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Born: 384 B.C., Stageira, in Thrace

Died: 322 B.C., Chalcis in Euboea

Major Works (1) First period (before 348 B.C.): Physics, books I, II and VII; On the Soul, book I; (2) Second period (347-336 B.C.): On Philosophy (fragmentary); Eudemian Ethics; On the Heavens; On Generation and Corruption; (3) Third period (335-322 B.C.): the logical Organon, consisting of the Categories, On interpretation, the Prior and Posterior Analytics, the Topics, and the Sophistical Fallacies; the Metaphysics Physics, books III-VI, VIII; Meteorology; the Histories of Animals; On the Generation of Animals; On the Soul; treatises on perception, memory, life and death, breathing, and related subjects: the Parva Naturalia; the Nicomachean Ethics; the Politics; the Rhetoric; the Poetics. (Not all of these works were written solely by Aristotle: Some probably were written under his direction by followers and associates like Meno, Theophrastus, and Eudemus, at the Lyceum.)

Major Ideas

Ideas do not have an independent, extra-mental subsistence, but exist in things.

The material substratum, which is the potential for the existence of finite things, must be distinguished from absolute nonbeing or privation.

The substances of things are a union of form and matter.

Body and soul are conjoined as matter and form.

The existence of all finite and transitory things can be understood as a movement from potential to actual existence.

The world exists eternally, and movement of all things is an unceasing movement.

The source of this movement is the unmoved or eternally actual First Mover, the actuality of which draws finite things from potential into actual existence.

The empirical order is a suitable realm for inquiry based on sense perception.

Whereas in the logical order, demonstration proceeds deductively from general principles to particular conclusions, discussion of the natural order proceeds inductively from the observed particular to general conclusions.

The "good" is "that at which all things aim."

All human inquiry and behavior is, therefore, guided by its end or goal, which is a particular good.

The most eminent pupil and the eventual rival of Plato, Aristotle was simply called "the Philosopher" during the Middle Ages and is still thought of by many as the' greatest philosopher of all time, both on account of the keenness of his insight into the fundamental philosphical problems of knowing and being and on account of the encyclopedic character of his work. He was born in Stageira, in Thrace, the son of Nichomachus, the personal physician of Amyntas II, the king of Macedon. Early in his life he acquired an interest in medicine and in biological study in general. It is believed that he was trained in dissection and may actually have practiced medicine. At the age of seventeen (367 B.C.), Aristotle journeyed to Athens, where he studied closely with Plato until the latter's death in 347 B.C. We have no reason to believe that Aristotle either disagreed radically with Plato's teaching during his student years or that Aristotle's expressions of admiration for Plato are anything less than genuine.

Rather than remain in the Academy after Plato's death when the headship passed to Plato's nephew, Speusippus, Aristotle left Athens for Assos and there founded his own school. After three years in Assos, he left for Mitylene on the island of Lesbos. Many of his biological works were based on the examination of species living in these places. He was invited in 343 by Philip of Macedon to become the tutor of Philip's son and heir, Alexander, known to history as Alexander the Great. Aristotle remained in Macedon until 336, when Alexander succeeded to the throne.

In 335, Aristotle returned to Athens and founded a new school at the Lyceum. The style of Aristotle's school was different from that of the Academy, inasmuch as it functioned more as a research institute in which the scholarly members lectured than simply as a school. Lectures and discussions appear to have been presented in a covered walkway--perhaps with the lecturer moving freely among his hearers--leading to the identification of the school of Aristotle as the Peripatos and his followers as Peripatetics. After Alexander the Great died in 323 and his protection was removed from his teacher, Aristotle was charged, as Socrates had been before him, with "atheism." He is reported to have left Athens with the comment that he would not permit the Athenians to sin against philosophy a second time. He died of natural causes in the following year.

Logic, Metaphysics, and Cosmology

Aristotle's development of a theoretical, formal logic sets him apart from all his predecessors. Whereas previous Greek philosophy, including that of Socrates and Plato, had made only a preliminary effort to explain and elucidate the nature of knowledge or "science" prior to undertaking the exposition of science, Aristotle provided the world with a full-scale and thoroughly self-conscious discussion of the forms and rules of scientific thinking as a prolegomenon to his discussions of other branches of knowledge.

