The Life of Aristotle
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, his group of students who met to hear Plato lecture and get heckled by Diogenes. 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.
He 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 died within a year of leaving Athens due to a stomach illness. While some sources said that he was poisoned, like Socrates though not self-administered, this is not considered credible by scholars today, a myth that likely arose making the lives of the two philosophers similar. Considering that Socrates was originally quite skeptical, questioning everyone to show them that no human mortals understood much, and Aristotle said that skeptics are no better than plants and are mere destroyers, the two were quite dissimilar.
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. We will be concentrating on his studies of metaphysics, psychology, logic, ethics and politics.
Aristotle’s Physics & Metaphysics
In his Physics, Aristotle proposed that there were five elements, the four Empedoclean elements along with aether, the element that makes the heavenly spheres and bodies of the Pythagoreans. This is not to be confused with Anaximander’s apeiron, the infinite out of which all things are composed. Beneath the aether, under the moon which travels in the lunar sphere, are fire, which is hot and dry, air, which is hot and wet, water, earth, which is cold and dry, and water, which is cold and wet. As things tend to seek their natural places, water tends to move downward and fire tends to move upward. All of this we had with Empedocles earlier. Like Plato, his teacher, Aristotle relied on the thinking of many previous philosophers in critically creating his system.
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.
Aristotle begins his Metaphysics by reviewing the history of Greek philosophy, saying that the Milesians were the first Greeks to study nature, and the Pythagoreans were the first to excel at mathematics. For Aristotle, the Eleatics were the first to do “pure thought”, pushing thought to its most abstract, as we saw last week in Plato’s dazzling dialogue the Parmenides, and Aristotle also gives credit to Anaxagoras. However, it is Socrates who Aristotle considers to have reached the pinnacle of thought and set out a method for using analogy and induction to find the general and universal definitions of things.
Clearly, Aristotle believed his teacher Plato’s dialogues to be accurate, and it was Socrates as Plato’s character, Plato himself, who Aristotle admired so highly. Even as Aristotle disagreed with Plato on the subject of form, saying that forms must be material, he agreed with Plato that supreme forms are universal and thus ideal, and that it was Socrates who discovered this through his inquiries. The analogy that Socrates reaches in Plato’s Republic, further projected into the cosmos in Plato’s Timaeus, is an ideal form, cosmic in fact, that must be materially incarnated in an individual or city. For Aristotle, this is the pinnacle of thought, and his own work continues in its wake.
Things can move in space, or change in quantity and quality. Quantity includes things such as number, size, or proportion, and quality includes things such as color, texture, or density. Potentiality is realized in actuality, driven by the four causes. If we are building something, the material we use is potentially a building, and the building is realized through our actions in the realization of our plan, the end and purpose of the activity. Disagreeing with Plato, Aristotle argued that universals, the general forms of things, must be incarnated in particular things at some time. The motions of the aetherial brings about the motions and forms of the elemental world below.
The supreme substance for Aristotle was the Unmoved Mover, what many compare to God, the first substance which moves all things but does not itself move. Like Descartes did thousands of years later in France, Aristotle considered the soul and the heavenly bodies to be living substances, separate from the lower, baser substances, but still substantial. The Unmoved Mover is quite similar to Anaxagoras’ Nous which shakes all things by its thought. Aristotle criticized Anaxagoras for employing a ‘deus ex machina’, a charge that he believes his own theory escapes. God is an eternal, perfect being which does nothing but contemplate, its contemplations giving form to things just as the idea of a ruler gives form to a city or the idea of an artist gives form to clay.
Aristotle’s physics and metaphysics were replaced by Newtonian physics, though challenged and improved by Islamic philosophers, logicians and scientists of the Islamic golden age (800 – 1300 CE). Aristotle was revered by Muslims, who saw him as a patriarch in their own cultural tradition, just as the Europeans do in theirs, often forgetting that the Muslims did so first.
