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  • Writer's pictureDrew Maglio

Primary Beings: An Exploration of Form and Substance in Aristotle’s Metaphysics

As a pupil of Plato, Aristotle’s philosophy undoubtedly bore the imprint of his mentor. Therefore, no discussion of any aspect of Aristotle’s philosophical disposition is possible without understanding the teachings of Plato—the spring from which Aristotle drew his proverbial water. Accordingly, to sketch a clear picture of form and substance in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, one must begin with an understanding of Plato’s “Theory of Forms.” While Aristotle does break from Plato by rejecting the notion that one may transcend the material to ascend to the realm of immaterial essences, or forms, his description of the “Unmoved Mover” is eerily reminiscent of Plato’s “Form of the Good”—the highest of all eternal forms.

Plato’s “Theory of Forms”

Much of Aristotle’s Metaphysics deals with “Primary Being,” which seems to be many things, yet draws inspiration—but breaks from—Plato’s metaphysical teachings, which are enshrined for posterity most vividly in his so-called “Cave Allegory,” featured in Book 7 of The Republic. In the scene, Socrates explains to Glaucon, through a rational a priori[1]argument that what the fatally flawed senses perceive to be reality are like “shadows cast upon a cave wall” by a dimly flickering fire: “what people in this state [i.e. prisoners living together in a dimly lit cave] would take for truth would be nothing more than the shadows of manufactured objects.”[2] Instead of relying on sense perception, Plato famously suggested that in order to apprehend the source of all physical and metaphysical things one must transcend the bodily prison—the cave—in order to perceive the “Form of the Good,” which is the most preeminent form and is the source of all the lesser forms. Regressing further from the Source to lesser forms, it follows that there are forms which act as the source for all material things. In such a philosophical disposition, all that the individual senses and perceives about the material world are “shadows,” or warped reflections of the Ultimate forms:

The region revealed to us by sight is the prison dwelling, and the light of the fire inside the dwelling is the power of the sun. If you identify the upward path and the view of things above with the ascent of the soul to the realm of understanding, then you will have caught my drift . . . My own view, for what it’s worth, is that in the realm of what can be known the things seen last, and seen with great difficulty, is the form or character of the good. But when it is seen, the conclusion must be that it turns out to be the cause of all that is right and good for everything. In the realm of sight, it gives birth to light and light’s sovereign, the sun, while in the realm of thought it is itself sovereign, producing truth and reason unassisted. I further believe that anyone who is going to act wisely either in private life or in public life must have had sight of this.[3]

What is most evident and vital to take away from this cursory explication of Platonic Forms is that they supersede the material, while simultaneously being separate. In this way, the material realm for Plato was a sort of distorted, corrupted, and inferior imprint of an ethereal, elevated, and eternal essence, which is the telos, or purpose, of each material thing that the individual perceives via sensory perception.

Form in Aristotle’s Metaphysics

It was in light of Plato and his Theory of Forms that Aristotle wrote his Metaphysics, which deals with establishing the grounds for episteme, which is frequently translated as “scientific knowledge.” More specifically, Aristotle’s Metaphysics deals with what is primary and most real, that which forms the basis of all other knowledge:

Knowledge and science for their own sake are found to the highest degree in the science of what is most intelligible; for he who cherishes science on its own account will cherish whatever is science par excellence, which is the science of what is most intelligible. But the most intelligible matters are first and basic reasons, since it is by and through them that any given subject becomes intelligible, not vice versa.[4]

In this way, the Metaphysics—or the exploration of First Principles—seems to precede and form the basis for the Aristotelian canon of works.