The logical treatises gathered together as the Organon present a series of rules and techniques, such as the proper patterns of syllogistic argumentation, the identification and refutation of fallacies, and the basic categories used for the identification and description of all things--substance and incidental properties like quantity, quality, and relation. It can, of course, easily be shown that previous philosophers had used these or similar patterns of argumentation and predication, and Aristotle himself believed that his logical work was based on an examination of the way in which argument actually functioned. What he contributed was the first formal discussion and analysis of these patterns. Had Aristotle done nothing else, his future reputation-indeed, his domination of the field of logic for some two thousand years, both for debate and for the construction of deductive system--would have been assured.

Like Plato, Aristotle assumed the reality of the universal or the general, and he assumed that it could be known. Where he differed from Plato was in his assumption of the reality of particulars and, more fundamentally, in his assumption of an immediate real relation between the universal and the particular. Thus, for Aristotle, the ideas or forms of things cannot he understood as realities independent of their embodiment or actuality. Not only Aristotle's logic but also his cosmology builds on these assumptions: Both assume the dependence of the particular upon the universal. In logic, the particular is deduced from the universal--the syllogism being the perfect example of such deduction. In cosmology, physics, and metaphysics, the general or universal is found by inference or induction that begins in the particular.

This perception of the relation of universal to particular represents, in the case of cosmology, the solution to the fundamental problem of Greek philosophy--the dichotomization of form and matter, of the One and the many. As noted earlier, Plato, for the sake of finding truth beyond fallible perception of mutable phenomena, had argued for the real existence of ideas or forms apart from matter, but had nowhere proved the point. In fact, he resolved the problem of the separation only by recourse to myth.

Aristotle accepts the reality of ideas or forms--the universal--but argues for the existence of the universal in the particular and never apart from it. Aristotle also dispenses with the Platonic assumption of the unreality or nonbeing of corporeal particulars and argues the real existence of both form and matter. Thus, Aristotle distinguishes between nonbeing (me on), which is nothingness or space, and which cannot produce anything, and the material substratum of things, which is nothing or nothing in and of itself (me po on), but which exists in the sense of material potential, the capability of receiving form and moving toward the actualization of form or idea in a completed particular.

Aristotle recognized with great clarity that the idea or essence of any thing is, quite simply, the "what" of a thing the answer to the question "What is it?" Aristotle also recognized that if this "what" is reified--considered in itself as a "thing"--then we are forced to ask the question again and determine the "what" of the "what," the essence of the essence, the idea of the idea; and having done that, we still have no answer but must ask all over again the question of essence, the idea of the idea of the idea the "what" of the "what" of the "what"--and that is absurd Metaphysics, 7:6, 1031b--1032a). The only philosophically responsible solution is to refuse to separate essence from the thing of which it is the essence.

What Aristotle has done in this argument, with characteristic clarity is solve the Platonic problem of a dualism of form and matter by beginning the argument where, in his estimation, it should have begun in the first place--with the concrete reality of individual things. The Platonic problem of mediating between eternal ideas and their corporeal embodiments is here turned on its head: Instead of trying to get from a changeless incorporeal idea to a corporeal individual by means of either a mythological mediating deity or an infinite series of graduated emanations, Aristotle begins with the corporeal thing and shows that it is impossible and therefore unnecessary to ascend to a pure essence beyond which there is no further idea.

The union of form and matter, the relation of the universal to the particular, is achieved logically and explained naturally by Aristotle's view of development or process in things as a movement from potency to actuality. Aristotle, in other words, understood the life of the cosmos as a process in which the essences or forms of things, the universals, are realized in the particular, in the phenomenal order. This development or realization is explained by Aristotle in terms of the ideas or principles of matter and form, with form being considered both as cause and as goal or end. Although form and matter are inseparable, we experience a world in process: Seeds grow into trees, calves and colts grow into cows and horses. The seed, the calf, and the colt are neither matter without form nor form without matter, but they are also productive of other embodiments of form, trees, cows, and horses. The actuality of the seed, the realization of form in a material particular, is potency as regards the tree. Form appear s both as cause and as result or goal. The form Aristotle calls entelechy (entelechia) or inner telos; the motion or development that moves a thing from potency to actuality (from dynamis to energeia) is kinesis.

This approach to form also allowed Aristotle both to distinguish between nonliving things, plants, animals, and human beings on metaphysical grounds and to argue a hierarchy or ranking of beings on the basis of their forms, or in the case of living beings, their souls. The form of living things is superior to that of the nonliving inasmuch as the form of the living is a soul or principle of life, relating to the growth and reproduction of the species. The animal soul, in addition to being the principle of life, is also the principle of motion and sensation, in that animals, unlike plants, must seek out their food. To the life, movement, and sensation characteristic of these lower souls, the human adds the faculty of reason. This series, Aristotle assumes, is cumulative and in a sense, evolutionary: The higher forms presuppose the lower.

