On the division between user and used in nature

Some things in nature use other things in nature. Plants use sunlight, whatever nutrients they find in the ground and rainwater; animals use the energy and nutrients gathered from plants and other sources; and human beings use nature to such an extent that they easily fall into thinking that nature has no value or even existence outside of its being used.

The simplest way to account for this use is to posit a single order of natural laws for all that we spoke of above: animals and the nutrients they gather are simply collections of natural things like chemicals and energy. On this account of nature we say that, for example, what plants are doing when they  absorb sunlight is that one kind of energy or mass bundle goes into some other mass/ energy bundle according to some set of laws that governs them both. All the actions of plants absorbing nutrients would be seen as the same sort of activity as a flame absorbing oxygen or a set of atoms becoming a molecule. Though I call this the simplest account this is not to make light of it: it took scientists a great many years to get a passable account of nature even in this simplest sense.

But though this simplest account of nature is necessary for a sapiential view of nature, it does not and cannot account for the observation that some things in nature use others. If we try to account for the observed distinction between user and used by a single set of action governing laws for both, then we have to say either that all nature is used, or that nothing is used in nature, and both options are absurd. What is used can be viewed as a tool, and so if there is a single order for all the actions in nature, then either all nature is a set of tools without a tool user or all nature is a tool user that has no tools to use.

1.) The distinction between user and used is the distinction between the living and the non-living. Since the living and the non-living in nature share the same mass/ energy base, but life has something beyond this, we need some name for that-by-which the living goes beyond. The ancient name for this is “soul”, and it only fell out of use rather recently.

2.) If one insists that “nature” means whatever can have its actions unified under a single set of laws, then part of our observing nature involves observing a supernatural element in it. I’m largely indifferent about whether one affirms the antecedent or denies the consequent so long as he adjusts his vocabulary accordingly.

3.) Note that the distinction between user and used is not the sort of thing that one tests. The details of what exactly the user makes use of need to be determined by hypothesis and test (for example, the determination of whether the plant takes is material from the ground or also from the air), but that there is a user at all is a different kind of fact based on another kind of observation.


  1. thenyssan said,

    November 21, 2010 at 4:11 am

    Being willing to ascribe use to all of living nature is consonant with STA’s general project, but when he turns his attention to it directly, he denies that anything save man uses (ST I-II Q16 a2).

    The dividing point is operation for an end: the application of something to the attainment of an end can only be ascribed to one who knows the end under the species of end, so use is properly a rational operation. Or again, use requires knowing the relation between the used and the operation.

    Your point 1. about animates has sent me through a think on this, because I expected STA to say that animals use in a loose sense and I was surprised when he did not. But it seems to go this way: Once we restrict use to animates then we can no longer rely on “acts for an end” to ground use. As stated in my above paragraph, use must be found in the rational creature. Since your 1. blocks us from relying on action for an end, we could try to say that a thing uses insofar as it participates in the rational through sense. But then we can’t say that plants use sunlight, and that seems like a worthwhile point to me.

    So assuming use is of animates, in what power is it found? Would you say it is a generic term for the operation of any animate power?

    • November 21, 2010 at 7:04 am

      Without knowing the exact nature of the distinction, I wasn’t following St. Thomas’s use of “utere” here, but his use of “instrumentum” in, say, Q.d. de anima 1.1. co; Q.d. de veritate 5.9. co and Compendium theology 1 a. 1. All elements and mechanical causes are “instrumenta” to the animate- even plants. St. Thomas apparently has a much more broad idea of “instrument” than “use”, but in English it seems more like the reverse.

      Or we could say that the use we observe in nature is proof that it is moved by an intelligence, though even then we would have to say that this intelligence does not move the animate and inanimate in the same way. The animate is moved in such a way that it benefits itself by its action – its interaction with the outside world by nourishment means that it destroys the outside world to benefit itself. So far as nutrition is concerned, we can only call the outside world a “useful” good. St. Thomas allows for a transcendental use of the “useful” good at the end of ST I q. 5. Perhaps this is the closest to what I was thinking.

  2. November 21, 2010 at 7:38 am

    I don’t know if modern English use has enough rigidity to allow us to make these distinctions, but it seems to me that we can say that plants use sunlight in a way that we can’t say that sodium uses clorine to make table salt or a cloud uses electrical charges to make lightning.

    What I’m thinking of is more narrow than action for an end, since I take “action for an end” to extend to any determinate action that happens according to some lawlike process or rule (like clouds producing lightning). My sense of “use” in the above is when something relates to some exterior thing as beneficial to itself. I can see a way in which this can be restricted to the rational, and another sense in which it cannot be, depending on how one takes it.

    • thenyssan said,

      November 21, 2010 at 8:39 am

      Helpful. That does seem to solve the problems I was muddling through in my first post. Knowing Thomas, we should try to harmonize all this.

      1. All things act for an end.

      2. Animates are end-seekers in that they pursue their own perfection in a way that inanimates do not (In this sense the inanimates are more perfect with respect to their natures).

      3. The animate “instrumentalizes” in its pursuit of self-perfection, according to its grade of animacy. The vegetative act is the most passive of these, being devoid of cognition, but participating more in the rational than the inanimate. The animal act participates much more in the rational through sense cognition and so instrumentalizes more actively than the vegetative. The culmination of this is the rational act, which is use properly called.

      Animates “use,” according to the word in your first post, insofar as they instrumentalize to realize the perfection of their form. St. Thomas reserves “use” for the highest form of this instrumentalizing, found in the agent who knows the end and the relation of the instruments to the operation. I wish he had said it this way in I-II Q16, but I guess I can’t fault him for failing to recap at every step of the way. Keep up or shut up, novices!

      So I definitely think that “the use we observe in nature is proof that it is moved by an intelligence,” as you say. Just another variation on the fifth way.

  3. Brandon said,

    November 21, 2010 at 8:35 am

    This seems to be a case where we’re dealing with thirteenth century technical terminology that is no longer standard. It seems clear enough that what Aquinas has in mind in the ST 1-2 passage is the sense of ‘use’, deriving from Augustine and usually playing a big role in Sentence commentaries (because Lombard makes significant use of it), in which ‘use’ is paired and contrasted with enjoyement (fruition) and is a term indicating an act of will in light of its ends.

    It would be interesting to go back and look closely at what St. Thomas says about this in his Sentences commentary; Bonaventure (since I have at hand the English translation of Bonaventure rather than having to go bit by bit through the Latin) clearly recognizes, for instance, that there are looser senses of the term ‘use’ than this strict sense, although none of his five senses quite match James’s (which I think would fall somewhere between his second sense and third sense on the spectrum, where we’re dealing with something more specific than just frequent exercise of a power but less specific than the sense in which we are talking only about the actual will.

    • November 21, 2010 at 9:29 am

      Thanks for bringing that up. I wanted to mention that too, but couldn’t figure out how to put it in. Following Lombard’s reading of Augustine, the distinction between “usus” and “fruitio” was seen as something like the first principle of all theology, and so a Medieval would have seen in in light of an immense amount of previous discourse, much like the way we contemporary persons see “right” in light of an immense amount of previous discourse. Future generations might well puzzle over how it is common for us to say that animals do not have “rights”, even while it is also common to say that some things are due to animals and that it is possible to treat them cruely and otherwise beneath their dignity. For contemporary persons the consistency between the two positions is more or less obvious, but only because we see “right” in terms of so much previous discourse, which tends to make one of the more specialized and precise uses of the term the first one that people think about when they use the term, as opposed to the more general and less precise meanings that we actually know first.

%d bloggers like this: