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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

Aristotle on Reality, Nature and the Soul

One of the things that Aristotle’s revision of the theory of forms made possible was a much more satisfactory account of the nature  of change. Before, especially in the philosophies of Parmenides and of Plato, change seemed like a paradox. If one thing, A, turned into another thing, B,  than A would be both A and not-A (it is A that changes; yet it cannot be A because it is B). For Aristotle, the individual substance A, turns out to be a complex thing, a formed matter. As A changes over into B, some part of A, the matter, endures; some other part, the form, changes.  This also implies that the sensible world of change and development is not only real, but knowable. And this leads us to Aristotle’s theory of the four “causes”.

According to Aristotle, having knowledge of something required knowing four things about it: its purpose (or inherent functions or uses); its matter;  its form; and the agent who made it. These are called, respectively, its final, material, formal and efficient causes. Today, we would only call causes the purpose and agent. We would only recognize final and efficient causes. And modern natural science rejects almost completely any explanation in terms of final causes. Explanations in terms of final causes are called “teleological” explanations, from the Greek “telos” (purpose or end).  When it comes to ethics and politics, the rejection of final causes, or of teleological explanation, which occurs with Machiavelli and Hobbes  has very serious consequences, as we will see.

But for now, what Aristotle had in mind should be clear enough: until we see the individual substance, whether person, thing or event, in terms of matter and form we do not fully understand it. We do not know any thing until we are able to see it in terms of this kind of double relation: as the form of something earlier or less developed, and as the matter of something later or more developed.  This means that any given thing is to be understood as more or less remotely linked  to everything else.  Aristotle (and Plato) argued that familiarity with isolated particulars is not knowledge at all and that complete knowledge is either impossible or incommunicable for mortal beings such as humans.  But for Plato the idea that the universe is a relational structure led to the notion of a separate world of forms that had at its apex, holding it all together, the Form of the Good. Aristotle, on the other hand, never needs to go beyond, to transcend the sensible world. For Aristotle, in order to understand the particular we do have to look beyond it. But what is needed beyond it is simply knowledge of other substances (“higher”, more inclusive ones) to which it is related. Complete knowledge would not be knowledge of a different kind., as it is for Plato, but total knowledge of the inter-relatedness of everything, of all “formed matters”. This is, granted, never possible for the mind of a finite being, but complete knowledge is never really possible in Plato’s view either, or, if it were, it would be incommunicable. In Aristotle’s framework we can at least have partial, incomplete knowledge pertaining to the sensible world – a genuine knowledge, and a knowledge open to improvement.

So, for Aristotle, the universe is a hierarchy of interconnected substances, what was later called the Great Chain of Being – an idea that itself has a long and complex history after Aristotle. This general framework can be and was applied by Aristotle to many different sorts of objects that were investigated by the various special sciences. I want to touch upon a few important ideas from Aristotle’s physics and psychology, but leave aside his logic, biology and poetics. These ideas from his physics and psychology will be important in understanding his ethics and politics.

A. Physics – According to Aristotle, nature is simply the sensible world. But nature is not the whole of the sensible world. Natural objects are to be distinguished from artificial ones by virtue of possessing a spontaneous power of movement (or development). Here you should keep in mind that most of the natural phenomena that we moderns think of as not possessing spontaneous movement, i.e. not having an inherent telos or end, did have these things for Aristotle.  For Aristotle rocks “naturally” fall to earth, they seek their natural place; fire, similarly, “naturally” rises and animals “naturally” move and change, avoiding danger or evil and pursuing the good.  In modern science we look only at efficient causes, where Aristotle considered final causes more important. We think that everything that appears to be a final cause can be accounted for by one or more efficient causes.

In any case, for Aristotle, natural science is therefore knowledge of the spontaneous changes or movement of non-artificial sensible objects, of their movement from various states of potentiality to actuality or fulfillment. Change can be of various kinds: qualitative, quantitative, locomotive, “substantial” (biological reproduction would be the prime example of what Aristotle meant by “substantial” change). For Aristotle, the universe is constantly in motion, and every movement or change is occasioned by some prior movement. Eventually, therefore, we have to presuppose an origin to this whole process. But whereas we, since the 17th century, would look for a first, mechanical impetus, prior in time, that gets the whole thing moving, Aristotle thinks of the origin of the sensible universe as an “Unmoved Mover” that is itself eternal. The Unmoved Mover is a final cause that is divine (because it is eternal – it is the unchanging  final cause of everything else, all of which does move and change). The Unmoved Mover is a substance that, according to Aristotle, is pure mind.

