Introduction to Metaphysics: A Dialogue (Part One)
The defining mission of this website, sometimes pursued subliminally, sometimes overtly, is to undermine the corruptive influence of “current events,” which is to say the distracting noise of the everyday, in the lives of anyone within reach of my voice. As our civilization winds down, the attraction of building a solid spiritual fortress to defend the soul against the glittering degradations and nihilistic temptations of late modern decay becomes more compelling with each passing day. In other words, if ever there was a moment to embrace the consolations of philosophy, this is it. Living in the moral hurricane of our brave new world, the only sure refuge for the thinking reed — the only place where it is still possible to experience and participate in the rational heritage of man — is some nearest approximation of the ancient “philosopher’s garden.”
As a teacher, I have increasingly come to understand that the irrigation of such gardens — each one private and unique to the individual gardener — is the most necessary and genuinely helpful role I can play in the lives of any I encounter who have managed, through some native (usually pain-induced) fire of spiritual self-preservation intrinsic to their own temperaments, to retain their capacity for independent thought, critical distance, and what Socrates, that wily midwife for the ages, identified as “pregnancy of the soul.” That fire — the craving for something silent and eternal behind the transient din of the Now — is what progressive late modernity, in both its “capitalist” and “socialist” variations, is designed to snuff out.
Few things, therefore, are more profoundly satisfying to me than revealing the pleasures of theoretical reason to a few talented and eager students I come to know well, specifically those who are grasping for a lifeline to pull themselves out of the suffocating mire, craving a more meaningful life than anything they could likely find on their own amid today’s political and educational ruins. What they are seeking, in fact, is what all thinking humans are seeking in the end, namely themselves, the kernel of ahistorical reality buried under layers of social conditioning and coerced utilitarian compliance.
Recently, a longstanding e-mail correspondence with one of these pregnant souls drifted naturally into a discussion of the question of being, i.e., metaphysics. As it was our first foray into this area of the foundations of all thought and reality, I spent a good deal of the conversation laying out the essential terms and concerns of metaphysical inquiry, using the ancient Greek language of form and matter, potentiality and actuality, as the basis of my explanation. And as my interlocutor happens to be a naturally inquisitive and insightful student with a gift for intuiting exactly the right questions to ask, the discussion proceeded in a manner that was both extremely fruitful and completely enjoyable — precisely as genuine philosophic discussion ought to be. The consolations of philosophy are comprehensive: The painful process of seeking understanding of the most impenetrable things simultaneously affords one the unmatched pleasures of forgetting the accidental and ephemeral monotonies of social and practical life — never more enticing than in an age as socially corrupt as ours — as one becomes immersed in the deepest mysteries of the soul.
The conversation reproduced here evolved so naturally and beneficially, mostly due to the seriousness and perceptiveness of my student, that I gradually realized that what we had developed, through several days’ correspondence, was a complete philosophic dialogue in epistolary form. The standard against which all such writing must be measured, of course, is that set by Plato. The Platonic dialogues comprise an unsurpassable resource for discovering the real nature and manner of philosophical investigation — we learn about the philosophic life by watching real men live it. We are granted permission to stand right there in the agora with Socrates and his friends as they discuss virtue, poetry, politics, and the soul. What could be more exciting or elevating? It is in that spirit, then — though I have no pretensions of being either an interlocutor like Socrates or a writer like Plato — that I have decided to present my epistolary dialogue on the question of being, for your interest and enjoyment.
Among the many benefits that might be derived from presenting and reading such an exchange, I note three lessons that are immediately apparent:
- Our age is not quite unfree enough yet — although unfreedom is our trajectory — to prevent us from engaging in the highest, and therefore the definitive, human “social activity,” thinking together.
- In spite of all the horizon-shrinking and intellectually stunting effects of public education, one can still find, however rarely, thoughtful young people open to new worlds, and capable of experiencing the essential impetus of serious thought, namely wonder.
- Real education (as opposed to social indoctrination or worker-unit training), though very far out of step with the march of our times, is still, almost miraculously, possible.
My correspondent is a recently graduated biology major from my university. I taught her only once in a classroom setting, but our private discussions evolved out of her request for classic literature recommendations, which in turn developed, as sometimes happens with my best students, into a long-term free-form conversation about absolutely anything of importance. She is an enthusiastic reader and currently studies painting, but I have chosen to name her “Biologist” in this dialogue, mainly because I believe her way of coming at the issues, and the types of questions that spring naturally to her mind, are most indicative of someone with a modern scientific background.
