Prometheus Trust
TTS Catalogue
Texts and Translations
Other books
Complete Catalogue
Essentials Course
London Monday  Evenings
Academy Appeal
Meadow 1
Editorial 1
Caveman to Contemplative
Chariot Symbology
Holy Basil
Scolia on Eros
Meadow 2
Meadow 3
The Trust
Thomas Taylor
Files to download
Seeds and fruits
Contact us
Study weeks in Italy


Causes and Sufficient Reasons

Donald Skilling

You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without peculiar religious feelings of his own.... His religious feeling takes the form of rapturous amazement at the harmony of the natural law.... This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work. It is without question akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages. Albert Einstein.

A pure response to the world around us is that of a child who seeks to know it more deeply and to enjoy it more completely. It is a response called from our hearts and minds by changes that happen around us. Sunshine, wind and rain, plants growing, people coming and going, nothing remains the same forever. We are surrounded by continuous change.

It may be that a little detail attracts and holds our attention and stimulates interest, a rhythm or a pattern that hints at order and relationships which were previously unknown, or it may be a glimpse of the grand design, an intuition of universal harmony. The door to knowledge and understanding is always open. If we ignore it we act against human nature. Passing through it we are lead inevitably to ask such fundamental questions as: Where does it all begin? How did it happen? Is there any purpose, or is it all a result of chance?

Philosophers try to answer these questions. Some spend their time thinking about the meaning of words, others are more interested in morality, but most philosophers respond to the great ideas that attract every awakened mind and are the subject matter of eminent artists in every discipline.

When looking at an important idea philosophers ask fundamental questions - Why? What? Who? and How? Why was such a thing done? Who did it? What did they do? And How was it done? They are searching to find causes and to show how events are connected with each other. Sometimes they look for causes in the past; sometimes they look for hidden causes, as the psychiatrist does in human activities.

The German philosopher Leibnitz emphasised this search for causes when he described philosophy as "the science of sufficient reasons".

Let us remember that this universe is one great system. The word "universe" means that. Philosophy is not reserved as an academic study, although some academics are quite good at it. We look to practical philosophy that it may help us to gain the wisdom to live together as a human family. Some of us believe this is quite a good idea. When we try to achieve harmony in human relationships the fundamental questions spoken of above arise quite naturally. Whoever seeks answers, enters the realm of philosophy, it is the natural home of the mind. Truly, philosophy is a love of wisdom. Only the foolish despise it.

So let us now take a closer look at causes, for they are rarely simple. If they were there would be quite obvious and "sufficient reasons" for everything we do, and fewer problems to solve. Nevertheless, causes can be examined under four headings, moving from how they begin until their completed result, which is a movement in time or priority.

For general interest I have chosen to look first at the causes of Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine chapel:

A. The First Cause, sometimes called the Final is the purpose or intention that initiates action. In this case it is the reason for the paintings. The Pope had the intention to decorate the Sistine chapel. For obvious reasons he chose not to do this himself but to employ an efficient artist.

B. Then there is the idea to be expressed in the work. This is called the Intrinsic and Formal Cause, formal because it is this form which is going to be embodied. The Formal Cause of these paintings is drawn from mythology, philosophy, and the Old Testament. The paintings portray the Creation, a Chronicle of Humankind, and the Last Judgement. Michelangelo said that he created, not with his hands but with his mind. He then took the forms in his mind, which may be called the prototypes, and efficiently reproduced them in the paintings. This form may be understood as "the vision of the artist" and is the Formal Cause.

C. The Efficient Cause is the person doing the work. As the painter, Michelangelo is the Efficient Cause because he takes the form that exists in his mind, the vision that he has, and expresses it in the material. If it is done well then it is completed efficiently.

D. The stuff used to make the work is called the Material Cause. In the Sistine Chapel the Material Cause is the walls, the pigments, and other materials which Michelangelo used to produce the painting.

In the decoration of the chapel, the materials used could have been applied by any artist, skilfully or clumsily. But the forms created in Michelangelo's mind, were his alone, and of such transcendent spirituality that they shine through the work, unimpeded by any mannerism or personal idiosyncrasy of the artist, or any inadequacy of technique.

Thus there are four causes that can be traced quite easily, these are the Final, Formal, Efficient, and Material causes. Since the analysis of causes may be unfamiliar to many readers let us look at another, more abstract example to illustrate them. Education is a suitable subject, for we all have to learn.

A. The Final cause of an education is for the sake of the individual. It is to enable the student to become a mature person.

