Form, Matter, Essence, & Man Pt. 1
It’s amazing to me that in this age of so-called “wokeness” and “enlightenment” our country has legalized—and celebrated—the murder of unborn human beings. Before I dive into this article, I want to clarify a definition in my opening statement: some will note that I use the word murder and not the word killing when I discuss abortion. Killing is, by definition, an act which causes death; while murder is the act of killing in an unlawful and premeditated manner. While the country I live in (the United States), may have made abortion lawful, I am bound firstly by to two powers that are both higher and older than the country (God and reason), and am therefore within my reasonable and rightful use of the term murder.
That being cleared up, we can now discuss the topic on a deeper level. The audience I wish to focus on in this particular article are those who are currently enrolled in, or teaching, Philosophy courses. The thing that is perhaps most terrifying to me is that modern day philosophers are becoming more and more accepting in their view of abortion. Even those professors who claim to have “Christian values” use their philosophical prowess to make allowances that are both unphilosophical and illogical. Forget, for one moment, that a Christian is speaking to you, and instead, look to the founders of philosophical thought. For those of you who have studied these earliest and most influential philosophers (Plato and Aristotle especially), you will know that their most important Philosophy is focused on Being, Form, and Matter. I want to particularly focus on Aristotle’s views of these subjects.
Aristotle’s view is that Form is the essence of a thing or being—in other words, what your matter is determined by what form you have. Matter on the other hand, is what determines the potency or forcefulness of the given form. The potential of any matter is dependent entirely upon form (for example, the potentiality of a baby elephant and a baby chimpanzee are very different because their forms are different). Let me bring a relevant example to the conversation: An elderly man and a developing human fetus have different potencies (one is big and one is small), and yet they share the same form: humanity (best examined as human DNA). From a philosophical standpoint, your intrinsic value (at least when it comes to basic human rights), cannot be located in your matter. Why? Because matter is in constant flux and differs from person to person. Your inherent human value must be located in your form. Why? Because it is the very thing that is irremovable and stationary, no matter the matter, the form remains unchanged. Matter is, for Aristotle, a particle of pure, elemental potentiality; it does not reach potentiality on it’s own but in conjunction with form, but the form itself does not change in value.
I have heard arguments such as: there are more living cells in a common housefly than there are a newly fertilized human egg, and that one might see the fly as more valuable than the fetus. This argument, along with similar arguments, is highly questionable (and I would argue foolish) because it focuses entirely on matter and in no way upon form. Some could say that forms do not exist in the world (a more platonic view), and some could outright reject the idea of hylomorphism altogether. After all, there are things that may be all form and no matter that hold certain worth—morals, ideas, rights, etc. This is where St. Thomas Aquinas has something to say on the matter. Aquinas rejects universal Hylomorphism because it cannot account for the potency of immaterial things. He believes, instead, that we may understand the essence of things apart from their existence. The essence of manhood, for example, is a shared commonality of all men, but the existence is distinct to each man. In this way, we may know what makes a man without knowing every man or even without specific examples.
How can we claim that one essence is higher than another essence? By examining it’s effect and by using common sense. We might say that a mountain of debris is worth more than an ounce of gold, but does this make common sense? No, simply because no one in their right mind would choose the mountain of trash over the ounce of gold. Why? Because the essence in an ounce of gold is worth far more than the essence of a mountain of trash. One truth is worth more than a thousand lies. One constructive action is worth more than a thousand useless actions. The essence of one human, in the same way, is worth far more than even one billion flies. The worth of man lies in his essence, something that I believe both Aristotle and Aquinas could agree with. The essence of humanity is the most precious matter-bearing essence precisely because of the thing that is inherent to humanity—our souls. It is the essence our unique souls that make us more valuable than any other matter-bearing thing in the universe—something I will discuss in the next article.
This article is dedicated to philosopher Roger Scruton (1944—2020) who passed away this week. He was an exceptional thinker with an honorable mission. He will be greatly missed.