I have finished recording the 3rd book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. As a consequence, I shall have to spend a few more days with Aristotle.
The content of the 3rd book is indicated in its first sentence: ‘We must, with a view to the science which we are seeking, first recount (prȏton epelthein) the subjects that should be first discussed’ (peri hȏn aporêsai dei prȏton; translation W. D. Ross). The English ‘recount’ does not express well what is involved in epelthein. Elthein is the aorist infinitive of erchomai, which means ‘to come’, ‘to go’; the preposition epi means ‘on’, ‘upon’. Epelthein is the aorist infinitive of eperchomai which means ‘to come upon’, ‘go or come against’, ‘attack’; its physical connotations mark the involvement of the whole personality of the speaker-listener in approaching the subject which is to be discussed. The physicality is involved a fortiori in the concept of aporêsai. Poros originally signified ‘means of passing a river, ford, ferry’, then generally ‘pathway, way’; it is etymologically associated with peirȏ ‘pierce, run through’ and peraȏ ‘drive right through’, ‘pass right across or through a space’. Prefixed by the privative alpha (a sterêtikon), aporos means ‘without passage’, ‘having no way in, out, or through’; aporia means ‘difficulty of passing’. (Cf. Liddell &Scott, Greek-English Lexicon)
The difficulties that Aristotle puts forward in the 3rd book concerning the theory of Forms are closely related to the arguments on the basis of which he refutes the theory in the 1st book of Metahysics; these arguments resemble those that Parmenides urges against the Forms of young Socrates in Plato’s Parmenides. Siebeck therefore conceived that the Parmenides was directed against Aristotle’s verbal criticisms of Plato’s theory of Forms. Thanks to Siebeck, I began to consider the possibility that Plato wrote the Parmenides in preparation for his third and last journey to Sicily. What are my reasons for this dating of the dialogue?
In the opening part of the Parmenides we learn that Zeno, a disciple of Parmenides was reading his treatise to interested listeners, one of whom was Socrates. Towards the end of the reading Parmenides entered the party, accompanied by Aristotle who ‘later became one of the Thirty’ (127d2-3). The Thirty would have put Socrates to death had their rule not been overthrown (Cf. Plato, Apology 32c-d, 7th Letter 324b-325a; Xenophon, Memorabilia I.ii.29-38). All those who knew of Aristotle’s objections to Plato’s Forms were bound to ask: Isn’t Plato pointing his finger at his disciple of the same name? Or even more poignantly: doesn’t he intend to appeal to Aristotle himself?
Zeno in his lecture defended Parmenides’ thesis that ‘all is one’ (hen einai to pan, 128a8-b1) by pointing to absurd contradictions in which things would be involved, if they were many. Socrates remarked that he saw nothing surprising in Zeno’s depicting contradictions concerning things apprehended by our senses, for such things are affected by many contradictions. Socrates would be really surprized, if Zeno distinguished and set apart the Forms of things alone by themselves, such as similarity and dissimilarity, many and one, rest and motion, and then show that these in themselves are entangled in exactly the same perplexity (tên autên tautên aporian) as the things which we can see. (129d6-130a2)
Intrigued by Socrates’ suggestion, Parmenides subjected his theory of the Forms to severe questioning, refuting with ease the reasons on the basis of which Socrates had considered the Forms, as well as the arguments he came up with in the course of the ensuing discussion. Yet instead of rejecting the theory as indefensible, Parmenides ended the discussion with a passionate defence of the Forms: ‘The Forms are necessarily involved in these and many more difficulties, if these Forms of things exist and one is going to define each Form as something in itself. So that the hearer is bound to be in difficulty and to argue that the Forms do not exist, and even if they do exist, they must of necessity be unknowable to human nature; and he will seem to have reason on his side, and as we were remarking just now, will be very difficult to convince. Only a man of considerable natural ability will be able to learn that there is a kind (genos ti) of each thing, an absolute essence (ousia autê kath’ hautên) … If a man, casting an eye over all the present and any similar difficulties, will not allow the Forms to exist and will not define the Form of each single thing, he will not have anything to which to turn his mind, and so he will utterly destroy the power of reasoning’ (tên tou dialegesthai dunamin pantapasi diaphtherei). (134e8-135c2)
Before leaving Athens, Plato had to protect his disciples from objections against the existence of the Forms; although he directed this defence of the Forms at every one of his disciples, he appears to have aimed it especially at Aristotle, who was the most gifted among them and who had urged arguments against the Forms.
The unceremonious manner with which Aristotle in the 1st book of the Metaphysics rejected the Forms on the basis of arguments marked in the Parmenides as irrelevant, while speaking about himself as one of Plato’s disciples – using the first person plural in the sense of “we Platonists” – indicates that he wrote the 1st book after Plato left Athens for Sicily and before he returned. Nobody expected that Plato would come back; he was in his late sixties when he went to Sicily, and he went there to help establish a state in which philosophers would rule.
Ross notes that the 3rd book of the Metaphysics refers to the 1st book as “our prefatory remarks” (995b5) and “our first discussions” (997b4)’, that the 3rd book ‘announces itself as following the 1st book’, and that the close connexion between the 1st book and the 3rd book is further indicated by the use of the phrase ‘the science which we are seeking’ (hê epistêmê hê zêtoumenê) and the use of the first person plural in the sense of “we Platonists”. (W. D. Ross, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, OUP 1924, p. xv) Convinced as I have become that the 1st book was written in the interval between Plato’s leaving Athens in 361 BC and his return from Sicily in 360 BC, the close connection between it and the 3rd book made me believe that the latter was written during that period as well. Reading aloud and recording the 3rd book compelled me to revise this dating, for I found that in all relevant respects it stands in sharp contrast to the 1st book.
