In 1511 Raphael daubed the finishing touches to a masterpiece on a Vatican wall. His painting, The School of Athens, depicts in the grand style of the high Renaissance about twenty ancient Greek philosophers, artists, politicians, mathematicians and other luminaries. Some figures are deep in contemplation, others hold forth to attentive little groups of acolytes, a few peer over the shoulder of some great thinker who fiercely scribbles wise words on a tablet. But the eye is drawn quickly to the two bold characters in the centre of the scene. A venerable Plato – bald head, greying beard, flowing robes – strides manfully beside a handsome, youthful Aristotle, whose short brown beard and hair makes him look a little like a rugged lumberjack. What’s most striking, though, is how Raphael depicts their right hands.
Plato points a graceful finger to the heavens, away from this illusory world of shadow, towards an ideal world of perfect forms. Aristotle is having none of it. With a steady hand held out flat, he indicates where our attention ought to be, down in the messy diversity of this world, where answers to our questions can be found, if only we pay careful attention to the ordinary things all around us.
Was Aristotle really anything like the marginally dashing figure in Raphael’s painting? Our best lead comes once again from the endlessly disconcerting reports of Diogenes Laertius: “He had a lisping voice … He had also very thin legs, they say, and small eyes; but he used to indulge in very conspicuous dress, and rings, and used to dress his hair carefully.” One hopes it was just a phase.
We know Aristotle was born in 384 BCE, in Stagira, a coastal city in what’s now the Chalcidice Peninsula in Greece. His father was a physician and friend of King Amyntas of Macedon, and his mother was from a moneyed family in Chalcis. Both were dead by the time Aristotle was about ten – it’s not clear how and why, but there’s nothing suspicious about it – and he was adopted by Proxenus, then the court physician to King Amyntas. Aristotle almost certainly grew up in the middle of great wealth, power and privilege.
When he was eighteen he arrived at the centre of the intellectual world, Plato’s school in Athens, the Academy, where he remained for twenty years, in the company of other high-flying philosophers who were drawn to Plato too. When Plato died around 347 BCE, his nephew inherited the Academy, and Aristotle left Athens. He spent some time travelling, pausing in Asia Minor, and on the island of Lesbos to study marine life. Soon after he returned to his native Stagira, Philip, the new King of Macedon, summoned him to court as tutor to his son. As Alexander the Great, Philip’s son eventually defeated the Persians and commanded a vast empire stretching down from Greece, through modern Turkey and Syria into Egypt and eastwards through Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and India.
Historians have been drawn to this historical conjunction: a philosopher with a mind as powerful as Aristotle’s having influence on someone as historically significant as Alexander the Great at an impressionable age. What did Aristotle teach him? Plato’s conception of a philosopher-king must have been well known to Aristotle. As Plato puts it in the Republic, “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils.” Did Aristotle try to turn the young heir into a philosopher-king? We actually have no idea what Aristotle might have tried to convey to Alexander, and we don’t know whether any of the cities he ruled were better for it.
We also don’t know exactly what happened at the end of Aristotle’s life. When Alexander the Great died, the pro-Macedonian government in Athens fell, and given his courtly connections Aristotle might have been in some danger. The Athenians, who were nothing if not consistent, charged Aristotle with impiety. The legend has it that he would not let the Athenians “sin twice against philosophy”, and he fled. He died within a year, possibly owing to long-standing trouble with his stomach.
Legends to one side, we know that Aristotle spent a lifetime with the means to study whatever took his interest, and quite a lot took his interest. The scope of his work is staggering. As a young man in the Academy, he mastered the dialogue form and, according to Cicero, “if Plato’s prose was silver, Aristotle’s was a flowing river of gold”. When he finally founded his own school in Athens, the Lyceum, he produced still more. Diogenes Laertius attributes a huge number of books to Aristotle, “the whole consisting of four hundred and forty-five thousand two hundred and seventy lines”. According to one scholar, it’s the equivalent of about 6,000 modern pages.
Among other things, he wrote about ethics, logic, politics, metaphysics, physics, mathematics, poetry, aesthetics, mind, theology, and several treatments of the works of his philosophical predecessors (sometimes running to several volumes). Given the enormous impact Aristotle’s work has had on every branch of philosophy, it’s amazing to think that most of his vast output has nothing to do with what we’d recognise as philosophical enquiry. Much of what he engaged in is clearly biology. He had great descriptive power and produced books of detailed observation and careful classification. As Darwin put it, “Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle.”
