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The Life and History of Aristotle Essay

Aristotle was born in 384 b. c. in the small town of Stagira on the northeast coast of Thrace. His father was the physician to the king of Macedonia. It could be that Aristotle’s great interest in biology and sci ence in general was nurtured in his early childhood as it was the custom, according to Galen, for families in the guild of the Asclepiadae to train their sons in the art of dissection. When he was seventeen years old, Aristotle went to Athens to enroll in Plato’s Academy, where he spent the next twenty years as a pupil and a member. At the Academy, Aristotle had the reputation of being the “reader” and “the mind of the school.

” He was profoundly influenced by Plato’s thought and personality even though eventually he was to break away from Plato’s philosophy in order to formulate his own version of certain philosophical problems. Still, while at the Academy, he wrote many dialogues in a Platonic style, which his contemporaries praised for the “golden stream” of their eloquence. He even reaffirmed, in his Eudemus, the very doctrine so central to Plato’s thought, the doctrine of the Forms, or Ideas, which he later criticized so severely. There is no way now to reconstruct with exactness just when Aristotle’s thought diverged from Plato’s.

Plato’s own thought, it must be remembered, was in process of change while Aristotle was at the Academy. Indeed, it is usually said that Aristotle studied with Plato during Plato’s “later” period, a time when Plato’s interests had shifted toward mathematics, method, and natural science. During this time, also, specialists in various sciences, such as medicine, anthropology, and archeology, came to the Academy. This meant that Aristotle was exposed to a vast array of empirical facts, which, because of his temperament, he found useful for research and for his mode of formulating scientific concepts.

It may be, therefore, that the intellectual atmosphere of the Academy marked by some of Plato’s latest dominant concerns and the availability of collected data in special fields provided Aristotle with a direction in philosophy that was congenial to his scientific disposition. The direction Aristotle took did eventually cause him to depart from some of Plato’s doctrines, though the degree of difference between Plato and Aristotle is still a matter of careful interpretation. But even when they were together at the Academy, certain temperamental

differences must have been apparent. Aristotle, for example, was less interested in mathematics than Plato and more interested in empirical data. Moreover, as time went on, Aristotle’s gaze seemed to be more firmly fixed upon the concrete processes of nature, so that he considered his abstract scientific notions to have their real habitat in this living nature. By contrast, Plato separated the world of thought from the world of flux and things, ascribing true reality to the Ideas and Forms, which, he thought, had an existence separate from the things in nature.

It could be said, therefore, that Aristotle oriented his thought to the dynamic realm of becoming, whereas Plato’s thought was fixed more upon the static realm of timeless Being. Whatever differences there were between these two great minds, the fact is that Aristotle did not break with Plato personally, as he remained at the Academy until Plato’s death. Moreover, throughout Aristotle’s later major treatises, unmistakable influences of Plato’s thought are to be found in spite of Aristotle’s unique interpretations and style.

But his distinctly “Platonist” period came to an end upon Plato’s death, when the direction of the Academy passed into the hands of Plato’s nephew Speusippos, whose excessive emphasis upon mathematics was uncongenial to Aristotle, for which reason, among others, Aristotle withdrew from the Academy and left Athens. It was in 348/47 b. c. that Aristotle left the Academy and accepted the invitation of Hermeias to come to Assos, near Troy. Hermeias had formerly been a student at the Academy and was now the ruler of Assos.

Being somewhat of a philosopher-king, he had gathered a small group of thinkers into his court, and here Aristotle was able for the next three years to write, teach, and carry on research. While at Hermeias’ court, he married this ruler’s niece and adopted daughter, Pythias, who bore him a daughter. Later, when they had returned to Athens, his wife died and Aristotle then entered into a relationship with Herpyllis, which was never legalized but which was a happy, permanent, and affectionate union from which there came a son, Nicomachus, after whom the Nicomachean Ethics was named.

After his three years in Assos, Aristotle moved to the neighboring island of Lesbos, settling there for the time being in Mitylene, where he taught and continued his investigations in biology, studying especially the many forms of marine life. Here he also became known as an advocate of a united Greece, urging that such a union would be more successful than independent city-states in resisting the might of Persia. Then, in 343/42 b. c. , Philip of Macedon invited Aristotle to become the tutor of his son Alexander, who was then thirteen years old.

