Aristotle is underrated. He is not some dry systematic thinker who abstracted and oversimplified the insights of his teacher. Plato and Aristotle are too often reduced to straw men who are guilty of establishing the structures (especially dualisms) that have caused most of the world’s subsequent problems. Some people rescue Plato by reminding everyone of the complexities inherent in his use of dialogues, but it’s been harder to rescue Aristotle, due in part to a long history of Latinate translations (substance, actuality) that have made it hard for some of us to appreciate humor and passion for truth. The translations of Aristotle by Joe Sachs are a breath of fresh air. Sachs makes it easier to see that Aristotle is not the dualistic straw man that many make him out to be. Aristotle is much weirder than that. In fact, his attention to individual things makes him a forerunner of Whitehead’s ontological principle, Latour’s actor-network theory, and object-oriented ontology. Paraphrasing Heidegger, if you want to understand contemporary philosophy, you should study Aristotle for ten to fifteen years. Using Sachs’ translations, let’s just look at the basics.
Aristotle’s investigation into nature (phusis) can be approached through the definition of nature offered at in the second book of the Physics. “Nature is a certain source and cause of being moved and of coming to rest in that to which it belongs primarily, in virtue of itself and not incidentally” (192b20). An investigation into nature, then, is an investigation into the sources and causes of motion and ultimately into being as such (Metaphysics 1003a22). Whatever has a source of motion inherent in itself is said to have a nature. Furthermore, whatever has this inherent power to move and change must persist and endure through the change of which it has the power. The cosmos remains a whole while its elements move and change (1040b9). The human being remains a human being while it becomes educated. The plant remains a plant while its parts change and grow.
Whatever has a nature, then, has being as an independent thing—thinghood (ousia), which is characterized by material (hule) stretching toward a form (morphe) (Physics, 192a 20). An independent thing as an active whole is said to be an underlying thing (hupokeimenon). A body is an underlying thing if it endures through the change of attributes. The underlying thing is always some material moving toward form. Moreover, deprivation of form is still form. Material is always swinging from form to form.
When investigating the nature of things, Aristotle examines the hypotheses of his predecessors. His definition of nature as a source of motion responds to the denial of motion by some philosophers, e.g. Parmenides (184b18). The natural way of an independent thing is sometimes identified with the unarranged material of the thing. The philosophers that hypothesized elements or atoms as the nature of things, e.g. Thales and Democritus, supposed that it was these elements or atoms that were the primary causes of things. Indeed, unarranged material is part of a thing and does affect its movement causally. However, the thinghood of a thing is also determined by its form, which is the look that is disclosed in speech (eidos) (193a30).
An investigation into nature must account for the material together with the form of independent things. Aristotle argues that the form of a thing is more indicative of its nature than the material (193b9). A thing is more itself when its form is being-at-work (energeia) than when its material is only potentially formed according to what has been disclosed in speech. Some of Aristotle’s predecessors identified the nature of a thing with its form, e.g. Pythagoreans and Platonists (Metaphysics, 985b-87b). They investigate the form of natural bodies as separate and motionless. Those who investigate merely the form or material of a thing (or the separated form and material) do not grasp its nature as a moving, changing, independent thing. Aristotle investigates the form of natural bodies as they appear with their moving material. The form of a natural body is always the form being-at-work with some moving material.
Let’s summarize what we know of Aristotle’s conception of natural bodies before we continue. Something has a nature if it is a source and cause of motion and change in itself. Thus, a natural body has the being of an independent thing (ousia), thinghood. The cause of motion in a natural body is its underlying material, which is forming itself to its look disclosed in speech, moving from the potency (dunamis) of form to the being-at-work (energeia) of form. To get a clearer and more complete understanding of the cause of motion in natural bodies, let us further explicate the relationship between form and being-at-work.
Aristotle argued that the form of a thing is more its nature than the underlying material, for the underlying material moves according to its look disclosed in speech. Furthermore, material is said to be what it is when it is being-at-work in its form, not when it is merely potentially in form. Thus, form is that which a thing keeps being in order for the thing to be at all. What a thing keeps being in order to be at all (to ti en einai) is often called its essence. Form, as was said earlier, is the being-at-work of material. Form is the being-at-work that a thing keeps on being in order to be at all.
Aristotle coins a term to describe this self-maintaining being-at-work by combining a word that means “complete” (enteles) with one that means “to be a certain way” (echein). In Joe Sachs’ translation, the resulting word means “being-at-work-staying-itself” (entelecheia), which is sometimes translated poorly as the Latinate “actuality.” Moreover, entelecheia puns on a word that means persistence (endelecheia) by adding a word that means finality or completion (telos). The completion of a thing is that for the sake of which it works. For a natural body, the form is its telos, and the being-at-work of form is being-at-work-staying-itself. Sachs also translates entelecheia as “holding together actively as a whole” (On the Soul, 412b9). My favorite translation is Ralph Manheim’s translation of Heidegger’s translation of entelecheia: “the holding (preserving)-itself-in-the-ending (limit)” (Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics [Yale, 1959], p. 60).
We have discussed three different ways of causing or being responsible for a natural thing: the material of a thing, the form to which it has potential to stretch, and the final state of being-at-work-staying-itself as a complete, independent thing. Aristotle also discusses another cause of a thing, which is the original impetus for the movement of material toward form, sometimes called the efficient cause. The efficient cause of a natural body is what allows the other causes to come together. In this manner, the father causes a child (Physics, 194b30). Aristotle argues that the first cause—formal, telic, and efficient—of all motion and being is the being-at-work-staying-itself of intellect (nous), which exists co-eternally with potent material (Metaphysics, 1072b 20).
Before I say more about the role of contemplative intellect in causing the movement and being of natural bodies, I want to examine Aristotle’s conception of life, which will lead us to a discussion of the soul and intellect. That will have to wait for later.