4

From Form to Matter

The Function of Duality

What has been said of the cosmic process indicates that physical change must embody an inherent cause of deterioration, which leads to the question as to how this deterioration is manifest, and how the theoretical account of it relates to the appearance of the world. The world is in one sense a unity, and without this unity change would not be knowable as change, since change can only be known within a system where the overall structure gives the means of measuring it. However, unity is per se exclusive of change, since all forms of dynamism require at least two distinct elements in juxtaposition. Consequently, the most universal dichotomy that can be made in regard to the phenomenal world will be implicitly the most universal basis for change.

There is no need to invent such a conception, because the changes and transformations that make up the cosmic process have always been treated philosophically as the interaction of a pair of opposites, called Heaven and Earth, or yin and yang in the Far East, Purusha and Prakriti in Indian doctrine, and Form () and Matter () in Western thought. (Here ‘Form’ is a collective term which includes all Forms or archetypal realities, while  denotes an undetermined matter known also as materia prima.) In each instance the pair consists of an active, unified, informing principle of fixed identity, and a passive, receptive, mutable and multiform principle. The latter is activated by the former and is the medium of its multiplication in many transient forms, propagating the archetypal identities without having the power of originating or of conserving any of them unalterably. For the present purpose I shall use the terms Form and Matter for them. These are the two opposite poles of existence between which the whole pageant of the visible world may be seen to unfold.

Being the principal causes of all things perceptible by sense, they cannot themselves appear among them; they are both outside the world of perception, Form because its perfection and permanence of being places it in a sense ‘above’ the world, and Matter because its essential emptiness and instability place it ‘beneath’ it. Besides being the causes underlying the relative reality of the world, Form and Matter are also the archetypes of all the endless dualities, polarities, and complementarisms in which natural life so largely consists. Some of these are body and soul, subject and object, male and female, cause and effect, quality and quantity, acid and alkali, light and dark, positive and negative, active and passive, interior and exterior, substance and attribute. Some of these pairs occur in the table of opposites drawn up by the Pythagoreans, who sought the ones which should have the greatest cosmological importance.

All things are thus conceivable as combinations of the two universal causes in one guise or another, though the necessity for these combinations is far from guaranteeing a balance between them in any given case. From the definitions, it could be said that the greatest predominance of the Formal principle will bring the greatest degree of stability and unity, whereas the predominance of the Material principle would imply just the opposite, mere confusion, and emptiness, with constant and inconsequential changes affecting such realities as remained. The phenomena of change, speed, matter and quantity are all bound up inextricably with one another, as can be seen from the most casual observation of present-day civilization which is replete with the material attributes of endless mutability and of receiving everything while retaining nothing.

It is remarkable that the relation of Form and Matter, which has been a familiar part of philosophy for millennia insofar as it relates to the static unions between them manifest in objects of sense, should be so little known in its dynamic relation. The difference between the two cases is like the difference between a knowledge of the parts which make up a machine, and a knowledge of the function the machine performs. That philosophy should have ignored the dynamic relation is even stranger in modern times, when science has established the principle of entropy, whereby all physical changes result in an irreversible loss of order. While the metaphysical idea of change does not depend on scientific findings, it is certainly not at variance with them either, and in fact they have parallels which will be examined later.

Form and Matter in Process

The instability of matter is necessary for existence as we know it, however, because the material world can only manifest the fullness of the Formal principle fragmentarily, in a serial manner, where one thing has to be effaced so that another may be realized. When, therefore, the whole range of things subject to change is narrowed down to the minimal two, the only way in which change can take place is by way of an increasing predominance of either one over the other. This increase and decrease will not affect Form and Matter as they are in themselves, but only the realm of perceptible things in which they are instanced. The march of historical time would therefore mean an overall increase in either the spiritual or the material principle in the life of mankind.

An increase in the spiritual principle has been excluded before, on the grounds that the original state cannot be exceeded at its own level. For this reason, long-term cosmic change involves a continual reduction of the Formal principle, no matter how much this may be masked by a march of progress in the production of substitutes for its direct action. However, a constant change of this kind in one direction only cannot go on for ever, and neither can it develop in a uniformly predictable manner, or it would lack the power to deceive which is in fact necessary for it to be able to act unopposed.

