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Aristotle (384-322 BCE)


Personal Life and Philosophical Activity
Psychology and Zoology
Ciccarelli Creation: "The House that Susan and Jack Built"
The Theory of Categories
God and Theology
Aristotle's Heirarchy of Being
Ethics and Politics
Influence on Christian Theology

Personal Life and Philosophical Activity

Click here to see a picture of Aristotle.

1. Key Events and Dates

  • 384: Born in Stagira, an Ionian colony on the Chalkidike peninsula, to a wealthy, aristocratic family; son of Nicomachus, Court Physician to King of Macedon, Amyntas II. Nichomachus died when Aristotle was young.
  • 367: His guardian, Proxenus, sent him to Plato’s Academy (age 17)
  • 367-347: Studied and taught in Academy; Plato died in 347
  • 347-345: Left Academy to stay with other Platonists in Assos, Troad, under the protection of Hermias
  • 345-342: Studied biology and zoology on the island of Lesbos
  • 344: Hermias, ruler of Atarneus, gave daughter (niece?) as wife
  • 342-339: Tutor of Alexander the Great (son of Philip II, king of Macedon)
  • 339-335: Continued his studies at Stagira
  • 335: Returned to Athens and founded his own school, the Lyceum
  • Received protection and massive funding for his researches from his Macedonian connections; he approved Alexander’s unifying rule. Alexander supposedly sent Aristotle many biological specimens while on his military campaigns.
  • 323: Alexander the Great died, exposing Aristotle and the Lyceum to attack from anti-Macedonian enemies of Alexander. Aristotle fled rather than face execution, and died the next year in Chalcis.
  • Aristotle was wealthy in his own right, married into great wealth, and had the support of wealthy, powerful rulers. This wealth was necessary to secure specimens for his zoological studies.

2. Aristotle’s Lyceum

  • Founded in 335, close to Athens, when Aristotle was 49
  • Curriculum emphasized natural science; contrast with Academy’s stress on mathematics, and speculative and political philosophy
  • Alexander’s death in 323 left Lyceum vulnerable and Aristotle in danger from the anti-Macedonian party of Athens; Aristotle chose exile in Chalcis rather than facing the hemlock of a murderous mob
  • Upon Aristotle’s exile, Theophrastus was made leader of Lyceum, and the school continued for centuries in Athens


To see a beautiful Latin manuscript of one of Aristotle's works, click here.

1. Basic Facts

  • Aristotle’s technical works have survived; his popular dialogues have disappeared.
  • The order and extent of his works are difficult to determine.
  • The interpretation of his writings hinges on a key question regarding his relationship to Plato. Did Aristotle start off as a Platonist and then gradually move away in the direction of his scientific, naturalistic interests? Or did he begin as the faithful naturalist son of a medical doctor, in criticism of Plato, and thereafter struggle to return to Plato’s thought in his own?
  • In any event, Aristotle’s works show a clear mixture of critique of, and influence by, Plato.

2. Works, organized by topic

  • Logic (the Organon): Categories, On Interpretation, Prior and Posterior Analytics, Topics, On Sophistical Refutations
  • Physics: Physics, On the Heavens, On Coming-to-be and Passing-away, Meteorologics
  • Psychology: On the Soul, Parva Naturalia (a collection of short works, including On Memory and Reminiscence, On Dreams, and On Prophesying by Dreams)
  • Zoology: On the Parts of Animals, On the Movement of Animals, On the Progression of Animals, and On the Generation of Animals. There are also several minor zoological treatises.
  • Philosophy, Ethics, Rhetoric: Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, Magna Moralia, Politics, Rhetoric, Art of Poetry

3. History of reception and interpretation

  • Works sold by Aristotle’s successor at the Lyceum to Neleus of Scepsis, whose heirs sold them (in damaged condition after storage in a cave in Asia Minor) to Apellicon of Teos. This meant that the works were essentially lost to Aristotle’s own school fairly soon after his death.
  • Published by Apellicon in 86 BCE; he wrongly filled in the gaps caused by damage to the manuscripts with guesses.
  • Published in mid-1st century BCE by Andronicus of Rhodes, 11th head of Lyceum, together with the elder Tyrannion (according to Strabo, a pupil of Tyrannion).
  • Thereafter, logic and rhetoric interesting, but Greeks and Romans were for the next several centuries not much interested in science or politics. Porphyry’s commentary on the Categories confirms this (note that this commentary was a distorted interpretation of Aristotle’s Logic, and that it engendered the centuries of debate over universals).
  • Boethius (c.480-524) planned a Latin translation of all of Aristotle’s then available works, since literacy in Greek was fast fading. The carrying out of this plan was interrupted by his execution for treason, with only Categories, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Sophistic Arguments, and Topics completed.
  • Aristotle’s works had previously reached Syria, after which Arabic translations of Syrian translations were made and studied carefully. The important Arabian Aristotelians included al-Kindi (d. c.870) and ibn-Sina (Avicenna, in medieval Latin, 980-1037) in Baghdad in the 9th and 10th centuries, ibn-Bajjah (Avempace, late 11th century-1138) and ibn-Rushd (Averroes, 1126-1198) in 12th century Spain.
  • Returned to West in 12th century from Spain and Sicily in Arabic and Hebrew translations. Good Greek texts were secured in Oxford and Paris a century later from Constantinople.
  • Good Latin translations available in 13th century.
  • Critically sound texts were produced in Berlin between 1831 and 1870. The Oxford English translations were produced after 1920.

