Metaphysics (Greek: τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά, "those after the physics"; Latin: Metaphysica[1]) is one of the principal works of Aristotle, in which he develops the doctrine that he calls First Philosophy.[a] The work is a compilation of various texts treating abstract subjects, notably substance theory, different kinds of causation, form and matter, the existence of mathematical objects and the cosmos, which together constitute much of the branch of philosophy later known as metaphysics.

Date, style and composition

Many of Aristotle's works are extremely compressed and thus baffling to beginners, and many scholars believe that in their current form, they are little more than lecture notes.[2] Subsequent to the arrangement of Aristotle's works by Andronicus of Rhodes in the first century BC, a number of his treatises were referred to as the writings "after ("meta") the Physics."[b], the origin of the current title for the collection Metaphysics. Some[who?] have interpreted the expression "meta" to imply that the subject of the work goes "beyond" that of Aristotle's Physics or that it is metatheoretical in relation to the Physics. But others[who?] believe that "meta" referred simply to the work's place in the canonical arrangement of Aristotle's writings, which is at least as old as Andronicus of Rhodes or even Hermippus of Smyrna.[3] In other surviving works of Aristotle, the metaphysical treatises are referred to as "the [writings] concerning first philosophy"[c]; which was the term Aristotle used for metaphysics.[d]

It is notoriously difficult to specify the date at which Aristotle wrote these treatises as a whole or even individually, especially because the Metaphysics is, in Jonathan Barnes' words, "a farrago, a hotch-potch", and more generally because of the difficulty of dating any of Aristotle's writings.[5] The order in which the books were written is not known; their arrangement is due to later editors. In the manuscripts, books are referred to by Greek letters. For many scholars, it is customary to refer to the books by their letter names. Book 1 is called Alpha (Α); 2, little alpha (α);[e] 3, Beta (Β); 4, Gamma (Γ); 5, Delta (Δ); 6, Epsilon (Ε); 7, Zeta (Ζ); 8, Eta (Η); 9, Theta (Θ); 10, Iota (Ι); 11, Kappa (Κ); 12, Lambda (Λ); 13, Mu (Μ); 14, Nu (Ν).


Wisdom personified as a deity in the Library of Celsus in Ephesus. Aristotle discusses the nature of wisdom, or first philosophy, which he defines as the study of first principles and causes.
Wisdom personified as a deity in the Library of Celsus in Ephesus. Aristotle discusses the nature of wisdom, or first philosophy, which he defines as the study of first principles and causes.

Books I–VI: Alpha, little Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon

Book 7 of the Metaphysics: From a manuscript of William of Moerbeke's translation
Book 7 of the Metaphysics: From a manuscript of William of Moerbeke's translation

Books VII–IX: Zeta, Eta, and Theta

Books Zeta, Eta, and Theta are generally considered the core of the Metaphysics.[citation needed] Book Zeta (VII) begins by stating that "being" has several senses, the purpose of philosophy is to understand the primary kind of being, called substance (ousia) and determine what substances there are, a concept that Aristotle develops in the Categories.[8] Zeta goes on to consider four candidates for substance: (i) the ‘essence’ or ‘what it is to be’ of a thing (ii) the universal, (iii) the genus to which a substance belongs and (iv) the material substrate or which underlies all the properties of a thing.

Finally, he concludes book Zeta by arguing that substance is really a cause.[j][10]

Book Eta consists of a summary of what has been said so far (i.e., in Book Zeta) about substance, and adds a few further details regarding difference and unity.

Book Theta sets out to define potentiality and actuality. Chapters 1–5 discuss potentiality,[k] the potential of something to change: potentiality is "a principle of change in another thing or in the thing itself qua other."[l] In chapter 6 Aristotle turns to actuality. We can only know actuality through observation or "analogy;" thus "as that which builds is to that which is capable of building, so is that which is awake to that which is asleep...or that which is separated from matter to matter itself".[11] Actuality is the completed state of something that had the potential to be completed. The relationship between actuality and potentiality can be thought of as the relationship between form and matter, but with the added aspect of time. Actuality and potentiality are distinctions that occur over time (diachronic), whereas form and matter are distinctions that can be made at fixed points in time (synchronic).