It may seem possible that the relation between Form and Matter in the world might simply follow an endless ebb-and-flow movement with no fundamental change ever arising. But on this basis, the material world would exist for ever; in other words it would be unlimited in duration when it is by definition finite and relative in all ways. While there is indeed some such ebb-and-flow, the overall tendency of it is therefore always toward the material extreme. There is of course a permanent equilibrium between these two principles in their unmanifest or principial state, but this state cannot be manifest in time except indirectly by the reversals made by the beginning of new world cycles. This account of the working of the relation between Form and Matter does not include the creation, the establishment of the Formal principle in the world at its beginning, because this does not form part of the normal ‘downstream’ movement of nature, but is rather the cause of it. While the process subsequent to it is temporal, the emergence of the original state is not, which is another reason why it does not belong to a study of this kind.

What has been said about the twin causes of the cosmic process, and about the cosmic position of humanity, offers a direct explanation of the relentless onset of materialism in modern times, whether it be as a theoretical account of the world or whether as a form of popular common sense. Materialism is much more than a subject of human choice; it is the counterpart in the human microcosm to the relative increase in the material component in the macrocosm.

The advance of materiality in the one and the other is the same thing in parallel realities, according as the world is represented in individual minds. Materialism in human life and thought is thus man’s imitative response to the universal process when individuals fail to separate their own identities from it. As a theoretical account of the world, its conclusions are, ironically enough, in broad agreement with the ones developed here, except in the vital question of meaning and value. For one side of the issue, the materialization of reality represents the advance to the fullness of truth and reality, while for metaphysical understanding it means a descent into the final residues of a world which has nearly run its course. Once the true nature of the material principle is understood, any state in which it reaches a culmination can only be one in which the formative realities of intelligence, order, permanence, and unity are all reduced to the lowest degree.

Consequently, the advance to the material extreme inevitably means a loss of distinction between things and a trend toward equalization,1 and in human beings, a corresponding loss of understanding as to the meaning of the things that still escape this process. Equality could never have become the center of concern it is today without there having been first an extreme diminution of all the realities concerned. This diminution or dissipation is also evident in the breaking down of all spheres of activity into portions too small for any creative genius or cultural leadership to have any scope, even where it still exists. This deficiency is supposedly made good by wholesale borrowings from cultures of earlier times, and from other parts of the world, as though there was a void to be filled which no contemporary resources were equal to. There results a state of ever-deepening dependence upon the lights of the past, while modern minds stay rooted in the belief that the ancient civilizations have all been superseded by the march of progress, without anyone sensing the obvious contradiction in this. Such things indicate a general mentality which is incapable of objectivity about its true situation.

Another example of the effect on human life of cyclic change is to be found in its destructive effect on the practice of religious belief, whether or not this is masked by political and cultural motivations. A process has been slowly gaining momentum for centuries now, one which marks a decline both in the depth of belief and in the number of those who consciously profess it, which in vulgar perception means the same as a denial of its truth. Confusions result from this situation because many minds see the idea of a general loss of relation to God as a claim that some such failure must be theirs also, in which case it can be speciously denied. Nevertheless, this is no answer to the possibility that traditional religion may convert ever fewer persons, even where it is unchanged in itself. Numbers are a superficial indication, it is true, but when that indication is consistent in one direction over a long period, it cannot be ignored.

The revelation of a religion is a special case of the entry into the world of a universal Form-principle, one which is a paradigm of all that can counteract in the human realm the fatal run-down of history. In theory, the liberation which it brings from ‘the course of the world’ could postpone the end of the world-cycle indefinitely, so that there is something like the supposed conflict between irresistible force and immovable object involved here, represented by the downrush of the cycle and the truth which is impervious to it. Religious values and practices imply a detachment from the realm of process and a state of attachment to a reality which is ontologically ‘before’ the world, so that they reconnect the world with its origin through the believer.