Psychology and Zoology

A good introduction to Aristotle’s general philosophical approach is furnished by his mature understanding of soul. It was opposed to Plato’s view of soul in a most illuminating way. When we have discussed this example, we can move into a more technical discussion of Aristotle’s philosophy.

1. Soul

Aristotle seems to have reacted gradually against Plato’s understanding of the soul as an immortal substance separate from the body. The problems with ordering Aristotle’s writings make discerning the precise development of his thought a rather hazardous exercise, but by the time of De Anima (the treatise translated in English as On the Soul) Aristotle had clearly rejected his own earlier Platonic view of soul in favor of a conception of soul as immanent in the body.

Soul (psyche): the internal principle of unity of a thing.

So long as there is an internal principle of unity, there is soul. Thus, plants and animals and human beings have soul; it is their life principle. For humans, soul is that which is essentially human in them; for living beings in general, soul is the unifying principle of life within them.

2. Soul and Form

Every object, whether animate or inanimate, is formed matter, or matter plus form. But form for Aristotle is in the thing and not a replica of an item in some other-worldly world of forms (Plato).

In the same way, soul is not some external stuff that infuses a body with life (Plato), but an immanent principle that expresses a natural function. It is natural, therefore, to associate soul in Aristotle with form. To the extent that what kind of a thing a thing is, and what it can do depends on its form, soul is involved in the form of animate objects.

Inanimate objects such as rocks, however, do not have soul, since they do not have an internal principle of unity. All rocks are part of "rock-in-general" whereas plants and other living creatures are well defined, unified individuals. Split a rock in half and you just have two littler rocks. Split a person in half and you don’t get two persons, you destroy the internal principle of unity, and the person dies.

Having form, therefore, does not automatically mean having soul. The "internality" of soul is the key for understanding how soul differs from form. When the principle of unity of a thing is internal to it, it has a natural purpose and natural capacity as well as a shape (= form). This natural purpose and natural capacity together make up soul.

Incidentally, in this way, we have introduced two of Aristotle’s four causes, which are ways of saying what a thing is. In this case, the shape and natural capacity of a thing is its formal cause, and the natural purpose of a thing is its final cause. The other kinds of causes are discussed below.

3. Types of Soul

If we consider the internal, natural functions and purposes of things, what do we turn up? Here is where observation comes in, and De Anima is based in a great deal of careful observation of plants and animals.

  • At the most basic level of living things we find plants, which have a nutritive capacity (this involves reproductive and growing capacities).
  • To this, at the level of animals, must be added the capacities for movement and basic feeling.
  • Finally, for rational animals (human beings), we must add the capacity for rational thought.

Thus Aristotle speaks of at least four kinds of soul: nutritive, motive, sensitive, and intellective. of course, there are many mixed cases, as in plants that move and feel, animals that don’t move, animals that do think, and humans that don’t. But the basic point is secure.

There is one fuzzy point about Aristotle’s idea of intellective soul. He appears to maintain a distinction between:

  • passive intellect, which is partially present in some animals and fully present in humans; and
  • active intellect, which is only present in humans and involved special creativity.

While the passive intellect is treated as an entirely immanent aspect of human beings (and some animals), the active intellect seems to be, for Aristotle, not subject to the vagaries of bodily existence, and perhaps a separate principle. Could this be a vestige of incompletely overthrown Platonic influence? Is it inconsistency? This is a controversial point in the interpretation of Aristotle.

However it is interpreted, the importance of active intellect is that it makes possible Aristotle’s idea of God, who is purely active intellect, pure form with no matter, as we shall see.

