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DeKoninck’s Cosmos

Charles De Koninck was born in Belgium in July of 1906, and died in Rome in
February of 1965 - he was 58.

DeKoninck taught Mr. Berquist, Mr. McArthur, and Mr. Neumayr.

Mr. McArthur and Mr. Berquist both said that they entered philosophy because of
hearing Dr. DeKoninck lecture.

So I think it is fair to say that we would not be here, tonight, without De Koninck.

I met De Koninck in some old mimeographs the tutors were reading during my
senior year, and later I found more old class notes in an file cabinet at Notre Dame.
When I asked Dr. McInerny where the photocopied class notes came from, he told
me about the Charles DeKoninck archive at the University of Laval. Next thing I
knew, we had decided that I should fly up there and photocopy the whole thing. So
I did, enjoying the hospitality of Thomas DeKoninck, son of Charles, a philosopher
himself who has continued his father’s work, and a very kind gentleman. I spent, I
think, six 10-hour days, photocopying non-stop, manually, about 10,000 pages of
mostly unpublished notes and article drafts. The archive has now been scanned, and
is readily available to anyone interested.

Dr. Ralph McInerny was another Thomist who studied with De Koninck. And he
devoted himself in the last years of his life to a strenuous effort at producing an
English edition of De Koninck’s collected works. Dr. McInerny told us this project
was motivated by piety, by the strong realization, as he neared the end of his own
days, of what an extraordinary blessing it had been to be a student of De Koninck.

In a memoir written several years ago, McInerny recalled his time with De Koninck
more than 50 years before. I want to start by reading a bit from that:

"De Koninck once wrote that his ambition was simply to be a faithful student of his
master Thomas Aquinas. Discipleship seems to have either of two results. The
disciple never emerges from what the master had accomplished and is content to
retail it. Or, and this was the case with De Koninck and other giants of the Thomistic
Revival, Thomas was followed because his starting points were the inevitable ones,
and by acknowledging and seeing where they led, one could go far beyond the text
of the master while at the same time claiming that what one said was simply an
organic extension. It is only in this second way that a tradition can live. And
Charles De Koninck was the liveliest Thomist I have ever known."

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I mention these things, before turning to a sketch of De Koninck’s account of the
world, because I feel a similar duty of piety to De Koninck and to this community.
So, for what it is worth, I offer to you my own view that De Koninck is in every way
at the heart of what enables this College to stand in the tradition of living Thomism,
and of the intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church. As a College, we should turn
to him in gratitude - to his thought, and to the faith and spirit that inform it.

What I will principally sketch for you tonight is De Koninck’s account of an adequate
philosophy of the cosmos, as he thought such an account was available to the
philosopher of the 20th century. But first, some more general remarks about the
significance of that account.

While still quite a young man, in his first years at Laval, he wrote a book called
“Cosmos.” Let’s notice first what a remarkable thing it was for a man to compose a
book with such a title before he was 30 years old. Some might see presumption
here. I see a confirmation that philosophy must arise from a great and daring love
of wisdom, the kind of love characteristic of the energy of youth.

During these same years, in the mid-30’s, DeKoninck taught a class on Nietzsche, in
which he heaped contempt on those distressed by the force of Nietzsche’s
affirmation of will. De Koninck saw in Nietzsche a kind of providential sign of the
revolt of nature against the diminished desires of modern man.

Nietzsche wanted it all, but didn’t know what that meant. DeKoninck thought that
the Catholic philosopher ought also to want it all, to want to know the meaning of
the whole world, and its goodness. The difference, he believed, was that the
Catholic philosopher knew, as a fruit of faith, that the Good itself wants to give itself
to us, and that the world we seek to know has something to do with this. The
Catholic philosopher has reason to expect the whole cosmos to be a sign for him, a
means of knowing and loving God.

This is the first, and governing, point to make about natural philosophy as DeKoninck
understood it - to philosophize is to ask about the whole of things, about reality,
about the entire world and what it means.

DeKoninck loved and mastered the formalities of philosophy, and the distinctions
between disciplines, but he never forgot that the divisions of philosophy are
subordinate to the pursuit of Wisdom. The philosopher studies the natural world,
from its astonishing details to its mysterious totality, in order that from such
knowledge might arise a wisdom of the source. Natural philosophy, precisely in

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remaining true to itself, seeks to be surpassed by metaphysics, by a knowledge of
the immaterial.

