Bonaventure and Hylomorphism

Zubaran - St. Bonaventure Receives a Visit from St. Thomas Aquinas
Zurbarán – St. Bonaventure, receiving a visit from St. Thomas (detail; original)

Charles De Koninck’s first doctoral student, Fr. Patrice Robert, OFM, published his dissertation on St. Bonaventure’s hylomorphism as a book, Hylemorphisme et devenir chez Saint Bonaventure, for which De Koninck wrote a brief preface. In it, De Koninck contrasts contemporary approaches to the problem of becoming and the discovery of the hylomorphic composition of substances with the true origins of the problem as found in “the great masters” such as Bonaventure and Thomas. De Koninck also notes a relevant philosophical alternative to the hylomorphic solution, the system of Henri Bergson. The preface is particularly interesting because it features the same approach to the problem of becoming that De Koninck favors in The Cosmos, which he has drafting at the same time as this shorter work on behalf of his student. The preface also features De Koninck’s early opinion on the formal separation between the philosophy of nature and the natural sciences, following his dissertation director Fernand Renoirte and Jacques Maritain. This accounts for the remarkable statement that hylomorphism, dynamism, and atomism are all true depending upon one’s point of departure.

  • Charles De Koninck, “Preface,” in Patrice Robert, OFM, Hylemorphisme et devenir chez Saint Bonaventure, pp. ix–xv (Les Éditions de la Librairie Saint-François: Montréal, 1936). (The translation marks the page breaks in brackets.)

Hylomorphism is nothing other than the Peripatetic response to the problem of becoming as it has been posed from Heraclitus all the way to Bergson. But this central thesis of the philosophy of nature has undergone many vicissitudes in the course of history. For a long time confused with scientific theories concerning the structure of matter, most of our manuals still present it today in a hardly recognizable way. Its presentation is jumbled with poorly interpreted givens from formally experimental theories and used in a way that denotes the confusion of two profoundly distinct points of view—that of the philosopher and that of the physicist—points of view based on two specifically different types of abstraction. One persists in dragging onto the scene a phenomenon such as the electrolysis of the water as an example, if not as proof, of the hylomorphic composition of bodies. If we persist in confusing the two domains in this way, the anxiety of some contemporary scholastics before the new theories which reveal to us the atomic and energetic character of the fundamental entities of the physical world will be well founded. If the hylomorphism were to be established on the data of experimental [x] science, dynamism and atomism would certainly get the better of the argument against him. It is remarkable, however, that these three theories are today true at the same time, depending upon the point of view adopted.

Even those who are the least acquainted with the method proper to the experimental sciences are most eager to fall into such compromises. No doubt, they would be more at ease if one day the physicists taught us that, in fact, there does exist some first matter. In the meantime, the hylomorphic solution has dropped out of the sky, a solution to a problem not posed from the point of view of the philosophy of nature. May one point out that defending this thesis seems justified in our philosophical treatises only due to theological needs? That hylomorphism seems to be of interest only as a criticism of atomism and dynamism?

The neglect of the problem solved by hylomorphism is still evident in the scholastic criticisms of Bergsonianism, which are always made from a metaphysical point of view, whereas that system is essentially a philosophy of nature, whatever may be true of the personal aims of its author. From there the ineffectiveness of these criticisms derives, so it seems. The central problem of Bergson’s system is that of duration. At any rate, can we say that Bergson sees a problem here? Does its solution not consist above all in demonstrating that duration poses a false problem, and that any attempt at a solution must fail? Does not successive [xi] and continuous duration prevent us from reifying under each motion a substratum of immobility? A being which endures successively and continuously is a being which changes in one respect and does not chance in another respect. It is well known that this apparent contradiction cannot be resolved by splitting the motion into two parts: an immobile substrate upon which glides some change. Such a solution would be only conceal the apparent contradiction by another cruder and clearer one. But the principles which ought to permit us to understand that the Bergson who wrote L’Évolution Créatrice and the one who wrote Les Deux Sources are the same while being other, should they be called “things”? If yes, we will be forced to find in this apparent contradiction (which implies things which endure) a purely epistemological explanation.

