St. Thomas and transcendence

(This is a section from a larger piece. Upper case “X’s” are references to page numbers not given, and for a few pictures that I didn’t upload of a.) a Big Wheel kids toy b.) the water cycle. Don’t have time to put block quotes in proper format)

A Formal Definition of Transcendence

Transcendere means more than one thing for St. Thomas. On the level closest to sense, it seems to mean only “to go beyond” or “to exceed”, hence he will say that a vice involves a man desiring to transcendere the rule of reason.[1] In this sense, one “transcends” physical objects simply by waking past them. We here mean by “to transcend” a different way of “going beyond”, or “exceeding”. We have already seen one example of the sort of transcendence we are interested in, namely, the way in which imagination transcends the exterior sense powers.[2] But other examples of this same sort of transcendence can be given. For example, the various kinds of friendship that Aristotle divides in his Nichomachean Ethics are forms having an order of transcendence.[3] The lowest forms of friendship Aristotle speaks of are the friendships of utility and pleasure; and the fullest sense of friendship is a friendship of virtue. But we are certainly not to assume that the friendship of virtuous men is unpleasant or without utility, on the contrary, virtue is more pleasant and more beneficial to human life than mere pleasure seeking or utility. The friendship of virtue, therefore, contains within itself all the perfections of the lower forms of friendship, but in a higher and more perfect way, and thus the higher friendship transcends the lower ones. A similar observation can be made about the rational soul, which possesses in its unity all the degrees of perfection contained by lower forms of life. While the friendship of virtue and the rational soul are transcendent in the formal order, there is also a transcendence in the instrumental order between the human hand and all other tools.  Consider the way in which the hand relates to instruments like hammers, scalpels, cars, pianos, and word processors. Notice that the whole existence and raison d’être of the latter depends on the hand, but that the opposite is not the case. Thus, within the genus of instrumental causes, we can distinguish higher and lower orders of existence: many of the things we use (needles, pliers, keyboards) depend in their very existence on a single thing that we use (the hand).  The hand thus transcends all instruments.

Notice that in all the above examples, one transcendent thing possesses the perfections of multiple inferior things in a more eminent way. The imagination possesses all the perfections of the various senses, but integrated into a single representation of the world and with an ability to work and manipulate the images that the external senses do not have; the hand possesses the power to use all other instruments, in such a way that the other instruments have no reason to exist apart from it; and the friendship of virtue possesses all the perfections of the inferior forms of friendship in a more perfect way. Note carefully that this transcendence includes more than simply one thing somehow giving rise to a multitude: for petroleum is a single thing that can give rise to fuels, plastics, lubricants, and cloth, but we do not say that petroleum transcends these things. This way of containing or possessing many possibilities is of the material order, and is thus characterized by a subordination that is contrary to transcendence. For the same reason, we do not say that a father transcends his children, even though he is one being with the power to generate many offspring. Thus, to be a unity that causes or gives rise to many is only the material principle of transcendence. The formal principle is the perfection a higher order possessing the perfections of a lower order in a more eminent and unified way.

Thus, we will define transcendence formally (but provisionally) as the more eminent and unified possession, by act, of inferior acts. We say that this definition is, for the moment provisional since at the heart of this definition is the concept of act, and we have not yet explained the notion of how act related to transcendence. Moreover, in using this term act we follow the Aristoteian-Thomistic usage of the term, which a specialized usage that differs from how the term act is used by the multitude. We will thus turn to a consideration of act in this specialized sense, seeking to understand it so far as it is relevant to understanding transcendence.

4.1.1 Act as Transcendent

Act is a noun that means both (1) something done or made (like “an act of Parliament”), and (2.) a process of doing or making something. In a noun phrase like “the acts of the Apostles” or “the acts of Congress” the term act can have both meanings, since these phrases can either describe either the terminus of the action (like a written law) or the progressive act that gives rise to the terminus (the act of legislating, healing, preaching, etc.). Now in everyday English, not every end product is called some act. For example, even though one can call a written law an act of the legislature, he cannot call a pair of shoes the act of a cobbler, or a cake the act of its ingredients. But in order to understand how St. Thomas uses his Latin term actus, we must universalize the term beyond its extension in everyday usage so that we can call any end product an act. This insistence on the double meaning of act is present in the very first text which imposes this special, technical sense of the term act which we are considering here, sc. Metaphysics Book IX: (we will put the example of act in bold)

“[ act is as ] (1.) that as that which is actually building is to that which is capable of building… (2)  that which is awake to that which is asleep; and (3.) that which is seeing to that which has the eyes shut, but has the power of sight; and (4.) that which is differentiated out of matter to the matter; and (5.) the finished article to the raw material. [4]

Notice that Aristotle’s examples 1-3 are all of actions (though the first and third in the clearest way); and his last two examples are the end-products of action. Clearly, Aristotle wants a concept that has the precise ambiguity of the English term act, even though English does not make this ambiguity universal by speaking of every end-product as an act. By making a concept that has precisely this universal ambiguity of being said of any end-product and action, we make the sense of act that occurs in Thomistic thought.

But if act as we are considering it here means both an end product and an action, then the fullest sense of act will be those actions that are themselves ends. The fullest sense of act, therefore, is verified in the immanent acts of sensing, living, and knowing- the sorts of acts that are the second and third examples of acts that Aristotle gives above. Transitive actions: making a cake or a building, etc. are acts in a less perfect way. While immanent act is both end product and action simultaneously in itself, transitive action is forever alienated from the end product in the sense that transitive action ceases at the moment the end product comes to be. Baking ends when the cake is done. Thus the very notion of act yields the following axiom: the higher act possesses, in a more unified way, what is diverse in a lower act. It is crucial to notice this because it establishes that transcendence is not, as it were, a derivative or tertiary property of act, but is present in the very notion of act from the beginning. Act is immediately and essentially transcendent, so far as the very concept we have of act has its unity from the order of transcendence that obtains between immanent and transitive act.[5] In fact, the order of transcendence is so essential to act that it not only explains the unity of the concept, it also provides an order to the parts of the concept. This is clearest in the parts of immanent act: life and knowledge. We can distinguish life from knowledge by observing the difference between plants and animals, and yet there is a clear order of transcendence between these things, since sensation is a unified immanent act that contains all that belongs to the living qua living, and an additional immanence besides. There is also an order of transcendence in transitive act. Since transitive act is opposed to being acted upon by another, it is more perfect in the measure that the agent acts by itself, and not by depending on another. But it is clear that many agents- namely instruments- both act and are acted upon, and that the transitive act they produce is therefore composite and diverse. By contrast, the principal agent that uses the instrument has a comparatively more unified act. Considered precisely as acts, a principle agent has the perfection of the instrument in a higher and more unified way, and thus transcends it.[6]

.           It therefore follows that transcendence is immediate and essential to act, both as such, and in all of its subjective parts. The very unity of the concept of act arises from the order between immanent and transitive act, which is an order of transcendence; and the essential divisions of both immanent and transitive acts form hierarchies of transcendence.

