Listers, the concept of the Four Causes is one the predates Christ and finds its origin in Ancient Greece. The Church has used this philosophy to describe and explain such things as the transubstantiation, prime matter, the composition of man as soul and body, and various philosophies that deal with God’s interaction with his Creation.
Studying the Four Causes will lead one into a deeper understanding and appreciation of the world and of Catholic theology.
1. The material cause is simply the matter of the composition. The wood table has as its material cause wood, because wood is the matter of its composition. The same goes with bronze for the statue, porcelain for the coffee mug, and glass for the wine decanter.
2. If the material cause is the matter of an object, then the formal cause is the form of the object. Wood never exists as “woodness,” but rather always exists according to a form, e.g., a tree, a chair, or a table.
3. Formal causality determines the character of a substance from which the species is derived; there is something determining the character of the species. Simplified, from the genus of wood, the form determines the species of the wood object. The tree and the pipe are both made of wood, but is the formal cause that determines their specific (adj. of species) constitution.
4. In understanding the aforementioned principles, one can see that the material cause (matter) is in potential to the formal cause (form). The form acts upon the matter to determine its species.
Material Cause – deals with the matter and is in potential to form
Formal Cause – deals with the form of the matter and acts upon it
Efficient Cause (Agent Cause)
5. The Efficient Cause produces motion or change. The efficient cause of the table would be the carpenter. The carpenter lays the effects upon the matter/form of the wood in such a way to bring about a formal change – the wood moves from the form of lumber to table.
6. Efficient causality is also seen as something simultaneous to the effect. Not only is the carpenter the efficient cause of the formal change of the wood, but what about the movement of the tools in his hand? The carpenter’s hand and arm move the chisel, and quite literally it is actually the chisel that is acting upon the wood. However, the carpenter is the efficient cause of both the movement of the chisel and the formal change in the wood. Regarding the chisel, that type of causality – where it receives its efficient cause from another and produces an effect – is referred to as an instrumental cause.
7. As a point of reference, when the priest consecrates the bread and the wine into the Eucharist, we would say that God is the efficient cause of the miracle, while the priest is the unique instrumental cause he utilizes.
8. The sake of the thing. The reason for which a thing exists or acts. Let us think of the table. The carpenter, as the efficient cause, moves the matter (material cause) from the form of lumber to the form of a table. Now, in the mind of the carpenter is the purpose for the table – to hold objects at a certain level. The table exists to perform a certain task, and this task is the final cause.
9. Astute Listers will realize that the Final Cause is actually there in the beginning. For the carpenter had the table and its purpose in his mind as he worked the wood.
10. Action tends toward an end. If I swing my foot, I am hoping my action will terminate (end) in me kicking the soccer ball. Therefore this is not an arbitrary human distinction, but rather an observation of reality.
11. It is very difficult to give an account of agency – what does this do? – without considering the end, the Final Cause. Even in the most minute agency – say the eye which has its final cause in sight – the relationship between agency and final causality exists.