Most humans spend their mornings deciding whether they’re going to be trees, onions, squirrels or just plain old humans. They wake up every morning and don’t remember at all what they did the day before but simply start fresh. Today, as you go about your daily business, you may thank your morning self for not choosing to become some of the lesser forms of being that result from natural digestive processes that are better described by biologists or certain, very wise and observant toddlers.
“But, hold on,” you might be thinking to yourself, “that’s not at all how it goes and I’ve never forgotten, at least not entirely, what I was up to the day before.” And I would most emphatically congratulate you for you have just begun the first step on the journey to become a metaphysician.
Metaphysics began as a serious attempt at understanding change: why is it that we are able to recognize some features as staying the same but others as changing? Almost instantly, other questions arose, such as: why do some things come into being? Why do things become what they are? That is: why does an acorn become an oak and not an ice cream? And, finally, what is being? On the quest to answer these questions hinges much of what many would recognize as the true drama of human history.
And now, to some answers.
Plato and Aristotle came from a long tradition of thinkers before them that had tackled these questions, with varying degrees of clarity and all sorts of creative answers. It was with Plato and Aristotle, however, that the conversation shifted to an actual study of being, from whence answers to the other questions could come. For Plato, being came from the Forms: the abstract, immaterial, eternal and unchanging realities that give being to everything in the world. Plato, however, wrote in dialogues and not in systematic treatises. We therefore have many and sometimes conflicting ideas as to what these forms are exactly and what the process of interaction between them and the “created” world looks like. It is on Aristotle that we must count on to get a more thorough explanation of what is being and how change comes about.
Without going into too much detail about Aristotle’s work, suffice it to say that he came up with a basic framework to define being and change: things have essential qualities and accidental qualities. That is: things have that which makes them be what they are and things about them that can be different at different times without changing what that same thing is. To put it more bluntly: if you get a haircut you’re still going to be a human being, just wearing your hair differently. There is also a way to determine what each of these two qualities are in each being. That is through the four causes.
When a thing exists, it can be described as having its being in four ways:
- Its material cause: the material composition of a thing: metal, wood, bone and sinew; i.e.: the bronze that a statue in a public square is made out of.
- Its efficient cause: the immediate action which brought about the existence of a thing; i.e.: the craftsman or artist that carves out a statue.
- Its formal cause: that which gives a thing its “whatness,” what makes it be what it is; i.e.: in a statue this would be the form of a human, such as a general on horseback.
- Its final cause: that which gives a thing its “why”; i.e.: a statue that serves as a memorial of a past event.
Through Aristotle’s framework, we can more or less determine the nature of a thing and see what it should be, according to what it in fact is. This is called teleology: the notion that things have a definite nature and that the mind can grasp when something is deviating from its nature. It then becomes possible to define what the correct way of life for a person is: since a person can be definitely defined and identified, it follows that it should live in a certain way. This framework eventually gave rise to the idea that to be truly happy, a person must live an ethical and virtuous life.
Naturally, not everyone agreed with Aristotle, but his view became more or less standard for the next 1,700 years or so.
Now, if any trained philosopher reads what will follows (and, to some extent, what I have said above), he would probably bring a lawsuit against me and bring me to trail for all the grave misrepresentations and over-simplifications that I am here going to make. I will nonetheless proceed and, in very general terms, provide a sketch of how the rest of the history of metaphysics sort of became an answer or a coming to terms with what Aristotle said.