Introductory Notes on Aristotle’s Metaphysics

Per Joe Sachs and Carnes Lord, Aristotle lived from 384-322 BC. He was born in the town of Stagira along the Chalcidic peninsula in northern Greece. He came to Athens and became the greatest student of Plato for twenty years at the Academy. After that, some say he became a tutor to Alexander the Great (though the story may be apocryphal since his father was the personal physician to Amyntas III of Macedon). Aristotle later returned to Athens and founded his school, the Lyceum, and he became one of the most prolific writers for the next twenty-five years of his life. After the death of Alexander, and the subsequent rebellion of the Greek cities against Macedonia, Aristotle left Athens again rather than face death. He is supposed to have justified his leaving -lest Athens sin against philosophy a second time. Aristotle died shortly thereafter. His works were the dominant texts in Europe and the Middle East for 2,000 years until a dual attack from the Protestant Reformation and Enlightenment philosophers which successfully dethroned Aristotle as ‘the master of those who know’ as Dante dubbed him, relegating his texts to the shelf for the next 400 years.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics is an exploration into what lies behind the Physics. In the Physics, Aristotle offers a physical cosmos in a state of motion, ruled by four chief causes traced back to a circular spinning prime mover in the Metaphysics (a motionless mover who is the confluence of thought thinking itself, but which can have no knowledge of the effects of its movements). In the Metaphysics, Aristotle examines the nature of form and being. How shall we account for being? How do particulars like a tree or a dog maintain a certain form that is separate and distinct? In the Metaphysics he references a certain ‘stretching out’ of things in the opening line of Book I -“All human beings by nature stretch themselves out toward knowing.” This ‘stretching out toward knowing’ is a key ingredient of the investigation of being as being in the Metaphysics, and it can be considered alongside his famous claim in the Politics that ‘man is, by nature, a political animal.’

“Metaphysics” is a title that was added later by ancient librarians –ta meta ta phusika, or things that come after the study of physics. Metaphysics is the collected investigations by Aristotle into the nature of things that are, or an investigation into things being as they are. For Aristotle, the world of nature, with beings in a state of motion and change, is an ordered whole (a la Parmenides and Plato) but it is not self-explanatory. Instead of “Metaphysics,” Aristotle’s calls his project “first philosophy” -reflecting on the inherent order of things.

Unlike a perfectly rational modern philosophical treatise, which proceeds by deductive reasoning, Aristotle’s Metaphysics is more akin to a dialectic (as understood in Plato’s Meno) -a friendly conversation among compatriots with an effort to grasp or glimpse at the truth. Dialectic stands in contrast to a debate which is explicitly an aggressive confrontation of ideas with the express goal of defeating an opponent in verbal battle (a la Plato’s Gorgias). In Aristotle’s Metaphysics, there are several “new beginnings” as Aristotle offers different approaches toward finding a higher perspective on the nature of things (i.e. ‘being is spoken about in many different ways’). Interestingly, Aristotle offers a path ‘upward’ from conventional opinions to a higher perspective, above common supernatural beliefs and partisan rancor. And what is the higher perspective for Aristotle? The answer lies in the act of his teaching, which gently urges readers toward a more contemplative life, rather than a discursive one.

The Metaphysics contains fourteen books, some with overlapping, repetitive, or divergent claims. Each book is a unique quest toward the permanent things -an exploration into the things that last through the cycle of birth, growth, decay, and death. Theology offers an answer in the form of a deity or deities. Aristotle seems to suggest a different path toward knowledge in Book I. However by Book XII Aristotle gives the appearance of sharing certain kinship with theological claims. In it, Aristotle acknowledges certain widely held opinions and he comes full circle with a universal origination (or also multiple originations) of motion in the cosmos.

A Crude Outline of Preliminary Inquiries in Aristotle’s Metaphysics (per Joe Sachs)
Book I
Prior seekers of wisdom have tried to uncover the causes of things, some have yielded materialist accounts, which show themselves to be inadequate, as well as attempts to describe the origins of particular sources of motions.

Book II
A sequence of causes that explains anything cannot be infinite, but it must seek a primary source.

Book III
The sources of being must be knowable and universal, rather than particular, in a Platonic/Socratic sense.

Book IV
In understanding a knowledge of all things one must incorporate a knowledge of first principles. We must recognize that to be at all is to be a thing.

Book V
Our words reveal causal structures that point to underlying meaning.

Book VI
Being is spoken about in different ways, but insofar as it refers truth in thought, it is derivative and dependent upon a primary sense. From here, the study of being as being must begin.

Book VII
A discussion of the primacy of the thinghood of a thing, and form applies only to living things and the cosmos as a whole, The cause of form occurs not in speech but rather it is prior to perceptible things. Being as being is narrowed down to thinghood and the being of forms.

Form is not a mere arrangement of parts, but a being-at-work within material, therefore being as being is akin to being-at-work.

Book IX
Potencies are inherently striving and emerging within being-at-work, and is dependent on an indestructible being which is always at work, such as the cosmos. It is the source of identity for all being, the source of good (or wholeness of being) and contact with it via the act of contemplation is the primary meaning of truth.

Book X
The idea and form of wholeness relies upon thinking, or a thinking being.

Book XI
Aristotle claims that all disorder must originate from an orderly source.

Book XII
Being depends upon a motionless cause of circular motion (perhaps an allusion to Plato’s Timaeus) which comprises the form of all beings-at-work.

Aristotle discusses mathematics -which is not a source of being but rather are signs that point to universals.

Book XIV
The forms are not elemental causes, as in the cases of generation or numerical ratios.

For this reading I used the magnificent Joe Sachs translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics which was translated directly from Greek (not from inferior Latin or Thomist revisionists).

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