This view of form and of soul as the entelechy avoids the fundamentally dualistic character of the Platonic theory of the relation of soul and body. Aristotle does not, in other words, conceive of the soul as inhabiting the body but rather assumes that the substantial reality of human beings is a composite of form (soul) and matter, with the particular character of the human body resulting from the impress of the soul upon the materiality. Without the soul, there is also no "body" in the normal sense of the word--and neither soul nor body can exist separately. Aristotle, therefore, argues a genuine unity of the human individual, paralleling the unity of other substantial beings in the physical world, both living and nonliving.

On the larger metaphysical scale or, as Aristotle himself termed it, the scale of "first philosophy" or "theology," Aristotle's model assumes the eternity of form and matter, neither of which is created or destroyed and presupposes also some absolutely necessary, independent, and self-existent being as the first mover of things, the source of all kinesis, motion or development. This, too, represents a considerable advance upon Plato's mythical Demiurge, since the idea of a first mover represents a logically or scientifically deduced first principle, the knowledge of which rests upon analysis of the system of the cosmos. Aristotle's First Mover or First Being stands in the place of Plato's Idea of the Good as a rationally defined pure actuality (actus purus) over the pure potency of primary matter (me po on). In a logical sense, the First Mover is simply the realization of the motion of the whole universe from potency to actuality: Matter is that which is moved but cannot move anything; pure actuality is that which moves without being moved.

It is crucial to note that the motion or kinesis so fundamental to Aristotle's philosophy is not a movement from place to place but a development from potential existence toward full realization made possible in a teleological sense by the full reality of the First Mover. The First Mover does not act on the material order the way in which a sculptor acts upon marble: This would imply a change or motion in the First Mover, which to Aristotle's mind would itself require a prior act to set it in motion-and would result in the impossibility of arriving at the origin of the movement. The First Mover is a final cause who moves all things not as a point or act of origin but as a final, unmoved goal, as the pure actuality toward which all that is potential tends.

Aristotle thus understood "physics" as the theory of the motion or movement of things from potential to actual existence and, therefore, as an inclusive approach to the real and natural order, from the divine First Mover and immovable principle, to the imperishable motions and movers of the heavens, to the perishable order of our world, the sublunary sphere, in which things come into existence, develop, decay, and pass out of existence. Aristotle's philosophy of nature, then, is the perfect refutation of the frequently heard generalization that Greek philosophy tended to deal with the static and the abstract. The focus of Aristotle's thought was upon motion, change, development, and the understanding of the goal-directedness of things, of the movement of things from potential to actual existence.

Ethical and Political Thought

The ethical thought of Aristotle carries forward this goal-directed or teleological principle into the realm of human inquiry and behavior. The presupposition of this teleological perspective is Aristotle's conception of the soul as the form or entelechia of the human being. The soul, therefore, is not a static principle, but an inward, telic principle that is the goal or actuality toward which the human being strives. The human soul, moreover, is both animal, having sense perception and memory, and intellective, having reason akin to that of the divine. Together, these aspects of the soul point to the identity of the human being as an ethical or moral being. Indeed, for Aristotle, morality is the unique attribute of human beings.

Granting Aristotle's teleological premise, all conduct, whether related to purely intellectual pursuit, to moral choice, or to physical activity, is guided by its end or goal, which is a particular good. This underlying assumption led Aristotle to chart a broad course for his ethical thought, including a discussion of the various forms of knowing, such as science, prudence, and art, each of which is to be understood in terms of its goal. Even so, Aristotle's ethical thought has both its individual and its corporate dimensions, with the category of prudence or discretionary conduct extending to the ethical theory of the state.

Very much in accord with the more inductive and empirical approach taken in his thought on the natural order, Aristotle's ethical and political thought stands in contrast to the idealistic and generally utopian approach of Plato. Rather than define the unreachable ideal as the goal of ethics and politics, Aristotle rests his arguments on experience and example. The good of human beings cannot be understood therefore, as capable of deduction or of precise determination like the solution to a logical or mathematical problem. Ethics does not begin with a set of general principles but with an examination of the results of human actions. The general principles of ethics are inferred by the comparison of results. Similarly, both in his politics proper, in his analyses of the histories and constitutional documents of some 158 cities, and in the constitution that he drew up for Athens, Aristotle recognized that different states and different historical circumstances dictated different forms of government, and he sea rched for an "ideal state" only on the basis of his extensive consideration of the problems and virtues of actual governments. Even so, Aristotle could identify monarchy as the best form of government and its abuse, tyranny, as the worst. Both ethics and politics, thus, are matters of discretionary judgment, arising out of the natural propensities of human beings.

