This week in Tutorials: Aristotle on Substance and Pericles' Funeral Oration

The philosophers finished Plato last week, and this time we started our tutorials on Aristotle, with a look at Aristotle's metaphysics - specifically, Metaphysics VII 13. The question at hand is, what is there? This is ontology: the science of being, from the Greek οὐσία [ousia]: ‘being, substance, essence’.

To understand what Aristotle means by substance and what is at stake in his theory as presented in the Metaphysics, I put the students into groups to evaluate different conceptions of substance prior to Aristotle.  I provided them with fragments from four different Presocratic philosophers, that I hoped would provide a 'shallow' understanding of each of these philosophers' conception of substance. The philosophers I provided were Thales, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, and Democritus (ft. Leucippus). Some examples:

Thales of Miletus declared that the principle of all things was water. For he says from water come all things and into water do all things decompose.
— Thales (Aëtius p 1.3.1, S 1.10.12)
Anaximenes, son of Eurystratus, of Miletus, was an associate of Anaximander, who says, like him, that the underlying nature is single and boundless, but not indeterminate as he says, but determinate, calling it air. It differs in essence in accordance with its rarity or density. When it is thinned it becomes fire, while when it is condensed it becomes wind, then cloud, when still more condensed, water, then earth, then stones. Everything else comes from these. And he too makes motion everlasting, as a result of which change occurs.
— Anaximenes (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, 24.26-25.1)
This world-order, the same of all, no god nor man did create, but it ever was and is and will be: everliving fire, kindling in measures and being quenched in measures.
— Heraclitus (Clement, Miscellanies, 5. 103. 6)
Democritus considers the nature of everlasting things to be tiny substances infinite in number. He posits a distinct place for them which is infinite in size. He calls place by the names the void, not-thing, and the boundless, and each of the substances by the names thing, the compact, and what-is. He believes the substances are so small as to escape our senses. They have all kinds of forms, all kinds of figures, and differences of size.
— Democritus (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens, 294.33-295.22)

The point of the comparison is to show that, generally speaking, previous philosophers attempted to define substance in terms of matter - particular kinds of 'stuff': water, air, fire, or atoms. Aristotle thinks these explanations for what there is are insufficient. He moves beyond a single material explanation for substance, analysing it in terms of 'form' and 'matter'. 'Form' refers to what kind of thing the object of enquiry is; 'matter', that which the object of enquiry is constituted. The composite of these forms individuals, or primary substances. 

Contrasting the Presocratic philosophers on substance with Aristotle on substance helped the students understand the motivation behind the formulation of Aristotle's theory. Taken in isolation, it can be difficult to understand why Aristotle approaches substances and universals the way he does. With the context of the theories of his predecessors, the theory of substance becomes clearer.


The classicists looked at Pericles' funeral oration from Thucydides 2.34-46, and the controversy around the Athenian acropolis. The funeral oration was delivered at the burial of the fallen Athenians in the first year of the Peloponnesian war. Much of it focuses on the glory and virtue of Athenian democracy and civic life; in this way, Pericles tries to justify the loss of life in its defence. The Parthenon metopes and frieze were constructed as part of Pericles' building programme. Plutarch records the controversy in antiquity around this building programme in Pericles 12.1-2; the complaint is that the funds for it were pillaged from the Delian League:

The people has lost its fair fame and is in ill repute because it has removed the public moneys of the Hellenes from Delos into its own keeping and that seemliest of all excuses which it had to urge against its accusers, to wit, that out of fear of the Barbarians it took the public funds from that sacred isle and was now guarding them in a stronghold, of this Pericles has robbed it. And surely Hellas is insulted with a dire insult and manifestly subjected to tyranny when she sees that, with her own enforced contributions for the war, we are gilding and bedizening our city, which, for all the world like a wanton woman, adds to her wardrobe precious stones and costly statues and temples worth their millions.
— Plutarch, Pericles 12.1-2

Through this comparison of Pericles' funeral oration with the question of the controversy over the Periclean building programme, we explored different perspectives on Periclean Athens, and practiced using different evidence for the ancient world – rhetorical, material, and historical. The key question in the discussion was about the concept of democracy and its representation in Pericles’ speech, as well as the the political context of the construction of the Parthenon and the purpose of its sculptures.

Next time, the philosophers are focussing in on Aristotle's four causes from the Physics. The next tutorial for the classicists is on citizen and non-citizen women in Athens.