An Introduction To Aristotle

Tell me, dear friend and reader: have you traveled lately? Have you thought deeply lately? Please—don’t withhold from me your answers. I know just how static and monotonous life can sometimes be. I know how inert and incurious we can sometimes get. If, to those two questions, you answered in the negative, here’s what I’ll ask you to: take a deep breath, expand the boundaries of your imagination, and accompany me on a journey back through time and space.The year to which we’ll be returning is 334 BC, and the land upon which we’ll be disembarking is Athens, Greece. 

There, in that hallowed city over which Athena, its gray-eyed namesake, and Poseidon, the mighty god of the sea, once vied, a new school for the teaching of rhetoric and philosophy has been established. Throughout the land, from the valleys of the Peloponnese to the cliffs of Corfu, it’s known as the Lyceum–a word that survives, so many centuries removed from the date of its coining, in the French word, lycée. For many years prior to its creation, countless other schools in Athens offering instruction in these and a variety of important subjects have existed, but the Lyceum, the newest school to which Athens has given birth, has, in many ways, succeeded in differentiating itself from the pack. 

Whereas the Academy of Plato, to take but one example, grants admittance only to the blue-blooded sons of the privileged elite, the Lyceum of Aristotle boasts of a more democratic enrollment. Its doors, only just recently opened, call out to the young, inquisitive, mostly middle-class scholars with whom the real, workaday city of Athens abounds. It includes in its diverse student body Athenians of humbler stock and smaller means. It delights in being the institution at which young men of undistinguished birth can, without a concern for their lineage, gather–decent and diligent boys over whom the great advantages of a noble pedigree have passed with unaffectionate haste, yet by whom the riches of wisdom are no less energetically sought, nor profitably gained. 

Named after the great Apollo Lyceus, god of the shepherds to whom, just outside the city walls, the pastoralists still pray, this newest institute of learning is housed in the most elegant gymnasium in all of Greece. A gymnasium, of course, meant something different to the ancients than it does to us. Some say it was financed by the upstart young king, Alexander, the great general and monarch who’s currently on campaign in the East. If the rumors are to be believed, the spoils of his Persian conquests, and the booty of his Indian forays, have contributed to the raising of this grand edifice of learning. 

Around it, in every direction, fragrant gardens spring, by whose invisible perfume, the delicious air is sweetened. One can almost taste the soft gardenias mixed with blushing roses, the ripe magnolias with which jaunty lilies dance. The freshness of pine and lavender linger on the lips, as the quiet aroma of nature infiltrates the spirit. In every direction one steps, he’s greeted by the cooling embrace of grass bedewed by mist. Shady groves accompany him wherever he decides to turn. With a silent majesty, they extend upward toward the sky. There, they form a leafy canopy just beneath the floor of heaven–a tranquil, verdant cloud by which the many walking paths–or peripatoi–on the grounds are invitingly embowered.

Pardon me–I must recover myself! I’ve been swept away by the beauty of the scene. 

Lest I forget where we are, allow me to remind us: we’re on the campus of the Lyceum. An Eden of education, a site as contemplative as it is beautiful and serene, the Lyceum will forever linger in our collective imagination. It persists with us as the model for the perfect school against which all other schools shall be measured. It will, for that reason, until the end of time, entice us with its everlasting promise of wisdom and welcome our return. It will become, for all time and for all people, the immortal place out of which the limpid fount of philosophy bubbles, from which every seeker of knowledge goes to drink and nourish his soul. 

Though new, a school of this stature surely flaunts a teacher of proportionate renown. You are correct in thinking so! It most certainly does. As it happens, the venerable leader of this school is a slender, bearded man by the name of Aristotle—a polymath whose dazzling credentials quite speak for themselves. A native of Stagira, a Greek colony just south of Thrace, Aristotle immigrated to Athens at the age of seventeen. On the cusp of adulthood, he could think of no better place to go than the very center of civilization and Western culture. And so, it was for the prospect of enlightenment that he ventured south, and for the love of philosophy that he decided to stay. 

Aristotle was, among other things, the son of a royal physician, the outstanding pupil of Plato, an alumnus of the Academy, the founder of the Lyceum, the sage of the syllogism, the first real biologist, an honorary proto-Christian, a saint to St. Thomas Aquinas, and the educator of a conqueror, the forenamed Alexander the Great, to whom history is yet to have produced an equal. From his father, he inherited the habit of scientific thinking; from his famous teacher, Plato, he was imbued with the ineffable spirit of the Forms. Thus, within him, the medical and the mystical, the biologic and the numinous, were forever in a state of tension. The one influenced the other, the other reciprocated in kind, and Aristotle’s unsurpassed genius was the composite result.  

