Ethics of Greece: Aristotle
For this lecture, please read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, book I & II.
Aristotle (384-322 BCE)
Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE), the most famous of Greek philosophers along with his teacher Plato and Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was born in Strageira, north of Athens. His father was the personal physician of Amyntas, King of Macedon. Later, Aristotle would become the tutor and advisor to Alexander the Great, himself a Macedonian monarch. When he was old enough, Aristotle traveled to Athens to join Plato’s Academy. He studied with Plato for twenty years until Plato’s death. Tradition has it that the Academy was taken over by Plato’s nephew Speusippus even though Aristotle was more qualified, possibly because Aristotle had come to disagree with Plato’s theory of ideal forms, and so Aristotle left. In this Islamic image above, the great caliph and patron of philosophy, science and the arts, Al-Mamun dreamed that he spoke with Aristotle. Both are portrayed with halos, the fire of the mind and insight, Aristotle is portrayed as much darker in skin than the Muslim ruler, and there is a Chinese-style book that folds in the middle which did not exist in Aristotle’s time but still does in our own, for now.
Aristotle traveled and studied in Ionia and Asia before King Philip of Macedon invited him to tutor his young son Alexander, thirteen at the time, who would go on to conquer and unify ancient Greece within his brief empire along with Egypt and Persia. Aristotle also tutored Ptolemy and Cassander, who after Alexander’s death would take over parts of his divided empire. Aristotle founded his school in Athens in 335 BCE, holding meetings of his students at a public gymnasium named the Lyceum after a form of Apollo as a wolf god. The Lyceum had seen earlier philosophers give public talks, including Socrates and Plato, and it continued to be the meeting place for followers of Aristotle until Athens was sacked by the Romans 250 years later. The followers of Aristotle became known as the Peripatetics, the “Walk-about-ers”, as Aristotle enjoyed walking as he lectured, taught and answered questions. In the mornings, he would walk with a select number of advanced students in detailed, advanced seminars, and then in the evening give general talks open to any who would gather. A study at Stanford has shown that if one wants to retain knowledge through study, one should sit, but if one wants to stimulate critical and creative thinking, walking outside is best.
After Alexander died, Aristotle feared being killed by the Athenians as he was not only a barbarian foreigner and a Macedonian but the tutor of Alexander, who was not loved by the Athenians. After he was accused publicly of impiety towards the gods, showing little in Athens had changed since the death of Socrates, Aristotle left Athens saying he would not allow the Athenians “to sin against philosophy twice”, recalling the death of Socrates due to similar charges. Aristotle, like his teacher Plato “the broad”, wrote on a great number of subjects. Many of his writings are now lost, and scholars debate which of his works are his own or the notes of his students. Diogenes Laertius wrote in Roman times about the work of Aristotle, though none of the works he mentions are known today. It is also possible that many of the texts we have are lecture notes, either Aristotle’s or his students’, and may not have been intended to stand as texts in their own right.
Aristotle argued that each and every thing is the result of four types of cause. The first two are the form of the thing and the material of the thing, what a thing is and what it is made of. The second two are the efficient cause, from what the thing originates, and the final cause, the purpose of a thing, where it terminates. Aristotle, like many of the ancient world, believed in a teleological universe, and that things are given their form with a purpose. Notice that, just like we find in Plato’s Timaeus, things are created from ideas, the idea made of a higher element than the material in which the form is intentionally crafted.
While some have called Aristotle a materialist, like Plato he believed that the idea and form of a thing is superior to the crude material, but unlike Plato he put emphasis on the lower, material part of things as also essential to what they are, famously captured in the center of the School of Athens painting by Rafael with Plato pointing to the heavens and Aristotle putting his hand over the earth below. If we could hear Aristotle talk, he would be telling Plato that material is the body of form, which is the mind, inferior but also important. Like Plato, Aristotle believed that the form or idea of a thing was its higher essence and being. The material out of which it was composed was temporary, less defined and definite as the form. For instance, if we build a building, our idea of the building’s form is more durable than the material, no matter how strong, out of which we build the building.
