“Substance”, or the other face of nature, from Aristotle to international law

Nature, located at the confluence of the individual imagination and collective representations, is one of those notions that could be described as falsely intuitive.

Everyone talks about it, whether it’s a matter of preserving it, going beyond it, imitating it, or returning to it.

Far beyond the individual ecological issue, which is also central, the “natural” is mentioned in a number of debates on society, the family and the rights of the child, including the theme of decolonization, and even sometimes to challenge its relevance. as a concept as opposed to “culture”, or on the contrary to make it the basis of a new spirituality. But do we always denote the same reality with this term?

Everything leads us to believe that the public debate with regard to nature is dependent on confusions that damage the good understanding of what we are talking about and thus affect the political debate. In order to try to refine the ideas we have about nature, it is not only useful but necessary to resort to the history of thought, as it is true that we are heirs to ancient notions for which we no longer necessarily master all the keys, and which nevertheless irrigate a number of institutions which seem familiar to us.

Exploring or (re) discovering the different faces that nature could take at different times and places is not only crucial to facing contemporary issues: it is also an opportunity, more broadly, to question our representations of ” nature “, which goes beyond the only framework for environmental thinking.

In this respect, the concept of substance deserves special attention. It came from Greek philosophy and for centuries structured basic aspects of natural thought in the East and the West, and it was – and still is – abundantly mobilized as much in philosophy or theology as in the legal and economic field. What is this second face of nature that is so often forgotten, and yet so present in our institutions?

A philosophical origin

The concept of substance was invented by Aristotle (384-322 BC), a philosopher from Stageira in Macedonia. Disciple of Plato, teacher of Alexander the Great and founder of the Lycée, he explains the persistence of individual realities in spite of the changes that affect them thanks to this notion. How do you explain that a person or thing remains the same over time, even though its characteristics may vary? This question was one of the main problems of the philosophers of ancient Greece.

Some had, in the wake of Parmenides, who had made a radical distinction between being and non-being, been led to deny the reality of movement in order to preserve the integrity of beings.

The heraclitic attitude, on the other hand, consisted in seeing in motion the very essence of things, but at the expense of the disappearance of the autonomy of the individual realities. Some of Heraclitus’ aphorisms translate the radicalism of this vision of the world: “one never bathes twice in the same river” because the water there is never the same; “the world is a pile of rubbish that is thrown away at random”, nothing has any real meaning or consistency.

In addition to distancing himself from the theses of Heraclitus and Parmenides, Aristotle also differs from his master, Plato, by preferring direct observation.

Aristotle comes to the conclusion that every unique reality is composed of a mixture of the definite – what he calls “action” – and the indefinite – what he calls “power”. The resulting philosophy is called hylomorphism, that is, the doctrine of matter (howl) and form (morphe).

One of the applications of this theory, which contributes to the birth of what will be called metaphysics, is to confirm that in every reality there is a part which does not change – the “substance” which affects the nature of being – and parts that can change without questioning the identity of this reality – what is called “accidents”.

Time, place, quantity, quality, action, passion, or habitus are thus examples of random properties: they constitute a determination of a subject’s being without touching the essence, even of the latter. A man who lacks a limb (“amount” of accident) would remain a man, and a person who learns to play the piano (accident “habitus”) would possess, it is true, an additional skill. But that would not significantly change what makes this man a man. In other words, the identity of its nature – or essence – is ensured by the integrity of its substance, which at the same time serves as a support for accidents.

This duality of functions requires the integration of another expression, the essence, which is the very nature of a being, both the most inherent identity and the principle of movement and growth. The expressions, of Latin origin, of substance (etymologically “to stand under”, which refers to the supporting function of accidents) and of essence (from the verb to be, which refers to the proper nature of a being) thus correspond to resp. Aristotelian expressions of hypostasis and ousia.

Theological, legal and economic applications

The substantialist model invented by Aristotle was very successful after him, and still is today, in areas not limited to philosophy, with several variations.

One of the most famous uses of the term took place in antiquity during a council – meeting of the highest authorities of the church – gathered in Nicaea in 325. It is that the Christian God actually refers to three realities, known as the Father, Son – which is none inferior to Jesus himself, as “Christ”, ie the “anointed” of God – and the Holy Spirit. Problems do not arise: If they are three, then how can one say that they are one God? And if there is only one God, then how can we claim that each of these realities is autonomous? The solution of the Council of Nicaea is to confirm that there are three different persons, each possessing the divine nature. But to differ from a polytheistic position, whereas Christianity is a monotheism, the council specified that the Son’s substance had been produced by the Father’s, and created the term “consubstantial” (homoousios).

In the Middle Ages, the university course involved undergoing a pre-education, known as the “cycle of art” – in the Greek-Latin sense of “technique”. It was only after completing this first cycle, in which the students became acquainted with Aristotle’s logic, that it was possible to study at one of the three faculties of theology, law and medicine. It is therefore only natural that we find the concept of matter central in the first cycle, mobilized in the service of other subjects, and this through the Middle Ages.

Related to Aristotle’s metaphysics, this notion was nevertheless rejected after the philosophical revolution carried out by Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804). To a large extent abandoned by modern philosophy, however, the relevance of the substance is still defended today by some philosophers. Above all, the traces of its legal use, including in the traditions known as Roman law, remain ordinary law as well as in international law.

This is how the substance is used in contract law, but also in economic law, especially to combat international tax evasion. This use is promoted by actors like the US, EU or OECD … but why use such an old concept? It is undeniable that this concept remains particularly effective in describing reality in a technical way. Perhaps even more broadly, it testifies to a recurring phenomenon in thought life: ideas circulate, thanks to time and the actors who use them, for various purposes that their first inventors certainly would not have foreseen. History is full of surprises … and treasures to rediscover, not only to understand the thinking and mentality of past eras, but also to help us meet the needs of today.

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