Aristotle makes great strides in a huge number of different academic disciplines, but what’s even more remarkable is that he’s inventing many of those disciplines along the way. He does something even more fundamental than this, too. In the course of his many writings, he regularly spells out what others have had to say on a given topic, identifies the presuppositions and aims distinctive of that particular domain, works out what counts as evidence in it, defines its relevant terms, and gets on with solving its particular problems. It’s not clear that anyone, before Aristotle, thought to break areas of enquiry down like this and say what’s distinctive of each one. So not only did he contribute to a huge number of disciplines, he seems to have invented the very idea of a discipline in the first place.
What’s come down to us, though, is not a flowing river of gold. We have less than a third of his enormous output, and the eloquent work just didn’t get through. Ancient commentators distinguish between his exoteric writings, polished pieces of admirable style which he wrote for public consumption, and his esoteric writings, technical notes for use within the school by himself and other philosophers. What we have is only a fraction of his esoteric writing, almost certainly put together from various drafts by a later editor. The surviving corpus consists mostly of technical works in progress. Some of it is polished, but the majority is something like modern lecture notes and summaries, definitions, lists of problems, and worked and reworked drafts that don’t necessarily hang together. Reading Aristotle can be a slog – you don’t get the shimmering prose of Plato. But there’s something much more intimate about Aristotle’s writing. You can sometimes think you’ve caught an honest glimpse of his astonishing intellect, unadorned by distracting literary devices.
Even less than a glimpse is all we’ll manage here, but we’ll start with his understanding of explanation and end up by touching briefly on his understanding of the good life.
The story goes that philosophers call the abstract study of being “metaphysics” because of an editorial decision and a title that accidentally stuck. The book in which Aristotle takes up metaphysical matters comes after his book on natural things, “ta phusika” or “physics”. “Meta” is Latin for after or adjacent, and the thought is that originally “metaphysics” just meant “the book that comes after the book on natural things”. Aristotle’s metaphysics, anyway, is rough going. Avicenna – probably the greatest mind of the Islamic Golden Age – said he read Aristotle’s metaphysics forty times and still didn’t understand it.
But it begins simply enough, with the famous line, “All people by nature desire to know”. The ultimate sort of knowing, Aristotle says, is wisdom, an understanding of “the why of things”. Aristotle breaks this kind of knowing down into the “four causes” or four sorts of explanation, four fundamental answers one might give to questions asked about a thing. The four causes are the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause and the final cause. These are not Aristotle’s terms, but they’re useful for keeping things straight.
The material cause is “that from which” a thing comes into being. Bronze is the material cause of a bronze statue, because the statue comes from a lump of bronze. If we ask what the statue is, we might be satisfied to learn what it’s made of, namely bronze. The material cause preoccupied the Presocratics, focused, as many were, on identifying the fundamental stuff which makes up everything. But for Aristotle, identifying the material cause of a thing conveys only to a partial understanding of it. There’s more to the statue than just the bronze.
The second cause, the formal cause, is considerably more complicated than just working out what material makes up a thing. Aristotle calls it “the form or pattern” of a thing, which suggests that the shape of the statue is its formal cause. But he also says the formal cause is “the definition of the essence” of a thing, which makes it sound like more than just the shape. He explains this with the following spectacularly unhelpful example: “the ratio 2:1 and number in general are causes of the octave”. What could he possibly mean?
“Form” here refers not merely to shape and pattern, but also to how matter is arranged. This suggests a principle behind the organisation. For Aristotle, sometimes a thing is arranged one way rather than another because of what the thing is. There’s a connection here, in other words, between how the thing is shaped and the definition or essence of that thing – it’s shaped that way because of what it is. You might ask, “Why is this thing a table?”, and I could answer, “It’s a table because it has a flat top supported by four legs. That’s how it was built, why the parts were arranged like that, because that’s what kind of thing a table is.” That sort of answer specifies the table’s shape, but it also says something about the “definition of its essence”. If you remind yourself that an octave is a musical chord consisting of two notes, where one is twice as high in pitch as the other, the “form or pattern” of an octave is the ratio 2:1. An octave is what it is because of the organising principle behind the arrangement of those notes.
The third cause, the efficient cause, is “that from which the change or the resting from change first begins”. The word “efficient” is from the Latin “facere”, meaning to make or to do, and the efficient cause is what creates, makes or originates something. Aristotle tells us that an advisor is the efficient cause of an action that’s eventually undertaken, the father is the efficient cause of a child, and in general the maker is the efficient cause of the thing made. Why is that statue here? The sculptor, its efficient cause, created it.
