Theology is First Philosophy

The Theory of Being as Being

The Metaphysics, as it exists now, is divided into fourteen books named according to the letters of the Greek alphabet.

Book I: Alpha (Α)
Book II: little Alpha (α)
Book III: Beta (Β)
Book IV: Gamma (Γ)
Book V: Delta (Δ)
Book VI: Epsilon (Ε)
Book VII: Zeta (Ζ)
Book VIII: Eta (Η)
Book IX: Theta (Θ)
Book X: Iota (Ι)
Book XI: Kappa (Κ)
Book XII: Lambda (Λ)
Book XIII: Mu (Μ)
Book XIV: Nu (Ν).

The title (τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά, "the books after the physical treatises") was imposed by a later editor. It refers to the position of the Metaphysics within the arrangement of books within Aristotelian corpus as it has come down to us.

The Metaphysics appears to be put together from different works. Books II, V, XI, and XII seem to be later additions. Books VII and VIII appear to be the beginning of a new work, not a continuation from Book I.
The Metaphysics comes after physical works and before the ethical works.

There is a lot going on in the Metaphysics. Aristotle's discusssion of first philosophy interests us. He describes it as theology (the study of divine beings) and as the study of "being as being."

What he means is not transparent, but it is possible to make some progress.

In part, Aristotle is engaging in ontology. This, very roughly, is an attempt to identify what is real. An example helps to make what goes on in this study a little clearer.

We might conclude that shadows are real. This puts shadows in our ontology, but we might also think that shadows depend on other things for their existence. We might think that human beings are real and that although they can exist without casting shadows, the shadows human beings cast cannot exist apart from the existence of human beings. This shows, we might think, that some ways of being or existing rely on others for their reality.

Aristotle is doing this, but of course he is not thinking first and foremost about shadows.

(The word "ontology" comes into English from the Latin ontologia. Although there is no corresponding Greek word, this Latin word was introduced in the 17th century CE to mean "account of being" as if it were from the Greek ὄντος (present-tense participle of the verb εἰμί ("I am") and λόγος ("account")). The intention was to model it on existing Greek compound words such as θεολογία ("theology" = θεός ("divine") and λόγος ("account")).)

Substance and the Ways of Being



"If there is no substance other than those naturally composed, physics will be the primary kind of knowledge; but if there is some immutable substance, it is prior and universal because it is primary. Its study would be first philosophy and would be the study of being as being, both what it is and what the attributes are which belong to it as being" (Metaphysics VI.1.1026a).

"Being is said in many ways.... Being signifies the what it is and some this (τί ἐστι καὶ τόδε τι) and the quality or quantity or any other such category. Being is said in these ways, but it is evident that primary among them is the what it is, for this signifies the substance (for when we say what quality something is, we say that it is good or bad, not three-cubits or man, but when we say what it is, we say man or god, not pale or hot or three-cubits), and the other things are all said to be because some are quantities of what is [a substance], others are qualities, others again affections, still others something else" (Metaphysics VII.1.1028a).

"We must consider what things are substances; and whether there are any besides the sensibles, or not; and how these substances exist; and whether there is any separable substance, and if so, why and how, or none besides the sensibles" (Metaphysics VII.2.1028b).
A human being, for Aristotle, has a certain way of being. It exists as a "substance" (οὐσία).

It is traditional to translate οὐσία as "substance" in this context, but this can be misleading. Wherease we tend to think of substances as water and other stuffs we refer to with mass nouns, Aristotle thinks that human beings, cats, dogs, and so on, are substances.

Aristotle thinks that other things have ways of being different from the way of substances. Pale and three-cubits, for example, exist as a "quality" and a "quantity" respectively.

Substances, though, according to Aristotle, have the most fundamental way of being. There would be no qualities, for example, if there were no substances to have qualities.

Aristotle also thinks that substances themselves differ in their ways of being.

One way of being a substance is being a form in matter. We saw in this in the Physics, but being a form in matter is not the primary way of being a substance. For Aristotle, the way of being of the gods (the divine beings) is the primary way of being a substance.


First Philosophy is Universal

Aristotle thinks that the explanation of the divine way of being in theology and first philosophy is "universal" and thus explains what being is in general.

To see what this means, it helps to to imagine what Aristotle would think first philosophy is if the first unmovable mover and other gods did not exist.

In this case, because there would be no objects for it to study, theology would not be a science. Sensible substances would still exist and be the object of study in physics. Mathematics would study the magnitudes (measurable quantities) that must exist if sensible substances exist. Physics, in this situation, not mathematics, would be first philosophy and "universal" because as part of the explanation of the being of sensible substances, physics would explain the being of the magnitudes mathematics studies and that sensible substances entail.

Aristotle thinks that the gods do exist. So, as he understands reality, theology is first philosophy. The existence of divine beings entails the way of being of the sensible substances physics studies, and because as first philosophy it is "universal," Aristotle thinks that theology explains the being of sensible substances as part of its explanation of divine being.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle takes steps to work out this explanation.

Being a Substance

To work out the "universal" explanation in first philosophy, Aristotle has to know what the way of being of the first unmovable mover and the other divine beings is.

"We have said in outline what substance is, that it is not predicated of a subject, but is a subject of which the other things are predicated. But we cannot say this alone, for it is not enough. It is obscure and makes matter substance. ... and it seems that matter cannot be substance; for it separate (χωριστὸν) and a this (τόδε τι) seem to belong especially to substance. Hence it would seem that the form and the combination of form and matter are substance more than matter is. The substance, then, which consists of both—I mean of matter and form—may be dismissed, since it is posterior and obvious. Matter too is in a sense evident. We must investigate the third, [the form (εἶδος),] for [whether] this [meets the conditions for being a substance] is the most perplexing" (Metaphysics VII.3.1029a).

