Excellence as Completion in Aristotle's Physics and Metaphysics

By Mirus, Christopher V. | The Review of Metaphysics, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Excellence as Completion in Aristotle's Physics and Metaphysics


Mirus, Christopher V., The Review of Metaphysics


ARISTOTLE TWICE STATES, as a general truth, that being is better than nonbeing. (1) Throughout his works, moreover, the goodness of beings frequently depends on their completeness. This is not surprising, given the prominence of the complete in Aristotelian ethics, where "the best appears to be something complete," and in particular "the human good is activity of the soul according to excellence; and if there are several excellences, according to the best and most complete; and further, in a complete life." (2) Now the crucial term in this last statement is "activity," not "complete," for both inside and outside his ethics Aristotle associates the good with being in the primary sense of activity ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) or fulfillment [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (3) Yet he seems to think that frequently, the genera] concepts of potency and act are neither necessary nor particularly appropriate for ethics or for natural science. As highly general terms of art, they tend to obscure the specific contours of the subject at hand. The complete ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) has a similar generality and flexibility--indeed, it is closely related to Aristotle's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--but even in translation it is somewhat less opaque. An ordinary, unpretentious notion, it can be applied helpfully to a variety of subjects without calling attention to itself. It is one of three central concepts--the determinate, the complete, and the self-sufficient--in terms of which he explores the goodness of the things that are. (4)

Whether we wish to understand Aristotle's ethics, therefore, or to explore the idea of the good that animates his accounts of nature or of being as such, we may wish to have a synoptic view of what he means by the complete, and of what sorts of things qualify as complete and why. This would require: (1) surveying the completeness attained by natural substances--especially but not only living substances--in the normal course of their coming to be; (2) examining the contention that certain kinds of animal, and most likely of natural substance more generally, are more complete than others; (3) exploring his description of virtue or excellence as a completion; (4) investigating the claim that certain excellences are more complete than others; (5) understanding the completeness and incompleteness of various activities and motions. (5)

Among these various tasks, the third has the advantage that it can be approached through the study of two key texts: the chapter on the complete in Metaphysics 5, Aristotle's philosophical lexicon, and a discussion of the ontology of excellence in Physics 7. In these texts Aristotle explores conceptual and ontological issues germane to a general concept of excellence; in both cases, the key premise is that excellence is best thought of as a completion. (6) His development of this claim draws on two larger themes. In Metaphysics 5, the concept of excellence as a completion belongs to a broad conceptual realm--explored in chapters 16-17 and 25-27--in which intelligible realities are presented metaphorically in terms of shape and size. Within this realm, excellence grows toward a limit set by the powers that make a substance what it is. (7) In the Physics, excellence belongs to a world structured by contraries and therefore also by coming to be and destruction. What it completes is a substance's power to negotiate such a world while maintaining and developing its own identity. (8) Having grown to full stature through its proper excellence, the substance can keep itself from being affected or altered in ways that would undermine its being; in so doing, it approximates the self-sufficient impassivity that Aristotle attributes to thought ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The themes of alteration and identity are also pursued in On the Soul 2.5, which provides an important complement to Physics 7.3.

That excellences of the body and certain excellences of the soul merely imitate a kind of being that [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] exemplifies--namely, self-sufficient freedom from the conditions of bodily existence, and so also from alteration and from change in general--suggests that there will be an asymmetry between the excellence of the soul's thinking part and other sorts of excellence. …

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