As a tutor to a future ruler, Aristotle’s interests included politics, and it is possible that it was here that he conceived the idea of collecting and comparing various constitutions, a project he later carried out by collecting digests of the constitutions of 158 Greek city-states. When Alexander ascended the throne after his father Philip’s death, Aristotle’s duties as tutor had come to an end, and after a brief stay in his hometown of Stagira, he returned to Athens. Upon his return to Athens in 335/34 b. c. , Aristotle embarked upon the most productive period of his life.

Under the protection of the Macedonian statesman Antipater, Aristotle founded his own school. His school was known as the Lyceum, named after the groves where Socrates was known to have gone to think and which were the sacred precincts of Apollo Lyceus. Here Aristotle and his pupils walked in the Peripatos, a tree-covered walk, and discussed philosophy, for which reason his school was called peripatetic. Besides these peripatetic discussions, there were also lectures, some technical for small audiences and others of a more popular nature for larger audiences.

Aristotle is also said to have formed the first great library by collecting hundreds of manuscripts, maps, and specimens, which he used as illustrations during his lectures. Moreover, his school developed certain formal procedures whereby its leadership would alternate among members. Aristotle formulated the rules for these procedures as he also did for the special common meal and symposium once a month when a member was selected to defend a philosophical position against the critical objections of the other members.

For twelve or thirteen years Aristotle remained as the head of the Lyceum, not only teaching and lecturing, but above all formulating his main ideas about the classification of the sciences, fashioning a bold new science of logic, and writing his advanced ideas in every major area of philosophy and science, exhibiting an extraordinary command of universal knowledge. When Alexander died in 323 b. c. , a wave of anti-Macedonian feeling arose, making Aristotle’s position in Athens very precarious because of his close connections with Macedonia.

As Socrates before him, Aristotle was charged with “impiety,” but, as he is reported to have said, “lest the Athenians should sin twice against philosophy,” he left the Lyceum and fled to Chalcis, where he died in 322 b. c. of a digestive disease of long standing. In his will he expressed sensitive human qualities by providing amply for his relatives, preventing his slaves from being sold and providing that some of his slaves should be emancipated. As with Socrates and Plato, Aristotle’s thought was of such decisive power that it was to influence philosophy for centuries to come.

From the vast range of his philosophy, we shall consider some aspects of his logic, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. ETHICS Aristotle’s theory of morality centers around his belief that people, as everything else in nature, have a distinctive “end” to achieve or a function to fulfill. For this reason, his theory is rightly called teleological. He begins his Nicomachean Ethics by saying that “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good… ” If this is so, the question for ethics is, “What is the good at which human behavior aims?

” Plato had answered this question by saying that people aim at a knowledge of the Idea of the Good. For him this supreme principle of Good was separated from the world of experience and from individuals and was to be arrived at by the mind’s ascent from the visible world to the intelligible world. For Aristotle, on the other hand, the principle of good and right was imbedded within each person; moreover, this principle could be discovered by studying the essential nature of man and could be attained through his actual behavior in daily life.

Aristotle warns his reader, however, not to expect more precision in a discussion of ethics than “the subject-matter will admit. ” Still, just because this subject is susceptible of “variation and error” does not mean, said Aristotle, that ideas of right and wrong “exist conventionally only, and not in the nature of things. ” With this in mind, Aristotle set out to discover the basis of morality in the structure of human nature. Types of “Ends” Aristotle sets the framework for his ethical theory with a preliminary illustration.

Having said that all action aims toward an end, he now wants to distinguish between two major kinds of ends, which can be called instrumental ends (acts that are done as means for other ends) and intrinsic ends (acts that are done for their own sake). These two types of ends are illustrated, for example, in “every action connected with war. ” When we consider step by step what is involved in the total activity of a war, we find, says Aristotle, that there is a series of special kinds of acts, which have their own ends but which, when they are completed, are only means by which still other ends are to be achieved.

