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Feminine being; Ousia

Greek philosophic term of the week: “Ousia” (feminine participle form of “being”; Eng. “substance, being, principle”)

The meaning, or underlying reality, of ousia may well be among the most vexing questions which one could run up against; Aristotle himself seems to have troubled himself immensely in the task of trying to grasp and define the general, underlying reality of it. (See SEP article on “Aristotle’s Metaphysics”)

The English language, for our part, has not only taken-up the concept second-hand from Latin (“substantia”), but has absorbed a range of connotations which seem to reflect the deep philosophic oppositions of the past few centuries. On the one hand, we commonly now speak of a “substance” as a synonym for a “material” or “material compound”; or, somewhat less commonly, to mean something like a hylomorphic entity - something denoted by a kind of form or shape which defines or gives meaning to some kind of material. The first usage connotes a strongly materialist position, while the second seems closer to an Aristotelian account. However, we also retain a third sense of the word, which we invoke when we refer, say, to someone as being “a woman of substance”; when we do so, we are effectively referring to what we judge to be a person’s depth and way of being - we are pointing to something beyond her form and her shape to a less tangible, spiritual depth of her being.

In Plato’s Republic and Timaeus, ousia is employed in manners which seem to define it in contrast to something else. In the latter dialogue, the Pythagorean philosopher by the same name spins a “true myth” or “true account” of the generation of the cosmos, and, at one point, splits the ousiai (plural) into three categories. First, the everlasting (‘the Same’); second, the always changing and generating (‘the Different’); and third, that which is a mixture of the two (‘psyche’). Thus differentiated, Timaeus’ character provides us with a logos which parallels Socrates’ account of the bare strata of reality in “The Republic” Bk.V, in which he differentiates tw wn (“all that of [everlasting] being”), from tw mé wn (“all that which is the opposite/not of everlasting being”), from tw planetwn (“all that which wanders [between]”).

Thus, whatever ousia may be in itself, it seemingly underlies things as disparate as body, psyche, and form - all things have being, yet in startlingly disparate ways; we reach only slightly better understanding of ousia by grasping it in contradistinction to it’s “masculine” (or perhaps neuter) counterpart - wn. Or, perhaps even better, by seeing it in light of Bk. VI, and the vision of to agathon epekeina tés ousias - the good which is beyond being - ousia itself now understood as that in which all beings “Here” partake through their very being.

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