CT 74: Incorporeal Substances Requisite for the Perfection of the Universe

Having said a great deal about God, in Chapter 74 Thomas begins to talk about the highest creatures, which are incorporeal substances. He doesn’t use the word “angel”, at least not yet, but that’s what we’re getting to.

A being is noble and perfect in the measure that it approaches likeness to God, who is pure act without any admixture of potency. Therefore beings that are supreme among entities must be more in act and must have less of potency, whereas inferior beings must be more in potency. How this is to be understood, we must now examine.

God is pure act, and is greater than beings with mostly act and only a little potency, which are greater than beings with less act and more potency. Got it.

Since God is eternal and immutable in His being, those things are lowest in the scale of being, as possessing less likeness to God, which are subject to generation and corruption. Such beings exist for a time, and then cease to be. And, since existence follows the form of a thing, beings of this kind exist while they have their form, but cease to exist when deprived of their form. Hence there must be something in them that can retain a form for a time, and can then be deprived of the form. This is what we call matter. Therefore such beings, which are lowest in degree among things, must be composed of matter and form.

That is to say, the beings lowest in the scale of being are composite beings of the sort Thomas has been discussing in the first couple of sections of De Ente et Essentia: beings like me and you and your dog and your prize rose bush, things that can be born and then later die. As I’ve been blogging excessively about such beings, I won’t belabor it here.

But beings that are supreme among created entities approach most closely to likeness with God. They have no potency with regard to existence and non-existence; they have received everlasting existence from God through creation. Since matter, by the very fact that it is what it is, is a potency for that existence which is imparted through form, those beings which have no potency for existence and nonexistence, are not composed of matter and form, but are forms only, subsisting in their being which they have received from God. Such incorporeal substances must be incorruptible. For all corruptible beings have a potency for non-existence; but incorporeal beings have no such potency, as we said. Hence they are incorruptible.

In short, angels. They are not born; they do not die; they cannot be killed. They have no matter, for matter is that which has the potency for existence and non-existence, for generation and corruption. They were created directly by God.

Furthermore, nothing is corrupted unless its form is separated from it, for existence always follows form. Since the substances in question are subsisting forms, they cannot be separated from their forms, and so cannot lose existence. Therefore they are incorruptible.

Being pure form, with no matter, they cannot lose their form. Since that’s what corruption–death–means, they cannot die.

Between those two poles, we have yet another excursion into Medieval Science. The folks in the Middle Ages were a lot smarter and more knowledgeable than they usually get credit for, but their notions of physics and astronomy were lacking:

Between the extremes mentioned, there are certain intermediate beings which have no potency for existence and nonexistence, but which have a potency for ubi, or presence in place. Such are the heavenly bodies, which are not subject to generation and corruption, since contrarieties are not found in them. However, they are changeable according to local presence. Thus in some beings there is found matter as well as motion. For motion is the act of a being in potency. Accordingly such bodies have matter that is not subject to generation and corruption, but is subject only to change of place.

The planets were believed to be perfect heavenly objects which were neither born nor died, and which never changed, except in place. Thus they have a potency for “ubi”, as he calls it; think of the word “ubiquitous”. They can move from place to place, they have a potency to be somewhere else. Since matter is that which has potency, the planets must involve matter, though not matter that is subject to generation and corruption.

I find this last paragraph interesting for what it doesn’t say…which is that the higher beings of pure form either have no potency, including the potency for “ubi”, or they have a limited potency that doesn’t involve matter. In the former case, this implies that angels aren’t really located anywhere. I’m quite curious to see which it is; but no doubt Thomas will get there eventually.

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