Translated with introduction and notes by A.E. Taylor

The Four Conceptions of Cause United in Aristotle← TOC→A Criticism of Plato


The Defects of the Pre-Aristotelian Systems

It is clear, then, that all who regard the universe as one and assume a single entity as its material, and that a bodily and extended113 entity, have fallen into error in several respects. They only assume constituent elements for bodies, but not for incorporeal entities, though incorporeal entities also really exist, and though they attempt to provide causes for generation and dissolution, and to discuss the nature of all things, they do away with the cause of motion. A further fault is that they do not assume the essential nature,114 or what, as a cause of anything. Another is the levity with which they call any one of the simple bodies except earth a principle, without reflection on the process of their reciprocal generation from each other. [I am speaking of fire, water, earth, and air.] Some of them are generated from one another by composition, others by separation, and this difference is of the highest importance in deciding the question of priority and posteriority. From one point of view, one might hold that the most elementary of things is that out of which they are all ultimately generated by composition, and such would be the body which is finest in texture and has the minutest parts. Hence those who (989a) assume fire as their principle would be most fully in accord with this line of thought, and even each of the others admits that the element of bodies must be of this kind; at least, none of the later thinkers who asserted a single principle has ventured to say that this element is earth--the reason clearly being the great size of its parts-- though each of the three other elements has found an advocate. For some identify the primary element with fire, others with water, others with air. And yet why do they not say the same thing about earth, too, just as the mass of mankind do? And Hesiod,115 too, says that earth was the first of bodies, so primitive and popular is this belief found to be.

According to this line of thought, then, whether a man says that the primary body is any one of these other than fire or assumes that it is denser than air but finer than water, he cannot be right in either case. But if what is sequent in the order of production is logically anterior,116 then, since the compacted and composite comes later in the order of production, we should have an opposite conclusion to the above: water would be prior to air; earth, to water.

So much, then, may be said about those who postulate a single cause of this kind. The same criticisms are pertinent, even if one assumes a plurality of them, like Empedocles, who says that the material of things is four bodies. The same consequences must follow in his system, as well as others peculiar to it. For we see these bodies produced from one another, and this implies that fire and earth do not always remain the same body, a point which has been discussed in our discourses on Physics.117 And, further, he cannot be thought to have spoken with entire correctness or consistency on the question whether the cause of motion is to be assumed to be single or double. And universally those who teach this doctrine are forced to deny the reality of qualitative alteration. Nothing will become cold after being hot, or hot after being cold. For there would need to be something to be the subject of these contrasted states. And thus there would be a numerically single entity which becomes successively fire and water; but this he denies.

As for Anaxagoras, he would be most rationally interpreted if we understood him to recognize two elements. He did not, indeed, develop this notion himself, but would necessarily have followed another's guidance in this direction. That all things were at first a mixture118 is indeed a paradoxical view on various grounds, particularly because it follows that they would first have to exist in an (989 b) unmixed state, and also because it is not the nature of anything and everything to admit of mixture with everything else. Besides, the attributes and accidents of things would be separable from their substances (since things which can mix can also be separated). Still, if one followed up his doctrine and developed his meaning, he would perhaps be found to be asserting a view more akin to that of later thinkers. For when nothing had been separated off, clearly nothing could be truly predicated of the supposed substance. I mean, e.g., that it could not be truly called white, black, buff [nor of any other color], but must necessarily have been colorless, since otherwise it would have had one or the other of these tints. Similarly, for the same reason it could have no taste, nor any other such quality. It could neither have been a quality, nor a quantity, nor a thing. If it had been, it would have had the form of some definite particular thing. But this is impossible, on the assumption that all things were mixed together, for it would be equivalent to being already separated out. But he says that all things were mixed together except Mind, which alone was unmixed and pure. It follows, then, from all this that his theory amounts to assigning as his principles the One (for that is simple and unmixed), and the Other, as we119 call the Indeterminate before it has been rendered determinate and received a form. Thus what he says is neither correct nor clear; still, what he means is something similar to later theories and more conformable to apparent facts.

These thinkers, however, confine themselves exclusively to the study of generation, dissolution, and motion, for in general they inquire exclusively about the causes and principles of that kind of Being. As for those who study all forms of Being, and distinguish between sensible and non-sensible objects, they clearly devote their attention to both classes. Hence, in their case, we may dwell at rather greater length on the question what satisfactory or unsatisfactory contributions they have made to the solution of the problems at present before us.

The so-called Pythagoreans, then, employ less obvious principles and elements than the physicists (the reason being that they did not derive them from sensible things; for mathematical objects, with the exception of those with which astronomy is concerned, are devoid of motion). Still, all their discussions and investigations are concerned with physical Nature. For they describe (990a) the formation of the "Heaven," and observe what befalls its parts [attributes and activities], and use up their causes and principles upon this task, which implies that they agree with the other physicists, that what is is just so much as is perceptible by our senses and comprised by the so-called "Heaven." Yet, as I have said, the causes and principles they assign are adequate for the ascent to the higher classes of entities,120 and, indeed, more appropriate to these than to the science of Physics. But they fail to explain how there can be motion if all that we presuppose in our premises is merely Limit, the Unlimited, the Odd and the Even, or how without Motion and Change there can be Generation, and Dissolution, or the actions of the bodies that traverse the "Heaven."