Inevitably then, the philosopher asks about the cosmos, including the human. He
attends to it in all its dimensions of time and space, the very small and the very
large, the simple and the complex. Above all, he asks what to make of the whole
thing, as one thing. Aristotle did so, and Charles De Koninck thought that there was
no good reason for a Catholic philosopher in the 20th century to shy away from
doing so as well.

But while Aristotle could, perhaps, trust hopefully that gazing at the night sky would
reveal fundamental signs of the causal unity of the cosmos, and trust as well that the
ordinary experiences of common substances would reveal the unchanging nature of
the first material principles, things were a bit more complicated for a philosopher in
the 20th century. Reality had become a rather ungainly, and moving, target for
speculation.

In recent centuries, we have become aware that the material cosmos is billions of
years old, and of a size that threatens, in my case quite successfully, to overwhelm
our capacity to imagine, even to understand; We have discovered that the periodic
elements themselves did not exist for hundreds of millions of years, that they were
born at particular times in the cores of stars, and that those very particles are more
like dances of mathematical energy than Newton’s inert bits of stuff.

We have learned as well that life began relatively recently, after billions of years of a
lifeless cosmos, that the various species of living beings have shown up in a bizarre
and glorious pageant, roughly in order from the imperfect to the perfect, over the
past 3 billion years. In what Aristotle thought he saw as a permanent, ordered and
complete set of living kinds, we now know that we see only the latest living edge of
life on earth. Perhaps most startling, we now know that the vast, overwhelming
majority of kinds of living things that ever existed, are extinct. We wonder what
Aristotle could not – whether they lived in vain?

The very structures of living things have, in the past century, been revealed to be
complicated and wonderful in ways that compete quite well with more cosmic
stunners like 100 billion galaxies. There are new infinites in every direction, within
and without.

And man himself, we now see, is embedded organically, mysteriously, in this


amazing world.

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If you are not astonished almost beyond words by the turn that human knowledge of
the universe has taken in the past century, you are not paying attention.

10 years before DeKoninck wrote the Cosmos, an astronomer in Pasadena, Edwin


Hubble, announced to the world that the Milky Way Galaxy was not the whole of
creation, but a minute island in an ocean of galaxies – the current estimate, in the
visible sky, is 100 billion Milky Ways. It is hard to imagine a moment more
apparently hostile to the hope of discerning a conclusive meaning to the whole of
material creation. 10 years later, as he wrote “Cosmos,” DeKoninck was aware of
the brand new, and still extremely controversial, theory of Belgian priest Monsignor
George Lemaitre - also at Louvain - that the universe was expanding from an original
condition of unity, at a determinate moment in the past.

So, much has been revealed by science to the philosopher. And as with all
revelations, those of science have not always been very welcome.

It was a dizzying, potentially upsetting, disorienting, time to be a Catholic natural


philosopher. And at this, perhaps culminating, time of transformation of the
scientific account of the world, the young Charles DeKoninck composed his daring
account of the whole shebang.

De Koninck thought that modern Thomists simply didn’t know what to make of the
situation. Aristotle and St. Thomas - and Dante - understood the causal order of the
world to be embodied, literally, in a naturally eternal, spherical universe. Today, in
my own experience, it is hard for us even to imagine what it would be like to believe
such a thing. And yet we read texts of Aristotle and St. Thomas in which the most
fundamental philosophical questions are considered in light of the truth of this
remote image of the world.

De Koninck thought we are tempted by this situation to do one of two things, either
of them bad.

Put simply, either we abandon crucial parts of the philosophy which, for our masters,
appeared to be incarnate in their now surpassed image of the cosmos, or we
abandon the conviction that such philosophy depended in any way for them on that
image.

Either we conclude sadly that our hope of understanding the world passed away
along with the celestial spheres and the four elements, or we claim that our
philosophy survived, miraculously, unscathed from the shipwreck of the ancient
image of the world.

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De Koninck thought we could do better. In this he spoke out of the heart of the true
perennial tradition. God does not cease speaking to us through creation as we
understand it better.

Perhaps “revelation” is a loaded term for this situation? Let’s think about that.

Surely, we must say that God intended for the cosmos to be revealed to man - and
by man - gradually, through history.

