At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.
— Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Chapter II
As a youth my father told me that all of the important questions about the world were first posed by the Greeks. Aristotle had many good answers. In reading him it is hard to believe that over two thousand years separate us from this brilliant mind.
The world that Aristotle inhabited in the 4th century B.C. was quite different from our own. Civilization was quite new to our species. Life was short. Defenses against disease and injury were nonexistent except by the body’s own natural defense mechanisms and ability to recover. The very nature of disease and bodily processes were not understood. Food and shelter were contingent on the vagaries of the weather and easy availability of useable resources. Tools were crude and most efforts very labor intensive. Large areas of the globe were lawless. Science as we would define it today was not possible nor conceivable. The forces and laws of nature were described as the acts of gods, demons, and other fanciful creatures. Tribal genesis stories abounded from every corner of the globe. Where some form of law did exist, superstition and tribal loyalties largely trumped all other forms of social organization and individual concerns. The Greek city-states, in particular, constantly warred with each other to claim hegemony over the Aegean peninsula. Modes of transport were limited and crude. Our species was even still hunted as prey by a number of apex predators.
That a man of Aristotle’s characteristics could emerge from that world is truly amazing. He was, long before that word was invented, a Renaissance man for his time. He explored natural history, which seemed to be his first passion. He studied and classified the animals that he found around him. As a matter of fact, his classification was in many ways superior to the Linnaean taxonomy that we use today, particularly in the manner in which he separated out vertebrates from invertebrates. He also studied the stars, the weather, and a host of other subjects. Many of his classifications and observations have turned out to be valid, based as they were in empirical methods.
His thirst for knowledge seems to have been insatiable. But probably his most important contribution to our species were his ethical and political writings, in particular, the Nicomachean Ethics. They anticipate every modern notion of ethics and morality that we value today, and qualify as a literature that transmits wisdom. But it is worth noting that Aristotle’s writings did not come down to Western Civilization as a continuous tradition. The line was severed with the long decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Also, the nature of the medium used for transmitting written knowledge–papyrus–tended to deteriorate over time, particularly in wetter climates. As Rome fell the great libraries of the east also were destroyed, some from warfare but most others through religious fanaticism, which viewed any knowledge other than that received from their theology to be a grave threat needful of destruction. With the fabric of civilization torn apart, many centers of learning and the contents therein were abandoned and neglected, their contents left to deteriorate and crumble.
It was not until about the 12th century that Greek philosophy and Aristotelian literature was reintroduced to the West. This occurred through several routes: the literature that made its way back to Europe from the Crusades, the efforts of William of Moerbeke, the Jewish translations from Greek to Arabic and then to Latin of the Classical works that were introduced through the Arab conquests of Eastern Europe and Spain, through the Italian trading states and Sicily, and through the efforts of the Al-Andalus polymath Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and other Arab translators and commentators of Classical works. Thus, the travels of Aristotle’s ideas trace the history, conquests, and conflicts of the first 14 centuries of the modern era.
For Western Europe it was as if Aristotle’s ideas were introduced to Western Civilization anew. The threat from this reintroduction was first and foremost to religious belief (tied as it is to social and political power structures), which had relied first on the metaphysical writings of Plato to support the idea of revealed truth. Aristotle’s approach was to base conclusions about the world on observation, which allowed an alternative view of reality that conflicts with the doctrine of revealed truth. To the monotheistic religions this was an unacceptable proposition. The Western Christian church, in particular, sought to root out all influences of what we now know as empiricism, equating it with paganism and atheism. (Not to mention the feared influence and association to Arabic and Jewish sources). It was thus not until Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle’s logic and ethics–co-opting both and turning them on their heads in support of the Western Church fused with Plato–that the threat was deemed past. So much was Aristotle absorbed into the Catholic and Christian cannon that it is difficult to know where religious ethics and logic begins and Aristotelian ethics and logic ends.
This hybrid Aquinas Aristotle, particularly in the use of logical deduction to support circular reasoning, came in the eyes of Renaissance and modernist thinkers, particularly in the rapidly advancing sciences, to be the core edifice to be overthrown in order for civilization to advance–and rightly so. But the guilt by association and fusion also unfortunately relegated all of Aristotle’s unadulterated works to serve as mere historical examples in the evolution of Western philosophical thought and ethics in pre-modern times. Only recently has the taint of intellectual oppression and retrograde beliefs been wiped from his legacy so that he has enjoyed a second rediscovery and revival of sorts.
