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Friday, August 30, 2013

Getting Acquainted with Aristotle

Alice C. Linsley

Aristotle was influenced by the thought of Plato, probably the greatest philosopher of ancient Greece. Plato borrowed ideas from the ancient Egyptians and Kushites. He studied in Egypt for 13 years. Nevertheless, Plato put his own touch on the ideas. Likewise, Aristotle borrowed and adapted ideas from Plato. Aristotle also questioned Plato's thought and it was in his questioning of Plato that we find many of Aristotle's most interesting ideas.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was brought up at the Court of Macedonia. He became a student at Plato's Academy in Athens at age seventeen. At the time that Aristotle joined the Academy it had been operating for twenty years. Aristotle became a teacher at the Academy and remained there for twenty years. Diogenes Laertius, writing in the second century AD, says that Aristotle taught rhetoric and dialectic.

All Aristotle's writings of this time strongly support Plato's views, but he later took issue with Plato on the questions of censorship and the nature of happiness. He developed political ideas quite distinct from Plato who had said the kings should be philosophers. In On Kingship Aristotle wrote that it is, "... not merely unnecessary for a king to be a philosopher, but even a disadvantage. Rather a king should take the advice of true philosophers. Then he would fill his reign with good deeds, not with good words."

Aristotle, like Plato, believed in the existence of the soul. At the beginning of De Anima II.1, he says that there are three sorts of substance:

1. Matter (potentiality)

2. Form (actuality)

3. The compound of matter and form

Aristotle was interested in compounds that are alive. These are animated, that is, "de anima."  Living things have this vital spark or what is often called the "soul." The soul is what makes alive. Since form is what makes matter a “this,” the soul is the form of a living thing. The soul is that in virtue of which a living entity is the kind of living thing that it is. The soul is the essence of the entity.

Aristotle considered three ways of cognition or knowing: the first based on existence (matter) as a human being. The second based on form as when we recognize structure (form) such as grammar. The last way of cognition is based on action (actuality); that is, attending to something, involvement with something. This is consistent with his belief that a good king is not a philosopher alone, but also a doer of good deeds.

He makes a distinction between potential and actual. As humans we have potential to achieve happiness (the Good for Aristotle), but unless we recognize form/structures and act virtuously, we cannot achieve the highest cognitive being. We must aspire to more than mere existence. Perhaps Borges has this in mind when he said, "My father was very intelligent, and like all intelligent men, very kind."--Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)


It is clear, then, that wisdom is knowledge having to do with certain principles and causes. But now, since it is this knowledge that we are seeking, we must consider the following point: of what kind of principles and of what kind of causes is wisdom the knowledge? (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 340BC)

Metaphysics involves intuitive knowledge of unprovable starting-points (concepts and truth) and demonstrative knowledge of what follows from them.

The first philosophy (Metaphysics) is universal and is exclusively concerned with primary substance. ... And here we will have the science to study that which is just as that which is, both in its essence and in the properties which, just as a thing that is, it has.

The entire preoccupation of the physicist is with things that contain within themselves a principle of movement and rest. And to seek for this is to seek for the second kind of principle, that from which comes the beginning of the change.

There must then be a principle of such a kind that its substance is activity.

... it is impossible that the primary existent, being eternal, should be destroyed.

... that among entities there must be some cause which moves and combines things.

..about its coming into being and its doings and about all its alterations we think that we have knowledge when we know the source of its movement. (Aristotle, Metaphysics 340 BC)

Related reading:  Aristotle's Understanding of the Chief Good; Plato's Debt to Ancient Egypt; Ethics and Ancient Cosmology; What Makes a Good Society?

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