There is, for one thing, the art of the bridle maker. When the bridle is completed, its maker has achieved his end as a bridle maker. But the bridle is a means for the horseman to guide his horse in battle. Also, a carpenter builds a barrack, and when it is completed, he has fulfilled his function as a carpenter. The barracks also fulfill their function when they provide safe shelter for the soldiers. But the ends here achieved by the carpenter and the building are not ends in themselves but are instrumental in housing soldiers until they move on to their next stage of action.

Similarly, the builder of ships fulfills his function when the ship is successfully launched, but again this end is in turn a means for transporting the soldiers to the field of battle. The doctor fulfills his function to the extent that he keeps the soldiers in good health. But the “end” of health in this case becomes a “means” for effective fighting. The officer aims at victory in battle, but victory is the means to peace. Peace itself, though sometimes taken mistakenly as the final end of war, is the means for creating the conditions under which men, as men, can fulfill their function as men.

When we discover what men aim at, not as carpenters, doctors, or generals, but as men, we will then arrive at action for its own sake, and for which all other activity is only a means, and this, says Aristotle, “must be the Good of Man. ” How shall the word good be understood? As Plato before him, Aristotle tied the word good to the special function of a thing. A hammer is good if it does what hammers are expected to do. A carpenter is good if he fulfills his function as a builder. This would be true for all the crafts and professions.

But here Aristotle distinguishes between one’s craft or profession and one’s activity as a person. To be a good doctor, for example, did not for Aristotle mean the same thing as being a good person. One could be a good doctor without being a good person, and vice versa. There are two different functions here, the function of doctoring and the function of acting as a person. To discover the good at which a person should aim, Aristotle said we must discover the distinctive function of human nature.

The good person, according to Aristotle, is the person who is fulfilling his or her function as a person. The Function of Man Aristotle asks, “Are we then to suppose that while carpenter and cobbler have certain works and courses of action, Man as Man has none, but is left by Nature without a work? ” Or, if “the eye, hand, foot and in general each of the parts evidently has a function, may one lay it down that man similarly has a function apart from all these? ” Surely, man too has a distinctive mode of activity, but what is it?

Here Aristotle analyzes man’s nature in order to discover his unique activity, saying, first of all, that man’s end “is not mere life,” because that plainly is shared with him even by vegetables, and, says Aristotle, “we want what is peculiar to him. ” Next there is the life of sensation, “but this again manifestly is common to horses, oxen and every animal. ” There remains then “an active life of the element that has a rational principle. .. if the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle…

then the human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue. ” Since man’s function as a man means the proper functioning of his soul, Aristotle sought to describe the nature of the soul. The soul is the form of the body. As such, the soul refers to the total person. Accordingly, Aristotle said that the soul has two parts, the irrational and the rational. The irrational part in turn is composed of two subparts, the vegetative and the desiring or “appetitive” parts. For the most part, these are “something contrary to the rational principle, resisting and opposing it.

” The conflict between the rational and irrational elements in man is what raises the problems and subject matter of morality. Morality involves action, for nothing is called good unless it is functioning. Thus Aristotle says that “as at the Olympic games it is not the finest and strongest men who are crowned, but they who enter the lists, for out of these the prize-men are selected; so too in life, of the honourable and good, it is they who act who rightly win the prizes. ” The particular kind of action implied here, if one has in mind Aristotle’s analysis of the soul, is the rational control and

guidance of the irrational parts of the soul. Moreover, the good man is not the one who does a good deed here or there, now and then, but the one whose whole life is good, “for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy. ” Happiness as the End Human action should aim at its proper end. Everywhere people aim at pleasure, wealth, and honor. But none of these ends, though they have value, can occupy the place of the chief good for which people should aim.