Such a solution could satisfy a mind which, from the beginning, encloses itself in a psychological domain. But the scholastics did not refuse the primacy of reality over our knowledge, and they sought the solution to the problem of becoming on the side of the real and on its terms. They did not reify the immobile substrate. Form, the real co-principle of the essence (which in Thomism is nothing other than the principle of being) maintains the identity and not the existence of the subject, and it is not a thing which remains. Likewise, the prime matter which permits the essence to successively and continuously receive existence is not [xii] some further thing. Yet is not all this absurd in a philosophy which, despite its realist intentions, seems to attribute to psychology the role of supreme wisdom?

We can therefore only praise any attempt to go back to the origins to better understand the strictly philosophical problem as it was posed by the great masters who did not know anything about our experimental sciences.

The hylomorphism of St. Bonaventure is particularly interesting because it is stated precisely in terms of successive and continuous duration. No doubt, this is not a formal aspect, duration being only a particular case of becoming which, as such, requires the composition of matter and form: In omni eo quod movetur opertet intelligere materiam [Matter must be included in the notion of all that moves; see St. Thomas, In Meta., II.4, n. 328]. But temporal duration is certainly the most obvious species of becoming. The natural being, which in all other respects does not seem to change or move, cannot continue its existence except on the condition that it be always innovated.

It is remarkable that a contemporary scholastic, Fernand Renoirte, who better than any other has delimited the domains of philosophy and experimental science, far from having recourse to cases chosen from the formally scientific data, begins precisely from this point of view to demonstrate the hylomorphic composition of a being which becomes.

If the Seraphic Doctor professes a universal hylomorphism, it is because he did not know, as shown by [xiii] Fr. Robert, the real distinction between essence and existence, and that he could not conceive of a finite being whose duration is neither successive nor continuous. It is clear that he was absolutely right in demanding a real composition in every creature, and that he only attacks those who regarded angels as pure forms identified with their existence.

But this extension of hylomorphism, which erases all demarcation between the metaphysics of finite being and the philosophy of nature in the Thomistic sense, inevitably results in a homogeneous conception of the created universe in which all beings are joined in a common matrix. Here we see that it is the doctrine of analogy and transcendental unity that profoundly differentiates Thomism from the spirit of the system of St. Bonaventure—a divergence that was accentuated in the course of history. The doctrine of analogy is also found in the Seraphic Doctor, but when he considers the order of the universe, it is not found there. Could it not be this spirit which hid from the eyes of St. Bonaventure the real distinction between essence and existence? He does not seem to have felt the need to find in the universe that pure unity of essential order which can only be constituted by forms subsisting outside of any common natural kind. Of course, St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas both seek to grasp the profound unity of the universe—the potissimum in all [xiv] creation—but they are looking for it in opposite directions. The Seraphic Doctor is satisfied with a certain leveling, not to some degree of being, but he will not admit that the human soul is less perfect than the angel. Whence there results only a unity of an accidental order. The Angelic Doctor seeks this unity in pure heterogeneity. The Thomistic universe is so profoundly one that it burst forth in pure specific differences that can only be united in a logical genus. Each pure spirit is to itself a universe formally different from others. This very heterogeneity constitutes the profound formal and hierarchical unity of the ensemble. Certainly such a conception can only be sustained by a system sustaining itself upon analogy and applying in all its rigor the distinction between transcendental unity and the unity which is the principle of number.

This deep divergence between Thomism and the system of St. Bonaventure manifests itself not only with regard to the degrees of being. There is also a similar divergence with regard to the degrees of knowledge. The two are indissolubly linked to each other. In philosophy, the Seraphic Doctor makes an abundant use of knowledge belonging to an order which we would now call the domain of the experimental sciences, and not to serve him as examples but as arguments. What in Saint Thomas is only a sicut is in Saint Bonaventure most often a quia. Thus we know the very important [xv] role played by light in his system. We also know his fright of philosophy and of its submission to theology (the human soul is not inferior to the angel for theological reasons), whereas in Thomism the autonomy of philosophical wisdom only increases and its usefulness for theological wisdom and the grandeur of the latter.

Fr. Robert did not hesitate to highlight these differences. This work is objective. It seems to me so objective that even an internal criticism would not be enough to establish that its author is a Franciscan.

The profound opposition between St. Bonaventure [and] St. Thomas is proportional to the size of their systems. Yet in the absolute hierarchy of the universe, the things that are the most profoundly different are also the closest: Gabriel and Raphael are infinitely more distinct than a cabbage and a cat, and yet they are also infinitely closer.

Charles De Koninck


"Sed contra" or "Distinguo" or "Amplius" below ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s