Jacques Maritain Center : A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas / by Ralph McInerny


No sooner had the effort to understand the natural world begun than a huge obstacle was put in the way of continued inquiry. What the various ways of understanding natural becoming had in common, needless to say, was the assumption that there were things coming into being.

Parmenides, a formidable thinker, made a disturbing point. Becoming entails that something that had not previously existed comes into being. That is, being is the result of becoming. If being is the end term of becoming, where does it start? Where does the new being come from? Parmenides saw only two possibilities.

[1] Being comes from being.

[2] Being comes from non-being.

If these terms-from-which indeed exhaust the possibilities, becoming is impossible, because being can come from neither being nor non-being. If being becomes being (or, to put it another way, if being comes from being), we have the same thing before and after the change. But then there is no change. If, on the other hand, we say that non-being becomes being (or being comes from non-being), we are saying in effect that nothing comes to be. That is, the nothing is the subject of the change and survives it. But that is a denial of change, rather than its assertion.

The Parmenidean point can be stated in terms of a denial of plurality. In order to speak of change, we must have the thing that was and the thing that now is, two things. If they are two, they must differ. There are two ways in which A differs from B, either in being or in non-being. But if we say

that the first being differs from the second being in being, this is no difference. If we take the remaining option and say the two beings differ in non-being, this is to say they differ in nothing. They are one and the same.

No matter how you slice it, Parmenides concluded, change is impossible. Oh, we think we see many things and we think they are undergoing changes, but if change resists any coherent analysis, we must conclude that our senses are deluding us. Whatever we think we see, we know that being is one, unique, unchanging.

Being and Appearance

For the first time in the history of philosophy we have theory urged against experience, mind over matter, alleged being over deceptive appearances. We cannot believe our eyes because if we did we would have to think the unthinkable: that nothing becomes something.

In reading what Parmenides said you will have the distinct impression that your leg is being pulled. You are right. But how to answer him? The history of efforts to speak of the natural world during the period between Parmenides and Aristotle is a sad one. People tried to speak of the world of becoming without running afoul of Parmenides. They wanted to acknowledge change without allowing that anything new came into being. The ancient atomic theory will suffice as an example.

There are four really real things, fire, air, earth, and water. Observable things are merely arrangements of these elements. The elements themselves do no not come into being; they are simply rearranged. In Aristotelian terms, this means that all change is accidental change. Substances do not come to be. That is why the atomist can claim that his theory does not claim that any new being becomes, any new substantial being, that is.

The price paid for this is rather high. Cows and horses and people are not substances. When a human person comes to be this is explained simply in terms of a new arrangement of elements which alone are being in the full sense. So a human would relate to elements as we might think color relates to the colored thing. But if people aren't real things, we would be hard pressed to mention what is. The ancient atomic theory thus denies that things anyone would call substances are substances and denies substantial change as well.

What Went Wrong?

One of the merits of Aristotle's analysis of change is that it enables us to see where Parmenides has gone wrong. Remember that Aristotle's account requires a subject and a privation in the subject of the form acquired in the change. Before the change, the subject has a form contrary to that acquired. Water is cold and becomes hot; the apple is green and becomes red. Thus, before the change, the subject has the form it has and dos not have the form it will have as the result of the change. That is why the subject is said to be in privation of the form to be acquired. Obviously there is an infinity of forms it does not have.

The second reminder has to do with the way in which an activity can be attributed to an agent. Thinking of an earlier story about Fifi LaRue, we might say

[3] The student golfs.

The statement is true. The activity of golfing can truly be attributed to the student Fifi. But we might also say

[4] The golfer golfs.

What is the difference between [3] and [4]? It happens to be true that a student golfs, it is not part of the job description of a student to golf -- we live in a fallen universe -- but when a golfer golfs this is exactly what a golfer is supposed to do. Let us then say that [3] happens to be true, is true per accidens, whereas [4] is true per se. We saw [3] is true per accidens because it just happens that the same person is both a student and a golfer, and it is this happenstance connection that makes [3] turn out true.

With this as background, it is possible to deal with Parmenides. How is

[1] Being becomes being

to be understood?

If we ask ourselves how this claim can be restated in terms of Aristotle's analysis of change, we will identify the being before the change and the being after the change as, respectively, the form the subject has afterward. Before the change the water is cold, afterward warm. Then [1] can be rewritten as

[1a] Cold becomes warm.

Prior to becoming warm the subject is not warm, is subject of the privation non-warm. Then we can rewrite [2] as

[2a] Not-warm becomes warm.

Both of these sentences are true, but both are true in the way [3] is, that is, per accidens. What Parmenides did was to understand them as per se attributions and he was right to see something wrong.

Why? That to which a change is attributed per se survives the change and is a constituent of the result. Neither cold nor not-warm survives the change whereby water becomes warm. That is why the change can be attributed to them only per accidens.

Potential Being

To what is the change attributed per se? Well, what survives the change as a constituent of the result? The subject. The water's potential to be warm is actuated by the change. Prior to the change, when the water is cold, it has the potential to become warm. After the change, it is actually warm. That to which the change is attributed per se is potential being, the subject which can have the new form. This terminology comes to the fore in the definition of motion.


Solving Parmenides' Problem

[4] First he says that it doesn't much matter whether we say something comes to be from being or non-being or that being or non-being does something or has something done it. And so too with the physician, whether we say that the physician does something or has something done to him or that something is or comes to be from the physician.

But to say either that the physician does something or has something done him or that something comes to be from the physician can be understood in two ways and the same applies to saying from being or non-being something comes to be or that being or non-being do or have something done them. As a matter of fact we can substitute any terms, saying, for example, that something comes to be from white or that white does or has something done to it.

That there is indeed a twofold sense of such expressions he shows in this way.

We say that the physician builds but he does not do this insofar as he is a physician, but insofar as he is a builder; so too we say that the physician comes to be white, but not insofar as he is a physician but insofar as he is black. On the other hand, we say that the physician heals insofar as he is a physician. We say the physician properly or per se does or has something done to him or that something comes to be from the physician when this is attributed to the physician as physician, per accidens, when it is attributed to him, not insofar as he is a physician, but insofar as he is something else. Thus it is clear that when it is said that the physician does or has something done to him, or that something comes to be from the physician, it can be understood in two ways, either per se or per accidens.

Manifestly then when something is said to come to be from non-being, this could be understood properly and per se if something comes to be from non-being as non-being, and so too with being.

Not grasping this distinction, the ancients erred and held that nothing comes to be and thought that nothing but what they gave as the first material principle had substantial being. For example, those saying air is the first material principle said that everything else was accidental being; in this way they excluded all substantial generation, leaving only alteration, and because nothing can come to be per se from either being or non-being, they thought nothing could come to be from either being or non-being.

[5] But we too say that nothing comes to be absolutely or per se from non-being, but only accidentally, because what is, that is, being, is not per se from privation. And this because privation does not enter into the essence of the thing made: a thing comes to be per se from that which is in the thing after it is made, as the shaped does not come to be per se from the unshaped, but accidentally, because after it is shaped, the unshaped is no longer in it. But this is a marvelous manner for something to come to be from non-being, one that seemed impossible to the ancient philosophers. But thus it is clear that a thing comes to be from non-being, not per se but accidentally.

Similarly, when it is asked whether a thing comes to be from being, it should be answered that something comes to be accidentally not per se from being.

[6] Some being comes to be from not being this, but it happens that what is not this is a being. Thus something does not come to be per se from being, nor per se from non-being, coming to be per se from non-being meaning that it comes to be from non-being as non-being, as has been said.

Commentary on Physics, Book One, lesson 14

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