We must make one last observation about act here, which Aristotle makes immediately before he enumerates the five instances of act given above:

What we mean [by act] can be plainly seen in the particular cases by induction; we need not seek a definition for every term, but must comprehend the analogy.[7]

St. Thomas comments on this passage saying

Primary simple [things] cannot be defined, since definitions do not regress ad infinitum, but act is a primary simple [thing] (de primis simplicibus) thus, it cannot be defined.[8]

In the concept of act one hits philosophical bedrock. There is simply no concept more basic that one can reduce act to. We can certainly give examples of diverse sorts of act, but one either sees the essential unity of these examples or he does not. We cannot appeal to some more basic concept or more primordial unity- we must simply see the conceptual unity between opening ones eyes, finishing a building, and a soul; and we must further see that unity as fittingly called act. Any defect in our vision of this will be a defect in our ability to understand the whole of Aristotelian and Thomistic thought, for they are here telling us that this concept of act is an indispensible and primary foundation of their account of things. We cannot explain to anyone what kind of thing act is, for it has no genus, still less any distinguishing feature that can divide it from a genus. Any attempt to explain act will presuppose that we already understand it; and it will appeal to things that we can only know after we see the unity of act in the various examples of it. If we compare the path we follow in understanding Thomistic thought to the path of a bullet in flight, understanding act is as significant as aiming the barrel. One should dedicate the whole force and attention of his vision on both activities, knowing that everything depends on it.

4.1.2 The Transcendent Act as a Kind of Whole

We have already extended the word whole beyond the imaginable sense of whole when we considered the predicable universal or whole in section 3.0.1. In considering the transcendence of act, we again have reason to extend the term whole beyond the imaginable whole. The very ratio of transcendence makes the transcendent act a kind of whole, for any unity containing a multitude is a kind of whole, and transcendent act unifies and contains in itself those acts that are divided and less perfect at a lower level. The friendship of virtue is both useful and pleasant, and thus the lower forms of friendship are fragments or parts of the higher form; and the existence of the hand gives rise to a multitude of other tools, and so this multitude of tools is a takes part in our use of our hands. As with every instance of extending the use of a term, we must be precise about what we must purify out of it. First, the imaginable whole is a single subject with its parts, while the transcendent whole is not. All the parts of a triangle, for example, compose the whole figure and form one subject with it; but a keyboard, screwdriver, toothpick, and other such things ad infinitum do not make a hand. Second, the imaginable whole is diminished or lessened by the absence of its parts, but a transcendent act is not diminished by the absence of the inferior parts that participate in it. The friendship of virtue would not lack anything if there were no men who were friends merely out of pleasure or use. Third, the imaginable whole is homogeneous with its parts, while the transcendent whole is heterogeneous with what takes part in it. In other words, the transcendent and what it transcends are not only diverse subjects, they are diverse subjects that, considered precisely, are not simply a homogeneous enumeration of some one thing. The following quantitative whole: /////// is nothing other than one / repeated seven times. In order for that whole to enumerate anything, we must assume a certain homogeneity or unity of class between the things enumerated, just as there is a homogeneity in /. But to place homogeneity between the transcendent whole and what takes part in it is to ignore exactly what transcendence consists in: for it is not the plurality of homogeneous unity, but the greater unity of the transcendent whole. Thus the transcendent whole and the inferior act beneath it are not “two things”, because to consider them in this way requires us to prescind from the formal ratio of transcendence.

But for all the differences that must be purged out of the notion of the imaginable whole in order to think rightly about the transcendent whole, there still remain many likenesses so far as both wholes are greater than their parts, in keeping with the universal axiom that the whole is greater than is part. Thomas sees this axiom as perfectly universal to every sense of whole and part, and he continually returns to it in his discussion of various wholes and their parts.[9] Granted, greater does not have the same meaning for each whole: the imaginable whole is most obviously greater simply by its bulk. But even in the imaginable whole there is another kind of greatness, namely the way in which form is greater than matter: “the whole is always said on the side of form, the part always on the side of matter”[10]. But since “matter is always for the sake of form, not form for the sake of matter”[11] even the parts of things “merely greater by bulk”, as parts, are ordered to the wholes to which they belong as to ends.[12] The transcendent whole is greater than it parts in a more obvious and straightforward way: for its greatness is not of the material or quantitative order, and the transcendent whole is not simply greater than matter, but even greater than another form.

The transcendent whole somehow possesses its inferior parts, but this happens in two ways: first, there is a transcendent whole that is its inferior parts, even while these inferiors are other than itself. This “being another” is proper to knowledge, and most of all to intellectual knowledge. Second, the there is a transcendent whole that possesses its inferior parts by having the power to cause them. Now every intelligent being is a universal cause, [13] but not every universal cause is intelligent, as is clear already from the example of a hand. Universal causality is therefore more general, and the errors that arise from the false imagination of universal causality and should be considered first.

4.2.0 Errors about the Transcendence of Universal Causes

As we saw above, imaginable quantity is the proper object of the imagination. Now at one point, St. Thomas considers an argument from Avicebron, who claims that a quantitative object cannot be a cause.