Aristotle’s De Anima (On the Soul)
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 is often praised as the father of Logic, but it is far more reasonable (and logical) to say that Aristotle developed theories of debate and seeking truth just as thinkers had from many ancient cultures such as India and China. There are several of his texts that concern logic and debate which were gathered together and titled the Organon by Aristotle’s followers. We will cover some of the central ideas of Aristotle’s Categories, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics and Posterior Analytics.
In the Categories Aristotle is concerned with in the power of speech, identified with breath and Logos in Plato’s Timaeus. Aristotle assumes that things have purposes according to their natures, and these purposes correspond to concepts that can be put into words. Aristotle believes that we must observe nature and say what can be said of things, based on their similarities and differences. Recall that in Plato’s Timaeus, all things are fashioned out of sameness and difference. Thus, as example, Aristotle says that ‘animal’ can be said or predicated of both a man and an ox, just as ‘man’ and ‘animal’ can be predicated of any human male individual. A Genera or Genus is the family to which a thing belongs. This is paired with Species, the subgroup of the family. He says that if you are giving an account of a particular tree, you would say more with the species of tree than you would of the genus ‘plant’.
Aristotle gives us ten categories which he claims are in no way composite, completely separate from each other or “categorically separate”. The ten are substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action, and affection. Note that several of these such as relation, place, time, position, state, and affection are all quite confusingly interrelated, even though Aristotle says that they are all categorically separate. Substances ‘underlie’ everything else. Aristotle argues that substances simply are, while ‘white’ or ‘beautiful’ or ‘warm’ can be more or less so in a thing.
Aristotle writes, “The distinctive mark of substance is that it can admit contrary qualities. Thus, a color cannot be both white and black, nor can the same act be good and bad: this is true for any non substance, but substances can at different times be white and black…The same individual person is at one time white, at another black, at one time warm, at another cold, at one time good, at another bad.” Note that by “white” Aristotle means a sick, pale or elderly person, not a judgement about ethnicity. Thus the proposition “He is sitting” can be true, then false, then true as a person sits, stands, and then sits again. Aristotle denies that things can possess contrary qualities (be both white and black) or be in contrary states (good and evil) at the same time. This is a point that any skeptical or relativistic thinker would deny. Heraclitus, an opponent that Aristotle argues against, thought that things were good and bad by perspective and positioning and so things can have contrary qualities and be in contrary states at the same time. Aristotle completely denies the possibility of this, saying “If, then, someone says that statements and opinions are capable of admitting contrary qualities, his contention is unsound”. For Aristotle, a person cannot be healthy and sick at the same time, but it can be one at one time, then another at another time. What if you have a healthy liver, but an eye infection? What if you then get a liver problem?
In his On Interpretation, Aristotle says that we must limit our discussion to propositions that are true or false exclusively. He argues that prayers, promises and requests are neither true nor false because they do not guarantee whether they will be fulfilled or not. An affirmation is a positive statement of something, a denial a negative statement. Thus, “I exist” is a positive affirmation, as is “This apple is red”, whereas ‘I do not exist’ or ‘I doubt that I exist’ are negative denials, as is “This apple is not red”.
Later Aristotelians used a diagram known as the Square of Opposition to frame and teach Aristotelian Logic. In fact, Aristotle does not mention the concept himself but medieval Europeans, who translated much of Aristotle from Arabic into Latin, created the square as a way of organizing Aristotle’s ideas. In the same way, Aristotle did not use algebraic notation but his syllogisms were put in symbolic forms by Muslims and Christians to make them simpler to digest. Aristotle says there are universals and particulars. This corresponds to the eternal aetherial heavens and the temporal earth. Cows is the universal group including all cows, while a particular cow is an individual. Thus, “All people are good” and “No people are good” are universal propositions, whereas “Some people are good” and “Some people are not good” are particular propositions.
Aristotle uses “white” as a central example, and this was misperceived by later cultures. Muslims and Christians mistook this to be speaking about their own ethnicity, and unfortunately Aquinas in the 1200s used “Socrates was a white man” as a central example for teaching Aristotle’s On Interpretation. Aquinas thought that he and Aristotle were “white men”, and that this referred to the European race. Muslim logicians assumed that Aristotle was a “white” Asiatic man like themselves, and Aquinas is getting his Aristotle from Persians like Al Farabi and Al Ghazali. Aristotle, who was concerned with medicine and biology, used the term to refer to a sick or elderly person, which shows that he neither called Greeks white nor thought that it was their typical condition.
