Form of Forms

It follows that the soul is analogous to the hand; for as the hand is a tool of tools, so the mind is the form of forms and sense the form of sensible things. – Aristotle, De Anima

I am absolutely indebted to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the book Allwisest Stagyrite: Joyce’s Quotations from Aristotle by University College Dublin professor Fran O’Rourke for the contents of this essay.

In keeping with Catholic tradition, I must open this post with a confession of guilt: I’ve avoided writing about Aristotle as much as possible on this blog because I really don’t understand him. I’ve been laboring away the last few months fully aware that I purposely skipped over the following sweet, juicy chunks of philosophy on page 25 of “Nestor” because not only did I have no idea what they meant, but I had no desire to do the research to find out:

It must be a movement then, an actuality of the possible as possible. Aristotle’s phrase formed itself within the gabbled verses and floated out into the studious silence of the library of Saint Genevieve where he had read, sheltered from the sin of Paris, night by night. By his elbow a delicate Siamese conned a handbook of strategy. Fed and feeding brains about me: under glowlamps, impaled, with faintly beating feelers: and in my mind’s darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds. Thought is the thought of thought. Tranquil brightness. The soul is in a manner all that is: the soul is the form of forms. Tranquility sudden, vast, candescent: form of forms.

I thought I got away with it, too. No one emailed me to ask why I skipped over that “form of forms” bit, so I thought my soul was free of the weight of guilt brought on by my own neglect.

But then, I came across this passage on page 44 of “Proteus”:

Take all, keep all. My soul walks with me, form of forms.

There, like some weeping carbuncle as metaphor for the ugliness of my intellectual sloth, it reared its head again: form of forms. It had hunted me down, through a few dozen pages, haunting my progress through Ulysses, wailing at me like a hungry housecat, demanding explication. Even if no one else cared that I skipped that passage back in “Nestor,” I knew about my guilty omission.

So, here I present myself on humble knee, dear reader, and beg your forgiveness. Here’s what I think “form of forms” means.


James Joyce adored the philosophy of Aristotle, considering him the greatest philosopher to ever have lived. He wrote:

“In the last two hundred years we have had no great thinker. My assertion is bold, since Kant is included. All the great thinkers of recent centuries from Kant to Benedetto Croce have only recultivated the garden. The greatest thinker of all times, in my opinion, is Aristotle. He defines everything with wonderful clarity and simplicity. Later, volumes were written to define the same things”.

In Joyce’s time, the Irish more generally used Aristotle as shorthand for a great genius, in a similar way to how you might hear someone compared to Einstein nowadays. Joyce recorded this Irish proverb in one of his notebooks:

3 things Aristotle didn’t know: labour of bees, flow of tide, mind of women

Stephen Dedalus knows the flow of the tide along Sandymount Strand, so he is one point smarter than Aristotle. I can’t speak to his understanding of the labour of bees, but he certainly doesn’t understand women.

The Irish affinity for Aristotle is likely a result of Catholic scholasticism reflected in the educational curriculum, particularly in Jesuit schools like those attended by Joyce. He would have been quite familiar with the works of Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Catholic scholar who wrote extensively on Aristotle and tried to reconcile the philosopher’s writings with Catholic doctrine.

Aristotle’s influence can be seen even in Joyce’s early works, such as in his poem “The Holy Office,” where he parodies the shallow, mystical version of Irish culture promoted by Celtic Revivalist writers like W.B. Yeats. Joyce combats their fairy tale version of Ireland with Aristotelian common sense:

I, who dishevelled ways forsook

To hold the poets’ grammar-book,

Bringing to tavern and to brothel

The mind of witty Aristotle,

Lest bards in the attempt should err

Must here be my interpreter:

Wherefore receive now from my lip

Peripatetic scholarship.

Before we get to the content of the paragraph from “Nestor,” there are a few key concepts we need to wrap our heads around, beginning with Aristotle’s concept of change. Reality’s ability to change was a major philosophical conundrum for the ancient Greeks, vexing the likes of Parmenides and Plato before Aristotle. The former thought a changing reality would lead to contradiction, while the latter was concerned with the ability to gain knowledge in an ever-changing reality.

