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THE FOUR CAUSES

Paul Gerard Horrigan, Ph.D., 2011.

Cause
A cause is that which really and positively influences something, making that something
depend upon it in a certain way. A cause is a positive principle from which something really
proceeds according to a dependence in being.1 Causality2 is the aspect of a thing insofar as it
influences the being of something else. A cause is a principle having some direct influx on the
to be of another (principium per se influens esse in aliud). St. Thomas remarks that a cause

K. DOUGHERTY, Metaphysics, Graymoor Press, Peekskill, New York, 1965, p. 137.


Studies on causality: G. BALLERINI, Il principio di causalit e lesistenza di Dio, Libreria Editrice Fiorentina,
Florence, 1904 ; T. DE REGNON, La mtaphysique des causes selon Saint Thomas et Albert le Grand, Victor
Retaux, Paris, 1906 ; A. BERSANI, Principium causalitatis et existentia Dei, Divus Thomas, 2 (1925), pp. 14-35 ;
P. E. NOLAN, Causality and the Existence of God, The Modern Schoolman, 14 (1936), pp. 16-18 ; C. FABRO,
La difesa critica del principio di causa, Rivista di filosofia neo-scolastica, 27 (1936), pp. 102-141 ; D.
HAWKINGS, Causality and Implication, Sheed and Ward, London, 1937 ; F. X. MEEHAN, Efficient Causality in
Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1940 ; E. R. KILZER,
Efficient Causality in the Philosophy of Nature, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association,
17 (1941), pp. 142-150 ; G. KLUBERTANZ, Causality in the Philosophy of Nature, The Modern Schoolman, 19
(1942), pp. 29-31 ; J. F. ANDERSON, The Cause of Being, B. Herder, St. Louis, 1952 ; J. S. ALBERTSON,
Instrumental Causality in St. Thomas, The New Scholasticism, 28 (1954), pp. 409-435 ; A. MICHOTTE, La
perception de la causalit, University of Louvain Publications, Louvain, 1954 ; C. GIACON, La causalit nel
razionalismo moderno, Bocca, Milan, 1954 ; J. OWENS, The Causal Proposition: Principle or Conclusion?, The
Modern Schoolman, 32 (1955), pp. 159-171, 257-270, 323-339 ; L. DE RAEYMAEKER, Le problme
mtaphysique de la causalit, Giornale di Metafisica, 2 (1957), pp. 161-179 ; P. GARIN, Le problme de la
causalit et Saint Thomas dAquin, Beauchesne, Paris, 1958 ; F. GIARDINI, Gradi di causalit e di similitudine,
Angelicum, 36 (1959), pp. 26-50 ; C. FABRO, Partecipazione e causalit, S.E.I., Turin, 1961 ; W. H. KANE,
Existence and Causality, The Thomist, 28 (1964), pp. 76-92 ; E. SELVAGGI, Causalit e indeterminismo,
Gregorian University, Rome, 1964 ; J. OWENS, The Causal Proposition Revisited, The Modern Schoolman, 44
(1967), pp. 143-151 ; C. GIACON, La causalit del Motore Immobile, Editrice Antenore, Padua, 1969 ; R.
LAVERDIRE, Le principe de causalit, Vrin, Paris, 1969 ; W. E. MAY, Knowledge of Causality in Hume and
Aquinas, The Thomist, 34 (1970), pp. 254-288 ; J. PETERSON, Aristotles Incomplete Causal Theory, The
Thomist, 36 (1972), pp. 420-432 ; C. GIACON, Il binomio causa-effetto secondo il tomismo, Rivista di Filosofia
Neoscolastica, 66 (1974), pp. 541-551 ; L. DEWAN, St. Thomas and the Causality of Gods Goodness, Laval
Thologique et Philosophique, 34 (1978), pp. 291-304 ; G. BLANDINO, Discussione sulla causalit I, Aquinas,
23 (1980), pp. 93-113; T. M. OLSHEWSKY, Thomas Conception of Causation, Nature and System, 2 (1980),
pp. 101-122 ; M. BEUCHOT, La metafsica de las causas en Aristteles y Santo Toms, Logos (Mxico) 9
(1981), pp. 9-28 ; G. BLANDINO, Discussione sulla causalit II, Aquinas, 25 (1982), pp. 515-552 ; G. E.
PONFERRADA, Las causas en Aristteles y Santo Toms, Sapientia, 38 (1983), pp. 9-36 ; L. DEWAN, St.
Thomas and the Principle of Causality, in Jacques Maritain: A Philosopher in the World, edited by J. L. Allard,
University of Ottawa Press, Ottawa, 1985, pp. 53-71 ; M. PANGALLO, Il principio di causalit nella metafisica di
san Tommaso: saggio di ontologia tomista alla luce dellinterpretazione di Cornelio Fabro, Libreria Editrice
Vaticana, Vatican City, 1991 ; L. DEWAN, Thomas and Infinite Causal Regress, in Idealism, Metaphysics and
Community, edited by W. Sweet, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2001, pp. 119-130 ; S. L. BROCK, Causality and Necessity in
Thomas Aquinas, Quaestio, 2 (2002), pp. 217-240 ; K. E. OREILLY, Efficient and Final Causality and the
Human Desire for Beatitude in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, The Modern Schoolman, 82 (2004),
pp. 33-58 ; J. DECOSSAS, Causalit et cration. Rflexion libre sur quelques difficults du thomisme, Cerf, Paris,
2006.
2

brings some influence on the to be of the thing caused.34 It is an ontological principle which
exercises a positive influence upon the to be of something else.5
The Four Causes
Causes are classified according to the various ways of real subordination which takes
place, that is, the various ways of dependence of being which happen. There are four main kinds
of causes, namely, the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause.6
Dougherty writes that there are four genera of causes in respect to the mode of a cause
influencing its effect according to a dependence in being. For a cause influences the effect as that
by which the effect is produced and this is the efficient cause; that on account of which a thing is
3