[since] a form which is in corporeal matter, is determined to this individual matter by quantity…it is restricted and constrained by quantity, since this is the principle of individuation; and it could not extend itself to another matter by action. A spiritual and immaterial form alone, which is not limited by quantity, can flow into another by its action.[14]

To which St. Thomas responds:

This reason does not establish that a corporeal form is not an agent, but that it is not a universal agent… to act, which is nothing other than to make something in act, is per se proper to act as act, which is why every agent makes something like to itself. So from the fact that something is a form not determined by a material subject to quantity it is an undetermined and universal agent, and from the fact that it is determined to this matter it is a contracted and particular agent. Thus, if there were a separated form of fire, as Plato said, it would be in some way the cause of every ignition.[15]

And so in the measure that we judge things according to the image that we spontaneously generate of them, universal causality will be utterly invisible to us. There is, however, a great deal that needs to be clarified here. First, why does St. Thomas go so far as to say that “from the fact that [something] is determined to this matter it is a contracted and particular agent”? After all, a hand is a perfectly clear example of a universal agent; and St. Thomas has made it clear on many occasions that he thinks the sun is a universal agent cause of generation[16], and in fact he will insist on this only a few hundred words after the quotation given above.[17] But we certainly have no difficulty imagining the sun or our hands; and both are pretty clearly in particular matter. So in what sense is a universal cause “not determined by a material subject to quantity”?

Note first that St. Thomas had an incredibly intricate and subtle table of distinctions that he applied to causes.[18] What concerns us here is the precision of causes into per se and per accidens. X is the per se cause of Y only if X as X causes Y as Y. Anyone, for example, can watch a man sculpt an artwork. But this experience does not show itself to us marked with name tags or captions that indicate the per se relation of cause and effect. Is it man that sculpts an artwork, or the sculptor that does so? It’s pretty clearly the latter, since being a man does not suffice to sculpt anything. Again, does the sculptor make art, or a sculpture? Here again, it is the latter: not all art is sculpture. St. Thomas frequently demands a further precision in order to specify a per se cause, since to speak of a sculpture is ambiguous: one can mean either “sculpture in general” or “this sculpture”, and so we would be have to specify our adjectives accordingly. But here again, language has precision only up to a certain point, and the demand to specify the per se can easily go beyond it. Say, for example, you walked into my yard and said “Who made this?”


On the one hand, I made this one out of the box it came in, and so you could be asking about me; but this model was made by the Big-Wheel manufacturing company, and so you could be asking about them. The mere repetition of the word “this” doesn’t do enough work to specify the per se effect that one is speaking of. Now we are interested now in the various degrees of universality that belong to the effect per se. If you mean to speak about the toy in such a way that it is not distinguished from all other toys of the same kind, you are asking about the cause of a more universal effect, and the per se cause is the Big Wheel manufacturing company. If you are asking about the toy in such a way as to distinguish it from all others of the same kind, you are asking about a particular effect, and the per se cause is me. Again, just as we said in section 3.0.0 XXX, universal and particular are distinctions in the ratio of the thing. Thus, the specification of per se causality corresponds to the degree of universality in the ratio of the thing we are considering.

This diversity of particular and universal effects specifying diverse per se causes happens in nature too. Consider the following picture of the water cycle


Note that the clouds in the picture are any clouds; the ocean in the picture is any ocean, etc. that is, the clouds and lake are taken universally. But the sun in the picture is not just any sun, and it is not to be taken universally. The sun, therefore, is an agent cause of a cloud taken universally, and of fresh water pools taken universally. The sun is thus a universal agent cause, just as St. Thomas said it was. In fact, St. Thomas usually chose a better example than the water cycle to illustrate the universal causality of the sun; sc. the cycle of plant generation. Just as we must invoke the causality of sun to explain the existence of any particular lake and lakes as such, so too we must invoke its causality to explain any particular plant, and plants as such.


Here again, the water in the picture is any water; the soil in the picture any soil; but the sun in the picture is not just any sun.[19]

Notice that universal whole[20] is inseparable from universal agency, even though the two are completely different ways of being universal. We may visualize the relation of these two by saying that the universal agent causes the universal whole; that is, the sun causes clouds, lakes, and plant generation per se; just as a hand causes tools as such and a mind causes art as such. Thus, we know a universal cause through its effects, and we know its effects in the mode of a predicable universal. This provides one way to understand St. Thomas’s claim above that a universal cause “not determined by a material subject to quantity.” St. Thomas need not mean that the sun or the hand lack matter or quantity, but only that when we consider these things precisely as universal causes we must see them in relation to an effect conceived as a predicable universal, and therefore as not limited to this or that material quantitative subject. As a result, even though the imagination will not spontaneously generate a false image of the hand when we strive to understand it as a hand or the sun when we strive to understand it as a star, it will generate such a false image as soon as we try to understand either of these as a universal cause.

In fact, the dependence that universal causes have on predicable universality, which requires us to transcend the imagination to understand them, cannot be contained to merely universal causes, but is also common to causality as such. For it is only by specifying the cause per se that we can distinguish causality from mere correlation, and per se causes cannot be identified without specifying the degree of universality in the ratio of their effects. Even when we consider a particular cause and its particular effect, say, John Smith fathering John Smith Jr., the per se cause corresponds not to the particular but to the ratio of the particular. The precision is crucial since the ratio of the particular is a correlative of the ratio of universality, and unintelligible except in relation to it, while a particular thing is not a correlative of the universal whole. All causes, therefore, are either defined in relation to the universal whole, or with something correlative to it. A failure to transcend imagination will therefore immediately do away with the possibility of universal causes, but will eventually do away with any difference between causality and sheer correlation, and thus will do away with causality altogether.

The failure to understand universal causality in itself also does severe harm to or ability to understand all causality, even apart from the way in which they manifest the dependency of causality on the universal whole. Even if it is the first agent causes we know are causes in the same genus as their effects (like a man fathering a son, or a moving object causing something else to move) this is not what we are most of all mean by a cause, nor what we are looking for when we ask for the agent cause of something. Cajetan makes this clear in an account of univocal causality (a cause that is in the same genus as the effect):

Where there is univocation, there is not a cause and effect formally and per se, but materially and per accidens, since the form of the effect does not depend on the form of the cause. For the humanity that is in Socrates formally taken, depends neither in being nor in becoming upon the form of the father of Plato, but the humanity of Socrates, because it is this [sc. humanity] therefore depends on a father. Consequently, the humanity that is the foundation of the similitude between father and son is not in the genus of cause and effect, except materially and per accidens…[21]

