From action to interaction (III)

Omne agit inquantum est in actu. Because the fullness and measure of act is operation, so far as something is perfect it is an agent exercising its agency. But interaction is only imperfect agency, for, qua interactive, an agent acts only as a part of a larger system of agency. And so in the measure that beings are more perfect, they rise above interaction (N.B. We are here only considering transitive actions).

On the lowest level one finds causes that only interact. These are purely physical entities. Because they only interact, they are only agents in an imperfect way, thus they only relate to final causes in an imperfect way, that is, while we can identify characteristic stages in a physical process,  none of these stages is an absolute term. Masses do not, for example, seek some absolute natural place, nor is the change from iron to rust anything but a relative slice of an essentially infinite process, like the cycle of water evaporating, rising, condensing, and evaporating again. Because they only interact, large scale systems of physical causes do not arrange themselves in sharply divided causal hierarchies: they form a cloud system of mutual interactions. This does not preclude order from large scale physical systems, but it makes their order less like a watch and more like the weather.

On the highest level there are causes that only act and in no way interact. These are the purely equivocal causes where the agent is essentially separate from what he acts upon.

At the middle level, there are causes that in one way act and in another way interact. Such causes have a non-physical principle of action, though they also have physical existence as as part of their definition. These are the natural living things.


  1. dchernik99 said,

    March 29, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    You musings are sometimes so rarefied, I find it hard to breathe.

  2. dchernik99 said,

    March 29, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    Well, OK, I suppose you are talking about God who is, according to St. Thomas, unaffected and unperturbed by anything we creatures do. This is true in one sense and completely false in another: when I pray to God, I am not talking to a wall that does not care what I am saying to it. And humans are actors who control matter and build civilizations and so act in more ways than they are acted on. That makes sense, if I am interpreting you correctly.

    • March 30, 2012 at 10:51 am

      This post is about interaction as opposed to action; you are raising the question of interaction as communion. The two senses might be inversely proportionate to each other: as one rises above interaction as opposed to action, he becomes more capable of interaction as communion. But the measure of this sort of interaction is not petitionary prayer or our communion with God, but the procession of the persons in the Trinity. This is the limit of interaction as communion and all else is an imperfect approximation and participation in it. At the most distant point from this procession, one finds the mere activity of bodies, which are impenetrable to each other and can never, in virtue of being bodies, ever fully act by themselves. This is the faintest participation in Trinitarian communion, and we better understand the Trinity to the extent that we negate the sort of community we find among bodies.

      Human prayer – or even all of human existence – enters as a stage in this imperfect interaction as communion.

  3. dchernik99 said,

    March 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    The more powerful and autonomous a thing is on its own, the more capable it is of communion with other like things?

    • March 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm

      That’s right. St. Thomas will put it in more or less those terms in QDP 2.1. Act is essentially communicable of itself. To exist of oneself is to communicate being to another. The idea we have of existence cutting a thing off and focusing a thing inward into its own subjectivity is a sense of existence that is proper to the inanimate world.

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