And when we contemplate the astonishing turn this knowledge has taken in the
recent past, can we doubt that it is part of God’s providence that man should come
to be increasingly provoked by the nature of creation? Is this increased knowledge
of nature itself a principal aspect of cosmic history? Are the histories of the cosmos,
and of man, one history - and if so, can reason begin to anticipate the culmination of
this history?

DeKoninck tackles all these questions in the remarkable book of his youth.

Now I’ll try to give you a first glimpse at how he does so. What follows is not so
much an argument, as a tour, of some of the principal judgements at which
DeKoninck thought natural philosophy could arrive regarding the cosmos.

So what, according to DeKoninck, is the cosmos? The short answer is that the
cosmos is mobile being - that the whole of physical reality is fundamentally one
creature, moving toward its maturation, its perfection, in order to return to God.

DeKoninck thought that the much disputed evolution of biological species was, for
the philosopher, one aspect of the motion of the entire world toward God.

Writing at a time when most Catholic philosophers saw in the idea of evolution a
threat to Catholic and philosophical truth, De Koninck insisted that we should want
evolution, and not just biological, but cosmic, evolution, to be true.

The idea of evolution was particularly convincing to him precisely because Divine
power is most present where created causes are most causes. An evolving cosmos
is a cosmos with a nature, an intrinsic principle of motion toward its own perfection.

In such a world, the Divine wisdom gives to every creature the privilege of joining in
the work of ascent, of return to God the first principle.

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When we diminish the causal role played by creatures, we diminish the principal
good God intended in creation - the universe as one thing, having a unity of
essential, and consequently of causal, order.

But Is Evolution True?

De Koninck thought that evolution - the ascent, forming a cosmic history, of the
kinds of physical substances that exist - follows necessarily from the philosophical
principles of Aristotle and St. Thomas:

"The philosophy of nature, being certain knowledge through causes, is able to reach
only what is essential to nature, and necessary, such as the matter/form composition
of natural substances, the contingency which this composition entails, the necessity
of evolution, [and] the necessity of humanity as the final end of this entire ascension
of the world.”

This point is worth repeating – De Koninck identified evolution, and the culmination
of evolution in man, as two of the few strictly demonstrable truths of natural
philosophy.

But what about philosophical objections to evolution, against the higher arising from
the lower, or one kind of thing causing something specifically different? Are not the
species of corporeal beings eternal?

DeKoninck thought we need to remember what corporeal beings are, and what
makes them different from angels. Modern philosophical objections to evolution, he
said:

"attribute to natural beings . . . properties (that) are specific (to) purely spiritual
creatures. Our Philosophy of Nature reeks with sins of angelism, it is often no more
than bad angelology."

What does this mean?

Without noticing it, we too often think about material substances, cosmic beings, as
though they were pure spirits, immaterial beings. We don't, of course, forget that
bodily things are, or have, bodies, but we don't think carefully enough about the
difference matter makes.

What does Aristotle teach us is the common feature of every cosmic substance?

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Composition from matter and form. DeKoninck contrasts such cosmic essence - the
essences of possible corporeal substances - with angelic essences this way:

"What pure spirits have that is quite specific by opposition to cosmic beings is
simplicity and perfect determination of essence."

Because the angelic essence is simple, it is received once and for all, in its entirety.
Angels have no past or future. They are perfectly what they are, all at once, with no
potency to be anything else. This is good.

Cosmic beings – rocks, plants, planets, dogs - on the other hand, have essences that
are complex. And one of the principles of their complex essence is purely
indeterminate, namely, matter. Since the way things exist follows from what they
are, beings with a complex essence have a complex existence. This is, relatively
speaking, bad.

From such unfortunately complex existence - the story of our cosmic lives - arises
the necessity of time.

“A being with a complex essence must have a complex existence. That means an
existence received successively. But this successively received existence must be
always that of the same being, so it must be successively and continuously received.
But successive and continuous duration is precisely the definition of time.”

So the career of a cosmic, a physical, a natural being, is inevitably spread out across
the dimension we call time. My now is not my then – being what I am now is
mysteriously, continually, divided from what I was and from what I will be. I am
complex in a way that I experience as a defect of unity, an imperfection in the way I
am. This is true of rocks, electrons, planets.

"Natural beings are busy in pursuit of existence, and spend time in doing so."