4. The Birth of Science

We need to notice just how dramatic the shift from Plato to Aristotle is, and the difference between their views of soul helps us to do that. There are two main differences:

  • Whereas Plato assumes the soul is separable from other aspects of human beings, Aristotle thinks of the soul as entirely immanent in the bodies of living things (with the odd possible exception of active intellect); and
  • Whereas Plato sought a single rational definition of soul, Aristotle preferred to inductively build toward a definition by means of careful observation of living things, and was content to end up with many different kinds of soul, depending on the kind of living thing in question.

The suspicion of non-material substances and the quest for observation-based descriptions and definitions are hallmarks of science, and Aristotle is very clearly responsible for crystallizing these instincts in Western philosophy. In a real sense, then, that makes him a scientist in the tradition of the Milesian philosopher-physicists, though much more sophisticated than they were. By contrast, Plato seems to be more of the mystic philosopher, in the tradition of the Pythagoreans.

A general question: In contrasting the scientific, observational-descriptive way of thinking of Aristotle with the rational, aesthetic-speculative way of thinking of Plato, are we confronting two different kinds of thinking, two different ideals for thinking, or two different aspects of one process called thinking? What, then, is thinking?


1. Problems with Plato and the Pre-Socratics

There are a number of points at which Aristotle notices problems in the metaphysical reflection of Plato and the Pre-Socratics. Laying some of these out here will serve as an indication of Aristotle’s reasons for thinking his own views on these matters the most compelling.

  • Can’t explain change and motion: Parmenides and Eleatics denied it, and Plato’s explanation makes the unchanging so dominantly real that change has still to be regarded as illusory (is there a form of change, if forms must be unchanging and eternal?). Aristotle explains change in three stages, by speaking of matter as potential and forms as changing, by speaking of efficient causation together with free will in humans and a prime mover (uncaused cause) to start the process of motion, and by speaking of final causation as the in-built purpose of things.
  • Can’t account for diversity of beings: no decent (non-arbitrary) theory to say how things can be many and different; they just are what they are. Aristotle’s two-pronged approach here is, on the one hand, to develop a theory of categories that leads to an adequate account of the world by specifying what kinds of things can go on within it; and, on the other hand, to develop an observation-based theory of soul as the principle of unity in fundamental beings that, together with his biology and zoology, provides a solid foundation for speaking about what makes things different.
  • Doctrine of forms multiplies entities needlessly (cf. objects, numbers, etc). Aristotle insists that forms only have existence in things. (As already mentioned, this seems to be a poor reading of Plato; the Parmenides alone makes that clear.)
  • Overly limited range of explanations: only describe real particulars in terms of what kind of thing they are (form) and what they are made of (matter). Aristotle adds efficient and final principles of explanation. The first book of Metaphysics consists of a review of Aristotle’s philosophical predecessors—something he frequently did—retelling the story of the desire for knowledge as it exhibited itself in their thought. It shows that they emphasized material (Milesians) and formal (Plato) forms of explanation, and points out that efficient and final forms of explanation are also present, usually implicitly, in their thought.
  • Can’t explain freedom of human beings: this is assumed by Aristotle's predecessors, but no explanation of how it can be is provided. Even positing (with Plato) immaterial souls doesn’t help with this. Aristotle will develop a teleological theory of nature according to which everything acts according to its nature and then clarify the concept of causation and freedom by asserting that human beings initiate chains of efficient causes.
  • Can’t explain origination of the universe: it is assumed that the universe is the result of the forming of some pre-existent matter, but the deeper question of how the ontological origin of the entire universe began is not broached except mythologically up until Plato. Aristotle raises the question at one level and argues that the universe is everlasting because its having begun is inconceivable.

General Approach: scientific saving of appearances. Aristotle likes Plato’s ideas of forms: universal unchanging essences are the only things that can be known, but wants to protect this idea from being squandered on Plato’s idealism; scientifically oriented people can do no less: forms are in things, and our concepts of forms are abstractions from real things.

2. The Nature of Knowledge and Principles of Explanation

The question of what reality ultimately is had always been a driving question in Greek philosophy. A sensible question to ask bears on how we know when we have such ultimate knowledge of reality: What is knowledge of a thing? For Aristotle, the question about knowledge of things is best expressed in terms of another question: What is the essence of a thing? Knowledge occurs when we can say what causes a thing to be what it essentially is. For example, when do we know what an oak tree is? When we can say what made it to be like it is, how it works like it is, and what will happen to it in the normal course of events. Having such information is being able to explain the thing we seek to know, to give an account of a thing in such a way as to explain why it is like it is.

Knowledge, therefore, seeks explanations for things. Aristotle proposed four principles of explanation (see Physics II,3)—formal, material, efficient, and final types of explanation—which are called causes. (The names come from medieval scholastic philosophy.)