Again, even if it were granted them or proved that magnitude121 is composed of these factors, how does this account for the existence of bodies, light and heavy? For they reason from the principles they assume just as much about sensible as about mathematical bodies. Hence they have not taught us anything about fire or earth or other such bodies, and naturally not, as they had no special doctrine about sensible objects as such. Again, how can we understand the view that Number and its properties are the causes of all that is and that comes to be in the "Heaven," both at the beginning and now, and yet that there is no other kind of number than this Number of which the universe is composed? For when, according to them, there is in this region of the universe Opinion and Opportunity, and a little higher or lower Injustice and Separation or Mixture, and when they say as a proof of this that each of these is a number, and when it also comes about that there is already in this region a collection of composite122 magnitudes, because these properties are attached each to a particular region--is it the same number as that in the "Heaven," which we are to suppose to be each of these things, or some other kind of number?123 Plato, to be sure, says it is a different kind, though he, too, thinks that both these things124 and their causes are numbers, but believes that the causative numbers are perceived by thought, the other kind by sense.

Taylor's Notes

(Taylor's footnotes have been converted to endnotes)


[113]. μέγεθος ἔχουσαν; lit., "having magnitude." μέγεθος (see Bonitz's Index Aristotelicus sub. voc.) means to Aristotle res extensa, spatial magnitude, whether purely geometrical or physical.

[114]. τὴν οὐσίαν

[115]. In the passage previously referred to, Theogony, 116 ff.

[116]. τῇ φύσει πρότερον, "prior in the order of nature," it being a doctrine of Aristotle, ultimately based upon his biological studies, that the completed result of a process of development is presupposed by, and therefore logically, and in the end temporally also, prior to its incomplete stages. For the different senses of priority and posteriority, see Metaphysics, Δ, 11.

[117]. Reference is to De Caelo, III., 7; De Generatione, II., 6.

[118]. The reference is to Anaxagoras. Fr. (1) "All things were together, infinite both in number and smallness," etc.; Fr. (4) "Before the separating off, when all things were together, there was not even any colour perceptible, for the commingling of all things forbade it," etc.; R. P., 120: "But Mind is . . . not mingled with anything;" Fr. (6), R. P., 123.

[119]. "We"--i. e., the school of Plato. Throughout the present discussion Aristotle affects to speak as a critic of Plato from within the Platonic circle, a point of which we shall see further illustration in ch. IX.

[120]. "higher"- i. e., requiring a greater degree of generalising abstraction for their comprehension; in Aristotle's favorite phrase, "farther removed from sense."

[121]. i. e., Res extensa, Body, conceived in a purely geometrical fashion and denuded of all physical properties. Aristotle's point is, that just because the Pythagoreans (like Descartes after them) conceived of Body in purely geometrical terms they could give no explanation of its sensible physical properties.

[122]. i.e., extended figures or bodies (the Pythagoreans did not distinguish the two), which, according to them, are "composed" of the numerical factors, Limit, the Unlimited.

[123]. In this difficult sentence I have followed the reading and interpretation of Burnet, op. cit. p. 316, which differs from that of Christ in the following points: 990a 25, omit μέν and, with Bonitz, read συμβαίνῃ for συμβαίνει; line 28, omit οὗτος, with the MS Ab), though this last change is perhaps unnecessary. The general meaning is, then, as follows: Besides their cosmological significance the Pythagorean "numbers," had, as we have seen, fanciful symbolic interpretations, and apparently it was held that the various immaterial entities thus symbolized are to be found in the region of space which corresponds to the symbolic number in its cosmological interpretation; e.g., "opportunity" in that appropriated to the number 7. Aristotle then asks is the number 7, which they say is "opportunity," the same as that of which they say physical things are made, or different? e.g., is "opportunity" a figure made up of seven visible points? If "opportunity," "injustice," etc., are numbers, and bodies are also numbers, we must mean something very different by "number" in the two cases. Christ, in his second edition, retains μέν συμβαίνει and οὗτος, and, with Zeller, inserts τοῦτο before ἤδη in line 26. This gives us the sense: "and when they say as a proof of this that each of these is a number, and that just this multitude of magnitudes happens to be already constituted in this region, because," etc. I cannot understand the implied reasoning.

[124]. "These things" appears now not to mean, as in the last sentence, opportunity, etc., but the extended figures and bodies previously referred to.

Created for Peithô's Web from Aristotle on his predecessors; being the first book of his Metaphysics; tr. from the text edition of W. Christ, with introd. and notes by A. E. Taylor. Chicago, Open Court, 1907.Taylor's footnotes have been converted to endnotes. Greek unicode text entered with Peithô's Younicoder.
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