56 pages 1 hour read



Nonfiction | Book | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


Aristotle’s Metaphysics, a foundational text in Western philosophy, is attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and polymath Aristotle and is believed to have been compiled around 350 BCE. As a work of philosophy, the book, thought to be based on his lectures and subsequently recorded by his students, dwells in the genre of metaphysical inquiry, exploring topics such as existence, reality, and the nature of being. Aristotle, a student of Plato and a teacher to Alexander the Great, brings his expertise in philosophy, logic, and science to explore these questions. Metaphysics ventures into the realms of metaphysical inquiry, examining the intrinsic nature of reality and probing key themes such as The Nature of Existence and Reality, The Dichotomy and Interplay Between Potentiality and Actuality, and A Structure of Logic as Integral to Philosophy. This work is part of a larger collection of Aristotle’s surviving works that form a cornerstone of Western philosophical thought. In Metaphysics, Aristotle develops the doctrine that he refers to as First Philosophy. It is often debated whether the works compiled in Metaphysics, however, were meant to be grouped together, as their order and coupling often appear chaotic.

This study guide references the 1999 Penguin Books edition, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred.

Content Warning: The source text uses language, which this guide quotes, that is ableist, sexist, and problematic about mental health concerns.


The principal subject of Metaphysics is the nature of being itself and what can be asserted about any being by its nature, rather than any special qualities it has. It also looks at questions of causation, form and matter, the existence of mathematical objects, and Aristotle’s concept of God as a prime mover in the universe. It primarily tries to answer three questions. First, what is existence, and what sorts of things exist in the world? Second, how can things continue to exist and undergo change at the same time? Finally, how can this world be understood?

Metaphysics is divided into 14 books, each named after a letter from the Greek alphabet. Book One, or Alpha, explores the concept of “first philosophy,” or a knowledge of the causes of things. Aristotle argues the wise are able to teach because they know the why of things rather than believing things simply are a certain way, and that makes them better suited to command rather than obey. The book also looks at earlier philosophers like Plato. Book Two, or Little Alpha, addresses a possible objection to Aristotle’s take on first principles, that there must be a first cause, which is not itself caused. This is the foundation for Aristotle’s concept of God. Book Three, or Beta, looks at the main puzzles to be solved by philosophy. Book Four, or Gamma, serves as a defense of the principle of contradiction, which argues that something cannot be both the case and not the case and that there can’t be an intermediary between contradictory statements. Book Five, or Delta, explores and defines a list of terms that include cause, nature, one, and many. Book Six, or Epsilon, first explores a hierarchy of the sciences. These include productive, practical, and theoretical examples. Aristotle argues that the study of First Philosophy, the study of being itself, is superior because it concerns the ultimate cause of all reality. It also looks at why the study of coincidence and accident does not qualify as a science, because it is a better fit for Sophists.

The middle books are generally considered to be the core of Metaphysics. Book Seven, or Zeta, explores the concept of being. This is the longest chapter and allows Aristotle to investigate the many senses of being. This chapter explores the very concept of substance and what makes up the universal or the genus. Aristotle argues that matter cannot be substance. He considers four candidates for substance. The first is the essence, or what it means to be a thing. The second is the platonic universal. The third is the genus to which a substance belongs. Finally, the fourth is the matter that underlies all properties of a thing. Ultimately, Aristotle argues that substance is itself a cause, not an end. Book Eight, or Eta, is a simple summary of what has been said so far, and it also explores details of difference and unity between similar types of matter.

Chapter Nine, or Theta, looks at the definitions of potentiality and actuality. The first part of this chapter discusses the meaning of potential, and the later parts define actuality as the completed state of something that had the potential to be completed. The relationship between actuality and potentiality is described as the relationship between form and matter, but with the added element of time. Books Ten through Fourteen contain briefer discussions of subjects within the greater framework of the issues Aristotle is discussing. Book Ten, or Iota, looks at the concept of unity and the ideas of sameness and difference. Book Eleven, or Kappa, concisely summarizes much of what has been explored before. Book Twelve, or Lambda, further explores the concept of beings in general as well as the idea of God or Gods. This also contains Aristotle’s famous description of the unmoved mover, or prime mover, which Aristotle describes as the genesis of all things in the universe. Books Thirteen and Fourteen, also known as Mu and Nu, contain Aristotle’s philosophy of mathematics, including the nature of numbers and their place in the nature of existence.