  1. Formal Cause: explain any particular thing by saying what kind of a thing it is, what is its form; this is Plato’s emphasis.
  2. Material Cause: explain any particular thing by saying what it is made of; this is the pre-Socratic obsession.
  3. Efficient Cause: explain any particular thing by saying what makes it change; this is familiar to us moderns, for we are accustomed to explaining by identifying what happened immediately before a change occurred.
  4. Final Cause: explain any particular thing by saying what it is naturally predisposed to become (acorn and oak tree); everything has a natural purpose.
  • Why call it "final" rather than "purposive"? It is final because there is no more basic explanation to be given, nothing causes the final cause, causes don’t "go all the way down." This is absolutely essential for free will; we humans begin causal chains.
  • It leads to a fundamentally teleological view of the universe, where the ultimate reasons for things will have an irreducibly purposive nature.

Teleology: the theory of purposes and ends.

Aristotle also provides a discussion of twelve modes of causation, or modes of ways that a thing can be in its essence: each of the following three opposed pairs can be possible or actual: particular vs. opposite, accidental attribute vs. genus, complex vs. independent simple.

3. Identifying Substances and Explaining Change

The four principles of explanation play a crucial role in metaphysics, ethics, and theology, but let’s trace out the issue of what kinds of things there are (ultimately) in the world, and how those things change.

3.1. Primary Beings, Substances, and Accidents

Aristotle denies Parmenides’ ultimate unity in favor of a view of many real things, or primary beings. Thus, actual things are more than merely determinate particularity; they are a mixture of matter and form. This is the doctrine of "hylomorphism."

Hylomorphism: the doctrine that every existent individual thing is a mixture of matter and form. (It includes the denial of the existence of immaterial objects, except for Aristotle’s God, which is pure, immaterial form. This is Plato's view of material objects, though he admitted many immaterial exceptions to the hylomorphism rule.)

Primary beings have unifying structures. This unity of being or "isness" is form. But primary beings are more than just matter plus form; they also have soul—an internal principle of unity in their form. Some being such as inanimate matter does not have an internal principle of unity (it is merely matter plus form, and all rocks are a part of "rock"), and so does not have soul (thus a rock is not a primary being). But primary beings have soul, to varying degrees (as we saw above, plants have a nutritive principle of unity; animals, additionally, sensitive and motive principles of unity; and humans, additionally, an intellective principle of unity).

Primary Being (or primary substance): a real individual thing with an internal principle of unity, or soul. (This class of beings includes each plant, each animal, and each human being. An alternate definition states that a primary being is a real individual thing of which attributes may be predicated, and which is not an attribute of any other thing.)

Objects have an essence that is the bearer of attributes, or properties. The word accidents is used to describe these properties because they do not modify the essential features of the object but rather are accidental, non-essential characteristics.

Substance: the bearer of properties or characteristics.

Accidents: properties or characteristics predicated of substances.

3.2. Change

Aristotle's fundamental answer to the question of how things move and change is that change is matter taking on new forms; this answer is made possible by the matter-form definition of the essence of things.

Plato couldn’t explain change because he made the forms have independent, eternal and thus changeless being. In that case, how does the acorn become an oak? When do the eternal forms change their applicability in a continuous process of change?

By insisting that forms only have real existence in things, Aristotle is able to say that change can occur simply by matter taking on different forms; this is workable if it is the case that forms are only real when they are in things. The forms don’t change, for they are really unchanging (though they don’t have independent existence; we shall see this issue recur in medieval debates about so-called universals).

In terms of the distinction between essence and accidents just introduced, we may distinguish between accidental change (e.g., cow gets wet) and substantial change (e.g., cow drowns). The subject of accidental change is a substance (the cow that gets wet). But here's something to think about: What is the subject of substantial change? It can’t be a substance (for then the change would be an accidental change); it can’t be an accident (for accidents, or forms—wetness—don’t change); and it can’t be nothing (for then change would be random, having no relationship to the things that cause it—a cow could get wet when there is no source of water). The subject of substantial change must be neither actual (substance or accident) nor nothing; Aristotle calls it "potentiality." In accidental change, the subject of change is a substance with potentiality. In substantial change, the subject of change is potentiality itself. This potentiality or capacity for change Aristotle calls "primary matter."

3.3. Causation and Motion

[TT704 may ignore this] Motion: the fulfillment of the potential of a thing according to its nature (Physics III.1; e.g.. a bronze statue can be moved but does not fulfill its natural potential by moving itself, but rather by standing there and looking beautiful; whereas an animal fulfills its natural potential by moving itself.)

Some things are self-moving; this is accounted for with the idea of soul, as the essence of things (see the definition of motion, above). Things with a motive soul have a form and a structure that allows for self-movement.