Importat influxum quedam ad esse causati(In V Metaphys., lect. 1, no. 751).


H. RENARD, The Philosophy of Being, Bruce, Milwaukee, 1950, p. 165.
5
H. J. KOREN, Introduction to the Science of Metaphysics, B. Herder, St. Louis, 1965, p. 232. William Wallace, in
his The Elements of Philosophy, states: A cause is generally defined as that from which something else proceeds
with a dependence in being(W. WALLACE, The Elements of Philosophy, Alba House, Staten Island, New York,
1977, p. 100). Peter Coffey writes: We understand by a cause anything which has a positive influence of any sort
on the being or happening of something else(P. COFFEY, Ontology, Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1926, p.
357).
Wallace observes that the essential notion of cause is that it is a positive principle exerting some influence on a
perfection or thing that is coming to be, i.e., an influx into being. This definition is general and obscure to the extent
that cause is an analogous concept, for the precise manner of causing differs in various exercises of causality. The
major types of cause, however, may be set out schematically in terms of the general doctrine on potency and act.
Since a cause is that upon which the being of another thing depends, this being may be viewed under the aspect
either of act or of potency. As act, its cause of being is a form by which it is constituted a being-in-act, thus called a
formal cause. As potency, it further requires two other causes, namely, matter that is potential and an agent that
reduces this matter from potency to act, known as the material cause and the efficient cause respectively. But the
action of an agent tends to something determinate, and that to which it tends is called the end or final cause. Thus
there are four basic types of cause. Each of these can also have subdivisions and various modes of acting(W.
WALLACE, op. cit., p. 101).
6
In the third chapter of the second book of his Physics, Aristotle provides us with the following explanation of the
number and character of the four causes: We aim at understanding, and since we never reckon that we understand a
thing till we can give an account of its how and why, it is clear that we must look into the how and why of things
coming into existence and passing out of it, or more generally into the essential constituents of physical change, in
order to trace back any object of our study to the principles so ascertained.
Well, then (1) the existence of material for the generating process to start from (whether specifically or
generically considered) is one of the essential factors we are looking for. Such is the bronze for the statue, or the
silver for the phial. [Material causes.] Then, naturally, (2) the thing in question cannot be there unless the material
has actually received the form or characteristics of the type, conformity to which brings it within the definition of
thing we say it is, whether specifically or generically. Thus the interval between two notes is not an octave unless
the notes are in the ration of 2 to 1; nor do they stand at a musical interval at all unless they conform to one or other
of the recognized ratios. [Formal causes.] Then again, (3) there must be something to initiate the process of the
change or its cessation when the process is completed, such as the act of a voluntary agent (of the smith, for
instance, [making a bronze statue, as mentioned in Bk. II, Ch. II]), or the father who begets a child; or more
generally the prime, conscious or unconscious, agent that produces the effect and starts the material on its way to the
product, changing it from what it was to what it is to be. [Efficient causes.] And lastly, (4) there is the end or
purpose, for the sake of which the process is initiated, as when a man takes exercise for the sake of his health. Why
does he take exercise? we ask. And the answer Because he thinks it good for his health satisfies us. [Final causes.]
Then there are all the intermediary agents, which are set in motion by the prime agent and make for the goal, as
means to the goal. Such are the reduction to superfluous flesh and purgation, or drugs and surgical instruments, as
means to health. For both actions and tools may be means, or media, through which the efficient cause reaches the
end aimed at. This is a rough classification of the causal determinants of things(ARISTOTLE, Physics, II, 3).
4

done, the final cause, that from which the effect is produced, the material cause; that in which the
effect is produced as constituted in a certain species is the formal cause.7
Material Cause
A material cause8 is anything out of which and of which something is made. It is
characterized as an indeterminate passive potential principle which remains within the effect
(matter playing the role of the receptive subject of the form). In the case of Michelangelo who
sculpted the Piet, for example, the material cause here would be the marble. Describing the
characteristics of material casuality, Alvira, Clavell and Melendo write that the material cause is
a) First of all, a passive potential principle. All four kinds of causes are principles, since the
effect to which they give rise somehow comes from each of them, although it does so in different
ways in each case. The material cause is a passive potency that contains the effect in the way a
potency contains its act, that is, in an imperfect manner as a mere capacity. A block of marble,
for instance, is capable of being given the shape of a statue by the action of a sculptor. This
shape can be said to be educed (put into act) from the potency of the matter (marble) since the
marble itself has the capacity for it.
It is also a principle which remains within the effect. In a way this can be considered as
a consequence of the preceding characteristic. Since it is a passive potency, matter plays the role
of the receptive subject of the form. Like the form itself, the matter remains within the effect as
something intrinsic to it, since both matter and form are constituent principles of the effect. In

