Aristotle’s Ethics and Metaphysics Essay

September 21, 2021 by Essay Writer


Aristotle was a Greek philosopher whose writings covered many different subjects. As such he can be regarded as one of the most significant founding fathers of western philosophy. His writings are by far the most and the earliest scripts that form a complete system that forms the basis of western philosophy. His philosophical writings cover several different areas such as metaphysics, logic, ethics, and science. In this paper, his arguments in metaphysics and ethics will be analyzed and compared. Specifically, his metaphysical argument that proposes that actuality is before potency will be compared to his rational argument in ethics where a man is not considered to be virtuous until he has acquired the knowledge and innate tendencies to therefore are virtuous (EN 1098a161–17). This paper will begin off by giving a brief description of the two arguments.

The actuality is before potency

Aristotle begins this part by defining the word prior. He asserts that four senses exist in which something can be described to be prior. First, he uses time in which he says that something can be regarded as being prior if it is older than another (Cat. 2a11014). Secondly, a thing can be before another if the sequence of their occurrence is nonreversible. This way ‘one’ can be said to be before ‘two’, for if ‘two’ is there then it implies that ‘one’ is there too. Thirdly, the word prior can be used to refer to order as in science or conversation. In science, the term can be used to refer to something posterior to another. Lastly, something can be referred to be ‘prior’ naturally if it is better and naturally honorable (Met. vii 17).

From this description of the various situations in which something can be described as being ‘prior’, Aristotle asserts that actuality is before potency. He defines “potency as not only the definitive agent of change in other things or the things that are in this case, is referred to as another, but the overall principle of movement or rest” (Cat. 2a11014). He describes nature as being in the same category or similar to potency because it is a factor of movement not in other things but in itself. To this kind of potency, according to him, actuality precedes potency in two ways; the substantiality and the formulation. However, if this is described in terms of time then actuality may be prior from one perspective and not from another perspective.

In the second argument, Aristotle asserts that the actuality is more clearly before potency when described in the formula. He explains this by putting forward that anything is considered to be potential because it can create the foreseen outcome. He uses the example that one is capable of only building something that can be built or one is capable of seeing something that can be seen. He applies this analogy to “all spheres of life by saying that the formulation and knowledge of the one must precede the knowledge of the other” (Met. vii 17).

About time he argues that when actuality is observed in terms of the time it can be said to be prior by the following explanation. The actual thing to be created is similar to something that is already in existence though not similar in occurrence. He uses the example of a man he will use corn seeds to produce corn. The actuality is before potency in the time sense because a thing that is already in existence has the potential to produce another similar thing. This he says is the reason why it is thought to be impossible to say someone is, for instance, a builder if he has built nothing (Met. 1038b6, 1042b10). As for one to be accorded the status of a professional he has to practice the skills required in that profession. In the treatise on movement, Aristotle shows us that for something to “come to be, a part of it must have come to be, similar to something which is changing, some part of it must have changed” (Cat. 2a11014).

Aristotle goes ahead to argue that actuality is before potency even in material and form. This implies that things that are developed first come first both in substance and form. He argues this by giving an example that man came before a boy and humans before the seed (Met. 1038b6, 1042b10). He further says that everything that develops normally moves through the stages of developmental maturity. Things happen to achieve a certain end. The actuality is the desired end which everything moves towards and that it’s because of this end that potency exists (Cat. 2a11014). He gives another example “using sight by saying that animals don’t see for them to develop sight but they develop sight so that they can see” (Met. 1038b6, 1042b10). Also, men develop theories so for theorizing, they do not develop theories to have theoretical science. He states that the action taken defines the end and the end in turn defines the action. He points out that even the word “actuality has its origins from the action and is used to refer to complete reality” (Cat. 2a11014).

He acknowledges that in some cases the action is the final product, for instance, seeing is an end in itself, and their no other product besides it. But some actions result in a product, for instance, the art and the act of building result in a house (Met. 1038b6, 1042b10).. The act of building results in a house while the art of building may be more of the actuality than potency.

If an action gives rise to something else rather than action the actuality presents itself in the thing that is being made or developed. For instance, the act of building lies in the house or thing that is experiencing the building; similarly the act of weaving lies in whatever is being weaved (Met. 1038b6, 1042b10). If something is done has no tangible product like the act of seeing then the seeing act is the actuality. Thus the act of acting lies in the performing subject. This thinking leads him to say that life is in the soul and so is an individual’s well-being, for that is a form of life (Cat. 2a11014).

At this point, Aristotle asserts that it’s thus obvious that actuality refers to the substance or form. Which “according to the argument actuality precedes potency in the substantial nature and that one actuality” leads to another actuality in a sort of eternal sequence (Met. 1038b6, 1042b10).

