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Analysis of the moral act. A proposal

I.c) Essentialist Scholasticism

Although, as we have said, philosophers in the West posterior to the appearance of Aristotle were required to retract a series of commonly admitted theses, this does not imply the change of mentality which the new contributions appeared to require. In order for this forma mentis to have changed, the basic approach which provoked the Augustinian theses, that is, the equality of properties between the forms of things and Platonic Ideas, would have had to become a theme of widely extended discussion. For this reason, adoption as a working hypothesis of the following thesis appears to be justified, and we will develop it further below: the essentialism of Late Scholasticism is the reappearance of Platonic-Augustinian inspiration within a philosophical context which has accepted Aristotelian reasonings about movement, potency and act.

The role played by St. Thomas' conciliatory spirit must be recognized among the reasons for this return to philosophical schemes anterior to the introduction of Aristotle in the West. He was a profoundly Aristotelian philosopher (suffice it to observe the quantity of citations of Aristotle in his works). Unlike Aristotle, however, he was profoundly conciliatory rather than polemical; and he allowed himself a multitude of ways for stating owned by medieval Augustinianism, to the extent that his positions could come to be confused with those of the Augustinianism that surrounded him if one did not sharpen attention to details. Although he categorically rejected many Augustinian approaches, on other occasions he accepted the formulations which the philosophers of his epoch gave to problems. These formulations were capable of being misinterpreted, but he did not consider their rejection necessary for the mere fact that they could be easily interpreted along platonizing lines: there were quite a few themes of authentic magnitude to be solved, as to add others of less immediate importance. And this conciliatory spirit provoked posterior misunderstandings. The condemnation of Thomistic theses by Etienne Tempier also contributed decisively to the survival of the Augustinian mentality (7).

How could Aristotelianism have found itself influenced by the Augustinian mentality, giving rise to what we now know as essentialism? How could two such contrary positions have been wed? Although it would be subject for a more detailed investigation, we can sketch the following explanation: once the approach of the rationes seminales was overthrown, essentialism found a place for the Platonic scheme within the Aristotelian description of movement. It accepted that potency exists and that it is distinct from the act that it could become -because of the action of the efficient cause-. But at the same time it affirmed that if it could be considered that there is a potency, this is because theessence of the potency, its "something", is being considered. Thus potency, although it can receive an act, no longer is simply pure potency (8). If it were pure potency it would have no "something", it would not even be thinkable, and, nevertheless, we are considering it right now. The approach's conclusion is that it becomes necessary to accept that pure potency, including primary matter, is not pure potency, but rather a kind of act, given that it has "something". This something, in the case of potency, is so weak that it can only be described as "the capacity to receive an act". This "capacity to receive an act" is the expression of my thought; thus even primary matter possesses an essence or quidditas.

Within this perspective, being potency and being act continue to satisfy Aristotelian conditions: potency receives the act and is actualized by it. But the meaning of this sentence is distinct from the Aristotelian-Thomistic meaning. Suffice it to observe that for an Aristotelian, what possesses an essence, a "something", is being (9), whereas essentialism erroneously shifts to the constitutive principles of being what is valid solely for the complete being. This position, seen from an Aristotelian perspective, means to say that being is a composite of beings in act.

Nevertheless this criticism is superficial, because it does not permit us to discover why essentialism gives this so peculiar interpretation of act, of potency, and of movement: in order to attain a complete explanation it is necessary to return to the mentality which culminated in producing strange theses for St. Thomas' philosophy.

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