K. DOUGHERTY, op. cit., pp. 145-146. The four causes are rendered intelligible by considering causality in
finite beings in the light of the doctrine potency and act. We can consider the effect in itself precisely as effected or
as it receives what it has from another. The effect considered in itself has a formal act of determination which causes
it to be constituted in a certain species such as rational animal.This is the formal cause. Considered as receiving its
being from another, it is necessary that it become from potency to act. This is effected by a being in act. Nothing is
reduced from potency to act unless by a being in act. What is in potency, which received act is called the material
cause and that which reduced the potency into act by acting is called the efficient cause, the agent. But an agent must
tend to something determined. For an agent always seeks what is conformable to it. The thing on account of which
the agent acts is called the final cause. It is a perfection, an actuality, sought by the agent, which is in potency to the
agent.
Let us carefully note the distinct mode of influencing the production of the effect proper to each of the causes: 1.
The efficient cause causes by acting, by reducing the effect from potency into act; 2. The material cause causes by
the power of receiving the action of the efficient cause; 3. The formal cause causes by determining the effect in a
certain species; and 4. The final cause causes by being the terminus of the action of the agent. It influences the effect
by being the determination on account of which the agent acts.
From this study of the different genera of causality it is evident that every cause does not act but only the
efficient cause acts. Here we must rid ourselves of the commonplace notion that causes can only effect by acting.
The influx of causality is not only through action but also reception, determination in a species and determination on
account of which an agent acts(K. DOUGHERTY, op. cit., pp. 146-147).
8
Studies regarding matter and form, material cause and formal cause: I. HUSIK, Matter and Form in Aristotle,
Berlin, 1912 ; J. A. McWILLIAMS, Peripatetic Matter and Form, Thought, 1 (1926), pp. 237-246 ; B.
GERRITY, The Relations Between Matter and Form and the Theory of Knowledge, Catholic University Press,
Washington, D.C., 1936 ; J. GOHEEN, The Problem of Matter and Form in De Ente et Essentia, of Thomas
Aquinas, Cambridge, MA., 1940 ; W. A. VAN ROO, Matter as a Principle of Being, The Modern Schoolman, 19
(1942), pp. 47-50 ; J. PETERS, Matter and Form in Metaphysics, The New Scholasticism, 31 (1957), pp. 447483 ; L. CENCILLO, Hyl. La materia en el corpus aristotelicum, CSIC, Madrid, 1958 ; J. E. BOLZN,
Hilemorfismo y corporalidad, Sapientia, 40 (1985), pp. 25-32.

view of these two characteristics (a potential source and a subject), Aristotle defined the material
cause as that from which, as a constituent, something is generated.9
c) Matter is also indeterminate: this is another distinctive feature of the material cause,
which is also closely related to its being a passive potency. As something potential, matter is
incomplete, indefinite, and open to different possibilities. This indeterminate nature of matter is
removed precisely by the form, which actualizes one of those possibilities. For instance, as long
as a block of marble is still only potentially sculptured, it can receive many different figures and
thus become any of many different statues. It is indeterminate with respect to them. The same
thing is true of wood, which could be made into many different pieces of furniture, or of bronze
which could be cast into a vessel, a bell, or some decorative item.10
There are two types of material cause, namely, prime matter (also called first matter or
materia prima), which has the characteristics of a material cause in the fullest sense, and
secondary matter (also called second matter or materia secunda), which is the substance itself
(i.e., the dog, the cat, the rock), which exercises a material causality over the accidental forms
which it is able to receive. The substance is called materia secunda since it already presupposes
materia prima. a) Prime matter has the features of a material cause in the fullest sense. It is a
subject which remains in every substantial change in which a new substantial form is received. It
is a purely passive potency, in itself devoid of any act or activity. Hence it is eminently imperfect
and unable to exist unless it is actuated by some form which is distinct from it. It is altogether
indeterminate and can, therefore, be a component of any sort of corporeal being: its
configuration will depend on the substantial form it receives. It is a principle or cause of every
corporeal being because, as we have already seen, in order to subsist, non-spiritual forms need
the support of a distinct potency, which is precisely prime matter. The causal character of prime
matter can be clearly seen by observing that creatures can only produce a material effect by
acting upon some material in which that effect somehow pre-exists.
b) Secondary matter is none other than the substance itself, which exercises material
causality with respect to the accidental forms which it is able to receive. In the case of glass,
prime matter is the material cause of its being glass. But the glass itself, as a subsisting reality, is
the material cause of its various accidents, such as color or shape. Substance is called secondary
matter since it already presupposes prime matter.11
Formal Cause
A formal cause12 can be defined as an intrinsic act of perfection by which a thing is
whatever it is, either in the realm of substance or of accidents. In the case of our Piet statue the
formal cause would be the substantial form of the statue and the various accidental forms (i.e.,
shape, size, weight) of Michelangelos masterpiece in St. Peters Basilica. Glenn explains formal
9

ARISTOTLE, Metaphysics, II, ch. 2, 1013a.


