CT 79: Inferiority of Man’s Intellectual Nature

So now we come back to Thomas’ Compendium of Theology, which you may have seen published as Aquinas’ Shorter Summa (not to be confused with A Shorter Summa, which is one of Peter Kreeft’s two abridgements of the full Summa Theologiae). Previously we were looking at the intellectual substances, i.e., angels; now we move on to Man’s intellectual nature in Chapter 79:

Infinite progression is impossible in any series. Among intellectual substances, one must ultimately be found to be supreme, namely, the one which approaches most closely to God. Likewise, one must be found to be the lowest, and this will be the most intimately associated with corporeal matter.

One of the interesting things about reading Thomas is that over time you begin to see certain general principles used over and over again. Some one should search them out and compile them into a book; this would be a great beginning to the hypothetical volume I’ve dubbed “Things St. Thomas Aquinas Took For Granted.” That infinite progression is impossible in any series is undoubtedly one of these.

One of Thomas’ assumptions, I gather, is that nothing created is truly infinite. There are a great many atoms in the universe, for example, far too many for any human being to count, but the total remains is a finite number. So, if you’ve got a finite number of intellectual substances, and they can be ranked by how closely they approach God, then certainly you’re going to have a greatest and a least.

And the least will be associated most intimately with corporeal matter–and that’s us. We’re kind of like amphibians, as Uncle Screwtape describes us, having both material and intellectual (i.e., spiritual) components.

This can be explained in the following way. Understanding is proper to man beyond all the other animals. Evidently, man alone comprehends universals, and the relations between things, and immaterial objects, which are perceptible only to the intelligence.

We, alone among animals, have intellect. Intellect, it develops, is necessarily an immaterial faculty:

Understanding cannot be an act performed by a bodily organ, in the way that vision is exercised by the eye. No faculty endowed with cognitive power can belong to the genus of things that is known through its agency. Thus the pupil of the eye lacks color by its very nature. Colors are recognized to the extent that the species of colors are received into the pupil; but a recipient must be lacking in that which is received.

As always, Thomas’ when Thomas draws examples from physics, astronomy, or biology you have to be very careful. This is an interesting one, though—because the pupil is, in fact, the lens of the eye, and indeed to do its just it must be transparent, lacking in color. That said, he certainly hasn’t proved this principle through this example. The retina, on the other hand, certainly are colored. You can’t taste your own tongue, but you can certainly taste someone else’s. (Ahem.) And anyone who has had their ears ring knows that ears can produce sounds that can be heard.

On the other hand, an eye that sees mostly itself (as with glaucoma) or an ear that hears mostly itself (as with serious tinnitus) or a tongue that tasted mostly itself (ewwww) wouldn’t be all that useful.

The intellect is capable of knowing all sensible natures.

That is, it can apprehend the essences of the things we see/hear/taste/smell/feel.

Therefore, if it knew through the medium of a bodily organ, that organ would have to be entirely lacking in sensible nature; but this is impossible.

Hmmm. Clearly, any bodily organ has a sensible nature; I’ll buy that. Now presumably a sensible nature is the species of a being that can be sensed. And unlike accidents, such as color, which can be possessed to a greater or lesser degree, a being has a species or it doesn’t, all or nothing. Your cornea can have the slightest bit of clouding, in which case you’ll see less perfectly but you won’t be totally blind; but your intellect can’t have just the slightest bit of sensible nature; it either does or it doesn’t.

So a thing can have or not have a sensible nature; and Thomas is claiming that if it has one, it cannot apprehend sensible natures; it’s own sensible nature would get in the way.

How come? I can see it by analogy to sight, but that’s not a proof.

Moreover, any cognitive faculty exercises its power of knowing in accord with the way the species of the object known is in it, for this is its principle of knowing. But the intellect knows things in an immaterial fashion, even those things that are by nature material; it abstracts a universal form from its individuating material conditions. Therefore the species of the object known cannot exist in the intellect materially; and so it is not received into a bodily organ, seeing that every bodily organ is material.

This bit makes more sense. A universal clearly is not material; so it can’t exist materially; and since every bodily organ is material, the apprehended universal doesn’t exist in any bodily organ.

Now, there’s an obvious question I think any programmer would ask, here. What’s the difference between, say, an architect’s concept of a building he’s designing, as it exists in his intellect, and the CAD model of the building, as it exists in a computer’s memory? The CAD model is an immaterial thing, a collection of related ideas; but it’s captured as patterns of 0’s and 1’s.

You could ask a similar question about a printed book. There are certainly ideas in the book, in the form of letters made of ink. A book is a material thing containing immaterial ideas, but those ideas are captured materially. Why could there be a bodily organ (i.e., the brain) that works the same way?

I think the answer is that the book does not understand itself; the computer does not understand the program within it. The ideas in a book or in a computer program or in a CAD model really only come to life in the intellect of the author or the programmer. They are physical tools that borrow the immaterial intellect they need from them what has it.

The same is clear from the fact that a sense is weakened and injured by sensible objects of extreme intensity. Thus the ear is impaired by excessively loud sounds, and the eye by excessively bright lights. This occurs because the harmony within the organ is shattered. The intellect, on the contrary, is perfected in proportion to the excellence of intelligible objects; he who understands the higher objects of intelligence is able to understand other objects more perfectly rather than less perfectly.

Sense organs are weakened by inputs of extreme intensity, but the greather than objects the intellect understands, the more it is strengthened. And things that are “over your head” don’t weaken your intellect (even though people say, “that makes my brain hurt”)—they just go over your head.

Consequently, if man is found to be intelligent, and if man’s understanding is not effected through the medium of a bodily organ, we are forced to acknowledge the existence of some incorporeal substance whereby man exercises the act of understanding.

Yeah, well, we knew he was going there. :-)

For the substance of a being that can perform an action by itself, without the aid of a body, is not dependent on a body. But all powers and forms that are unable to subsist by themselves without a body, cannot exercise any activity without a body. Thus heat does not by itself cause warmth; rather a body causes warmth by the heat that is in it. Accordingly this incorporeal substance whereby man understands, occupies the lowest place in the genus of intellectual substances, and is the closest to matter.

And there you are. We sit right on the dividing line between the fleshly and the spiritual, and fall into both groups. And therein naturally comes our importance as creatures: God needs us not, and yet we are perfectly designed to be his ambassadors to the rest of the material universe.

Comments are closed.