We are not used to thinking this way, perhaps. But from this perspective, the longer
something exists, the more its existence is dispersed, spread out.

From this perspective, DeKoninck says, “Natural subhuman species should be


considered as more and more audacious attempts to detach the world itself from the
dispersion of time, in order to dominate it from outside, instead of being borne away
by it.”

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Matter, and the correlative imperfection of corporeal forms, make the course of
cosmic existence contingent as well. Only natural beings have a future, and that
future cannot be perfectly determined to be one way or another, because natural
beings are insufficiently determined, insufficiently real, to make that part of their
existence which we know as their future be necessarily one way or another.

From these consequences of the matter/form composition of natural substances, De


Koninck thought we can see the necessity of evolution culminating in humanity.

But he also understood that drawing this conclusion, even from the most basic
principles of natural philosophy, was made much easier by the modern scientific
discovery that the cosmos has, since its origin, been developing toward structure,
complexity, interiority, and life.

The vast, cooperative, complex, ordered endeavor of modern natural science to


assemble what is, in effect, a cosmic "natural history," was not available to St.
Thomas. It was available to De Koninck. He thought this natural history could
provide the philosopher crucial extrinsic support for strictly philosophical
conclusions. His argument shows how natural science, although not itself achieving
philosophic certitude, can serve the philosopher.

Man must be the reason the cosmos exists, the reason matter exists, and the reason
that all other natural forms exist.

1. Man is the reason the cosmos exists - its final explanation and its end, or goal.
This can be seen in several ways.

First: no motion can be an end in itself. Movement is a going toward a good which
is not possessed. It is contradictory to think of a motion as good in itself- its very
account denies this possibility. So the final term of any mobile being must be
something simply immobile, something achieved - which means something above
time. This term is man, who as a spiritual being does not pursue his existence in
time, although he remains in time in so far as he is corporeal.

Further, the universe, and all its parts, have their final end in God. This means that
creatures must be capable of a return to God. But the corporeal universe, the
cosmos, can only achieve that return to God through man, for only an intellectual
creature can return to God.

For these reasons, a physical creation without man is literally unthinkable - a


contradiction.

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"A world cannot exist in order to be indefinitely separated from its own existence,
and indefinitely separated from itself by space. By the very fact that it is made for
intelligence, it is necessary that it be able to be present to itself; it is necessary that
an intelligence be able to restore this entire ensemble to its principle, and that the
world become a kind of hymn. In order to arrive at that, it is necessary that time be
arrested and that it be immobilized, and that space be entirely penetrated and
present. Now, that cannot be done but in an intelligence, which is as such outside of
space and outside of time. And our universe will be immobilized at the moment
when intelligence will have made its conquest."

So man and his return to the Creator are the reason for which the entire cosmos
exists. Man, thought De Koninck, is the way the material creation enables itself to
return to God.

2. In addition to being the reason for which the cosmos exists, man is also the
reason for which matter exists.

The matter in every bodily being is properly understood as an appetite, a desire, for
the human form. Matter is intelligible by reference to act - but no act which remains
mingled with potency can be the principal goal of matter. As pure potency and
determinability, matter is the same in every being. It is an appetite or desire for all
forms, the lowest to the highest, but most properly it is a desire for the highest form,
which is the form of man. So the human form is desired principally by all matter.

3. Man is also the reason for being of all possible natural forms, as much as he is of
matter.

Natural forms are like attempts to satisfy the desire of matter for the perfect
immobility of the spiritual human form. Accordingly, each natural form is turned in
the direction of man. Infra-human forms are attempts at immobile act, as though
each were an attempt at the human form. From this perspective the infra-human
forms are much less final states than tendencies. They are, recall, “more and more
audacious attempts to detach the world itself from the dispersion of time.”

And so we arrive at a cosmic hierarchy.

The possible infra-human natural forms form a continuum. De Koninck thought that
only four natural species are philosophically definable, necessary, within this
continuum - inorganic, plant, animal, and man. Man must be a body, he must be a
living body, a sensitive body, and he must have a rational soul. Accordingly, these

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degrees of being must exist.

All other, more specific, degrees of being may or may not exist - like particular
places one may or may not set one's foot in a walk with a determinate starting point
and a determinate goal. Animal was necessary, turtle was contingent.

So the actual infra-human forms constitute a scale, as of steps from one form to the
next, whose order has the human form as its principle.

