In any analysis on Western views of essence/ousia, matter and form, attention must be focused on the difference between Plato and Aristotle. Eastern theologian and philosopher Dr. Philip Sherrard made this point when elucidating the transition from Platonic conceptions of methexis to Aristotelian hylomorphism. In order to shed light on this obscurity, we will review some citations that demonstrate the distinction. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle writes of essence:
That each individual thing is one and the same with its essence, and not merely accidentally so, is apparent, not only from the foregoing considerations, but because to have knowledge of the individual is to have knowledge of its essence; so that by setting out examples it is evident that both must be identical. But as for the accidental term, e.g. “cultured” or “white,” since it has two meanings, it is not true to say that the term itself is the same as its essence; for both the accidental term and that of which it is an accident are “white,” so that in one sense the essence and the term itself are the same, and in another they are not, because the essence is not the same as “the man” or “the white man,” but it is the same as the affection. (Bk. VII)
In response to this idea, citing Dr. Philip Serrard, I commented:
In the position Sherrard lays out from the Platonic metaphysic, it is possible for a substance to constitute a unity, with more than one substance present in it. The possibility of a real unity with really different multiplicities of substances involved in participation is not possible in the Aristotelian scheme, and the usage of the eastern fathers of the first seven centuries involved the Platonic version of this issue, not the Aristotelian. This is how God is operant in the world in an immanent, energetic way, yet not diffused into it pantheistically. This is how they formulated a Christology of real theosis that did not dissolve humanity into the divine ousia.
Since man, for Aristotle and Latin theologians, is a composite creature of body and soul, this duality in reference to hylomorphism creates a problem not just between God and world, Christ and His assumed humanity, but also between any particular object and universals. If the intellect and soul are a substance separate from the body, constituting its form, it is difficult to see how it is possible for the soul to function separately. But for Aristotle, the form of man does not exist separately from the body, or matter. The reason for this ultimately is that Aristotle’s version of absolute simplicity is transferred from the Ideal realm of Plato into the here and now. For Plato, the One was Ideal and perfect, in another, ideational realm. For Aristotle, universals are temporal. Both thinkers have obvious dialectics at work that are insurmountable given their respective systems. For Aristotle, the simplicity of substances is placed in the temporal realm resulting in the inability of a unity to retain its identity while participating in other forms. For Plato, the dualism is evident in the inability to bridge the gap from the realm of forms to our realm of flux.
In the modern world the same problems are present in physics and the reductionist models of the universe. Monism and dualism are two sides of the same coin and ultimately converge upon one another. As has been posited many times, dialectics have determined the whole course of western thought for millennia, from the Greeks on. In certain ways, the Egyptian metaphysic was better than its Hellenic progeny, yet even it and ancient Indian thought ultimately end up in the same monism and/or dualism. Indeed, as Sherrard observes, the defining common denominator of perennial philosophies seems to be that ultimate reality is a wholly other, singular monadic/monistic super-essence of some kind. For that super-essence, its existence and its being are coterminous: Potentiality and actuality are synonymous in that “Super-Being,” being absolutely simple.
For Aristotle, the simply unity of a substance comes to the fore in his explanation of how numbers exist. Since any transcendent realm has been abandoned in favor of the collapsing of the transcendent into the empirical here and now, Aristotle makes it clear that this applies for all subjects, including numbers. Where the Pythagoreans and Plato stressed the transcendent, Aristotle here stresses the physical. Numbers for Aristotle, like substances or essences, take on a simple identification with the particular. Expectedly, Aristotle does not have a solution as to how numbers seem to exist apart from any instantiation, since abstract numbers are stated to be merely adjectival.
Wim Van Den Dungen explains:
The Platonic ideas exist objectively in a reality outside the thinker. Hence, the empirical has a derivative status. The world of forms is outside the permanent flux characteristic of the former, and also external to the thinking mind and its passing whims. A trans-empirical, Platonic idea is a paradigm for the singular things which participate in it (“methexis“). Becoming participates in Being, and only Being, as Parmenides taught, has reality. The physical world is not substantial (without sufficient ground) and posited as a mere reflection. If so, it has no true existence of its own (for its essence is trans-empirical). Plato projects the world of ideas outside the human mind. He therefore represents the transcendent pole of Greek concept-realism, for the “real” moves beyond our senses as well as our minds. To eternalize truth, nothing less will do.
Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) rejects the separate, Platonic world of real proto-types, but not the “ta katholou”, the generalities (“les généralités”, “die Allgemeinen”), conceived, as concept-realism demands, in terms of the “real”, essential and sufficient ground of knowledge, the foundation of thought. So general, universal ideas do exist, but they are always immanent in the singular things of this world. There is no world of ideas “out there”. There is no cleavage in what “is” and there is only one world, namely the actual world present here and now. The indwelling formal and final causes of things are known by abstracting what is gathered by the passive intellect, fed by the senses, witnessing material and efficient causes. The actual process of abstraction is performed by the intellectus agens, a kind of Peripatetic “Deus ex machina“, reflective of the impasse of realism : Where is the subject?