As In Plato, Form Composes the Essence or Telos of Corporeal Things and Is Primary

Like Plato before him, Aristotle believed that the essence of a thing preceded its physical manifestation, or existence. Aristotle explained this phenomenon by suggesting the form, or essence of the thing was the actuality that necessarily existed before the potentiality, or corporeal material, could come into being:

It is by art that those products come whose form dwells in the mind, where by “form” I mean what it is to be that product, its first or primary being . . . It is then, from this point onward and towards health, that the process is called the “making.” Hence it follows that in a way health comes to be out of health, and a house, out of a house, that is, the material being, out of the immaterial; for in medical science is to be found the form of health, and in architecture, the form of a house. And here by “primary immaterial being” I mean “the what it is to be” of anything.[5]

From this passage, it is clear that form is a type of primary being, i.e. a primary cause of the thing that exists. A recurring claim throughout the Metaphysics is that there can essentially be no effect induced without a cause: “whatever comes to be is generated by the agency of something, out of something, and comes to be something.”[6] Based off of this metaphysical premise regarding the nature of material things produced, Aristotle attempts to explain the confounding mystery of existence, i.e. effect, by exploring the chain of causation.

Aristotle Breaks From His Mentor, Plato: Form and Material Manifest in Individual Perceptible Bodies

Aristotle finds the primarily immaterial explanations of material reality to be lacking, which is why he seemingly rejects Plato’s concept of transcendence, which may be seen as an early conception of an immaterial idealism, later popularized by Berkeley. In particular, Aristotle rebuked Plato’s notion that it is desirable to separate the form from the matter in order to reveal the essence of the thing—regardless of plausibility: “there is no need of setting up an idea as an exemplar; though men have sought to discover such forms, especially in cases like these, which concern primary beings. An agent or producer is adequate to account for the production and for the embodiment of the form in the matter.[7]” Aristotle went even further to deny the veracity of Plato’s claim that form can exist sans matter: “it would be impossible for anything to come to be if nothing was present previously . . . thus, the material part is essential . . . it is this material that comes to be something.”[8] Similarly, Aristotle castigates purely material explanations of reality, arguing incessantly that material things necessarily possess a telos, essence, or shape about them that provides the archetype for the potentiality to be made actual: “The proximate matter and the form are merely two aspects of the identical reality, the one with respect to a thing’s capacities, the other with respect to its actual operation. Therefore, to seek a reason for their unity is like explaining how one is one.”[9]

While Individual Bodies and Matter Differ, Form is More General Than Particular

Of note, is Aristotle’s notion that a form is a sort-of general essence, archetype, or blueprint. Thus, individual iterations of a particular “form”—for example that of a human being—will differ when potentiality is made manifest in the perceptible plane that we call nature: “different as they are numerically, they are one in form; for man generates man . . . There is in the composite . . . such and such a form in their particular flesh and bones; and though they differ in matter (potentiality), for each has his own, father and son (Callias and Socrates respectively) may share one form, for form is indivisible.”[10] Thus one may conclude that form is a sort-of archetype and essential generality that prescribes the rough shape and nature of a corporeal body, rather than a dictatorial peculiarity that governs individual manifestations of a particular form.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics Points to a “First Cause”

Aristotle’s philosophy proceeds from the fundamental assumption that knowledge is based on an acquiescence to the necessity of a First Cause; and thus, i.e. episteme, or scientific knowledge, is the basis for all intellectual pursuit:

(III) The object of scientific knowledge (episteme) is of necessity. Therefore it is eternal . . . and what is eternal cannot come into being or cease to be. Again, all scientific knowledge starts from what is already known . . . because it proceeds either by induction or by deduction. Induction introduces us to first principles and universals, while deduction starts from universals . . . (VI) scientific knowledge consists in forming judgments about things that are universal and necessary; and demonstrable truths, and every kind of scientific knowledge, depend upon first principles . . . the state of mind that apprehends first principles is intuition.[11]

In this way, Aristotle’s Metaphysics may be seen as an inductive rational inquiry proceeding from particular perceivable objects and phenomenon towards the Ultimate, which Aristotle calls the “Unmoved Mover.” This process, relies on “nous,” or the intuitive faculty, which—if used properly—may be coupled with prudence, or practical moral judgment to form “sophia,” or wisdom. It is necessary to summarize what Aristotle’s project entails and aims at, in order to understand how his conception of form and matter allow him to induce first principles, of which the Unmoved Mover is First and Ultimate. Before proceeding further, it should be noted that there is a moral “end” in sight for Aristotle and thus, his metaphysical underpinnings are intricately tied to his ethical theory on virtue, happiness, and the good life for human beings: “Every art and every investigation, and similarly every action and pursuit, is considered to aim at some good. Hence the Good has been rightly defined as “‘that at which all things aim.’”[12]

Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” in Relation to Plato’s “Form of the Good”

For Aristotle, the form of a thing constitutes a sort-of “thinking,” where as the material coming into being constitutes a “making.”[13] Further, “power” is the ability of form to actualize itself by becoming manifest in material, which indicates the existence of agency, will, and faculty within the form:

“Only those which are capable of being healed; they alone are potentially healthy. In those cases in which the change from the potential state to fulfillment is brought deliberately, the process takes place as willed . . . As to the things which have the source of their becoming within themselves, they are potentially all that they will be of themselves . . . If . . . there is something primary . . . it cannot be said to be ‘of’ anything else.”[14]

Following this line of reasoning, power seems to be the ability to be the cause of oneself, as opposed to external factors or chance. In such a sketch of the nature of primary beings, there seems to be an unspoken hierarchy. At this point, it must be noted that for Aristotle, form is a type of primary being in itself: “by ‘form’ I mean what it is to be that product, its first or primary being.[15] In such a picture, it would seem that there is a perpetual chain of causation that can be traced upwards, from contingent beings to primary beings. In individual entities, form is both prior and the rational principle and essence of a thing (actual), yet cannot exist in the absence of material (potentiality). The endless regression from the minute to the Infinite, does however, arrive at the existence of a First Cause, which is the Form of form itself, from which all else (directly and indirectly) emanates.

A Portrait of the “Unmoved Mover”

Aristotle seemingly breaks from Plato once more, when he declared that reason seems to dictate that there is one singular cause, rather than a conglomeration of eternal essences, that is the source of all things: “Some of our contemporaries . . . prefer to regard universals as primary beings, since genera are general; they seem to prefer such principles and primary beings because of the abstract manner of their investigations.”[16] Aristotle instead suggests, that there are “three types of primary being,” including “immovable being” to which his Metaphysics seems to culminate.[17] Because change and motion are continuous—and time seems to be a sort-of progressive locomotion—“there necessarily is an eternal changeless primary being.”[18] Because eternal primary being are actual, rather than potential—for this would be inferior and subordinate for eternal beings—they must necessarily be without material: “And these primary beings must be without material. For they must be eternal, or else nothing is eternal. Accordingly, they must ever be actual.”[19]

Aristotle conceived of a perpetual universe and thus concluded accordingly regarding the First Cause, “There is something which is always moved with unceasing and cyclical motion. Consequently, the first heave must be eternal. There is therefore also something which moves it. And since a moved mover is intermediate, there is, therefore, also an unmoved mover, being eternal, primary, and in act.”[20] This Unmoved Mover, Aristotle reasoned by way of logical syllogism, is active in the activity of knowledge:

Such a mover must impart movement as do the desirable and intelligible . . . But what is primary for desire and for intelligibility is the same; for what is desired is what appears good, and the primary object of rational choice is what is good . . . So the starting-point is the activity of knowing. Moreover, intelligence is moved by the intelligible.[21]

Aristotle’s concluding observations regarding the nature and essence of the Unmoved Mover, are imbued with deep teleological implications:

The first mover’s action is enjoyable . . . Thus, knowing, by its very nature, concerns what is inherently best, and knowing in the truest sense concerns what is best in the truest sense. So intellect finds its fulfillment in being aware of the intelligible . . . But mind is active in so far as it has the intelligible as its possession. Hence, the possession of knowledge rather than the capacity for knowledge is the divine aspect of mind . . . If the divine, then, is always in that good state in which we are at times, this is wonderful . . . it is in this better state that the divine has its being and its life, and the divine is that activity. The self-sufficient activity of the divine is life at its eternal best.[22]