Aristotle further says that “actuality precedes potency even in an abstract sense because things that exist eternally are prior in substance form compared the perishable things and eternal things do not have a potential existence” (Met. 1038b6, 1042b10). The thinking behind this assertion is that potential at a given stage or point can move to either side, for a moment something that does not exist in a subject, does not exist. Thus everything capable of existing may not exist. Something that is anticipated to happen may happen or fail to happen (Cat. 2a11014). Thus something that has a chance of existence also has an equal chance of not existing and therefore may not exist at all. Thus something that is meant to exist eternally has no potential existence. The existence of the bodies that lack potentialities such as the stars and the sun plays an important role in the existence of living things or things that are potentially perishable.

The argument on the virtuous life

The best philosophy on ethics ever written by Aristotle is often referred to as the Nicomachean Ethics. The books and chapters are usually referred to in Roman and Arabic numerals (EN 1098a161–17). In his ethical studies, Aristotle begins by asserting that individuals who have been brought up well and have had a good experience in life are better placed to study ethics and politics. This is because the two topics discuss what can be said to be true about something beautiful or just (EN 1097b22–1098a4). Aristotle asserts that the highest level of good that can ever be achieved by man is happiness. In his studies on virtue, he makes a distinction between what he refers to as two sets of virtue, those that are linked to the reasoning part of the soul, such as virtues of intellect (EN 1098a161–17). Secondly, those virtues are associated with “the part of the soul that cannot reason by itself but is capable of being guided by reason” (EN 1097b22–1098a4). He divides the intellectual virtues into two categories; those that are associated with theoretical reasoning and those that are associated with practical thinking (EN 1098a161–17). Aristotle begins off by investigating ethical virtue as a general topic before moving on to look on to describe specific ethical virtues such as courage and temperament.

He asserts that all free males are born with a chance to develop virtuous and wise. However, for them to realize this they have to go through the following two stages. When in childhood they have to acquire the required habits and after their thinking has fully matured they will then acquire practical wisdom (EN 1097b22–1098a4). According to him, this does not imply that individuals learn the ethical values first, and then add on wisdom at a later stage. He explains that individuals only develop full ethical virtue when they can combine it with practical wisdom. According to him, some underdeveloped form of ethical virtue emerges in childhood as children are constantly placed in circumstances that demand that they act right and develop proper feelings. As the child grows and begins to depend more on self rather than others and thinks more abstractly, he learns to see human life in the bigger picture. This results in the improvement of deliberative skills and the perfection of emotional responses (EN 1098a161–17). Also if such a person has decided to do something he is not troubled by an urge to act otherwise. He is not doesn’t endeavor to do something that may be regarded as shameful and he is not greatly troubled by giving up a pleasure that is not necessary (EN 1098a161–17).

Aristotle views the following categories as people who are suffering from some kind of internal disorder. In the first category, he describes individuals that have decided on a situation in that they undergo some counter pressure that is facilitated by their appetite for pleasure (EN 1181b12–23). In another category, some members can better “withstand the counter-rational pressures than the ordinary individual” (EN 1097b22–1098a4). These members of the category are persons who may not be considered virtuous although they involve themselves in actions that can be considered to be virtuous. Aristotle refers to this kind of people as “continent” (EN 1181b12–23). Another group or category is composed of persons that are below average in resisting the counter- pressures; he refers to them as being incontinent. The second group, according to Aristotle is composed of individuals who do not even think of doing what others who may be considered as ethically virtuous would do (EN 1097b22–1098a4). This kind of person has a strong belief that justice, generosity, and other similar things are useless. Aristotle refers to this kind of people as evil. He believes that such people are driven by only the desire to dominate and live luxurious lives and even though they are single-minded in their quest for dominance and luxury; he depicts them as a deeply divided lot due to competition which leaves them with self-hatred (EN 1098a161–17).

Aristotle explains that the deficiencies, seen in the above three groups often involve some lack of harmonious state within themselves. He further reveals that an evil person may at some point arrange and execute an evil plan at a given point, but in the due course, he will regret such action because this will not be adequate for the achievement of the intended goals. Aristotle makes an “assumption that if one intentionally makes poor decisions about he will live his life, his failures are caused by psychological forces that are less than fully rational” (EN 1098a161–17). Such a “person will have desires for power, pleasure, or something else that are so strong that they stop him or her from behaving or acting ethically” (EN 1181b12–23). For people to keep such negative inner forces out of the way, they are required to grow up in the proper way that will enable the development of good habits and emotional responses. This helps people to make intelligent decisions when they are adults. He however says that virtuous individuals as well as those who are less virtuous are often vulnerable to negative forces.