Say one wanted to speak about the agent cause of Socrates, precisely as an agent. The only agent cause immediately evident is Socrates Sr. But what does it explain to speak of him? By positing Socrates Sr. as a cause, for example, we do not so much explain a particular instance of humanity as we simply posit another instance of it. There is something inadequate in this explanation which fails to speak to what one means by an agent cause.[22]. A series of agents all of the same genus is analogous to a train of cars in a pile-up accident, each one of which damages the one in front of it. Say the pile-up is ten cars long. If the man in the fourth car went home to his wife and explained the damage to his car by saying “the car behind me ran into me”, there is something at least inadequate, and even false about his answer. Why so? Among other reasons, he is citing something as a cause of the accident that was no more a cause of it than he was- in Cajetan’s vocabulary, the car behind him was only materially and per accidens the cause of his damage. “To give a cause of the accident” means something other than positing causes that are all of the same kind, even though it is not entirely false to call such agents real causes. Multiplying out such causes, however, is like the old myth of explaining the stability of the earth by saying it rests on an elephant, the elephant on a turtle, etc. Such an explanation explains stability materially and per accidens- and it may even have some value in certain limited circumstances- but the multiplication of “turtles all the way down” is not even the kind of cause that one is looking for when he seeks to explain the stability of the earth. Thus, it is only by transcending the causes that are contained in some genus that we arrive at what we most of all mean by a cause. This conclusion, however, is quite startling- for it means that what would be a cause without qualification, and in no way an effect, would have to be an individual who was not an individual of a species or genus. But what else is given to the imagination except individuals of a repeatable kind? Imaginable things are all apt to be many- so much so that even though there is only one sun we have no problem multiplying it out in the imagination ad infinitum.

But while the transcendence of causes is most manifest in agent causes, what we mean by causality is most verified in the final cause.[23] St. Thomas, moreover, sees final causality as ontologically prior to agency,[24] and so all of what we have said here about the universality or particularity of agent causality is a certain participation in the causality of more or less universal ends.[25] A consideration of final causality is also most of all to our purpose here, since it is by considering nature in relation to its final cause that it becomes clear how we are very profoundly disposed to err about nature (or the physical world), which is given as an absolute to the imagination.

Note carefully: when considering final causes in nature we mean by “nature” or “the natural” a principle of motion or an ens mobile.[26] By way of opposition, note that we are not taking “nature” as meaning “the defined” or “what something is” or “essence”. Briefly, the sense of the natural we are using is one that is synonymous with physical or corporeal things- the ens mobile. This definition is still very much central and alive: the contemporary study of the natural world (physics) is dominated by the study of energy (the ability to move) mass (which converts with energy) force (a power that gives rise to motion or rest) etc. This precise sense in which we are taking the term allows us to oppose natural activity to intellectual activity, for nature in act is determined ad unum whereas intellect is ad multum. Physical action and existence is always somehow determined to one- even when this determination is only one of several intrinsically unpredictable probabilities;[27] while the action of knowing can possess contraries at the same time, since there is no impediment to knowing both white and black, rest and motion.[28]

We first consider the account of final causes universally and more broadly than they are found in nature. We cannot improve on the account given of the universality of ends given by Charles De Koninck:

The good is what all things desire insofar as they desire their perfection. Therefore the good has the notion of a final cause. Hence it is the first of causes, and consequently diffusive of itself.   But “the higher a cause is, the more numerous the beings to which it extends its causality. For a more elevated cause has a more elevated proper effect, which is more common and present in many things.” “Whence it follows that the good, which has the notion of a final cause, is so much the more efficacious as it communicates itself to more numerous beings…

The common good differs from the singular good by this very universality. It has the character of superabundance and it is eminently diffusive of itself insofar as it is more communicable: it reaches the singular more than the singular good: it is the greater good of the singular.[29]

This universal account of final causality, applied to nature, reveals a three-fold hierarchy of final causes:[30]

1.) [There is a] good which an animal desires in the generation, the nutrition, and the defense of the individuals of its species. The singular animal ‘naturally’–i.e., in virtue of the inclination which is in it by nature (ratio indita rebus ab arte divina)[31] prefers the good of its species to its singular good…

2.) The good of a particular can be understood of that good which belongs to it according to its   genus. This is the good of equivocal agents and of intellectual substances, whose action can by itself attain not only to the good of the species, but also to a greater good, one which is communicable to many species…

3.) The good of a particular can be understood of that good which belongs to it on account of the similitude of analogy which “principled things” (i.e., things which proceed from a principle) bear to their principle. Thus God, a purely and simply universal good, is the proper good which all things naturally desire as their highest and greatest good, the good which gives all things their entire being. In short, “nature turns back to itself not only in that which is singular, but much more in that which is common: for every being tends to conserve not only its individual, but also its species. And much more is every being borne naturally towards that which is the absolute universal good.”[32][33]

Consider carefully that at every level of causality in the order of causes, a natural thing is acting for the sake of something that is known only by intellect (species, a genus, an analogous principle). If a species were present in first act in something acting, then contraries would also be present in first act in that thing acting, which is simply not the case in natural action. But since nature acts most profoundly for what is present only to intellect, it follows that that natural action is a way of participating in intellect. Thus the end to which an individual nature is most profoundly ordered reveals its dependence on an agent that transcends the individual nature. Nature is not distinguished from intellect as though they were simply two stones in a field: but as a participating effect from a transcendent cause in which it participates.

This consideration of final causality in nature reveals one of the most profound errors that we are disposed to by imagination. Notice again that the sense of nature we are using here is synonymous with the physical or corporeal world. But things are present to the imagination as physical and corporeal. Physicality, however, is simply a way of participating in the trans-physical causality of intelligence. Imagination cannot help but present the corporeal world to us as independent and absolute, but the corporeal world does not have this sort of existence completely without qualification, for the power that the natural world has to exist and act of itself is entirely derived from another. This is the sense of St. Thomas’s definition of nature from the final cause, a definition which is central to his division of the strata of goods that nature is ordered to. Again, what is physical or natural is called such for being by “a ratio given to things by the divine art, that the things themselves might move of themselves”. Had St. Thomas only given the first part of the definition (the part up to the comma) he would have been an Occasionalist; had he only given the second half, he would have been a physicalist or a naturalist (of the contemporary atheist variety). Again, had St. Thomas given only the first part of the definition, nature would have been purely and simply defined by metaphysics; had he only given the second half, it would have been purely given to the imagination. The definition as given, however, requires that physical things be given to imagination, and somehow present to it in an absolute way, only because they are relative to something not given to imagination. What we sense and imagine as absolutes because of being relative: their relation to another empowers them to be absolute. Natural, imaginable things are in many ways a mixture of opposed realities: they move only by being moved; they are wholes only by being parts of a larger whole (like man of a society or species); and for the same reason they are only absolute by being relative to another.