As the discussion ran to considerable length, I have chosen to divide it into three parts, beginning with Part One in today’s post. I should also mention that the following correspondence was edited very little from its original e-mail form. I have omitted the sorts of irrelevant personal niceties, details, or asides that naturally occur in real correspondence; and, since my student is Korean and writing to me in her second language, I have made just a few very minor grammatical corrections as needed. Otherwise, what you will read here is a reproduction of our actual e-mail exchange, conducted over the course of a couple of weeks, without any rearrangement, rewriting, or embellishment. As is often necessary in such complicated correspondence, we sometimes quote each other’s earlier points in order to bring specific questions into focus. In those instances, I have formatted the quoted passages as indented blocks, for the sake of clarity.
Without further ado, then, it is time, happily, to cast off the pandemics, partisanship and propaganda for a while, and give ourselves over to the saving graces of philosophic conversation, which is to say it is time to leave the accidental realm behind and venture into the essential.
Introduction to Metaphysics: An Epistolary Dialogue
I remember you mentioned philosophy as a way of living. In that respect, I think philosophy is most necessary for humans, because we shouldn’t waste our limited time and energy doing less important things.
Yes, philosophy, properly understood, is a way of life, not an area of knowledge or “expertise.” I try to live that life as completely as possible. That is not an idealistic thing. You cannot avoid eating, shopping, and dealing with other normal requirements of living as a human. But the goal is to make even those inherently trivial activities consistent with your serious life, by doing them only in ways that fit into the life of a person whose real purpose is not about trivial things. That means never treating those trivial but necessary activities as anything more than practical necessities. They should never be allowed to become a distraction from what really matters, which is your soul’s development, or to get in the way of life’s truest pleasures, which are the pleasures of thinking and discovering.
For example, I like shopping for food and other household necessities, because I know that if I have those things in my home, it will save me time later, and allow me to focus well on my thoughts without worrying about whether I have food, or whether I need this or that practical item. But to make it fit into my life better, I have become an expert at shopping quickly. I love going to a supermarket and buying all the things I need at world record speed! It’s a fun game in my mind, and then I’ve finished the practical task before it has a chance to become boring or annoying.
On the other hand, if the shopping trip drags on too long, I get very annoyed and frustrated, even grumpy. I suddenly start to feel that I am wasting time, which as you know really bothers me. And even worse, I hate shopping for things that don’t seem important to my life (the way food is important, for example). Clothes shopping has to be done at super-speed, even faster than groceries, because I don’t care about it at all, so after about ten minutes, I already start to feel that I am letting my life slip away on a meaningless activity.
Thank you for explaining about your way of life with the example. You are definitely not a person who is interested in material, temporary things!
And yesterday, I thought about my way of life again, comparing it to yours. One day, I thought, I’d like to pursue the eternal things during a limited and momentary lifetime. As I have understood, eternal things are things free from Time, so that their essence and value will never fade no matter how much time passes, such as true love or friendship. Those are the best and most beautiful things for me, so the most valuable and important things in my life. One of the most important things among them is my soul. Thinking of eternity, I thought of my soul, its ultimate image, essence, and value, and felt that I ought to develop it into the best picture. Accordingly, I used to think and focus on uppermost tasks or activities only, but this time reading your reply, I thought I should also think about whether I’m spending my time and energy appropriately on trivial things.
One of the most important things among them is my soul.
No, your soul is the most important among them, because it is the condition for all the others, and the center of everything else that matters in your life.
And you are right, we cannot focus exclusively on the eternal goods, for the simple reason that to focus, we must be alive and in a condition that allows thinking. So we have to attend to the non-eternal or “inessential” things as well. The important point is never to forget which are the essential things, and which are the practical conditions we must fulfill for the sake of those essential things. There is a hierarchy of goods in the soul, just as there is a hierarchy of beings in the universe. If the proper position of things is violated, we lose our focus, and gradually lose our soul. That’s the condition of modern humanity at the moment. We have allowed the practical and petty things to become the central and most important things. Eternity is lost, meaning that we are blind to it.
I agree with you that we have allowed the practical and petty things to become the central and most important things. A week ago, “JY” [another serious student] and I briefly talked about eternity and the awareness of Time, and she explained to me that there are two types of awareness, comparing a straight line and circle. It reminded me of what you said before about the ancient perception of Time — that we are familiar with the idea of the beginning and end, whereas the ancients think the opposite. And I also thought that this might explain why modern people lost the idea of eternity, because we tend to think of a beginning and an end of everything.
There is a hierarchy of goods in the soul, just as there is a hierarchy of beings in the universe.
I have a question regarding that sentence; I wonder what it means that there is a hierarchy of beings in the universe. Do you mean the superiority between species, for example? I don’t know how I should understand the hierarchy and beings.
