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Introductory Paragraph

Early Ionic Natural Philosophers

The Pythagoreans

The Eleatics


Later Natural Philosophers

General Character of the First Period in the History of Greek Philosophy

The Sophist


The Followers of Socrates

The Lesser Socratics

Plato. Life. Works

Plato. Philosophy

The Disciples of Plato

The Old Academy

Aristotle: Life and works

Aristotle: Theory of Knowledge

Aristotle: Metaphysics

Aristotle: Physics

Aristotle: Psychology

Aristotle: Practical Philosophy

Aristotle: Rhetoric and Poetic

Aristotle: Sources

Aristotle: Unity of Plato and Aristotle

Aristotle: result

The Peripatetic School

Three Leading Post-Aristotelian Schools

The Stoics and Stoicism

The Epicureans and Epicureanism

The Sceptics

The Common Ground of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics

Philosophy in Rome: Eclecticism

The Later Peripatetics

The Later Academics

The Later Stoics

General Character of the Second Period

Standpoint and Schools of the Third and Latest Period of Greek Philosophy

Jewish-Alexandrian School


The Eclectic Platonist

Neo-Platonism. Plotinus

Neo-Platonism. Porphyry. Jamblichus

Neo-Platonism. Proclus




B. C. BURT (1852-1915) - Table of contents                        




§ 14 - Aristotle

"First Philosophy," or Metaphysics

We come now to Aristotle's theory of Being (τό όν) which at the very outset we shall find to be in close agreement with his theory of knowledge. Being is fixed or changeable. That there is fixed being appears from a consideration of the doctrines of Heraclitus and Protagoras. If all things are in a continual flux, we have to say that a thing is and is not the same at the same moment and in the same regard. If we say that contradictory propositions are equally true, we practically affirm that all propositions and terms mean the same thing, and may affirm, for example, that a man is a wall. And if being is not in any regard fixed and definite, what becomes of affirmation, and demonstration, and rational action?(1) Being is, then, in one aspect fixed, and in this aspect it is being per se (τό όν ή όν), being in the highest sense ; it is being that answers to scientific knowledge, and is known by us last in order of time, though (and because) first in the order of nature.  Now the science of being per se, being as being (τό όν ή όν) Aristotle deems to be the highest part of philosophy and terms it "First Philosophy" (πρώτη φιλοσοφία).


 It is what we, following the example of the early editors of Aristotle's works, term metaphysics. "First Philosophy," then, does not treat, as does mathematics, for example, of some phase or department of being, but of being taken universally, or as such. And just as the "science of health" treats of the preservation, the production, the symptoms or signs of it, and the capacity for it, so the science of being treats of whatever has reference to it, whatever is primarily or derivatively being.

Being; Plato's ''Ideas"

But what is being, i.e., under which of the categories must we conceive it? Evidently under that which is highest and first, which denotes not anything that can be predicated, but is itself the subject of all predicates. Being, in other words, is substance, ούσία ; and in the highest sense it is individual in nature, since primary substance is the individual(2). Being, or substance, therefore, is not identical with those "universals" which Plato held to be being. Plato's theory of Ideas is untenable ; because, if the Ideas are transcendent and perfectly independent of the world of individual phenomenal existences, they are not in any explicable manner causes of the existence, or of the character of things, or of our knowledge of them. If substance is primarily individual, the substances of things must be in and with things themselves, and it is only on the hypothesis that they are, that we can conceive them as having anything to do with the existence or changes in things or can attain a knowledge of them by the process of induction. Universal notions are indeed necessary for demonstration's sake, but demonstration does not necessarily presuppose the existence of the Platonic universals, because it is necessary, and sufficient, for scientific knowledge, if there be a One in or among the many instead of being separate from and in addition to the many. The supposed participation of things in Ideas is therefore a mere fancy, to be allowed only in metaphorical speech; and the Ideas, if there were such things, would be only idle copies of the things of the sensible world or mere barren entities, of which nothing could be known or said(3).

Matter and Form; Potentiality and Actuality

Every finite substance is the result of the becoming actual of that which already was in possibility. As it actually is for us, it is a definite cognizable being; as only possible, it was, relatively at last, indefinite, incognizable. That by virtue of which it is definite and cognizable—relatively or absolutely—is termed its form. As it existed in possibility, it was but matter. As its actual being is but the realization of its being in possibility, every substance contains, or is the union, in some manner, of matter and form. The stone out of which the statue is made is in possibility a statue—is "matter" for a statue. When form (i.e., a particular character) is given to it there results the actuality, i.e., the statue, which is the union of a certain matter and a certain form, and is an individual substance. Matter (ϋλη) and form (μορφή), it must be observed, are, like possibility, or potentiality (δύναμις), and actuality (ένέργεια), generally speaking, correlative terms, because it is the same thing which in one aspect is form and in another matter. Not every possibility becomes actuality, and there is one form which is pure form (God). In the union of matter and form there are, in different substances, different degrees of preponderance of form over matter. Those substances that have stability, universality, or, at least, generality, as a characteristic, owe this to the largeness of the element of form in them, contingency in things being due to the influence of matter(4). A thing is in a state of imperfection as long as it is in the process of becoming; it attains perfection, or is an entelechy (έντελέχεια), only as actuality(5). In this respect, then, actuality is "prior" to potentiality. But it is also "prior" in another respect: we know the potentiality only (as we reason by the principle of analogy) from the actuality. The actual is partly prior in time to the potential, partly not. The child is prior to the man, and yet the existence of the child presupposes the existence of a man prior to that of the child. The actual is prior to the potential because the actual is that which is what it is, whereas the potential may or may not be, is therefore not self-identical, but self-contradictory(6).