B. The Formal cause is the idea of a mature human being. This will include:

a) the spiritual, psychological and physical identity;

b) relationships arising from these, e.g. our physical identity with the physical world, and our psychological identity with other souls;

c) the powers and sensitivity of mind, heart, and will;

d) appropriate language, thinking and other skills which are necessary for any person to live a rich life within their own culture, and enable them to identify with those ideas and ideals held to be elevating and true to the character of a mature human being by the most enlightened members of humanity.

C. The Efficient cause is the teacher, who guides the student and possesses the vision, knowledge, and skills to present and discuss, in a manner suited to the student, information and experiences which embody the lessons of life.

D. The Material cause, in this case, is not physical matter but the mind, heart and will of every student, as they learn and live.

"Material" cause is used, not because the powers of the soul -mind, heart, and will - are composed of physical material but to emphasise the important quality of receptivity which is characteristic of the fourth - Material - cause. Matter receives form and has a natural tendency to express perfectly any form which "informs" it. In a normal psychological condition our minds are receptive to ideas and we are informed by them, for we are actually hungering for new forms. This hunger is not merely for fresh knowledge of the same kind or at the same "level", for this does not bring new forms but greater detail. It is a hunger for increased consciousness, for the light of higher ideas to shine within our minds and upon our present knowledge and thus to reveal causes.

This brings us to another distinction that has to be made. It is quite clear that the material used by a sculptor, builder or painter has its own qualities, - in each case it is already "informed" with the qualities that make it a suitable medium to be used. It is therefore expressing quite naturally its own form as a material. Any form imposed upon natural material by a human artist has to take account of the nature of the material, its stoniness or wooden qualities that are its own natural form.

Although it is quite possible to make a sculpture in ice cream or other impermanent material, a sculptor usually uses a comparatively static material. But the material used by a landscape artist is not static. It has the dynamic quality of the natural world, which changes quite rapidly in comparison with stone or iron. Time and change are therefore important factors to be considered by the artist - the efficient cause. In the art of teaching this factor has to be acknowledged by a teacher, for ideas take time to mature in the mind.

Education is based upon a great truth: when a mind is informed with real ideas (as the formal cause), they are so powerful that their expression follows quite naturally in the life of an individual. In this true life of ideas "educed" from the soul, the forms have dynamic qualities which influence all other psychological relationships and tend to form and reform the character of a student of any age.

The paints used by a painter, the sculptor's stone, and the clay used by a potter take on the form held in the efficient artist's mind and by doing so become an expression of that form.

The idea is an abstract blueprint to which the artist refers as his criterion of excellence during his work. An artist "informs" the material with the idea. The final product is therefore a vehicle and a symbol of the idea.

The idea still remains as an abstract reality in the mind of the artist, even when the material example is destroyed.

If an artist is inefficient for any reason, perhaps because untrained or inexperienced, or the idea has only a vague form in an artist's mind, then the matter will be badly informed. In this case the work will still be symbolic, but it will symbolise a poorly formed idea badly executed. Therefore it will be artistically impoverished.

So far as education is concerned, any passivity, which is implied in being receptive to information, ceases as soon as the student's mind is actively engaged. Active and receptive states alternate rapidly as fresh information is received and integrated within the mental model. Of course memory and emotions influence this process but it is not appropriate to discuss them here.

These four causes are significant. In the study of philosophy and in our own lives they are an important key to knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. To think about them even in quite ordinary affairs, like cooking or being a parent, will give us fresh insights for they reveal the art in human activities, not least the art of a more productive and harmonious life.

First, or Final cause.... the purpose. .............Why?

Formal cause.............the idea or form...........What?

Efficient cause..........the executor, artist, or instrument.............Who?

Material cause...........the materials, patient, or ingredients............How?

Our scientific knowledge about the world, its minerals, vegetation and animal life, about the universe and ourselves, often comes from looking at the final result, the physical presence of the subject. In many quests for truth we are therefore beginning at the end, where the light of truth is embodied and sometimes eclipsed by the material cause.

Here is one more example for you to do, just for fun!

It is your purpose to cross a river.

You will need a bridge or a boat. Decide on your formal cause.

Will you make it yourself or get a builder? Decide on your efficient cause.

What materials will you use, and where will you have it made? If it is a boat, have it made on the bank where you are!

Now cross the river and the first cause is the final cause.

As you have probably noticed, it is often necessary to break down the causes into other chains or series of causes. For example, the boatbuilder will have a much clearer idea of the form of a suitable boat in his mind than the traveller may have so he accepts the first cause and contributes to the formal cause as well as being the efficient cause. To get results and to solve problems it is useful to remember these causes. If you consider the universe itself, or your own self, in terms of the four causes it is very enlightening.


For a response to this article, go the the letters page here  Morpho-Sulkowski-Pearl-Morpho-icon 

For the next article click here  Morpho-Zephyritis-Male-icon To return to the contents page click here Morpho-Phano-Blue-icon