But other things are not self-moving, but are caused to change and move. Things act on other things to cause motion; this is accounted for with the "efficient cause" type of explanation. But how do these efficient causes get started? We need the idea of an unmoved first mover who sets motion going. That's God.

3.4. Natural Purposes

Most things have a natural propensity to become something else, an in-built tendency to change their form over time. This is the "final cause" principle of explanation. The acorn and the oak tree is the standing example, but just about anything exemplifies the point. Aristotle thought that things tend toward their natural states by realizing (forming) their potential (primary matter). This is the mechanism of natural, purposive change.

This account of change makes the notion of natural potential extremely important. The natural purpose of a primary being is expressed in its nature, which is its soul and is expressed in its form. To know a thing's nature is to know its natural purpose, and that leads to knowledge of what is good for it. Every primary being has a purpose, for Aristotle, and purposive explanations (final causes) will underlie every other principle of explanation. (If everything is assumed to have its natural state and to tend toward that state, then it is not surprising that Aristotle made some nutty proposals to explain various behaviors. For example, birds fly because they are naturally "air-like"; that's just their nature. And as we shall see, he thinks that women need to be ruled by a man because that's their nature.)

The unmoved mover has a role to play here. Everything is moved towards its natural purpose (telos) by being "lured" by God, which is the object of desire of the essence of determinate beings. God changes and moves other beings through being the object of their desire. This is how the prime mover moves, and thereby begins the chain of efficient causes. To say that Aristotle’s is a naturalistic teleology does not exclude God from the picture, but rather brings God into the natural world in a limited way.

3.5. Conclusion

Note the double thrust of Aristotle’s brilliant solution to the problem of change, and associated issues. First, primary matter is potential; and second, there is a prime mover who gives shape to the natural teleology of the world and sets the chains of efficient causes in motion. After that, everything acts (roughly) according to its nature. Of course, all that gets a bit more complicated with human beings, who have a moral life.

Ciccarelli Creation: The House that Susan and Jack Built

This is the house that Susan and Jack built. It is a weathered Cape with black shutters, 3 bedrooms, 2.5 baths, and a detached garage. Outside is a large black walnut tree, from whose branches hangs a wooden swing.

When Susan and Jack first decided to build a house, they were living in a small apartment with one bedroom. Susan was pregnant, and they would need more room. They did not have much money, so Jack built the house himself, from wooden 2x4s, shingles, nails, and other materials he purchased from a nearby building supply company.

[kind of change: human production of inanimate object. Material Cause (MC): lumber, nails, etc.; Formal Cause (FC): house; Efficient Cause (EC): Jack; Final Cause (FinC): better living conditions.]

After they finished the house, they brought over their furniture from the apartment in a U-Haul and arranged it almost to their satisfaction. Unfortunately, two days after this, Susan decided that her mother’s old upright piano had to be moved away from the fireplace because it would be uncomfortable playing it while sitting so close to the fire in the winter time. Fortunately, Jack’s brother Earl was visiting for the weekend. So Jack and Earl, after great effort, moved the piano over to the window.

[kind of change: movement of object from one place to another. MC: the piano; FC: its new position by the window; EC: Jack and Earl; FinC: comfort.]

As Susan and Jack sat in their new living room, they could see a black walnut tree in the front yard. They loved the tree, and Susan, who became quite dreamy in the final weeks of her pregnancy, liked to speculate about its being there. How did the nut get carried to this very spot? How fortunate that it found the right conditions for growth when so many seeds were eaten, or fell in an unsuitable location. And how amazing that this tree could grow from the nut in the first place! It did get plenty of sun throughout the morning, and sunshine seemed crucial to the fact that it became this well-established tree producing fruit of its own. And then she began to ponder the sun, how crucial it was for the existence of everything in this world. Jack said we were just lucky. Susan wasn’t so sure.

[kind of change: reproduction (and growth). MC: seed; FC: tree; EC: tree (reproductive processes of plant), sunshine, water, nutrients in earth; FinC: tree.]

Jack and Susan’s son Mark was born not long after the house was finished. At no time in their lives had Jack and Susan been so filled with hope about the future, so quick to theorize about education and development, so caught up in plans to give their child the best opportunities for a good life. They wondered if he would be a great statesman, or a great scientist, or perhaps a great artist (their thoughts always ran to "great" in these first days with their baby). Jack always hoped he would be a good person. Susan knew he would be highly intelligent and use his intelligence wisely. Mark did little but sleep and eat. Being born seemed to have exhausted him.

