Aristotle on General Metaphysics

General Metaphysics

A. Analysis of Being in Becoming: Matter and Form, Potency and Act.

Aristotle starts from the solid ground of experience.

Experience shows us that only individual substances exist, and all exist in the substance and are predicated of the substance. Moreover, experience shows us that individuals are not produced by some Idea or model, but are produced by other individuals of the same species.

The fact of generation tells us that first of all there must be an individual, who by the act of generation is able to produce a new reality as germ or seed. In virtue of this act of generation, the germ or seed receives the power of reproducing another individual specifically the same as the generator; for man generates man, and oak generates oak.

The power of reproducing a new individual is the very form of the seed; because, for Aristotle, every form is a force or a potency for developing what is virtually contained within the subject. Thus the immanent form of the seed or germ is a potency for developing a perfect being (it has the power of becoming man or oak). The development from the state of potency to the state of perfect being is called becoming.

To make this development possible, it is necessary to suppose some substratum or matter on which the successive forms of development can be realized until the last form is reached (the perfect or completed individual). This substratum is called matter, by which is meant all those conditions which make possible the passage of successive forms. To function thus, this substratum or matter must remain unchangeable.

Moreover, experience shows us that the forms in the development of a living being proceed from an inferior to a higher form, not by change but by a predetermined form, which specifically is the same as that of the individual that produced the germ or seed.

This predetermined form (entelechy) is always immanently present, coordinating and distributing the matter not arbitrarily but according to that specific from within — in this instance, man or oak. The idea of the entire individual is present within the seed from the first moment as an immanent potency and does not cease its activity until the perfect (completed) individual is attained.

Now, as a first result of this analysis of becoming, we are able to determine and understand Aristotelian terminology.

Only individuals are beings in the full sense of the term. Every individual is a compound of matter and form. Matter is an indeterminate element: the form is the determining element; it is the force, power — or better, the potency — developing the whole which is virtually contained within the individual. Thus it is called active potency. Matter, considered as the complex of those conditions which make possible the activity of the form, is called passive potency.

Every form, since it designates some actual determination of matter, is also called act. Thus the analysis of the development of a living being has given us the concept of matter (substratum), form (determining element), potency (both active and passive), and act.

Aristotle extends the results of the analysis of the development of a living being to a work of art, that is, to artificial becoming. Let us take the classic example of the piece of marble which becomes a statue.

Here, too, first of all, there must be an artist who conceives the “idea” of the statue which he wants to bring forth in the marble.

Secondly, the marble, which already possesses its own shape — for instance, that of a cube — is supposed to be capable of losing this shape and assuming that conceived by the artist. In other words, the marble must be in passive potency in order to assume the form of a statue.

Thirdly, the marble, under the action of the tools used by the artist, loses its former shape and becomes a statue. The action of the artist ceases when the marble has passed into the new form, that of a statue.

This process is analogous to that of the development of the living organism. There are, however, some interesting differences.

In the development of a living organism, the seed is predetermined by nature to all the successive forms which are intermediary means of reaching that specific form which is the last.

The marble, on the contrary, is not determined by its form of marble to be this rather than that statue or something else. Here the determination comes extrinsically, from the idea of the artist — as does also the origin of the active potency to produce such a statue; whereas in the living organism this active potency is immanent in the seed.

However — the artificial becoming also consists in a union of matter and form.

B. The Four Causes of Becoming

The preceding analysis showed that four causes are acting upon the being in the process of becoming:

  • There is an efficient cause, and it is that which gives the impulse to movement or development (the generator as becoming takes place in nature, and the artist as becoming takes place in art);
  • There is a material cause, the permanent and indeterminate substratum of the successive transformations (organic matter in the case of the living organism, and the marble in the case of the statue);
  • There is a formal cause, established by the forces within the idea (the form of species in the living organism, and the idea conceived by the artist in works of art);
  • There is a final cause, that which directs the entire series of transformations on a pre-established plane, giving unity to the entire course of the development (which results in the complete organism in natural becoming, and the complete statue in artificial becoming). (1)

It is interesting to note that, according to Aristotle, three of the above-mentioned causes — namely the efficient cause, the formal cause, and the final cause — logically are reducible to the idea of “form.” In the development of a natural organism — for instance, that of man —

  • The efficient cause or generative act is possible in so far as the acting individual (generator) possesses, already realized, the “form” of man;
  • The formal cause, immanent in the germ, organizes the matter step by step and gives it exactly the “form” required by the species to which the germ belongs (thus the efficient cause is the same as the formal cause, if we consider the latter in its actual development);
  • The final cause, considered as the model toward which the steps of development tend, is the same as the formal cause.

Thus the efficient cause, the formal cause, and the final cause coincide in the concept of “form.” Hence form is the propelling, organizing and final principle of becoming.

C. Priority of Act

For Aristotle, only individuals exist as true realities, and individuals are in continuous development. Every development, however, is conditioned in the sense that it presupposes a reality already possessing the complete form, which is the origin of movement.

“The seed comes from other individuals who are prior and complete, and the first thing is not seed but the complete being; for example, we must say that before the seed there is a man; the man is not produced by the seed but by another from whom the seed comes.” (2)

Likewise the statue presupposes the idea of the artist.