Now, skipping over his arguments for this – and many of the details which would bring us into his astronomy and other special sciences – Aristotle conceives of the Unmoved Mover as 1. The cause of the eternal circular movement (of the higher spheres – the stars), 2. As something immaterial – a completely actual and realized form and 3. Unmixed – a pure form. How does the unmoved mover (the final cause of everything) cause the eternal circular motion that is the basis of the complex motions of all the sensible objects?

Aristotle’s answer goes like this: every good thing is desired, insofar as it is known. As a perfect and eternal being, the Unmoved Mover is especially an object of desire and love. It is perfect because it lacks nothing; it is completely undetermined by anything exterior to it and it is therefore perfectly free. The regular circular movement (of the highest heavenly sphere) is the nearest approximation to its perfection that a sensible object can achieve. Now, this Unmoved Mover is active; but its activity does not depend upon being a body, so its activity cannot be the activity of sensation or desire or locomotion. Its activity can only be reason. But this reasoning activity is not, like most of human thinking, discursive. It does not reason in steps, moving slowly and always with the possibility of errors compounding themselves. The Unmoved Mover always thinks, but its thought is immediate and intuitive, and it understands not partially, but completely. What does the Unmoved Mover think about? The only thought that perfect thought could think about would be itself, since the Unmoved Mover thinks the best, and the best is itself. The Unmoved Mover has, or better is, complete and immediate self-awareness.

The Unmoved Mover is the divine for Aristotle. And this god is a logical and  metaphysical necessity of his physics. It is not the object of religious worship, but a remote, cold, impersonal and perfect being. This god does not even know the universe. It knows simply its own thinking (knowing itself). It certainly has no care for the material universe or any of its creatures. Nor did it contribute to bringing the material universe into being – the universe as a whole, including the Unmoved Mover, is eternal. True, the Unmoved Mover causes the motion which is eternally present. But its causal role is not an involvement in that motion. The unmoved mover causes the rest of the universe to move in the same way a beautiful painting might move me to buy it.  The Unmoved Mover is not the efficient, formal or material cause of the movement of change and development, but only its final cause. As a god, it is the highest object of desire for lesser intelligences, and that is why it is important for us in considering Aristotle’s ethics. The good life for human beings in its highest form, the life of truly flourishing as a human being, will include for Aristotle, a life of contemplative activity in imitation of god. Other and lesser forms of goodness will all have the freedom and self-fulfillment of the Unmoved Mover as their stable reference point.

Before moving directly into Aristotle’s ethics, we should move back down from this highest point – but skipping over Aristotle’s consideration of various classes of natural objects like astronomy, biology, etc…
-- and take a brief look at certain concepts from his psychology, his doctrine of the soul.

 Psychology – First of all, the soul for Aristotle remained, like Plato’s, distinct from the body. It was conceived of as a form that was potentially present in various sorts of body. Any living body, therefore, had soul to some extent. And to Aristotle soul was a differentiated hierarchy of functions. At the lowest level, we have the “nutritive” soul (shared by plants, animals and humans). It is the basis, in the higher forms of life, for the development of more articulated souls with additional capacities. The principal function of the nutritive soul is to maintain the ratio of the various parts and organs of the body. At the next level, we have the sensitive soul. This is a more developed and articulated level that includes different sense organs and, via perception, even the rudiments of intelligence. For an animal like a dog, for example, successive sense experiences can be combined through memory and association to form a new experience more complex in meaning than any single sense-perception. When the dog sees his “master” he recognizes her as something more than his immediate perception of her. Although the dog does not use or possess the experience of universals, he is on his way to it.

At the human level we arrive at the rational soul which, bases upon the ability of the sensitive soul to remember and fuse past experiences, is able to rise to the experience of universals or “intelligible forms”, the generic properties shared by all members of a class. This allows humans to reason, to use logic to make rational judgements. Now, note that the intelligible form for Aristotle is not something existing apart from the particulars of sense-perception. The intelligible form is embedded in the particulars and the rational soul comes to know it through its experience of particulars. When the mind thinks, it takes on the intelligible form of the beings out there and becomes identical with it – i.e. with the objects intelligible form.

So, for Aristotle, the mind (rational mind) is the potentiality for (taking on) various intelligible forms and relating them. The best thought, therefore – versus Plato – is not freed from and prior to sense-experience. It grows instead out of sense-experience and is rooted in it.  Thought occurs – i.e. mind becomes identical with its object, the intelligible form – only in the presence of, and as a result of a succession of sense-experiences.

Armed now with some of the key concepts and important elements of Aristotle’s general theoretical framework, we can go on to examine the principal doctrines of his ethics and then of his politics.

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