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The Limits Of Human Power Essay Summary


In part 1 of the Summa, Aquinas begins his examination of the operation and limits of man’s intellect after discussing the soul and the union of body and soul. Questions 84, 85, and 86, each of which is subdivided into various Articles, address (1) the question of how the soul, when united with the body, understands corporeal things; (2) the mode and order of understanding; and (3) what our intellect knows in material things.

The soul knows bodies through the intellect by a knowledge that is immaterial, universal and necessary, although only God can understand all things. The cognitive soul has the potential to form principles of understanding and principles of sensation. Individual objects of our knowledge are not derived from Platonic forms but rather from the mind of God. Intellectual knowledge is formed by a conjunction of the passive senses and the active intellect. It is impossible for the intellect to understand anything without the mind forming phantasms, that is, mental images.

The intellect understands by abstracting from phantasms and thereby attains some knowledge of immaterial things. Our knowledge of things, though, is not the same as knowledge of our phantasms, for, if the two types of knowledge were the same, then the taste of honey, for example, could be either sweet or bitter, depending on the state of the perceiver. Rather, the phantasms are the means by which we come to understand things. Knowledge of individuals is prior to knowledge of universals.

The intellect is incapable of directly knowing individual things because it perceives them by means of phantasms. On the other hand, the intellect does perceive universals directly by means of abstraction. The intellect is potentially capable of understanding the concept of infinity insofar as it can form the idea of infinite succession, but it is actually incapable of comprehending infinity. Contingent things are known through sense experience and indirectly by the intellect, but necessary principles governing those contingent things are known only by the intellect. Although only God can know how the future will be in itself, we nevertheless can have some knowledge of the future insofar as we have knowledge of causes and effects.

Aquinas then proceeds to discuss additional questions pertaining to the soul, the production of the bodies of the first man and woman, human offspring, and man’s natural habitat. The Treatise on Divine Government concludes part 1 of the Summa.


Aquinas’s discussion of man’s capacity for knowledge occurs within the context of his discussion of man’s soul. This fact is significant, for it indicates that Aquinas believes that the intellect is not a capacity separate from the soul but a component of the soul itself. To have a soul is to have reason and intelligence. Aquinas thus accepts Aristotle’s notion that rationality is the essence of man, although Aquinas does not equate man’s entire essence with rationality.

– Bertrand Russel-
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), was an English philosopher, pacifist and mathematician. He contributed to the development of modern mathematical logic and wrote about social and political issues. His works include “Principia Mathematica”, “The Problems of Philosophy”, “A History of Western Philosophy”, and “Human Knowledge:Its Scope and Limits”. Russell received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.
‘Limits of Human Power’ is a chapter from “New Hopes for Changing World”. Russell argues that human beings exercise complete authority over nature. Man’sarrogance towards nature can only lead to disaster. In spite of the megalomania of industrial capitalist/socialist technocrats or religious authorities, the fact remains that man is neither impotent nor omnipotent. Human powers are surprisingly great but they are never infinite. The resources like soil, food supply and industrial raw materials are not inexhaustible.Different chemical combinations through various stages in peculiar temperature transferred inorganic dead matter into a mass of living matter, states Russell. It took geological ages for the elements and life to evolve through long chemical process.

Many of the processes of nature are irreversible and beyond human power.Modern industry greatly depends on energy, which, once used is wasted forever as it is irretrievable. Present industry, in fact, is a ‘kind of rape’….depends upon the ‘earth’scapital’, is a ‘spendthrift’.Russell cautions us against the facile optimism about science and industry. The problem of exhaustion of resources is more serious in food, due to dwindling of agricultural land, increase in population and development of industry.

Human beings exercise complete authority over nature. Man’s arrogance towards nature can only lead to disaster. However scientific he may be, the fact remains that man is neither impotent nor omnipotent. Human powers are surprisingly great but they
have their own limits. However, by means of his knowledge and technique, he can diminish these limits. But he can never remove them wholly. Even the best astronomers will not be able to anything in case the sun explodes. This reminds us that we are not Gods.

There are two very different elements in science: i. Scientific Knowledge and ii. Scientific Technique. Technocrats (technical experts) are interested only in scientific technique. Some of them even deny scientific knowledge. Scientific theories, on the other hand, are concerned to discover natural laws. They leave to others the discovery of the practical ways in which laws can be useful. In short, the technocrat wishes to change nature, while the theorist wishes to understand it. But the fact is that the point of view of either the theorist or the technocrat is sufficient, rather they are complementary and there are limits to their powers.

Different chemical combinations through various stages in peculiar temperature transformed inorganic dead matter into a mass of living matter. It took geological ages for the elements and life to evolve through long chemical process. That is why theauthor says that many processes of nature are irreversible and beyond man’s control.The processes by which the resources and raw materials are formed are processes of synthesis. The processes on modern industry do the reverse. They use complex raw materials and simplify it. This process is not reversible by scientific methods. In all such processes, there is waste. All sources of energy upon which industry depends are wasted when they are employed. Every day, many square miles of forest are turned into newspaper, but there is no process by which newspaper can be turned into forest or a coal used to run a train be turned back into coal. The author says that modern industry is a kind of rape. It depends upon irreversible process. Modern industry greatly depends on energy, which, once used is wasted forever as it is irretrievable. It all uses up the earth’s capital and is a spendthrift.

Russell cautions us against the facile optimism about science and industry. We superficially believe that the scientists will make some clever invention when our resources are all exhausted or that these resources are sure to last our time. Our attitude is like that of the proverbial Irishman who was not willing to do anything for the posterity as it had never done anything for him. The author warns us that due to the exhaustion of raw materials, modern industry’s capacity to supply human needs willsurely diminish gradually. This could be prevented by a cautious use of natural resources.

The problem of exhaustion of resources is more serious in food due to dwindling of agricultural land, increase in population and development of industry. When the soil lost its fertility, the primitive cultivator moved on to another piece of land. This was possible then because a great deal of land was available as human population was scarce. But today the problem of the dwindling of agricultural land has grown to a tragic scale. This problem has been treated in detail in Fair Field Osborne’s “Our Plundered
Planet” and William Vogt’s “Road to Survival”. They tell us how many fertile hillsidesbecame barren rocks and irrigated planes, deserts and how flourishing civilizations vanished. This process is in full swing at the present day in many parts of the world including the United States. The intense demand for food due to increase in population and replacement of agricultural land by industry. The price of food as a result goes up beyond limit.

Another problem that threatens the present day world is the depletion of the nonrenewable sources of energy. This has led people to develop alternative energy sources such as the solar energy and the hydro-electric power. The author says that when people have discovered how to turn hydrogen into helium, sea-water the raw material for the time will also be depleted soon. Mam has existed on this planet for about million years,but scientific technique, for at most two hundred years. Considering what technology
has done, it would be impossible to place any limit upon what it may do in future.‘Scientific knowledge is an intoxicating drink…’ says Russell. He asks us to think of our destiny when no more source of energy is left leading to a total extinction of human race
from the surface of the earth.

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