However, change does indeed occur. Aristotle put change into two categories: accidental change and substantial change. When a thing (or person, or what have you) changes, but that underlying thing remains essentially unchanged, this is accidental change. An example could be learning to play an instrument – you’re still essentially yourself, except now you’re a version of yourself that can totally shred that guitar solo. Substantial change, on the other hand, is the change that occurs when a thing (or person, etc.) is coming into or out of existence. This is the one that stumped the ancients.

Saga’s a great comic, guys!

Understanding substantial change requires analysis of the object’s matter and form. Matter is the stuff that an object is made of while form is that thing’s essence. Matter is a key component in substantial change, which is what sets it apart from accidental change. For inanimate objects, matter and form are fairly straight forward. I have a little vinyl figure on my desk of the character Marko from the comic series Saga. Marko’s matter is vinyl, but his form is a borrowed reality. I could melt him down and re-mold him into a vinyl LP or vinyl lunch bag. Marko’s matter would persist, but his form would change into something else, and with it, his purpose.

This is far more complicated with a living organism. I am a human being, and therefore, I am made of various matters. My form is much more complex, too, in that it’s less amenable to substantial change. You can’t melt me down and make another human. Aristotle believed that a human being’s form, one’s true essential nature, is the soul. I’m me because of the existence of my soul. Remove the soul, and I am no longer me and no longer a human being in Aristotle’s view. Aristotle didn’t believe that a corpse should be considered human since it has lost a human’s essential quality – the soul. A corpse’s resemblance to a human is only superficial.

To systematically define the nature of any object or organism, Aristotle used the four causes, basically, four questions used to define something:

  • What is it made of? (matter)
  • What is it? How is it defined? (form)
  • What created it?
  • What is its function?

The fourth question about function is why Aristotle would consider a corpse only superficially human (and why I consider decaf only superficially coffee). In his view, a human’s function is to live a rationally directed life, a life that is only possible if one possesses a soul, thus the soul is a human’s form. The soul is the form of the body, while the body is the matter of the soul.

nous, aristotle, ancient greece, philosophyWhile an individual soul is linked with the particular body it animates, Aristotle also believed in an aspect of the mind that was divine and immortal, called nous. Nous is also sometimes called the divine intellect. This part of the mind is separate from the part of the mind that experiences sense perception; it is the part of the mind that taps into higher levels of thought, the part of the mind that thinks rationally. Aristotle says in On the Soul,The intellect does not sometimes think and sometimes not think. Only when separated is it what it really is itself, and this alone is immortal and eternal.” Using the intellect to contemplate philosophy and eternal truths is the highest form of happiness, so says Aristotle.

The exact nature of a separate intellect has given scholars plenty of grist for their philosophical mills over the millennia. The Muslim scholar Averroes believed nous to be a shared intellect, connecting all mankind. Later, Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas saw it as proof of an immortal soul.  Stephen Dedalus, well-versed in Aquinas through his Jesuit schooling, thinks, “My soul walks with me, form of forms.”

Aristotle’s concept of God, the Prime Mover, the creator of the universe, is a being of pure mind without a physical form. Richard Tarnas characterized it thus: “Its activity and pleasure is simply that of eternal consciousness of itself.” Meaning, God is a being of pure thought that delights in thinking of itself (which is also thought). “Thought it the thought of thought,” as Stephen Dedalus put it. Human beings are unique amongst creatures because we are the only living things that share this quality (rational thought, intelligence, nous, philosophy) with God. Tarnas again: “Because man’s highest faculty, his intellect, is divine, he can by cultivating that intellect – that is, by imitating the supreme Form in the way most appropriate to man – bring himself into a kind of communion with God.”

Plato & Aristotle, detail from “The School of Athens,” Raphael, 1509

In Ulysses, “Proteus” is an episode composed of pure thought, and much of it is Stephen’s contemplation of his own thoughts. He may be leery of the Christian God, but nonetheless he walks into eternity along Sandymount Strand in communion with Aristotle’s Prime Mover.

Sensation, another major concern of Stephen’s in “Proteus,” allows the mind to experience reality, but indirectly since it requires some kind of conduit. As such, sensation is an inferior means of understanding the world, compared to the intellect. Aristotle likened this to a stamp leaving an impression in wax – you can see the form of the stamp in the wax clearly, but you’re not seeing the stamp itself. Intellect has no such limitations and can perceive all forms without an intermediary. Nous, the divine intellect, the soul is the form of forms.

