Aristotle versus the Rift (Potency and Act, Part 2)


January 17, 2014 by lucieromarin

So – to continue with the journey/destination analogy in the previous post – Aristotle saw that all beings, at any given moment, have arrived at one destination or another, and he saw that that destination is both distinct and knowable (cold water exists at Destination Cold, not Destination Hot.) This being-at-destination we call ‘being in act.’

At the same time, he saw that there was motion between distinct acts (water at Destination Cold is boiled, and attains Destination Hot.) More importantly, he saw, like other philosophers, that neither being-in-act nor non-being explained movement. (Statue didn’t come from Statue; there was no statue before the statue was there. But the statue also didn’t come from nothing. But how does Block-of-Marble-Act move to Statue-Act, given that act-destinations are fixed, and precise, and just themselves?).

Aristotle saw that neither Parmenides nor Heraclitus really healed the rift between worlds. All they did was deny that one of the worlds existed, and that doesn’t really count as healing anything; in fact, it left them with a reality that was half-unreal, untrustworthy, or contradictory, and that made things worse than they were before they spotted the rift in the first place. Then he realised that they made this mistake because they thought that being-in-act and non-being were the only ways of being something…

…when they’re not.

There’s something in every material being other than act.

A being only moves from act to act, from destination to destination, if it is already capable of arriving at that destination. A smooth block of marble can become chipped marble, stained marble, old marble, statue-marble, floor-marble, but it cannot become a block of wood. Destination Block-of-Marble can become Destination Marble-Statue, but it will never become Destination Wooden-Statue. And Aristotle realised that the capability for a particular act was just as real as act itself.

This capability is called ‘being in potency’, or ‘potency’.

Every material being is a composite of potency and act.

Now, yes, there’s more to it than this. There’s plenty more to be said about different kinds of potency and how they relate to act; still, even this simple division was bigger than the discovery of atoms or germs or of any other invisible thing that’s always existed. See, it doesn’t just change aspects of our lives (such as how often we wash our hands); it changes our understanding of existence itself. It changes our entire approach to the mind, the world, to scientific theories and discoveries, to other people, and to God, and, thousands of years after he discovered it, it can still be life-changing, because the mistakes of Parmenides and Heraclitus persist, and they still don’t make anyone happy.

One who asks “How do we know that everything isn’t just someone’s dream?” has inherited the thought of Parmenides. He has learned to distrust the evidence of the senses (or, at least, to be open to distrusting them) and to accept the oneness of being so entirely that he sees that if everything is just one thought, it’s probably only one person’s thought – and not even a real thought, at that. (I wonder what he thinks the supposed dreamer will see when he wakes up).

Conversely, the man who has an identity crisis after being told that the iodine in his brain changes every seven years and that this means he’s a different person every seven years has inherited the thought of Heraclitus. Seeing only the changes in material being (in this case, iodine and brain) he’s lost sight of the unchanging, immaterial mind, leaving him with only an unstable collection of cells and the aforementioned crisis.

In contrast to both opinions, understanding ourselves to be composites of potency and act means we know that reality is not fundamentally broken. It isn’t half a lie. There is no rift.* There is no rift in reality between the principles we apprehend with our minds and the beings we apprehend with our senses; there is no war between identity and change; movement does not prove either that the mind is unreal or that matter is unreal. We needn’t spend time or money on any teacher or author who wants to keep alive the problems of the One and the Many in the name of philosophy. Aristotle solved most of these problems for us. St Thomas Aquinas took the teaching of Aristotle, looked even more deeply into it, and solved the rest.

* Okay, Original Sin is the rift, but the point remains that any tears in reality come from what Adam did to it, not from reality itself, which is what we’re talking about here.



One thought on “Aristotle versus the Rift (Potency and Act, Part 2)

  1. Amanda says:

    Hmm. So why was/is it OK for Aquinas to use Aristotle, but condemnation-worthy for modern theologians to drawn on the far more compelling scientific and philosophical advances since the nineteenth century? And if Aquinas’ thought was so good (in the eyes of Catholics, anyway) because of Aristotle (and in reality, also because of Aristotle’s Muslim commentators), why can’t contemporary Catholic authorities accept that their own thought would be greatly improved if they also drew on the best thinking available rather than rushing around condemning what they don’t understand or feel threatened by? Both tendencies (to engage and to condemn) existed in the medieval church, but authoritarianism triumphed and now there seems only the one reaction: to seek to maintain control through condemning and silencing (hence your ridicule of Derrida a few posts back). It was the opinion of medieval scholars that God was just as likely to reveal important truths to non-Christian thinkers as he was to Christians, but the modern church is now too afraid to admit that possibility. Why?

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