Not Power and Action

My copy of Gwenaëlle Aubry’s Genèse du dieu souverain arrived today, and I’ve started to look at the front matter. She begins by explaining why Aristotelian potentiality and actuality are not reducible to concepts of power and action. In the Metaphysics, the most sophisticated sense of being and substance is associated with the pair en dunamei and energeia. Whereas the grammatical nominative form dunamis could connote an active power, she says the dative form en dunamei was used by Aristotle precisely to distinguish from this. The other essential distinguishing feature of Aristotle’s approach was to make the en dunamei dependent on an energeia (act, actuality, or at-work-ness), a term of Aristotle’s own invention. In French, Aubry translates en dunamei for potentiality as en-puissance, as distinct from the puissance that means power.

“[Potentiality] names, for a given being, the principle of a movement oriented by the act that is also its end and its proper good” (p. 10, my translation throughout). Actuality and potentiality, she says, thus provide an alternative model to that of efficient causality based on the relation between an active and a passive power.

“In the same way that potentiality is not power (active or passive), act is not action. Act does not act [L’act n’agit pas]. On the contrary, it names that for which we act or move: the telos or end, which is also the good” (ibid). Nor should the relation between potentiality and actuality be reduced to that between matter and form. She notes that Aristotle never referred to god as “pure form”.

She observes that book Lambda of the Metaphysics (1071a 4-5) singles out potentiality and actuality as applicable by analogy to all substances of all kinds. (Scholars debate whether “by analogy” adequately translates Aristotle’s pros hen or “toward one”, but that is a side issue.) “This assures at the same time the generality of the ontological discourse and the real primacy of the theological principle” (ibid). (I prefer to avoid the term “ontology”, but that is another side issue.)

“Determining [god] as pure act, [Aristotle’s view based on potentiality and actuality] poses [god] as at the same time identical with the good” (p. 11). She reads Aristotle’s statement of the project of the Metaphysics in book Alpha as “posing the good as a principle and identifying the causality proper to it” (p. 12). The Latin medieval tradition mostly followed Avicenna in treating the Metaphysics as what Duns Scotus called ontology, but the great commentator Averroes characterized the Metaphysics as a philosophical theology, and Aubry also calls it an axiology, or study of goodness and value.

Bounty of Nature

Nature as we experience it is more characterized by superabundance and diversity of form than by univocal necessity. Even nonorganic phenomena like the weather involve material tendencies toward a kind of dynamic equilibrium. These tendencies — which are even more pronounced with living things — involve an “ability” to spontaneously recover when disturbed, a kind of resilience and adaptability to new circumstances.

The neoplatonists developed a whole metaphysic of “eternal generation” by a kind of overflow. For them, beyond every intelligible essence was something “supra-essential” that could be characterized only indirectly, through its overflowing superabundance. Essence ended up as a kind of after-image of the eternally overflowing primary superabundance of the Good or the One. Transformed in various ways, this notion greatly influenced historical developments in theology, supporting notions of the generosity, providence, and grace of a more personal God.

In a more modest and down-to-earth way, Aristotle had also dwelt on our experience of superabundance, applying it in his biology and in the more general notion of potentiality. In between, the Stoics developed a contrasting emphasis on a univocal direct divine omnipotence with respect to events. In the tradition, all three of these approaches came to be hybridized in all sorts of ways. While I think the approach of Aristotle himself was the best of all, I have a lot more sympathy with theologies of superabundance of form than with theologies of power-over and dominion. (See also Fragility of the Good.)

The Good

Plato suggested the idea (later much expanded upon by Plotinus) that a single ineffable Good is the highest principle of all things. The Good was characterized as hyperousia, or “beyond ousia“, where ousia is the same word Aristotle glossed as “what it was to have been” a thing, later misleadingly translated into Latin as substantia or substance. In discussions of neoplatonism, hyperousia used to be often loosely understood as “beyond being”, which is confusing and engendered all sorts of arguments. The problem is that modern people tend to think of being primarily in terms of what is really a kind of brute existence, whereas Plato and Aristotle were more concerned with intelligibility. Even existence in its Greek root has more to do with being able to be picked out than just being there indiscriminately. At any rate, Plato and Aristotle both considered ousia something definable (“intelligible being”, if you will), and they both agreed that the Good as such is undefinable, while drawing different conclusions.

The Platonic Good is the archetype of what Aristotle called an end. Plato held fast to the notion that there should be a single idea of the Good, even if we cannot comprehend or define it. He gave it a quasi-definition as that at which all things aim. Aristotle agreed that all things aim at some good, but pointed out that “good” is used equivocally when we say this. He preferred to say that each thing has its own good that is in principle intelligible. To say something is intelligible for Aristotle still does not mean all details are determined in advance. As Brandom has also emphasized, purpose and contingency are deeply interwoven.

Putting aside this difference between Plato and Aristotle for the moment, I want to suggest that for both of them, a consideration of ends and of what ought to be (and thus of ethics and meta-ethics) implicitly comes first in the order of explanation, before any ontology or any putative facts about what is. Kant made this more explicit as what he called the primacy of practical reason. Plato’s first principle is the Good. Aristotle’s nominal “First cause” of pure actuality or at-work-ness is a generalized end implicit in the ends and proper activities of particular things or kinds.