements flee one another and flee combination.  Combination is always something against the natural tendencies of the elements.  So, if Aristotle thinks of the elements are more potencies than substances, his account of natural locomotion poses a serious problem.

Another line of thought might milk DeKoninck’s position out of Aristotle.  Going back to Physics I.9, Aristotle said that form is “divine, good and desirable”; it is this for which matter strives and yearns.  Yet he also points out that the Physics is about “natural and corruptible species”, and so seem not to be divine.  At the end of the Ethics we hear,

“If reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life. But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything.”

Perhaps in this passage we hear the desire of matter, fully developed and honed, now able, in man, to express and to some extent satisfy its central desire for the divine.

[OMIT]  However Aristotle viewed the ordination of prime matter to man, St. Thomas is clear that desire for prime matter is for man.  This is clear in Summa Contra Gentiles III.22, a chapter that was very influential in De Koninck’s thinking about the cosmos. St. Thomas argues that matter, like all things, seeks the divine likeness, which it finds in actuality.  “And so, the more posterior and more perfect an act is, the more fundamentally is the inclination of matter directed toward it.”  Prime matter is immediately in potency to the elements, but the elements are in potency for the mixed bodies, which are in potency for the vegetative soul, and so on until we arrive at the human soul, the most perfect of those things which can come to be from prime matter. “Therefore, the ultimate end of the whole process of generation is the human soul, and matter tends toward it as toward an ultimate form.”  He concludes the chapter by pointing out that the celestial spheres move in order that man might be and be preserved:

“So, if the motion of the heavens is ordered to generation, and if the whole of generation is ordered to man as a last end within this genus, it is clear that the end of celestial motion is ordered to man, as to an ultimate end in the genus of generable and mobile beings.”

[RESTART] Let me summarize this part of the talk.   Matter desires form.  Proper matter desires form as being in potency, being like but not yet what is actual, needing to be “saved” by what is actual.  The considerations of food and potency make me fairly confident that Aristotle would agree to this.  De Koninck, influenced by St. Thomas in the Summa Contra Gentiles, says that prime matter desires the human form in a different way, as the fulfillment of its nature, but needing to have the potency for man developed in it. This point is less clear in Aristotle.  He does see prime matter as a nature which can have different potencies in it, and these potencies have an order in which the most perfect elements fulfills the nature more.  Does he see the desire of matter as reaching all the way to man?  Although some texts suggest this as a possibility, the natural tendencies of the elements to separate speaks against it.

Before moving on, I want to raise one more difficulty.  DeKoninck says that prime matter is potency to all forms, from the highest to the lowest.  But I have argued prime matter is potency in one sense for the highest.  How is it potency for all forms?  Without thoroughly answering this, let me present an analogy from ethics.  Man naturally desires happiness, we can say, but he also naturally desires God.  The natural desire for happiness, which begins our moral life, is universal, without having a specific desire for what constitutes real happiness.  The desire for happiness is a desire for the complete good.  It is this desire which is partially fulfilled by food, fun, and frolicking, self-control and heroism, conversation, command and contemplation.  Yet there is an order among these desires, as they develop and fulfill the nature of man.  “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in Thee.”  Similarly, prime matter is a desire for form in general, and it restlessly moves through all the species as they more or less satisfy it.  But it is desire for man as that union which alone can fulfill it.


III. Aristotle’s cosmology vs. evolutionary cosmology

How does matter fit into Aristotle’s cosmos?  In a major break with Plato, who thought the very fact that bodies are sensible means they cannot have existed forever, Aristotle’s cosmos is eternal:  eternal motion from an eternal mover using the eternal heavenly bodies that eternally cause generation and corruption in an eternal matter.  In particular, Aristotle says in several places that eternal heavenly bodies moving eternally with uniform circular motion provide the key to solving fundamental problems that arise in understanding the cosmos.