To be an ultimate end an act must be self-sufficient and final, “that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else,” and it must be attainable by people. Aristotle seems certain that all people will agree that happiness is the end that alone meets all the requirements for the ultimate end of human action. Indeed, we choose pleasure, wealth, and honor only because we think that “through their instrumentality we shall be happy. ” Happiness, it turns out, is another word or name for good, for like good, happiness is the fulfillment of our distinctive function; or, as Aristotle says, “Happiness …

is a working of the soul in the way of excellence or virtue. ” How does the soul work to attain happiness? The general rule of morality is “to act in accordance with Right Reason. ” What this means is that the rational part of the soul should control the irrational part. That the irrational part of the soul requires guidance is obvious when we consider what it consists of and what its mechanism is. Referring now only to the appetites, or the “appetitive” part of the soul, we discover first that it is affected or influenced by things outside of the self, such as objects and persons.

Also, there are two basic ways in which the appetitive part of the soul reacts to these external factors, these ways being love and hate, or through the concupiscent and irascible “passions. ” The concupiscent passion leads one to desire things and persons, whereas the irascible passion leads one to avoid or destroy them. It becomes quickly apparent that these passions or capacities for love and hate, attraction or repulsion, creation or destruction, taken by themselves could easily “go wild. ” In themselves they do not contain any principle of measure or selection. What should a person desire? How much? Under what circumstances?

How should he relate himself to things, wealth, honor, and other persons? We do not automatically act the right way in these matters; as Aristotle says, “none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. ” Morality has to do with developing habits, the habits of right thinking, right choice, and right behavior. Virtue as the “Golden Mean” Since the passions are capable of a wide range of action, all the way from too little to too much, a person must discover the proper meaning of excess and defect and thereby discover the appropriate mean.

Virtue is concerned with our various feelings and actions, for it is in them that there can be excess and defect. For example, it is possible, says Aristotle, to feel the emotions of fear, confidence, lust, anger, compassion, pleasure, and pain, too much or too little, and in either case wrongly. To feel them when we ought to, on which occasions, toward whom, and as we should is the mean; that is the best state for people to be in, and this is virtue. Vice, again, is either extreme, excess or defect, and virtue is the mean.

It is through the rational power of the soul that the passions are controlled and action is guided. The virtue of courage, for example, is the mean between two vices: namely, cowardice (defect) and foolhardiness (excess). Virtue, then, is a state of being, “a state apt to exercise deliberate choice, being in the relative mean, determined by reason, and as the man of practical wisdom would determine. ” Therefore, virtue is a habit of choosing in accordance with a mean. The mean is not the same for every person, nor is there a mean for every act.

Each mean is relative to each person inasmuch as the circumstances will vary. In the case of eating, the mean will obviously be different for an adult athlete and a little girl. But for each person, there is nevertheless a proportionate or relative mean, temperance, clearly indicating what extremes—namely, gluttony (excess) and starvation (defect)—would constitute vice for that person. Similarly, when one gives money, liberality, as the mean between prodigality and stinginess, is not an absolute figure but is relative to one’s assets.

Moreover, for some acts there is no mean at all; their very nature already implies badness, such as spite, envy, adultery, theft, and murder. These are bad in themselves and not in their excesses or deficiencies. One is always wrong in doing them. Deliberation and Choice There are in the rational soul two kinds of reasoning. The first is theoretical, giving us knowledge of fixed principles or philosophical wisdom. The other is practical, giving us a rational guide to our action under the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves, and this is practical wisdom.

What is important about the role of reason is that without this rational element, we would not have any moral capacity. Again, Aristotle stressed that although we have a natural capacity for right behavior, we do not act rightly by nature. Our life consists of an indeterminate number of possibilities. Goodness is in us potentially; but unlike the acorn out of which the oak will grow with almost mechanical certitude, we must move from what is potential in us to its actuality by knowing what we must do, deliberating about it, and then choosing in fact to do it.

Unlike Plato and Socrates, who thought that to know the good was sufficient to do the good, Aristotle saw that there must be deliberate choice in addition to knowledge. Thus, Aristotle said that “the origin of moral action—its efficient, not its final cause—is choice, and (the origin) of choice is desire and reasoning with a view to an end. ” There cannot be choice without reason. And again, “intellect itself… moves nothing, but only the intellect which aims at an end and is practical. ” Morality and moral choice imply human responsibility.

