The Metaphysics is considered among the greatest of all philosophical works. Its influence on the Greeks, the Arabs, the scholastic philosophers and even writers such as Dante, was immense. It is essentially a reconciliation of Plato’s theory of Forms that Aristotle acquired at the the Academy in Athens, with the view of the world given by common sense and the observations of the natural sciences. According to Plato, the real nature of things is eternal and unchangeable. However, the world we observe around us is constantly and perpetually changing. Aristotle’s genius was to reconcile these two apparently contradictory views of the world. The result is a synthesis of the naturalism of empirical science, and the mysticism of Plato, that informed the Western intellectual tradition for more than a thousand years.
At the heart of the book lie three questions. What is existence, and what sorts of things exist in the world? How can things continue to exist, and yet undergo the change we see about us in the natural world? And how can this world be understood?
By the time Aristotle was writing, philosophy was only two hundred years old. It had begun with the efforts of thinkers in the Greek world to theorize about the common structure that underlies the changes we observe in the natural world. Two contrasting theories, those of Heraclitus and Parmenides, were an important influence on both Plato and Aristotle.
Heraclitus argued that things that appear to be permanent are in fact always gradually changing. Therefore, though we believe we are surrounded by a world of things that remain identical through time, this world is really in flux, with no underlying structure or identity. Parmenides, by contrast, argued that we can reach certain conclusions by means of reason alone, making no use of the senses. What we acquire through the process of reason is fixed and unchanging and eternal. The world is thus not made up of a variety of things, in constant flux, but of one single Truth or reality. Plato’s theory of Forms is a synthesis of these two views. Following Heraclitus, he argues that the objects of the world we see – including our own bodies – have no true existence. Following Parmenides, he says that they are merely copies or reflections of eternally true realities, which are unchanging and eternal entities that are the source of all the things that appear to us through the senses. These are the Platonic Forms: we cannot directly perceive them, but by means of our intellect and reason we can come to apprehend them in some way.
Aristotle would have encountered the theory of Forms when he studied at the Academy, which he joined at the age of about 18 in the 360’s B.C. For a time, he must have been a convert to this theory, and may even have written a popular book about it. However, at some point he turned against it, feeling that there must be some reconciliation between the science of nature (to which he had a strong attraction), and the more abstract reflections suggesting that ultimate reality lies beyond the sensible world.
The result is the theory of the Metaphysics. Aristotle believes that in every change there is something which persists through the change (for example, Socrates), and something else which did not exist before, but comes into existence as a result of the change (musical Socrates). To explain how Socrates comes to be born (since he did not exist before he was born) Aristotle says that it is ‘matter’ (hyle) that underlies the change. The matter has the ‘form’ of Socrates imposed on it to become Socrates himself. Thus all the things around us, all substances, are composites of two radically different things: form and matter. This doctrine is sometimes known as Hylomorphism (from the Greek words for matter and form).
In the manuscripts, books are referred to by Greek letters. The second book was given the title "little alpha," apparently because it appears to have nothing to do with the other books (and, very early, it was supposed not to have been written by Aristotle) or, although this is less likely, because of its shortness. This, then, disrupts the correspondence of letters to numbers, as book 2 is little alpha, book 3 is beta, and so on. For many scholars, it is customary to refer to the books by their letter names. Thus book 1 is called Alpha (Α); 2, little alpha (α); 3, Beta (Β); 4, Gamma (Γ); 5, Delta (Δ); 6, Epsilon (Ε); 7, Zeta (Ζ); 8, Eta (Η); 9, Theta (Θ); 10, Iota (Ι); 11, Kappa (Κ); 12, Lambda (Λ); 13, Mu (Μ); 14, Nu (Ν).
Book Alpha Outlines "first philosophy", which is a knowledge of the first principles or causes of things. The wise are able to teach because they know the why of things, unlike those who only know that things are a certain way based on their memory and sensations. Because of their knowledge of first causes and principles they are better fitted to command, rather than to obey. Book Alpha also surveys previous philosophies from Thales to Plato, especially their treatment of causes.