[kind of change: reproduction. MC: fertilized cell; EC: Jack and Susan (human reproductive processes) (n.b. Aristotle said the woman bore the material cause and the man the efficient cause); FC: human being; FinC: fulfillment as human being - eudaimonia? wisdom?]

The years passed, and Mark became a fine, active, and always hungry boy. One day, as he was playing under the tree in the front yard, he picked up one of the green-husked fruits that had fallen from its branches, and split it apart to extract the nut. His mother helped him shell it and he then ate the walnut meat inside.

[kind of change: degeneration. MC: nut; EC: digestive system; FC: part of human body (as nutrients); FinC: nutrition.]

As she watched Mark run off to play, Susan thought: it won’t be long before he’s building a house for his own family.

The Theory of Categories

We know because the structure of the world (as expressed in the categories) is also the structure of our mind. This continuous identity between mind and world leads to a correspondence view of truth (a proposition is true because it accurately describes an actual state of affairs). It also leads to the conviction that a logical principle such as the principle of non-contradiction is no merely formal rule for intelligible discourse but is rather a characteristic of the world itself: "a thing cannot be both itself and not-itself." For Aristotle, rules characterizing the logical functions of human thinking also describe the way the world is in itself. A single theory could thus be a realist basis for describing the world and predication in one fell swoop. (Contrast this approach with that of Kant, to whom we shall come later in this course.)

How can we describe this structure which is both the way we think and the way the world is? Aristotle uses a theory of categories to do this. A theory of categories is a list of the most basic, independent ways that being appears in the world. A good theory of categories would allow us to give an account of what there is in the world and why it fits together the way it does.

Aristotle advances a list of ten categories (see Categories 4), of which substance is the most important because the others can’t exist without it.

  1. Substance: the leading category, since substances are the bearers of attributes, to which the other nine categories are devoted. (Aristotle speaks of primary and secondary substances. A primary substance is an independent, concrete thing. But a primary substance can belong to a genera or species. These larger groupings, though abstract, can be the bearers of attributes possessed by the primary substances of which they are the genera or species. Because attributes can be predicated of them, therefore, they are substances; but they are substances in a secondary way, because they are dependent upon primary substances to be actual.)
  2. Quantity (how much)
  3. Quality; several types, some of which overlap with other categories: stability of state (e.g., knowledge is long-lasting and hotness is short-lasting); natural capacity (e.g., runner); affective qualities (e.g., hotness); shape and external form (e.g., curved); qualifications of the above (e.g., more or less, better or worse)
  4. Relation (spatial and temporal context)
  5. Place (spatial location)
  6. Time (temporal location)
  7. Position (in the sense of posture, e.g. like sitting)
  8. Condition (in the sense of having something, e.g. like a disease)
  9. Activity (what a thing is doing)
  10. Passivity (what is being done to a thing)

With these categories, Aristotle is able to classify all of the terms that can appear in propositions, and so determine the kinds of relations that can hold between things. In particular, he has a theoretically exhaustive account of what properties can be predicated of substances. This, together with his study of the syllogism, was the foundation of his amazing contribution to logic.

God and Theology

So far, we have seen God pop up as an unmoved mover who changes and moves determinate beings through being the object of the soul’s desire (and so both the sustainer and ground of final causation, and thereby the initiator of efficient causation).

But what kind of being would God have to be? The four aspects of soul (Nutritive, Sensitive, Motive, Intellective) are found together in humans, and higher aspects always include the lower. But could intellective soul exist by itself? Aristotle says "yes" though this is not unproblematic. As pure intellective soul, God must be eternal (as you might expect an unmoved mover to be), and this makes God an exception to the rule that all actual beings are hylomorphic: a mixture of matter, form (and a principle of unity).

Granted that the idea of God is an exception to Aristotle’s metaphysical system in this one respect, what would the properties of God be? God would be eternal, pure form, pure structure, perfect, changeless, and so pure actuality and no potentiality. God’s activity would consist in beholding the divine self, which is the only perfect object.

Remember Aristotle’s reasons for thinking there is a God answering to this description:

  • efficient causes don’t go all the way down, so motion implies there must be an unmoved first mover; and
  • everything has a natural state toward which it tends, and the entire universe ultimately tends toward God; God is the ultimate final cause.

Note that the question about the contingency of the whole universe is not being asked here; motion and the order of nature is being explained. Though Aristotle is not asking the question about the ontological dependence of the universe, he is setting up this question for later thinkers. The theological "next step" would look something like this:

If everything has a purpose, then the world has a purpose. Aristotle thought that the world was eternal and God a component of what was, approximately, a vast organism. Christian thinkers, however, were willing to think of purposes on the analogy of human purposes: the world’s purpose requires someone to "have it," even as human purposes are the possession of human minds. The world, therefore, is the purpose of God, and was created.

