Aristotle’s Nicomachean Arguments against Forms: “Former and Latter”

In the process of setting forth the project that will consume the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle sketches a description for what is the ultimate good, that which all our actions aim to achieve.  He describes the possibility of finding such an action (or whatever it will turn out to be), in these terms:

Indeed, if there is some end of practical affairs which we wish in itself, but all the rest because of this one thing, and we do not wish for everything because of some other thing (for then everything proceeds to infinity, and so desire would be empty and vain), it is obvious that this would be the good and the best.  As archers possessing a target, should we attain what is needed, since the knowledge of this has great importance in life?  If this is so, one must attempt to grasp it in outline at least, what it is and of what kind of knowledge and capacity it belongs (NE 1094a18-26). 1

As Aristotle vividly sets forth, we need some “target,” that ultimate good, at which we can aim our arrows, our lives.  One possibility is the “good” so envisaged by Plato.  Aristotle will then embark on an investigation of this candidate for the “good.”  Before the first of many criticism of Forms, however, Aristotle offers a peace offering of good will to Platonists.

It is fitting to perhaps to investigate and deal with the difficulties of how the universal [good] (to katholou) is said, even though such an investigation courts controversy because the men who introduced Forms (ta eide) are friends.  It would seem that it is fitting, in fact necessary for the preservation of truth even to destroy one’s own work, both generally and because we are philosophers.  For, although both [Platonists and truth] are dear, it is sacred to preferentially honor the truth (NE 1096a11-17). 2

After this shrewdly irenical, even poetical, preface, Aristotle gets into the meat of his first objection by informing us that Platonists do not have forms of those things which have a “former” and “latter.”

Indeed those who introduced this opinion did not place the Forms among those things in which they said there was a former (to proteron) and latter (hysteron); therefore they did not make a Form of numbers.  And the good is said in the categories of “what is” (ti esti) and in quantity (to poion) and in relation (pros ti), but that which is by itself (to kath’ hauto), that is, being or substance (ousia), is prior (proteron) by nature to relation. (For relation seems like an offshoot and incident of being (tou ontos).  So that there would not be some Form in addition to these (NE 1096a17-23). 3

After the mention of numbers, Aristotle brings in talk of his own Categories, noting that the “good” can be predicated in many different ways.  This presents a problem for believers in the Forms.  If “good” is in one of the three categories of “what is,” or quantity, or relation, then in virtue of being in both the category of “what is” and relation it is involved in the “former and latter.”  However remember that the “former and latter” is prohibited as things there are Forms of, as Aristotle just mentioned at NE 1096a17.  The reason that the good is involved in the former and the latter is because “what is” precedes, i.e. is  ontologically prior to, the category of relation, although both “what is” and relation are said of the good.  Therefore logically either there are Forms for things that are involved in “former and latter,” or, as Aristotle prefers, there are no forms since even the paradigmatic Form of them all, the Form of the good, necessarily must (illlogically) involve the “former and latter.”


  1. Why does Aristotle bring up two categories in this objection to forms?  That is, he doesn’t seem to need the category of “what is.”  Isn’t the category of relation, in itself, sufficient to show that the good, if it is involved in that category (and it is) concerns the “former and latter.”  Because it seems that at least some forms of relation concern the former and latter.
  2. What is the motivation in Platonists avoiding Forms in the case of the former and latter?  Is it because this is a form of relation, in which one is before the other, and thus would undermine the atemporality and transcendence of Forms?
  3. In light of NE 1094a18-26 (quoted above), is it fair of Aristotle to ask Platonists for an explanation of good in the different ways Aristotle enumerates?  After all, if per Aristotle’s argument in NE 1094a18-26, there is one single “good” at which everything aims, then insofar as there is more than one “good,” they are only derivatively so, and it is plausible that there must be some one single good over and above all these.


1 Εἰ δή τι τέλος ἐστὶ τῶν
πρακτῶν ὃ δι’ αὑτὸ βουλόμεθα, τἆλλα δὲ διὰ τοῦτο, καὶ μὴ
πάντα δι’ ἕτερον αἱρούμεθα (πρόεισι γὰρ οὕτω γ’ εἰς ἄπειρον,    (20)
ὥστ’ εἶναι κενὴν καὶ ματαίαν τὴν ὄρεξιν), δῆλον ὡς τοῦτ’ ἂν
εἴη τἀγαθὸν καὶ τὸ ἄριστον. ἆρ’ οὖν καὶ πρὸς τὸν βίον ἡ
γνῶσις αὐτοῦ μεγάλην ἔχει ῥοπήν, καὶ καθάπερ τοξόται
σκοπὸν ἔχοντες μᾶλλον ἂν τυγχάνοιμεν τοῦ δέοντος; εἰ δ’
οὕτω, πειρατέον τύπῳ γε περιλαβεῖν αὐτὸ τί ποτ’ ἐστὶ καὶ   (25)
τίνος τῶν ἐπιστημῶν ἢ δυνάμεων

2  Τὸ δὲ καθόλου βέλτιον ἴσως ἐπισκέψασθαι καὶ διαπο-
ρῆσαι πῶς λέγεται, καίπερ προσάντους τῆς τοιαύτης ζητή-
σεως γινομένης διὰ τὸ φίλους ἄνδρας εἰσαγαγεῖν τὰ εἴδη.
δόξειε δ’ ἂν ἴσως βέλτιον εἶναι καὶ δεῖν ἐπὶ σωτηρίᾳ γε τῆς
ἀληθείας καὶ τὰ οἰκεῖα ἀναιρεῖν, ἄλλως τε καὶ φιλοσόφους   (15)
ὄντας· ἀμφοῖν γὰρ ὄντοιν φίλοιν ὅσιον προτιμᾶν τὴν ἀλή-

3 οἱ δὴ κομίσαντες τὴν δόξαν ταύτην οὐκ ἐποίουν ἰδέας
ἐν οἷς τὸ πρότερον καὶ ὕστερον ἔλεγον, διόπερ οὐδὲ τῶν
ἀριθμῶν ἰδέαν κατεσκεύαζον· τὸ δ’ ἀγαθὸν λέγεται καὶ ἐν
τῷ τί ἐστι καὶ ἐν τῷ ποιῷ καὶ ἐν τῷ πρός τι, τὸ δὲ καθ’   (20)
αὑτὸ καὶ ἡ οὐσία πρότερον τῇ φύσει τοῦ πρός τι (παρα-
φυάδι γὰρ τοῦτ’ ἔοικε καὶ συμβεβηκότι τοῦ ὄντος)· ὥστ’ οὐκ
ἂν εἴη κοινή τις ἐπὶ τούτοις ἰδέα.