The last cause Aristotle identifies is the most intriguing, influential and certainly infamous of the four: the final cause, “the end, i.e. that for the sake of which a thing is”. Aristotle believes that everything in nature has a telos, a purpose, an aim or direction – uncovering the purposes behind and within absolutely everything is fundamental to the way Aristotle interprets and understands the world. He gives us the example of health as the final cause, the end, goal or purpose, of a fortifying walk. The idea is that something is what it is partly because of its purpose, because of the goal at which it aims.
This notion of purpose is fundamental in Aristotle’s thinking about the good life too. His account of morality is remarkable and powerful – it’s still part of the way philosophers think about moral goodness and human happiness. And, like everything else in Aristotle’s thinking, it’s shot through with purpose.
Aristotle begins his account of ethics by saying, “Every art and every investigation, and similarly every action and pursuit, is considered to aim at some good. Hence the Good has rightly been defined as ‘that at which all things aim.’” If we’re not to go around in circles, there has to be one overarching, supremely valuable good, and Aristotle argues that the supreme good for us is happiness. It’s desired for itself, not as a means to some other higher good. But what is happiness? Aristotle’s answer depends on two difficult concepts: virtue and the soul. Both are tied to purpose.
He argues that a crafts-person is good if she does what’s distinctive of her craft well. In Aristotle’s terminology, this is a matter of arête, which is translated variously as “virtue” or “excellence”. Being an excellent sculptor is exercising the virtues distinctive of the sculptor – precision, an eye for form and balance, and so on. Or to use the terminology we’ve already got on the table, a virtuous or excellent sculptor fully actualises her potential as a sculptor. Examples can be multiplied: a virtuous horse gallops well, a virtuous knife cuts well, in short, a virtuous or excellent anything does what’s distinctive of that thing well.
Why not think that there’s something distinctive about human beings in this sense too? Living a human life well would therefore consist in doing what’s distinctively human well. So what’s distinctive about being human?
Aristotle’s answer depends on a slightly treacherous conception of soul. One thing is clear: Aristotle is not talking about anything religious at all. For him, soul is an active principle characteristic of living things. It’s tied to his understanding of form, and you can think of it in different, interconnected ways. Maybe one of these formulations will help: soul is the way a living structure is organised, it’s the form of living matter, living matter’s actuality, or the “that in virtue of which” a living thing is the thing that it is.
The main thing to bear in mind is just that all living things have a soul in Aristotle’s sense, because all are organised so as to be alive. When the relevant organisation goes, when the form is lost, the living thing dies. Plants have a vegetative soul and grow and reproduce as they do. Animals have this plus a locomotive soul that enables them to move, as well as a sensitive soul that enables them to perceive the world. Human beings have all this, as well as a rational soul. What’s distinctive about us is our capacity to think as we do.
So Aristotle argues that “the good for man is an activity of the soul in accord with virtue”. Happiness , the ultimate good, consists in doing what’s distinctively human well. What’s distinctively human is understood in terms of the rational part of the human soul. To be happy, then, we have to exercise rational excellence – we have to be the best thinkers we can be.
From here, Aristotle can go in two directions, because for him there are two sorts of rational activity. Reason might guide one’s actions, or one might use reason to reflect, to engage in rational contemplation. It’s the first of these sorts of rational excellences which receives the most attention, because Aristotle unpacks it, partly, in terms of the famous doctrine of the golden mean.
He claims that virtuous action, doing the morally right thing, is the mean between two extremes. Vices of excess and deficiency lie on either side of the middle path, which is itself the right course of action. So, for example, one might be properly courageous and avoid the two extremes of cowardice on the one hand and foolhardy bravado on the other. It’s easy to misinterpret Aristotle here. He’s not arguing for absolute moderation in all things, because he says that the mean is different for different people in different contexts. Sometimes the right amount of wine to consume is enough to get you drunk.
Morally right conduct, for Aristotle, is an expression of a virtuous character, and doing the right thing depends on the context you’re in. Being virtuous is a matter of doing the right thing at the right time, with the right feelings, in the right way, and for the right reason. There’s no set of moral rules to follow. In this messy world, the morally right action changes with context, depends on all sorts of factors, so you can’t say what’s right without knowing the facts of the case. Even in his account of morality, Aristotle embraces the diversity in the world that Plato rejects. The result is a profound conception of right and wrong, even if, as some worry, there’s not much practical advice in it.
Aristotle’s thoughts about purpose stuck in the minds of just about everyone who came after him. His views shaped not just philosophy, but what eventually became our scientific attempts to understand the natural world itself. It took a genius like Newton to shake us free of Aristotle’s thought that objects move towards their natural place. It took a mind like Darwin’s to think us past the idea that animals and their parts fulfil inner purposes. For hundreds of years, through the Middle Ages, one referred to Aristotle as “The Philosopher”. There simply was no one else who mattered as much