In this connection there are widespread traditional beliefs to the effect that the continued existence of a world depends on the correct performance of rites, a belief which need not be seen as superstitious if man’s centrality in creation is taken into account. As an epitome of creation, he is metaphysically in contact with its whole range of content, whether he wills it or not. For this reason, each person is an agent whose words, thoughts and deeds give rise to effects in parts of the universe far more remote than the things to which they ostensibly relate. What seems trivial in its immediate context may be anything but trivial in the whole sum of being, therefore. Where the influence of religion and spiritual values weakens, there follows a corresponding weakening in the realms of intellectual and creative endeavor, since the higher values are too closely connected for them to be able to decline or develop independently. The issue then is the paradox of the decline of something which is the very negation of decline and corruptibility. But its effect on this world depends on the extent to which it is realized in each generation. Man’s falling short of his destiny allows cosmic necessity to outflank the spiritual power, if not to defeat it, in accordance with a general movement which takes its origin from the Fall.

Three Levels of Change

One of the main factors which masks the descent from Form to Matter is something inherent in the nature of cyclic change itself, which never shows itself in anything like as simple a form as that of a wheel rolling downhill. This factor is one whose outward effects we have already referred to in chapter one, where historical extremes correspond in a certain manner. This meeting of extremes results from a property of causality according to which ‘whatever is simple in its being may be either superior to composite things or inferior to them.’2

The highest realities both consist in and result from very few causes, while the number of causes in operation steadily increases up to the intermediate level, only to start to decrease again as the lower extreme is approached. As with Plenitude, this process can be envisaged in relation to the order of creation as a static hierarchy, or as a temporal series of related states, and again, the latter is relevant for the present purpose. The passage of time between certain pairs of limits should therefore exhibit a transition from a simplicity of potentiality to a simplicity of exhaustion, passing through a maximum wealth of complexity during the period between them. Proclus gives this as a logical deduction from the fact that the highest cause acts on all the beings subsequent to it, down to the very last, while the next highest causes act on all the intermediate levels except the lowest, and so on, while the causes closest to the mean position do not act beyond themselves very far at all. This property of causes will be illustrated later by a corresponding property of the natural number series, which will show its significance among the archetypal patterns.

The symmetry between highest and lowest, second-highest and second-lowest, third-highest and third-lowest, is the basis of the three-fold division of a cycle which may be manifest in a nation, a civilization, or in the development of the arts, and it is a factor which confuses our perception of the cyclic order itself. The mysterious significance of the number three is thus able to imprint itself on the form of historical eras, as is indicated by the fact that the earliest parts of most eras of civilization hardly ever seem to have been the golden ages they should have been according to the theory, even if this should be due only to a scarcity of records or artifacts. The times of greatest achievement generally displayed by civilizations would seem to lie roughly half-way between their earliest and latest ages, not at the beginning. But if tangible evidence for the existence of a higher state of being at the origin is wanting, this should not be confused with an actual absence of the reality of which all physical evidence is only the shells and rinds, so to speak, whether it be in the form of writings, arts, crafts, or sciences. Modern thought usually equates the absence of such tangible traces of intelligence in remote ages with the state of emptiness and barbarism it would mean in modern times, ignoring the very possibility that the world could have undergone profound changes since antiquity which would obliterate the most significant traces of the past.

What is a process of descent by absolute standards will therefore appear as one of ascent on a relative level up to a certain point, beyond which it reverses and begins to mirror the absolute tendency. Within some historical periods it can be shown that visible and tangible forms created by art to eternalize the spirituality of the age are as much a symptom of decline as of fulfilment. For example, Christianity in Apostolic times had no need of cathedrals to impress its message on mankind, because at that time one was still close to the historical origin of the faith. The building of the cathedrals only became necessary when the early vision began to be lost; it therefore cannot mark the high point of faith in the Christian Era. Great achievements in the arts are more realistically to be seen as the disclosure at the sensory level of some spiritual experience which can only be preserved by being objectivized.

The closer in time mankind is to the origin, the less need there is for conceptual and aesthetic forms to represent it and to awaken its influence in minds which might never have known it directly. However, even the greatest achievements of this kind are only temporary barriers against the downward movement because a point is always reached at which minds are too materialized in their orientation to be able to respond even to these secondary sources. There still has to be some spiritual energy to sustain a sense of what was lost and to attempt to regenerate the original vision. Where even this is lacking, spiritual realities simply get identified with the means used to transmit them and they are effectively made into idols, if they are still regarded at all, as the finger pointing to the moon is mistaken for the moon.

