On Generation and Corruption

Author: Aristotle  | Date: 350 BC


But we have still to explain ’combination’, for that was the third of the subjects we originally proposed to discuss. Our explanation will proceed on the same method as before. We must inquire: What is ’combination’, and what is that which can ’combine’? Of what things, and under what conditions, is ’combination’ a property? And, further, does ’combination’ exist in fact, or is it false to assert its existence?

For, according to some thinkers, it is impossible for one thing to be combined with another. They argue that (i) if both the ’combined’ constituents persist unaltered, they are no more ’combined’ now than they were before, but are in the same condition: while (ii) if one has been destroyed, the constituents have not been ’combined’- on the contrary, one constituent is and the other is not, whereas ’combination’ demands uniformity of condition in them both: and on the same principle (iii) even if both the combining constituents have been destroyed as the result of their coalescence, they cannot ’have been combined’ since they have no being at all.

What we have in this argument is, it would seem, a demand for the precise distinction of ’combination’ from coming-to-be and passing-away (for it is obvious that ’combination’, if it exists, must differ from these processes) and for the precise distinction of the ’combinable’ from that which is such as to come-to-be and pass-away. As soon, therefore, as these distinctions are clear, the difficulties raised by the argument would be solved.

Now (i) we do not speak of the wood as ’combined’ with the fire, nor of its burning as a ’combining’ either of its particles with one another or of itself with the fire: what we say is that ’the fire is coming-to-be, but the wood is ’passing-away’. Similarly, we speak neither (ii) of the food as ’combining’ with the body, nor (iii) of the shape as ’combining’ with the wax and thus fashioning the lump. Nor can body ’combine’ with white, nor (to generalize) ’properties’ and ’states’ with ’things’: for we see them persisting unaltered. But again (iv) white and knowledge cannot be ’combined’ either, nor any other of the ’adjectivals’. (Indeed, this is a blemish in the theory of those who assert that ’once upon a time all things were together and combined’. For not everything can ’combine’ with everything. On the contrary, both of the constituents that are combined in the compound must originally have existed in separation: but no property can have separate existence.)

Since, however, some things are-potentially while others are-actually, the constituents combined in a compound can ’be’ in a sense and yet ’not-be’. The compound may be-actually other than the constituents from which it has resulted; nevertheless each of them may still be-potentially what it was before they were combined, and both of them may survive undestroyed. (For this was the difficulty that emerged in the previous argument: and it is evident that the combining constituents not only coalesce, having formerly existed in separation, but also can again be separated out from the compound.) The constituents, therefore, neither (a) persist actually, as ’body’ and ’white’ persist: nor (b) are they destroyed (either one of them or both), for their ’power of action’ is preserved. Hence these difficulties may be dismissed: but the problem immediately connected with them- ’whether combination is something relative to perception’- must be set out and discussed.

When the combining constituents have been divided into parts so small, and have been juxtaposed in such a manner, that perception fails to discriminate them one from another, have they then ’been combined’? Or ought we to say ’No, not until any and every part of one constituent is juxtaposed to a part of the other’? The term, no doubt, is applied in the former sense: we speak, e.g. of wheat having been ’combined’ with barley when each grain of the one is juxtaposed to a grain of the other. But every body is divisible and therefore, since body ’combined’ with body is uniform in texture throughout, any and every part of each constituent ought to be juxtaposed to a part of the other.

No body, however, can be divided into its ’least’ parts: and ’composition’ is not identical with ’combination’, but other than it. From these premises it clearly follows (i) that so long as the constituents are preserved in small particles, we must not speak of them as ’combined’. (For this will be a ’composition’ instead of a ’blending’ or ’combination’: nor will every portion of the resultant exhibit the same ratio between its constituents as the whole. But we maintain that, if ’combination’ has taken place, the compound must be uniform in texture throughout- any part of such a compound being the same as the whole, just as any part of water is water: whereas, if ’combination’ is ’composition of the small particles’, nothing of the kind will happen. On the contrary, the constituents will only be ’combined’ relatively to perception: and the same thing will be ’combined’ to one percipient, if his sight is not sharp, (but not to another,) while to the eye of Lynceus nothing will be ’combined’.) It clearly follows (ii) that we must not speak of the constituents as ’combined in virtue of a division such that any and every part of each is juxtaposed to a part of the other: for it is impossible for them to be thus divided. Either, then, there is no ’combination’, or we have still to explain the manner in which it can take place.