Matter is part of the problem.  The matter for the elements is primarily ordered to fire, although it is partially fulfilled by earth, water and air.  But then Aristotle has a puzzle, which he raises at the end of the De Generatione.  The desire of matter, at least considered as the underlying of each of the elements, seems fulfilled by its becoming fire, and the order of the cosmos seems fulfilled by the existence of the four elements each in its natural place. Why doesn’t generation cease then?  Although matter explains why corruption doesn’t exhaust the universe, it doesn’t itself cause corruption. The agent cause of corruption is the same as that of generation: the revolution of the heavens, particularly the yearly movement of the sun along the ecliptic.  What the sun causes by its approach, it removes by its recession.  [At least it allows the elements to corrupt each other.] This means that the eternal beings intend not only the generation of material beings, but also their corruption.  A similar problem is found in living beings which, in spite of being in union with actuality, die by natural processes.  What is the good of this? Why do nature and the eternal beings intend corruption as well as generation?

Aristotle’s solution to the elemental problem is that, if nature and the God act as though the eternity of coming-to-be is itself the greatest good, participating in an eternal cycle must be the most divine that the natural can be.

“Coming-to-be and passing-away will, as we have said, always be continuous, and will never fail owing to the cause we stated.  And this continuity has a sufficient reason on our theory.  For in all things, as we affirm, Nature always strives after ‘the better’.   Now ‘being’…is better than ‘not-being’: but not all things can possess ‘being’, since they are too far removed from the ‘originative source’.  God therefore adopted the remaining alternative, and fulfilled the perfection of the universe by making coming-to-be uninterrupted:  for the greatest possible coherence would thus be secured to existence, because that ‘coming-to-be should itself come-to-be perpetually’ is the closest approximation to eternal being.” II.10.336b 25-35.

The elements do not have enough existence to be simply, to be eternal in themselves.  Since they can corrupt, they must corrupt at some time.  So God and nature have arranged the spheres so that generation and corruption are regular and perpetual.  This solution extends to all living beings, who participate in eternity through eternal generation.  Even human beings are subject to regular destruction and re-birth, both individually and in their societies and cultures.  The arts have continually to be discovered anew.  Aristotle has been and will be again.  Perhaps he would have liked Canticle for Leibowitz.

Is this satisfactory?  It seems at the very least very melancholic.  Moreover, if matter needs to have its potencies developed to be prepared for humanity, no natural cause for that is given.  Matter becomes the elements, but the completion of their generation lies in their separation; that is, the generator is finished when it has separated fire from air and water.  This order is determined by proximity to the heavenly bodies themselves.  The mixture and combination of the elements, which develops in them the potency for higher forms of being, is accidental to their natures, though it must fall within the understanding of the ordering intelligences. And the qualities of the composite substances seem themselves to be a kind of truce between the qualities of the elements, which are contrary to one another. And the development of matter must fail in the end, and return to the conditions in which it was in the beginning.  Well, not the beginning, but before.

In our contemporary evolutionary cosmology, on the other hand, matter’s role and history is much more satisfactory.  Matter’s desire for being seems first (or at least pretty early on) satisfied by stable atomic existence.  But this is not the completion of its generation, for matter has a natural appetite to clump together through gravitation.  And gravitation brings into effective proximity the electromagnetic forces which lead to nuclear combinations, forming the more complex elements necessary for life.  Through their electron configurations, these elements are ready for molecular formation and chemical combination.  As these molecules develop in complexity, NOW matter is ready for life, is primed for life.  And life arises out of them (through the agency of a created intelligence, as DeKoninck would add).  And time goes on, bringing with it ever more developed potencies, until the dirt is ready to have God breathe into it a living soul.  Not is matter’s development the good of natural changes, but it is brought about according to its own nature.

Without doubt, the biggest change that Aristotelian physics has to undergo in the face of modern developments is the loss of the celestial spheres, those eternally moving, never-corrupting corporeal instruments of the divine powers.  But this might be a great blessing.  For now we are free to see the real good in the natural processes of coming to be and passing away. They are all stages in the full development of prime matter as it experiences the grandeur of its own potency through being actualized by the ever more complex forms on its way to being properly prepared for its final goal, union with the immortal souls.  And perhaps even time becomes a positive thing, rather than simply the removing of what is.  This is why we should desire an evolutionary cosmos, at least from the point of view of matter.

  1. In the paragraph next to the last, Seeley says “And life arises out of them (through the agency of a created intelligence, as DeKoninck would add).” To what this “created intelligence” refers is not immediately clear to me.

    • DeKoninck thought that an angelic power was able to develop the potency of matter for life.

      • That’s what I suspected, but I wasn’t certain. I like the idea! Thanks.

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