This is evidenced in a general way by the history of art in the West since the early Middle Ages. Typically, neither modern nor Medieval art has the direct aim of depicting nature, but rather certain realities manifest through it, though their spiritual orientations are utterly different. Between these periods there is the art of the period from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, which is primarily naturalistic. These three broad categories represent three basic relations to natural forms, ranging from a perspective superior to them because relating to their origin, to one beneath them, because it is concerned only with their impact on the mind of one individual, who as a rule is not qualified to perceive any spiritual reality in them.

Evils from Cosmic Necessity

From this stage onward, art and symbolism deviate further and further from their original purpose until they end with an inversion of it. With the passage of time, the scope of this deviation takes in an increasing number of activities until, in the final extreme, it comprises the whole civilization. This may be understood in an alternative manner from the point of view of equilibrium. When created forms and structures are used to exert an action of just one kind, benign and spiritual though it be, the result is an increasing disequilibrium, since created or instantiated forms are per sespiritually neutral. This can only be remedied by the intelligibility of the same forms. Regardless of the intentions with which these things were first brought into being, their effect eventually becomes anti-spiritual for increasing numbers of persons who read their meaning at the wrong level.

This is a dominant issue toward the end of a cycle, because a cycle cannot end without a balancing of all the disequilibria which have come into being since it began. This follows from the nature of a cycle as a self-contained whole of connected events. Any disequilibrium remaining at its end would be the immediate basis of a corresponding action which would give the subsequent events a measure of continuity with the past cycle. In other words, the cycle would not truly have ended. But, being finite in all respects, it must end, and therefore in full equilibrium, even though this means ending amid evils which counteract the good it has realized at earlier times, on the cosmic level at least.

There are thus two related reasons for the evils which arise at the end of a world-cycle, firstly the overall removal from the origin, and secondly the necessity for its residual conflicts to be counterbalanced in a way which will leave no basis for any new beginning at its end. This is not to say that there will not be a new beginning, only that this beginning must be causally independent of previous time series. The function of discontinuity is equally important with that of continuity in the passage of time, for reasons which will be considered in the next chapter.

The spiritual energy dissipated in the cyclic descent is to some extent recovered by being converted into forms, whether conceptual, artistic, or institutional. But qua finite creations, these things are as it were a two-edged weapon. While they serve up to a certain time to protect and propagate the truth they embody, they ultimately become the means whereby it is attacked. Truths and values which are beyond the reach of attack by their very nature thus become capable of being defeated insofar as they are equated with the forms given them. Spiritual creative achievements are, because of their finitude, a kind of coagulation, and what has coagulated is always liable to dissolution. This ambivalence and instability inherent in created beings can also be understood from their origin in the union of Form and Matter (materia prima) which is a union between fullness and emptiness, or between order and chaos.

From this there results the spiritual neutrality of created things already referred to, through which they can serve the ‘upward’ or ‘downward’ tendencies equally. They are in any case the content of the outgoing movement of creation, which is on the one hand a manifestation of God in its essential nature, and on the other, an obscuration of God inasmuch as it results from a ‘downward’ or ‘outward’ movement in relation to God. In the course of a world-cycle, all possibilities pertaining to it will be realized in order of compatibility with their origin, and this means that a creation which is good in itself will increasingly cast its shadow as the end of the cycle is approached. The end is as obscure as the beginning, though for fundamentally different reasons.

Cyclic Law Reflected in Number

The cyclic law of passage through the three levels of complexity, where there is a symmetry between the first and the third, can be seen from the properties of the natural number series when it is set out in a triangular pattern. While this is in no sense a mathematical proof of the idea, it does show how the realm of number recapitulates the universal order according to its own laws. The cyclic law in question prescribes a pattern of complexity which could be described as diamond-shaped, the greatest amplitude being at the center.