In conclusion, imagination is a cause of error about universal causality, both with respect to agent and final causes. It is prone to err about universal causality simply since a universal cause is not a physical body; and all causality is defined in relation to a ratio that shares in the unimaginability of the predicable universal. More particularly, the agent causality is most of all verified in what transcends the genus of what becomes or changes, that is, natural or physical things. When nature is defined relative to its final cause, moreover, it is found in a hierarchy of ends that are more profoundly in the nature to the extent that they are realizable only by participation in something outside the genus of ens mobile.

4.2.1 The Error of Homogenization

All of our considerations of the transcendence of causality have pointed towards the lack of homogeneity between the effect and its cause. The motion from effect to per se agent cause is always a motion towards the heterogeneous, since such causes within a genus are univocal and thus unable to satisfy what we most of all mean by cause. Similarly, when we consider the physical world according to its most profound cause, we see that it is- without ceasing to be absolute- essentially relative to something outside the genus of physical things.

Either there is one genus of all reality or there is not, but even if there is such a genus, the genus of the physical or corporeal is not it. The homogeneity of physical causes requires that, even if they are agent causes, that they can be so only materially and per accidens; and the opposition between mobile being and intelligence requires that final causes in nature be essentially relative to something outside the genus of ens mobile.

The imagination, however, is gives no information that transcends the homogeneous existence of the physical world or the ens mobile. So far as we are stuck with an intellect that feeds off of the imagination, we are prone to always homogenize reality to a single level of existence. We need not judge that all reality has such homogenization, but we still cannot help homogenizing metaphysical objects into the uniform existence of the ens mobile. We can wish to stop making homogeneous idols of the realities that transcend sense, but we cannot will it. They arise from the force of a nature determined ad unum.

But what sort of error is it to see all reality as homogeneous with the ens mobile? Can we say that there is, in fact, a single genus of the real, even if it is not the homogenous existence of the world as imaginable? First, we need to clarify that we are not using the term “genus” as opposed to “species”, but in such a way as to speak to what is common to both, sc. a univocal unity of some multitude. This clarification will be quite significant in a moment.

To approach this question, we should gather up some things said already: we cannot help relating what we know to something imaginable (either because it is, or because we make it so). We thus have only two kinds of concepts of real things: those which are of really imaginable things, and those which are of things only related to the imaginable. The first kind of concept shows us its corresponding reality directly and absolutely, just as the eye sees colors; the second kind shows us its corresponding reality indirectly and relatively. This second kind is characterized by a duality of the imaginable and the thing related to the imaginable. The very definition of this concept consists in this duality or relation, a duality or relation which does not exist in the first sort of concept.

Note carefully that the dual concept cannot be a genus. A genus is a generic grasp of something, that is, an essentially unified account of some multitude of things. “Animal”, for example, is the name for the singular unity of man, bird, mosquito, etc. We can visualize or imagine such concepts as circles containing some multitude of more restricted species or individuals. The dual or related concept, however, is repugnant to this sort of limitation or circumscription: it can only be visualized like a pure arrow pointing away from something. The generic concept hedges things in, the dual concept bursts outward to another. Again, the generic concept is seen in the singular unity of the genus, a unity in which the understood is contained; the dual concept uses this singular unity as a point of departure, outside of which the understood is contained. The generic concept is static: as static as the word “animal” or “figure”; the dual concept is dynamic: it really looks at some imaginable reality, only to relate it to another. Thus, the dual or relative concept cannot be a genus.

But if the dual concept is not itself a genus, is it possible that it is a part of a larger genus, say “the concept”? Can’t we say that we have two species of concept: the generic and the dual? We might note first that if the only reason we have for thinking the concept is a genus is that we have one word “concept”, then we might just as well think it is a dual concept, since these too are named by single words. More to the point however, the objection misses the very sense of the word we are using: every argument we gave to show that the dual concept cannot be a genus shows that it cannot be a species also- indeed, as we said above, we are not using the word “genus” as opposed to “species” but in such a way as to name what is common to both. Thus, there can be no single genus or homogeneous account of all reality, or even all reality that we know.

We have coined this name “dual” or “relative” concept in order to speak to those things that St. Thomas describes as known with reference to another: things known by negation, causality, and analogy. Sometimes, the word “analogy” is used to name any process where one thing is known with reference to another,[34] and if the term is taken in this sense then we might say that there are univocal and analogous concepts and both are called concepts analogously. We prefer to use the term “dual” or “relative” here since the exact meaning of the terms is suited to our purpose; and also because the term “analogy” has far too much controversy around it to bring up here.

Again, we take the impossibility of the universal homogenization as a fundamental law of thought. There is an essential and irreducible heterogeneity in our notion “things” or “being” or “existence”. Our mind can only extend to all only if it abandons any hope to reduce all things to a single homogenous order. Nevertheless, given our dependence on imagination to know, our thought is continually homogenizing things. When someone speaks of diverse or analogous levels of reality or being, we cannot help but see these as one thing stacked upon another, like the levels of a house. But the diverse levels of reality, related by causality, negation and analogy, is exactly what we mean to speak of when we speak of the transcendence of one thing over another. This irrepressible homogenizing tendency of the imagination is the most profound cause disposing us to error in metaphysics. In struggling against this irrepressible homogenizing force we see most clearly why metaphysics is something that human beings must “borrow” from another sort of intellect- the sense being that it is not so far as we have the nature that we do that we are able to be metaphysicians. Nevertheless, we do not do violence against our nature in seeking to be metaphysicians. How then are we to understand this struggle against the limitations of our own thought? Is it not like the molting of an animal, whose skin is both an essential part of him, and yet simultaneously, at a certain point of his development, a principle that hedges him in and must be thrown off?  Or is it more like the tadpole, who cannot now go on land for very long without suffocating, but yet remains somehow ordered to living on land?

4.3.0 Philosophy as a Preparation for Death

If metaphysics is the noblest kind of knowledge, and the imagination provides some impediment to it, then what are we to make of the separation of our intellect and imagination at death? In what sense can a Thomist see philosophy as a preparation for death? In what sense is it a corruption of the thought of St. Thomas to speak this way?

