Aristotle

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Submitted by NickOtani on Tue, 2007-07-17 22:35

Aristotle, (384 BCE – 322 BCE), was born fifteen years after the death of Socrates, in the city of Stagirus, on the northern coast of the Aegean Sea. He was the son of a doctor, the official physician to the king of Macedon, but he was orphaned at an early age. When he was about 17 or 18 years old, he went to Athens to complete his education at Plato’s Academy. He remained at the Academy for the remaining nineteen years of Plato’s life and became one of Plato’s most respected students. However, they did have disagreements toward the end of Plato’s life. Aristotle thought Plato was becoming too mystical, too concerned with the mental realm, and he wanted to bring philosophy back down to earth. He was more concerned with experimenting on and classifying things in the material world. Perhaps due to these disputes, Aristotle was not chosen to head the Academy after Plato’s death. That honor went to Plato’s nephew Speusippus. So, Aristotle accepted an invitation from Hermias to do marine biology research in his region, near the site of Troy, and left the Academy.

In 343, Aristotle was called upon to be a tutor for a thirteen year old prince named Alexander, who later became Alexander the Great.

Alexander was not destined to become another great philosopher, but he did go out and conquer much of Asia and Hellenized that part of the world. If Plato and Aristotle were the contemplative type philosophers, Alexander was the more active. He was only a student of Aristotle’s for three years, in which he probably learned about Homer’s Illiad, and he remained a friend and supporter of Aristotle, sending him artifacts and samples from distant lands so that Aristotle could experiment on and classify them.

In 335, Speusippus died, and Aristotle was passed over again in favor of his friend Xenocrates. So, Aristotle rented some buildings near the gymnasium named for Apollo Lyceus and opened the second school in Athens, the Lyceum. Alexander the Great contributed a large sum of money to this undertaking. While the Academy continued to focus on numbers and mental things, mathematics and astronomy, the Lyceum focused on natural sciences and history. It had a large collection of plants and animals and curious objects. Much of this, and the original graduates of the Lyceum, moved later to Alexandria and became part of the Museum of Alexandria.

For twelve years, Aristotle ran the Lyceum without significant problems, but, in 323, Alexander died. There were anti-Macedonian riots in several places in Greece, to include Athens. Aristotle became vulnerable. When he heard that a charge of impiety was being trumped up against him, as was trumped up against Socrates, Aristotle fled saying, “…in order to prevent the Athenians from sinning a second time against philosophy.”

He died a year later, in the town of Chalis, in 322, of a stomach complaint. He was sixty-two years old.

Aristotle and Plato wrote both dialogues and treatises, but much material has been lost. What we have are the dialogues of Plato and the treatises, and perhaps student notes of lectures, of Aristotle. More material was lost than what remains, and what remains is very difficult to navigate. Aristotle did revise his thoughts from time to time, and it is difficult to know what his final thoughts were. Scholars try to organize material as best they can, assuming that the views most distant from Plato’s views are what Aristotle arrived at last. Many of them contradict earlier views, and many scholars disagree about what Aristotle finally believed.

Scholars have coined the term “metaphysics” from the way they organized topics which seemed to come before the topic of “physics”, which seem to lay the foundation for physics. Other topics seem to fall into categories of epistemology and ethics.

Aristotle has also been proven wrong about many of his observations. He made these observations without the help of modern devices which measure, magnify, and detect. He had no microscope and no telescope, inventions which came later. He thought, as Ptolemy thought, that the earth was the center of the universe and other planets rotated around it. He thought that lighter objects fall at a slower rate than heaver objects. He made many mistakes, but his method of categorizing helped form the empirical sciences of biology and botany, and he is credited with formalizing logic, which gave us certain laws to facilitate communication and thinking about any intellectual inquiry.