Thus, the Aristotle that comes down to us is once again the polymath that learned from and exceeded the achievements of his teacher, Plato. Ethics and philosophy prior to Aristotle was largely metaphysical and theoretical. The approach in discerning reality was to assume creation. For example, for Plato the “idea” of the elephant came first. This idea is the ideal and perfect elephant living in its perfect environment. All of reality is a corruption of the perfect idea of the elephant. One can see why this approach would appeal to a theological mindset. It also happens to be pre-scientific gibberish. But Aristotle was a practical man. For him the elephants that we see are what nature intended–an elephant is an elephant, all the rest is nonsensical word salad.
Thus his ethics were also practical and they provide the first practical guidance on how to live a good life. He actually wrote three different treatises on ethics but the most effective distillation of his views are found in the Nicomachean Ethics, which were based on lectures he gave at the Lyceum. There is much in Aristotle that synthesizes what he learned from Plato but he goes further than his teacher to more practical matters. This was a dangerous tact to take. As long as philosophers talked about theoretical topics they did not threaten the power structure and were allowed to freely give their advice, especially if some of it was useful to those in power and influence. Aristotle chose a different path and it is one that caused him much trouble later in life and led him to flee Athens from charges of impiety.
Aristotle bases his ethics on his observations of the natural sciences and so rather than taking a theoretical approach to what is right and wrong–or the age-old problem of the “is” versus the “ought,” his ethics is, instead, based on what he sees in the differences between animals and people. As we read Aristotle we can see that his system of thinking flows logically from observations of the natural world to the differences in humans that make us so, to his ethics, which then influences his prescriptions for government. According to Aristotle the key feature that distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability to reason. It is this facility that provides our advantages over other creatures. Our rational selves also allow us to choose to live well, to strive for excellence, and to seek what is good or virtuous. Thus he distinguishes between self-interest, or the intermediate definitions of happiness, and the higher order of happiness and living well–what is good–as something that can only be achieved through virtuous action.
Thus, In this way he was not talking about good things individually but the ultimate definition of good. The three characteristics in asking this question of what is good are to determine whether it is desirable for itself, it is not desirable for the sake of some other good, and all other goods are desirable for its sake. His conclusion is “Happiness (flourishing), then, is found to be something perfect and self-sufficient, being the end to which our actions are directed.” (Book 1, Chapter VII). For example, seeking wealth, which seems to be the overarching obsession in our own age, cannot be a good for its own sake under this definition. On the contrary, pursuing wealth, or some of the other pleasures of life as ends in themselves are a perversion of happiness, since they cannot in and of themselves lead to the ultimate happiness or good. Wealth, power, influence, etc.are not new concepts and they were certainly all too well known by Aristotle and others of his age. But, he tells, us that these are intermediate goals that can only be determined to be either good or bad in the manner in which they contribute to the ultimate good, which is human flourishing. He tells us, “…the good for people is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind.”
In this way he anticipates Epicurus, though coming to many of the same conclusions through different methods. His conclusion that it is human flourishing that is the ultimate good based on natural history also (informs and) anticipates by over 2,000 years the work of Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape in our own time.
But what exactly is a virtue? He tells us that, rather than a hard and fast list of prescriptions that we must memorize, that virtue is one that is defined by its balance in avoiding extremes. In Book 2 he states: “So virtue is a purposive disposition, lying in a mean that is relative to us and determined by a rational principle, and by that which a prudent man would use to determine it. It is a mean between two kinds of vice, one of excess and the other of deficiency…” Once again, Aristotle is arguing for the use of our reason, which we would most closely associate today with the scientific method. The truth is out there, he tells us, it is up to us to find it through observation and the use of our intellect. Such determinations are imperfect things and are always open to additional study and revision.
This is not to take Aristotle’s relative methodology too far, which has been a criticism–albeit a naive one–that such “relative” methods can lead to injustice. On the contrary, he uses reason to demonstrate that there are universal actions and feelings that are always wrong. These include spite, shamelessness, envy, adultery, theft, and murder, among other deficiencies. It is not that these things are wrong in their own right, that is, “envy is wrong simply because it is wrong,” but act against virtue and justice in their own way and, as such, are therefore wrong. Aristotle is always the practical man. In his discussion he points out that wisdom is achieved by the virtual person by a combination of knowing what is just and then applying experience through logos (reason) to act on it. Later in Book 5 he tells us, “…(Justice) is complete virtue in the fullest sense, because it is the active exercise of complete virtue; and it is complete because its possessor can exercise it in relation to another person, and not only by himself.”
Much has been made of lately that somehow Aristotle supports the modern radical concept of self-interest, especially in the Ayn Randian and libertarian veins of thought, but this is another attempt of appropriation similar to that of Aquinas and nothing could be further from the truth. One need only go to his Politics, which was an extension of the Ethics, to see this. “He who is unable to live in society,” he wrote, “or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.”