This is not to speak yet of an order in time, but an order of natures.

"The fixity of infra-human forms is then a counterfeit fixity. We are naturally


metaphysicians, and so we incline to assimiliate the cosmic hierarchy to a series of
whole numbers, and to the immobile hierarchy of pure spirits; whereas there is only
an analogy between them."

This, notice, is what De Koninck means by “bad angelology.”

But must we postulate a temporal order in the realization of this hierarchy of actual
forms? What prevents the ultimate and instrinsic end of the cosmos from being
realized from the beginning?

“From the beginning, matter is essentially ordered to man, to this intelligence that
has need of passive experience, therefore of sensation and animality, which entail
vegetative life and corporeity. If matter does not have this act right away, this is
because originally it is not sufficiently disposed and first much must be done, a work
which consists in eliciting ever more simple quidditative determinations. The cause
of this resistance of the world is nothing other than the indetermination of matter."

But we are still, necessarily, speaking of a world of fundamentally contingent events.


Although intelligence must come to matter, the manner of its coming is contingent.

The particular infra-human forms have arisen from matter like cuts in a line - there
are infinitely many cuts that might be made, and no way to know in advance which
ones will be made. So all infra-human forms more particular than inorganic
substance, plant and animal, are contingent. This contingency is a universal
property of material beings, arising from the indetermination of the matter which is
an essential principle of them all. The corresponding incompleteness or imperfect
determination of natural forms is a correlative source of the contingency of the
natural.

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Only natural science, or methodical natural history, can discern the actual path that
nature takes to arrive at man, and only after the fact.

The cosmos will, then, necessarily pursue a contingent ascent toward the ultimate
disposition of matter to receive the form of man. Evolution, De Koninck says,
consists precisely in the formation of an adequate corporeal instrument to serve the
human spirit - the least of the created intelligences.

But matter is not, all by itself, the principle of motion. For there to be a determined
principle of motion, there must be matter, which desires, and form, which
determines the kind of motion by which the desired end can be pursued. Both
matter and form are essential parts of any nature. How a composite can be changed
will follow from what kind of being it is now - from its form.

So different natural substances will be in motion toward man differently, according to


their different, contingent, degrees of perfection.

How can new natures come to be?

Generation of new substances occurs as the term of alterations in existing


substances. Every natural composite is generated by another natural composite
through alteration. In such generation, substantial form is elicited from matter by an
agent of generation, by means of instruments. To generate is just to draw a possible
natural form, already given in the potency of prime matter, into actuality.

So if a new form, higher than any existing corporeal or cosmic form, is to be elicited
from matter, it will be elicited by the causality of existing corporeal forms. The
natural way for any substance, new kind or not, higher or not, to come to be is as
the term of alterations of existing substance.

After initial co-creation of prime matter in the original composite beings, no special
creative act is necessary for such generation. All possible corporeal forms are given
in the potency of matter, and need only be drawn into act.

There remains the question of the principal agent. How can new beings, more
perfect than any previous cosmic beings, be generated without the direct
intervention of God?

De Koninck's answer is that modern scholastics have departed from St. Thomas in
rejecting the purely philosophical demonstration of the existence and causality of
pure spirits, of angels, who as nobler parts of the universe are related to the cosmos

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precisely as universal causes.

Having forgotten the philosophy by which we understand the difference between


angels and corporeal beings, we have made two errors. We have unknowingly
attributed angelic attributes to corporeal beings - perfect determination and
simplicity of essense. And we have forgotten that the universe includes intelligent
causes at work in the cosmos.

So pure spirits are the intelligent agent causes which, responding to the natural
desire of the cosmos, suffice to draw out of the original composites with which the
cosmos began all the forms which are necessary for it to reach its end.

Since this angelic causal power is natural, it must act on natures according to the
laws inscribed in them:

"In the ascending movement by which more perfect beings are drawn from less
perfect, the given intra-cosmic composite is only an instrument, the spiritual agent
being the principal cause. The spiritual pressure will not draw [just] any nature out
of any composite whatsoever. The instrument, although it produces an effect
superior to itself under the influence of a superior cause, implies nevertheless
essential limitations. The more perfect the substances engendered, the more will
they be in their turn more perfect instruments."

