Front Page Titles (by Subject) FIFTH TRACTATE On Potentiality and Actuality - Psychic and Physical Treatises; comprising the Second and Third Enneads
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FIFTH TRACTATE On Potentiality and Actuality - Plotinus, Psychic and Physical Treatises; comprising the Second and Third Enneads [253 AD]
Psychic and Physical Treatises; comprising the Second and Third Enneads, translated from Greek by Stephen Mackenna (Boston: Charles T. Branford, 1918).
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A distinction is made between things existing actually and things existing potentially; a certain Actuality, also, is spoken of as a really existent entity. We must consider what content there is in these terms.
Can we distinguish between Actuality (an absolute, abstract Principle) and the state of being-in-act? And if there is such an Actuality, is this itself in Act, or are the two quite distinct so that this actually existent thing need not be, itself, an Act?
It is indubitable that Potentiality exists in the Realm of Sense: but does the Intellectual Realm similarly include the potential or only the actual? and if the potential exists there, does it remain merely potential for ever? And, if so, is this resistance to actualisation due to its being precluded (as a member of the Divine or Intellectual world) from time-processes?
First we must make clear what potentiality is.
We cannot think of potentiality as standing by itself; there can be no potentiality apart from something which a given thing may be or become. Thus bronze is the potentiality of a statue: but if nothing could be made out of the bronze, nothing wrought upon it, if it could never be anything as a future to what it has been, if it rejected all change, it would be bronze and nothing else: its own character it holds already as a present thing, and that would be the full of its capacity: it would be destitute of potentiality. Whatsoever has a potentiality must first have a (definite) character of its own; and its potentiality will consist in its having a reach beyond that character to some other.
Sometimes after it has turned its potentiality into actuality it will remain what it was; sometimes it will sink itself to the fullest extent in the new form and itself disappear: these two different modes are exemplified in (1) bronze as potentially a statue and (2) water (=primalliquid) as potentially bronze or, again, air as potentially fire.
But if this be the significance of potentiality, may we describe it as a Power towards the thing that is to be? Is the Bronze a power towards a statue?
Not in the sense of an effectively productive force: such a power could not be called a potentiality. Of course Potentiality may be a power, as, for instance, when we are referring not merely to a thing which may be brought into actualisation but to Actuality itself (the Principle or Abstract in which potentiality and the power of realising potentiality may be thought of as identical): but it is better, as more conducive to clarity, to use “Potentiality” in regard to the process of Actualisation and “Power” in regard to the Principle, Actuality.
Potentiality may be thought of as a Substratum to states and shapes and forms which are to be received, which it welcomes by its nature and even strives for—sometimes in gain but sometimes, also, to loss, to the annulling of some distinctive manner of Being already actually achieved.
Then the question rises whether Matter—potentially what it becomes by receiving shape—is actually something else or whether it has no actuality at all. In general terms: When a potentiality has taken a definite form, does it retain its being? Is the potentiality, itself, in actualisation? The alternative is that, when we speak of the “Actual Statue” and of the “Potential Statue,” the Actuality is not predicated of the same subject as the “Potentiality.” If we have really two different subjects, then the potential does not really become the actual: all that happens is that an actual entity takes the place of a potential.
The actualised entity is not the Matter (the Potentiality, merely) but a combination, including the Form-Idea upon the Matter.
This is certainly the case when a quite different thing results from the actualisation—the statue, for example, the combination, is distinctly different from the bronze, the base; where the resultant is something quite new, the Potentiality has clearly not, itself, become what is now actualised. But take the case where a person with a capacity for education becomes in fact educated: is not potentiality, here, identical with actualisation? Is not the potentially wise Socrates the same man as the Socrates actually wise?
But is an ignorant man a being of knowledge because he is so potentially? Is he, in virtue of his non-essential ignorance, potentially an instructed being?
It is not because of his accidental ignorance that he is a being of Knowledge: it is because, ignorant though he be by accident, his mind, apt to knowledge, is the potentiality through which he may become so. Thus, in the case of the potentially instructed who have become so in fact, the potentiality is taken up into the actual; or, if we prefer to put it so, there is on the one side the potentiality while, on the other, there is the power in actual possession of the form.
If, then, the Potentiality is the Substratum while the thing in actualisation—the Statue for example—is a combination, how are we to describe the form that has entered the bronze?
There will be nothing unsound in describing this shape, this Form which has brought the entity from potentiality to actuality, as the actualisation; but of course as the actualisation of the definite particular entity, not as Actuality the abstract: we must not confuse it with the other actualisation, strictly so called, that which is contrasted with the power producing actualisation. The potential is led out into realisation by something other than itself; power accomplishes, of itself, what is within its scope, but by virtue of Actuality (the abstract): the relation is that existing between a temperament and its expression in act, between courage and courageous conduct. So far so good:—
We come now to the purpose of all this discussion; to make clear in what sense or to what degree Actualisation is predicable in the Intellectual Realm and whether all is in Actualisation there, each and every member of that realm being an Act, or whether Potentiality also has place there.
Now: if there is no Matter there to harbour potentiality: if nothing there has any future apart from its actual mode: if nothing there generates, whether by changes or in the permanence of its identity; if nothing goes outside of itself to give being to what is other than itself; then, potentiality has no place there: the Beings there possess actuality as belonging to eternity, not to time.
Those, however, who (with us) assert Matter in the Intellectual Realm will be asked whether the existence of that Matter does not imply the potential there too; for even if Matter there exists in another mode than here, every Being there will have its Matter, its form and the union of the two (and therefore the potential, separable from the actual). What answer is to be made?