“Metaphysics” meant for Aristotle “after physics” or “beyond physics”, the subject or book that follows physics. Today, the term is understood as “over physics”, the rules behind reality or laws of nature, as Aristotle continued after teaching physics to explain the physics of physics, the overarching laws of the universe from which nature is created. In modern European thought, both the skeptical Continental tradition of Germany and France and the Analytic tradition of Britain and America have sought to abolish metaphysics, the Continental tradition because they are cynical of human conceptions, the Analytic tradition because of faith in the continued use of the scientific method.
One of Aristotle’s most influential works for hundreds of years, like Plato’s Timaeus not widely read today as much as other works, is his De Anima, “On the Soul”, his psychology. Aristotle, like the Pythagorean Timaeus of Plato’s dialogue, thought that we have three souls, a lower vegetative appetite, an emotional and sensitive spirit, and a rational mind. The rational mind is the most perfect and highest manifestation of the body. Like Empedocles, Aristotle argued that the mind is impressed by things as a seal is stamped in hot wax, and in this way gains conceptions.
Aristotle notes that there are five senses, with touch the lowest, hearing the most informative and instructive, and sight the highest and most noble. Notice that, parallel with Plato, touch, as well as taste, deal in the earthly, hearing, as well as smell, deal in air (which is why, like the police of Plato’s Republic, the ear is the best at receiving orders and information, and sight deals in fire and light. Sight is also the most powerful element in that it is the farthest reaching. Touch and taste require immediate contact with a sensed thing, smell gives us a bit of distance, hearing even more, but sight reaches furthest of all. Aristotle says that the heart is the central sense organ, receiving the perceptions and motions from the five senses. While the senses are limited and deal with particular things, the mind is free and deals with universals. While the Unmoved Mover is the universal mind of the cosmos, human individuals are given particular minds with a limited conception, just as the senses are limited and particular.
Aristotle believed that humans have a purpose which is the fulfillment of human nature, the aim of the good life. While many goals in life merely lead to further additional goals, such as the goal of making money leading to the goal of pleasure or security, Aristotle that there must be a final goal, an end in itself. What is this final goal, which should be universal and common to all of humanity? Sappho, the famed ancient Lesbian poet, from the island of Lesbos, wrote that each person has something, often different things, that make them happy. For Aristotle, this subjective relativism is not good enough. If we are to understand human nature and the form of the good life, we must find something which is pursued for its own sake and universally valued. This is similar to Socrates in Plato’s Meno, who argues that the good must be the same for all in common. It is reason, the work of philosophy and science, which is the realization of the human, the fulfillment of human nature.
Like his teacher Plato, Aristotle argues that each of the three parts of the soul can be virtuous in their own way. The lowest center of desire, situated in the stomach, is virtuous when it promotes bodily health, what Aristotle calls nutritional virtue. The second center of spirit, situated in the chest, is virtuous when it promotes discipline and justice, what Aristotle calls moral virtue. Finally, the highest center of reason, situated in the head, is virtuous when it promotes study, investigation and contemplation, what Aristotle calls intellectual virtue. Aristotle believes that intellectual virtue leads to moral virtue, and moral virtue leads to nutritional virtue. When we are wise, we are moral, and when we are wise and moral, we are healthy. When we are unhealthy it is because we are undisciplined, and when we are undisciplined it is because we are unwise. A healthy person may not be wise or disciplined, like a talented artist who is neither courageous nor wise, in which case they will likely not remain healthy or talented for long. Similarly, a spirited and disciplined person may be healthy but not be wise, like an athlete or warrior who does not consider the larger picture before acting, in which case they will likely not remain disciplined or healthy for long.
At first, human individuals are neither wise nor disciplined. They must be taught wisdom and discipline by others who are already rational and moral, and then through practice develop what they receive from others to become rational and moral themselves. In acquiring intellectual, moral and nutritional virtue we find that a balance between extremes is best, what Aristotle calls the Doctrine of the Mean. ‘Mean’ here is the middle, not ‘mean’ as rude or aggressive. In all things, we must chart a middle course between excess and deficiency, too much or too little, the two opposite extremes. Aristotle uses the example of gymnastic exercises, which make an individual strong when there is neither too little or too much. Similarly, we should not eat too much or too little if we want to be healthy, as well as not study too much or too little if we want to be wise. Wisdom tells us when we are being too brave or too cowardly, fearing too much or too little.