The simplest response to this question would be to say that even though the imagination is an impediment, it is also a condition for our being able to think anything at all, just as water both impedes the speed of the swimmer and is a condition for him having any speed at all. So taken, saying philosophy was a preparation for death would be as ridiculous as saying that we swimming laps was a preparation for diving into an empty pool. St. Thomas, however, insists that human thought continues after death, and that we can to some extent give a rational account of this thought. This does not give us a reason to think that philosophy is a preparation for death, but it does cut off the simplest way that one could reject the claim.

But though St. Thomas cuts off the shortest avenue by which one might deny the claim, he also cuts off the shortest avenue by which one might affirm it. The unqualified claim that philosophy is a preparation or death comes from Plato,[35] and though St. Thomas did not know that Plato said this he did know why he did so: Plato affirmed that the immaterial and incorruptible part of man just was the man, and that his physical parts, like his imagination, were simply used in the same way he would use a hammer or saw.[36] Given this, St. Thomas says, it is not only easy to say that man survives death, man is in fact better off after death, since he is free of a superfluous element. The briefest account of why Plato says this is because he thinks that knowledge is of separated forms which the body impedes us from seeing.[37] Philosophy, simply because it cultivates knowledge, cultivates knowledge of forms, which we are impeded from seeing so far as we have a body. Death is the first moment in which we can know without impediment. Thus, philosophy is a preparation for death simply because it is the cultivation of knowledge. If Plato held that grammar gave rise to knowledge, then grammar would be a preparation for death too. But for St. Thomas, even though this vision of the human person makes some important truths very easy to see,[38] the consequences of the position quickly lead to strange and impossible results: man would not be a rational animal; we could not know physics or any other natural science; we would have no reason why the soul is united to the body, etc.[39] Indeed, for St. Thomas the separated soul cannot even be called a person,[40] a claim that is diametrically opposed to Plato’s claim that the separated soul is the person himself.

But St. Thomas’s rejection of Plato needs to be balanced against arguments that prove that death is a boon for the metaphysician, considered precisely as a metaphysician.

The ultimate goal of human life terminates his natural appetite, so that, in being had, nothing else is sought…[but] in the measure that someone understands more, the desire to understand more things grows in him, which is natural to man, unless perhaps there was someone who knew all things; which in this life would not happen to anyone who was a mere man,[41] nor would it be possible, since in this life the separated substances- which are maximally intelligible- cannot be known by us, as has been shown.[42]

The reference to what “has been shown” is to chapter forty five of the same book. Much of St. Thomas’s argument here is a refutation of the opinions of others, but at the conclusion he gives the predicable reason why we cannot know the separated substances: “the necessity (obligatio) to understand material things happens to [the intellect] from its union to the body”[43] Or more precisely, because of our cognitive dependence on imagination in the general sense. Clearly, what can be said about the separated substances can be generalized to anything that exists without matter and motion or is apt to. Thus, our knowledge of metaphysics now is only an imperfect participation in the knowledge that we will have after death; and in this narrow, restricted sense the Thomist does see philosophy (qua metaphysics) as a preparation for death. Moreover, he sees this claim as being made in the same way as Plato makes it, though not for the same reason. Remember that Plato saw us as preparing for death in the sense that we were anticipating death by our practice of philosophy. Metaphysicians anticipate doing things that they will really only be able to do later, just as soldiers perform actions in drills that they will really perform only in battle. A soldier, in a drill, might aim his weapon at another soldier- but not a weapon that can harm; just as a metaphysician, in this life, might direct his intellect at things that exist without matter and motion- but not an intellect that can know them simpliciter. And so while St. Thomas utterly rejects Plato’s account of the human person and knowledge, he nevertheless does see the Philosopher as anticipating a perfection that he can only attain after death:

The separated so is truly more imperfect, if the nature which it communicates to the body is considered, but nevertheless it is in some way more free to understand, inasmuch as it is impeded from the purity of understanding by the weight of the body, and the concern it must have with it (gravedinem et occupationem corporis).[44]

Or, again;

The soul united to the body is in some way more perfect than separate, sc. according to the nature of the species, but so far as the intelligible act is concerned, it has a perfection from being separate from the body which it cannot have while united to the body. Neither is this unfitting, because the operation of the intellect belongs to the soul so far as it exceeds proportion to the body- for the intellect is not the act of a corporeal organ.[45]

[1] See Summa theologiae I-II, q. 64 a. 3 co.

[2] See our discussion on pg XXXX

[3] Nicomachean Ethics Bk. VIII chap 3 (in toto)

[4] Metaphysics IX 1048b 1.

[5] Rousselot establishes this same relation between immanent and transitive act by considering act or action by a less proper but still essential property, sc. action upon another “[I]f action implies the passage of influence from one thing to another, then it follows that such action will be more perfect according as it reaches the other being more fully, that is, in the beings reality and intimacy and unity, and the more imperfect as it leaves the more of that being untouched by its influence … Material capacity and nutritive assimilation really bring the non-self [i.e. other] into subjection to the individual, yet for all that they do not bring about the that coincident fusion that is the ideal of action, for the simple reason that the mere juxtaposition of parts and agglomeration of matter- which is impenetrable- is opposed to such fusion. By definition, knowledge alone permits the ego, while remaining itself, to attain to the non-ego; and we cannot speak of real possession except where there is intimate penetration of two unifying principles and where a thing becomes the other in some sense. This is what St. Thomas had in mind when he wrote ‘the noblest way of possessing or having a thing is to possess it in a non-material manner, yet formally, which is the definition of knowledge XXXLiber de causis 1.18XXX’” The Intellectualism of St. Thomas pp 25-26.

In this passage, Rousselot begins with the notion of act that is better known, namely transitive act. He then defines it as the power to attain to another, and then shows why the immanent action of knowledge more fulfills this notion of act. Here again, we see the same order of transcendence: for acts that are necessarily diverse in a transitive action, are a single act by knowledge; hence the omnipresent Thomistic axiom that the known and the knower are one in act. See XXXX

One advantage to Rousselot’s way of proceeding is that it gives us a clue how we would discern an order of transcendence even among knowers. A knower and the known are one in act; and the more this act of knowledge is one with the knower, the more it will transcend those knowers that have the act of knowledge in a divided way. This is clear from the three ways in which St. Thomas holds that intellectual knowledge occurs: at the highest level, the knower simply is the known without qualification, that is, the two share absolutely the same essence. This kind of intellectual unity is proper to the intellectual procession of God. On a lower level, the known is still intrinsic to the essence of the knower, but they are not one in the essential order- the known is an accident. This kind of intellectual unity is proper to the angels, and to souls in the state of separation. At the lowest level, the known is not just an accident of the knower, but also exterior to him. This kind of intellectual unity is proper to man in the state of union- where even our knowledge of ourselves requires a phantasm borrowed from the sensible world. Thus, each higher stage of intellectual knowledge contains in its own unified actuality what was more diverse and dived in the lower act of intellectual knowledge.