οὐσία = τόδε τι + ὑποκείμενον + χωριστὸν

Aristotle dismisses "matter" (ὕλη) as only potentially "a this." The "combination of form and matter" is a this and so is "substance more than matter is," but it is "separate" only with qualification (separate only in account) and so does not strictly meet the conditions for being a substance.
This is a problem for him in the Metaphysics because he is puzzled about substance.

Aristotle thinks that three things are true of a substance. (i) It is a "this" that we can say is a man, for example, when we say what the "this" is. (ii) It is a "subject" for the accidents we can predicate of a man. (iii) It is a "separate" from these accidents because it can exist without them. The man can be pale, but being pale is accidental to being a man.

What is puzzling for Aristotle, and what he works hard in the central books of the Metaphysics to understand, is whether anything can be a "this," a "subject," and "separate."

The conclusion he reaches is uncertain, as the Metaphysics is one of the more difficult works in Ancient philosophy, but his view seems to be that forms meet these conditions.

This can be confusing. We have already seen that in his Physics and second philosophy, Aristotle talks about forms in matter. This can temp us to think that he takes himself to understand the existence of forms and forms in matter. This, though, is not true. He thinks that second philosophy accepts these notions without thinking much about them. Working out the puzzles with them is the business of first philosophy to worry about.

We will not follow the details of Aristotle's investigation in first philosophy, but we can get some insight into his thought if we consider why he abandons his earlier ontology in the Categories. This will help us understand why he is puzzled about whether anything can be a subbstance and why he thinks it is worth investigating whether forms are substances.





Perseus Digital Library

Aristotle, Metaphysics

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon

ἀπορία, aporia, noun, "a perplexity"
ἄπορος, aporos, adjective, "lack of passage"
ἀπορωτάτη is a superlative of ἄπορος. A πόρος is a "means of passing." The alpha (α) is privative.
οὐσία, ousia, noun, "substance"

The noun οὐσία derives from a participle of the verb εἰμί (whose first-person meaning is "I am, I exist"). The infinitive of εἰμί is εἶναι ("to be"). The present participles are ὤν (masculine), οὖσα (feminine), ὄν (neuter).

In the context of Aristotle's metaphysics, οὐσία traditionally translates as "substance" because οὐσία in this context was translated into Latin as substantia (which literally translates ὑπόστασις ("standing under")).

ποιός, adjective, "of a certain kind or quality"
ποιότης, noun, "quality"
ὑπόστασις, hypostasis, noun, "standing under, supporting"

Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary:
immutabilis, adjective, "unchangeable, unalterable, immutable"
qualitas, noun, "quality"

Cicero introduces the word qualitas to render ποιότης, ‘what-sort-ness,’ a term Plato introduces in Theaetetus 182a.

"[I]f I may use the term, ‘quality’—as we are dealing with unusual subjects you will of course allow us occasionally to employ words never heard before, as do the Greeks themselves, who have now been handling these topics for a long time" (Cicero, Academica I.VI.24).

quantitas, noun, "quantity"
substantia, noun, "that of which a thing consists"




"Traditionally [in certain contexts in Aristotle the noun] οὐσία has been rendered by 'substance.' The reason for this is that, on the view Aristotle puts forward in the Categories, properties depend for their being on objects in that objects are their ultimate subjects, they are what ultimately underlies everything else. Indeed, objects in the Categories are characterized by the very fact that they are the ultimate subjects which underlie everything, whereas there is nothing that underlies them as their subject. It is because of this characterization that the rendering 'substance' seems appropriate" (Michael Frede, "Substance in Aristotle's Metaphysics," 73. Essays in Ancient Philosophy, 72-80).

"Aristotle in [Metaphysics] E [Book VI, chapter] 1, 1026a23 ff. raises the question of whether first philosophy is universal rather than just concerned with with a particular domain of reality, namely divine substances. And the suggested answer seems to be that first philosophy does not just deal with a particular domain of of objects, but is universal, because it is first. Thus, if there were no separate immaterial substances, physics would be first, but for this very reason physics would not just deal with a particular domain, namely sensible substances, but would be universal in dealing in some way with everything there is. ... If there were no immaterial separate substances, we would have two theoretical sciences or rather bodies of sciences, physics and mathematics, the one concerned with sensible substances, the other with magnitudes. Now physics would be universal in the sense that, though its domain does not include magnitudes, it would nevertheless have to say something about magnitudes. For it is a crucial feature of sensible substances that they are of some magnitude and that they come in kinds and form classes which are of some magnitude. One would have to form a view as to what it is to be a magnitude, as to why there have to be magnitudes for there to be sensible substance, as to what kinds of magnitudes one has to assume" (Michael Frede, "Introduction," 8. Aristotle's Metaphysics Lambda, 1-52).

"[W]e shall want the substance of an object to be such that with reference to it we can explain how, despite all the changes, it is the history of one object. We also think an object might have had a history quite different from the one it actually had yet have been the same object; this, too, is to be explained in terms of substance. Furthermore, the substance must be an individual, since we are looking for the real individuals in the category of substance which are to explain the individuality of ordinary individual objects [the human beings, the cats and dogs, and so on]. Finally, there must be some sort of asymmetry between substances and properties, on the basis of which we can say of properties and everything else that exists that they depend on substances for their existence, but that substances do not, in any way, depend on properties for their existence. These are the requirements Aristotle lays down in the Metaphysics, when he says a substance must be a subject (ὑποκείμενον), 'a this' (τόδε τι), and an independently existing entity (χωριστὸν)" (Michael Frede, "Individuals in Aristotle,"" 64-65. Essays in Ancient Philosophy, 49-71).




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