When I sat down to write this, I couldn’t do much but sit here and sigh. I finished the Metaphysics some time ago, but have delayed writing anything about it. My excuse is that, between going to the kids or the prison every day, by the time I get home and clean the dark red stains of Ugandan earth off my skin, I’m much too tired to write anything coherent on Aristotle. That is at least partly true. The other reason I hesitated to start writing about my Greek friend is that there is so much to address that I don’t know where to start, and so much of what I am doing seems like shooting in the dark because of how little training I have had in ancient philosophy.

My thesis gave an interpretation of Spinoza’s Ethics that would, in some ways, lend his metaphysics-cum-ethics to be understood in a new way from an Aristotelian standpoint. Most of the philosophers I was working with, particularly my advisor at Princeton, perhaps one of the most decorated and respected philosophers of Early Modern philosophy, take the position that Spinoza was working in the Cartesian tradition – which seems blatantly obvious but also lacking any real subtlety in addressing the former’s project – and by working in the Cartesian tradition, most scholars mean quite explicitly that Spinoza could not be considered an Aristotelian (since Descartes was reacting against Aristotelian scholasticism; here it is useful to point out that when I speak of Spinoza in any Aristotelian sense, I’m speaking not of scholasticism and what the medieval Christians did to the Greek’s thought, but rather of a more ‘pure’ reading of Aristotle himself – as removed from the warping of a post-Aristotle historical lens as is possible). On the other hand, you might not want to listen to anything I say, because I am not specifically trained in the history of philosophy, I do not know exactly if Spinoza had any Aristotle in his library (though it seems likely, and I know people who probably know), and at this moment I don’t even have my copy of Curley’s Collected Works (of Spinoza) with me.

Part of the connection I saw between Spinoza and Aristotle was their approach to philosophy itself. For Aristotle, it is clear that what he calls “the first philosophy” is most important to a philosophical undertaking, and everything else – e.g. political philosophy – will follow. That means an investigation of the first philosophy, or metaphysics, will eventually give us an ethics. And first philosophy, for Aristotle, is the study of substance. This is clear. For Spinoza, I see the project of the Ethics working in a similar way – he begins with the metaphysics of Part I, and proceeds through part II-V giving a resulting epistemology, psychology, and ethics. That is, he started with the first philosophy and everything was built upon it. Moreover, anyone who is even cursorily familiar with Spinoza will know that his metaphysics is indeed built around the study of substance – it is his proof that there is only one substance that sets his whole project into motion! Unlike Descartes, who had thinking and extended substances, and each person was (in essence?) a thinking substance and an extended substance (which plunged Descartes into a problem he could never resolve – how are the mind and body connected? I’ve read arguments for a kind of hylomorphism but Descartes himself seemed to randomly and unsatisfactorily assign the connection point at the pineal gland), for Spinoza, there is only one substance, Natura or Deus or the totality of all things, and all individual things in the substance (like you and me) are just modes (or affections) of that one substance.

Of course in terms of their conceptions of substance, Aristotle and Spinoza are not singing the same song. While I have spent a lot of time studying Spinoza and can maybe say something intelligible about what he considers to be substance, in the case of Aristotle I could not do as much. I can exhaust my intelligible thoughts on the matter by telling you that substance for Aristotle and substance for Spinoza are two radically different things. Aristotle’s substance is a hylomorphic compound with matter and form. Fortunately for me, there is a section of the Metaphysics where Aristotle gives ‘definitions’ of certain terms, and I can regurgitate what he writes about substance:

“(i) The simple bodies. Examples: earth, fire, water, etc. Also bodies more generally and the compounds of them, animals, divinities and their parts, All these things are said to be substance because, far from their being predicated of some subject, the other things are predicated of them…

(iv) The what-it-was-to-be-that-thing, whose account is a definition, is also said to be the substance of the particular.

The upshot is that there are two ways of giving an account of substance, as the ultimate subject, which is never predicated of something else, and as something which is a this-something and is also separable. And the shape/form of the particular is like this.”

The concept of essence in Aristotle is complicated; I feel relatively comfortable in asserting that the ‘essence’ of the hylomorphic compound of substance is its form (not it’s matter), for by form Aristotle means ‘the essence of each thing.’ As Cohen writes, ‘the substance of a thing is its form.’ There is a crucial and far from lucid relationship between substance, form, and universal, not to mention essence and definition.

Let me briefly sketch out where I’m going in this post, because I’m focusing on a very specific part of the Metaphysics, and I’m looking at in a way that most scholars probably don’t agree with and would instinctively cringe at. I want to look at the concepts of matter and form in Aristotle, and hold them up against Spinoza’s concept of essence; specifically what I have identified in the Ethics as actual essence and formal essence. Though let me say immediately that in no way do I suggest Spinoza has anything resembling a hylomorphic compound. In any case, everything I’m saying could be totally off.

