In his stimulating new volume, Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy, Adrian Pabst offers a fresh (to me) assessment of Plato and his differences from Aristotle. Focusing on the problems of individuation, he argues that Plato offers a “relational” metaphysics that affirms rather than undermines materiality, and that Aristotle rather than Plato is the more dualistic. Neither, he thinks, is able to give coherent answers to certain metaphysical questions that are answered by the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and creation ex nihilo. But Plato is, he argues, closer to Christian metaphysics because he refuses the primacy of substance.
Here is one of Pabst’s early summaries (p. 2) of the differences between the two: Pre-Socratic poetry and philosophy left unresolved the problem of the one and the many, a problem that both Plato and Aristotle attempted in different ways to resolve. ”Prior to Aristotle, Plato had already outlined a metaphysical of relationality and participation that avoids an ontological dualism, pluralism, or atomism without lapsing into monism. The Platonist distinction of the world of things and the world of ideas is qualified by the higher unity of the Good and the participation of immanent particulars in transcendent universal forms. As the form of all forms, the Good is best understood as a relational absolute that ordered the other universals. Matter-form compounds are best described as relational beings that are endowed with existence and essence by the Good. Moreover, against the pre-Socratic poets and philosophers Aristotle followed Plato’s cosmological argument in favor of the existence of a single immaterial first cause: just as Plato’s good is the Form of all forms that orders everything in the world of things . . . , so Aristotle’s Prime Mover is the final end of all substances in the sublunary world.”
Plato’s forms “are relational in the sense that they are ordered by the Good” and individual composites are “relational in the sense that they depend for their essence, their existence, and their continuous being on the Good. The presence of the Good in particulars makes them relational and enables them to participate in the universal forms and in goodness itself. Individuals are actualized and individuated by relations with other individuals and their orientation towards the Good” (p. 3).
Aristotle’s innovations, though, undermined the “Platonic synthesis” and produced a “more dualistic system.” Pabst elaborates: ”The separation of the primary cause from all secondary effects [in Aristotle] removes the actuality of the Unmoved Mover from the heavens and the sublunary world and devalues particular beings therein. For the sole telos of everything is to emulate the self-reflexivity of the Prime Mover. On the contrary, Plato views particulars as unique and irreplaceable instantiations of the universal Good.” In Aristotle, particulars are not caused by the Prime Mover, who is exclusively a final cause. Individual particulars are themselves the efficient causes of other individual particulars. There is thus an immanentization of efficient causality in Aristotle that implies that particular things are not “transparent” to transcendent Good. For Aristotle, substances ultimately self-individuate.
Aristotle can’t explain why there are material particulars at all. If the Prime Mover is the final cause and the final good, if everything moves toward thought thinking itself, why would anything be instantiated in material reality in the first place? Why take the detour through matter? Plato has a somewhat better explanation: Because the Good is ecstatic, so that “the Good as the ‘form of forms’ and the ‘author of all things’ is in all other forms and in all particulars. . . . there is in [Plato's] metaphysics the priority of the relational giving of presence over participation” (p. 33). The Good and the Beautiful are convertible, so Plato can also say “Nothing makes a thing beautiful buy the presence or the communion of beauty . . . . it is by the beautiful that all beautiful things are beautiful” (Phaedo; p. 38).
This is a pretty attractive Plato, you gotta admit. But Pabst is a Christian Platonist. One of the main flaws he identifies in Plato is his conception of matter as formless chaos. For Plato too, “matter remains unexplained because its necessary existence is presupposed, not demonstrated. This conception of matter shifts the onus of individuality and individuation onto form. That which makes composites particular and secures their identity over time is their form, not the composition of matter-form (as Aristotle argued).” Pabst finds Aristotle superior to Plato here, because he sees matter as “pure potency” rather than “formless chaos.” Plato’s “conception of unintelligible matter which functions as a receptacle does not explain how and why in particular sensible things matter is part of essence and can be known as such” (p. 53). Though superior in his view of matter, theologically, Aristotle is regressive because he cannot connect his Prime Mover with the particular, sublunary world (pp. 46, 52).
Christian theology is able to give “an account of matter in terms of creation ex nihilo and explains why matter is part of the essence of compounds. . . . By fusing the biblical idea of creation ex nihilo with Plato’s metaphysics of the Good and Aristotle’s ontology of act and potency, Christian Neo-Platonism ties the divine to the cosmic and the human and thus overcomes the dualism between the one and the many left unresolved by pre-Socratic poetry and philosophy” (p. 53).
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, May 28, 2012 at 2:57 pm
Permission is given to use material on this site, provided the source is cited, blog entries are republished in full, and the author is notified in advance.