What is hylomorphism? Hylomorphism is a term out of classical philosophy (first used by Aristotle, later picked up by Aquinas) where a designer takes raw material and uses her mind and hands to impose purpose and form on it, as when St. Paul writes, “Shall the clay say to the potter, why have you made me thus?”
A blog post, for example, is a hylomorphic project, where the matter of words is ordered by the author into a very definite form. As is a poem. Or a building. The soul of a thing–its essence–is its matter and form combined with the intention of its author.
This, at any rate, is what a hylomorphist believes. Hylomorphists, such as contemporary Thomist philosophers, claim that you can look at the matter and form of a thing and infer its essential purpose–the purpose the designer shaped it for. For the Thomistic hylomorphist, all things created by God have essential purposes, and we can discern them. The form of the penis, for instance, tells you that its essential usage is for the vagina. That’s what God made it for. You aren’t to use it in the ass or mouth–and no jerking off! These are its “accidental” (non-essential) usages. The Designer’s obvious purpose for the penis is for reproduction, not pleasure.
Thus if your cum isn’t being used to make babies, you aren’t using it in accord with the Designer’s purpose. So straighten up! (But not in that way.)
Existence precedes essence. Jean Paul Sartre’s famous three-word retort to this sort of theological reductio ad absurdum–reasoning to an absurd conclusion–was the following: “Existence precedes essence.” In other words, human imagination, cunning, openness, variety, and freedom precede any essentialist definition that one might impose upon a thing in advance. Sartre says we can work freely with a thing–if we wish–and make what the original designer might have considered marginal about it, central (or make the central marginal).
Fashioning and definition can be democratized.
So if we’re free–if our existence as free beings precedes essences–we can use the penis for pleasure. We needn’t let the inertia of a thing’s supposed essence foreclose in advance our options. You can use a thing differently. In each moment, you can make something new. That’s Sartre. That’s existentialism. That’s post-World War II pushback against hylomorphic and authoritarian essentialism. Once God has gone silent, or died, or given the clay its freedom, asking “What’s the clay for?” loses its force. Humans become the measure of all things. Our existence precedes essence. We decide what to make important about a thing; what we will call a thing. Like Adam in the Garden, we assert our prerogative to name the animals.
Evolution. Sartre nicely accords with evolution, whereas Aquinas is in a decidedly awkward relation to it. Evolution doesn’t recognize essential species categories; it works with variety along a continuum, making things new. What, for example, is an individual human from the vantage of evolution, but a variation cast into the next round of dicing selection? Time waits for no definition of man–not even Aquinas’s.
Evolutionary lineage is akin to a tall deck of cards. Richard Dawkins, in his book, The Magic of Reality, likens our evolutionary lineage to a deck of picture cards stacked up. At the very bottom is the first card, the first cell. We the living are the most recent cards to have been added to the evolutionary deck. We’re on a continuum. So it’s arbitrary–and therefore up to us–where we put our family and species boundaries in relation to our own lineage. Who, for example, was the last Homo erectus and the first Homo sapien? Being provocative and counter-intuitive, Dawkins quips, “There was no first human.”
In other words, when we impose a species boundary on our lineage–“Here is the first human, here is the second, etc., and you are the last human to date in the series, and this species boundary tells you essential things about you as an individual that you mustn’t attempt to change”–the question that begs to be asked is this: why have you imposed that form on this matter? Why did you begin there, exactly?
Why has the card dealer cut the deck thus?
Overthrowing God. So in our evolutionary lineage, what there is is matter and change, which we can visualize as snapshots in time; a deck of picture cards that reaches to the moon, that, if it could be flipped through, would reveal how we got from the first cell to where we are today. But when we chop that deck up, we’re in the role of God, imposing a model of meaning on the deck exactly as a potter imposes form upon the clay, or a narrator form upon a sequence of events. Once you see that the deck can be cut in any number of ways, you realize that there’s nothing essential about the definitional species boundary without your input; without your design; without your narration.
You’re playing God; you’re making the meaning; you’re telling the story. Without you, the deck of cards is just a deck of cards. If there’s anything essential about it, it’s anchored by your declaration alone. Hume said, “Nature doesn’t speak, we speak.” That’s also true of God. God doesn’t speak, we speak.
Who cuts the deck, makes the rules. Defining a thing, or declaring something essential, is a power play. Our arguments about God’s relation to justification, purpose, and ethics enact a power game. Without someone from the outside to impose order on the card decks of justification, purpose, and ethics, we can chop them up any way we want. We become God. Nothing is essential except what we declare to be so.
If we want to call gay marriage, marriage, it is so. Let there be light.
But this is true only if God does not exist. If God exists and possesses purposes for creation, then there really and truly are essential aspects to things that we cannot change. God’s narrative and definitions trump human narratives and definitions. If God exists, God has the power to declare. And yet here’s the irony: even if God exists, God is utterly silent as to how (S)he cuts the decks of definition and tells the cosmic story to Herself. So if we think God exists, we still have to guess what God is up to. But how do finite minds know what an infinite mind might be up to?
Going back to the penis example, if God is love and wants humans to delight in pleasure, and is primarily concerned with that, then God cuts the deck one way. (Imagine God shouting merrily in an Olde English voice: “Use thy penis, squire, for thy pleasure!”) But if God is concerned with procreation and the use of sex organs in a certain way, then God cuts the deck of definition quite differently from a ribald Elizabethan. (Imagine God as Lenin, frowning, and saying, “Serve the Party–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! No masturbation! No gay coupling! Use the penis for the Party; for reproducing members that will serve the Party!”)
The matter, in other words, receives its form and definition from the one doing the narrative molding and definitional chopping. And since ultimate justification can only come from God, everything else is question begging (St. Paul’s, “Why have you made me thus?”–or the definitional question, “Why did you chop there?”).
So God has to exist to ground and essentialize any molding or chopping. Or God has to be a determinist, not giving humans free will. Otherwise, we wear the daddy pants. We do the chopping.
Kangaroos among the beauty. So if we want, we can see each individual of our species as unique, not essentially bound by what came before. Each of us can be defined as Emily Dickinson defined herself: “a kangaroo among the beauty” (a contingent oddball). We can emphasize the individual over the inertia of the group or of history. Each person can be seen as a unique “card” in our human lineage; as someone sui generis (one of a kind). The deck of lineage cards can be cut any way you want if you have the authority of the deck-cutter, including designating each card its own species.
And if individuals want to assert their right to define themselves, that’s an assertion of their power.
Who assumes the power of meaning maker? So if God exists, you can argue that God should cut the deck of meaning, purpose, narrative, and definition. But if God doesn’t exist or isn’t talking, we cut the deck. Whoever has the authority to cut the deck (or shape the clay, or name the animals) is in the role of the designer, the fashioner, the definer. Matter, to have meaning, must be given form by a meaning-maker. And if the ultimate meaning-maker, God, doesn’t exist, then we make our own forms, and define what’s important about them.
Our existence precedes our essence. That’s Sartre over Aquinas. Which side are you on?