[6] Thus, transitive action, considered absolutely and without qualification, is action that that is lacks any dependence on another absolutely and without qualification. But clearly any action that presupposes some matter depends on that material for its action, and so an absolute consideration of transitive act divides it conceptually into the act that produces ex nihilo from any subsequent act whatsoever. By definition, the act producing ex nihilo would have no dependence on its instruments whatsoever, and so would be able to accomplish anything that the subsequent instruments accomplish even without them. This is an important purgation of the notion of act, for in those acts which fall in or experience, there is always some dependence of the principal agent on the instrument- a man cutting with a knife is doing something he could not do without the instrument he is using. This dependence, however, does not follow from the very nature of transitive act- in fact, it is opposed to it. Our dependence on our instruments is a testimony that even our self-caused acts do not wholly and in every way transcend the instrumental order. Omne quod movetur ab alio movetur.

[7] Metaphysics, book IX 1048a 28

[8] Commentaria in libros Metaphysicorum bk. IX l 5. “prima simplicia definiri non possunt, cum non sit in definitionibus abire in infinitum. Actus autem est de primis simplicibus; unde definiri non potest.”

[9] For the magestesterial treatment of St. Thomas’s doctrine of part and whole see Joseph LAGRANGE l’univers et l’homme. Esp. pp. 26-49.

[10] XXXXX


[12] We limit ourselves here to quantitative wholes that actually subsist: purely mathematical quantity abstracts from considerations of means and ends.

[13] To be explained in section 4.2.1; though it could be clear from man’s having a hand.

[14] Summa theologiae I q. 115 a. 1 co. “forma quae est in materia corporali, determinata est ad hanc materiam individuatam per quantitatem, ponebat Avicebron quod a quantitate, prout est individuationis principium, retinetur et arcetur forma corporalis, ne possit se extendere per actionem in aliam materiam; sed solum forma spiritualis et immaterialis, quae non est coarctata per quantitatem, potest effluere per actionem in aliud.”

[15] Ibid. “ista ratio non concludit quod forma corporalis non sit agens, sed quod non sit agens universale…Agere autem, quod nihil est aliud quam facere aliquid actu, est per se proprium actus, inquantum est actus, unde et omne agens agit sibi simile. Sic ergo ex hoc quod aliquid est forma non determinata per materiam quantitati subiectam, habet quod sit agens indeterminatum et universale, ex hoc vero quod est determinata ad hanc materiam, habet quod sit agens contractum et particulare. Unde si esset forma ignis separata, ut Platonici posuerunt, esset aliquo modo causa omnis ignitionis.”

[16] See, inter alia, Summa contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 15 n. 4. “sol [est] universalis causa generationis” also ibid lib. 4 cap. 7 n. 16;  Summa theologiae III, q. 7 a. 9 co; Sententia libri Metaphysicae, lib. 12 l. 12 n. 26. The same is also frequently asserted by quoting Aristotle’s claim that man is generated from man and the sun (with the sun being the universal cause) see Summa contra Gentiles, lib. 3 cap. 69 n. 24. and cap. 104 n. 10; Summa theologiae I, q. 76 a. 1 ad 1; q. 115 a. 3 ad 2 and q. 118 a. 1 ad 3;  Questiones disputatae de potentia, q. 3 a. 7 s.c. 3, and in many other places.

[17] Summa theologiae, q. 115 a. 3.

[18] There is, first of all, the twelve-fold distinction in the sense of cause given in his commentary of the Physics; and within each of these twelve fold categories there can be several subdivisions of cause.

[19] “Sun” is frequently called “light”, but this is misleading. Light is the formal element, just as carbon dioxide is the formal element in “air”. But while the plant evolved to take in the carbon dioxide present in any patch of air, it did not evolve to take light from just anywhere, but from the sun. A human lamp can substitute for this, to be sure, but within the context of purely natural generation, the plant is adapted to the sun, and the sun alone.

[20] That is, the predicable universal studied in section 3.0.0

[21] Cajetan, Commentaria in Prima parte q. 4 a. 3 no. 6 “Ubi enim univocatio ibi non est causa et causatum formaliter et per se, sed materialiter et per accidens quoniam formam effectus non formaliter dependet a forma causa. Non enim humanitas quae est in Socrate   formaliter sumpta, dependet in esse vel fieri in humantate Platonis patris, sed humanitas Socratatis, quia est haec, ideo dependet a patre. Et consequenter humanitas, quae est fundamentum similitudinis inter patrem et filium, non est de genere causa et causatae, nisi materiaiter et per accidens…”

[22] This is certainly to deny that there are times (like a paternity test) when one is clearly looking for a univocal agent. Our only claim here is that when one is looking for an agent cause, univocal agents do not most of all fulfill what he is speaking about.

[23] St. Thomas repeatedly calls the final cause the cause of causes (causa causarum) see, int. al. Scriptum super Sententiis, lib. 1 d. 38 q. 1 a. 1 ad 4; d. 45 q. 1 a. 3 co. lib. 2 d. 9 q. 1 a. 1 ad 1. Summa theologiae I, q. 5 a. 2 ad 1; Questiones disputatae de veritate, q. 28 a. 7 co. De principiis naturae, cap. 4. Commentaria in octo libros  Physicorum., lib. 2 l. 5 n. 11 Sententia libri  Metaphysicae, lib. 5 l. 3 n. 6. Expositio libri Posteriorum Analyticorum, lib. 2 l. 8 n. 3.

[24] His simplest argument for this is in Summa theologiae I-II q. 1 a. 2 co “If an agent were not determined to some effect, it would not more act for this or for that and so that it might proceed to an effect that is determinate, it is necessary that it be determined to a certain something- which [thus] has the ratio of an end.”  “Si enim agens non esset determinatum ad aliquem effectum, non magis ageret hoc quam illud, ad hoc ergo quod determinatum effectum producat, necesse est quod determinetur ad aliquid certum, quod habet rationem finis.” Cf. also Summa contra Gentiles III c. 2 esp pp 8.

