If the universe were a swarm, there would be no universe. That swarm, that self-caused changing unit, that Godless movable infinite thing would destroy the necessary condition of its own existence and persistence: the individuals that constitute it. Why, then, does modern man insist on not seeing this? Why does he choose rage over reality?

I was walking through Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport the other day, and heard the familiar strains of Edith Piaf’s La Foule—”The Crowd”—echoing in the nearly empty halls:

Je revois la ville en fête et en délire
Suffoquant sous le soleil et sous la joie
Et j’entends dans la musique les cris, les rires
Qui éclatent et rebondissent autour de moi—

“I remember the town celebrating and delirious.
Suffocating under the sun and with joy.
I hear though the music the shouts and laughter
that burst and bounce around me.”

There was something deeply moving about the song. It conjured images of joyful times, of people coming together and rejoicing in their unity, of street musicians, of a living culture that produced popular music that anyone could appreciate. That was undoubtedly the intention of the shopkeeper who blasted the song almost invoking the return of the crowds that had once visited the airport.

Piaf stopped me in my tracks, roller-bag in hand, and brought a smile to my face. And for a moment, I too remembered the joy of unmasked togetherness, the grins, badminton games, and squirt guns of the 4th of July: my mother turning the garden hose on my horrified father sitting on a lawn chair with his book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, and our incontrollable laughter on that long summer evening as we waited for the fireworks.

But as the song continued, the shadow of that unum mobile infinitum—single boundless changing unit—that Aquinas sketched in Chapter 13 of the Summa Contra Gentiles was cast over my own happy memories of a 4th of July from years ago. It was Piaf herself who summoned it: the haunting images of La Foule. Unlike my own, her memories of town celebrations were not memories of togetherness. The “shouts and laughter”—le cris, les rires—that she remembered hearing through the music while the town was “suffocating with joy” did not include her own. They “burst and bounced around her”—“éclatent et rebondissent autour de moi.”

Human togetherness in La Foule, I realized as I stood listening, meant being “pushed,” “stunned,” “confused,” and “frozen” by a chaotic mass of shoving people: “Et perdue parmi ces gens qui me bousculent / Étourdie, désemparée, je reste là.” Piaf’s “town in celebration” was a swarm. It was nightmarish, something to escape.

It was also inescapable. When Piaf turned, presumably to flee, and a man stepped back (to make way for her, one assumes)—“Quand soudain, je me retourne, il se recule”—the terrifying mass, the crowd “threw her into his arms”—“Et la foule vient me jeter entre ses bras.” And the two of them were:

Emportés par la foule qui nous traîne
Nous entraîne
Écrasés l’un contre l’autres,
Nous ne formons qu’un seul corps.

“Carried away by the crowd that pulls us,
that drags us
Crushed one against the other,
we formed one single body.”

For a moment, Piaf was “inebriated”—enivrés—by the crowd’s having “crushed her against” the man, made “one body” of them, “chained them to each other”—enchaînés l’un et l’autre. But her joy was short-lived. The amorphous moving mass of human beings that “shouted and laughed,” “pulled and dragged,” that had made their “two bodies entwine”—nos deux corps enlacés—continued to pull and drag until:

soudain je pousse un cri parmi les rires
Quand la foule vient l’arracher d’entre mes bras

“suddenly amidst the laughter, I let out a cry
When the crowd ripped him out of my arms.”

Enslaved as she was by that moving swarm, Piaf too kept on moving, “cursing” the crowd for “having stolen the man that it had given” her “and whom” she “never found again”—maudissant la foule qui me vole / L’homme qu’elle m’avait donné / Et que je n’ai jamais retrouvé.

There, I recognized, was the image of what had been haunting me in the Contra Gentiles’s description of a self-caused material universe: that single boundless changing thing, shapeless moving mass, self-contained web of “motions” that each mover effects in each mover with which it is in direct contact, that network of networks constituted by starkly individual things that push each other:

Cum ergo omnia praedicta moventia et mota sint corpora… oportet quod sint quasi unum mobile per continuationem vel contiguationem… unum infinitum. —“And therefore since all the aforementioned movers and things put into motion are bodies… they would have to be like a single movable thing through continuity or contact… one infinite thing.”

Piaf’s crowd was that nightmarish unum mobile infinitum—single changeable unit.