T. ALVIRA, L. CLAVELL, T. MELENDO, Metaphysics, Sinag-Tala, Manila, 1991, pp. 194-195.
11
T. ALVIRA, L. CLAVELL, T. MELENDO, op. cit., p. 195.
12
Studies on formal causality: L. DEWAN, Saint Thomas, Metaphysics, and Formal Causality, Laval Thologique
et Philosophique, 36 (1980), pp. 285-316 ; L. DEWAN, Saint Thomas, Metaphysical Procedure, and the Formal
Cause, The New Scholasticism, 63 (1989), pp. 173-182.
10

causality by giving us the example of a crucifix: I notice that a crucifix, for example, has been
given a definite form or shape or image-value. This is a cause, for if the bit of ivory had been
differently shaped it would not be a crucifix, or at least, not the precise crucifix that it is now.
Remember that a cause is what contributes in any manner to the being and the producing of the
effect; and surely the outer form of this cricifix has a lot to do with its being just what it is. Yet
the outer form, the shape, the image, of the crucifix is an accidental thing, not substantial. The
substance of which the crucifix is made would be this same substance if it were differently
carved or shaped. But, as a fact, it is this determinate kind of substance that makes the crucifix,
and no other; there is a substantial determinant (that is, form) of this effect as well as an
accidental one; and any determinant of an effect has the character of cause. Therefore, in this
crucifix, we notice an accidental formal cause (which gives it its shape, image-value); and we
notice a substantial formal cause (which makes it a reality in this substance, and no other). We
must not confuse the material cause with the substantial formal cause in studying this crucifix as
an effect. The material cause is ivory, taken as a finished product, a completed thing, without
reference to anything further. The substantial formal cause is that which makes ivory what it is,
namely, ivory and not some other substance. And we must notice that there are several
accidental determinants about the crucifix as an effect: it has not only a certain shape or imagevalue; it has also a certain size, a certain weight, a certain color, and so on, and all these points
are determinations (that is, determinate facts; things which set or determine reality) of the
crucifix; and if any one of them were different, the crucifix itself would be so far different. So
the crucifix is actually determined in its being as an effect by all of these accidental items or
points of reality; each of them makes a contribution, however slight, to what the crucifix actually
is. Therefore, each of these determinants is an accidental formal cause of the crucifix. Here we
have discerned the formal cause, which is of two kinds, viz., substantial and accidental. The
formal cause is part and parcel with the effect; it is right in the effect. That which makes ivory
ivory is right here in the ivory crucifix and is the substantial formal cause of the crucifix; and that
which makes this crucifix an image with this outline, this weight, this size, this color, etc., is, in
each case, something that affects the cricifix in itself, in its real being and existence. Therefore,
the formal cause, like the material cause, is internal and intrinsic.13
The material cause and formal cause are called intrinsic causes for there is a dependence
of the effect on its intrinsic constituent principles. Material and formal causality are present in all
corporeal beings. By losing both or either of two in a thing makes the thing cease to be what it is.
Matter is in potency which respect to form and form is the act of matter. Matter and form are
causes of the entire substance of a corporeal being. As regards prime matter and substantial form,
the form is the cause of matter insofar as it gives it a specific organization and confers being on it
(form gives the composite esse by which both prime matter and substantial form subsist),
whereas matter does not give being to the form but only supports it. Prime matter exists for the
sake of the substantial form (but not the other way around), while, on the contrary, accidental
forms exist for the sake of the perfection of the substance, which is secondary matter.
Material and Formal Causes as Mutual Causes of Corporeal Beings
Explaining the relationship between material and formal causes as mutual causes of
corporeal beings, Alvira, Clavell, and Melendo write: Matter and form are causes of a
13

P. GLENN, Ontology, B. Herder, St. Louis, 1957, pp. 294-296.

corporeal substance. The strict dependence of a bodily substance on its intrinsic principles
makes it clear that matter and form are causes of the entire substance of a corporeal being.
A corporeal being depends on its prime matter and on its substantial form for its act of
being and for the specific degree in which its has the act of being. Consequently, if either matter
or form is removed, the thing ceases to be, and if there is a change of substantial form, it
becomes another type of substance. It is evident, for instance, that no animal can subsist without
a body and that it ceases to be what it is when it loses its substantial form
Matter and form are mutual causes. Just as a being cannot subsist without its intrinsic
components, the matter and the substantial form of bodily substances cannot exist separated from
one another. Their causality is mutual. Matter is said to be the cause of the form in so far as the
form is not, except in matter. Similarly, form is the cause of matter insofar as matter does not
have any actuality except through the form.14 Hence, in a certain way, matter is the cause of the
form, and form is the cause of matter, although their respective causal roles are distinct:
a) In the case of prime matter and substantial form, the form is the cause of matter
insofar as it gives it a specific organization and confers being on it, that it, insofar as it gives the
composite the act of being by which both matter and the form subsist. Matter, in contrast, does
not give being to the form, but only supports it. In material material substances, the form, due to
its imperfection, cannot participate in the act of being unless it is received by some matter. It is
from this point of view that matter makes the form come to be, and thus, causes it.
Because of their diverse roles in constituting being, it must be said that matter is by the
form and for the sake of the form, and not the other way around.15 This also helps us to see why
spiritual forms, which are more perfect than bodily forms, can exist without being received in
matter (angels) or independently of the matter which they inform (human souls). Since it is
through the form that matter receives determinate and actual being (i.e., restricted to a specific
manner of being), and not the other way around, there is nothing that prevents certain forms from
receiving esse in themselves and not in a subject distinct from them. For a cause does not depend
upon the effect, but the other way around.16
b) The reciprocal causal roles of substance and accidental forms have certain
characteristics analogous to those of prime matter and substantial form. In both cases, the form is
an act and makes its respective matter actual. But whereas the substantial form makes something
to be in an absolute sense, and has as its subject pure potency, the accidental form does not make
something to be absolutely, but only to be such and such, that is, in a secondary manner (e.g.,
have a quantity, a quality), because its subject is already an actual being (the substance).
Furthermore, accidents are through the act of being of the substance, even though they confer
new modifications on it.
14