[25] A strict sense of participation is not true of all agents universally, but of the sort of agents and ends we know first.

[26] It might be important to make this even more precise: for we are seeing the ens mobile not according to its quantitative character and its ability to be divided by units, but according to its ability to be divided into potency and act; and the act into first act and second act, as will become clear in the next two footnotes.

[27] It might be necessary, for all I know, that a good many actions (like dice throws or quantum motions or falling in love) are so unpredictable that one can simply never determine what will occur. But this is to say only that there is a potency to either state. Intellect is in first act to both states. Indeed, if we did not require a separate intellectual species for each thing distinctly known (as is the case with higher intellects) then we could know contraries distinctly in second act as well.

[28] Again, physical actions can be to contrary things only in potency; but the action of intellect- knowing- can be to contrary things at least in first act, and even sometimes in second act.

[29] Charles DE KONINCK De la primauté du bien commun contre les personnalistes. As reprinted in “The Aquinas Review” vol. IV no. 1. 1997. Translated by Ronald MAC ARTHUR pp. 14-15.

[30] Though the block quotation is from De Koninck, his division is taken directly from Summa contra Gentiles III c. 24..

[31] The reference is to St. Thomas’s definition of “nature” according to its final cause Commentaria in octo libros Physicorum II l. 14. De Koninck leaves off a part of St. Thomas definition concerning motion that we will call attention to in a moment (see note 36). The full definition of nature is “a ratio of the divine art given to things that the things themselves might move by themselves.”

[32] Summa theologiae I q. 60 a. 5 ad 3

[33] De la primauté du bien commun contre les personnalistes. pp. 18-19. The numbering is our own.

[34] When St. Thomas follows Aristotle in saying that first matter is known “by analogy” he seems to simply mean that it is known by a comparison to second matter. See Commentaria in octo libros Physicorum bk. II l. XXXX

[35] In what follows, “Plato” means “Plato as understood by St. Thomas”. For example, the actual historical Plato seemed to believe in the “Platonic forms” for part of his career; but St. Thomas was not aware that Plato distanced himself from his famous forms later in life.

[36] Scriptum super Sententiis, lib. 2 d. 1 q. 2 a. 4 ad 3.  “Plato said, as Gregory of Nyssa said, that the soul is in the body as a motor is in the mobile, as a sailor is in a ship…so he said that man is not something from a soul and body, but that man is a soul using  body.”

“Plato posuit, ut Gregorius Nyssenus narrat, quod anima est in corpore sicut motor in mobili, ut nauta in navi… unde dicebat, quod homo non est aliquid ex anima et corpore, sed quod homo est anima utens corpore.” Or again Summa theologiae I, q. 76 a. 1 co. “Plato said that man is an intellectual soul” “Plato posuit, dicens hominem esse animam intellectivam” See also Summa contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 82; Summa theologiae I, q. 70 a. 3 co.

[37] Summa theologiae I, q. 84 a. 3 co. Questiones disputatae de virtutibus, q. 1 a. 8 co.

[38] Like the knowledge o the soul after death, see Summa theologiae I q. 89 a. 1 co. Questiones disputatae de anima, q. 15 co. In both, St. Thomas opens his discussion by noting that, on the Platonic account of man, the right answer to the question is simple and obvious, though the premises are faulty.

[39] See again, Summa theologiae I q. 89 a. 1 co. Questiones disputatae de anima, q. 15 co.

[40] Summa theologiae I q. 29 a. 1 ad 5 “The soul is a part of the human species, and so, even though it is separated, it retains the nature of able to be unified [to the body] and it cannot be called and individual substance that is a hypostasis of first substance, just as a hand or any other part of man cannot. And thus neithr the definition of a person, nor the name [person] can be said of it”.

“anima est pars humanae speciei, et ideo, licet sit separata, quia tamen retinet naturam unibilitatis, non potest dici substantia individua quae est hypostasis vel substantia prima; sicut nec manus, nec quaecumque alia partium hominis. Et sic non competit ei neque definitio personae, neque nomen.

[41] “Mere man” (solum homo) is opposed to Christ and the resurrected body, not to the metaphysician, who in some way transcends human life, as we have shown above XXXX

[42] Summa contra Gentiles, lib. 3 cap. 48 n. 2 “Ultimus finis hominis terminat eius appetitum naturalem, ita quod, eo habito, nihil aliud quaeritur…. Quanto enim plus aliquis intelligit, tanto magis in eo desiderium intelligendi augetur, quod est hominibus naturale: nisi forte aliquis sit qui omnia intelligat. Quod in hac vita nulli unquam accidit qui esset solum homo, nec est possibile accidere: cum in hac vita substantias separatas, quae sunt maxime intelligibilia, cognoscere non possimus, ut ostensum est.”

[43] Summa contra Gentiles, lib. 3 cap. 48 “obligatio ad intelligendas res materiales accidat ei ex unione ad corpus.”

[44] Summa theologiae I q. 89 a. 2 ad 1 “anima separata est quidem imperfectior, si consideretur natura qua communicat cum natura corporis, sed tamen quodammodo est liberior ad intelligendum, inquantum per gravedinem et occupationem corporis a puritate intelligentiae impeditur.”

[45] Quaestiones disputatae de anima a. 17 ad 1 “[A]nima unita corpori est quodammodo perfectior quam separate, scilicet quantum ad naturam speciei; set quantum ad actum intelligibiliem habet aliquam perfectionem a corpore separate, quam habere non potest dum est corpori unita. Nec hc est inconueiniens: quia operatio intellectualis competit anime secundum quod superegredietur corporis proportionem. Intellectus non est actus alicuius organi corporalis.”

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  1. Edward said,

    August 1, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    This was an excellent piece! I am going to have to read it over several times, of course.

    As a general point, it is ironic that St. Thomas had such a keen understanding of the proper limits of human knowledge and the potential dangers inherent within human understanding when modern atheists constantly claim that theists are misusing their intellects in claiming to have knowledge of the immaterial. It seems that they, along with all modern philosophy that places imagination as the uppermost human faculty, are misusing their reason and not making careful or necessary distinctions.

  2. August 2, 2010 at 4:47 am

    On the level closest to sense, it seems to mean only “to go beyond” or “to exceed”, hence he will say that a vice involves a man desiring to transcendere the rule of reason. I completely agree with that.

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