Back to Nature in Aquinas
Twetten, David B. (Marquette University)
Medieval Philosophy and Theology, vol. 5, no. 2 (1996)
Perhaps the most famous achievement of Thomas Aquinas lies in his robust conception of nature and the natural world in the face of an uncompromising theology of grace and divine operation. As is well known, the Aristotelian conception of nature enables Aquinas to steer clear of both occasionalism and naturalism and to affirm the reality of secondary causes in the natural world. Nevertheless, is nature itself to be understood as a secondary cause of cosmic events? A recent and prevalent answer is that Aquinas correctly understood that nature in Aristotle is not an efficient cause but a spontaneous source of regular, ‘agentless’ or ’causeless’ changes in the mineral, vegetative, and animal world.
This position, in my view, remains an important corrective for those who see in all Aristotelian physics an animism or biologism. Still, the position as regards Aquinas veers too close to naturalism by failing to explain how all natural events, for him, are dependent on a cause of motion. Only a return to Aquinas’s conception of nature itself will reveal this causal dependence.