DeKoninck insists that the development of the biosphere is an increasing elevation


above time. Not metaphorically, but really, a being is lifted above the conditions of
space and time in the measure that it is perfected. And this elevation, in turn,
corresponds to the degree of life it has. To live is to triumph over the separations of
space and time. In its local motion, with accumulated memory of its experience at
prior locations, an animal labors at the great project of unification. This, he says, “is
the profound sense of the locomobility of knowers, a power that frees them from the
shackles of their spatiality, and which in the final instance is at the service of the
exploring intelligence.”

The necessity of humanity as the specific term of the cosmic motion does not mean
that the cosmos reached its natural perfection when man came to be. What did the
evolutionary perspective imply for De Koninck about the naturally perfected cosmos
that lies ahead?

Man as knower, and as maker, tends to complete the subordination of cosmic matter
to himself. This not Baconian hubris – it is the purpose of the world.

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He tends toward ubiquity by extending his presence, his sense knowledge, and his
intellectual knowledge, to the whole of the cosmos. In thus making the world more
and more simply one in his knowledge, he overcomes in himself its separation from
itself.

In man, the cosmos increasingly tends as well to transcend its separation from itself
in time. Past and present are increasingly collected in the knowledge of man, and
the whole of cosmic existence thus increasingly achieves a unity which, without man,
is utterly lacking.

From this perspective, the entire cosmos may be viewed as an impulse toward the
perfected life of thought.

“We can consider the maturation of the cosmos as a tendency toward the thought in
which all its parts are united and lived; the cosmos thus tends to compenetrate
itself, to touch itself in the intelligence of man, in which it can realize (the) explicit
return to its First Principle.”

"What would be the ideal state that we would pursue in time and in thought?” De
Koninck asks. “I would wish to exist all at once. I would wish that all things be
present in me all together. I would wish to contemplate them in an instant immobile
and indivisible. I would wish to have a present which has no past, and which is
never separate from the future.”

But it is clear that the “man” who anticipates this culminating condition is not an “I,”
but a “we.” It is humanity, not isolated men, in whom the self-possession of the
cosmos will reach perfection. The perfected cosmos will be, on this view, a common
good, possessed as such by the perfected human community.

In fact, the entire cosmic ascent can be viewed as well as an ascent of love, of desire
for the good. Moved originally from without, before the coming of life, the cosmos
increasingly desires its perfection with a love from within, culminating in the rational
desire called will. In man, the cosmos loves itself explicitly

Each individual being, of course, has its particular end. But for a lion, for example,
to be all that a lion can be - for it to reach its own individual completion in the
accidental order - is not the principal end of a lion. Even the essential principles of
the lion, its matter and form, are seeking spirituality, the immobile act.

The accidents which perfect the lion as lion may be all that this lion can achieve for
itself as an individual toward this goal. But this is not the same as saying that the

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perfect day of hunting is all that either the matter or the form of the lion are for, all
that they, and the lion, are ordered to, all that they desire.

Nor is the species to which every individual is proximately ordered an end in


itself. To have an essence composed of matter and form is to have a perfectible
essence.

Nature may bring about many lions so that the leonine nature can continue to exist,
and to exist well, as what it is. But this specific existence itself, spread out over
indefinitely many individuals, must in turn be ordered to something higher. It is
good that lions continue to be, for a time, but nature seeks perfect lions so that
there can, eventually, be more perfect natural beings. The whole of nature is
essentially a principle of ascending movement, an intensifying desire for the
culminating good.

"Lower natures serve universal nature even in generation. When a higher nature is
elicited from the potency of a lower nature by equivocal generation, this eliciting is .
. . always natural in the degree that it responds to the desire of the lower nature as
ordered to the good of universal nature and to the ultimate intrinsic end of the
world."

"Every part of the universe, even the humblest and farthest removed from the One
Who is goodness by His essence, tends naturally and more intensely toward the
good, intrinsic and extrinsic, of the universe than towards the good of its genus, of
its kind, and last towards its own."

Nature, De Koninck says, is generosity, and evolution is, for the ascending natures, a
gift of self in the precise degree that it is a work of nature.

“All infrahuman things,” he says, “are love of and desire for man by their very
tendency toward the explicit love of God.”

Accordingly, in cosmic evolution, he saw not only an attempt by the world at self-
possession in knowledge - the cosmos also “tends to be united to itself and possess
itself effectively in love.” The world tends toward this self-knowledge and self-love,
he says, “not, doubtless, as ultimate end, but as the pre-condition of the explicit
return to the First Principle by love.”

