The Plastic Faculty: Jacob Schegk on Nature’s Rational Principle


Hiro Hirai argues that for Jacob Schegk (1511-1587), a friend of Philip Melanchthon and professor of philosophy and medicine at the University of Tübingen, the natural force of life or secondary causality present within created things is explicable in the Galenic terms of a “moulding” or “plastic faculty.” This power is controlled and determined by God but possesses its own energy. Where Medievals spoke of the vegetative power as a passive potency, Schegk combined the natural philosophy of Galen with the Neoplatonic principle of “spiritual vehicles” to argue that the plastic faculty is a quasi-intellectual energy (energeia) that denotes the principle of generation in natural beings. Hirai explains the difference between this faculty and the generative potency of the human soul:

Before closing his discussion, Schegk enumerates four possible opinions on the origin of human souls: 1) They are eternal and enter bodies at birth and leave them at death (according to Plato and Aristotle); 2) they are created all at once in the beginning of the world, but each of them enters its specific body at a precise moment; 3) they are drawn from the potentiality of matter by the plastic logos as the products of Nature; 4) each of them begins to exist by divine creation at the same moment when body is formed by the plastic logos. Schegk obviously chooses the last option, denying that the human soul is drawn from the potentiality of matter. Invoking the authority of the Bible, he concludes that God forms creatures by the plastic instrument of the seed’s nature, whereas only for man God simultaneously creates his soul by Himself and forms his organic body by means of this plastic nature. According to Schegk, God is the Creator of angels whereas the human soul, which shares the angelic essence, is created as the “breath” (spiraculum) of the Creator and is not “produced” by the plastic nature. The everyday creation of the human soul with the formation of its organic body, which is to be animated by this soul, is the ultimate action of the Creator. Although God attributed a primary generative task to the plastic nature, he does not cease to create human souls in order to show that man is not the “product” (plasma) of Nature but the son of God. Schegk concludes:

“I believe that, if the philosophers had known the Creator God, they would have agreed with us and would have said that the souls are not contained in the seed and in the seminal liquid of the male before they inform human bodies. In fact,denying the Creator God, or rather being ignorant of Him, they were forced to conclude that, by the spermatic logos , the human soul and its body are generated at the same time and that the human soul is not introduced from outside but is drawn from the potentiality of matter.”

For Schegk, the plastic nature produces all except the human soul, which, endowed with angelic essence, has only the Creator God as its maker. The human soul, or more precisely, the intellect cannot be generated through seminal propagation since it is something “born before” (progenes) Nature. It should be created by what precedes it. That is the Creator God.

~ Hiro Hirai, “The Invisible Hand of God in Seeds: Jacob Schegk’s Theory of Plastic Faculty,” Early Science and Medicine 12 (2007), 401, 402.

According to Hirai, Schegk’s De plastica seminis facultate (Strasburg, 1580) was the first Renaissance work to use the phrase “plastic faculty.” The idea of the plastic power went on to become a staple in 17th century works of medicinal science and natural philosophy. Perhaps its most important exponent was Ralph Cudworth, who used the concept of the “plastic nature” as an integral part of this enterprise to wed Platonism and atomism and whose use of the phrase would be influential for G.W. Leibniz.

John Calvin’s Aristotelean Cosmology

Aristotelean CosmologyMany of John Calvin’s references to Aristotelean cosmology occur during his later years, representing his mature theology. Christopher Kaiser has shown that Calvin viewed the universe through the lens of Aristotelean natural philosophy. (Kaiser, “Calvin and Natural Philosophy,” in Calviniana, vol. X) He accepted such ideas as the concept of natural place (the earth is the center of the spheres due to its weight), the system of homocentric spheres (the ten spheres interconnected and moved by the primum mobile), and the subordination of terrestrial cycles to the revolutions of the heavenly spheres.

Kaiser notes that Calvin, as Aquinas and Bonaventure before him, sought to remedy the problem of the distant primum mobile with the providential guidance of the Christian God. Calvin did this by extending the sovereign guidance of the divine hand beyond the sphere of the Moon, where Aristotle placed a limit. Rather than solving the problem of how the earth remains stable while the enormous celestial spheres drag and press upon it by using a solution from Aristotle himself, Calvin substituted the providence of God who holds the earth upon the outer waters and keeps it stable as the celestial spheres move. According to Kaiser, “For Calvin, of course, there was a clear correlation between the concept of stability and order in the natural sphere and the sense of God’s protection in the personal and social spheres.” (ibid., p. 89) Therefore, the idea of God holding the earth in place brings much hope to believers that while the social sphere may be torn apart by tyrants God remains holding everything in place.

Kaiser asks where Calvin got his ideas and how he was influenced to read and write in such Aristotelean terms. The answer is that he was partly following the concepts of the times, since Aristotle’s cosmology had been accepted as an authentic representation of the universe for hundreds of years. However, Calvin was also influenced by those near him, sparking his interest in natural phenomena and causing him to delve more deeply into the texts of Aristotle. Kaiser lists all of Calvin’s influences in this matter. Particularly interesting is the fact that many of Calvin’s writings on Arisotelian natural philosophy came during and after the arrival of the Italians, Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi, both scholastically trained Aristoteleans. Kaiser’s list follows:

Based on the evidence cited here, a plausible account of the origins of Calvin’s understanding of Aristotelian natural philosophy would be as follows. Calvin probably became interested in and informed about the subject during his college days in Paris; his approach to Aristotle’s natural philosoph appears to be that of a humanist like Jacques Lefere d’Eteples or Francois Vatable, who may have been his Hebrew instructor at the College royal in 1531-32. Calvin’s interest and understanding were heightened by his study of Seneca (early 1530s), his reading of Basil’s Hexaemeron (early 1540s), and by the publication of Luther’s Lectures on Genesis (1544). This led to his first treatment of the distribution of the terrestrial elements and the mechanics of the celestial spheres … Finally, in the mid-1550s, Calvin thought more deeply about the problem of the stability of the earth in the midst of a whirling cosmos. This further development may reflect the influence of Vermigli and Zanchius. (ibid., pp. 91, 92)

It is interesting to think that Calvin’s theology may have become more Aristotelean during the final years of his life due to the influence of his Italian acquaintances, who were known both for their humanism and scholasticism.