If some ways of behaving are right and others wrong, it is necessary to discover why a person acts in a wrong instead of a right way. If we are to praise or blame, praise virtue and blame vice, a person must be truly capable of making a choice. Aristotle assumed that an act for which a person could be held responsible must be a voluntary act. A genuine choice is a voluntary action. But not all our actions are voluntary. Thus, Aristotle said that “praise and blame arise upon such as are voluntary, while for the involuntary allowance is made, and sometimes compassion is excited.

” The distinction, as he saw it, between voluntary and involuntary acts was in general this: Involuntary acts are those for which a person is not responsible because they are (1) done out of ignorance of particular circumstances, (2) done as a result of external compulsion, or (3) done to avoid a greater evil. Voluntary acts are those for which a person is responsible because none of these three extenuating circumstances obtain. The Virtues In a general way we have already defined virtue as the fulfillment of man’s distinctive function and as the mean between extremes.

Another way to describe Aristotle’s concept of virtue is to consider each virtue as the product of the rational control of the passions. In this way we can combine all aspects of human behavior. Human nature consists for Aristotle not simply in rationality but in the full range covered by the vegetative, sensitive or appetitive, and the rational souls. Virtue does not imply the negation or rejection of any of these natural capacities. The moral man employs all his capacities, physical and mental. Corresponding to these two broad divisions in man there are two functions of reason, the intellectual and the moral, and each has its own virtues.

There are accordingly intellectual virtues and moral virtues. The intellectual virtues are philosophical wisdom and understanding and owe their birth and growth to teaching and learning. Moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence comes the name ethics (ethike), “formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). ” All the moral virtues have to be learned and practiced, and they become virtues only through action, for “we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. ” The “cardinal” moral virtues are courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom.

In addition to these, Aristotle considered also the virtues of magnificence, liberality, friendship, and self-respect. And although he acknowledged the central role of reason as a guide to practical and moral action, he nevertheless concluded that philosophic wisdom is superior to practical wisdom, that contemplation is most likely to lead to happiness. Contemplation Aristotle concludes that if happiness is the product of our acting according to our distinctive nature, it is reasonable to assume that it is acting according to our highest nature, and “that this activity is contemplative we have already said.

” This activity is the best, says Aristotle, “since not only is reason the best thing in us, but the objects of reason are the best of know-able objects. ” Moreover, contemplation “is most continuous, since we can contemplate truth more continuously than we can do anything. ” Finally, “we think happiness has pleasure mingled with it, but the activity of philosophic wisdom is admittedly the pleasantest of virtuous activities. ” POLITICS In his Politics, as in his Ethics, Aristotle stresses the element of purpose. The state, as man, is endowed by nature with a distinctive function.

Combining these two ideas, Aristotle says that “it is evident that the State is a creature of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. ” So closely does he relate man and the state as to conclude that “he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god. ” Not only is man by nature destined to live in a state, but the state, as every other community, “is established with a view to some good,” exists for some end. The family exists primarily to preserve life.

The state comes into existence in the first instance to preserve life for families and villages, which in the long run are not self-sufficing. But beyond this economic end, the function of the state is to ensure the supreme good of man, namely, his moral and intellectual life. Unlike Plato, Aristotle did not create a blueprint for an ideal state. Even though Aristotle viewed the state as the agency for enabling people to achieve their ultimate goals as human beings, he nevertheless realized that any practical theory of the state must take note of “what kind of government is adapted to particular states…

[that] the best is often unattainable… ” and that the legislator must be acquainted with “which is best relatively to circumstances… how a state may be constituted under any given conditions… [and] how it may be longest preserved,” concluding that “political writers, although they have excellent ideas, are often unpractical. ” For these reasons, Aristotle had little patience with Plato’s most radical ideas.

Ridiculing Plato’s arrangement for the abolition of the family for the guardian class and providing a public nursery for their children, Aristotle said that “there is no reason why the so-called father should care about the son, or the son about the father, or brothers about one another. ” The communal ownership of property would likewise destroy certain basic human pleasures as well as engender inefficiency and endless disputes. Types of States Aristotle was willing to recognize that under appropriate circumstances, a community could organize itself into at least three different kinds of government.

