Metaphysics, or the Study of Being


1. What is metaphysics.
This is the most abstract area of traditional philosophy. Cosmology looks at the principles of being of the physical world, the “cosmos”. Pure metaphysics looks at even more general principles that are for all being, not just physical objects, but immaterial world as well, such as the mind, soul, ideas (justice, goodness...) or a supreme being.

Meta, from μέτά meaning “after”, since Aristotle wrote it after the physics, so it was called the book after the physics, or metaphysics. His question is what are the principles of being as being?

Physical being considered as physical = science
Physical being considered as being = cosmology
Being considered as being = metaphysics, also called ontology

Early Greeks such as Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and others remained in the natural world for the most part. Parmenides and Heraclitus began to speculate about Being as it is in itself as either one unchangeable, or as total change with no permanence. Plato addresses non physical being through the theory of the forms, non material perfect beings, which are like essences of things without matter. For Plato the existence of a thing is truly only the form which exists separately from the physical world in a realm of forms. For example the form or essence of “horsness” exists separate from any individual horse, in a perfect and eternal mode. The form of “beauty” or “goodness” exists in the realm of forms, not in any object, but as its own. These forms of all things are held truly real, everything else simply participates in them. A physical horse, participates in some degree in the eternal ideal form of “horsness”, and if that horse is beautiful, it is because it participates also in the eternal form of “beauty”. This realm of ideas or forms is the real world for Plato.

Aristotle again seeks a middle road, looking for an explanation that unites the worthy aspects of the philosophers before him. Aristotle's metaphysics became a main explanatory model until modern philosophy began to doubt the ability of the mind to even know anything about non-sensible things. Later we will look at principles of knowledge, and the ability of the mind to know anything beyond the sensibly verifiable. Here we will briefly go over some ideas of Aristotle, with some developments by middle age philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas, but we will not go into much depth, since it would take far to long in a course of this nature.

2. The transcendental properties.
Traditional metaphysics seeks in the idea of being as being, or the idea of existence, some general principles that apply to all beings, and comes up with these four – unity (oneness), truth, goodness, and beauty. These are concepts that are so identified with every being that they are interchangeable with the concept being. If something is, it is one, true, good, etc, if it is true, or good, etc, it is due to its existing. Lets look at each one individually, they have been named the transcendental properties.

Unity – being as being encompasses everything there is in a vague way. Its only opposite is non-being, which does not exist. To say non-being exists is an absurdity. Thus since being has no negating opposite, it is perfectly one, a perfect unity. There is clearly a multiplicity of things, but before there is multi, there is a one that is divided, unity is prior, both logically and ontologically. This is the real metaphysical base for solidarity with all other things that we sense. In this sense we say all things are One.

Truth – Anything that exists can be affirmed and judged by the intellect, if it exists it is “thinkable” or intelligible. If it does not exist, it is unintelligible, it cannot be an object of true thought. The intellect has the same limit as being. In as much as something exists it can be a true object of the intellect. Truth in this sense is an aspect of things that allow them to be an object of the mind. In this sense we say all things are True.

Good – The mind does not just know an object, but goes toward what is known. Things draw the will in some way. An object only draws if it exists, non-existence does not draw. Existence is the root of what draws the will. The will tends toward being at its most basic root. Being as able to draw or be desirable is what we mean when we say being as “good”. In as much as something is existing, it is able to be an object of the will. In this sense we say all things are good.

Things tend toward other things in order to find some perfection for themselves that is lacking. Thus true perfection of a being is in finding the ultimate “good”, since particular goods only partially satisfy or perfect. For Plato this was the eternal idea of “the good”, for Aristotle it was the first cause of all being, being itself, for many religions, God is the source of being, thus the only complete good.

Beautiful – the object considered in its totality of existence, one, true, and good, in relation to the whole mind, (intellect and will), is metaphysically beautiful. The idea of oneness has no relation to the mind. The idea of true lacks the aspect of good, the idea of good lacks the idea of a true relation to the mind, but all together, being in relation to the whole mind is called beautiful. There is a sense of connaturality between the mind and being, the mind is part of being too, and sees these aspects also in itself. In as much as something exists, it is beautiful, that is, able to be in relation of full connaturality with the mind. In this sense we say all things are beautiful if they exist.

But since we are not a pure mind, but are mind and body, we do not see everything as beautiful, only in so much as it pleases our whole mind, both intellect and will, and the senses of the body. In this context of the mind and senses together, the whole person finding beauty in the objects around them, we each find beauty in different things. If at a metaphysical level all things are beautiful, at a sensible level, beauty seems only subjective. But even within the wide variation of people's opinions and tastes on beauty, Aquinas would list 3 things that underlie it, giving it an objective foundation, These traits are 1) Integrity or perfection - it should be complete, have the parts belonging to it. 2) Proportion or harmony - the parts should relate to each other in a balanced way. 3) "Claritas", a latin word that does not have a good English equivalent, but would be a "splendor", a trait that appeals to the mind, not only the senses.

So these four traits of being as being, and thus traits of all beings somehow, are called the transcendentals by traditional philosophy, since they transcend all individual particular beings and are traits of being as being. They are convertible with being, as much existence as something has, that much truth and goodness, etc, it will have also.

Huge books have been written about the idea of being in general and its relation to individual beings and the mind, we have just given a sketch outline of one main philosophy about it, based on Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, enough to get you going on your own to consider it further.