The first state of a cycle is a cause in relation to all those that follow it, so that it could be shown below as Cause 1, or more simply, C1. Each state that comes after it is an effect in relation to those before it, while being a cause in relation to those that come after it, in the causal chain C1 C2C3 . . . Cn. The last one, Cn is an effect only, not a cause, while all the others except C1 are both at once. The first cause in the order, C1, is the simplest of them and is solely a cause, which is shown below by its position above all the others, where the increasing complexity of the subsequent ranks of causes is represented by the increasing numbers of causes in each:

Number in Rank ( = Complexity)

In this way, however, the degree of complexity can only keep on increasing; it will never rise to a maximum and then decline, as the theory would indicate. Things would be just the opposite if the complexity of a given rank was proportional to the number of effects which came after it. In this case, C1 in the above would have a complexity factor 14, as it is followed by fourteen others, while the second rank, C2 C3 would have a complexity factor of 12, as there are twelve more after it. The lowest level, number 5 in rank, would have zero complexity, because no more follow it. However many ranks of causes are taken, this method results only in a constantly declining complexity, again with no maximum at the center, although both the number of causes operating at a given level and the number subsequent to them are equally relevant for the present purpose.

The solution to this problem lies in taking the product of these two factors of complexity as follows: (number of causes in rank n) x (number of effects following rank n) = complexity of rank n.

In the previous example, this would mean that the complexity of C1 would be 1 x (15–1) = 14. That of rank 2, containing C2 and C3 would be 2 x (15–3) = 24. For rank 4, it would be 4 x (15–10) = 20.

On this basis, symmetry between higher and lower ranks results from the fact that the complexity embodied in a small number of powerful causes with many effects will be the same as for a large number of weaker causes with few effects. For Rank 5, being defined as the last, the complexity factor will have to be: 5 x 0 = 0, though this is not symmetrical with rank 1, which does not have zero complexity, though it is one of the lowest.

If C1 were to be preceded by a ‘zero’ cause, C0, its complexity value would indeed remain zero as a product of zero with all the causes in the system, but what could such a cause mean? All the causes numbered from C1 onward belong by definition to the created world, and so share the same mode of being, no matter how much they differ in other ways. This means that the Creator, whose transcendent causality never exists as such among the created, has not yet been represented. When the symbol C0 is inserted for this purpose, its non-cosmic nature is shown by its being placed above and outside the triangular structure already employed:

C0

C1

C2 C3

C4 C5 C6

With this addition, a fully symmetrical causal pattern can be set out, using an odd number of ranks (after C0) so that maximum complexity will appear clearly in one term:

No. Causes x No. Effects = Complexity

Only with the inclusion of the transcendent Cause, which is numerically zero to show its unique position, is it possible to make a product with the whole number of causes in the structure, in this case 28, and obtain a zero result corresponding to the last. The complexity of the causal process in the above array is clearly at a maximum in rank 4. The pattern appears even more clearly in larger systems of 45, 55, or more, which space does not allow here. For completeness, the last rank should be detached from the main structure to show that it, like the transcendent Cause, is not part of the visible order.

A Manichean Idea of Evil

What has been argued as to the nature of the cyclic movement creates an association between the ideas of ‘descent,’ ‘matter’, and ‘evil,’ which can perhaps be mistaken for the Manichean and gnostic idea that the material world as such is evil. There is a source of constant confusion here for those who fail to distinguish between matter () and material things. When understood in the light of the ideas used here, material things are by no means mere matter, but are instantiations of Form () in matter, where matter is understood as a universal quasi-reality which is below the threshold of anything perceptible by the senses.

Matter so conceived is the condition for the formation of material things and is therefore devoid of qualities, including those which are habitually called ‘material’. Insofar as evil is deprivation, therefore, matter so understood is rightly associated inevitably with evil, even though this matter is also the condition for the good which is realized in the material creation. For the same reason, the progressive removal of Form from matter can only be evil, and indeed it could not be so-called if the material world were not good; the idea of evil makes no sense without a primary good to undergo its destructive action. It is also significant that the conceptions of matter and evil employed here derive from Neoplatonism, particularly in Plotinus, who was strongly opposed to Gnostic and Manichean ideas. (Enn. ii, 9) The intelligibility of the world is necessarily a part of its goodness, and without this intelligibility, there is no metaphysical knowledge.


1. See chapter 10.

2. Proclus, Elements of Theology, prop. 59.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!