Such self-interested pursuits are defective and cannot serve the overarching virtue. For Aristotle concludes in Book 10 that in order to achieve happiness (flourishing)–or something close to it–human beings must live in communities that foster good habits and govern to provide the conditions to live a well-lived, or virtuous, life. While contemplation would probably provide the greatest amount of happiness since it provides individuals with the greatest opportunities to pursue reason and the answer to their questions, those who achieve wisdom and have the resources to do so as defined by the virtues are bound to contribute to the community, which is found in his writings known as the Politics.
We can see the influence of Aristotle, despite the taint of his philosophy by its appropriation by Aquinas, in the Enlightenment philosophers and he thought influenced other thinkers and the founders of our own country. For example, Jefferson explains, in speaking of the Declaration of Independence, that “All its authority rests … on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.” John Adams, in an essay penned on the eve of the American Revolution, defends the position of the colonists asserting that the revolutionary principles are consistent with what all reasonable people would support since they “are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason; the principles on which the whole government over us now stands.”
We must not take Aristotle’s Ethics too far or read too much in them. He lived, after all, in a pre-scientific age that was, to borrow the words of the historian William Manchester, in “a world lit only by fire.” His writings are not imbued with magic or divinely inspired. But he points the way in basing morality and ethical conduct on “natural law” as opposed to that flowing from received authority, power, or wealth. Later, in his politics, which is seen as a continuation of the Ethics, he comes to some interesting conclusions regarding governance, though they come down to us in fragments.
For example, he provides us with what we still use his taxonomy of types of governance, defining governance in terms of governments of one, governments of the few, and governments of the many. In Book 2, chapter ii, he grapples with the dangers of totalitarianism and oligarchy–and the ability of the powerful to sway public opinion–concluding that “a state which becomes progressively more and more of a unity will cease to be a state at all. Plurality of numbers is natural in a state; and the farther it moves away from plurality towards unity, the less of a state it becomes and the more a household, and the household in turn an individual.”
He also, in Book 3, chapter IX, separates out the role of the state from one based on wealth and power and one based on total equal distribution of resources (what we would today define as communism). In this way he posits that the role of the state isn’t only to provide defense or to define justice by economic measures in either extreme. “A state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange…Political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere companionship.”
He ties the role of a good state to his Ethics, “So it is clear that the search for what is just is a search for the mean; for the law is the mean.” A good citizen and a good government eschews extremism of any form and embraces inclusiveness. “Justice therefore demands that no one should do more ruling than being ruled, but that all should have their turn.” This does not, however, include those who do not live virtuous lives. Wealth and power on the one hand, and popularity on the other, are extremes that undermine the purpose of government. “A state is an association of similar persons whose aim is the best life possible. What is best is happiness (human flourishing), and to be happy is an active exercise of virtue and a complete employment of it.” Jefferson himself echoed this purpose in his Autobiography, “Instead of an aristocracy of wealth,” he wrote, “of more harm and danger than benefit to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society and scattered with equal hand through all its conditions, was deemed essential to a well-ordered republic.”
In conclusion, in Book 8, chapter ii, he holds that education must be established to support this goal. “But since there is but one aim for the entire state, it follows that education must be one and the same for all, and that the responsibility for it must be a public one, not the private affair which it now is, each man looking after his own children and teaching them privately whatever private curriculum he thinks they ought to study.” Once again, the wisdom of this prescription can be found from Jefferson throughout our formative years as a democratic republic, reaching well into the early 20th century.
One can see where these ideas would be viewed as dangerous to the Medieval Mind when they were reintroduced, which was governed under the concept of divine power being granted to temporal rulers, thus making it all the more urgent that his teachings be appropriated. But they would be dangerous in any age and it should not surprise us that various individuals, governments, and organizations attempted to expunge his writings from history. His prescriptions on ethics and governance were of great import in his own time, since he schooled the man who became known as Alexander the Great. That his teaching did not fully impact his time is borne out by history.
Upon Alexander’s death his ideas became conflated with Macedonian influence and domination which under new-found Athenian independence was considered treasonous. It was while fleeing Athens that he died. Thus, the man we view as a giant today was, in reality, simply a man, albeit one of great learning, who sought to influence his own times with a better way of living. He is considered a giant of philosophy not because of who he was in his own time but because of the strength of his ideas, which speak to us today.
We can see his influence, synthesized and informed by the experience of later generations of thinkers, in these concepts:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,…”
These ideas are still being challenged by old concepts in updated clothing. The challenge to civilization has always been the conflict between the interests of wealth and power on the one hand and justice dedicated to the public good on the other; and whether legitimacy and the definition of justice is derived from reason in which the truth can be found by people of education, or from some higher authority based on privilege or revealed wisdom.