Aristotle’s Philosophy (384-322 BC), A Perspective
by Dr. Parviz Dehghani
Aristotle’s Philosophy (384-322 BC), A Perspective
Who was he? He was a man from Macedonia whose father wanted him to be a physician or medical doctor someday. However, once he became student of Plato at the academy he decided to study philosophy. Up to this point Aristotle and I had a similar destiny. However, what he achieved in the history and development of Western philosophy are both astonishing and without rival. Not only was he a thinker, he was also a scientist, astronomer and political theorist. He didn’t create logic, which is absurd to think this way. But he was the inventor of what we call today symbolic or formal logic. His works on biology, psychology, ethics, physics, metaphysics and politics are incredible. He paved the way for debate in all these areas up to the present times. Law students at undergraduate level are still required to study his writings on justice.
Let us not forget that the word ‘metaphysics’ came to existence after his works on theology and higher Reality were put after what he wrote on physics and science. This term means both after and beyond. Therefore, this word became a household in philosophy.
Not all of his writings on different subjects are still credible. For example, what he taught on fixed stars were rejected once the star super nova was discovered by Johann Kepler (1571-1630), the German astronomer to last only a short time and then disappeared later on. Centuries before Kepler the Chinese had spotted it. In fact all together it was observed three times in history.
He left Greece and went back to Macedonia where he was born shortly after he died. But before his departure he said I’m not going to let Athens commit another crime against philosophy like it was done to Socrates. In reality he must have feared about his life especially when his patronage, Alexander the Great had passed away. Alexander died at an early age and left Aristotle with no protection.
Aristotle for some peculiar reason didn’t succeed Plato as the head of the academy. We can speculate as to why this happened. Perhaps Plato was not so happy with Aristotle over his rejection of his theory of Forms. Let us remember Plato was a mathematician and Aristotle was a biologist. Whereas Plato was concerned with the vertical Reality of Forms of perfection, Aristotle focused on the world of experience and senses. While Plato paid attention to the One, Aristotle had eyes on the many. I believed this was very much captured by Raffaello Santi’s painting called ‘School of Athens’ where Plato’s right hand is pointing to the ceiling and Aristotle walking on his left side was stretching his right hand forward with his fingers wide open. Aristotle tried to reduce Plato’s Forms to the level of mind, which were corresponding to the objective world. For Plato the world was but a reflection of the Forms. St. Augustine could solve the problem of the Holy Trinity by following Plato who had said at one level of existence one and many are one. This is where Augustine went beyond either/or logic of Aristotle. However, St. Aquinas had to struggle with Aristotle’s either/or logic when it came to Jesus being fully God and fully man. Nevertheless, he argued that this logic is good for science not theology and ethics. Even Aristotle himself didn’t think his either/or logic belonged to practical science. The house of Logic is the mind.
Intelligence is a different matter all together. The Intellect is an uncreated Reality within us like Atman in Hinduism. Intelligence can correspond to God and ethics. But Immanuel Kant’s pure reason is where either/or logic of Aristotle belongs. There must have been a struggle between Plato and Aristotle in those 20 years. It is hard to believe that Aristotle hardly wrote and what we have as his works are his student’s notes. After his death these writings were lost for 200 years or so. Fortunately they were found in the island of Crete. They were later translated into Latin by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius A.D. (475?-525?), the Roman philosopher and statesman around 500 AD. The influence of Aristotle’s thoughts went as far as Syria and Islamic world while Christian Europe totally disregarded him in favor of Plato.
St. Thomas Aquinas, however, studied Aristotle’s philosophy in the University of Paris in 13th century and tried to reconcile his thoughts with Christian doctrine.
Aristotle’s philosophy almost dominated the Western Europe as a result of Thomas Aquinas’s efforts and prior to him Averroes (Ibn Rushed) (1126-?-98), Arab Muslim philosopher in Spain. Ibn Rushed undoubtedly wrote one of the best commentaries on Aristotle’s works, which are still used to this today.
Aristotle was educated in Plato’s ‘Academy’ and stayed with him for 20. He never replaced Plato as the head of the academy. He established his own institution called ‘the Lyceum’. He taught a philosophy, which was very different from Plato’s in method and content. He focused on observation and exact classification of data in his studies. No wonder why he is regarded as the father of empirical science and scientific method.
Unlike Plato, Aristotle always approached his investigations through the opinions of experts and lay people prior detailing his own arguments under the assumption that some grain of truth is likely to be discovered in commonly held ideas. His method was stiff and didn’t follow of the converting tone of those who had gone before him.
As you can see, Aristotle seems to have stepped back into the period of scientific inquiry with the presocratics by passing Socrates and Plato. However, in contrast there’s a distinction between Aristotle and them, namely he rejected the idea that the multiple different branches of man’s inquiry could, in principle, be included within a larger class (Webster’s), under one discipline established on some universal philosophic principle. Various sciences demand various axioms or scientific laws and accept varying degrees of precision based on their subject. Therefore, Aristotle refuted there could be precise laws of human nature while holding that certain metaphysical categories like quantity, quality, substance and relation could be applied to the description of all phenomena. Please don’t get confused here. In the final analysis, as you might remember, in Rafael Santi’s painting called ‘School of Athens’ Aristotle right hand is stretched out forward with his fingers wide open while Plato is pointing to the ceiling with his right hand expressing the oneness of Reality.
Aristotle spoke of his idea of teleology, or purpose, a common cord in most of his works. Based on his studies in biology he came to the conclusion that both animate and inanimate behavior is geared toward some final goal (‘telos’) or aim. We usually explain people’s behavior, institutions and nations in terms of aims, goals and purposes. For instance, he got his Ph.D in psychology to teach at graduate school. The school is having an outdoor entertainment to come up with the money to repair the roof. Our country is going to war in order to safe guard our national security. However, Aristotle thought the idea of end or goal could be called for explaining the behavior of everything in the universe. Everything to him had a natural capability and aims towards satisfying or exhibiting that function. Although Aristotle didn’t use his either/or logic for ethics, he was able to connect it to the idea of functioning in physics. He argued that the natural function of human beings is to reason, and to reason correctly is to reason according to virtue.
Unlike Kant and later Mill, that regarded actions as the subject of ethical judgments, Aristotle emphasized the character of the individual as that which is morally good or bad. In his virtue ethics he explains that what is important is who we’re more than what we do. It is our being that matters the most. Alistair Macintyre revived the so called ‘virtue ethics’ of Aristotle in late 20th century moral philosophy. Many moral philosophers have turned back to revisit Aristotle’s ethics and shown interest in promoting it over Kant’s action ethics. For Aristotle ‘being’ matters a lot in ethics. We ought to be the best in what we’re, just as a player of violin or cello or any other instrument. We should be like the best piano player in our character. Luther before he was assassinated said it is not the color of skin that matters but the content your character. Who are you is the issue here not whether you’re different from others based on your colors.
We all know by now that Aristotle rejected Plato’s philosophy of Forms. He argued that those Forms belong to the world we live in and they’re not transcendent. They’re the products of the way the mind functions. This reductionism of Aristotle led philosophy to a great deal of intellectual pain later on. Plato’s Forms were reduced to concepts in our mind corresponding to the objects in the world, which is a horizontal way of explaining this process in contrast to Plato’s method, which is vertical. There’re hundred dogs all around us. Since we have the concept of what a dog is, we can easily understand when someone speaks of his or her dog. Let us not forget that Plato’s Forms are not subject to change and that is how he was able to define what change is. However, when Aristotle speaks of four causes he argued that they’re very important in the world. These 4 causes are the structures of the universe. The very famous artist of Renaissance Michael Angelo once said there’s an angel in this rock and it is my job to bring it out. When he was presented with a block of marvel he brought the statue of David out of it. Of course, he never said David was an angel. For Aristotle the sculptor was one cause, which we call efficient one or the maker cause. So we have our first ‘M’. The material cause is the block of marvel, which leads us to our second ‘M’. Our first ‘F’ is our formal cause here, which is the statue of David. Our final cause or second ‘F’ is where it is going to be erected. Once we consolidate the first and the second ‘M’, we have matter and with the consolidation of the first ‘F’ and the second ‘F’ we end up with form. So here is our form and matter. But is this form the same as Plato’s Form? Given Aristotle’s idea of potentiality and actuality, this form needs matter and this matter needs form so together they can reach their goal, which is actuality. An acorn is potentially an oak tree but not actually. For Aristotle this form is the identity or the essence of this project. However, it needs the potency of matter to manifest itself. To get to Trenton this horse (matter) needs the guidance of the rider (form) to get there. However, for this motion to make sense, Aristotle needed a constant or a station or a fixed reality. But where is it? If this form is not Plato’s Form, then how could he justify movement? This is when Aristotle, to my opinion, realized he was unable to explain motion unless he believed in an immutable Reality. When he was asked whether there was another form that didn’t need matter to reach its actuality, he responded by saying yes and that is pure Form, which is God. We ask Aristotle whether or not this Form would match Plato’s Form? Aristotle’s pure Form is the same as the unmoved Mover or uncaused Cause. Looks like Aristotle went all around the world to finally come back to Plato’s Forms which he originally rejected.
Something similar must have taken place for Buddha who had claimed there was nothing in the universe which was not subject to change. To him everything moves and changes and our suffering is the result of attachment to the world and ourselves. We, however, ask Buddha the same question, which is how can you justify change, if there’s no reality at rest? He refuted the existence of all deities, gods and goddesses. He denied the existence of God. If these are not immutable realities, then what does motion mean in contrast? It is possible that he only denounced People’s perceptions and interpretations of them. But the question still remains as to how he justified movement. The only possible response would be this world of change and becoming is nothing but an illusion. Therefore, the question of the justification of change becomes absurd. The reality of the gods and God is beyond any dualism such as being and non-being, existence and non-existence. Then they can’t help us to understand motion, because they don’t exist logically. But is it true that Buddha also rejected the belief in MAYA or illusion, namely the whole universe is but an illusion? Of course, if Plato thought of the Ultimate Reality, which is beyond dualism, then perhaps he would have said this world is nothing but an illusion. This way he wouldn’t have had any reason to justify change and becoming. I believe this is where even Aristotle would have admitted that this world is like a dream or a passing bubble.
His idea of ‘substance and accident’ was used in the Catholic Church to explain the Eucharist. An apple is the substance and its color is an accident. This color’s existence depends on the existence of the substance. In Transubstantiation substances change but not their accidents. Referring to the bread and wine, Jesus said this is my body and this is my blood. Once they’re consumed it is their substances that change not their accidents. Here apples become oranges not their accidents. The change here is substantial not accidental. We don’t become Christ, however, by participating in the mass but we’re accidents and Jesus is the substance.
Aristotle introduced three major ideas to philosophy: form and matter, potentiality and actuality and substance and accident.
At the end he was student of Plato.
(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers, by Philip Stokes)