Form. The distinction between matter
ὔλη and form
their concurrence in the
σὐνολον, as constituting real existence are an
important element in the Aristotelian philosophy.
Mere matter cannot
constitute anything, till it receives some sort of form, which gives it
determinate and distinct existence, makes it what it is. Matter
antecedent to the reception of any form was called by philosophers
elementary or materia prima. Of course such matter can be neither seen,
felt, or in any way conceived. Every object of perception is ipso facto recognised as something, and has therefore some form. Only
He had first matter seen undressed;
He took her naked all alone,
one rag of form was on."
When the word matter is used in this sense, it is in antithesis to form
not to mind; and it may easily be seen that it need not mean
anything corporeal. Virtues, vices, heresies, and the like, have in the language
of the schools their matter and their form. A man is in material heresy
who makes a statement in verbal opposition to the orthodox faith, but he
is not formally a heretic unless he means and prefers the position thus opposed to the truth. An act may have the matter of schism, but
is not formal schism in him who commits it without knowing the
circumstances of the case, or the questions with which it is connected.
The form then of anything is that which constitutes it what it is. This
matter, whether mental or corporeal, constitutes nothing till it has
received form. The formal cause then (see
Cause) is that which
determines anything in its distinct being.
Now, in ordinary modern language form is used rather in
contradistinction to that which is real; a use almost the opposite of
the philosophical, in which latter the form is nearly equivalent to the
essence. The employment of the term by Bacon, as identical in meaning
with the vera differentia and the natura naturans, is in accordance with
The true force of the word comes out clearly in the following:
"Anzi è formale ad esto besto esse
Tenersi dentro alla divina voglia;
Perch' una fansi nostre voglie stesse."
DANTE, Paradiso, III.
Carey renders the tercet thus:
"Rather it is inherent in this state
Of blessedness, to keep ourselves
The Divine Will, by which our wills with His are one."
Sir Frederick Pollock as follows:
"In this blest state it is essential
To the Divine Will to conform the thoughts,
That our wills together may make one."
And Mrs. Ramsay:
"For 'tis essential to this life of bliss
To hold ourselves within the
That thus our wills should be at one with His."
Of these the two latter keep nearer to the force of formale than the
first. Still essential is infelicitous, for it means of or belonging to
the essence, and not therefore necessarily constituting it. It would
have been better both in respect of philosophical exactness and
retention of the scholastic costume of the Divina Commedia to have
rendered formale literally by formal, the rather that all three
translators do so in the conclusion of the immediately preceding canto.
A note would have explained to the ordinary reader the force of the
I have hitherto been dealing merely with the Aristotelian and subsequent
scholastic force of the word form. In ancient times it ran through
various shades of meaning pretty correspondent to those which it bears
among ourselves. Plato in the Republic uses it as we should in
contradistinction to the reality, the true
ἰδέα. And it seems often to
have been taken as nearly synonymous with
σχῆμα, outward shape or
fashion. But in grave discourse since Aristotle we may expect to find a
μορφή or form appropriated to the real being of that to
which the term is applied.
Trench, in his New Testament Synonyms, 2nd series, has a valuable
article on the three words,
ἰδέα, together with the cognates of the two former,
μεταμορφοῡν, and Professor Lightfoot furnishes a
most profound note on the word
μορφή in connection with the sublimest
application that was ever made of it, in his Commentary on the Epistle
to the Philippians.(1)
Whatever variations may be found in the use of the word, the strict
scholastic meaning should be kept carefully in mind by the student of
our old writers, although with them too, it will be found used sometimes
exactly, sometimes loosely.
For the phrase "under the forms of bread and wine," see
(1) It is worth remarking that St. Paul denotes a mere outward appearance,
without inward reality, not by the word μορφή, but by
20, 2 Tim. III. 5.