Tuesday, April 24, 2018


[First of an ongoing series on major figures.]

Aristotle i(384-322) ranks as a major figure in ancient Greek philosophy, making contributions to logic, metaphysics, mathematics, physics, biology, botany, ethics, politics, agriculture, medicine, and literary criticism. As a polymath it was his fate to perform better in some areas than in others.

Aristotle was a student of Plato just as Plato had studied under Socrates. Somewhat extravagantly, Aristotle has been credited with radically transforming most, if not all, the areas of knowledge he touched. For this reason Thomas Aquinas referred to him simply as "The Philosopher." Aristotle was the founder of the Lyceum. a school of learning based in Athens; and he was an inspiration for the Peripathetics, his followers linked with the Lyceum.

In his lifetime, Aristotle may have composed as many as 200 treatises, of which only 31 survive. Unfortunately for us, these works are in the form of lecture notes and draft manuscripts never intended for general readership, so they do not demonstrate his reputed polished prose style which attracted many followers in antiquity.

As we have them, Aristotle’s lumbering, often opaque writings are burdened with obsolete observations about scientific matters in which time has left him behind.  Possibly his key insight, however, concerns motion, that is the distinction between being at rest and movement.  The latter state exhibits regularity - growth and transformation - where patterns can be discerned and explained. Aristotle owed a debt to Heraclitus with his assertion that everything is in flux, but he avoided the error of overstating this instability.  This measured understanding makes Aristotle the father of processual thinking.

As the father of the field of logic, he was the first to perfect a formalized system for reasoning. Aristotle observed that the validity of any argument can be determined by its structure, and not necessarily by its content.

Nominally a student of Plato, Aristotle famously rejected his master’s theory of forms, which states that properties such as beauty are abstract universal entities that exist independent of the objects themselves. Instead, he argued that forms reside internally in the objects we encounter.  Forms cannot exist apart from them, and so must be studied in relation to them.  In later times this union of matter and form was termed hylomorphism.

Many of the theories that Aristotle put forth have not held up to the passing of time and scientific advancement. Even so, this provisional status may count to his method’s credit, since science constantly examines hypothesis through empirical and conceptual challenge.  In this way claims that cannot hold up yield to stronger assertions. 

There are a number of key principles that must give us pause. Aristotle thought that everything was made up of five elements: earth, fire, air, water, and aether. He is also famous for his “four causes,” which explain the nature of change. A thing’s material cause is what it is actually made of; its formal cause is how that matter is arranged; its efficient cause is where it came from; and its final cause is its purpose. From a modern perspective this ambitious scheme stretches the idea of causation to the breaking point - and beyond.

Aristotle believed that in our quest to determine the fundamental nature of reality we must begin with basic axioms. One such axiom was the principle of non-contradiction, which states that a substance cannot have a particular quality and lack that same quality at the same time.  This principle played an important role in his theories about logic, an important advance in his time.

Aristotle’s ethics are agent-centered, whereby the moral agent determines the right moral action. Aristotle thought that no rules or appeal to consequences could possibly give a person correct guidelines in which to respond to all situations. His ethical viewpoint was largely disregarded in the medieval period where it was assumed that ethics had their basis in the will of God, and in the early-modern period more materialistic views of ethics began to compete with religious concepts. 

It seemed that Aristotle had been definitively left behind.  Yet after debates in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries failed to resolve the conflicts between Immanuel Kant’s Deontological ethics and John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarian viewpoint, many philosophers had recourse again to a version of  Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics.

Aristotle thought that the goal of human beings in their search for happiness was to reach eudaimonia, or a state of human flourishing. (The Greek term is sometimes rendered as “happiness,” but this seems inexact.) He held that Virtue did not necessarily lead to a better life, but he did think that in order to achieve a true state of eudaimonia, aiming for virtue was necessary. 

A central principle in this inquiry is Aristotle’s concept of the Mean.  In many cases virtues may be usefully analyzed as the middle term between two extremes.  In this way courage stands between cowardice, on the one hand, and rashness,  In the first case one is paralyzed by fear.  Yet it is prudent to entertain some fear, rather than to discard it altogether, when rash conduct may ensue.  Similarly, temperance occupies a middle ground between insensitive and licentiousness.  In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle goes on to analyze ten more virtues in terms of the doctrine of the mean.

This has proved a fruitful concept in a number of realms.  Aristotle himself thought that it could be fruitfully applied to the conduct of states, which are better led by citizens of middle status than by either the wealthy or the poor.  In modern times astronomy has made use of the Goldilocks principle, which assesses the habitability of exoplanets by ruling out those that are too hot or too cold. 

It is evident that the principle of the mean does not work equally well with all virtues.  In book V of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle gestures towards applying it to the important concept of justice.  This simply does not work, and a binary contrast is more plausible, with justice contrasting with injustice.  Similarly honesty and dishonesty, and truth and falsehood.

A common objection is that what may be considered a virtue in one society may not be rank as a virtue in another. Critics adopting this view decry Virtue Ethics as little more than moral relativism. While Deontological and Utilitarian theories have their flaws, these philosophers argue that Virtue Ethics is merely a side-stepping of the ethical problem, endorsing and the moral norms of a given society rather than a reliable ethical theory based on reason. For their part, proponents of Virtue Ethics assert that since ethical theories proceed from shared moral intuitions in the first place, universal rules or criteria are not only ineffective but unnecessary to the individual who wishes to achieve a virtuous life.

I revert to what is for me the most useful Aristotelian concept is eudaimonia, loosely rendered as happiness but better described as human flourishing.  In outline, for Aristotle, eudaimonia involves activity, exhibiting excellence (arete) in accordance with reason. This conception of eudaimonia stems from Aristotle’s understanding of human nature, which ascribes reason as unique to human beings. Thus the ideal function or work (ergon) of a human being is the fullest or most perfect exercise of reason. Basically, human flourishing (eudaimonia) is gained by proper development of one's highest and most human capabilities and human beings are "the rational animal.”

The most essential texts are the Categories (perhaps meant as an introduction to the whole), the Nicomachean Ethics, the Politics, the Metaphysics, the Physics, On the Soul, the Rhetoric, and the Poetics.

Further Reading.  A standard work is Jonathan Barnes, ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, 2 vols., Princeton, 1984 (since it lacks annotation and internal headings, while the index is inadequate, this set is of very limited value).  The Loeb Classical Library has the Greek texts.  For introductory work prefer the editions of separate works in the Penguin Classics, the Oxford World Classics, and the versions published by Hackett.


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