De principiis naturae, ch. 1.


Since matter receives its being from the form, it is impossible for it to be without the form. If this dependence on
the form were ignored, one would speak of an esse of matter distinct from the esse of the form. This led Scotus and
Ockham to affirm that God can create matter without form (Cf. Scotus, Opus Oxoniense, II, d. 12, q. 1, n. 1;
Ockham, Summulae in lib. Physic.,I, ch. 17). Suarez maintainted the same idea (Cf. Disp. Metaph., XV, sect. 9, n.
3).
16
De Substantiis separatis, ch. 8.
15

Consequently, since that which is less primary exists for the sake of that which is more
primary, matter (that is, prime matter) therefore exists for the sake of the substantial form, while
on the contrary, the accidental form exists for the sake of the perfection of the subject (secondary
matter).1718
Efficient Cause
An efficient or agent cause19 is the primary principle or origin of an action which makes
something simply to be, or to be in a certain way. The efficient cause in the example of
Michelangelo sculpting the Piet would be Michelangelo himself. Alvira, Clavell and Melendo
explain that the intrinsic causes found in corporeal creatures require the action of an external
agent. Since matter and form are two distinct principles by themselves, they cannot bring about
the formation of a thing; they need an external cause that has to put them together. Besides,
experience shows that a corporeal being only acquires a new substantial or accidental form by
virtue of an actual extrinsic principle whose precise role is to make matter acquire a new form.
From this point of view, the efficient cause is by nature prior to the material and formal
causes. The latter cannot exert their causal influence on one another without the prior influence
of the efficient cause. Therefore, the study of matter and form alone is not sufficient; it should
naturally lead to a consideration of the efficient cause.20
In corporeal beings, the efficient cause always acts by altering some (secondary) matter
so as to educe a new form from it. Hence, it can also be called a moving cause (causa movens).
The efficient cause is the cause of the causality of matter and form, since by its motion or
movement it makes the matter receive the form, and makes the form inhere in matter.21 In the
case of created causes, the agent always requires a potency upon which it exerts its activity, or, in
other words, a subject on which it acts in order to obtain a new effect. God alone causes without
any need for a pre-existing reality, since He produces the totality of the effect.22

17

Summa Theologiae, I, q. 77, a. 6, c.


T. ALVIRA, L. CLAVELL, T. MELENDO, op. cit., pp. 198-200.
19
Studies on efficient causality: O. LA PLANTE, The Traditional View of Efficient Causality, Proceedings of the
American Catholic Philosophical Association, 14 (1938), pp. 1-12 ; F. X. MEEHAN, Efficient Causality in
Aristotle and St. Thomas, Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1940 ; R. O. JOHANN,
Comment on Secondary Causality, The Modern Schoolman, 1947-1948, pp. 19-25 ; T. M. FLANIGAN,
Secondary Efficient Causality in the Summa contra Gentiles, The Modern Schoolman, 36 (1958), pp. 31-39 ; .
GILSON, Avicenne et les origines de la notion de cause efficiente, in Atti del XII Congresso internazionale di
filosofia, vol. 9, pp. 121-130 ; . GILSON, Pour lhistoire de la cause efficiente, AHLDMA, 1962, pp. 7-31 ; C.
FABRO, La difesa critica del principio di causa, in C. Fabro, Esegesi Tomistica, Libreria Ed. della Pontificia
Universit Lateranense, Rome, 1969, pp. 1-48 ; M. L. COLISH, Avicennas Theory of Efficient Causation and Its
Influence on St. Thomas Aquinas, in Atti del Congresso internazionale (I): Tommaso dAquino nel suo settimo
centenario, 1974, pp. 296-306 ; R. LAUER, The Notion of the Efficient Cause in the Secunda Via, The Thomist,
38 (1974), pp. 754-767 ; T. D. HUMBRECHT, Note sur la cause efficiente et lonto-thologie, Revue Thomiste,
105 (2005), pp. 5-24.
20
T. ALVIRA, L. CLAVELL, T. MELENDO, op. cit., p. 201.
21
In V Metaphysicorum, lect. 3.
22
T. ALVIRA, L. CLAVELL, T. MELENDO, op. cit., pp. 201-202.
18

Final Cause
The final cause23 is defined as that for the sake of which something is done, that is, that
which determines the agent to act or the goal towards which it tends through its operations. The
term final comes from the Latin noun finis,24 meaning end, and the Latin adjective finalis,
meaning having reference or relation to an end. End here means the end in view, goal, purpose
or aim. A final cause, which is an extrinsic cause, is an end to be achieved which moves the
efficient cause to act to achieve it. That which makes the production of an effect desirable is the
final cause of that effect.