Lambert Daneau and ‘Natural Philosophy,’ A Pagan Phrase?

Lambert DaneauLambert Daneau (1530-1595)  is not a well-known man, yet he was very influential in the Genevan Academy in the decades following the death of John Calvin. He was the first person to become a full-time professor at the new academy. The others, including Daneau’s mentor Theodore Beza, served the dual function of parish minister and professor. The pastors of the Consistory recognized Daneau’s theological gifts and promoted him, at an early age, to full-time professor. He was a prolific writer for his short stay on this earth, publishing a commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, a commentary on Augustine’s Enchiridion, works on the Eucharist and the Antichrist, a three-volume work on Christian Ethics, a work on Christian Natural Philosophy, two biblical commentaries, various polemical works, commentaries on the Minor Prophets, two works against Osiander, and others. Along with men like Ursinus, Olevianus, Zanchi, and Beza, Daneau contributed to the codification of Reformed theology indicative of the era of early orthodoxy, in its first phase ranging from 1565-1618.

In Daneau’s day there was no “Genevan” school of thought as there came to be in the second phase of early orthodoxy, represented by the High Calvinist Gomarus and his Genevan counterpart Giovanni Diodati. As Richard Muller has so aptly demonstrated, Reformed theologians from Calvin to Keckermann created an eclectic sort of theology. They drew upon Scotus, Thomas, Bernard of Clairveaux, and many others to systematize the theology bequeathed to them by the first generation Reformers. Daneau contributed to this process in his The Wonderfull Woorkmanship of the World… by seeking to bring natural philosophy within the boundaries of the faith. Lutheran theologians such as Jacob Schegk were already doing this. The latter even argued that the goal of natural philosophy is virtue since the study of nature leads to the First Cause. In the following passage Daneau seeks to defend the use of natural philosophy by Christians.

Why then, doe you call it naturall Philosophie, which is a woorde used by Heathen Philosophers? For twoo causes. The firste is, for that Christians ought not to bee so scrupulous, or rather superstitious, that thei should bee afeard to use suche common woordes and names as the Heathen doe, for somuche, as with them wee do use and enioy the self same Sun, aire, earth, water, light, meates, and Cities. Neither doeth the Scripture it self refuse that woorde as unseemely or monstrous, as appeareth in te 2 chapiter and 3 verse to the Ephesians [referring to Paul’s use of fu/siß],and the 1 chapiter and 5 verse of the second Epistle of S. Peter. Also the auncient and Catholike fathers in every place, doe terme this knowledge of thynges by the name of Naturall Philosophie, as did Basile, Chrisostome, Ambrose, Augustine in his Enchiridion to Laurence: Naturall Philosophers, saieth hee, “are thei that searche the nature of thynges.” Secondly, that for as muche as this woorde, Nature, in the common use of the Greeke tongne, is, for the moste parte, applied to suche thynges as doe consiste, not of essence only, of whiche sorte God is, but are compounded with certain accidentes adioined, suche as are all the thynges that wee beholde with our eyes, and whereof this visible worlde consisteth: that knolwedge seemeth moste properly to bee termed naturall Philosophie, whiche is busied in the handlying of the mixt, compounded, and materiall thinges, that it maie bee distinguished from Divinitie. Wherefore, Naturall Philosophie, saie thei, is the knowledge of Materiall and Instrumentall beginnynges. (Daneau, The Wonderfull Woorkmanship of the World, pp, 1, 2.)

Not only does Paul use the word “nature”, a term Daneau attributes to the pagans, but other faithful Christians, particularly the church Fathers, have used that term in order to distinguish the science of nature from that of divinity. Daneau continues to probe the reason why Christians ought to investigate natural philosophy. He gives five reasons, other than the sheer pleasure such a knowledge should bring: (1) So that we may know God to be omnipotent and eternal, (2) to learn created things, their operations and natures, (3) so that we may know what man is and what is his soul, (4) so that we might be stirred up to contemplate and praise God, and (5) so that the Christian Divine may better understand and interpret the scriptures. In expounding the 4th reason Daneau relates the story of Galen:

The IV [reason that Natural Philosophy is profitable for Christians] that wondryng at in our myndes, and beholdyng with our eyes these woorkes of God, so greate, so many, so wonderfull, beyng thereunto holpen by none other meanes than by this Arte, wee are with greate zeale and affection stirred up to set foorth the wonderfull praises of God and to give him thankes. Which thing happened unto Galene, yea, although he were a prophane Philosopher, that after hee had described the Nature of one of Gods woorkes, that is to saie, of Man, and the partes of his bodie, hee was enforced, yea, almoste against his will, to syng an Himne to God. Herethence it commeth that suche multitude of hymnes, so many Epodes and songes o praise, so many Psalmes are written and celebrated. (ibid., pp. 3, 4.)

Though Daneau did not consider nature to be the foundation of the supernatural – a contradiction in terms – he did consider nature to be infused with a divine power that when studied provoked an almost forced response from man in the form of song and praise. Therefore this Natural Philosophy should be studied by Christians for the betterment of the individual mind as well as the corporate prayer of the Church.