And yet, as we know from our own experience, a parent’s influencefar exceeds that of a teacher; it is first to impress itself on a child, and it always arrives when docility reigns. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Aristotle is, before all else, a scientist. For one’s understanding of the world, he must rely on his senses, and nothing else. Empiricism is to be elevated over the blind cogitations of the mind, and the airy, abstract conclusions on which that fickle organ is prone to settle. Reliance on the infallibility of one’s reason, as was the method suggested and promoted by the arch-rationalist, Plato, can serve as no guide to the attainment of true knowledge. For that, one must refer to his faculty of sense. 

Accordingly, universals—distinct from the specific objects they represent—have no real existence outside the realm of sense. They are, rather, inseparable from and embedded in the things of which they’re supposed to be the higher and purer forms. Whereas Plato was at pains to emphasize the genuine reality of the Form or the Idea, and the cheapness of the lowly thing in which it merely partook, Aristotle denied that the Form, outside the thing, really exists. The two were inextricably bound, and the difficult word he used to describe this unseen combination of matter and form is Hylomorphism (hyle means “matter”, while morphe, unsurprisingly, means “form”). 

It was not Francis Bacon, but his empirical predecessor, Aristotle who inaugurated the use of the Scientific Method. Though he was enamored of the graceful logic of deductive reasoning, and never let pass an opportunity to bathe in the rushing streams of syllogistic thought, Aristotle recognized the importance of inductive thinking. Of the two approaches to reasoning in science, as we know, induction is by far the more important. And so, in time, he became increasingly comfortable generalizing from the specific data that were laid out before him, from which more reliable and empirical conclusions might be drawn. 

And yet, Aristotle is without shame; before our very eyes, without a moment’s hesitation, he proceeds to disrobe himself of his physician’s white coat and don, instead, the flowing garb of a metaphysician. This garment, in which he could more freely move, came to him as an inheritance from the wardrobe of Plato–a “hand-me-down” of sorts. Aristotle tried it on, and liked very much the way he looked and felt. 

Suddenly unrestrained by the stiff, collared laboratory coat given in which he was swaddled by his father, Aristotle could exercise his joints and dance around a world of new ideas. He was now free to leap and skip toward the heavens and stretch himself in every conceivable direction of thought. He was able to pivot his foot, spring upward, and turn his attention to the soul. In this most enticing of subjects, this most beguiling of topics over which countless intellectual wars have been waged, Aristotle was determined to involve himself.

By what other means would he do so than by applying his famed categories? His scientist’s penchant for categorization never did leave him.The soul, he says, exists on three planes: at its lowest, it is nutritive; in its intermediate state, it is sensitive; and at its highest grade, it is rational

No animate thing, in his opinion, is entirely soulless. Only those things totally devoid of life–things like rocks, pebbles, even the polished marble out of which Greece’s finest statuary is made–lack a soul. Along with animals and men, the plants of the earth have a nutritive soul. By their own doing, and without the aid of external help, they can receive nourishment and, with that nourishment, reproduce themselves and grow. They lack, however, the next grade, the sensitive soul, of which both animals and men are possessed. They have the ability to feel and respond to the environment in which they’re set. Finally, there is the rational soul, the highest of the three with which man is uniquely endowed. Thus, we find man, the highest of the animate beings, walking on two feet, and thinking as a rational animal. 

But what of the claim that man is, perhaps more than anything else, a fundamentally “political animal”? 

This, after all, is the one enduring insight by which Aristotle is still widely remembered. That he is political is a consequence of his capacity to reason. You’ll note, of course, that Aristotle makes no claim that man is a “social animal”, merely. This would be stopping too short. Social animals—like bees, or wolves, or ants, or lions—while intriguing because of their propensity to work together, have neither the thoughtful nor the voluntary compulsion to do so. It is an intuitive and unreflective act, completely different from the way in which men engage with men in an ordered society. Only men decide to combine themselves, to unify their interests, to calm their hostilities, to sublimate their selfish urges, and to observe duly-constituted laws in ways that will almost certainly differ from those of their neighbors. 

In what ways, then, might that polity be instituted? How will it differ from their neighbor’s? In what variety of fashions can it be built? Is the number of its permutations limited, or can endless forms be conceived and added?  

First, it should be said that Aristotle regards government as necessary. It’s the sine qua non of a functioning state, and nothing could be more unnatural than to dispose of it altogether. It’s not something to which we assent as a matter of convenience, nor a silly little game with which we gaily pass our time. No—for men, as we’ve learned, are inherently political and rational animals, and we can do nothing other than organize ourselves as such. To that end, in order to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and promote the general welfare, government is needed. 

But what form should it take? 