As I stood transfixed by the horrendous image of that amorphous slithering throng, I realized that Piaf’s foule had also just clarified for me why the universe cannot be that self-caused unum mobile infinitum. That swarm, that self-contained web of “motions” that each mover effects in each mover with which it is in direct contact, that network of networks constituted by things that have no real commonalities and that simply push each other would destroy itself if it actually existed.

Let us suppose that the universe is nothing but an amorphous moving swarm constituted solely by the relations between those bare perceptible things that are in direct contact with one another: people, animals, nature, the earth, planets, the stars, what have you. Let us, in other words, suppose that the universe is really like what Aquinas posits it would have to be, were it self-caused: nothing but a single movable infinite thing, but Piaf’s foule—crowd—that “pulled” and “dragged,” pushed her into another man’s arms, and ripped her out of them.

That crowd could not exist or subsist without the individual people who constitute it. There could be no crowd that “pulls” and “drags,” were there no individual persons to do the pulling and dragging, and to be pulled and dragged by the others. Individual-less crowds cannot exist. So too for that unum mobile infinitum constituted by the pushing of bare perceptibles upon each other. Webs of motions cannot exist without individual movers and individual things moved. Relations cannot exist without relata. Individual things are a necessary condition of the existence and subsistence of the universe: individual people of crowds.

But individual things, by definition, have individual needs, individual aims. Their natural actions are to pursue these individual aims, seek to fulfill their individual needs. Their subsistence is contingent upon their pursuit of these individual aims, fulfillment of these individual needs. A tree must grow toward the light and bathe in it, or it dies. An animal must dig, hunt, and feed itself, or it dies. A human being needs to be nourished by communication, by real relations with persons and things, or he wastes away.

Were the universe that throng that Piaf describes, the unum mobile infinitum that Aquinas claims it would have to be, were it self-caused, no individual thing could act in such a way so as to fulfill its individual needs. The motions of the individual things would necessarily be both violent and aimless. This was what La Foule showed.

Piaf was enlivened by the joy transmitted by the man in whose arms she had been thrown. Their proximity, their communication responded to a real need of hers:

Et la joie éclaboussée par son sourire
Me transperce et rejaillit au fond de moi

“and the joy sparked by his smile
pierces me and rises up deep inside me.”

The crowd’s pushing, its “ripping him” out of her arms, like light deprivation for a plant, separated her from her own sustenance: from the fulfillment of her own real needs. The crowd’s motion was, in other words, what Aquinas would call violent: fit contra interiorem inclinationem passivi—done against the interior inclination of the passive subject.

So too was the aimless motion of the crowd that ensued its “arracher”—ripping—the man from her arms:

Entraînée par la foule qui s’élance
Et qui danse
Une folle farandole
Je suis emportée au loin

“Carried away by the crowd that steams ahead
And that dances
A crazy farandole
I’m dragged far away.”

Nor could it be otherwise. For as Aquinas indicates, the things that constitute that infinite changing thing, that foule, that crowd, would each have to be put into motion whenever anyone of them is put into motion: ergo omnia ista infinita simul moventur dum unum eorum movetur. This means not just that each thing would have to move with each other thing in the crowd, but also that it would have to move as the crowd moves. Each member of the crowd would, after all, be as one with the crowd—oportet quod sint quasi unum mobile per continuationem vel contiguationem—and nothing that is as one with something else cannot move as that other thing does.

Thus, every motion of each thing in that infinite changing thing, that crowd, that swarm, that network, would be violent. What must move as the crowd moves cannot move as it itself would need to move. Every motion of each thing in that swarm would have to be aimless. An amorphous moving throng can have no aim. Piaf wanders aimlessly and constantly and never gets what she needs and wants.

Violent motions are destructive of individuals. The tree that cannot grow toward and bathe in the light dies. The animal that cannot nourish itself dies. The human being who is starved of real communication, of real aims, of real relations wastes away. But if this is so, then that swarm, that crowd, that unum mobile infinitum would destroy the necessary condition of its own existence and persistence: the individuals that constitute it. If the universe were a swarm, there would be no universe.

If the universe exists and persists, as such, it cannot be a swarm. It cannot be that self-caused changing unit, that Godless unum mobile infinitum. Why, then, does modern man insist on not seeing this? Why does he choose rage over reality?

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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened for clarity.

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