Books X–XIV: Iota, Kappa, Lambda, Mu, and Nu


The Metaphysics is considered to be one of the greatest philosophical works. Its influence on the Greeks, the Muslim philosophers, Maimonides thence the scholastic philosophers and even writers such as Dante[12] was immense.

In the 3rd century, Alexander of Aphrodisias wrote a commentary on the first five books of the Metaphysics,[13] and a commentary transmitted under his name exists for the final nine, but modern scholars doubt that this part was written by him.[14] Themistius wrote an epitome of the work, of which book 12 survivies in a Hebrew translation.[15] The Neoplatonists Syrianus and Asclepius of Tralles also wrote commentaries on the work, where they attempted to synthesize Aristotle's doctrines with Neoplatonic cosmology.[16]

Aristotle's works gained a reputation for complextiy that is most evident than in the MetaphysicsAvicenna said that he had read the Metaphysics of Aristotle forty times, but did not understand it until he also read al-Farabi's Purposes of the Metaphysics of Aristotle.

I read the Metaphysics [of Aristotle], but I could not comprehend its contents, and its author's object remained obscure to me, even when I had gone back and read it forty times and had got to the point where I had memorized it. In spite of this I could not understand it nor its object, and I despaired of myself and said, "This is a book which there is no way of understanding." But one day in the afternoon when I was at the booksellers' quarter a salesman approached with a book in his hand which he was calling out for sale. (...) So I bought it and, lo and behold, it was Abu Nasr al-Farabi's book[m] on the objects of the Metaphysics. I returned home and was quick to read it, and in no time the objects of that book became clear to me because I had got to the point of having memorized it by heart.[17]

The flourishing of Arabic Aristotelian scholarship reached its peak with the work of Ibn Rushd (Latinized: Averroes), whose extensive writings on Aristotle's work led to his later designation as "The Commentator" by future generations of scholars. Maimonides wrote the Guide to the Perplexed in the 12th century, to demonstrate the compatibility of Aristotelian science with Biblical revelation.

The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) facilitated the discovery and delivery of many original Greek manuscripts to Western Europe. William of Moerbeke's translations of the work formed the basis of the commentaries on the Metaphysics by Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. They were also used by modern scholars for Greek editions, as William had access to Greek manuscripts that are now lost. Werner Jaeger lists William's translation in his edition of the Greek text in the Scriptorum Classicorum Bibliotheca Oxoniensis (Oxford 1962).[18]

Textual Criticism

In the 19th century, with the rise of textual criticism, the Metaphysics was examined anew. Critics, noting the wide variety of topics and the seemingly illogical order of the books, concluded that it was actually a collection of shorter works thrown together haphazardly. In the 20th century two general editions have been produced by W. D. Ross (1924) and by W. Jaeger (1957). Based on a careful study of the content and of the cross-references within them, W. D. Ross concluded that books A, B, Γ, E, Z, H, Θ, M, N, and I "form a more or less continuous work", while the remaining books α, Δ, Κ and Λ were inserted into their present locations by later editors. However, Ross cautions that books A, B, Γ, E, Z, H, Θ, M, N, and I — with or without the insertion of the others — do not constitute "a complete work".[19] Werner Jaeger further maintained that the different books were taken from different periods of Aristotle's life. Everyman's Library, for their 1000th volume, published the Metaphysics in a rearranged order that was intended to make the work easier for readers.[clarification needed]

Editing the Metaphysics has become an open issue in works and studies of the new millennium. New critical editions have been produced of books Gamma,[20] Alpha,[21] and Lambda.[22] Differences from the more-familiar 20th Century critical editions of Ross and Jaeger mainly depend on the stemma codicum of Aristotle's Metaphysics, of which different versions have been proposed since 1970.[23][24][25]


