Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Order and the Determinate: The Good as a Metaphysical Concept in Aristotle

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Order and the Determinate: The Good as a Metaphysical Concept in Aristotle

Article excerpt

DEVELOPING AND REWORKING the young Platonic tradition, Aristotle twice affirms that being is better than nonbeing. (1) For both Plato and Aristotle, this affirmation shapes a worldview; it is the fragile heartbeat of an essay at wisdom, guarded and sustained with enormous resolve and creativity. Yet one would like to know whether, and how, such a claim can be cashed out in more analytic terms: whether it can yield conceptual as well as poetic clarity. In Aristotle's case a number of ideas are relevant--most obviously, the distinction between power and act, which structures his entire account of bodily things as underlying and tending toward the fullness of life and activity that is their complete being. (2) This distinction, however, is one of his most prized philosophic innovations, and one that belongs properly to first philosophy; for both reasons, he often withholds it from explicit play in his treatises. If we collect his scattered comments about the good in general, we find that they indeed support a connection between goodness--or goodness and beauty--and being, but that this connection is often expressed in more readily available terms: the good or beautiful is said to be, for example, fitting, proportionate, or great. Three concepts, however, dominate Aristotle's general statements about the good: good things are ordered and determinate, they are complete, and they are self-sufficient. (3)

The theme of self-sufficiency is familiar to students of Aristotle's ethics and politics, but appears also in his biology and his theology. (4) What is self-sufficient has its being, and hence its goodness, in and from itself. The same is true of completeness, the condition of whatever has attained its proper end, and thus fully actualized its potential. (5) Prior to both completeness and self-sufficiency, however, are the twin concepts of order and determinacy, and it is with these that we are here concerned. Beginning with Aristotle's well-known views about the causal role of the good in both nature and human affairs, we shall gradually make our way to his identification of order as a characteristic of the good in nature (section I). Then, after pausing to consider the relation between goodness and beauty (II), we shall approach determinacy by way of the related concepts of limit and the unlimited, relating both limit and the determinate to form (III). The body of the paper will conclude by discussing the determinate and the good in Aristotle's ethics and metaphysics (IV). Finally, with a view to understanding more deeply Aristotle's treatment of order and the determinate, I shall close with a brief reflection on their place in his understanding of nature as a whole (V).

The following investigation presupposes two important points. First, although Aristotle tends to develop each science dialectically on its own terms, nevertheless statements made in one work (whether speculative or practical) are generally coherent with those made in others. Each work tends, from its own starting points, toward a unified vision of reality, and does so with remarkable success. Note that if this assumption is correct, particular investigations based on it should tend to reinforce the assumption itself; the present study, I believe, is a case in point. Second, Aristotle in fact has a unified understanding of the good. It is true that in Nicomachean Ethics 1.6 he denies that any one thing answers to the word "good." However, he also suggests two ways in which this disunity may be mitigated. (6) First, it may be that nonsubstances are called good by reference to the good of substances (that is, the good is spoken of by homonymy pros hen); second, though the goods of substances are diverse in kind, good a may well be to substance A as good b is to substance B (that is, the good is spoken of by analogy or proportion). In short, the good may well have exactly as much unity as does being itself. Note that, although these presuppositions must be stated at the outset, neither will figure explicitly in the following discussion. …

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