Zabarella’s De Mente Agente, Chapter 3

Main topics covered: the activity of the agent intellect, the role of the passive intellect in relation to the agent intellect, Simplicius’ account of the role of the agent intellect in relation to the passive intellect, refutation of Simplicius’ view, refutation of Jean of Jandun’s view, the analogy between sight and understanding, the Aristotelian theory of vision, light as a perfecting form, agency vs.  perfecting form, refutation of Aquinas and John Baconthorpe on the role of the agent intellect

Chapter 3 : The Refutation of the Aforesaid Opinions

Dictarum  opinionum Confutatio Cap. III

Nos vero aliorum errores patefaciendo simul ipsam rei veritatem iuxta Aristot. mentem declarabimus.


In primis a veritate prorsus aberrant illi, qui dicunt intellectum agentem agere in phantasmata, quoniam, ut modo alios considerasse dicebamus, Aristot. intellectum agentem invenit propter intellectum patibilem, & ut in eum ageret tanquam patientem.



Sed obstare nobis videntur verba Aristot. in contextu 18 quando intellectum agentem cum lumine comparat, & significat ipsum agere in phantasmata: iis tamen verbis  bene intellectis tolletur omnis difficultas, & ipsa rei veritas manifesta fiet. Sciendum igitur est, quando dicimus aliquid facere de tali potestate tale actu verbum illud (facere) ambiguum esse, & posse intelligi duobus modis, potest enim facere ut forma, potest etiam facere ut agens, forma enim humana adveniens materiae, facit de homine potestate hominem in actu,



neque ob id est agens, quia facit hominem ad modum formae, non ad modum agentis, homo vero generans alterum hominem dicitur facere hominem tanquam agens: differentia igitur est in hoc constituta, quod ignis generat alterum ignem & facit de igne potestate ignem actu, producendo in illa materia alteram  formam ignis sibi similem; illa vero altera forma producta facit de igne potestate ignem actu, non tamen  producendo aliam formam, sed ut forma ipsa quia non id facit ut agens: iungitur enim ipsi rei; at agens generans externum est, neque cum materia coniungitur.

Quando igitur Arist. dicit intellectum agentem facere phantasmata actu intelligibilia de intelligibilibus potestate, non ob id declarat rationem agentis, quia non id praestat ut agens, sed ut forma; iungitur enim phantasmatibus lumen intellectus agentis tanquam forma, qua redduntur motiva, & actu intelligibilia, sicuti lumen iungitur colori tanquam forma, & perfectio, qua redditur actu visibilis, & actu motivus visus,

neque dicitur lumen esse agens respectu colorum; quia nihil in eis producit ut agens, sed eis iungitur ut forma, per quam totum hoc coniunctum, color illuminatus, constituitur in esse obiectivo, & fit actu motivum visus:


hoc significavit Arist. in eo ipso loco, dum dixit intellectum agente facere omnia tanquam habitum quendam; habitus enim formam denotat, non causam effecticem, quia efficiens est a patiente disiunctum, forma vero iungitur materiae recipienti, & habitus rei habenti habitum; sic lumen coloribus haeret ut forma, & perfectio neque ad eos se habet ut agens ad patiens.





Non est igitur verum id, quod prima secta dicit, intellectum agentem agere in phantasmata, & argumentum eorum nullius roboris est. Decepti etiam sunt illi qui putarunt intellectum agentem agere in intellectum patientem tanquam agens distiunctum a phantasmatibus, quod extra phantasmata agendo perficiat intellectum patientem, & ipsi tribuat intellectionem; hoc enim dato, sequeretur intellectum patientem  posse etiam sine phantasmatibus intelligere, nempe sumendo congnitionem immediate a solo agente;


id tamen Aristot. adversatur, qui in context. 30 & 39 lib. 3 de Anima aperte dicit, fieri nunquam posse ut intellectus intelligat, nisi phantasma aliquod speculando: quare secundum Arist. omnis nostra intellectio fit ex motione facta a phantasmatibus. Immo non solum falsum est id, quod dicunt, intellectum agentem tribuere patienti suam cognitionem, sed neque ea ratione, qua est agens, est intelligens; quamvis enim necessario consequatur ut sit mens aliqua, & actu intelligens, tamen ea ratione, qua est agens, nihil formaliter intelligit, sed solum effective, quatenus in homine intellectionem producit:



quomodo autem id faciat, postea declarabimus, & ostendemus intellectum agentem esse quidem semper intelligentem, agere tamen non ut intelligentem, sed ut intelligibilem:



falsum id quoque est, quod Gendavensis dicit, intellectum agentem in intellectu patiente producere actum intelligendi; postea enim ostendimus intellectum patibilem sufficientem sibi esse ad promendam intellectionem sine ope intellectus agentis. Quocunque igitur modo dicatur intellectum patibilem pati ab intellectu agente, tanquam ad agente distinctio a phantasmatibus, & tanquam a cognoscente, falsum est & ab Arist. alienum. Quum autem utraque haec secta erraverit, erraverit etiam tertia, quae unum cum altero errorem coniunxit, ut considerantibus manifestum est.