Cosmic development seeks perfect self-possession in preparation for self-donation to


God. And it is on man that this highest hope of the world rests.

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I want to conclude by remembering once again the importance, the dignity, that De
Koninck attributed to the natural sciences. It is unreasonable, he repeatedly said of
evolution, to judge a theory by the abuses that are made of it. He certainly thought
the same of the tendency of philosophers to be ungrateful to the sciences. I expect
that Charles de Koninck thanked God fervently for the blessing of being alive when
he was, at a time of glory and triumph for the natural sciences.

But I believe he thanked God more fervently for the blessing of having a glimpse of
the higher truths which he believed that science helped the philosopher, and the
theologian, to reach. At the conclusion of the first part of “Cosmos,” entitled “The
Scientific Point of View,” De Koninck articulated both the importance, and the
dignity, of the scientific effort:

“Science, while being only a flat projection of what has relief and depth, enables us
to foresee the immense effort and the prodigious cost nature invests in the
preparation for the coming of man. And whether he knows it or not, everything that
happens in the world is done for him. The scale of natural species is only a scale of
assault. If man is the ultimum in executione, he is nonetheless the primum in
intentione. The all too poor account that we have given enables us to suspect the
richness of the human being who contains virtually all the degrees of perfection of
that which is below him. And it is not only in the formidable display of power that we
should look for this richness: the reaches of space, the unimaginable masses, the
vertiginous speeds of astronomy are not worth a lily. But we have also seen that we
have need of the stars to understand the lily. We will only be able to understand
ourselves when we understand the universe. Our present is filled with the past.”

“The more profoundly we understand the world, the better we comprehend that we
touch it only with the feet, and that with our head we touch the bottom rungs of
another hierarchy of which nature is only a fleeting shadow.”

Cosmos, the book, was never published. It has been suggested that this was
because De Koninck reconsidered some of its principal ideas. I believe that this is
not true. To mention just one, but in my view, decisive, indication of this: when, in
1962, a French journal devoted an entire issue to honoring him, De Koninck chose
the central chapter of “Cosmos,” entitled “The Cosmos as Impulse toward the Life of
Thought,” to be published for the first time.

But 1962 was a long time after 1936.

In my view, the likely reason the book was never published was that De Koninck
decided that those who would read it were not ready for it. In 1936, Catholic

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intellectuals who publicly embraced evolution were viewed with suspicion, at best.
One of the greatest philosophical souls of the 20th century, whose understanding of
the world was remarkably akin to De Koninck’s, spent his entire productive life in
various forms of banishment from the world of ideas because of those views.

Teilhard de Chardin, a great scientist, great philosopher, and holy priest, had been
banished to China by the Jesuits because of the inconvenient popularity of his views
on cosmology, evolution, and the place of man in the world. Those views were
substantially the same as DeKoninck’s. Aristotle fled rather than let Athens sin
twice against philosophy; Descartes changed his publishing plans after seeing what
happened to Galileo. I believe DeKoninck probably took the prudent path as well.

Nietzsche speaks of the mask that great men must wear, and of the pain they bear.
In 1952 Teilhard wrote to a friend from his final place of banishment, New York City,
that “the University of Laval at Quebec is about to hold a congress on Evolution.
Naturally no one has thought (or dared) to ask for a contribution from me. . . .” In
the publication of the proceedings of the conference, hosted by De Koninck, mention
is made by one of the presenters of De Koninck’s well known views on evolution, and
a promise is made of their publication in a later edition of the Laval Journal. This
never happened. Teilhard died two and a half years later, still probably thinking that
Charles De Koninck was a rear-guard apologist for the Vatican on evolution.

It saddens me that these two champions of the view that Jesus Christ is the Lord of
the Cosmos and of History never met, and it may still be worthwhile to ask why they
didn’t. It took courage to trust, in those confusing years, that natural science was
working in service of the glory of the Lord. For having that courage, both men are
my heroes.

Ron McArthur wrote his dissertation under De Koninck on the subject of universal
causality. I propose that we would do well to recognize in Charles De Koninck –
educator of our Founders and liveliest of Thomists – a universal cause of Thomas
Aquinas College.

dquackenbush@thomasaquinas.edu

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