Tying Up Loose Ends

If the reader is perplexed and confounded at this point in the exposition, I confess that I am not surprised and will seek to offer this summation as solace. The topic of this inquiry has been to explore and distinguish between form and matter in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. To do this, it was necessary to contextualize Aristotle’s ideas by juxtaposing his metaphysical disposition alongside that of his teacher and mentor, Plato—who forever revolutionized the study of non-physical reality by articulating and canonizing his “Theory of Forms.” For Plato, the forms are abstract eternal essences that imbue with teleology physical things—which are but distorted imprints of perfect ethereal forms. Chief among the eternal essences for Plato, is the “Form of the Good,” which is the purpose towards which all things should direct their conscious action. In order to know the forms, one must transcend the material in order to ascend to the realm of the metaphysical, which is the motif of Plato’s famous cave allegory. In this quasi-dualistic outlook, it would seem that matter almost corrupts form, as darkness hides light. In Meno, Plato similarly argues that true education—the process by which knowledge is recollected by stripping away material experience and instead relying upon rational inquiry—aims at the attainment of knowledge and virtue through aligning the soul with the Good, even if virtue itself is unattainable except as a gift endowed by the divine: “virtue appears to be present in those of us who may possess it as a gift from the gods.[23]

Unlike Plato, Aristotle takes a more earthy approach: whereas Plato disdains the material as a carnal prison inhibiting spiritual transcendence, Aristotle frequently are fervently argues that form—which for him is the shape, order, mind, and essence of a corporeal thing—is only knowable in so far as it is made manifest in the material world. With the assumption that every effect induced has a cause, Aristotle explores the perpetual chain of causation before finally arriving at a First Cause, which is the Unmoved Mover, which seems to be something like the soul, essence, and/or mind that imbues, governs, and sets in motion the universe. This Unmoved Mover is actuality itself—and seems to be the only form that is capable of existing without body: for the Unmoved Mover is active in the activity of the Knowing of Ends. It would seem that as the soul animates the body, the Unmoved Mover animates the universe: “The soul is . . . the substance corresponding to the account, and this the essence of a particular sort of body.”[24] Despite a stark difference in methodology, Aristotle concludes—like Plato in Meno—that the activity of knowing, i.e. knowledge, is something divine and God-like that emanates outwards from the Unmoved Mover. And thus, through philosophical contemplation and the activity of happiness—which is “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue,” i.e. man fulfilling his proper moral and intellectual capacities—man may share in the divine spirit, essence, and mind that emanates from the Unmoved Mover.

Is it difficult to parse the precise difference between Plato’s Form of the Good and Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, though the former seems to be an eternal essence of sorts, while the latter is described as a conscious, knowing, and active—though disengaged— primary of all primary beings. Nonetheless, the ideas and concepts described ambiguously and abstractedly through the limited medium of language in Aristotle’s Metaphysics leave much open to interpretation and innovation. While their epistemological and metaphysical methods and dispositions differ, do Plato and Aristotle not both aim at the Ultimate—i.e. the source of all order in chaos, light in darkness, knowledge in a sea of confusion, and most importantly of all: purpose in a seemingly purposeless cosmos?

[1] A priori, is a Latin term used in Western philosophy which means “from the prior” and is used to signify things known prior to sensory experience. Platonism, in particular, is a rational philosophy that inherently mistrusts sense perception and instead relies upon rational arguments constructed by the mind, as opposed to drawing philosophical conclusions from observations garnered via the senses. [2] Giovanni R. Ferrari and Tom Griffith, Plato: the Republic (Edinburgh, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 221. [3] Ibid., 223. [4] Aristotle and Richard Hope, Metaphysics (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 7. [5] Ibid., 142-143. [6] Ibid. [7] Ibid., 147. [8] Ibid., 144. [9] Ibid., 179-180. [10] Ibid., 146-147. [11] Aristotle, Thomson J A K., and Hugh Tredennick, The Ethics of Aristotle: the Nichomachean Ethics (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1976), 206-211. [12] Ibid., 63. [13] Metaphysics, 143. [14] Ibid., 190-191. [15] Ibid., 142. [16] Ibid., 249. [17] Ibid. [18] Ibid., 256. [19] Ibid. [20] Ibid., 258. [21] Ibid. [22] Ibid., 259-260. [23] Plato, Grube G M A., and John M. Cooper, Five Dialogues (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002), 92. [24] Aristotle et al., On the Soul and Other Psychological Works (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2018), 22.


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