By Aristotle

This is one of the most important books ever written, but my experience has been that a good deal of the literature on Aristotle either mistakes his beliefs or at least doesn’t quite appreciate the motivations behind his ideas.  Therefore, I’m going to explain the Metaphysics to you.  As I’ve found, there’s no substitute for the actual text, so I recommend the Penguin Classics translation by Hugh Lawson-Tancred as the clearest, best organized English version.  Be warned that my understanding of Aristotle’s position is very different from the one given in Lawson-Tancred’s introduction.

What is the most fundamental reality?  What things are really real?  By Aristotle’s time, there were two popular answers.  There was the materialist answer:  matter is the only ultimate reality.  “You” are really just a heap of atoms that we imagine to be a distinct thing.  The other answer was given by Plato:  what are ultimately real are ideas.  This may sound crazy, but think about it.  An idea like “Humanity” has a more solid existence than an individual person like you.  “Humanity” exists eternally and necessarily, which is more than can be said for you.  Also, there obviously couldn’t be individual humans if there was no such idea as “Humanity”, so individual material things seem to depend on their ideas, a fact that makes the ideas “more real”.  Aristotle disagrees with both of these positions.  He spends a lot of space attacking Plato’s theory of ideas.  Plato seemed to think of ideas as separate beings that exist independently of their instantiations.  But if you and “Humanity” are two separate beings, it’s hard to explain the relationship between the two.  Plato says that you “participate” in “Humanity”, but he never explains what that means.  In fact, Aristotle claims that the idea of separate forms explains nothing; it just postulates a secondary world in addition to our physical one, a world filled with things like the idea of justice, the idea of grass, the idea of headaches, etc.

Aristotle also disagrees with the materialist position.  His reason, although he doesn’t explain it very clearly, is the key to his thought.  The materialists say that the world is just made out of stuff—there are a certain number of atoms in each place, and that’s all to be said about anything.  Aristotle points out that the world doesn’t just have stuff; it also has things.  What do I mean by a thing?  The best example would be a biological organism, say a cat.  A cat certainly isn’t just a bunch of atoms that we have arbitrarily decided to refer to as a single thing.  We think of a cat as a single thing because it has a real principle of unity.  It is made of atoms, but these atoms are united by being engaged in a single pattern.  This pattern, the life processes of the cat, can continue—and continue as the same pattern—even as the matter of the cat changes through digestion and excretion.  The world is made of things (Aristotle uses the word “substance”), and things are marked by the property of having unity (which Aristotle calls “thisness”—note that he means something entirely different from what Duns Scotus means by this word).  No explanation of reality can be right that ignores things.

Aristotle says that the way to understand things/substances is to realize that both the materialists and the Platonists were partly right.  A substance is a combination:  it has a principle of unity, called a “form” or “essence”, which is like one of Plato’s ideas except that it exists only as part of the substance.  Substances also have matter, the material in which the form instantiates itself.  So what makes something a substance, ultimately?  A substance is an instantiation of an essence.  The essence is what gives the substance unity, what makes it identifiably one thing.  The essence also makes it possible for a substance to change in various ways while still remaining its identity through time.  So Aristotle can and does summarize his metaphysics with the following formula:  being = substance = essence.  Unfortunately, when he says things like “being is essence”, it tends to cause confusion.  People think that Aristotle is saying that essences are like Plato’s ideas and that they exist on their own apart from the substances that “participate” in them.  If this were what he meant, Aristotle would look pretty silly for criticizing Plato so harshly and then adopting basically the same theory.  But this isn’t what Aristotle means.  He means that a substance is an instantiation of an essence.

So I am an instantiation of the essence “man”.  On the other hand, I’m obviously very distinct from the essence “man”.  I have all sorts of qualities, like the fact that I’m sitting down and the fact that I’m dressed, that are inessential  i.e. the essence “man” doesn’t specify anything about my clothing or by body position one way or the other.  On the other hand, I don’t have all that is implied by my essence.  Rationality is an essential human trait, and one that I often fail to exhibit.  My eyesight is bad, which means that my eyes aren’t behaving the way that my essence allows me to infer that they should.  I do not fully actualize the essence “man”, although I actualize it enough that it’s clearly my essence, i.e. the essence by which to judge and understand me.  There must be a principle which separates being from essence.  Aristotle identifies this principle, although he doesn’t quite realize that it represents a “gap” between substance and essence.  The principle is called “potency” or “potentiality”.  Basically, it means that something could be different in some way or other while still keeping the same identity and essence.  In material things, Aristotle identifies matter with potency and form with “act” (i.e. actualization of essence).

Are all beings material beings?  Not according to Aristotle.  There is also one or several beings that are pure act and hence nonmaterial.  (No being could be pure potency.)  The Metaphysics argues that the ultimate source of change in the universe must be such a being, an Unmoved Mover that drives the action in the world.  The argument given is the first clear formulation of the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

Reading this book is a big investment of time and effort.  You will often find yourself flipping back and forth between the text and the editor’s notes, hoping for some help.  Still, if you’re interested in these questions, it’s worth it.  In my opinion, the Aristotelian position is basically true.

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