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Parmenides and Aristotle: Change and the Meaning of Life

Updated on December 16, 2017
Luke Holm profile image

Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

Reality as Change

Many people have tried to explain the process and experience of life. On one hand, it seems as though humans are born, age, and die. However, an omniscient perspective might argue otherwise. In order to better understand this duality, one should analyze various concepts of change in relation to reality. For example, what is life and does change actually occur within it? Is change a quantifiable experience, or is it just a fallacious perception of reality?

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Parmenides' Concept of Change

There have been many attempts by philosophers to denote a concept from which the perception of change occurs. To note a few, Plato thought that although things appear to change, that is all there is: appearance; the change is not real. Pluralists also thought that things that appeared to change were not real. For Pluralists, the act of change is clusters of real things coming together and splitting apart; like molecules appearing to humans as solid substances.

According to Parmenides, things do not actually change in the world, they only take on the appearance of changing. Parmenides believes that the only thing that exists is the One. If we perceive something to be changing, it is only a fluctuation of the One. Parmenides equates the concept of change to the flux of water. Like a giant ocean, water does not necessarily change as a compound from one shore to another. Rather, it flows within itself, and causes itself to flow.

As philosophy progressed through the ages, more concrete accounts of change were attempted so that change could be considered a natural part of the world. Not all philosophers thought like Parmenides or other earlier philosophers. In order to give an account of what change is, in relation to humans, a new concept had to be forged. Where was it forged? We will find that the very process from which this new account has been created is the very thing of which I am speaking: change.

Aristotle's Account of Change

Parmenides' concept of change is not an agreed upon definition. Aristotle took on a different concept of change. According to Aristotle, change is a real event; a fundamental part of the world. It is a transmission of form, and is possible because of potentiality and actuality, which are both fundamental aspects of the world. When humans perceive or understand change, they are seeing it occur as an act of potentiality being actualized.

To further elaborate, Aristotle suggests that there is a non-F in the world that has the potential to become an F. Here he is making the claim that change is identical to any man actualizing the potential to become F. For this, he gives the example of a man becoming musical. The non-F is the man, and this man has potential to become musical. Aristotle goes on to note that music does not derive itself from the non-musical, but rather that it is the man which whom becomes musical. This goes to show that change comes about in beings of substance–the substance being the soul–and not in things of material nature.

Is Change Possible?

Aristotle's Concept of the Soul

The soul, according to Aristotle, is the most natural and basic substance that man has for himself. In other words, the soul of a living being is its most substantial form. “In living things the natural end is the soul” (Aristotle 415b 20); it is the form of a natural body having life potentially within it. The soul is the nature of living things, the inner principle of change and rest. However, not all souls are the same.

Aristotle states that different species have different souls. For example, the soul of a human being is different than a non-rational animal’s, because human souls have a hierarchy of powers. In the least restrictive terms, human souls are three-tiered, and non-rational animals are two-tiered. The hierarchy within a human is much like that of Plato’s construction of the soul and society in Republic. In it, certain aspects of the soul must be subordinate to others. Ruling above others is the rational part of the soul. This is the seat of divinity within a human being. It is where and how change occurs in reality as we perceive it. Since change is the most principle element of a human being, a human acting in the highest accordance with his soul would be utilizing his potential for change. Rational thought imitates divine activity, as long as the rational being is engaging in thought.

Acting in Accordance With the Rationality of the Soul

Aristotle states that all things aim toward what is intrinsically valuable for that thing. The most intrinsically valuable thing a human being can take part in is acting in correct accordance with the divinity of the soul; doing so would be to flourish. In order for a human being to flourish, one must partake in a soul’s activity to express reason and virtue over a complete life; virtue being something which allows something to perform its function well.

Aristotle comes to this conclusion by identifying with other living species. As he observes the innate actions of the species, he can derive what is most valuable for a human soul. For example, the ultimate goal of a human soul could not be to live, because plants and non-rational animals also claim the desire for life. Thus, Aristotle then concludes that the human function is the soul’s activity that expresses reason. This process must be over a period of one’s entire life too; for one day does not make the entire season of Spring.

Aristotle also claims that there are varying degrees of living in accordance with the higher rationality of the soul. To further elaborate, he states that it is a harpist’s function to play the harp. While it is the harpist’s function to play the harp, it is also an excellent harpist’s function to play the harp. This being said, all humans are destined to live as rational beings. Some humans will just live in accordance more truly than others.

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What is the Meaning of Life?

In conclusion, Aristotle makes the claim that function of a human soul is to express reason and virtue. Through this expression, change is derived from rationality, and happiness through a correct maneuvering of one's rational abilities. If one partakes in this as a lifelong endeavor--rationality--they will experience and fulfill what it is to be human.

© 2017 JourneyHolm

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    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 

      9 months ago from Houston, TX USA

      Evolve spiritually. If the relationship does not evolve us, do not get involved.

      Spirit is the Life, Mind is the Builder, and the Physical is the Result. In other words, spirit is the source of all life. The mind focuses that energy into creative (positive) or destructive (negative) avenues of expression. The impact of our choices will eventually find expression in the physical, affecting ourselves and our relationships with one another.

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