In pursuit of this answer, Aristotle reviewed the constitutions of no fewer than 158 Greek cities. Among so large a multitude of examples, he was glad to find that three distinct types emerged: Monarchy, or the rule of one; aristocracy, or the rule of a few; and a polity, or a constitutional government, which is the rule of many. From these three wholesome and benevolent types, an equal number of perverse analogues can be derived. Should they succumb to the pressures of corruption, a monarchy will degenerate into a tyranny; an aristocracy into an oligarchy; and a polity into a democracy. These are the six possibilities of political organization. To remember them, simply ask yourself, “By whom, or by how many, is the power held?” and, more importantly, “For whose benefit is it to be wielded?”

Having studied all these various forms, Aristotle concluded that the aristoi—the meritorious and the ablest—were best suited to rule. Among this elite, an enlightened monarch would be ideal, but the possibility of his degeneration into a self-serving tyrant was too horrible to bear. Only slightly worse than that would be the unguided rule of the mob, the ignorant, poor rabble in whom democracy unwisely vests her power. That too should be avoided. Disquieted by the thought of illiberalism from above or from below, Aristotle, as always, carefully opts for the middle path: a mixed constitution embracing the best of the three “good” types. 

Whereas politics is the science of the collective good, ethics concerns itself with the happiness of the individual. Ethics, from the Greek word, ethos, deals with one’s character—or the way in which he comports himself each and every day. His behavior should stand on its own, irrespective of the occasion, and without reference to the judgment of his fellow man. In acting a certain way, he develops a habit. In acting the right way, at the right time, and to the right people, he develops a good habit. This habit, or “excellence” as translated from the original Greek, comes to us from Latin to mean “virtue”. 

Of the categories of virtue, there are but two: intellectual and moral. To achieve the good life—which, in Aristotle’s view, is a happy life founded upon the practice of good habits—the moral virtues, more even than those of the intellect, must be very highly developed. They must be sharpened and tempered as though a blade. And just how many moral virtues are there? Aristotle lists four: prudence, temperance, justice, and courage. Each is a golden mean between two vicious alternatives. At one extreme, for example, cowardice is to be found. At the other, foolhardiness. These two poles are then bisected by courage, the intermediate virtue from which one should never stray.   

Just as there are four moral virtues, so too are there four causes. Aristotle moves us here from the subject of ethics, to that of causality. The causes are simple answers to the effects we see in daily life. When we look upon a shoe and ask ourselves, “Out of what material is that shoe made?”, we are inquiring after its material cause. In this case, it would be leather. Satisfied with that, we then proceed to ask ourselves, “Hmm. I wonder–by whom was this here shoe made?”. That would be the efficient cause, our industrious shoemaker. Next, we ask ourselves, “Into what is it being made?”. Our answer—a shoe. That is the formal cause. And, lastly, we ask ourselves, “For what purpose is it being made?” What, in other words, is the shoe’s end, the ultimate goal of its creation? For the support and protection of its wearer’s foot, I should think, and here we arrive at the final cause. 

God is one such final cause. 

It’s at this point we join with Aristotle in making a theological leap. 

If you’ll allow me a rather weak, perhaps even profane example, God is like the fresh baguette in the baker’s cracked window, to which every hungry passer-by on the street can’t but be drawn. The baguette, steamy and aromatic, entices me to enter the store, and thus acts on and moves me, without itself moving. It’s a purely attractive force, an utterly final cause, for which I’m made to enter the store and spend my money.

A weak example, no doubt–but one of whose weakness I warned you! 

In a similar way, God acts as a “Prime Mover”, Himself unmoved. Because He’s unmoved and eternal (like the everlasting universe of which He’s the cause), so too must he be immutable. That’s to say, he cannot change. If he existed in time, he’d be subject to change, as all temporal things must undergo some alteration through the course of their life. And because He’s immutable, he must also be immaterial. Everything that has matter has the potential to change. 

God is different. 

He exists in a state of pure actuality. He is form, through and through, without so much as even a touch of matter. Form without matter, Prime Mover unmoved, pure actuality, and the Final Cause—that’s the Aristotelian conception of the Deity. It’s a conception with which, many centuries later, Thomas Aquinas and the Medieval Scholastics giddily stood up and ran. 

Enough!— too much talk of the impenetrable complexities of God. We could spend a lifetime engulfed by and lost in those labyrinthine clouds. Let’s return, instead, from our journey to the heavens, and settle our restless feet on the firm, familiar ground where we began. And now, (having done so) let us make haste! The doors to the Lyceum are open, and its famous teacher is indicating that class is about to begin. Today’s lesson is as unpredictable as the last, for there is no subject upon which his extraordinary brilliance has failed to shine some light. We need only walk by his side, and listen to what he has to say. 

Walk by his side, as every good Peripatetic knows to do. 

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