23
Studies on final causality: P. JANET, Les causes finales, Paris, 1882 ; P. JANET, Final Causes, Scribners, New
York, 1892 ; E. A. PACE, The Teleology of St. Thomas, The New Scholasticism, (1927), pp. 213-231 ; R.
GARRIGOU-LAGRANGE, Le Ralisme du Principe de Finalit, Descle, Paris, 1932 ; C. HOLLENCAMP, Causa
Causarum, Laval Thologique et Philosophique, 4 (1948), pp. 77-109; 311-328 ; R. COLLINS, Finality and
Being, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 23 (1949), pp. 36-46 ; A. MAIER, Das
Problem der Finalkausalitt um 1320, in Metaphysische Hintergrnde der Sptscholastischen Naturphilosophie,
Rome, 1955, pp. 273-299 ; J. WARREN, Nature and Purpose, The New Scholasticism, 31 (1957), pp. 364-397 ;
G. P. KLUBERTANZ, St. Thomas Treatment of the Axiom Omne Agens Agit Propter Finem, in An Etienne
Gilson Tribute, edited by C. J. ONeil, Bruce, Milwaukee, 1959, pp. 101-117 ; J. M. RIST, Some Aspects of
Aristotelian Teleology, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 96 (1965), pp.
337-349 ; J. OWENS, Teleology of Nature in Aristotle, The Monist, 52 (1968), pp. 159-173 ; A. GOTTHELF,
Aristotles Conception of Final Causality, Review of Metaphysics, 30 (1976), pp. 226-254 ; A. WOODFIELD,
Teleology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1976 ; R. ALVIRA, La nocin de finalidad, EUNSA,
Pamplona, 1978 ; G. VICENTE BURGOA, Omne agens agit propter finem. El principio de finalidad en Santo
Toms de Aquino, in Atti del VIII Congresso tomistico internazionale (V), Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City,
1982, pp. 329-341 ; G. LEIBOLD, Zum Problem der Finalitt bei Wilhelm von Ockham, Philosophisches
Jahrbuch, 89 (1982), pp. 347-383 ; S. F. BROWN, Ockham and Final Causality, in Studies in Medieval
Philosophy, edited by J. F. Wippel, Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1987, pp. 249-272 ; D.
GALLOP, Aristotle on Sleep, Dreams, and Final Causes, Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient
Philosophy, 4 (1988), pp. 257-290 ; A. GOTTHELF, The Place of the Good in Aristotles Natural Teleology,
Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy, 4 (1988), pp. 113-139 ; F. A. LEWIS,
Teleology and Material/Efficient Causes in Aristotle, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 69 (1988), pp. 54-98 ; A.
GOTTHELF, Teleology and Spontaneous Generation in Aristotle: A Discussion, Apeiron, 22 (1989), pp. 181-193
; H. S. LANG, Aristotelian Physics: Teleological Procedure in Aristotle, Thomas, and Buridan, Review of
Metaphysics, 42 (1989), pp. 569-591 ; D. SEDLEY, Is Aristotles Teleology Anthropocentric?, Phronesis, 36
(1991), pp. 179-196 ; M. OSLER, The Reinterpretation of Final Causes in Seventeenth-Century Natural Philosophy,
The Monist, 79 (1996), pp. 388-407 ; R. F. HASSING (ed.), Final Causality in Nature and Human Affairs,
Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1997 ; D. GARRETT, Teleology in Spinoza and Early
Modern Rationalism, in New Essays on the Rationalists, edited by R. J. Gennaro and C. Huenemann, Oxford
University Press, Oxford, 1999 ; M. ADAMS, Final Causality and Explanation in Scotuss De Primo Principio, in
Nature in Medieval Thought, edited by C. Koyama, Brill, Leiden, 2000 ; R. M. AUGROS, Nature Acts for an End,
The Thomist, 66 (2002), pp. 535-575 ; C. F. J. MARTIN, Aristotle and Aquinas on the Teleology of Parts and
Wholes, Tpicos, 27 (2004), pp. 61-72 ; J. CARRIERO, Spinoza on Final Causality, in Oxford Studies in Early
Modern Philosophy, vol. 2, edited by D. Garber and S. Nadler, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, pp. 105-147
; M. R. JOHNSON, Aristotle on Teleology, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2005 ; L. CARLIN, Leibniz on Final
Causes, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 44.2 (2006), pp. 217-233.
24
Finis in Greek is telos and so we say that the science of final causes is called teleology, and any explanation or
argument which looks at something with reference to its end, purpose or goal is called teleological. The Fifth Way
(Quinta via) a posteriori demonstration of the existence of God has been called the teleological argument.