On Monday, I went to Ulsan Ganjeolgot Cape. For many reasons, from the weather to that it was not a holiday, there were only a few people and I was able to enjoy the ocean view. Since nothing was around there except for the lighthouse, I was able to see its vast ocean, and the longest horizon I’ve ever seen. Feeling awe and wonder, by the way, I somehow thought I can never describe this vastness, depth, or its light. I just thought all I’m painting is a mere shadow of the original. I wanted to draw and paint nature, but if my paintings are just shadows, is it meaningful to do that? Even if I’m painting other objects, aren’t they a shadow of the other things too? Thinking that the original will be always better than the shadows, I have no idea what to draw, and whether it is meaningful to do this.
Hierarchy implies “superiority,” but not in a moral sense. It means some things are more real (have more being) than others. In other words, they are more form, whereas other things are more matter. (Matter is less real than form.) Perhaps that explanation doesn’t help very much, but it’s a start.
I just thought all I’m painting is a mere shadow of the original. I wanted to draw and paint nature, but if my paintings are just shadows, is it meaningful to do that?
That’s a very good reflection. And it shows me that we definitely have to read more Plato together, since that is a topic he writes about quite a lot. The idea of paintings of real objects being mere “shadows” or copies of the objects, and therefore less real, is discussed in detail in Plato’s Republic. And in that context, Socrates goes one step further, saying that the “real objects” themselves are also shadows or copies of something else, specifically the idea of the object (pure form). Therefore, Socrates concludes, the painting is a copy of a copy.
It is quite confusing. I don’t know what exactly it means that some things are more real, i.e. have more being. Could you give an example of the things that are more real? And what is it to be real, and have more being? Does it mean being “fake” or “imaginary” to be less real? I’ve never thought that superior things would be the things having more being, and I didn’t know that there are levels of being real. And I also wonder what form is. How different is it from matter or the idea?
Well, this is a big topic, but here is a simple example of what I mean by “more real” and “less real.” Let’s say that a Martian came to Earth and saw in front of him a baby and an adult human being. And the Martian asked you, “Which one of these two animals represents your species?” You might answer, “Well, they are both humans, but the adult is the mature version of the species. The baby is undeveloped. His body is not full size, his mind is not able to reason, he cannot use language, he lacks developed physical skills like walking and using his hands to control things.”
So if that Martian is writing a textbook about the living species of Earth, he should use the adult as his model of human beings. The baby is human, of course, but he is far less complete than the adult.
What does “complete” mean? It means perfect, fully developed. And that means the baby has not yet developed to meet the full definition of a human being. You might say, “But he will become fully developed later.” Yes, he might (if nothing happens to stop that process), but that still means he isn’t complete yet. We can say he has the potential to be a fully developed human, whereas the adult is actually a fully developed human. The difference between potential and actual is the difference between “less real” and “more real,” in the sense that I mean.
Another way to express this, expanding on the previous example but making it into a more general rule: Actuality is more perfect than potentiality, and things with more potential (capable of more actuality) are more perfect than things with less potential. Always, the standard is actuality, or “being.”
If we look at things materialistically, then this hierarchy is difficult to see, because everything we see around us has material existence. On that standard, everything would be equally real. The baby is just as “real” as the adult, if matter is reality. But if matter is potential, then the hierarchy becomes obvious.
The difference between matter and form is that everything that exists is a combination of both of these. To take a basic example: In a sculpture, the stone is the matter, and the shape that the artist gives to the stone is the form. We can say that without either the stone or the shape, the sculpture would not exist. But the shape – what we recognize as a man or a horse – that gives definition to the stone is more necessary or more essential to the existence of the sculpture. The shape is the reason for the sculpture’s existence, we might say. In this way, form is more related to actuality or being, just as matter is more related to potentiality.
Thanks to your Martian and sculpture examples, I was able to understand “more real” and “less real” more easily. I learned that “less real” represents undeveloped, less complete, and therefore potentiality and matter, whereas “more real” represents developed, complete, and therefore actuality and form; moreover, the form gives definition to the matter, which is essential to its existence. Is this Socrates’ view? It is impressive that he tried to understand this reality distinguishing what he perceived into different levels. According to him, then, materialists are people only interested in matter, less real things.
You also mentioned that everything that exists is a combination of both matter and form. Does the hierarchy depend on the ratio? Is it right to understand that things with more form (actuality) than matter are superior to things with more matter (potentiality) than form? And does everything that exists have matter and form necessarily? Things made up of only matter or form don’t exist?
I also have some questions regarding the form and actuality. If the form gives definition or identity to the matter and is essential to its existence, then how different is it from the idea, the original and pure form, that you mentioned before? Are they synonyms, or is the idea the highest form?
