Aristotle and Aristotelianism

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Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.), born at Stagira, in northern Greece, was a philosopher and scientist, and a student of Plato (c. 428–c. 348 b.c.e.). The range and depth of Aristotle's thought is unsurpassed. He wrote on logic, physics and metaphysics, astronomy, politics and ethics, and literary criticism. His work formed the backbone of much Islamic and late medieval philosophy. In the early 2000s he is taken seriously as a social scientist and philosopher of biology. On a number of levels his thought is significant for science, technology, and ethics.

Basic Concepts

The root of Aristotle's thought lies in his response to the central puzzle of ancient Greek philosophy. For something to come to be, it must come either from what it is or from what it is not. But it cannot come from what it is, for what already exists cannot come to be; nor can it come from what it is not, because there would not be anything for it to come to be from. Aristotle offered a commonsense solution to this conundrum: A kettle comes to be from and remains what it is, iron; but at the same time it comes to be from what it is not, not yet a kettle.

The confusion arises, Aristotle observes, because such concepts as "being" and "generation" are ambiguous; and this is because the objects to which they apply are not simple, but are compounds of hule, or matter, and morphe, or form. This view is known as hulomorphism. Matter is potentiality. The deer eats the corn and the hunter eats the deer: Thus the same materials are potentially herb, herbivore, and carnivore. The form is the actuality: This collection of matter at my feet is actually a dog.

Aristotle's primary interest was in the development of living things. He observed that an individual organism, say, Socrates, can change in a variety of formal ways: It can grow old or blush, but it remains the same thing—a human being and Socrates—all the while. Aristotle thus distinguished between accidents, such as Socrates' complexion, and his substance, which persists through many changes. Living organisms are clearly substances.

Aristotle's emphasis on substance reflects the general Greek view that what is most real is what persists through changes. But by this standard the species is more real than the individual, which dies. He thus felt compelled to distinguish between the primary substance, species, and secondary substances, individual organisms. This has its parallel in contemporary Darwinian thought: Some hold that it is the species form contained in the genes that is persistent and primary, and so is the real thing in evolution; others insist that the individual is the primary target of selection.

Perhaps Aristotle's most famous conceptual apparatus was his doctrine of causation, which he sometimes employed in analyzing technology but more often applied to living phenomena. The term for cause in Greek, aitia, indicates whatever is responsible for something being as it is or doing what it does. Aristotle distinguished four basic causes. Consider the growth of an animal from birth to adulthood. In part this happens because the organism is composed of certain materials, and these it may add to or subtract from itself (material causation). Second, it grows as it does because it is one kind of thing: Kittens become cats and never catfish (formal causation). Third, the form of the animal is more than a static arrangement; it is a complex dynamic process by means of which it is constantly recreating itself (efficient causation). Finally, this process does not proceed randomly but aims at some goal or telos, in this case the adult form (final causation).

Aristotle's insistence on teleological explanations (explaining something by explaining what it is for) became controversial in the modern period. But it amounts to two claims: First, many structural and behavioral features of organisms are clearly functional in design. Teeth are for biting and chewing. Second, organic processes are clearly self-correcting toward certain ends. The acorn grows toward an oak, its roots reaching down for water and minerals. The wolf weaves this way and that in order to bring down the fawn. Both of these claims are largely confirmed by modern biology.

From Biology to Politics

Aristotle's biology includes a distinctly nondualistic account of psyche, or soul, which in Greek refers to the principle of life. Rather than some separable substance, "soul" comprises all the processes by which the organism maintains itself and responds to its environment. In On the Soul, Aristotle distinguishes three types. Nutritive soul includes the capacity for self-nourishment, and so the possibility of growth and decay. All organisms possess this type of soul. Plants possess nutritive soul alone, but animal soul also includes perception and mobility. Finally, whereas animals are capable of pain and pleasure, human beings are capable of distinguishing what is really good and bad from what is merely attractive or unattractive, and so what is just from what is unjust. In addition to nutritive and animal soul, human beings possess logos, the power responsible for reason and speech. Aristotle's biology thus proceeds in a way similar to modern evolutionary accounts: Complex organisms are built by adding new levels of organization on top of existing ones.

Although Aristotle flirts only briefly with evolutionary explanations in biology, such an explanation is conspicuous at the beginning of his political science. Starting from political life as he knew it, he observed that the most elementary human partnerships were male and female (for the sake of procreation) and master and slave (for the sake of leisure). These comprise the household, which serves everyday needs. A union of households into a village serves more occasional needs, such as a barn raising. In turn, a union of villages makes up a polis, the independent city that was the foundation of classical political life. The polis is comprehensive: It incorporates all the elementary associations into a new, functional whole. Moreover the polis is self-sufficient, needing nothing more to complete it; and while it evolves for the sake of survival and comfort, it exists for the sake of the good life.

Aristotle's political science preserves the standard Greek classification of governments according to whether there is one ruler, a few, or many, as well as the argument that the primary tension in politics is between the few rich and the many poor. But it is not reductionist. What drives politics most of the time is not economic necessity but the desire for honor and wealth. Moreover, he recognizes a broad spectrum of regimes in place of simple kinds: Some monarchies are closer to aristocracies than others. In the body of the Politics Aristotle considers, from the point of view of various regimes, which institutions will tend to preserve that form and which will destabilize it. Because he includes even tyrants in this analysis, some have seen his approach as an example of a value-free social science. He also insists, however, that the authority of the ruling part of any partnership—father, king, or congress—is justified only to the degree that it serves the common good rather than the interest of the rulers. Aristotle's advice for more extreme regimes is also to move them in the direction of moderation, by broadening the base of citizens who benefit from the regime's rule. The goal of political action is the common good; authority should therefore be apportioned according to the contribution that each person or group can make toward that goal.

It is interesting to consider what Aristotle would have thought of modern technological and scientific expertise as a claim to rule. Unlike Plato, he does not explicitly consider the possibility of rule by trained elites. He does observe, however, that the best judge of a house is not the architect but the occupant, and similarly that the people collectively are better judges of policy outcomes than the best trained policymakers. Rule by experts would be safest in a regime with a substantial democratic element.

Aristotle's Ethics

The Ethics, like the Politics, begins with the observation that all human actions aim at some apparent good. But Aristotle distinguishes goods that are merely instrumental from those that are good in themselves. A person swallows a bitter medicine only for the sake of something else, health; but people seek out simple pleasures for their own sake. Aristotle argued that all the various good things can contribute to or be part of one comprehensive good, which he called eudaemonia, or blessedness. This term signifies a life that is complete and satisfying as a whole.

Eudaemonia requires certain basic conditions—such as freedom, economic self-sufficiency, and security—and it can be destroyed by personal tragedies. It is to this degree dependent on good fortune. Most important, however, are those goods of the soul that are largely resistant to fortune. The body of the Ethics is accordingly devoted to a treatment of virtues such as bravery, temperance, generosity, and justice. Perhaps Aristotle's greatest achievement was to have reconciled the concept of a virtuous action with that of a virtuous human being. Aristotle usually defines a virtuous action as a mean between two extremes. For example, a brave action is a mean between doing what is cowardly and what is foolhardy, in a given set of circumstances. But it is not enough merely to perform the appropriate action; virtue is also a matter of the appropriate emotional reactions, neither excessively fearful nor insensitive to genuine dangers. A virtue, then, is the power of acting and reacting in a measured way.

Virtues are different, however, from those powers that come directly from nature. In the case of sight, for example, one must first possess the power before one can begin to use it. By contrast, it is only by first doing brave things that one then becomes brave. Thus, a virtue requires cultivation. A virtuous person is someone who is habituated to acting properly in each situation, without hesitation, and who does so because it is the virtuous thing to do. The most important requirement of eudaemonia is the possession of a complete set of virtues.

Aristotle draws a clear distinction between moral and intellectual virtues. The former are acquired by habituation and produce right action in changing circumstances. The latter are acquired by learning and are oriented toward an understanding of the nature of things. Modern scientific and technological expertise certainly involves intellectual virtues as Aristotle understood them. But the one sort of virtue does not imply the other: A good ruler might be illiterate, or a scientist greedy and a coward. This is another Aristotelian reason why expertise alone cannot be a sufficient title to rule.


For well more than a thousand years after his death, and across several great traditions, Aristotle's works guided research in natural science, logic, and ethics. In Greek philosophy his own school, the Peripatos or Lyceum, long survived him; the first of many revivals of Aristotelianism occurred in the first century b.c.e., when Andronicus of Rhodes edited and published his major works. Aristotelianism thrived in centers of Hellenistic civilization and was revived again as part of a Byzantine scholarly renaissance in the ninth century c.e. By that time Aristotle's works had been translated into Syriac and Arabic, and in these languages became available both to Islamic and Jewish scholars. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Aristotelian corpus was gradually translated into Latin and introduced to Western Christendom.

In all these traditions, his work served as a stimulus to scientific, ethical, and even technological progress. His natural science inspired his successor at the Lyceum, Theophrastus (c. 372–c. 287 b.c.e.), who produced an impressive botany. His logic, his empiricism, and his interest in nature inspired the stoics. Aristotle's work was instrumental to the medical researches of Galen (129–c. 199 c.e.) and the optics of Alhazen (965–1039 c.e.). Perhaps most importantly, the Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) and the Christian Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) wedded a modified Aristotelianism to existing theologies in attempts to create comprehensive systems of thought. Even his early modern critics such as Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) employed methods and concepts that were Aristotelian in origin.

Aristotle's reputation went into decline with the rise of early modern science and has only recently recovered. This is sometimes attributed to his scientific errors, which were many. He believed for example in spontaneous generation, the view that organisms can be produced by the action of heat and moisture on natural materials. He believed that in sexually reproducing species, the male provides all the form while the female provides only the matter. He believed that the function of the brain is to cool the blood. But such mistakes, amusing as they are, were due to the poverty of his experimental technologies and not to errors in his basic theories.

Nor do the flaws in his methods of investigation explain the modern decline of Aristotelianism. His logic was sound and is mostly preserved in contemporary philosophy. Moreover, contrary to a common prejudice, he and his students aimed at a rigorous empiricism. They gathered as much data as possible given the available technologies. It is true that Aristotle lacked a modern scientific method by which a hypothesis might be built and tested. But such a method could have as easily been employed to build on the Aristotelian foundation of premodern thought as to undermine it.

The reason for Aristotle's dismissal had more to do with the status of physics as the paradigmatic science. Confining itself to the mechanics of matter and energy, modern physics achieved a rigor previously matched only by abstract mathematics. On the topic of physics, Aristotle is embarrassingly weak, in part because he tried to extend biological reasoning to inorganic nature. Modern biologists, who might have defended him, suffered from their own inferiority complex. They were particularly embarrassed by the occasional flirtation of biologists with occult concepts, such as a mysterious "vital force" in living things. They accordingly pursued a rigorously reductionist view of organisms and tried to avoid any hint of purpose in their descriptive language. They could not afford to be seen in public with Aristotle, who was famous for teleological explanations.

Since the mid-twentieth century, the center of gravity in modern science has begun to shift from physics toward biology. This is marked by the quite literal drift of talented physicists into the laboratories of the biologists. One reason for this shift is the recognition that biology is in some ways a broader science than physics. No biologist is much surprised by the findings of chemists; but no physical scientist could remotely expect the existence of a cell from the principles of chemistry. As biology has become increasingly confident, it finds itself speaking in a language that is reminiscent of Aristotle. It is now safe to recognize him, in the words of the American zoologist Ernst Mayr (b. 1904), as the greatest contributor to current knowledge of life before Charles Darwin (1809–1882).

In recent decades a number of thinkers have taken Aristotelian approaches to the philosophy of biology, bioethics, and political philosophy. The philosopher Hans Jonas (1903–1993) adopted a hulomorphism, teleology, and concept of life derived largely from Aristotle's On the Soul. Jonas (1966) argued that the greatest error of modern thought was dualism, in particular the isolation of the concept of mind from that of the living body. For Jonas, mind, and perhaps even some germ of consciousness, is present even in the simplest organisms. As in Aristotle, the natural history of mind and that of organic life are in fact the same study.

This rejection of dualism has important ethical as well as philosophical consequences. Modern ecological thought has largely discredited the early modern view of nature as a storehouse of materials to be manipulated by human will. If humans are as much a part of nature as any organic or inorganic process, then nature should be approached with respect, and cultivated rather than merely manipulated. Deeply influenced by Jonas, the philosopher Leon Kass (1985) puts special emphasis on the dignity of human life. As Aristotle argued, human beings share the capacities of soul that demarcate plants and animals but enjoy other capacities (such as speech and intelligence) that are found nowhere else in nature. Precisely if human nature is the result of an unrepeatable evolutionary process, we ought to take a cautiously ecological approach to biotechnology.


SEE ALSO Natural Law;Plato;Scientific Ethics;Thomas Aquinas;Virtue Ethics.


Arnhart, Larry. (1998). Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature. Albany: State University of New York Press. An attempt at reconciling Aristotle with contemporary Darwinian social and political thought.

Barnes, Jonathan, ed. (1984).The Complete Works of Aristotle, 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. A good collection of Aristotle's major works.

Charlton, William, ed. (1984). Aristotle's "Physics," Book One and Two. Oxford: Clarendon Press. An excellent translation with notes of one of the most important passages in Aristotle's work. Includes discussions of hulomorphism, the doctrine of four causes, and teleology.

Gotthelf, Allan, and James G. Lennox, eds. (1987). Philosophical Issues in Aristotle's Biology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. A collection of important essays by different scholars concerning Aristotle's philosophy of biology. All take Aristotle seriously from the point of view of modern biology.

Jaffa, Harry V. (1963). "Aristotle." In History of Political Philosophy, ed. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Not included in later editions of the Strauss-Cropsey collection, this is possibly the best essay on Aristotle's politics in English.

Jonas, Hans. (1966). The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology. New York: Delta. A sustained attempt to reconstruct an Aristotelian philosophy of life out of the insights and evidence provided by modern biology.

Kass, Leon. (1985). Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs. New York: Free Press. A series of essays taking a mostly Aristotelian approach to contemporary bioethical questions.

Lennox, James G. (2001). Aristotle's Philosophy of Biology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. A collection of essays by one of the foremost authorities on Aristotelian biology.

Nussbaum, Martha C., and Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, eds. (1992). Essays on Aristotle's "De anima." Oxford: Clarendon Press. A number of diverse essays organized around the question whether Aristotle's biological thought can be commensurate with modern biology.