Cause of the Causes (Causa Causarum)


The final cause is called the cause of the causes (causa causarum) for it is the end
which draws the efficient or agent cause into action, sets the goal, indicates suitable instrumental
and exemplar causes to aid the efficient or agent cause in its work, and brings the agent subject
to the task of utilizing the material cause and in the determination of the formal cause of the
effect. St. Thomas writes that the first cause of all causes is the final cause. The reason is that
matter does not get its form unless it is moved by the agent, for nothing reduces itself from
potency to act. But the agent does not move except for the sake of the end.25 The final cause is a
true cause for it exercises a positive (though mediate) influence over the being of a thing, moving
the agent to act. The final cause does not exercise its causality in the way the efficient or agent
cause does, for the latter operates through physical influence in the order of execution, while the
former operates through a moral influence in the intentional order. Explaining how the end is the
cause of the other causes, the cause of the causes (causa causarum), Alvira, Clavell, and
Melendo write: The end is the first of the four causes, or the necessary prerequisite for the other
types of causality. As we have already seen, the end is the cause of the causality of the agent,
since it enables the latter to produce its effect. Similarly, it makes matter a material cause and
form a formal cause, since matter does not receive the form except for the sake of the end (i.e.,
so as to produce a new being or a new accidental perfection), and form affects matter for the
same purpose. This explains why the end is called the cause of the causes (causa causarum), for
it is the cause of the causality of all causes.26 If, for instance, an architect decides to build a
house (final cause), it is by virtue of this motive that he begins to act (efficient causality) and
makes a design of the new construction (formal cause), and in view of the structure of the
building he chooses certain materials (material cause). Houses are not a protection against bad
weather because they have walls and a roof. Rather, they have walls and a roof in order to give
protection from heat and cold. The same thing is true in natural affairs and phenomena. Human
bones, for instance, do not support the body because they happen to be solid; rather, bones are
solid precisely because they are meant to support the body.
Even though the end is what is reached last in the accomplished effect, it is what causes
first in the order of intention. Thus, it is usually said that the end is what is last in execution and
first in intention. Nothing will begin to act unless it is inclined towards the end either by its own
natural form (through its appetite or desire) or by an intellectual apprehension of the end. This
inclination becomes actualized and attains its goal, however, only after the efficient cause has
acted and the material and formal causes (as the case may require) have played their respective
roles. A person will not begin his studies unless he is moved by the natural desire to know and
secure for himself a decent living (first in intention). The result of this activity, namely, scientific
knowledge, is attained only after several years of study (last in execution).27
Two Internal and Two External Causes
The material cause and formal cause are called internal causes for they enter into the
constitution of the effect as co-principles from which and in which the effect is produced. The
25

Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 1, a. 2.


ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, De principiis naturae, ch. 4.
27
T. ALVIRA, L. CLAVELL, T. MELENDO, op. cit., pp. 228-229.
26

efficient cause and the final cause, on the other hand, are called external causes for they remain
outside the thing produced.
The Interconnection Between Causes
To conclude our brief treatment of the four causes, we say that the matter from which
something is made is a cause (the material cause), the intrinsic form of the thing actualizing the
matter is a cause (the formal cause), the principle which draws out the form from matter is a
cause (the efficient cause), and, finally, the goal towards which the agent tends is also a cause
(the final cause). The four causes are intimately interconnected with one another: the end moves
the agent, the agent educes the form, and the form actualizes the matter.28 The four causes
should not be conceived as juxtaposed or separated elements; they produce their causality in
keeping with a definite order which can be briefly summarized as follows: a) With respect to
extrinsic causes, the agent is the cause of the end from the point of view of its fulfilment or
acquisition, since the end is attained through the operations of the agent. The efficient cause does
not, however, cause the end to be an end, nor does it cause the causality of the end. As we have
already seen, the reason behind the desirability of the end is its own goodness, or the fact that it
is a perfection. Therefore the agent does not cause the end to be an end (to be good); it only
brings about the attainment of the goodness which the end presupposes. In this sense, the agent is
moved by the end (it is a moved mover: movens motum) whereas the end is not moved by
anything (within its genus, it is an unmoved mover: movens immobile); b) With respect to
intrinsic causes, form and matter, as we have already seen, are reciprocal causes as regards
being. The form actualizes matter and gives it the act of being, and matter supports the form as
potency supports the act; c) Extrinsic causes are causes of intrinsic causes. Matter and form
(intrinsic causes) do not form a composition without the action of an agent, which, in turn, does
not act unless it intends an end (extrinsic causes).
This mutual relationship among the causes is of great importance in the sphere of the
spiritual life. The governing role of the final cause is a sign of the pre-eminence of the will
(whose own object is the good as such) with regard to various human faculties. Besides, in the
sphere of efficient causality, the free will is the most perfect cause, since it possesses a certain
mastery over the end. Precisely for this reason, it can be said that spiritual beings alone are not

28

Aquinas explains that the efficient cause is related to the final cause, and the material cause is related to the
formal cause. The efficient cause is related to the final cause because the efficient cause is the starting point of
motion and the final cause is its terminus. There is a similar relationship between matter and form. For form gives
being, and matter receives it. Hence the efficient cause is the cause of the final cause, and the final cause is the cause
of the efficient cause. The efficient cause is the cause of the final cause inasmuch as it makes the final cause be,
because by causing motion the efficient cause brings about the final cause. But the final cause is the cause of the
efficient cause, not in the sense that it makes it be, but inasmuch as it is the reason for the causality of the efficient
cause. For an efficient cause is a cause inasmuch as it acts, and it acts only because of the final cause. And form and
matter are mutual causes of being: form is a cause of matter inasmuch as it gives actual being to matter, and matter
is a cause of form inasmuch as it supports form in being. And I say that both of these together are causes of being
either in an unqualified sense or with some qualification. For substantial form gives being absolutely to matter,
whereas accidental form, inasmuch as it is a form, gives being in a qualified sense. And matter sometimes does not
support a form in being in an unqualified sense but according as it is the form of a particular thing and has being in
this particular thing. This is what happens in the case of the human body in relation to the rational soul(In V
Metaphysc., lect. 2, Cathala no. 775).

