Sertillanges and the seed-form of De Koninck’s “Cosmos”

A. G. Sertillanges, O.P.

Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges, O.P., theologian, philosopher, and spiritual writer, is best known today for his marvelously beautiful La vie intellectuelle, son esprit, ses conditions, ses méthodes, or The Intellectual Life. However, he also wrote a comprehensive survey of the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, originally published as S. Thomas d’Aquin, in two volumes, and then republished with additions and revisions as La philosophie de S. Thomas d’Aquin. The second volume contains a chapter on the nature of contingency which played a supporting role in the doctoral work of Charles De Koninck. The central philosophical question concerns the nature of the indeterminacy of events: are events merely uncertain (a function of our ignorance) or are they truly contingent (a function of their indeterminacy in being before they occur)? The young Thomist, explicating and defending the philosophy of Sir Arthur Eddington to a largely scholastic audience, appeals to Sertillanges’ exposition of Aquinas’ doctrine at a key point:


For a Thomist, the objective indeterminism of Eddington ought to be the most natural thing in the world. And it is not without emotion that we have read the two paragraphs that Father Sertillanges devotes to this subject in his magisterial Saint Thomas d’Aquin (book II, chapter iii). ~ De Koninck, “The Philosophy of Sir Arthur Eddington,” in Writings, vol. 1, pp. 164–165

It is clear from De Koninck’s use of Sertillanges in his dissertation that the French Dominican influenced his thinking in regard to the philosophy of contingency. However, that chapter also contains the following passage, where Sertillanges speaks of the existence of chance events in the universe taken as a whole:

We judge the universe, following the comparison made by Aristotle, as if it were a house where infants follow their father’s rules and are not excluded from the common good except in very few things, while the servants and domestic animals have a wide birth to act as they will and rather impose on the common good. [Sertillanges has in mind Metaphysics, XII.10: “For all things are ordered together to one end, but in the same way as in a household, where the children are not permitted to do just as they please, but all or most of the things done are arranged in an orderly way, while the slaves and livestock do little for the common good but act for the most part at random.”] Thus the great celestial operations are always, or quite nearly so, doing what belongs to the end intended by nature; but in the corruptible world, many agents fail. There are side-effects, results which are not ends, and it is the very seriousness with which we treat nature that makes us speak this way.

One sees that this conception does not countenance the idea of progress. Indeed, if the universe were no longer conceived as an eternal return of the same phases, the incessant reprise of the same work, but as the immense pursuit which modern hypotheses have brought to light, we strangely restrict the field of chance. Under the influence of an immanent, directive idea which would be like the soul of the world, one could see it develop after the fashion of a developing organism, and a number of those things which we call accidents would fit into the flowing plan, so conceived. A considerable number would remain, for the conditions of cosmic travail would always be affected to a degree by the irremediable indetermination of matter. These secondary functions would never be brought under the reign of the common soul except according to the bonds of a ‘political’ principality, not a ‘despotic’ one. [See Politics, I.5, 1254b4–6] Nevertheless, the unity of composition thus realized would be rich in a different way than in the other hypothesis, the myriad of centuries being there to complete those forms and to lead to the fulfillment of that progress which, on a narrower idea of a plan, appeared out of bounds.

But this idea of progress is foreign to St. Thomas. ~ Sertillanges, S. Thomas d’Aquin, v. II, pp. 64–65

Bear this passage in mind when reading the following from De Koninck’s The Cosmos. It seems that De Koninck read Sertillanges’ hypothetical and took it as a seed to be developed later—although even then, never brought to fruition in his lifetime.

What paths have been followed in the execution of this work? What were the steps? What species have arisen in this journey of the whole of nature to man? Without doubt, one cannot deduce them in a philosophical manner, since the ways of nature lack rigor. It is for experimental science to find the traces, to reconstitute the ways which have in fact been followed, and to deduce from them those which ought to have been followed to attain the end actually realized. If we cannot predict on the basis of the initial composite all the species that emerged from it in order for it to attain its goal, the indetermination inherent in nature cannot impede our predicting with certitude that evolution ought to arrive at man. For if there is only probability in the intermediate ways, the term is certain and defined: it is the raison d’être of all that has been made; that is, if evolution, despite the deviations and lost efforts along the way, did not arrive necessarily at man, prime matter, nature, all the work that was done, would be in advance contradictory, impossible. It is nature that tends toward man, not chance. . . .

In other words, the whole travail of nature terminates in the rational soul immediately created by God, but ad cujus causalitatem concurrit caelum per motum suum materiam disponendo: with whose causality concurs that of the heaven through its motion, disposing matter. [Q. D. De Potentia, q. 5, a. 5, c., translation modified] Not that evolution produces the human body (no more than the parents the body of their child), and God the soul. The two causal lines meet in a being essentially one. But in producing the ultimate necessitating disposition, the equivocal spiritual agent, or the parent, are causes of the union of soul and body, which enables us to say that man is generated. What now was this animal whose elevation to the necessitating disposition by way of alteration calls naturally for the creation of the soul? It is for experimental science to tell us. And if man and the ape have, in this respect, a common ancestor, how would that detract from human dignity? Why prefer that he came from the mud? A preference somewhat lugubrious from an ontological point of view, a perverse manner of falling back into nonsense, for is it not a sin of angelism for man to deny his humble origins and to wish to have been given right off like a pure spirit? Is it not rather his glory to be the goal of these immense efforts of the world, prodigious and concentrated with an eye to his arrival? ~ De Koninck, The Cosmos, in Writings, vol. 1, p. 287 & p. 292


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