Greek Philosophy – Aristotle’s On The Soul

Aristotle argued that the ability to choose defines humanity, the fulfilment of our intended, natural purpose, to make individual choices about ourselves and social choices about others to live well.  We are, Aristotle says, the rational animal, made of flesh but able to mirror and mimic the creative divine.  Humanity is closer to the essence of all things than anything else, following the devolutionary view, as Stephen Clark puts it in Aristotle’s Man (1975), that life descends from man in line with what the Pythagorean Timaeus says in Plato’s dialogue.

Aristotle argued that the heart is the central organ, much as Confucians such as Mencius thought, the center of feeling and sensation, and when we seek revenge, the blood boiling around the heart and the desire for revenge are one and the same thing, just as the stamp and the wax are one.  The person who wronged us have stamped their image into our experience and blood, and this is why our heart pounds and we fantasize about giving them a piece of our mind, if nothing else.

With our minds we can grasp the basic categories of sensible things and the ways they are interrelated.  History always involves the accidental, chance and change, but the orders of creation are of the divine intellect itself, above the flux.  In the Metaphysics Aristotle wonders why Socrates only argued about ethics and what is good and not about the orders of nature, as Plato his teacher did.  We can, as Pythagoras showed with his Y, endure and gain immortality, but only as much as we embody the eternal, and only that lives on, much as Spinoza argued two thousand years later in Amsterdam.

Plato three soulsOne 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.

Human Eye

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.

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