Now, as we maintain, some things are such as to act and others such as to suffer action from them. Moreover, some things- viz. those which have the same matter- ’reciprocate’, i.e. are such as to act upon one another and to suffer action from one another; while other things, viz. agents which have not the same matter as their patients, act without themselves suffering action. Such agents cannot ’combine’- that is why neither the art of healing nor health produces health by ’combining’ with the bodies of the patients. Amongst those things, however, which are reciprocally active and passive, some are easily-divisible. Now (i) if a great quantity (or a large bulk) of one of these easily-divisible ’reciprocating’ materials be brought together with a little (or with a small piece) of another, the effect produced is not ’combination’, but increase of the dominant: for the other material is transformed into the dominant. (That is why a drop of wine does not ’combine’ with ten thousand gallons of water: for its form is dissolved, and it is changed so as to merge in the total volume of water.) On the other hand (ii) when there is a certain equilibrium between their ’powers of action’, then each of them changes out of its own nature towards the dominant: yet neither becomes the other, but both become an intermediate with properties common to both.

Thus it is clear that only those agents are ’combinable’ which involve a contrariety- for these are such as to suffer action reciprocally. And, further, they combine more freely if small pieces of each of them are juxtaposed. For in that condition they change one another more easily and more quickly; whereas this effect takes a long time when agent and patient are present in bulk.

Hence, amongst the divisible susceptible materials, those whose shape is readily adaptable have a tendency to combine: for they are easily divided into small particles, since that is precisely what ’being readily adaptable in shape’ implies. For instance, liquids are the most ’combinable’ of all bodies- because, of all divisible materials, the liquid is most readily adaptable in shape, unless it be viscous. Viscous liquids, it is true, produce no effect except to increase the volume and bulk. But when one of the constituents is alone susceptible- or superlatively susceptible, the other being susceptible in a very slight degree- the compound resulting from their combination is either no greater in volume or only a little greater. This is what happens when tin is combined with bronze. For some things display a hesitating and ambiguous attitude towards one another- showing a slight tendency to combine and also an inclination to behave as ’receptive matter’ and ’form’ respectively. The behaviour of these metals is a case in point. For the tin almost vanishes, behaving as if it were an immaterial property of the bronze: having been combined, it disappears, leaving no trace except the colour it has imparted to the bronze. The same phenomenon occurs in other instances too.

It is clear, then, from the foregoing account, that ’combination’ occurs, what it is, to what it is due, and what kind of thing is ’combinable’. The phenomenon depends upon the fact that some things are such as to be (a) reciprocally susceptible and (b) readily adaptable in shape, i.e. easily divisible. For such things can be ’combined’ without its being necessary either that they should have been destroyed or that they should survive absolutely unaltered: and their ’combination’ need not be a ’composition’, nor merely ’relative to perception’. On the contrary: anything is ’combinable’ which, being readily adaptable in shape, is such as to suffer action and to act; and it is ’combinable with’ another thing similarly characterized (for the ’combinable’ is relative to the ’combinable’); and ’combination’ is unification of the ’combinables’, resulting from their ’alteration’.


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Chicago: Aristotle, "Chapter 10," On Generation and Corruption, trans. H. H. Joachim Original Sources, accessed October 4, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=H73U93XXGD9I7VU.

MLA: Aristotle. "Chapter 10." On Generation and Corruption, translted by H. H. Joachim, Original Sources. 4 Oct. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=H73U93XXGD9I7VU.

Harvard: Aristotle, 'Chapter 10' in On Generation and Corruption, trans. . Original Sources, retrieved 4 October 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=H73U93XXGD9I7VU.