For Plato, methexis allows a particular to participate in a real ontological sense in multiple forms, such as beauty, without the individual substance losing its identity. In theology, the terminology used would be called perichoresis, which allows the divine to interact ad intra, as well as ad extra, imminent in the world without the world losing its identity subsumed into God, or God collapsing into the world (pantheism). Readers of my previous theological articles will begin to see this hinges on the conceptions of simplicity outlined previously. Just as the Aristotelian and Platonic conception of “simplicity” and the unity of a substance presupposes a primacy for absolute unity over against multiplicity, so does this simple substance principle filter out into other areas of life.
For the history of the West, the rise of the Aristotelian hylomorphic conception of man comes to influence the rest of the economic and social order. In order to see this, we must look again to the explanation Dr. Sherrard provides:
Here we witness the collapsing of the transcendent into the concrete particular as previously mentioned. First, one can see how this philosophy would work on the part of Roman theology to describe the transubstantiation that occurs in the mass. The bread and wine become the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ by the word of the priest, despite the fact that to the outer appearance, the accidents of bread and wine remain. In other words, the description and naming of things can now be divorced from that they are. The ability to declare a thing something other than what it is, while desiring to uphold theology, actually allows for the introduction of hylomorphism everywhere else, especially since for the medieval mind, the Eucharist was the central act of public worship. We will see below how this came to impact social and economic spheres.
Second, the apparent disparate and separate spatial location of one substance from another, which Platonism had no problem linking through the notion of being linked in the Divine Mind, can no longer be done. For Aristotle, there is no separate world or aether connecting substances beyond the particular. A thing has no existence outside the thing, as it is. At the time of the Enlightenment, following the nominalism that won out in the Middle Ages, philosophers in the empiricist tradition would take this position to its logical conclusions – if there is no quality beyond the sensous, then “substance” or “essence” is not sensed, and the distinction between substance and accident is illusory – all features of an object are accidental, and the only possible substrate would be matter, or atomism (since the same senses that perceive prima materia are the same senses that perceive ‘secondary qualities’).
The connections of the above ideas in Aristotle are quite obviously the forerunners of British empiricism. Concomitant with the rise of empiricism is the rise of Laissez-faire economic theory, evident in empiricist luminary John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government:
If man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property. (2nd Tr., §123)
Here the notion of the rise of the atomic individual comes to the fore, projecting the origins of government itself to be a fictitious primeval necessary evil. The opposition in the dialectic is evident: the individual is good, the social is inherently defective, oppressive, and at best, a necessary evil. Freedom is posited as a “natural” state which man somehow possess on the basis of a generic deity of Nature. While Locke may have had some theological opinions more in line with classical orthodox conceptions of God, the anthropology at work here is undoubtedly unorthodox, as man is conceived of as famously a “tabula rasa” by the empiricists. As an emergent product of “Nature,” man can only seek to subsist and survive by guarding and securing his bodily drives. Aristotle’s philosophy begins to look more and more like the deistic reductionism it is, which is precisely what plays out in the history of the modern West. Theological nominalism becomes philosophical nominalism and then becomes scientific and market nominalism.
Alongside these empiricists emerged the economic perspective of market driven capitalism in Ricardo, Malthus, Smith, Locke, etc. Soon thereafter the Darwinian revolution arose, making social Darwinism the norm for global economic praxis. Lest anyone conceive of Marxism as opposition, recall that Marxism is also international, scientistic, Darwinian and empirical. Both market-driven privatization and collectivist communism are based on the same dialectical presuppositions outlined above. The result of this “march of history” is global monoculture and the destruction of any form of ethnos that might retain the older forms of limitation on this juggernaut. The market can now transubstantiate man into new forms as an incarnation of the Darwinian process.
Man, as a resource of Nature, becomes a commodity of other forces of Nature (transnational oligarchs) to be produced, exchanged, and consumed as “natural” market desires dictate. In the market, humans are also transmutable units of exchange and consumption. Collapsing the transcendent into the particular and the physical necessitates the dominance of the market for all of life, as the securing of resources and security is the highest drive of existence. Indeed, the market itself, formerly described as directed by Divine Providence by the Puritans and Franklin, now becomes itself Divine Providence, purportedly under the guise of “free trade” and “free association.” The state also must only exist to protect the market, as Von Hayek argues, and because the market is inherently global, a global police force and international government is then necessary. (See Road to Serfdom, pgs. 223-236, “Prospect of an International Order”). And thus the celebrated principle of liberty, the most sacred idol of modern man, metastasizes into vicious universal tyranny.