Comparison of Aristotle’s metaphysical and ethical arguments

This section of the paper seeks to compare the two arguments by Aristotle and identify which of the two holds better and why? The section also seeks to identify the argument that is more applicable in today’s life. All the points will be argued out basing on the main arguments that were written by Aristotle.

Aristotle’s argument on ethics is far much better and applies to today’s life than the argument on ‘actuality is before potency’. The only part that may prove challenging is the apparent reference to the soul as the part that guides reasoning. The intellectual virtues referred by him should be attributed to the functions of the brain however, this kind of thinking was more dominant during his times and thus it will not be used as a factor to discredit his argument on ethics (EN 1181b12–23). He attributes the development of virtuous behavior to the environment or the basic family unit that is concerned with the upbringing of a child. This kind of thinking makes sense in today’s world in that a child’s interaction with family and other members of the society forms an important part of his being in terms of behavior. Even in contemporary society, a child who is reared in a family that is deeply religious or one that exhibits high standards on the moral platform is more likely to follow suit.

A discrepancy arises from his apparent reference to the male child. That is unacceptable in the current world. Unfortunately, this chauvinistic approach is further used when he depicts the male individual as one guides the female.

The description of the ethical development of a child by Aristotle is generally true in today’s society.

His ethical argument suffers a setback when he refers to bad or evil persons as having an internal disorder, which according to him is intrinsic. It’s important to note that good, as well as bad behavior, is picked from the environment. Science is yet to reveal if there is a particular gene that will predispose an individual to evil behavior. The categorization of people as being continent, incontinent and evil are indeed true to today’s society but it is important to note that these attributes are less likely to be intrinsic. They are most probably acquired from the environment.

Aristotle’s ethical argument that an individual’s experiences as a child are the main indicators of upright or crooked adult life is true even today. The statement that “if one intentionally makes poor decisions about he will live his life, his failures are caused by psychological forces that are less than fully rational” might be a faint reflection of what is we see today (EN 1098a161–17). The effects of greediness and excessive love of power are described as ethically demeaning by Aristotle, indeed this is what we see today. There are several heads of states that are holding onto power at all costs such that they even kill the people they are supposed to lead.

Aristotle explains that for an individual to keep away the destructive forces he or she should grow up in the proper way that will enable him/her to achieve the desired habits (EN 1181b12–23). This observation is somehow true but is not always the case because there are cases where persons who were brought up badly transform into responsible individuals. There are also cases where children who are brought up in the best social environments transform into irresponsible persons. He however seems to embrace this possibility by adding that both virtuous and less virtuous persons are vulnerable to the destructive forces.

His argument asserting that actuality is before potency is somehow untenable. The technological advancement and the significant achievements in understanding the universe and how various systems work have discredited his argument. His argument seems to portray reality as a closed system in which certain agents are kept in constant transformation while others remain the same forever. However, some aspects of the argument may be true even in today’s world. Thus the analysis will be conducted step by step. First, Aristotle argues that actuality is before potency because something to be created has existed or exists. He says there must be a man to create a boy who will become a man (EN 1098a161–17).. This kind of thinking does not take into account the current knowledge that the universe was formed at some point. At the point where everything was forming for the first time, actuality may not be said to have been before potency. About the perishable agents, the ‘actuality is before potency argument maybe true’ but should be able to take into account the beginning of everything. It’s not wise to believe that the universe does not have a beginning.

His greatest misgiving on the argument was the apparent reference to the heavenly bodies such as the sun and the stars as being eternal. Thus he classified such things as lacking potency.

He also attributes actuality by referring to the mother agent. He believes that because man exists then another man can develop from this other man. He goes ahead to defend his argument that actuality is before potency. This does not take into account the structural differences that may even occur between a man and his son. A genetic description will depict the son as an independent entity who shares a significant number of genes with the father but he is not, in an actual sense similar to his father. This kind of analysis will prove that actuality may be unpredictable and thus cannot precede potency.

However, the metaphysical studies of Aristotle have formed the backbone of basic contemporary understanding of the patterns followed by vast phenomena.


This paper sought to analyze Aristotle’s arguments in metaphysics and ethics. Specifically, his metaphysical argument that proposes that actuality is before potency has been compared to his rational argument in ethics where a man is not considered to be virtuous until he has acquired the knowledge and innate tendencies to therefore are virtuous (EN 1098a161–17).. The paper began by giving a brief description of the two arguments. The description of the two arguments formed an important aspect of the understanding and subsequent analysis. It has been established that the ethical argument is stronger and is thus more relevant to today’s life as compared to the metaphysical argument. However, the metaphysical argument forms an important part of our current understanding of life.

Works cited

Barnes, John. The Complete works of Aristotle; Volumes I and II . Princeton : Princeton University Press , 1984. Print.

Irwin, John. Aristotle: Selections, Translated with Introduction, Notes, and Glossary,. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999.Print

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