Although Aristotle’s materials were lost to western civilization during the dark ages, many of them were still available to the Islamic world, which had a very productive period while the west was in the dark. Then, when Saint Thomas Aquinas read some of Aristotle’s materials and tried to incorporate them into his Catholic dogma, Aristotle’s philosophy received a revival. This continued until people other than priests could read Greek for themselves and Aristotle’s writings helped bring the world out of the dark ages and into the Renaissance and a scientific revolution.

Aristotle’s disagreement with Plato is that the form is not as distinct from the matter as Plato described it. Aristotle thought that the form was in the matter, that matter has potential to approach the form. When something achieves actualization, it reaches its form. The mature oak tree is already in the acorn, just as the adult is already in the infant.

There are four causes in Aristotle’s metaphysics. The material cause is the stuff from which something is made. Thales thought water was the primary source of all things, that water was the material cause. Wood would be the material cause of a wooden house. However, wood is not enough to have the house. There must also be the form. When the wood takes on the form of the house, it is matter achieving the form of the house. So form is also important, but it is not detached from matter, as it is in Plato’s realm of forms. The force which puts the form into effect is the efficient cause. The builder of the house is the efficient cause of the house. And, the end result is the final cause. The finished house is the result of the efficient cause applied to the material cause and formal cause. The wood is the material cause of the house. The plan, the blueprint, is the form, the formal cause. The builder is the efficient cause. And, the finished house is the final cause, the actualized house.

Since Thales only got as far as the material cause, and Plato seemed concerned with the formal cause; Aristotle seemed to take things further.

Later, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) used part of Aristotle’s rationale for the “efficient cause” to support cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God. Aristotle supported an argument for a prime mover, something to get the ball rolling, but it is not a personal God. Aquinas tweaked this a little to fit his purpose.

In Epistemology, Aristotle is credited with formalizing logic. He is not the first to use it. We remember that Socrates often used logic to win points against sophists, but Aristotle was the first to actually formulate the universal syllogism, that all A’s are B’s, and so and so is an A ; therefore, so and so is an B. And, he provided axioms, the law of identity, that A is A, and the excluded middle, that A is either A or not A, and the law of non-contradiction, that A cannot be both A and not A at the same time. These are procedural rules for communication and thinking. They do not necessarily tell us something about reality. Reality may change as we are talking about it, but if A changes identity before we get to the end of our argument, then nothing can be concluded. Terms have to retain their definitions long enough to make coherent points. We cannot conclude that so and so is a B if A’s and B’s change their identity every time we use them.

Ayn Rand and her people would like to use this law of identity to mean a little more than what Aristotle meant for it to mean. They would like it to say that existence exists and has a specific nature which can be identified by a consciousness. This goes beyond procedural rules for communication and thinking. Logic may be a tool for facilitating some truth about reality, but it is a tool we use. And, it is limited, like a net that drags the ocean for artifacts that we can study. Some things which could shed more light on our discoveries will always slip through the holes, yet if there are no holes, there is no functioning net.

In Ethics, Aristotle is famous for the Golden Mean. Courage is the midway point between the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness. Temperance is the midway point between the extremes of insensibility and licentiousness. Wittiness is the midway point between boorishness and buffoonery. Modesty is the midway point between shamelessness and bashfulness. Justice is the sum of all these virtues.

In politics, Aristotle applied his principle of the Golden Mean, moderation in all things, to advocating the middle –class, not the aristocrats nor the poor, have power. He thought society was more important than the individual, that man ought to subjugate himself to society, and he disagreed strongly with Plato that women should be allowed positions of power over men. He was also not against slavery. The poor and the slaves should be compelled to work and philosophy and the good life would be only for the upper classes. Political leaders would be considered corrupt when they start focusing on selfish goals rather than public welfare.

This is definitely not the part of Aristotle Rand would want to emphasize, except for the part about women submitting to men. So, she may not want people to pick apart her philosophy, agree with parts of it and leave other parts behind, but it is something she does with Aristotle’s philosophy.

bis bald,

Nick


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