As we have seen above, you and me and Wiske the puppy are all substances for Aristotle. As a substance, Wiske is a hylomorphic compound – matter and form. She has the form of dog (form has a relation to species) and specific matter – fur, bones, flesh. As Aristotle notes, Socrates and Callias are different because of their matter, but in form they are the same; they differ materially, but formally they are the same (indivisibility of the form). We can see why some claim that Aristotle never escaped Platonism. But in scholarship there is no consensus as to whether Aristotle wanted to maintain whether there are particular essences or forms (i.e. a unique essence for each particular in a species) or a single form for all particulars within a species.*

A similar debate exists regarding Spinoza’s concept of essence. Without meaning to sound pretentious, I’m going to leave the debate aside and give a description of how I read Spinoza. What Aristotle refers to as substances more or less corresponds to what Spinoza identifies as ‘modes’ or ‘affections.’ For Spinoza, there is only one substance, and that substance has infinitely many attributes (though he only ever identifies ‘thinking’ and ‘extended’). For Aristotle, I’m a substance and Wiske is a substance, but for Spinoza, both Wiske and I are just modes of the substance. A mode is a temporal and particular instantiation of the substance; it does not, nor does anything, exist outside the substance. The substance is an infinite and Parmenidean-like eternal being.

I’m going to fall on the side of the Aristotelian debate that argues for a single form or essence for particulars within a species, i.e. that substantial forms are universals. I’m not going to defend that position here. Moreover, keep in mind that in this discussion I am not confronting the further complications of definition, causation, and much more. By this understanding of Aristotle, it is the matter of a thing, say Wiske, that differentiates her from other dogs. She is different from me in form, because I have the form of man (let’s not get into the fact that I’m a woman) and she has the form of dog. But she is different from another dog in matter alone.

This doesn’t exactly line up with how I read Spinoza, but there are some interesting similarities. First, let me say that if you want a full defense of my reading, particularly for my distinction between essentia actualis and essentia formalis, I will send you a copy of my thesis. This is a highly abbreviated recantation of the conclusions I argue for there. Actual essence, as I read it, is what it actually is to be a thing; that is, what makes a particular mode that particular mode. (In support of this, Spinoza uses a different term specific to the substance – it does not have actual essence, but rather ‘active’ essence, essentia actuosa) For Aristotle we distinguish between substances in a species by their matter, similarly for Spinoza, we distinguish between modes by their actual essence. The actual essence consists of the mode’s temporal, actual, causal existence. Wiske exists in a causal nexus that is a part of her actual essence; she exists temporally; she affects and is affected by other modes.

Here is where the investigation starts to fall apart a little bit. If we can see the relation between Aristotle’s matter and Spinoza’s actual essence, the next step is to look at the former’s ‘form’ and the latter’s ‘formal essence.’ Form is specific to species for Aristotle; and though certain passages of Ethics Part IV and V leave this contentious, formal essence does not seem to be specific to species for Spinoza – it is very debatable, but one might say that there is no ‘essence of man’ for Spinoza. There is the particular (actual) essence, and there is the formal essence, which is among all things the same, namely, that they are modes (or affections) of the substance. Where Spinoza has a single ‘universal,’ Aristotle has many universals, corresponding to the species of the thing. I argue that Spinoza’s formal essence is each thing sub specie aeternitatis, or ‘from the gaze of eternity.’ My formal essence is me as a part of eternity, which is to say, eternity itself, since I cannot be understood removed from eternity, and eternity cannot be understood with me removed from it. The totality of all things that were, are, and will be make up eternity. In that all things are a part of eternity, the formal essence of things is the eternal perspective of them. This is a perspective that does not consider specific modes but the substance itself.

It would be impossible for me to go further in discussing Aristotle’s forms without bringing in the complications of definitions and causation, and for this moment I will lay down my amateur’s machete in my dismembering of his philosophy. I shall arm myself with it again after confronting the Nicomachean Ethics. I hope I have at least suggested where some territory between these two thinkers might yet be explored; but as someone with very little knowledge of Aristotle I dare not yet venture further.

*See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Aristotle’s Metaphysics under the heading ‘Substances and Universals’ for an overview of this debate in scholarship.


One thought on “Metaphysics

  1. What do you think that Aristotle and Spinoza would do to their works if armed with the knowledge we now posses about DNA and subatomic particles? I think they would be changing up their thoughts, because they were just trying to make sense of the world with the only knowledge that they possessed.

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