Causes, or First Principles (άρχαί)

If, now, we inquire why matter assumes form, why the possible becomes actual, the answer is, that "there must be an efficient cause imparting motion from potentiality into actuality". Every substance, therefore, involves in its existence and nature, matter, form, and efficient power(7). These three are consequently principles, or causes. To them must be added a fourth, the end (τέλος), or final cause; for every thing that becomes, not only is "produced from something, by something, and is something," but has an end. These four causes—to take an illustrative example—would be, in the case of a house, as follows : The end, τέλος , or final cause, ού ένεκα, is comfort and protection; the matter, ΰλη, or material cause, is earth and stones ; the form, or formal cause, τό τί ήν εϊναι, is the mental pattern or idea in the builder's mind according to which it is made; the efficient cause, όθεν ή άρχή τής μεταβολής, is the builder and his art(8). But the four causes are not always so widely distinct as here. The child is the end of a certain process of which the material, formal, and efficient causes are in the parent(9). Again, the end and the process may be the same ; the end of sight is the act of seeing, of speculation, speculation(10). In these two cases there is also a certain degree of identity between the formal and the final cause, on the one hand, and the efficient cause, on the other ; i.e., seeing and speculation are "inherent" in him who sees and him who speculates. Speaking generally, since the final cause of a thing is only its form, or ideal nature, plus existence, the formal cause and the final cause may, without logical inconsistency, often or, perhaps, generally, be regarded as one, viz., the formal cause, τό τί ήν εϊναι.


 Again, in beings that have souls the efficient cause is in a manner identical with the formal and final cause. Thus the name formal cause often implies more than its definition really contains. Further, form being necessary to the actuality of a thing, it is natural to think and speak of things as "forms," although they involve matter. It is owing to this importance of form that Aristotle comes to speak of form or essence, instead of the individual, as substance(11). The forms of absolute, or infinite, substances necessarily imply the existence of the actuality of those substances.

Kinds of Real Substance: Immovable Substance, God

Logically regarded, substance is, we have seen, of two (three) kinds: substance as individual, as species, and as genus, the first-named being primary, the others secondary, substance. Ontologically speaking, substance is of two (three) kinds: sensible substances, of which one part is mere body and subject to decay, and the other is soul and eternal ; and super-sensible, "immovable substance"(12). Of the existence of sensible substance we need no proof; the existence of the immovable substance is proved partly, as we have seen(13), from the very idea of demonstration, and partly, from the known nature of sensible substances. These substances change and pass out of being ceaselessly and forever. The causes of sensible beings as sensible, are other sensible beings, and the causes of these are also other sensible beings and so on in infinitum. No such being, or substance, has in itself the principle of change, or motion: they move or change, produce motion, or change, only as moved or changed by some other being. We must, then, look for an original source, or cause, of motion, or change, which must lie in that which produces change, or motion, without itself being subject to these. This, then, must be the immovable substance. It exists purely as energy and as actuality, and hence is separate from the world of change, or motion(14). If it is asked how the immovable substance causes change, or motion, the reply must be that it does so as a thing that is known and desired, i.e., as a thing that is loved, does. It is the source of order in the world, as the general is of order in the army. From it is "suspended the whole Heavens". The life of the Prime Mover is excellent and blessed. That perception and that enjoyment are the most excellent which are of that which is most excellent. It is characteristic of the human mind to find its highest satisfaction in the contemplation of itself, the most excellent of the things it has power immediately to know: much more so is it of the Divine Mind, and the life of the Divine Being is therefore, a life of blessed self-contemplation. God is just the "energy," i.e., the activity and complete realization, of the ideal essence of mind, —he is the Thought of Thought. His life is eternally what our life is only for short periods of time. God is the highest substance, the individual that is (in form and efficiency at least) also universal : the absolute and eternal, alone of all things sufficient unto himself. He is the absolute Good, the supreme ideal end of all things else.


(1) Metaphysics, Bks. III and IV.

(2) For a different view, see Metaphysics, Bk. VII. ch. 7.

(3) Metaphysics, Bk. I. ch. 9; Bk. VI. chs. 14, 15, 16. Posterior Analytics, Bk. I. chs. 11, 8, etc. (See Wallace's Outlines, and Ueberweg.)

(4) Metaphysics, Bk. V. ch. 2.

(5) Ibid., Bk. VIII. ch. 6.

(6) Metaphysics, Bk. VIII. ch. 8.

(7) Ibid., Bk. VI. ch. 7; Bk. I. ch. 3.

(8) Metaphysics, Bk. II. ch. 2.

(9) Ibid., Bk. VII. ch. 4.

(10) Metaphysics, Bk. VIII. ch. 6.

(11) Ibid., Bk. VII. ch. 7. See above, p. 126.

(12) Metaphysics, Bk. XI. ch. I.

(13) See p. 130.

(14) Metaphysics, Bk. XI. chs. 6, 8.



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