Four Causes of Substance and Plato’s Forms

By the time we are nearly to the end of Metaphysics Lambda 3, Aristotle, perhaps surprisingly, announces that the preceding has been in some way a rebuke of Platonic Forms.  Aristotle says,

Hence Plato was not far wrong in saying that there are as many Forms as there are kinds of natural objects; that is if there are Forms distinct from the things of our world (Metaphysics 1070a18-19, trans. Hugh Tredennick). (1) 

Along with other implications I take this to mean that, if there are even such (implausible) entities as Plato’s Forms, the most likely candidates for them would be Forms of natural objects, not Forms of Pez dispensers and shoeboxes.

One important observation to take away from this, which we will return to, is that Aristotle takes Plato to be asserting that Forms are causes of substances in some sense.  This is shown by his following remark that asserts a distinction between moving and formal causes, a sentence which translators often choose erroneously to set off as a new paragraph.

Moving causes are causes in the sense of preexistent things, but formal causes coexist with their effects. For it is when the man becomes healthy that health exists, and the shape of the bronze sphere comes into being simultaneously with the bronze sphere (1070a21-24 trans. Tredennick). (2)

Aristotle here is saying something about the causal nature of forms, whether his or Plato’s, namely that they are coterminous with their effects.  I take this to be a logical and not merely chronological relation.  More generally, however, Aristotle has already introduced the notion of how different substances come to be,

We must next observe that every substance is generated from something which has the same name (“substances” including not only natural but all other products).  Things are generated either by art or by nature or by chance or spontaneously. Art is a generative principle in something else; nature is a generative principle in the subject itself (for man begets man); the other causes [i.e. chance and spontaneity] are privations of these (1070a4-a9 trans. Tredennick). (3)

So Aristotle has made the point that forms come about at the same time (ἅμα) as their effects, and here he presumably sets out four causes of substances that are exhaustive, and mutually exclusive.

Of these four causes of art, nature, chance, spontaneity, I take it that Plato, wishing to maintain that Forms are a cause of substance would deny that they bring about substance by chance or spontaneity.  This leaves nature and art as the kinds of causes for Forms.  And as can be gleaned from all of chapter 3, Plato wants to uphold the idea that Forms are transcendent, or to put it less loftily, they are not immanent within their substance, as Aristotle would have it.  Yet this would preclude Forms from being a natural cause, for “nature is a generative principle in the subject itself (for man begets man).”  This, of course, would play into Aristotle’s preferred definition of form.  This leaves art alone as the candidate cause for Forms.  I do not see an argument here directly addressed to this possibilty, but Aristotle does say that, “In some cases the individuality does not exist apart from the composite substance (e.g., the form of a house does not exist separately, except as the art of building” (1070a13-15 trans. Tredennick) (4).  This would seem to grant the desire to Plato to have his Forms aloof from the present world, but at a cost of making them merely instrumental, and worse perhaps, dependent on something else to initiate the causality, a craftsman.  This possibility, however, was dissolved when Aristotle said that a formal cause operates simultaneously with its effect, therefore a form cannot be an art.  


(1) διὸ δὴ οὐ κακῶς Πλάτων ἔφη ὅτι εἴδη ἐστὶν ὁπόσα φύσει, εἴπερ ἔστιν εἴδη ἄλλα τούτων.

(2) Τὰ μὲν οὖν κινοῦντα αἴτια ὡς προγεγενημένα ὄντα, τὰ δ᾿ ὡς ὁ λόγος ἅμα. ὅτε γὰρ ὑγιαίνει ὁ ἄνθρωπος, τότε καὶ ἡ ὑγίεια ἔστιν, καὶ τὸ σχῆμα τῆς χαλκῆς σφαίρας ἅμα καὶ ἡ χαλκῆ σφαῖρα.

(3) Μετὰ ταῦτα ὅτι ἑκάστη ἐκ συνωνύμου γίγνεται οὐσία· τὰ γὰρ φύσει οὐσίαι καὶ τἆλλα· ἢ γὰρ τέχνῃ ἢ φύσει γίγνεται ἢ τύχῃ ἢ τῷ αὐτομάτῳ. ἡ μὲν οὖν τέχνη ἀρχὴ ἐν ἄλλῳ, ἡ δὲ φύσις ἀρχὴ ἐν αὐτῷ (ἄνθρωπος γὰρ ἄνθρωπον γεννᾷ), αἱ δὲ λοιπαὶ αἰτίαι στερήσεις τούτων.

(4) ἐπὶ μὲν οὖν τινῶν τὸ τόδε τι οὐκ ἔστι παρὰ τὴν συνθέτην οὐσίαν (οἷον οἰκίας τὸ εἶδος, εἰ μὴ ἡ τέχνη·

If Images are Inferior, Why is the Allegory of the Cave an Image?

The Platonic vocabulary is often skeptical and even antagonistic toward the uses of images.  This denigration is attributed to the mutability of images, so that we could really apply this criticism to anything that changes, which would apply to all of the visible world.  Among many other places in the Republic, Socrates makes the distinction clear by explaining how what we think about determines the very certainty of that thought:   

Well then, consider that the truth of the soul is thus: Whenever truth and what is shine upon something, the mind attaches to this, it intellects and knows and appears to have intelligence.  But whenever it attaches to that which is mixed with obscurity, that which comes to be and passes away, it has opinions and sees dimly, changing opinions here and there, and seems not to have intelligence (Republic 508d3-8). (1)

These two sides of opinion and knowledge, perishability and persistence, are, as Socrates will shortly explain, the sensible and intelligible realms.  Socrates says there are two kinds of objects of the sensible realm, shadows, appearances and reflections, but then also those things of which these are the shadows, appearances and reflections.  It is obvious that these mere reflections are inferior to the objects which they represent: animals, people, etc.  It goes without saying, moreover, that everything in the sensible realm is inferior to anything in the intelligible realm.