The basic difference among them is primarily the number of rulers each has. A government can have as its rulers one, a few, or many. But each of these forms of government can have a true or a perverted form. When a government is functioning rightly, it governs for the common good of all the people. A government is perverted when its rulers govern for their own private gain or interests. The true forms of each type of government, according to Aristotle, are monarchy (one), aristocracy (few), and polity (many). The perverted forms are tyranny (one), oligarchy (few), and democracy (many).

His own preference was aristocracy, chiefly because even though ideally an individual of exceptional excellence would be desirable, such persons do not exist with sufficient frequency. In an aristocracy, there is the rule of a group of men whose degree of excellence, achievement, and ownership of property makes them responsible, able, and capable of command. Differences and Inequalities Because he relied so heavily upon his observation of things, it was inevitable that Aristotle would make some mistakes. Nowhere is this more true than in his estimate of slavery.

Observing that slaves invariably were strong and large, he concluded that slavery was a product of nature. “It is clear,” said Aristotle, “that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these slavery is both expedient and right. ” To be sure, Aristotle took great care to distinguish between those who become slaves by nature, a mode he accepted, and those who become slaves by military conquest, a mode he rejected. He rejected slavery by conquest on the highly defensible grounds that to overpower someone does not mean that one is superior to him in nature.

Moreover, the use of force may or may not be justified, in which case enslavement could very well be the product and extension of an unjust act. At the same time, speaking of the “proper treatment of slaves,” he proposed that “it is expedient that liberty should be always held out to them as the reward of their services. ” The fact is that in his own last will and testament, Aristotle provided for the emancipation of some of his slaves. Aristotle also believed in the inequality of citizenship. He held that the basic qualification for citizenship was a person’s ability to take his share

in ruling and being ruled in turn. A citizen had the right and the obligation to participate in the administration of justice. Since a citizen would therefore have to sit in the assembly and in the law courts, he would have to have both ample time as well as an appropriate temperament and character. For this reason, Aristotle did not believe that laborers should be citizens, as they had neither the time nor the appropriate mental development, nor could they benefit from the experience of sharing in the political process.

Good Government and Revolution Over and over again Aristotle made the point that the state exists for the sake of man’s moral and intellectual fulfillment. “A state,” he said, “exists for the sake of a good life, and not for the sake of life only”; also, “the state is the union of families and villages in a perfect and self-sufficing life, by which we mean a happy and honourable life. ” Finally, he said, “our conclusion… is that political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not mere companionship. ” Still, whether a state produces the good life depends upon how its rulers behave.

We have already said that the perverted forms of government are distinguished from the true forms by this, that the good rulers seek to achieve the good of all, whereas the perverted rulers seek their own private gain. Whatever form a government has, it will rest upon some conception of justice and proportionate equality. But these conceptions of justice can bring disagreement and ultimately revolution. Democracy, as Aristotle knew it, arises out of the assumption that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects; “because men are equally free, they claim to be absolutely equal.

” On the other hand, Aristotle said oligarchy is based upon the notion that “those who are unequal in one respect are in all respects unequal. ” Hence, “being unequal… in property, they suppose themselves to be unequal absolutely. ” For these reasons, whenever the democrats or oligarchs are in the minority and the philosophy of the incumbent government “does not accord with their preconceived ideas, [they] stir up revolution… Here then… are opened up the very springs and fountains of revolution.

” Aristotle concludes that “the universal and chief cause of this revolutionary feeling [is] the desire of equality, when men think they are equal to others who have more than themselves. ” He did not overlook other causes such as “insolence and avarice” as well as fear and contempt. Knowing these causes of revolution, Aristotle said that each form of government could take appropriate precautions against it; for example, a king must avoid despotic acts, an aristocracy should avoid the rule by a few rich men for the benefit of the wealthy class, and a polity should provide more time for its abler members to share in the government.

Another precaution is to guard against the beginning of change. Most important of all, Aristotle urged that “there is nothing which should be more jealously maintained than the spirit of obedience to law. ” In the end, men will always criticize the state unless their conditions of living within it are such that they can achieve happiness in the form of what they consider the good life.


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