  1. ^ sometimes referred to as Wisdom, sometimes as , and sometimes as Theology
  2. ^ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά
  3. ^ τὰ περὶ τῆς πρώτης φιλοσοφίας e.g., in Movement of Animals 700b9
  4. ^ He called the study of nature or natural philosophy "second philosophy"[4]
  5. ^ The second book was given the title "little alpha," apparently because it appears to have nothing to do with the other books (and, very early, it was supposed not to have been written by Aristotle) or, although this is less likely,[citation needed] because of its shortness. This, then, disrupts the correspondence of letters to numbers, as book 2 is little alpha, book 3 is beta, and so on.
  6. ^ 1025b27
  7. ^ (κατὰ συμβεβηκός)
  8. ^ Chapter 4-12
  9. ^ Chapter 13-15
  10. ^ Chapter 17
  11. ^ δύναμις, dunamis
  12. ^ 1046a9
  13. ^ probably the Kitab al-huruf, ed. by Muhsin Mahdi as Alfarabi's Book of Letters (Beyrouth, 1969)
  1. ^ Aristotelis Opera by August Immanuel Bekker (1837).
  2. ^ E.g. J.A.K. Thomson, The Ethics of Aristotle, (Penguin, 1953) p. 13 and E. Barker The Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle (Dover, 1959) p. 65.
  3. ^ W. D. Ross, Aristotle's Metaphysics (1953), vol. 1, p. xxxii.
  4. ^ Metaphysics 1037a15
  5. ^ Jonathan Barnes, "Life and Work" in The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle (1995), pp. 18-22."Farrago": Barnes, "Metaphysics" in The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, p. 68.
  6. ^ 981a
  7. ^ Robert Maynard Hutchins (1952), Great Books of the Western World 8: Aristotle, p. 495.
  8. ^ Cohen, 5.
  9. ^ 1029a
  10. ^ Cohen, 11.
  11. ^ 1048b1–4
  12. ^ S. Fazzo, ‘Sì come rota ch'igualmente è mossa’. Dalla Metafisica di Aristotele al Paradiso di Dante, Storie e linguaggi, Vol 4, N° 2 (2018)
  13. ^ Donald J. Zeyl, Daniel Devereux, Phillip Mitsis, (1997), Encyclopedia of Classical Philosophy, page 20.
  14. ^ William W. Fortenbaugh, R. W. Sharples, (2005), Theophrastus of Eresus, sources for his life, writings, thought and Influence, page 22. BRILL
  15. ^ Todd, Robert B. (2003). "Themistius" (PDF). Catalogus Translationum et Commentariorum. 8: 59. Retrieved 25 August 2015.
  16. ^ Monad And Dyad As Cosmic Principles In Syrianus, Soul And The Structure Of Being In Late Neoplatonism, H.J. Blumenthal and A.C. Lloyd, Liverpool University Press, 1982, pp. 1–10.
  17. ^ William E. Gohlam (ed.). The Life of Ibn Sina, Albany, State of New York University Press, 1974, pp. 33-35).
  18. ^ Cited by Foster, in his translation of Aquinas' commentary on the De Anima, Indiana 1994.
  19. ^ Aristotle's Metaphysics (1953), vol. 1, p. xxiii.
  20. ^ Myriam Hecquet, Aristote, Métaphysique Gamma, Peeters 2008
  21. ^ (Oliver Primavesi, Aristotle Metaphysics Alpha, OUP 2012)
  22. ^ (Silvia Fazzo, Il libro Lambda della Metafisica di Aristotele, "Elenchos", Bibliopolis 2012, and Stefan Alexandru, Aristotle's Metaphysics Lambda, Philosophia Antiqua, Brill 2014)
  23. ^ (Silvio Bernardinello, Eliminatio codicum della Metafisica di Aristotele, Padua, Antenore, 1970)
  24. ^ (Dieter Harlfinger in 1979"Zur Überlieferungsgeschichte der Metaphysik", in Pierre Aubenque (ed.), Essais sur la Métaphysique d'Aristote, Paris, Vrin, 1979)
  25. ^ Silvia Fazzo, "Lo Stemma Codicum della Metafisica di Aristotele", Revue d'Histoire des Textes, XII, 2017, 35-58.

Editions and Translations

Ancient and Medieval Commentaries


Further reading