Simply, that even the Matter there is Idea, just as the Soul, an Idea, is Matter to another (a higher) Being.
But relatively to that higher, the Soul is a potentiality?
No: for the Idea (to which it is Matter) is integral to the Soul and does not look to a future; the distinction between the Soul and its Idea is purely mental: the Idea and the Matter it includes are conceived as a conjunction but are essentially one Kind: remember that Aristotle makes his Fifth Body immaterial.
But surely Potentiality exists in the Soul? Surely the Soul is potentially the living-being of this world before it has become so? Is it not potentially musical, and everything else that it has not been and becomes? Does not this imply potentiality even in the Intellectual Existences?
No: the Soul is not potentially these things; it is a Power towards them.
But after what mode does Actualisation exist in the Intellectual Realm?
Is it the Actualisation of a statue, where the combination is realised because the Form-Idea has mastered each separate constituent of the total?
No: it is that every constituent there is a Form-Idea and, thus, is perfect in its Being.
There is in the Intellectual Principle no progression from some power capable of intellection to the Actuality of intellection: such a progression would send us in search of a Prior Principle not progressing from Power to Act; there all stands ever realised. Potentiality requires an intervention from outside itself to bring it to the actualisation which otherwise cannot be; but what possesses, of itself, identity unchangeable for ever is an actualisation: all the Firsts then are actualisations, simply because eternally and of themselves they possess all that is necessary to their completion.
This applies equally to the Soul, not to that in Matter but to that in the Intellectual Sphere; and even that in Matter, the Soul of Growth, is an actualisation in its difference; it possesses actually (and not, like material things, merely in image) the Being that belongs to it.
Then, everything, in the intellectual is in actualisation and so all There is Actuality?
Why not? If that Nature is rightly said to be “Sleepless,” and to be Life and the noblest mode of Life, the noblest Activities must be there; all then is actualisation there, everything is an Actuality, for everything is a Life, and all Place there is the Place of Life, in the true sense the ground and spring of Soul and of the Intellectual Principle.
Now, in general anything that has a potentiality is actually something else, and this potentiality of the future mode of being is an existing mode.
But what we think of as Matter, what we assert to be the potentiality of all things, cannot be said to be actually any one being among beings: if it were of itself any definite being, it could not be potentially all.
If, then, it is not among existences, it must necessarily be without existence.
How, therefore, can it be actually anything?
The answer is that while Matter can not be any of the things which are founded upon it, it may quite well be something else, admitting that all existences are not rooted in Matter.
But once more, if it is excluded from the entities founded upon it and all these are Beings, it must itself be a Non-Being.
It is, further, by definition, formless and therefore not an Idea: it cannot then be classed among things of the Intellectual Realm, and so is, once more, a Non-Being. Falling, as regards both worlds, under Non-Being, it is all the more decidedly the Non-Being.
It has eluded the Nature of the Authentic Existences; it has even failed to come up with the things to which a spurious existence can be attributed—for it is not even a phantasm of Reason as these are—how is it possible to include it under any mode of Being?
And if it falls under no mode of Being, what can it actually be?
How can we talk of it? How can it be the Matter of real things?
It is talked of, and it serves, precisely, as a Potentiality.
And, as being a Potentiality, it is not of the order of the thing it is to become: its existence is no more than an announcement of a future, as it were a thrust forward to what is to come into existence.
As Potentiality then, it is not any definite thing but the potentiality of everything: being nothing in itself—beyond what being Matter amounts to—it is not in actualisation. For if it were actually something, that actualised something would not be Matter, or at least not Matter out and out, but merely Matter in the limited sense in which bronze is the matter of the statue.
And its Non-Being must be no mere difference from Being.
Motion, for example, is different from Being, but plays about it, springing from it and living within it: Matter is, so to speak, the outcast of Being, it is utterly removed, irredeemably what it was from the beginning: in origin it was Non-Being and so it remains.
Nor are we to imagine that, standing away at the very beginning from the universal circle of Beings, it was thus necessarily an active Something or that it became a Something. It has never been able to annex for itself even a visible outline from all the forms under which it has sought to creep: it has always pursued something other than itself; it was never more than a Potentiality towards its next: where all the circle of Being ends, there only is it manifest; discerned underneath things produced after it, it is remoter (from Real-Being) even than they.
Grasped, then, as an underlie in each order of Being, it can be no actualisation of either: all that is allowed to it is to be a Potentiality, a weak and blurred phantasm, a thing incapable of a Shape of its own.
Its actuality is that of being a phantasm, the actuality of being a falsity; and the false in actualisation is the veritably false, which again is Authentic Non-Existence.
So that Matter, as the Actualisation of Non-Being, is all the more decidedly Non-Being, is Authentic Non-Existence.
Thus, since the very reality of its Nature is situated in Non-Being, it is in no degree the Actualisation of any definite Being.
If it is to be present at all, it cannot be an Actualisation, for then it would not be the stray from Authentic Being which it is, the thing having its Being in Non-Beingness: for, note, in the case of things whose Being is a falsity, to take away the falsity is to take away what Being they have, and if we introduce actualisation into things whose Being and Essence is Potentiality, we destroy the foundation of their nature since their Being is Potentiality.
If Matter is to be kept as the unchanging substratum, we must keep it as Matter: that means—does it not?—that we must define it as a Potentiality and nothing more—or refute these considerations.