This step was taken in middle Platonism, and in Platonic rather than Aristotelian terminology. The key figure is Philo, a Jewish thinker, who regarded Plato's forms as the ideas of God in creating the world. Later, Christian theologians will intensify this vision of creation by insisting that God created not by forming matter but from nothing (ex nihilo). The first theologians to advance this idea appear to have been Tatian (famous for the Diatesseron, a harmonization of the gospels) and Theophilus (Bishop of Antioch), in the late second century CE.

Aristotle’s Enhanced Hierarchy of Being

With all this taken together, Aristotle has produced a vision of the diversity of beings that is more sensitive to their actual variation and more explanatorily powerful than that managed by his predecessors. Moving from the least to the greatest, this chain of being has the following links:

  1. Primary matter: Anaximander was right about the unlimited as the most basic; there had to be something more basic than the four elements, of which the elements were specifications or modifications. This stuff is primary matter, or potentiality.
  2. Four elements: Matter is composed of these four elements; matter is a kind of potential, for it may be formed in various ways. All fundamental beings are composed of matter through combinations of the four elements. The potential of matter is delimited and expressed through its being formed into objects.
  3. Inanimate objects (not yet primary beings): These have matter and form, but no fundamental unity; they are scattered through the cosmos (as a pool of water is really a part of water-as-a-whole).
  4. Organic objects (the lowest of the "primary beings"): These have matter and form, like inanimate objects, but they also have a fundamental unity, a principle that makes them one thing. The principle of an organic object is the explanation of its structure and behavior, which is usually simultaneously the natural purpose it serves (its final cause) and the form that matter takes in it (its formal cause). Giving a formal explanation of an organic object (i.e. explaining its unity by means of the way it forms matter) involves, for Aristotle, referring to the presence of soul in it. However, in organic objects, soul is present only at the nutritive level.
  5. Animals: These have even more actuality, unity than plants; soul is also present at the sensitive and motive levels.
  6. Humans: These are more real, and have less potency and more actuality, than animals; soul is here also present at the intellective level.
  7. God: Here there is pure actuality, no potentiality; pure form, pure intellective soul.

The hierarchical structure of being can be invoked in social processes serving to legitimate ecclesial and political structures; in any hierarchy or organization, everything has a proper place determined by its nature. Natural law follows from this, in both science, ethics and politics.

Ethics and Politics

1. Ethics and Politics as Consequences of Teleology

Teleology refers to purposes. Aristotle’s natural teleology affirms that everything has a natural purpose. That means that, on the familiar assumption that the natural is the good (is the true is the beautiful, etc.), what is good for a thing is what is natural for it. This for Aristotle is its telos or natural purpose. Ethics and politics flow, therefore, from Aristotle’s teleology.

2. The Telos of Human Beings

The telos or natural good for human beings is called by Aristotle eudaimonia, or happiness, a word applied more generally in Aristotle’s time to refer to anything, and not just human beings. More precisely:

Eudaimonia: the complete actualization of the natural potentialities of a thing.

Human eudaimonia is the fulfillment of entire human nature, but especially the intellective part of the human soul, by the power of which all other goods are ordered.

Aristotle defines virtue (of which there are several kinds) in terms of human eudaimonia in the following way:

  1. Intellectual virtue (higher than moral virtue since it is more God-like) and has two aspects:
  • Theoretical wisdom is knowing what is the case regardless of appearances and human interests and biases.
  • Practical wisdom or prudence is knowing what is conducive to eudaimonia.
  1. Moral virtue is an acquired disposition (hence a matter of education) to choose those actions that foster eudaimonia.
  • Note, first, that it is opposed to vice.
  • Note, second, that this disposition is enjoyable for the virtuous person, less so for the continent person (who struggles not to do the wrong thing), still less so for the incontinent person (who fails the struggle for continence), and antithetical to the vicious person.
  • Note, third, that moral virtue will be a disposition to the Golden Mean, a balance of defective and excessive human passions achieved when reason is in control. (For an interesting perspective on the basic sense of the term "mean" see here.) For example:
    • Generosity is the mean between stinginess and prodigality
    • Courage is the mean between cowardice and recklessness
    • Temperance is the mean between insensibility and sensuality
    • Self-respect is the mean between self-abasement and self-conceit
    • Kindness is the mean between neglect and doting
    • Thoughtfulness is the mean between carelessness and obsession

Eudaimonia has two levels for humans, according to the two kinds of virtue.