Aristotle tells us, critical for understanding the Square of Opposition, that particular propositions can contradict each other but both be true, whereas universal propositions can not contradict each other and both be true. Consider the four propositions, “I like all cows”, “I dislike all cows”, “I like some cows”, and “I dislike some cows”. The first two are universal propositions, as they refer to the group of all cows, while the second two are particular propositions, as they only refer to some individual cows. These propositions correspond to the four corners of a square. The top is universal (All and None), the bottom is particular (Some and Some Not), the left is positive (All and Some), and the right is negative (None and Some Not). If we want to put the four corners in an algebraic form with X and Y, they would be: All X is Y, No X is Y, Some X is Y, Some X is not Y.
Aristotle notes that the cross corners cannot both be true, and neither can the top two corners (ALL and NONE). Also, he argues that one or the other of the bottom must be true, but as many have pointed out this is only so if we know that there are some Xs and Ys and that things must be either X or not X, Y or not Y. If there are cows, and if I either like or dislike things, then there must be some cows that I like or some cows that I dislike, and while I may like some cows and dislike others I must do one, the other or both. If there are no cows, or if there are things I am indifferent to and neither like nor dislike, Aristotle is wrong that one must do one or the other.
Aristotle argues that he has a problem with things that are neither X nor not X, with the example of a neither good nor bad person. Does the proposition “X is good” contradict “X is bad” or does it contradict “X is not good”? If X is neither good nor bad, the first is false, the second false, but the third is true. Good and bad are contraries, but they are BOTH contrary to neither good nor bad (neutral, like the Swiss). Aristotle says, strangely, that ‘not good’ is MORE FALSE than ‘bad’, the contrary quality. This seems to reverse his position from before, that if something is good, it can be bad at some other time, but cannot be bad, because he is now saying that it is more that it cannot be good. He says, “It SEEMS more contrary”.
Aristotle has founded everything on what are later called by Aristotelians the PRINCIPLE OF BIVALENCE (a proposition must be either true or false, not neither true nor false) and the PRINCIPLE OF NON-CONTRADICTION (a proposition must be true or false, not both). These two principles became central to the logical positivism of the British and American Analytic tradition. Bertrand Russell argued that logic and science must start with one universally true principle, the principle of noncontradiction, to avoid skepticism and relativism, being as upset with Utilitarian and pragmatic logicians such as John Stuart Mill as Aristotle was with Heraclitus.
Hegel, who argued that the major battle in the history of thought was that between dogmatism and skepticism, identified dogmatism with noncontradiction and skepticism with contradiction. Hegel believed that Aristotle grasped the side of thought that exclusively divided things to avoid contradiction, but Heraclitus grasped the side of thought that inclusively united things and their opposites to comprehend contradiction. Recall that Parmenides argued that being and nonbeing cannot be the same, ridiculing the position of Heraclitus, while Heraclitus argued that being and nonbeing are one and the same as becoming, the constant transformation of all things. In Plato’s Parmenides, Socrates is taught that things can and can’t have contrary qualities, that the position of Heraclitus or any other thinker is true and not true. Hegel, like Plato’s Parmenides, takes this contradictory view, that contradiction and noncontradiction are both true and false.
The top and bottom of the square of opposition show us both of these positions, as well as the two ways we use the word ‘or’. The conjunction OR can function both inclusively and exclusively. Let us say you are at a buffet, and the sign says, “You can have eggs, toast, bacon, soup, or salad”. At a buffet, you can have as much of any number of things as you want, thus the OR in the sign is used INCLUSIVELY. Now let us say someone is buying you a car, and says “You can have a Honda, a Cadillac or a Volkswagen”. Since you only get to have one, the OR is being used EXCLUSIVELY by the generous person who is buying you a (single) car. When you can have your choice of more than one, OR is used inclusively. When you can have ONLY one choice, not more, OR is used exclusively.