Now here is the part I take particular interest in.  Socrates says that all of the shadows, appearances and reflections in the sensible realm are images (τὰς εἰκόνας) of other things in the sensible realm.  Because of this, they obviously have the least substantive mode of existence, and along with this, the lowest level of cognitive certainty.  Yet image-language is precisely what Socrates employs, and is his own self-characterization of what he does, in the allegory of the cave.  He tells us at the beginning of Book VII, as he is about to explain the cave allegory, “make an image [ἀπείκασον] of our nature in such a condition concerning education and lack of education” (514a1-2). (2) (3)

The question arises then, why are we using an image to describe a program of education the goal of which is to lead one away from images?  This is especially curious because it comes right before Socrates exposition of philosophical education, beginning with arithmetic.  Perhaps the allegory of the cave is a necessary propaedeutic before one begins— not to undertake such an education— but to even understand its purport and goal.  Or perhaps because the uninitiated reader has not yet taken the first step to a philosophical education, he must be accommodated where he is at, in this case at the lowly level of understanding mere images, so that he can be taken where he needs to go.             


(1) οὕτω τοίνυν καὶ τὸ τῆς ψυχῆς ὧδε νόει· ὅταν μὲν οὗ καταλάμπει ἀλήθειά τε καὶ τὸ ὄν, εἰς τοῦτο ἀπερείσηται, ἐνόησέν τε καὶ ἔγνω αὐτὸ καὶ νοῦν ἔχειν φαίνεται· ὅταν δὲ εἰς τὸ τῷ σκότῳ κεκραμένον, τὸ γιγνόμενόν τε καὶ ἀπολλύμενον, δοξάζει τε καὶ ἀμβλυώττει ἄνω καὶ κάτω τὰς δόξας μεταβάλλον, καὶ ἔοικεν αὖ νοῦν οὐκ ἔχοντι.

(2) ἀπείκασον τοιούτῳ πάθει τὴν ἡμετέραν φύσιν παιδείας τε πέρι καὶ ἀπαιδευσίας.

(3) Similarly in Book VI Socrates explicitly states that the ship of state metaphor, wherein the pilot is the true philosopher, gazing outside of the ship to guide the craft, is an image [εἰκών] (487e5).

Are Philosophers and Philosophy Useful to a City?

Several hundred years before the birth of Socrates, Thales the philosopher was said to have fallen into a well while observing the heavens.  Thus the impractical and detached reputation of philosophers was born.  In Books 6 and 7 of the Republic the issue of the usefulness of either the philosopher or philosophy is brought up several times.  What is this uselessness, and how does the philosopher become useful?  In that earlier book Socrates admits that philosophy is indeed useless, but blames this “uselessness on those who don’t use [philosophers], not on decent men” (489b).  Later, in Book 7, we return to the usefulness of philosophy.  Socrates, although himself noting that the study of geometry has as its ‘“useful byproduct” war, chastises Glaucon for wishing to highlight the practical benefits of astronomy (527c-d).  Socrates insists that the real significance of these studies is the cultivation of the eye of the mind. 

What this points to is that if there is going to be a conversion from “uselessness to usefulness” by the study of philosophy, this change cannot come about by pandering to the currently perceived needs of the city.  Rather the city must come to see its need for something beyond the daily worries attendant on activities like farming and warfare.  And we must additionally keep in mind that Socrates is proposing a city that has the general welfare in mind, not the concerns of any individual or one group.  Yet it is precisely at this point that this concern for the welfare of the city makes it most shocking demand, according the allegory of the cave. 

In the cave, the cave-dweller, let us remember, was not liberated by his own devices, but Socrates tells us that he was released and “compelled to stand up,” “compelled to answer [what the shadows] are,” “compelled…to look at the light itself” (515c-e).  On the other hand, the philosopher, himself a liberated cave-dweller, must not live the care-free life of contemplation, he too has to return to the cave to liberate and educate the remaining captives (520b).  So for the betterment of the city, both the philosopher and “cave-dweller” must, in some sense, submit to a course of life other than what they would have normally chosen, had they not been looking to the betterment of the city.  What informs this decision and what is the guiding principle of their lives if it is not the oracle of mere personal preference? 

The answer, as it turns out, is a paradox.  Normally we expect that if we are to attend to the betterment of say, our garden, we put on our overalls in order to focus on the garden.  This is not so with the case of the polis.  In the case of the city we must fix our attention outside of the city, to things seen only by the inner eye, intellection.  Recall that in Book VI Socrates’ initial response to the charge of uselesness is to give us an image of men on a ship. He tells us that when the true pilot navigates, he looks to, “year, seasons, heaven, stars, winds, and everything that is proper to the art” (488d).  But he does not look at the ship. Nor does the philosopher in the cave look at the cave, but he attempts to focus the attention of the cave-dwellers to eventually look at the sun.  Thus it turns out that the philosopher and philosophy are extremely useful; without him and it, the entire city is unable to see or even to learn to see what they should really be fixing their gaze upon, the Form of the Good.