etyAristotle: A Comprehensive View on Nature and Society
In order to fully understand Aristotle’s views on a natural system, it
is necessary to first explain some general principles of his philosophy. It is
in his work the Categories that Aristotle presents the concept of substance, a
concept which will serve as the foundation for much of his philosophical system.
Substance, for Aristotle, is not a universal, but rather, it is the particular;
substance is not a such, but a this. Thus, substance is neither in nor is
it said of a subject (as are qualities). Rather it is that which makes the
subject numerically one; it is that which makes the subject the individual.
Substance is “an individual man and or an individual horse.”Aristotle still
classifies universals as substances, for they define what constitutes the
substance, and without these universals, a substance would not be what is.
There are four characteristics of substances: a substance is a this, not a
qualification or a ‘such’ (which stresses individuality); a substance has no
contraries to it (there are no opposites of a substance); a substance does not
admit more or less (there are not degrees of a substance); and a substance can
admit contraries while remaining numerically one.
In the Physics, Aristotle addresses that which constitutes Natural
Objects as substances. He states that all Natural Substances consist of both
form and matter. Matter is that out of which the substance arises and form is
that into which the matter develops. In building a table, the wood, nails, etc.,
are the matter, and the idea of a table, what the end result will be, is the
form, according to Aristotle. Matter and form are inseparable from each other;
there is no ‘form’ apart from concrete things. Aristotle explains that all
substances contain within themselves the origin of their change and movement.
He continues by stating that the change which can occur is due to four possible
natural causes: formal cause, material cause, efficient cause, and final cause.
Formal and material cause are self explanatory, in that it is the form or the
matter of the substance which is responsible for the change within the substance.
Efficient and final cause, however, will become more clear once we investigate
Aristotle’s ideas of actuality and potentiality.
We should begin the explanation of actuality and potentially by saying
that form can be seen as the actuality of the substance while matter is the
potential for that form to exist. The best way to illustrate this is through
the analogy of the building of a house. The materials, bricks and wood, should
be seen as the matter, the potentially to become a house. The end-result, the
house, is the form, it is the potential made actual. The building of the house
itself, the movement, is analogous to the four types of causes Aristotle says
exist in substances. In the case of this analogy the builder would be the
efficient cause in that it is he/she who initiates the change. One could also
say that there is a final or teleological cause taking place as well, that the
motive is to build a house which serves the purpose of house-ness, namely that
the house is one in which people can live. Through this analogy one can begin
to see the nature of each of the causes which can exist within a given substance.
Once we see how Aristotle’s ideas of actuality and potentially relate to his
ideas of form and matter (matter is potentiality, form is it’s actuality), which
necessarily relate to substance, we can almost begin the analysis of his
philosophy on an ethical system. First, however, an introduction to the idea of
the Unmoved Mover is necessary.
In accordance with Aristotle’s teleological view of the natural world,
the Unmoved Mover is a purely actual thing which motivates all things toward
the good. All things try to achieve completeness, full actuality, or
perfection; this implies that there must exist an object or state towards which
this striving or desire is directed. This object or state is the Unmoved
Mover. This state of perfection must be one of pure actuality since it can
have no potential, being perfect; it must be non-natural since all natural
things have potential. Thus, it is not moving, yet moves other things to
attempt to achieve perfection; this thing is the final cause of the universe.
Knowing, now, that which moves all natural things towards the goods, we can
begin the analysis on Aristotle’s ethical system.
In investigating Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, it is important to
remember that just like the Physics, it is a teleological view, not on the
natural world, but on human nature, the end (telos) of which is the good.
Everything that humans do is aimed at some end; this end is can either have
intrinsic or extrinsic worth. This is to say that the acts of humans can either
be done for themselves (intrinsic) or can be done as a means to something else
(extrinsic). The underlying goal of all our action, Aristotle calls the good,
but along with the good, comes happiness. For Aristotle, then, all human are
just trying to be happy.
The good life, then, is a life of happiness; Aristotle says such a life
can be achieved by excellence (arete) in two areas of virtue: intellectual and
moral. First, we will have to analyze moral virtue in order to understand fully
the notion of intellectual virtue. More or less, for Aristotle, the life of
moral virtue, not being an exact science, is a life of moderation. This is a
common theme with most all the ancient philosophers and authors (especially the
playwrights). It is practical wisdom which is not a priori, but rather it is
a learned trade which varies from situation to situation; it can not be taught,
it must be learned from experience. What, then, exactly is moral virtue? It is
acting in accordance with our nature and our striving towards the good, by
means of moderate actions is everyday life. Knowing this practical type of
reason, we can now examine the theoretical type of reason, intellectual virtue.
Happiness is an activity, it is not a passive state for Aristotle. It
is our potential which allows us to be motivated by the concept of the Unmoved
Mover, towards a state of perfection or perfect happiness. In order to achieve
this state, a human, according to Aristotle, must partake in an activity which
is both sought for intrinsic purposes and is in itself perfect. Intellectual
virtue is this activity. It is a theoretical principle which each person knows
a priori; it is the act of doing what is most natural for all humans to do, to
reason. It is our nature according to Aristotle, to reason, and it follows that
if we achieve the perfectness or excellence (arete) in our nature, we achieve
perfect happiness. Specifically, for Aristotle, the best way to come close to
achieving the perfect good is to act as a seeker of truth. The philosopher is
the way to go according to Aristotle; Philosophical thoght is the way to
consummate perfect happiness, but it doesn’t pay well.