The Generation of Substantial Form

In On Animal Generation William Harvey argues that the cock and the hen can only be instrumental causes of the generation of the chick, since the perfection of the chick seems to be the work of an intelligence that they simply do not possess:

From the conditions now enumerated of an instrumental cause, it seems to follow that the prime efficient in the generation of the chick is the cock, or, at all events, the cock and hen, because the resulting pullet resembles these; nor can it be held more noble than they, which are its prime efficients or parents. I shall, therefore, add another condition of the prime efficient, whence it may, perhaps, appear that the male is not the prime, but only the instrumental, cause of the chick; viz., that the prime efficient in the formation of the chick makes use of artifice, and foresight, and wisdom, and goodness, and intelligence, which far surpass the powers of our rational soul to comprehend, inasmuch as all things are disposed and perfected in harmony with the purpose of the future work, and that there be action to a determinate end ; so that every, even the smallest, part of the chick is fashioned for the sake of a special use and end […] But the male or his semen is not such either in the act of kind or after it, that art, intelligence, and foresight can be ascribed to him or it. (p. 366)

He therefore concludes that there must be a more noble cause than the parents at work in every generation:

But nature, the principle of motion and rest in all things in which it inheres, and the vegetative soul, the prime efficient cause of all generation, move by no acquired faculty which might be designated by the title of skill or foresight, as in our undertakings; but operate in conformity with determinate laws like fate or special comandments — in the same way and manner light things rise and heavy things descend. […] Wherefore, according to my opinion, he takes the right and pious view of the matter, who derives all generation from the same eternal and omnipotent Deity, on whose nod the universe itself depends. […] the beginning and the end of all things; which exhibits from eternity and is almighty; which is author or creator, and, by means of changing generations, the preserver and perpetuator of the fleeting things of mortal life; which is omnipresent, not less in the single and several operations of natural things, than in the infinite universe; which, by his deity or providence, his art and mind divine, engenders all things, whether they arise spontaneously without any adequate efficient, or are the work of male and female associated together, or of a single sex, or of other intermediate instruments, here more numerous, there fewer, whether they be univocal, or are equivocally or accidentally produced: all natural bodies are both the work and the instruments of that Supreme Good, some of them being mere natural bodies, such as heat, spirit, air, the temperature of the air, matters in putrefaction, &c., or they are at once natural and animated bodies; for he also makes use of the motions, or forces, or vital principles of animals in some certain way, to the perfection of the universe and the procreation of the several kinds of animated beings. (pp. 369-370)

I read Harvey in the freshman laboratory tutorial at Thomas Aquinas College,  and like most of my fellow freshmen was somewhat confused. The standard reductionist rebuttal to arguments such as Harvey occurred to us: the appearance of wisdom in the formation of the chick is an illusion generated by chance and natural selection. But, as Charles De Koninck points out in an essay that we read in the same tutorial, the reductionist view has its own problems; it practically amounts to a denial that the chick is alive, and indeed that it is even one being at all. This is a denial of what is more known in the name of what is less known: “I know when one is dead, and when one lives.”

Later I came to see that what Harvey was pointing to is one of the most important questions with regard to natural things: namely, the distinction between universal and particular causes in nature. In his brilliant, brilliant essay on universal causality, Ronald McArthur argues that a parent is not the cause of the nature of its offspring, but only the cause of that nature coming to be in this individual:

Now some agents are not the cause of the ‘esse’ of their effects, but only of their becoming. Insofar as the univocal cause is not the cause of the form, but of its inherence in the individual, the form as such is not its proper effect. It is the cause only of the becoming of the form, and its causality ceases with the termination of the becoming. In other words the mother causes the ‘fieri’ of Socrates, but not his nature or his existence. If she were the cause of the nature and ‘esse’ of Socrates, Socrates could not exist without the continued exercized causality of his mother. But, in fact, he does exist without it. Hence, there is necessary a cause which is anterior to the mother’s causality, which is responsible for Socrates’s nature and ‘esse’ and to which she is subordinated in causing him. In all univocal causality, the form of the thing which comes to be does not depend ‘per se,’ and according to its ‘ratio,’ on the univocal cause, but only accidentally. The ‘esse’ of the form in matter does not, in itself, imply motion or mutation, even though that form could not exist unless at the term of the becoming. The principle, therefore, upon which the form depends ‘per se’ is incorporeal. The reason is that any natural thing, being a body, cannot move or cause unless it be itself moved, and is the cause only of the becoming of effects, and not of their natures or their existence. An incorporeal agent must be responsible for the existence of the form, though every natural form depends upon the preparation and receptability of the matter as a condition of its existence. (pp. 70-71)

Note that on this account the rôle of the particular, univocal cause in generation (i.e. the parent) seems to be primarily the preparation of the matter from which the universal cause educes the form. And in fact Michael Bolin, in his remarkably lucid lecture “And Man Became a Living Being,” argues that disposing matter is in fact the only rôle that univocal agents have in the generation of natural substances:

When matter is so disposed as to be appropriate to a new form, it will of necessity acquire that form. But it does not acquire it from the generating agent, and so it does not matter whether that agent is of a higher nature or a lower nature, or indeed whether it still exists at all when the new substance comes to be. Let me put that more provocatively. When parents, human or otherwise, generate offspring, they really have nothing directly to do with the generation of the soul, the principle that actually makes the offspring alive. All they are really doing is rearranging matter in various ways. […] What my account ultimately implies, then, is that the substantial information of matter is an activity of this kind, an absolutely primary act of material nature. This is why it is caused immediately by God and has no explanation, except dispositively, in terms of natural causes. (pp. 3, 11)

2 thoughts on “The Generation of Substantial Form

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