In the 1st book Aristotle refuted the theory of Forms, but in the 1st chapter of the 3rd book he introduced the Forms (ta eidê) as a matter ‘which it is also necessary to investigate’ (tȏn anangkaiȏn esti zêtêsai, 995b14-17). Then in the 2nd chapter he says with reference to his critical view of the Forms in the 1st book: ‘The sense in which we say the Forms are both causes and self-dependent substances has been explained in our first remarks about them; while the theory presents difficulties in many ways, the most paradoxical thing of all is the statement that there are certain things beside those in the material universe, and that these are the same as sensible things except that they are eternal while the latter are perishable. For they say there is a man-himself and a horse-itself and health-itself, with no further qualification, – a procedure like that of the people who said there are gods, but in human form. For they were positing nothing but eternal men, nor are the Platonists (houtoi, ‘these’) making the Forms anything other than eternal sensible things.’ (997b3-12, tr. W. D. Ross) In the Parmenides this argument is hinted at; Parmenides asks: ‘And would you make an idea (eidos) of man apart from us and from all other human creatures, or of fire and water?’ Socrates replies: ‘I am often undecided (en aporiai), Parmenides, as to whether I ought to include them or not.’ (130c1-4; tr. B. Jowett.) The argument is left there in limbo.
In the opening sentence of the 6th, that is the last chapter of the 3rd book, Aristotle asks: ‘In general one might raise the question (aporêseie an tis) why after all, besides perceptible things and the intermediates [i.e. the mathematical objects], we have to look for another class of things, i.e. the Forms which we posit’ (ha tithemen eidê, 1002b13-14). He argues that ‘if there are not – besides perceptible and mathematical objects – others such as some maintain the Forms to be, there will be no substance which is one in number, but only in kind: – if then this must be so, the Forms also must therefore be held to exist. Even if those who support this view do not express it accurately, still this is what they mean, and they must be maintaining the Forms just because each of the Forms is a substance and none is by accident.’ Aristotle at this point refers to his earlier considerations: ‘But if we are to suppose both that the Forms exist and that the principles are one in number, not in kind, we have mentioned the impossible results that necessarily follow.’ (1002b12-32, tr. W. D. Ross.)
Nevertheless, at the end of the chapter Aristotle reopens the question of the Forms, asking whether the principles are universal or individual. If universal, he argues, they will not be substances, for no common predicate signifies ‘a this’ (tode ti), only ‘such’ (toionde), but the substance is ‘a this’ (hê d’ ousia tode ti). But if the common predicate is to be ‘a this’ and set out apart (ekthesthai, 1003a10; Jaeger in his Oxford edition of the Metaphysics notes: ekthesthai idem est quod chȏrizein tas ideas), Socrates will be several animals – himself and ‘man’ and ‘animal’, if each of these indicates ‘a this’ and a single thing. If the principles are not universals but of the nature of individuals, they will not be knowable; for knowledge of anything is universal. If there is to be knowledge of the principles there must be other principles prior to them, namely those that are universally predicated of them. (1003a5-17) – Aristotle ends his 3rd book of the Metaphysics by thus indicating a solution to Parmenides’ last and most powerful objection against the Forms, which concerns their knowability.
Parmenides argues in the dialogue that if the Forms exist, they are completely separate from us and as such unknowable to us; they can be known only by the most rigorous knowledge, which only God can possess. And if God has this perfect knowledge, his knowledge does not know us, or any human thing; just as our knowledge does not know anything which is divine, so by parity of reason they, being gods, do not know the things of men. Socrates is appalled: ‘To deprive God of knowledge is monstrous.’ (133c-134e)
The appeal to religious piety, with which Parmenides’ critical examination of the Forms ends, stems from the very foundations of Plato’s theory of the Forms. The Forms are divine beings par excellence. God is divine thanks to them (pros hoisper theos ȏn theios esti, Phaedrus 249c6) and from them he derives his capacity to order all things and care for all (diakosmȏn panta kai epimeloumenos, Phaedrus 246e5-6).
Aristotle devoted his 3rd book to the task of facing and overcoming difficulties, aporiai, opening it as follows: ‘For those who wish to get clear of difficulties (euporêsai literally ‘walk well’) it is advantageous to discuss the difficulties (diaporêsai; the prefix dia gives diaporêsai the force of ‘going through all the difficulties’) well; for the subsequent free play of thought (euporia, literally ‘easy walking’) implies the solution of the previous difficulties (tȏn aporoumenȏn), and it is impossible to untie a knot of which one does not know. But the difficulty of our thinking (hê tês dianoias aporia) points to a “knot” in the object; for in so far as our thought is in difficulties (hêi gar aporei), it is in like case with those who are bound; for in either case it is impossible to go forward.’ (Tr. W. D. Ross, 995a27-33) Aristotle’s listeners/readers were bound to be reminded by these opening lines of the Symposium, where Poros (‘ways and means of achieving, discovering’), the son of Mêtis (the deified Wisdom), joined by Penia (Poverty), fathers Eros, a philosopher par excellence. Devoting his whole life to the pursuit of philosophy (philosophȏn dia pantos tou biou, 203d7), Eros is all the time on the roads, all the time searching; what he finds is again and again escaping him (203b-204a). In the Parmenides it is a very young Socrates who is instructed in philosophy by the venerable Parmenides; in the Symposium the wise woman Diotima prepares presumably an even younger Socrates for the difficult life of a philosopher and introduces him to the Form of Beauty. Playfully alluding to these two dialogues, Aristotle in the 3rd book of the Metaphysics dons the cloak of a searching philosopher and retrospectively marks the arguments raised against the Forms in the 1st book as inconclusive, as part of an on-going investigation.