Notice that the top of the Square of Opposition, the Universal and General side, functions like an exclusive OR because both “All X is Y” and “All X is not Y” cannot both be true. If all trees are green, then it can’t be that all trees are not green and vice versa. The bottom of the Square of Opposition, the particular and individual side, functions like an inclusive OR because both “Some X is Y” and “Some X is not Y” can’t both be false but one, the other or both can be true. If some trees are green, it is possible that some trees are not green. While ‘all’ and ‘none’ are absolute and exclusive (“black versus white” as it is often called), ‘some’ and ‘some not’ are relative and inclusive (“shades of grey” as it is said, contrary to “black or white”). When we are dogmatic, and want black and white answers, we are like the top, and when we are skeptical and want shades of grey, we are like the bottom of the square.
Aristotle says, like Russell thousands of years later, that true science or knowledge starts from starts from first principles to deduce necessary conclusions, and he says that this originated in ancient Babylon (modern day Iraq). While he includes consideration of some and some not, notice that nothing is known certainly about X if we only know that some X is Y or not Y. To know something certain about X, we would have to know that all X is Y or no X is Y. If I know that some cows are good, I do not know if my aunt Mildred’s cow is good, but if I know that all cows are bad, I know with certainty that Mildred’s cow is evil.
Wittgenstein, Russell’s protege who invented modern truth table logic, remarked in his Philosophical Investigations that in arguments between individuals and schools of thought, each side attacks the other as if their position is absolute by offering counter examples, but each side also allows their own position to be relative, as mostly or plenty true in spite of counter examples. Believers in objective truth argue that all truth is not subjective against skeptical relativism, and believers in subjective truth argue that all truth is not objective against dogmatic absolutism. Wittgenstein wanted to show that while many argue that truth is out in the world, independent of mind, and others that truth is in the mind, independent of the world, we think and act as if truth is both in the mind and in the world, both subjective and objective at the same time in many ways.
Aristotle describes the difference between DEMONSTRATION, which starts from certain principles to deduce and conclude additional certain principles (If A, B, and C, therefore D) and DIALECTIC, which argues back and forth about a thing to see which side is more certain (Is A B or not B, just like the Nyaya logicians of India). While Aristotle’s teacher Plato thought dialectic was the ultimate device for achieving certain knowledge, famously displayed in the Parmenides, Aristotle believed that demonstration is superior to dialectic even though he uses both throughout his texts. Aristotle presents us with many forms of argument that can be used in debate, but he only believes that the first four require no additional conditions, outside inferences or evidence. For this reason, Aristotle’s four “perfect” forms of syllogism were studied as the forms of logic up until Wittgenstein replaced them with truth tables. There is one for each of the four corners of the square.
BARBARA, the Positive Universal Syllogism:
If all humans are animals, and all animals are alive, then all humans are alive.
In the Venn diagram form, if a circle A is entirely within a circle B, and this circle B is entirely in a third circle C, then circle A must be entirely inside circle C.
CELARENT, the Negative Universal Syllogism:
If all humans are animals, and no animals are made of stone, then no humans are made of stone.
As a Venn diagram, if A is entirely within B, and no B is inside C, then no A can be inside C.
DARII, the Positive Particular Syllogism:
If some animals are humans, and all humans are funny, then some animals are funny.
As a Venn diagram, if some A is inside B and all B is inside C then some A must be inside C.
FERIO, the Negative Particular Syllogism:
If some animals are humans, and no humans are reptiles, then some animals are not reptiles.
As a Venn diagram, if some A is in B and no B is in C then some of A is outside C.
Aristotle believed that you could derive pure knowledge from chaining these forms together. He argues in the text that since the Scythians have no vines, thus no grapes, thus no intoxication, thus no flute players. Aristotle, like Plato in the Symposium, associates intoxication with flutes. He gives another example. If something is metal, then it will cut, and since hatchets are made of metal, therefore hatchets will cut. In the 1600s, Sir Francis Bacon rejected the syllogism as fallible, just as Islamic scholars and scientists had before, arguing that they were too limited for doing science. Consider that all metal things do not cut, nor do all knives, the butter knife being an example of something metal and a knife that does not cut, created by a French nobleman to prevent his dinner guests from picking their teeth.