The priority of act over potency, the determinate over the indeterminate, the perfect over the imperfect, is one of the most outstanding principles of Aristotle’s philosophy.

Every becoming is a movement, a passage from potency to act; and every movement depends upon the existence of a mover, which is in act; that is, which already possesses the form toward which the movement tends. The mover is in act what the moved is in potency; and because it is act, it can impart movement; that is, it can start the process of movement.

D. The Limits of Becoming: Prime Matter and Immovable Mover

From the above-mentioned principle Aristotle draws the most important conclusion of his speculative thought; development or movement, related not to this or that particular individual but to the whole universe, must have two limits, one deriving from matter and the other from form. In other words, becoming presupposes a lowest point (Prime Matter) and a highest point (the immovable Mover).

Prime Matter

The lowest point is Prime Matter, which must be conceived of as without any force of movement; it must be absolutely indeterminate, pure potency. But is a being without any form thinkable?

Let us try to explain this important point of Aristotelian philosophy.

Seed is matter in respect to a plant, as marble is matter in respect to a statue. Truly here by “matter” we mean the “indeterminate”; but evidently, in the aforementioned instances, such an indetermination is not absolute but relative.

Seed and marble are determined as such; at the same time they are determinable by the higher forms of plant and statue. In other words, seed and marble as such are compounds of matter and form, and, of course, are determinate beings.

However, they are called “matter” in relation to the higher form (plant or statue in our instance) which can be attained by the seed or the marble.

Thus our concept of “matter” is relative to the higher form, and seed and marble are called “matter” in so far as they are “in potency” as regards the completed plant or statue.

In other words, our concept of matter is obtained by a regressive process of mind from the higher to the inferior condition which was the substratum of the production of the new individual form. Going back along this regressive process, we must finally arrive at matter deprived of any form whatever.

For instance, we can deprive the marble not only of the form of the statue but also of the form of marble and reduce it to the elementary substances which concurred in the formation of marble; and these elementary substances can be deprived of their own forms, and so on, until we reach “matter” absolutely without form — pure potency. This is what Aristotle called Prime Matter.

“For when everything else is removed, clearly nothing but matter remains…By matter I mean that which in itself is neither a particular thing nor quantity nor designated by any of the categories which define being.” (3)

Prime Matter does not exist as such independently of any form. According to Aristotle, only individuals exist that are composed of matter and form.

However, Prime Matter is not a mental abstraction, but a metaphysical reality. How it would be possible to have a metaphysical entity, which on the one hand is pure potency, absolutely indeterminate, and, on the other hand, is naturally disposed to receive any form whatever, is not made clear by Aristotle; and, of course, it is one of the obscure points of his metaphysics.

God, the Immovable Mover

The highest point is the immovable Mover, God. Aristotle proves the existence of God by force of the above-mentioned principle: “priority of act over potency.”

This proof may be summed up as follows: Becoming is the passage from potency to act. This transition cannot be effected without appealing to a mover which would activate the potency.

But again, this mover, if it be in the series of becoming, would derive its motion from a second, and so on. Such tracing of the object moved and the mover cannot go on into an infinite series, for, if so, the problem of becoming would remain unsolved.

It is necessary to stop at a prime mover which would be outside this series of becoming, and which moves but is itself unmoved, the immovable Mover, God.

The necessity of admitting the first and immovable Mover does not depend on the fact of whether becoming has a beginning. Even if the world is without a beginning (as Aristotle supposed it to be, because of his lack of a concept of creation), its becoming would remain ever inexplicable without a prime, immovable Mover, the absolute cause of all becoming.

Having thus formulated his proof for the existence of God, Aristotle gives himself to the task of determining God’s nature. God is Pure Act, intermingled with no potency.

Since, according to the doctrine of Aristotle, knowledge of the world would imply duality between knower and known, he denies to God any knowledge of earthly becoming. Consequently, God is thought, which revolves upon itself, Thought of Thought, as Aristotle expresses it.

Cosmic reality has a pronounced aspiration toward God, and in this sense God moves the world. But He is not the Creator of this cosmic reality, and does not have any direct relationship to it. He is the exemplary (final) cause and the efficient cause of becoming, but He is ignorant of this reality and hence does not govern it.

If we compare the God of Plato (Highest Good) with that of Aristotle, we can say that in both there remains dualism: God is distinct from uncreated and co-eternal reality. Aristotle’s proof for the existence of God through the notion of becoming is superior to that of Plato, whose proof consists in the intelligible substratum of all intelligible things (Ideas). Aristotle’s explanation is frankly metaphysical, while Plato’s is logical.

With reference to the nature of God, while Plato recognized in God the attribute of modeler or fashioner of the material universe (Demiurge), and hence also recognized the attribute of providence, these endowments are absent from the God of Aristotle.

Thus, though a development in metaphysics is achieved through Aristotle’s proof for the existence of God, in matters of religion Aristotle’s contribution involves a step in reverse.


(1) Metaphysics, II, 994a and b; Physics, II, 3 and 7.
(2) Metaphysics, XII, vii, 1073a.
(3) Metaphysics, VII, iii, 1029a.


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