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Aristotle METAPHYSICA Book 9 Part 7

When a thing exists potentially and when not.

1. What, and what kind of thing, the actual is, may be taken as explained by these and similar considerations. But we must distinguish when a thing exists potentially and when it does not; for it is not at any and every time. E.g. is earth potentially a man? No-but rather when it has already become seed, and perhaps not even then. It is just as it is with being healed; not everything can be healed by the medical art or by luck, but there is a certain kind of thing which is capable of it, and only this is potentially healthy.

2. And (1) the delimiting mark of that which as a result of thought comes to exist in complete reality from having existed potentially is that if the agent has willed it it comes to pass if nothing external hinders, while the condition on the other side - viz. in that which is healed - is that nothing in it hinders the result. It is on similar terms that we have what is potentially a house; if nothing in the thing acted on - i.e. in the matter - prevents it from becoming a house, and if there is nothing which must be added or taken away or changed, this is potentially a house; and the same is true of all other things the source of whose becoming is external.

3. And (2) in the cases in which the source of the becoming is in the very thing which comes to be, a thing is potentially all those things which it will be of itself if nothing external hinders it. E.g. the seed is not yet potentially a man; for it must be deposited in something other than itself and undergo a change. But when through its own motive principle it has already got such and such attributes, in this state it is already potentially a man; while in the former state it needs another motive principle, just as earth is not yet potentially a statue (for it must first change in order to become brass.)

4. It seems that when we call a thing not something else but 'thaten' - e.g. a casket is not 'wood' but 'wooden', and wood is not 'earth' but 'earthen', and again earth will illustrate our point if it is similarly not something else but 'thaten' - that other thing is always potentially (in the full sense of that word) the thing which comes after it in this series. E.g. a casket is not 'earthen' nor 'earth', but 'wooden'; for this is potentially a casket and this is the matter of a casket, wood in general of a casket in general, and this particular wood of this particular casket. And if there is a first thing, which is no longer, in reference to something else, called 'thaten', this is prime matter; e.g. if earth is 'airy' and air is not 'fire' but 'fiery', fire is prime matter, which is not a 'this'. For the subject or substratum is differentiated by being a 'this' or not being one; i.e. the substratum of modifications is, e.g. a man, i.e. a body and a soul, while the modification is 'musical' or 'pale'. (The subject is called, when music comes to be present in it, not 'music' but 'musical', and the man is not 'paleness' but 'pale', and not 'ambulation' or 'movement' but 'walking' or 'moving', - which is akin to the 'thaten'.) Wherever this is so, then, the ultimate subject is a substance; but when this is not so but the predicate is a form and a 'this', the ultimate subject is matter and material substance. And it is only right that 'thaten' should be used with reference both to the matter and to the accidents; for both are indeterminates.

5. We have stated, then, when a thing is to be said to exist potentially and when it is not.


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