But we, by bringing to light the errors of others, shall at the same time make clear the very truth of the matter according to the mind of Aristotle.
Against Aquinas and John Baconthorpe
First of all, they wander entirely astray from the truth who say that the actualizing intellect acts upon images, since, in the way we have said others considered it, Aristotle devised the agent intellect in relation to the passive intellect so that it might, in turn, act upon it as upon something playing a passive role.
The Solution of the Argument

But Aristotle’s words in contextu 18 seem to disagree with to ours when he compares the agent intellect to a light and indicates that it acts upon images. However, all difficulty is removed and the real truth of the matter becomes evident when these words are properly understood. It should be recognized, therefore, that when we say that something makes of whatever is such that it is in a state of potentiality, to be such that it is in a state of actuality, that word “makes” is ambiguous and can be understood in two ways: for it can be understood (1) as form and can also be understood (2) as an agent, since the human form, arriving in matter, “makes” a potential human an actual human and not because it is an agent (since it “makes” a human being according to the mode of form, and not according to the mode of agency), whereas a human, creating another human is said to “make” a human as an agent.  The difference consists in this: that fire generates another fire and makes of the potential for fire an actual fire, by producing in the matter another form of fire similar to it; however, that other form which was produced, brings about an actual fire from a potential fire, not by producing another form, but as form itself, since it does not bring it about as an agent: for it is brought together with the aforesaid matter in question-but a generating agent is external and does not become conjoined with matter.

Therefore, when Aristotle says that the agent intellect “makes” images actually intelligible from a state of potential intelligibility, he should not be taken as discussing the nature of an agent, because he does not present it as an agent, but as form: for the light of the agent intellect is joined to images as a form, whereby they are set in motion and are made actually intelligible, just as light is conjoined with color as a form and a perfection , whereby it is rendered actually visible, and vision is actually moved [See note 1].  Nor is light said to be an agent with respect to colors, since it produces nothing in them as an agent, but is joined to them as a form whereby the whole is conjoined. Therefore, when color is illuminated, a phantasm begins to exist as an object, and the sense of sight comes to be actually moved.

Aristotle indicated this in the same place where he said that the agent intellect makes all things in the way a “disposition” does [see note 2]: for a disposition indicates a form, not an efficient cause [see note 3], since being a motive cause of change is outside the role of what is essentially passive; however, a form is joined to the matter of the recipient and a disposition is held by what has it: thus, light adheres to colors as a form and a fulfillment (perfectio) and not to them in the way an agent is related to what is essentially passive.

Refutation of Simplicius and of Others

Therefore, it is not true that, as the first sect holds, the agent intellect acts upon images and their argument lacks any strength. They were also deceived who thought that the agent intellect acts upon the passive intellect such that the agent is not conjoined with images, since it brings to fulfillment and imparts intellectual activity to the intellect which is essentially passive, without acting upon images. By having said this, it follows that the essentially passive intellect can think the forms in images even without images, that is, by taking cognition immediately from the agent alone.

But this conflicts with Aristotle’s view, who in contexts 30 and 39 of the De Anima clearly says it can never happen  that the intellect might think without attending to an image. For that reason, according to Aristotle, our intellect becomes all things from the motion created by images.  Indeed, what they say is not only false, when they say that the agent intellect imparts its own cognitive activity to the the passive intellect, but neither, by that reasoning, considering the activity of the agent, is it able to think. For even though it necessarily follows that it is a mind and actually able to think, nevertheless, by that reasoning accoring to which it is an agent, it understands nothing formally, but only as an effect of something else, to the extent that it produces intellectual activity in humans.

But we will explain how it does so in what follows, and will show that the agent intellect is, in fact, always understanding, however not as  understanding, but as intelligible


[Reply to Jean of Jandun (Gandavensis)]

What Jean of Jandun claims is also false, that the agent intellect produces the act of understanding in the passive intellect: for we will later show the passive intellect to be sufficient unto itself to bring about understanding without the resources of the agent intellect. Therefore, in whatever way it might be said that the passive intellect is susceptible to the activity of the agent intellect, whether as to an agent distinct from images or as from thinking, it is false and foreign to Aristotle. And since each of these sects will have erred, they will also have erred in a third way as  one error entails another, so that it is made clear by the following considerations.


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