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moved by others but rather move themselves, since they are agents in the strictest sense of the
term.
Since the end is the cause of order, it is obvious that a deviation from the pre-ordained
end subverts the link that binds the causes, hampering the proper exercise of causality. Failure to
attain the end is the absolute failure of the causal process. Consequently, the causal power God
has given to man suffers in its entirety and becomes sterile as a result of sin, which is a disorder
with respect to the last end.29
Regarding the coordination and subordination of the causes, Kenneth Dougherty states:
Final and efficient, formal and material causality are coordinated and subordinated in the order
of nature. The final cause is the cause of causes to which all other causes are subordinated. On
account of it the agent acts to produce the form, which as a material form is educed from the
passive potency of matter. The agent, however, subordinates the end to itself as it causes the end.
The agent produces the end, giving it being. For example: a work of art, which is the end of an
artists labor, is produced by his action as an agent. The end causes the agent to act not by
producing the action which is by the agent but as the goal to which the action is determined. The
end is the reason why the agent acts, that for the sake of which the action is done.
The four causes are not in the same genus. Each must be considered according to its
proper mode of causality. Reciprocal causes cannot be in the same genus. Two efficient causes
cannot be causes of one another in the same respect. The father causes the son but the son cannot
cause the father. If they were causes of one another, each would have all the conditions required
to cause and would thereby lack the conditions required to be effected.
In different genera of causality, reciprocal causality can take place. The final cause
causes the efficient cause to act and the efficient cause causes the final cause to be achieved, if it
is achieved at all. For example: wages cause a man to work and work causes the wages to be
achieved. So too the material cause causes the form as the form is sustained by the material cause
and the form causes the matter by determining it in a species as the matter of man. The form
causes the matter by actuating it.30
Regarding the mutual causation of causes, Henri Grenier writes: Causes are causes of
each other in different genera, not in the same genus of causality. But yet this axiom cannot be
verified in all combinations of causes.
Efficient cause and final cause are causes of each other: efficient cause is dependent on
final cause for its causality, because an agent acts only for an end. The end or final cause is
dependent on efficient cause for the attainment of its being, because an agent acts for the
realization of an end.
Similarly, matter and form are causes of each other as regards their being: form is the
cause of matter in as much as it gives matter its actual existence; and matter is the cause of form

29
30

T. ALVIRA, L. CLAVELL, T. MELENDO, op. cit., pp. 230-231.


K. DOUGHERTY, op. cit., pp. 166-167.

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in as much as it sustains form. But material cause and efficient cause are not causes of each
other, nor are formal cause and final cause causes of each other.31
Regarding the order of the four causes, Grenier explains that 1. The first place must be
assigned to final cause, which is called the cause of causes, i.e., the cause of the other three
causes. The other causes receive their causality from final cause: the efficient cause acts only for
an end; and it is in dependence upon the action of the efficient cause that the formal cause (form)
perfects the material cause (matter), and that matter supports form ; 2. The second place belongs
to efficient cause. Without the influx or causation of efficient cause, matter would not be
actuated by form, nor would form be sustained in matter ; 3. Form, i.e., formal cause, holds the
third place, for it better corresponds to final cause and efficient cause than does matter, i.e.,
material cause ; and 4. In the last place comes matter, material cause.32
As to the order of perfection of cause and effect, Grenier states: A cause, considered as
exercising its causality, is always more perfect than its effect. It is more perfect to give than to
receive. But a cause always gives something to its effect, and receives nothing in return.
Therefore, a cause is more perfect than its effect.
2. Not every cause is more perfect in entity, i.e., in nature, than its effect: a) Matter and
form are in nature less perfect than their effect, which is the compound: for the composite reality
is a whole of which matter and form are the parts ; b) The principal efficient cause is not always
more perfect than its effect: if it is a univocal cause, it is equal to its effect in perfection; if it is
an analogous cause, it is more perfect than its effect. The instrumental cause is not necessarily as
perfect as its effect: it can be equal to its effect in perfection, or it can be less perfect than its
effect ; c) Final cause, considered as the objective end of the work, is always more perfect than
that of which it is the end, because it is naturally related to the appetite, as act, i.e., perfection, to
potency. Final cause, considered as the end of the agent, can be less perfect than that of which it
is the end, for, if the desire of the agent is inordinate, i.e., sinful, the agent tends to something
which is imperfect. Similarly, the end, considered as an effect, can be less perfect than its
efficient cause, because the effect is not of a higher order than its efficient cause.33

31

H. GRENIER, Thomistic Philosophy, vol. 3 (Metaphysics), St. Dunstans University, Charlottetown, Canada,
1950, pp. 249-250.
32
H. GRENIER, op. cit., p. 250.
33
H. GRENIER, op. cit., pp. 250-251.

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