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The Philosopher's Plant 2.0: Aristotle's Wheat

Nicknamed “the Reader” by Plato himself and known as Ille Philosophus (or The Philosopher) in the Middle Ages, Aristotle was responsible for singlehandedly systematizing philosophy, gifting it with a unique technical vocabulary. Words with humble everyday meanings received a new lease on life when, at the hands of the Master, they were transfigured into abstract concepts.

We need not go far for an example. Matter, a term we tend to take for granted, is among Aristotle’s enduring achievements. It, too, issued from an ordinary word, hylē, which in colloquial Greek meant “wood,” whether the growing forests or timber.

Unlike its modern variation, Aristotelian matter does not refer to just about anything with volume and mass; nor does it describe a physical extended substance. Instead, it has to do with the stuff of which a thing is made, the so-called “material cause”. Matter is nothing but materials (bronze, stone, and so forth) before they are shaped into a recognizable form.

What is curious, though, is that one type of material, wood, lends its name to materiality as a whole. In line with its pre-conceptual origin, matter is essentially wooden!

So, the world of plants has been the inspiration behind the birth of a vital Aristotelian concept. But, besides this vague allusion to vegetation, there is also a particular plant that crops up with notable consistency in texts as diverse as Physics and Metaphysics, Politics and Nicomachean Ethics. That plant is wheat.

In Metaphysics, Aristotle’s cereal of choice goes to illustrate the strongest sense of being entailed in the copula “is.” We mean different things, Aristotle observes, when “we say Hermes is in the stone, and a half line is in the line, and that a growing stalk is wheat [sitos]” (Metaphysics, 1017b). In the first case, the statue of a god is in the stone only potentially, awaiting the sculptor’s chisel to bring it out in all its splendor to the light of day; in the second, half a line is contained in the entire line, of which it is a part; and in the third, there is a felicitous coincidence, a necessary identity between “a growing stalk” and “wheat.”

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This stalk we are leaning over with Aristotle is a specimen of wheat, a tiny sample of the genus it represents. It may be neither ripe nor a perfect specimen nor one that embodies the genus as a whole. Still, the growing stalk is wheat in a stronger sense than the yet uncreated statue of Hermes is in the rough stone or half a line is in the line. Why? Because it is a momentary actualization of the cereal not as mere potentiality, inherent in the seed, but as the presence of the plant before us, even if its qualification as “growing” or “not yet ripe” disallows the attribution of full presence to this, or any other, living being.

The Greek sitos, in addition to being the word for wheat, applied broadly to any staple food. Symbolically, it was an umbrella term for the human fare. In Hesiod’s Works and Days, for instance, humanity is specified as “men who live on sitos.” Homer in Iliad identifies sitos as the food of the mortals, in contrast to the “blessed gods” who “eat no bread [sitos], drink no shining wine, and so are bloodless, which is why we call them deathless” (V, 382-4).

Not only did the same word correspond to the cultivated plant itself, the edible product into which it was transformed, and all types of human food, but it also betokened a variety of grains, including wheat and barley.

This semantic confusion surely provided Aristotle with ample food for thought, given his persistent efforts at disambiguation, classification, and separation of wholes from their parts. Everyday language in all its messiness intruded upon the philosophical work of ordering and explication. And the unexpected harbinger of the intrusion was a measly stalk of wheat, which, at the same time, exemplified and subverted Aristotle’s reasoning.

Now, Aristotle spent a fair share of his intellectual energy on determining how the whole relates to its parts, and the parts — to the whole. To everyone who knew “the Reader,” it was no surprise that this seemingly obscure problem preoccupied him so. After all, he was extremely dissatisfied with Plato’s gloss on the connection between the Ideas and their shadowy reproductions, the things of the sense that somehow participated in the Ideas’ immortal essence.

One of Aristotle’s targets in trying to solve the riddle of the whole and its parts was rhetoric. In common discourse, we state that “a child comes from father and mother, or a plant out of the earth.” But, Aristotle clarifies, “they come from a part of these” (Metaphysics 123b).

A stalk of wheat does not germinate from the entire earth but from a tiny cubit of land, wherein it is rooted. Grasping this does not require much musing. What to do, however, with the small linguistic conundrums, in which one word-label attaches itself to the part and the whole alike? How to analyze the relation of wheat to grains and of grains to staple foods, if each of the three terms goes under the same name, sitos?

When a part stands in for the whole, we deal with what specialists in rhetoric call synecdoche. We have already stumbled upon this rhetorical trap when we discovered that the original concept of matter derived from one type of material, namely wood. There are also less abstruse usages of synecdoche: for instance, a news reporter, who evokes a capital city (say, Paris) in place of the entire country (here, France).

Aristotle is acutely aware of this phenomenon, which in Rhetoric he groups under the heading of metaphor. And, with equal acuteness, he feels the blows these rhetorical tropes deal to the philosopher’s “bread and butter,” that is, to reason and formal logic built on the axiom that X and not-X cannot be true at the same time.

The assertion that something is simultaneously the whole and not the whole, a part and not a part, grossly violates the principle of non-contradiction, so dear to Aristotle’s philosophical heart. Although he concedes that metaphors can promote learning, he would vehemently object to the mystifying rhetorical force of the synecdoche that erases the lines of demarcation between parts and wholes. A stalk of wheat turns out to be a stick in the wheel of the well-oiled philosophical machinery.