Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), in a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael. Aristotle gestures to the earth, representing his belief in knowledge through empirical observation and experience, while Plato gestures to the heavens, representing his belief in The Forms. (credit Wikipedia)
Two weeks ago, I profiled Socrates, the father of western philosophy who used his questioning method to uncover the ignorance of Athens. Last week, his student Plato was analysed, and while we are indebted to him for writing down the words of Socrates and creating the subject of philosophy as we know it, his theory of forms, which dominated his thinking, just does not hold up to the knowledge we now have about evolution and how filling ecological niches with the robustness of diversity drives the variety we see in the world—not some imperfect copying of one true standard that exists somewhere in the ether. Next up in the Survival of the Fittest Philosophers, is the third great philosophical figure of ancient Greece--Aristotle.
Born in 384 BC, he was fortunate to be fathered by the personal physician to the King of Macedon. At the age of seventeen or eighteen, he moved to Athens to study in Plato's academy, where he remained for nearly twenty years before departing around the time of Plato's death—possibly because he was disappointed in the direction the academy was taking under a new leader. Four years later, in 343 BCE, Philip, the king of Macedon asked Aristotle to tutor the king's thirteen-year-old son—the boy who was on his way to becoming Alexander the Great. Though this tutelage lasted only two to three years, it provided Aristotle with many opportunities and resources. In 335, he returned to Athens and set up his own school dedicated to the god Apollo Lykeios, which gave the school its name, the Lyceum.
As such, it's no wonder that coming from an evolutionary philosophy point of view—one that is driven to think about the deepest questions of life using the knowledge we have from our understanding of history, science, and evolution—much of Aristotle's methods and thought survives. His tools may have been crude and the cumulative learning he relied upon was scant compared to what we have today, but it seems doubtless that Aristotle would approve of continuing to examine the world the way evolutionary philosophers do. Unfortunately, we only have 31 of his approximately 200 treatises, and the writing that survives, "makes heavy use of unexplained technical terminology, and his sentence structure can at times prove frustrating...haphazardly organized, if organized at all…(which) helps explain why students who turn to Aristotle after first being introduced to the prose in Plato's dialogues often find the experience frustrating." Skipping over that frustration, here are some of his choice words plucked out for admiration before his general thoughts are examined.
If there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake, clearly this must be the good. Will not knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is.
Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.
Happiness, whether consisting in pleasure or virtue, or both, is more often found with those who are highly cultivated in their minds and in their character, and have only a moderate share of external goods, than among those who possess external goods to a useless extent but are deficient in higher qualities.
I have gained this by philosophy: that I do without being commanded what others do only from fear of the law.
Knowledge of the fact differs from knowledge of the reason for the fact.
It is simplicity that makes the uneducated more effective than the educated when addressing popular audiences.
He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.
It is of the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and yet most men live only for the gratification of it.
The law is reason unaffected by desire.
He who has overcome his fears will truly be free.
The best friend is the man who in wishing me well wishes it for my sake.
To the query, "What is a friend?" his reply was "A single soul dwelling in two bodies."
The appropriate age for marriage is around eighteen for girls and thirty-seven for men.
(Apparently, in addition to possessing uncommon sense, he had a sense of humor as well.)
Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was a Greek philosopher and polymath. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology. For almost two millennia, Aristotle was known as “The Philosopher.”
Whereas Plato sought to explain things from the supra-sensual standpoint of the forms, his pupil preferred to start from the facts given us by experience. As a student at Plato’s academy, Aristotle’s main concern was knowledge, gathered through observing natural phenomena. He loved to categorize things. He virtually invented logic and pioneered several sciences. To him, philosophy was logic and science. Philosophy helps direct our questions with its long tradition of inquiry, but the answers do come from science and logic.
Aristotle recognizes the true being of things in their concepts, but denies any separate existence of the concept apart from the particular objects of sense. Yes. Categories help us make sense of the real world, but there are no perfect forms behind the categories.
Known for the Golden Mean - avoiding extremes in ideals and behavior. Life requires many tradeoffs and many balances between short-term and long-term, self and society, and cooperation and competition. The Golden Mean is the right way to approach finding these balances.
Aristotle taught that virtue has to do with the proper function of a thing. An eye is only a good eye in so much as it can see. Aristotle reasoned that humans must have a function specific to humans, and that this function must be an activity of the soul in accordance with reason. Aristotle identified such an optimum activity of the soul as the aim of all human deliberate action, eudaimonia, generally translated as "happiness." To have the potential of ever being happy in this way necessarily requires a good character, moral virtue, or excellence. The meaning of life is to live. Humans are happiest when they act in ways that ensure the long-term survival of the species.
Needs to Adapt
The end of human activity, or the highest good, is happiness. The highest good is life. Fortunately, we are made happy by good life.
The natural community according to Aristotle was the city (polis), which functions as a political "community" or "partnership." The aim of the city is not just to avoid injustice or maintain economic stability, but rather to allow at least some citizens the possibility to live a good life, and to perform beautiful acts: The political partnership must be regarded, therefore, as being for the sake of noble actions, not for the sake of living together. The sake of living together is a noble action required for the long-term survival of the species. All citizens should be able to participate in this endeavor or else they will revolt and endanger others.
In Aristotelian science, most especially in biology, things he saw himself have stood the test of time better than his retelling of the reports of others, which contain error and superstition. He dissected animals but not humans; his ideas on how the human body works have been almost entirely superseded. Aristotle's writings on science are largely qualitative, as opposed to quantitative. Beginning in the 16th century, scientists began applying mathematics to the physical sciences, and Aristotle's work in this area was deemed hopelessly inadequate. His failings were largely due to the absence of concepts like mass, velocity, force, and temperature. He had a conception of speed and temperature, but no quantitative understanding of them, which was partly due to the absence of basic experimental devices, like clocks and thermometers. Though undoubtedly, he would have used these tools if he had them.
Aristotle's justification of the subservience of slaves and others to the virtue of a few justified the ideal of aristocracy. Where some are slaves, none are free. This creates chaos and inefficiency in society. It endangers all. We have not evolved from bee colonies; we have evolved from small egalitarian tribes. No slavery is permitted. Aristotle's aristocracy is wrong.