From the relationship of morality to responsibility, Aristotle inferred also that ethics implies the freedom of the individual moral agent in choosing and seeking out goals. Aristotle assumed, therefore that both vice and virtue are capable of being chosen by human beings. Typically, he understood vice as the result of excessive or defective activity and he regarded virtue as the attainment of a judicious balance or mean between excess and defect, a state good or excellent in itself and suitable as a goal of conduct. (For example, courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness; temperance is the mean between "insensibility" and self-indulgence.)

On the most general level, Aristotle argued that happiness (well being) is the goal of human life. This basic principle of conduct only serves, however to underscore Aristotle's point about the discretionary nature of ethics: Human beings differ in their views about happiness. For some, happiness is wealth for others pleasure; for others, honor. Nonetheless, Aristotle believed that he could construct a reliable account of happiness based on the intellectual nature of human beings. Nourishment and growth are goods common to all living beings, including those not endowed with reason. But because of their unique nature, human beings cannot be truly happy simply with these animal pleasures. Happiness must relate to an activity capable of attaining the good of the individual, to a pattern of life that is uniquely human. On the analogy of the ancient definition of the health of the body in terms of a balance of its humors, Aristotle argues that the health or happiness of the soul is the attainment of a moral equil ibrium through training and the cultivation of good habits or dispositions. Thus, only the actively virtuous life, in which a stable or balanced rule of conduct is followed, is conformable with true happiness.

The significance of Aristotle's thought, both in its own time and in subsequent ages, lies to a large extent in its distinction from the philosophy of Plato. Although Aristotle retained from his training under Plato an ultimately idealistic definition of reality in his conception of the First Mover, and although he lodged the identity of things in the more spiritual concept of form, he stood outside the fundamentally dualistic path of Greek philosophy that can be traced from the Orphic religious revival of the early sixth century B.C., to Parmenides, through Socrates and Plato, to middle- and Neoplatonism. His thought, for all of its reliance on certain of the insights of idealism, returned philosophy at a new and more scientific level to the work of observation begun by the Ionian or Milesian philosophers, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. Granting that Platonism in its later forms was the dominant philosophy of the classical world, this scientific, inductive dimension of Aristotle's thought was less app reciated and less influential in ancient times than it would become with the rediscovery of the Aristotelian corpus for the Latin West in the thirteenth century. From that point onward, as evidenced in the work of Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great), Saint Thomas Aquinas, and to a certain extent, Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon, the strongly empirical bent of Aristotle's work in the Physics and in the various books examining the natural order bore abundant fruit in philosophy and science. If Plato was the philosopher par excellence of the ancient world, it was Aristotle who was, as the medieval philosophers and theologians called him, "the Philosopher" for the West from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries.

Further Reading

Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Edited with an introduction by Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941. A standard collection of all the most important philosophical works, with major excerpts from the natural histories; it contains an excellent general introduction and a fine annotated bibliography.

Cherniss, H. Aristotle's Criticism of Presocratic Philosophy. Baltimore: Octagon Books, 1935. A useful introduction to an important issue in the background of Aristotle's thought.

Copleston, Frederick C. A History of Philosophy. 9 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1946--74; reprinted, 1985. Vol. 1, pp. 266-378, contains a very helpful account of Aristotle's thought.

Jaeger, Werner. Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development. Translated by R. Robinson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934. Still the basic study of the development of Aristotle's thought.

Ross, Sir W. D. Aristotle. 2d ed. London: Methuen, 1930. A superb introduction to the whole of Aristotle's thought by one of the greatest modern Aristotle scholars.

____. Aristotle's Metaphysics. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924. A commentary on the Metaphysics, indispensable to the careful and detailed study of Aristotle's thought.

Taylor, A. E. Aristotle. London: Nelson, 1943. A significant brief study of Aristotle's thought by a convinced Platonist.

Zeller, Eduard. Aristotle and the Earlier Peripatetics. 2 vols. London: Longmans, 1897. A useful study.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
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Date:Jan 1, 1999
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