  • The highest eudaimonia is contemplative activity, which is activity in accordance with the highest form of virtue (the theoretical wisdom aspect of intellectual virtue).
  • The lower eudaimonia is activity in accord with practical virtue (the practical wisdom aspect of intellectual virtue and moral virtue).

3. The Telos of Society

Aristotle develops his views of the ideal society by criticizing Plato’s views. This happens in especially two ways:

  • For Plato, describing the ideal state was a matter of discerning and articulating the unchanging and given form of the ideal society. But Aristotle had no such view of an eternal given for society, and proceeded more pragmatically though still, he thought, with rational definitiveness.
  • From Aristotle’s point of view, Plato was extreme, and so violated the rule of the Golden Mean. Aristotle bases most of his political thought on the reasonable assumption that the Golden Mean is, in most cases, achievable. This beings a helpful practicality to Aristotle’s political views.

There are, however, some fundamental problems with Aristotle’s approach.

  • Aristotle grossly distorts Plato’s views by pretending that his teacher intended for all people the communal life of the ruling elite of philosophers.
  • Aristotle applied the principle of the Golden Mean artificially, sometimes allowing the principles deriving from his natural teleology to call all of the shots. This is especially the case with Aristotle’s view of women and slaves.

In brief, Aristotle’s political view can be summarized as follows:

  1. True to his aristocratic background, Aristotle thought that society should, above all, maintain order, and provide the opportunity for humans to realize their eudaimonia in safe and preferably comfortable and enjoyable circumstances.
  2. Against Plato’s view that women should be allowed to rule, Aristotle reasoned as follows:
  • Soul has ruling (rational) and ruled (irrational) elements. Both need to be held together if the fullness of soul is to be expressed though the preservation of its parts. In relation to society, for instance, without the ruled, there would be continual violent chaos of the powerful seeking power, and without the rulers there would be the chaos of aimless confusion.
  • Whereas slaves have no faculty of reason, and are naturally ruled, women have this faculty. However, according to Aristotle, and admitting a few "contrary-to-nature exceptions," experience shows that this faculty is ineffective in women. Thus they cannot attain the same degree of intellectual and moral achievement as can men.
  • Women "had their place" as this was defined by their "telos"—and it was the place of a helper of men, whose place in turn was to rule outside of the home in every sphere of human activity. In terms of the Golden Mean, Aristotle said that his view balanced the extremes of Plato’s view on the one hand and treating women as slaves on the other. (Surely this shows that idealism, in Plato's thought or anywhere else, can sometimes break through convention to new and genuinely important insights.)
  1. Against Plato’s view that the ruling class should live communally with regard to family life and property, Aristotle first deliberately misrepresented Plato as referring to the entire society, and then made some good observations (which, perforce, do not apply to Plato, who presumably would have agreed):
  • Family life is necessary because it creates a structure for society in which important goods such as loyalty and duty and political involvement are cultivated.
  • Ownership of property is necessary because nobody will take care of property if nobody owns it, nobody will know how to be generous, and the instinct to own cannot be resisted in practice. The Golden Mean in this case is a balance between a ban on private property and the unlimited accumulation of wealth.
  1. Against Plato’s view that philosophers should rule, Aristotle thought that:
  • A leadership class such, whether philosophers or not, is an oligarchy, and would inevitably breed discontent.
  • The middle class must rule, for they can then check the tendency of the few to accumulate wealth, they have some stake in the society because they own property, and they are more likely to take care of the basic needs of the poor.
  • Rulers must be wise, and so should be educated and literate.
  • In all, then, rulers should be property-owning, generally educated, literate, and not part of any oligarchy.

Theological Significance

The influence of Aristotle on theology is immense, especially in the middle ages, but also (and more anonymously) in the period of the formation of the key Christian doctrines. In fact, Aristotle was arguably the philosopher who was to exercise the greatest influence on Christian theology (recall that this same statement was made with reference to Plato). Aristotle's influence on theology can be summarized in fairly colorless fashion as follows:

God: Introduces the main themes of a profoundly influential idea of God

Creation: Paves the way for asking the question about creatio ex nihilo

Metaphysics: Furnishes philosophy with many of the distinctions that theologians will later use to discuss such basic issues as Christology and Trinity.

Ethics: Here the influence was very mixed.

  • Positively: introduces ideas of Natural Law and Golden Mean
  • Negatively: provides first great rationalization of patriarchy and slavery

Society: Chain of Being provides a new way of understanding church and society in the middle ages (everything has "natural" position in social hierarchy)

Medieval Scholastic Theology: Furnishes many of the distinctions, problems, and tools for medieval scholastic theology, including proofs for the existence of God, theory of the Eucharist, ecclesiology, social policy, natural law, etc.

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