Chapter 3

The Problems with Aristotle and the Stoics

by Adam Smith Icon

There is a natural notion that those things, out of which any object is composed, must exist antecedent to that object.

This notion seems to have misled those early philosophers. But the things out of which all particular objects seem to be composed, are=

  • the stuff or matter of those objects, and
  • the form or specific Essence which determines them to be of this or that class of things

It was thought that these must have existed before the object which was made up between them. Plato held that the sensible world is the world of individuals made in time.

He necessarily conceived that both the universal matter and the specific essence must have had a separate existence from all eternity. The universal matter is the object of a spurious reason. The specific essence is the object of proper reason and philosophy, made from the universal matter.

Plato’s intellectual world=

  • was very different from the intellectual world of Cudworth.
  • was always existent.

His sensible world owed its origin to its author’s free will and bounty. This kind of notion passes easily enough, as long as it is=

  • expressed in very general language
  • not much rested on
  • not attempted to be very particularly and distinctly explained

It requires no great precision in the ideas and passes through the indolent imagination, accustomed to substitute words in the room of ideas. Upon an attentive consideration, it=

  • vanishes
  • becomes altogether incomprehensible
  • eludes the imagination’s grasp

It requires, however, an attentive consideration. Without examination, it might have continued to be the current philosophy for a century or two.

Aristotle, however, immediately discovered that it was impossible to conceive as actually existent that=

  • general matter, which was not determined by any particular species, or
  • those species which were not embodied in some particular portion of matter

He held=

  • the eternity of the sensible world
  • that all sensible objects were made up of two principles=
    • matter
    • specific essence

He calls them both substances. Like Plato, he did not hold that matter and the specific essence existed before those objects.

Aristotle said that they were prior in nature, but not in time, according to a distinction which was of use to him on some other occasions.

  • He also distinguished between actual and potential existence.
  • Actual existence to him was existence or reality.

Potential existence to him was the bare possibility of existence.

  • According to him, the material Essence of body could not actually exist without being determined by some specific Essence into some particular class of things.

Any specific Essence could not exist without being embodied in some particular portion of matter. However, each of these two principles could exist potentially in this separate state.

Matter existed potentially and could be brought into actual existence when endowed with a particular form. The form of a particular portion of matter could be called forth into the class of complete realities, in the same way.

He sometimes talks like Plato about this potential existence of matter and form.

  • This notion of separate Essence is very similar to Plato’s.

Aristotle seems original in many things.

He added the principle of privation to those of matter and form, which he had derived from the ancient Pythagorean school.

  • When Water is changed into Air, the transmutation is brought about by the material principle of those two elements being deprived of the form of Water, and then assuming the form of Air.

Privation, therefore, was a third principle opposite to form, which entered into the generation of every Species, which was always from some other Species.

  • It was a principle of generation, but not of composition, as is obvious.

The Stoics

The Stoics thought nearly the same way as Aristotle and Plato, but in a very different language. They held that all things, even the elements themselves, were compounded of two principles=

  • The Cause
    • On one principle depended all the active
  • The Matter
    • On this depended all the passive powers of these bodies

These two meant the very same thing as the specific Essences of Aristotle and Plato. According to the Stoics, matter could not exist separately from the cause or efficient principle which determined it to some particular class of things.

Neither could the efficient principle exist separately from the material, in which it was always necessarily embodied. Therefore, their opinion coincided with that of the old Peripatetics. Their efficient principle, was the Deity. It was a detached portion of the etherial and divine nature, which penetrated all things.

It constituted what Plato would called the specific Essence of each individual object. Their opinion coincides pretty nearly with that of=

  • the latter Platonists
    • They held that the specific Essences of all things were detached portions of their created deity, the soul of the world.
  • the Arabian and Scholastic Commentators of Aristotle
    • They held that the substantial forms of all things descended from those Divine Essences which animated the Celestial Spheres.

Such was the doctrine of the four principal Sects of the ancient Philosophers, on the specific Essences of things=

  1. The old Pythagoreans
  2. The Academical [Plato]
  3. The Peripatetic [Aristotle]
  4. The Stoics

This doctrine of specific Essences seems naturally to have arisen from that ancient system of Physics. This Physics is not impossible. Many of the doctrines of that system, even the most incomprehensible, necessarily flow from this metaphysical notion.

Examples are those of=

  • generation, corruption, and alteration
  • mixture, condensation, and rarefaction.

A body was generated or corrupted, when it=

  • changed its specific Essence
  • passed from one denomination to another.

It was altered when it changed only some of its qualities, but still retained the same specific Essence, and the same denomination. Thus, when a flower was withered, it was not corrupted.

Even if some of its qualities changed, it still retained the specific Essence. It therefore justly passed as a flower.

But, when, in the further progress of its decay, it crumbled into earth, it was corrupted.

  • It lost the specific Essence, or substantial form of the flower.
  • It assumed that of the earth, and therefore justly changed its denomination.

The specific Essence, or universal nature that was lodged in each particular class of bodies, was not itself the object of any of our senses. It could be perceived only by the understanding. However, it was by the sensible qualities that we judged of the specific Essence of each object.

Therefore, some of these sensible qualities we regarded as essential, or such as showed, by their presence or absence, the presence or absence of that essential form from which they necessarily flowed=

Others were accidental, or such whose presence or absence had no such necessary consequences.

These qualities had two kinds=

  1. Properties
  2. Accidents

The Specific Essence of each object had two parts=

  • Genus
    • This was peculiar to the class of things of which that particular object was an individual
    • This was modified and determined by the Specific Difference
  • Specific Difference
    • This was common to it with some other higher classes of things.
    • This is how the universal matter in each body was modified and determined by the Specific Essence of that particular class of bodies.

These two parts were, to the Specific Essence, pretty much what the Matter and the Specific Essence were to each individual body.

These four, with the Specific Essence or Species itself, made up the Five Universals=

  1. Genus
  2. Species
  3. Differentia
  4. Proprium
  5. Accidens

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