Aristotle sometimes goes back on his earlier statements and gives us examples when things that are normally universal and certain can be conditional, can be different in certain situations and circumstances. He says that it is never right to kill your father, but among the Triballi tribe, the gods sometimes demand it. Since the gods are one’s super-parents and one’s obligations to them supersedes one’s obligations to one’s parents, he says that the Triballi rightly sacrifice their fathers. Notice that Aristotle believes that the polytheistic gods are real and that human sacrifice is sometimes logical.
Interestingly Aristotle provides us with defenses against syllogisms. He says that in order to avoid having a syllogism drawn against one’s own argument, one should not let the opponent give the same term twice over. If one’s opponent argues that A is B, and B is C, therefore A is C, one should attack the twice used middle term (the B that links A and C in the syllogisms) to prevent an argument from reaching a conclusion. For example, if one’s opponent argues war is American, what is American is good, therefore war is good, one should argue that the war is only somewhat American, that only some of America is involved in war, or that only some of America is good because America is being used to link war to the good. It seems that we naturally know to do this in arguing, just like using the forms. If we want to destroy a position, we show that it is relative, not absolute.
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 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-Pontilla 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.
Continuing to speak of property, Aristotle differs from Plato and his conception of an ideal city. While Plato argued that the police and philosophers should own nothing in common, sharing even their children and families, Aristotle, in accord with the doctrine of the mean, called for a balance of public and private property. He argues that Plato was overly confident in people’s ability to be similar, and thus ignored the great differences between individuals and families. He correctly says that first there was bartering, but then weighed amounts of metal which were later stamped with insignias arose because barter was impossible over long distances. Wealth should be measured not by its amount, but how it is used. It is not virtuous to seek money for its own sake, but money itself is not evil. Usury, lending money with interest expected, is an unnatural and disgusting use of wealth.
About governments, Aristotle says there are three forms, monarchy, aristocracy and republic. A corrupt monarchy is a tyranny, a corrupt aristocracy is an oligarchy, and a corrupt republic is a democracy. For Aristotle the best form of government is monarchy (consider that he tutored Alexander, teaching him how to rule an empire), followed by aristocracy, then republic, and then followed by democracy, oligarchy, and lastly tyranny. This creates a diamond like shape, with rule of a single individual or by fewest is best when it is good and worst when it is bad. Because good kings are rare, again seeking a balance in the middle, Aristotle argues that a republic is safest, but he clearly does not want a democracy with voting for everyone. As Aristotle is ethnocentric and not an egalitarian, he says that different peoples are suited for different forms of government. The Greeks have both the spirit of the Europeans, who are beast-like people, naturally suited for slavery, and the mind of the Asians, so they are suited for ruling themselves in a republic.
Aristotle argues that money should be excluded from politics, a fine idea except that this also means people who do not have sufficient money such that they are not worried about acquiring more, those with the leisure to do philosophy and science, are the best for politics, and common people such as craftsmen and farmers must be excluded or they will put their interest in money above justice. This is oddly similar to what some to the right in America say today, arguing that those with money are the virtuous and those on the bottom wishing simply for free handouts. Against the right, as well as Aristotle, the left wing argues that money is indeed quite involved with and corrupting of politics, but it is the rich who unjustly want to give themselves more, not those on the bottom. Aristotle does not consider it wise to allow working people to become citizens, vote or serve on juries.
Aristotle did believe that children should be educated publicly by the state from age seven to twenty one, divided into two periods of seven years. This perfectly fits with the Pythagorean idea that seven years separate children from young adults and young adults from adults. Children should be educated in art, gymnastics, and literacy, corresponding once again to desire, spirit and reason. Studying too much art or gymnastics without enough attention to literacy, to reading and writing, would create unbalanced results. Judging by his recommendation that working people should not become citizens or vote, it does not seem that he would advocate for public education of all children. This would make sense, given that craftspeople and farmers take up their vocation long before they are twenty one years of age.