Four Causes, Four Pillars

A Fullness of Description

“How can we know Love.” “Let me count the ways.”

(ST. ALBERT THE GREAT PRIORY – Irving) If you want to give someone a complete description of something, what kind of information do you need to provide? You would want to make sure you explained what it was for, right? But is that enough? If you say, “This thing is used to hold other things,” have you fully explained it? You could be talking about a basket, a hook, a drawer, a cupboard, a wallet, a bowl, etc.

What if you simply described its shape. “This thing is roughly a square, with an empty area, it has wheels and a sort of handle that you use to direct it.” Ok, that could be a shopping cart, a rolling suitcase, a car, or a wagon. Or maybe something else.

What if you wanted to emphasize what it is made out of? You could say, “This thing is made of metal.” But, why metal and not some other material. Does it matter if it is wood or sugar or ice or reeds or plastic? Maybe, maybe not.

What if you explained that it was made by a line worker at the local factory? Is that important? Does it matter where it was made? What if you need to make one? Do you need to understand how it was made?

The Four Causes:
The notion of Four Causes arises from Aristotle’s efforts to explain change, which is part of a different topic involving Act and Potency, and which we need not explore at present. But, as Aristotle worked out how to account for change, he developed these Four Causes. Please note, he uses the term “cause” in a broader sense than most of us do today. We can gain some insight by using the term “explanations” or “descriptions” along with “causes.” You can also think of “cause” as that which answers the question, “Why?” or “How?”

I described these four causes in the beginning of this article though I did not designate them as such. They are, Formal (loosely, what is it’s shape, what form does it take), Material (what is it made of), Efficient (how it came to actually exist), and Final (why it was made, what it does.)

N.B. The formal cause is easily overlooked because it seems obvious. If you want to carry things, you obviously need something shaped in a way that will carry them. Also we are not used to thinking of a shape as a cause. Yet, when we describe something, its form is part of a complete description.

The object I have in mind is in fact a shopping cart. I want an actual thing that is well made for holding things and moving them about easily, and which can do so over and over again reliably. This is the Final Cause. This is why it is in the shape of a lidless box with wheels, the Formal Cause. To be reusable and sturdy it is to be made of steel and rubber, the Material Cause. And then in some manner it needs to come into existence, which is the Efficient Cause.

You may have noted that I began my description of this thing with its Final Cause. That’s because when someone is going to make something, they start with an end in mind. There is a Greek word, “telos”, which means “end”, “purpose”, or “goal”. The study of ultimate ends is called teleology.

The end of something just is the reason it was made. So, when you need to make something, you start at the end, that is to say, you have in mind, before you start, the purpose of the device, the goal you mean to achieve by making this thing. You have in mind what the final product of your efforts will be.

This end or final cause then leads to the formal cause. We have to figure out how best to carry a large amount of products and move them about easily. The final cause next determines what material cause is needed in order to have something sturdy, reliable and reusable. And then we need the efficient cause, we have to figure out how to make it, or hire someone to make it for us, so that we can in fact have it.

Consideration of things in the context of the Four Causes is a very useful way to explore the world. Why was this made? Why was it made in this shape? Why was it made from these materials? How did it come to be made? Because I am a Lay Dominican I am driven to apply this Aristotelian/Thomistic world view to, well, almost everything. And so why not apply to Dominican Spirituality?

The Four Pillars:
Dominican Spirituality is best described by the Four Pillars. They are Prayer, Study, Preaching, and Community. We have a framework here that can be set in terms of the Four Causes. Dominican Spirituality has as its goal The Beatific Vision, Communion with God. This is a precise way of saying “salvation.”

The Formal Cause is Prayer. It is what Communion looks like. In order to commune with God we have to communicate with God. Seem obvious? Remember, I said the formal cause is easy to overlook because it seems obvious. Prayer is the shape of Dominican Spirituality.

The Material Cause is Study. Can you truly commune with (love) someone you don’t know? We study and contemplate what we have studied so that we can more fully know God that we may more perfectly love God. Study is the raw material of Dominican Spirituality.

The Efficient Cause is Preaching. We take our prayer and our study and we bring forward the fruits of our contemplation to build up our Community, both Dominican and our extended community, the family of man. Preaching is how we make Dominican Spirituality.

The Final Cause is Community. Communion with God and Man. Our Dominican Community prepares us for Communion with God. It is the proper goal of all legitimate spiritualities. Union with God is the End or Purpose of Dominican Spirituality.

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