We’ve got just about enough Aristotle in our heads now to start making sense of the paragraph in “Nestor.”

It must be a movement then, an actuality of the possible as possible.

This opening line is particularly interesting. It brings us back to Aristotle’s ideas about change. The roots of change lie in the difference between what something currently is, its actuality, and what it could be, its potential (or possibility). In Allwisest Stagyrite, Fran O’Rourke points out that Joyce’s use of the word “potential” rather than possible is likely due to a translation error in the French copy of On the Soul he read while in Paris. O’Rourke explains:

Joyce’s translation of Aristotle is itself garbled, due to an error in the French version: Barthélemy-Saint-Hilaire’s translation was described by J. Tricot, whose own translation was published in 1940, as a “traduction très défectueuse”. Aristotle defines motion or change as the actuality, or actualisation, not of the “possible as the possible”, but of the “potential as potential”. The correct word in French would be “potentialité” or “puissance”.

Is there a difference if potential gets changed to possible? The semantic distance between these two may be wafer thin, but the philosophical difference is much wider. O’Rourke says:

Indeed, but there is literally a world of difference between the “potential” and the “possible”. Anything which is potential must also be possible; however, not everything which is in any sense possible is thereby potentially real. Philosophers have distinguished between logical and metaphysical possibility, also called objective and subjective possibility…. The notion of a railway line to Saturn involves no inherent contradiction and is in that sense logically possible; strange as it may sound, it is “objectively possible”. Subjectively, however, there are no individual existing entities which have intrinsically within themselves the wherewithal required to make it an actual reality. It has no potency in reality.

He goes on to say that the difference between possible and potential likely wouldn’t drastically change the text of Ulysses. On the other hand, now you’ve got a fun tidbit to bring back to your book club and show off how much more clever reading Blooms and Barnacles has made you.

Aristotle’s phrase formed itself within the gabbled verses and floated out into the studious silence of the library of Saint Genevieve where he had read, sheltered from the sin of Paris, night by night. By his elbow a delicate Siamese conned a handbook of strategy. Fed and feeding brains about me: under glowlamps, impaled, with faintly beating feelers: and in my mind’s darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds.

Young Joyce arrived in Paris in late 1902 to start medical school at La Sorbonne, only to be foiled in his plans when he found out he’d have to pay for his courses up front. He wrote to his brother Stanislaus, “I am feeling very intellectual these times and up to my eyes in Aristotle’s Psychology,” and to his mother, “I read every day in the Bibliothèque Nationale and every night in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève…. I am at present up to my neck in Aristotle’s Metaphysics…”

Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce  tells that the “delicate Siamese” was a real friend of Joyce’s, a young man from the country now known as Thailand. The two struck up a  friendship in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. When he later learned of his old library buddy’s success, the Siamese man changed his name to René-Ulysse. Joyce also claimed his friend had royal blood.

For what it’s worth, I’m also fairly certain that all the Aristotle books in the world wouldn’t have kept Young Joyce from the sin of Paris.

Thought is the thought of thought.

We covered this one already. This is Aristotle’s Prime Mover, the creator of the universe. God, which atheistic Stephen claims to no longer believe in. His mother’s death has shaken his already unsteady disbelief.

The soul is in a manner all that is: the soul is the form of forms. Tranquility sudden, vast, candescent: form of forms.

Stephen reflects on the soul, which he also wouldn’t believe in as an atheist, but he is toying with the Aristotelian concept of the soul. It’s beautiful. His musing must surely extend to the fate of his mother’s soul (which he totally doesn’t believe in, but if he did…)


Further Reading:

Budgen, F. (1972). James Joyce and the making of Ulysses, and other writings. London: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from

Ellmann, R. (1959). James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press.

Humphreys, J. (2016, Nov 1). What Aristotle can teach us about friendship. The Irish Times. Retrieved from

Tarnas, R. (1991). The passion of the Western mind: understanding the ideas that have shaped our world. New York: Ballantine.

O’Rourke, F. (2005). Allwisest stagyrite: Joyce’s quotations from Aristotle. Dublin: National Library of Ireland. Retrieved from

O’Rourke, F. (2016, June 21). James Joyce, ordered Aristotelian. Village. Retrieved from

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