The Four Causes of Being: Jonathan Dolhenty


A Brief Introduction into the Nature of Reality

by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.


The Four Causes of Being

We come now to one of the profoundest topics in metaphysical thought: the causes of being.

A created being comes into or emerges into being. The created being has its first origin in creation, which is an action proper only to an Infinite Uncreated Being, and which produces a being in its entirety out of nothing. This is the first beginning of all created being. While it is true that bodily substances, such as we are, can generate other bodily substances like us through biological reproduction, the fact is that the root-origin of this process is found in creation.

The emergence of being is called becoming. Becoming, looked at in itself and statically, is a combination of the accidentals called action and passion. You’ll recall that action is an accidental being which determines a reality as doing something, as producing an effect. It is an answer to the question: “What does it do?” Also recall that passion or reaction is an accidental being which determines a reality as undergoing something, as affected by some action. It is an answer to the question: “What is happening to it?”

When we consider substantial change or substantial becoming we mean that the beings changed are substances, and that one being ceases to be while another emerges. We do not mean that the process of change is a substance. The process as such is an accidental, a sort of composite or cooperative accident of action and passion.

Becoming, considered in regard to its end or purpose, is a process of cause and effect. Beings that emerge as a result of creation are caused beings, and are themselves the effects of creation. Beings which become by reason of change or motion are also caused beings and are themselves the effect of the generation which makes them emerge.

A cause is anything that contributes in any way to the producing or the maintaining of a reality. An intrinsic cause is that which is within the being caused. An extrinsic cause is that which is not within the created being, but which lends an influence or activity to the producing or maintaining of that being.

Intrinsic Causes

Let’s consider the marble statue of Thomas Jefferson. Without some stuff, in this case the marble, this statue could not exist. The stuff or material out of which a bodily creature is made is therefore a contributing factor to its being. It is, in other words, a cause. In this particular case we call it the material cause. This cause is intrinsic because it is right in the finished statue. Obviously, only bodily realities have material causes since spiritual substances are not made of any stuff or material.

The marble statue is marble, before, during, and after the sculpting which made it a statue of Thomas Jefferson. The sculpting changed only the shape of the marble. It has not changed the marble substantially, for it is still marble, but it has changed it accidentally. It has, however, given the marble a certain determinateness as a statue, an accidental determinateness.

Any determining factor is called, in metaphysics, a form. The sculpting has given the marble an accidental form. The form constitutes or determines a being as a reality and is, therefore, a cause. An accidental form is an accidental formal cause.

The statue has many accidental points of determinateness. It is of a certain height (quantity), a certain weight (quantity), a certain color (quality), a certain temperature (quality), and so on. Each of these determinations, down to the last and least and the most insignificant, contributes something to the making of the statue of Thomas Jefferson to be the precise being it is in all particulars. Each of these determinations is an accidental form, and an accidental formal cause.

There is an underlying form and formal cause in the statue which makes it a statue of marble. This is the substantial form of marble, the substantial principle which makes marble to be marble and not any other substance. This substantial form is the substantial formal cause of the marble and of the statue made of the marble. There can be in any given unit of substance only one substantial form, only one substantial formal cause.

The formal causes, accidental and substantial, are actually in the effect, and that is why we call them intrinsic causes. The intrinsic causes are the material cause (the bodily reality) and the formal causes, both substantial and accidental.

Extrinsic Causes

The marble statue of Thomas Jefferson was produced by some activity. That which by its activity produces an effect is called the effecting cause of the effect. Sometimes the effecting cause is called the efficient cause and this is the term we will use for this cause. The efficient cause in our example of Thomas Jefferson’s statue is the sculptor who carved the statue. This sculptor is the efficient cause of the statue, that is, the accidental shaping of the marble. It should be obvious that the efficient cause is not in the effect, that is, the sculptor is not in the statue. That’s why we say the efficient cause is an extrinsic cause.

There is another extrinsic cause besides the efficient cause and this is called the final cause. This is the end or the object or the goal or the purpose which the efficient cause intends to attain. The sculptor in our example had some end or purpose in mind which led him to the activity which produced the statue. Perhaps he wanted to express his devotion to Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps he merely wanted to have pleasure in doing something he could do skillfully. Perhaps he wanted to make money or become famous.

In any case, the sculptor had some end or purpose in view. This constitutes the final cause of the statue. The final cause, of course, may be multiple. It could be that the sculptor wanted to make money, as well as exhibit his skill and leave something for posterity. Also it is important to note that ends or final causes run in chains or series. We may say, therefore, that the sculptor made the statue of Thomas Jefferson for money, he wanted money to buy food, he wanted food in order to live, and he wanted to live because he was enjoying his life.

For the Christian student of metaphysics, of course, all chains or series of final causes tend towards God, who is the ultimate Final Cause and Supreme Good of all. Even the sinner and disbeliever are looking, although mistakenly, for good, and for the Supreme Good. Unfortunately, such people are looking in the wrong place.

The four major causes of being, then, can be described this way, and pay particular attention to the italicized words:

Material Cause: that out of which something is made.

Formal Cause: that into which something is made.

Efficient Cause: that by which something is made.

Final Cause: that for the sake of which something is made.


A chart illustrating the causes of being is provided below so you can easily review the above information.

That out of which something is made
That by which something is made
That into which something is made
That for the sake of which something is made

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.