Aristotle argues that there are many virtues, each a mean between a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency. Courage is the mean between haste and cowardice. Temperance is the mean between being too sensitive and too insensitive. Nobility is the mean between vanity and lack of self worth. Sincerity is the mean between boastfulness and self-deprecation. Wittiness is the mean between being too silly or too somber. Modesty is the mean between being too bashful and too shameless. Just like Aristotle’s categories, some of these are interrelated, not categorically distinct, and Aristotle is only somewhat successful at distinguishing them from each other. Like Aristotle, Buddha and Confucius argued that virtue is a balancing act between extremes.
Like virtue, Aristotle believes that justice is itself a balancing act. Agreeing with Plato’s form of the soul found in the Republic, which holds that justice is the lower put in check by the higher, Aristotle emphasizes that this is achieved by moderation. Justice has two sides, distribution of rewards to those who do good, which Aristotle calls distributive justice, and punishment to those who do wrong, which Aristotle calls corrective justice. Distribution and correction, also known as “the carrot and the stick” in the British folk tradition, is used to direct society, planned rationally by the philosophers and implemented courageously by the police.
Conflicts of desire, like social conflicts in the city, result in imbalance, in excess and lack. Socrates argued in Plato’s Republic that no one would knowingly do evil, as they would see that it is not in their best interest, so a conflict in desires can lead to ignorance and a lack of courage or wisdom. For Aristotle, it is possible for a person to knowingly do evil when they are conflicted, as they can see what the wisest or courageous choice would be but are too overwhelmed by an excess of desire or honor to do what they know to be right. In these cases, when our desire for pleasure outweighs our wisdom, we can knowingly do the wrong thing. Socrates, like the Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming, would say that if a person does not do what is right, then they may say they know what is courageous or wise but they in fact do not know, cannot be said to see what is good, and are merely telling others what they expect they want to hear.
Miguel Leon-Portilla argues in his Aztec Thought and Culture that the Aztecs and Mayans had theoretical philosophy like the Greeks, and that a central ethical concept similar to Confucius in China and Aristotle in Greece is “You are my other self”. Aristotle argues that to be ethical is not only to love oneself in moderation, but to love others and the cosmos in moderation, sharing your life in common. Like the Nous of Plato’s Timaeus, which simply contemplates in itself, justice and virtue, like friendship between individuals and scientific comprehension of the cosmos, is sought not because it is pleasurable but because it is an end in itself, a purpose above which there is none higher. While pleasure does follow from science and friendship, these are pursued for their own sake even when they do not result in pleasure, even when we learn truth we find unpleasant or must deal with situations we find difficult. By relating to others through friendship and to the cosmos through investigation and contemplation we complete ourselves, fulfill our human nature and achieve our highest purpose.
Clearly, ethics was quite political for Aristotle, necessarily finding its resolution in a communion with others. Aristotle is often quoted as having written, “Man is by nature a political animal”. Mind and speech are by our nature social. For Aristotle, much like the Confucians of China, a unified family is the basic component of a unified village, which is itself the basic component of a unified state. In the same way that the individual must acquire courage and wisdom from others to put desire in check, so too must families gather into villages and villages into states such that the police and philosophers can arise and perform their function. Just as the purpose of individual life was reason, the purpose of society for Aristotle was for the cultivation of courage in warriors and wisdom in philosophers. Following very much Plato’s plan set out in the Republic, Aristotle believes that the purpose of the city is ultimately philosophy, as it is only this that can preserve and order the whole.
Unfortunately, Aristotle argues that some people are best suited for slavery, distinct from those who have merely been taken as slaves through war. Aristotle was openly ethnocentric, believing the Greeks to be a balanced people possessing both minds like the Asian Persians and bodies like the European tribes. This is similar to the speech of Pericles mentioned previously. Just as it is natural and right for men to rule women, for husband to rule wife according to Aristotle, so too is it natural for the Greeks to make slaves of those peoples incapable of reason and philosophy. Ironically, Aristotle himself was considered by many in Athens to be a barbarian himself, as he was from the north and associated with Macedonians.