The particular vocabulary I am using here – matter and form, potential and actual – was defined most clearly and completely by Aristotle (Plato’s student, and therefore a second-generation Socratic philosopher), but Socrates uses it in a looser way as well. In fact, these types of concerns were already developing in Greek philosophy for a century before Socrates, although most of the pre-Socratic philosophers were what we might call materialists. It was Socrates who first focused on these issues in the way that emphasizes the “hierarchy” that exists between objects of thought (ideas) and objects of sense (matter). The ways he changed philosophy were (1) to focus everyone’s attention on the search for correct definitions – which means on intellectual objects as the proper goals; and (2) to change the primary concern from the structure of the cosmos to the structure of the soul, which means to make human nature the central issue of philosophical thought. In the modern age, with the development of material science, philosophy has gradually lost this Socratic focus on definitions and human nature. We have all become materialists again, sadly.
Is it right to understand that things with more form (actuality) than matter are superior to things with more matter (potentiality) than form?
Yes, as long as you understand that it is not only a case of proportion within the object, but also between different kinds of objects. In other words, a human baby (mostly potential) can still be regarded as having “more being” than a mature snail. For example, while a human baby cannot do many things that a mature human can do, the baby can already do many, many things that a mature snail cannot do.
And does everything that exists have matter and form necessarily? Things made up of only matter or form don’t exist?
Aha! Well, now, you just asked the question that created the “crown of the sciences,” as Aristotle called it. Metaphysics, the “science of being.” The other sciences (physics, biology, etc.) study various types of being. Metaphysics studies Being Itself, independently of any specific case or type. What does it mean to “be” or “exist”?
And the question that drove metaphysics at the beginning – it is the main dispute between Plato and Aristotle — is this: Can there be a form without matter, or matter without form? In other words, are there any “separate forms”? Plato says “Yes.” Aristotle says “No – but in a way yes!”
In medieval Christian philosophy, this question was phrased in a slightly different way. The most famous version came from St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic philosopher (13th century). He tried to match Aristotle’s philosophy with Catholic theology. He said that everything which exists has an essence (similar to a definition). And of course everything that exists has being (existence). But an object’s essence and its being are two separate things. In other words, its identity or definition does not include “existence,” although the object cannot be found in the real world without also sharing in the property of existence or being. When things lose the property of being, we say they “cease to exist,” or “die” (in the case of living things). However, if there is any object whose essence (definition) is being – existence itself is the definition of the object, not a property separate from its definition – then that object must be eternal. It must be eternal because its essence (its identity) is being, and being itself can never cease to be. (“Being” can never be “non-being.”) St. Thomas uses this to explain God’s eternal existence. God is the substance whose essence is identical to His existence. His definition is Being Itself, and therefore He cannot cease to exist.
Anyway, that’s a brief introduction to the issue you have opened up with your great question. As for whether matter can exist without form, that’s another, but related, question. In metaphysics, and also in science (so you may have heard of it), this is the question of what ancients called “prime matter,” meaning pure matter without any form. There is no simple answer to this one either!
If the form gives definition or identity to the matter and is essential to existence, then how different is it from the idea, the original and pure form, that you mentioned in a previous e-mail? Are they synonyms, or is the idea the highest form?
Wow, you’re really thinking deeply here. Is form separate from “idea”? That’s also part of the Plato vs. Aristotle debate. An idea is a pure intellectual object – a thought. A form is the actuality of a material thing. Is the form of this dog, for example, identical to the idea of a dog, or “dogness itself”? If they are the same thing, then how can each individual dog have the idea in it? I mean, if this individual dog has “dogness itself,” then how can there also be other dogs? Do they also have “dogness itself”? How is the form of this particular matter also shared with other material objects?
On the other hand, if each dog has its own form, but all these forms “share” one separate idea – dogness itself – then (a) how, exactly, do they “share” it?, and (b) do all such separate ideas (dogness, humanness, waterness, etc.) also share in some higher idea separate from them that makes them all “ideas”? If so, do those higher ideas also share in a higher idea, and so on to infinity? Or is there some “highest” idea that is the final point of the process?
There is also a problem which Aristotle identified, and which we now call “the third man problem.” If there is an individual man (matter and form), and also the separate idea of Man, from which the individual gets its identity, then that means the individual man and the idea of Man are somehow both “men.” They both have the essence or definition of “man.” But then don’t we have to ask, “If they both have the essence of Man, then doesn’t this mean they share something – and then wouldn’t the thing they share (which allows us to say both are “man”) also be another kind of Man?” So we would have the individual material man, the separate form or idea of Man, and also this “third man” that the first two share in common. But if that’s true, then wouldn’t this “third man” (higher idea, or whatever) also share something in common with the first two, so we would again need to find another separate “Man” in which the first three share, and so on to infinity? But an infinite regress has no starting point, so in fact there could never be a first man (individual material man), because an infinite process of “shared ideas” could never begin.
As you can see, it’s a very large question you have asked.
To be continued in Part Two…