"Little alpha": The purpose of this chapter is to address a possible objection to Aristotle’s account of how we understand first principles and thus acquire wisdom. Aristotle replies that the idea of an infinite causal series is absurd, and thus there must be a first cause which is not itself caused. This idea is developed later in book Lambda, where he develops an argument for the existence of God.
Beta: A listing of metaphysical puzzles.
Gamma: Chapters 2 and 3 argue for its status as a subject in its own right. The rest is a defense of (a) what we now call the principle of contradiction, the principle that it is not possible for the same proposition to be (the case) and not to be (the case), and (b) what we now call the principle of excluded middle: tertium non datur - there cannot be an intermediary between contradictory statements.
Epsilon: This consists of further preliminary distinctions that are necessary before Aristotle can treat of substance itself. Metaphysics in its most sublime aspect is equivalent to Theology, because the highest substance (i.e. God) is the principle of all Being, and thus the proper object of Metaphysics.
The Middle Books are generally considered the core of the Metaphysics.
Book Zeta begins with the remark that ‘Being’ has many senses. The purpose of philosophy is to understand being. The primary kind of being is what Aristotle calls substance. What substances are there, and are there any substances besides perceptible ones? Aristotle considers four candidates for substance: (i) the ‘essence’ or ‘what it was to be a thing’ (ii) the Platonic universal, (iii) the genus to which a substance belongs and (iv) the substratum or ‘matter’ which underlies all the properties of a thing. He dismisses the idea that matter can be substance, for if we eliminate everything that is a property from what can have the property, we are left with something that has no properties at all. Such 'ultimate matter' cannot be substance. Separability and 'this-ness' are fundamental to our concept of substance.
Chapters 4-12 are devoted to Aristotle’s own theory that essence is the criterion of substantiality. The essence of something is what is included in a secundum se ('according to itself') account of a thing, i.e. which tells what a thing is by its very nature. You are not musical by your very nature. But you are a human by your very nature. Your essence is what is mentioned in the definition of you.
Chapters 13-15 consider, and dismiss, the idea that substance is the universal or the genus, and are mostly an attack on the Platonic theory of Ideas. Aristotle argues that if genus and species are individual things, then different species of the same genus contain the genus as individual thing, which leads to absurdities. Moreover, individuals are incapable of definition.
Chapter 17 takes an entirely fresh direction, which turns on the idea that substance is really a cause.
Iota: Discussion of unity, one and many, sameness and difference.
Kappa: Briefer versions of other chapters and of parts of the Physics.
Lambda: Further remarks on beings in general, first principles, and God or gods. This book includes Aristotle's famous description of the unmoved mover, "the most divine of things observed by us", as "the thinking of thinking".
Mu and Nu: Philosophy of mathematics, in particular how numbers exist.
In the 19th century, with the rise of textual criticism, the Metaphysics was examined anew. Critics, noting the wide variety of topics and the seemingly illogical order of the books, concluded that it was actually a collection of shorter works thrown together haphazardly. Werner Jaeger further maintained that the different books were taken from different periods of Aristotle's life. Everyman's Library, for their 1000th volume, published the Metaphysics in a rearranged order that was intended to make the work easier for readers.
In the thirteenth century, following the Fourth crusade, the original Greek manuscripts became available. One of the first Latin translations was made by William of Moerbeke. William's translations are literal, and were intended faithfully to reflect the Greek word order and style. These formed the basis of the commentaries of Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. They were also used by modern scholars for Greek editions, as William had access to Greek manuscripts that are now lost. Werner Jaeger lists William's translation in his edition of the Greek text in the Scriptorum Classicorum Bibliothecha Oxoniensis (Oxford 1962).
Some of the concepts laid out in Aristotle's Metaphysics: