Overview of Aristotle's Philosophy
1. Physical senses guide us to knowledge
2. Natural things are designed to serve a purpose
3. Habits are virtuous
What Do You See? Plato Vs. Aristotle
Plato thought forms of things were pre-created in a higher realm. He believed reliance on physical senses would alter what they truly were. In Plato’s theory he warns us that we cannot be deceived by the sensible world, and that these forms in their partnerships are mere mirror shadows of what truly exists in the spiritual world. He warns us not to be prisoners of the sensible world and that awareness of this higher spiritual realm and forms will help us break through the deception and imperfection of the real world. This makes sense to me in one aspect: if there is a color that exists in another world, how could we possibly recognize it if we were never exposed to it? In turn, we are prisoners of our physical world if we believe all that we have been exposed to is all that there is.
However, we cannot discount our physical world entirely. It draws us to the light, the wind on our faces, the sun on our skin, the rhythmic rocking of the ocean; all of these things inspire us to ask more questions.
Please see my article on Plato's Philosophy (Theory of Forms) for more details-his theory is very thought-evoking.
Aristotle had the opposite view.
Aristotle said “a good truthful account must be faithful to appearances” (Roochnik, 2004, p. 169). He references phenomena and that we should take things as they let themselves be seen. That what we see or experience is nature it its fullest sense and it must be identifiable (Roochnik, 2004, p. 176) We cannot call something by its elemental make up, thus when he says to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself (Roochnik, 2004, p. 176); it is the color, the shape, the feel, the taste, the resulting impression left upon our physical experience with it and it is in that essence of physical impression we find the nature of something. The soft wind, the hot sun, the cold ice, the beautiful red rose, the feeling of victory, and the comfort of love. If we did not find the nature of something in its form of what we see and how it impresses us, we would not have names or descriptions for them; we would not have our own ‘reality’ of forms and understand the nature of the forms because we need to bring that experience into a language or understanding we know.. Therefore, Aristotle was explaining through his theory that, unlike Democritus believed, humans need to understand truth through what they experience in the sensible world, including through what they see because that is what impacts them and gives them clues into the nature of forms.
What do you see?
How can we call something a name if we cannot see it? The form is the end result of the combination of things that make it. What ‘matters’ is how this end result of form impacts us. We can see, touch, feel, hear the nature of the culmination of atoms and what we can see by using our physical senses, more than what the atoms or molecules or parts are. We cannot see the elements that make up an object or tangible thing. Thus we name and know what we experience through senses. Water has oxygen in it, as does air, but they are not the same. Trees have carbon in them, as does the fire, but they are not the same. Thus, the names we give the forms, are their nature to us, how we perceive and are impressed by them and what we find as the end result of their form in a shape that we can identify. It is not ‘actually so’ until it attains a form that we can identify, thus it is not potentially a thing that we recognize, or a partially constructed object: that means nothing to us, once it actualizes its potential we can recognize it and understand its nature (Roochnik, 2004, p. 174)
Natural Things Serve a Purpose: Arguments Against Democritus and Empedocles Theories
Aristotle saw that natural beings have the principle of motion and rest, and each movement has an origin (Roochnik, 2004, p. 165). People move things with their hands, plants move toward the sun, animals move towards food and there is no external force required, thus natural things have this principle of moving (Roochnik, 2004, p. 165). These natural things differ from things not constituted by nature because those things lack the principle of movement. Aristotle believed that nature was orderly, and nearly everything has a purpose. He did not argue everything had a purpose because he did not believe that falling rain fell with a purpose but as a result of something else, even though it served a purpose (Roochnik, 2004, p. 180). Aristotle pointed out leaves on plants protect the stem, and eyelashes protect our eyes. He believed teeth sharpened in the front were not a result of some random coincidence of combined atoms as Empedocles would argue, but rather for the purpose of being able to tear food and eat (Roochnik, 2004, p. 181). But necessity predicates purpose as the origin of movement precipitates the change. Thus, there has to be something that precipitated our functions and purpose and even further still, something had to ‘cause’ natural things’ movements.
Empedocles and Democritus argue that atoms and random collisions of particles form things ‘by chance’ but as Aristotle points out, there is no coincidence in sharp teeth serving a purpose as if ‘designed’. There is no arguing eyelashes protrude from our lids to serve the purpose of protecting our eyes. Thus, he argues we are made with purpose. Whose purpose or what’s purpose? Well, if we take Empedocles’ theory that random collisions of atoms create things, WHAT created the atoms? WHAT caused the movement of collision to form the ‘random’ natural things in this world?
So Aristotle takes a reverse approach: Natural things have functions that serve a purpose, they have designs created with intent, their designs are not random, but even if they were random as Empedocles and Democritus would argue, something caused them to move, and these moving atoms are of ‘matter’ and this matter had to come from somewhere, thus the origin or arche of life is the unmoved mover, a God, a creator who first created the matter, and then moved it. From that movement, the result was nature, things that continue to move from the first ‘push’ of our creator, and form with functions and designs of purpose. They continue to move, or change, until they reach their final cause and change, and the cycle continues.
From this account, I can imagine a creator that created particles and upon his hand, blew them like dandelion pappi with a wish of defined and purposeful creation that was certain to be granted. Although this creator is not actively involved, the creation started with this Unmoved Mover’s thought, creation, design, and movement. It is because of this sensible and only conclusion that Aristotle believed there absolutely must be a God or creator, otherwise everyone’s philosophies are void without full explanation of the beginning.
So let's take a look at both Philosopher's individually and why Aristotle (and I) disagree with their theories:
Democritus and Empedocles had a common theme of ‘science’. Democritus’ atomism posited that all things are tiny bits of things that collide and as a result ‘become’. (Roochnik, 2004, p. 50). He essentially states atoms are separate but can collide and come into ‘being’. He also rejected doxa as illusions and misleading, coining them as bastard truths because one cannot ‘know’ from the physical senses (Roochnik, 2004, p. 52). Because atoms are not qualitative we are just giving things like taste, and colors our own names, but that is simply our physical reactions to them.
Aristotle found issue with this. He believed that by stating all things are the results of compounded atoms, it takes away the unique identity of things as well as purpose of things (Roochnik, 2004, p. 55).
I agree with Aristotle’s conclusion in the way that Democritus’ writings were interpreted in one area: if Democritus believed the spirit or soul was an ‘atom’ or ‘bit’ of something and indivisible, then I could agree with his philosophy almost entirely. The ability to ‘name’ our souls is impossible. It holds no qualitative terms that we know physically because it is a spirit, and intangible. Thus if the result of all bits of matter coming together from collision, and the soul was the final piece that was the catalyst to our ‘becoming’ then I would agree. But he forgets to include "the beginning". What collided these atoms together. Some FORCE exists.
Therefore; the way it was written, or interpreted, I have to agree with Aristotle. We all are clearly unique and possess personalities and souls. This part of our being is not clearly described in Democritus’ philosophy.
When I stated that if the former were explained more clearly that I could almost agree with Democritus’ philosophy it its entirety, the part I cannot agree with is the random ‘by’ chance amalgamation of atoms without purpose, as Aristotle pointed out (Roochnik, 2004, p. 56). It is obvious that our anatomy is arranged in a way which serves purpose. We do not walk around with mouth less faces, or without stomachs or intestines. Each of our carefully arranged parts of our bodies from our pinky toes to our thumbs serve a purpose. Whether for balance, for nourishment, or through adaptation, our body parts, as a result of compounded atoms, serve a purpose in a very artfully crafted and precise way. Thus, Aristotle made two poignant observations in his critique of Democritus.
Empedocles’ philosophy was also atomistic in that he believed atoms came together through love and separated through strife, or less emotionally put; through attraction and repulsion (Roochnik, 2004, p. 59). He states there are four elements to all things which are earth, air, wind and fire, and then two other ‘things’ being love and strife. Thus things bind and separate, and grow to one from many, and from many to one (Roochnik, 2004, p. 60). His theory also alludes to evolution in six stages encompassing many things coming together, some separating resulting in earth, air, water, and fire, the additional compounding after the formation of elements created the first building blocks of animal bones or structure, at first not quite the way they should be constructed in order to survive, and then finally some were viable and survived (Roochnik, 2004, pp. 60-61). Aristotle again objects to this type of philosophy based on its exclusion of qualitative traits of animals and people. He also adds to his objection that the random merging of compounds by chance as Empedocles posits, that no result would ever be permanent, the same, or stable (Roochnik, 2004, p. 61). Again, I have to agree with this insight as species exist, not by chance, but by repetitive and purposeful culminations of the same atomic and chromosomal mixtures. Based on Empedocles’ philosophy, none of us or animals should be the same, and if we were, it would only be a coincidence. Seven billion humans is not a result of mere chance collisions of atoms. Secondly Aristotle objects, as he did with Democritus’ philosophy, that Empedocles’ philosophy lacked any purpose as a result of the formation of beings (Roochnik, 2004, p. 62). I agree and restate that we as humans, and animals, have a resulting anatomy that serves precise purposes for survival. Both Democritus and Empedocles’ philosophies omit that important aspect.
In conclusion, Democritus and Empedocles seemed to be far advanced for their time in terms of science without the aid of scientific knowledge and technology that we have today. They had a good start, but both missed important aspects like Aristotle pointed out, in addition to the inclusion of a spirit or soul, which in my opinion, is the ‘heart’ of the philosophy. It is what made them seek knowledge; their own journey was blinded by the physical constraints they both rejected in their intellectual explorations
Comparison of Philosophy: Plato is shown pointing up toward the heavens for knowledge and Aristotle pointing to the physical world for answers.
Habits/Routines Are Virtuous
“Every action and every investigation, and similarly every action and choice seem to aim at some good; hence the good has been well described as that at which everything aims” (Roochnik, 2004, p. 199). Why do we brush our teeth every night? Why do we wash our bodies every day? Why do we fold clothing or sweep floors? Habit is a task we complete with little or no thought because it has become a routine part of our lives. For instance, when I leave work, I pick up my son, go to the gym, get home, put gym clothes in the laundry, lay out my clothes for the next day of work, lay out my son’s clothes for the next school day, cook dinner, do an hour of school work, and then an hour of my son’s homework, and go to sleep and do it all over again through the week. These things I am compelled to do. They bring me sanity and the thought of being prepared relieves me of any anxiety of not being prepared.
In these things, I am aiming for good. I complete these tasks for structure, as an example of responsibility for my son, for order, for hygiene, for health, and for a little mental solace. I am aiming ultimately for good by carrying out menial tasks. Aristotle believed because we do these things repeatedly and aim for good while doing them, that they can be virtuous because we can choose not to do them.
Aristotle argued that doing these things certainly brought pleasure and not doing them brings small sparks of discomfort (Roochnik, 2004, p. 205), but he also stated that was a result of rationalizing why we do these things and determining they are ‘good’ to do. Having a clean house is good, not being late is good. We have a choice to not complete these tasks but by doing it routinely it instills that goodness in us.
Aristotle Vs. Plato
Do you agree with Aristotle's Theory of Physical Knowing or Plato's Theory of Higher Spiritual Knowing
Aristotle's Ideal Society In Today's World
Aristotle believed a monarchy was the best type of rule, followed by an aristocracy. He thought choosing the most virtuous leaders would be the foundation for a civilized society. He believed these people would lead by example and influence others to seek the telos, or purpose, of their soul. He believed people should be leisurely, not lazy. Leisurely in seeking knowledge and guidance in our purpose and world. He believed we, as humans, needed to connect to a society. In fact he stated "He who either cannot lead the common life, or is so self-sufficient as to not need to, and therefore does not partake in society, is either a beast, or a god".
Aristotle believed that technology replaced intellectual pursuit and people discard the theoretical life in exchange for focus on work and power, that it breaks down communities and our ability to actualize ourselves and something of practical importance (Roochnik, 2004, p. 224). The cities end up like Sparta and Crete aiming for nothing more than growing economically (Roochnik, 2004, p. 222). In turn, we lose our own purpose, or telos, and replace it with individual wealth as well as our ‘city’s’ wealth. What telos do we possess when we are feeding our wallets and not our minds?
Using technology to dominate, leverage wars, and make more money. We are consumed by television, technology, internet, cell phones, demanding jobs, commutes, business travel and more. Our lives focus on not making money to achieve happiness, but making money to become richer and richer. Our current concern is the breakdown in communication, and what a paradoxical situation; we, having more technology than ever to communicate, abuse it and lose our soul’s voice translated into the spoken word. We lose this with neighbors, with family, we miss opportunities to cultivate relationships, read body language, interact and know more about our own nature. We receive this blessing in this lifestyle by rulers with the intent to expand and get wealthier. There is no focal point on the theoretical life, we are disconnected though more literally ‘connected’ than ever. We indulge in luxuries of material things, while ignoring the luxuries of our lives like family, love, interaction, and physical experience. In these similarities, I’d say Aristotle was mostly correct.
However; the dissimilarities I would argue are that, with this technology and focus on expansion, we have created global partnerships, the internet, dating sites, and other sites that allow us to connect with people across the ocean which, in Aristotle’s time, would have been impossible. We are able to learn more about other cultures, help dying children in third world countries, make a phone call, transfer money, and fly across the world to make more connections and expose more opportunities to make theory part of our lives with the result of this focus on technology. If we can look back on Aristotle’s warning and apply theory to realize that the opportunities technology has made possible to us to make a better world with a telos other than a growing economy, we could prove him wrong, if that is possible
I think Aristotle’s ‘ideal’ society in either case is simply not possible in a world today. Although finding the most virtuous person to rule over a society in a Monarchy and instill values and theory in the community is a nice thought. Subsequently on his second choice of an aristocracy in finding a few good people to share their mutual theoretical and virtuous talents and balance each other in making decisions for the good of the society is a nice idea, but we are not in a state where that is possible. We are far too gone in economic focus and domination. We are politically correct to the point of just agreeing that ‘everyone is right’ in their views. We do not want to offend people and have created too many laws and rules which hold us back. In turn, no true good can be taught or learned. No true form can be patterned and goaled to achieve. We do not focus on virtues, we focus on education to attain money to become richer and contribute to the economy so that our society can be wealthier. It is just as he predicted that when these things distract us, we lose sight of our purpose and causes.
Unfortunately we are a constitutional republic, or how Aristotle would describe a democracy. We do not get to seek the most virtuous leaders; we do not even focus on that. We are not even permitted to seek these people. We are given choices of candidates to vote for. We vote for who agrees with us. In turn, these people may be well connected, or wealthy rather than meritorious in their candidacy. They have their own agendas that likely benefit them or their benefactors focusing merely on economic domination. We do not focus education on philosophy and virtues, but reproducing and expanding. As a result we have become that city with the one goal to expand itself without telos and nothing but labor and pursuit of domination and expansion is the result (Roochnik, 2004, p. 222).
In conclusion, like with Plato’s theory of an ideal society, if this were to be attempted, we would have to take the young and ship them off into a world where we can start from scratch and ingrain this type of life in order to achieve it, for in our current state, we are too far gone.
Aristotle: What is Happiness
It is natural to question the whys, hows, and who of our existence. It is commendable to develop theories on them as well. However; I don't think any one theory is accurate. How could it be? No one knows the answers, we can only speculate. Greek Philosophers and philosophers today reason, rationalize, speculate, and theorize what makes sense to them.
What makes sense to you?
You may find it in a holy book, in nature, in your daily life, or your dreams. Wherever you find it: continue to look for it, and find meaning in it.
As Plutarch said "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled". Feed your minds, my friends. Be your purpose.
Roochnik, D. (2004). Retrieving the Ancients. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.