Introduction to Aristotelian Philosophy

Introduction to Aristotelian Philosophy

2500 years ago, Aristotle was known by his contemporaries as The Philosopher, and for good reason.  Building off the work of his predecessors and teachers, Socrates and Plato, Aristotle built an impressive philosophical oeuvre that covered everything from ethics to hard science.


            Aristotle’s philosophies endured because of their humanity.  He disagreed with Plato’s cold rationalism, preferring instead to base his thoughts on “phronesis,” or, in layman’s terms, common sense.  His theories and practices were designed to bring about tangible change, as well as to be accessible to the common man.


            Although he lived thousands of years ago, the combination of breadth and depth of his work has kept Aristotle relevant even today.  Anyone looking for a classic perspective on ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, logic, epistemology, or politics can still turn to his writing and glean new wisdom.  Aristotle dedicated his entire life to this work, so there’s no perfect way to condense his thoughts, but the introductory summaries below contain the highlights, the practical wisdom that we can all apply to our daily lives.


On Ethics


            One of Aristotle’s most well-known works is Nicomachean Ethics.[1]  Not surprisingly for theories about ethics, Aristotle focused on action--but perhaps more surprisingly, the lack thereof, as well.  To be virtuous, said Aristotle, was to be actively working at being so.  Aristotle thought of the implementation of virtue in three different contexts: habit, a mean, and nobility.


            With regards to habit, Aristotle found routine to be a key part of living a good and moral life.  The earlier you can get yourself into the habit of doing good, the better; indeed, being taught virtue as a child may make all the difference when it comes to being a virtuous adult.  But habit for Aristotle is no passive or rote thing; he defines it as a “hexis,” which is a Greek word that has much of the same meaning as routine, but with a much clearer, more active element to it.  It is a form of knowledge that, like Socrates stated before Aristotle, can by its very nature never be passive.  To be moral is to be active in this way, all the time, without stop.  It is a conscious and continuous effort.


            Aristotle also stated that “virtue is a mean.”  Which is . . . kind of an odd concept to try to wrap your head around, really.  The best way I can think to describe it is to say that Aristotle believed that behaving ethically was average human behavior.  While humans have the capacity for evil, the mean action that a person can and will take through their lifetime is far more likely to be virtuous.  The reverse is also true: the average virtuous action is one of moderation.  Aristotle believed very much in too much of a good (moral) thing--acting gluttonously and eating more than your share is obviously not great behavior, but abstaining absolutely also wouldn’t be doing you any favors.


            And what does this all lead to?  The main reason to act with virtue, according to Aristotle, is for the sake of the noble.  He compared the goodness of a moral act to a fine work of art.  Indeed, to be morally bankrupt is to be ugly, both inside and out.  We do good for goodness’ sake, for it is the finest reward imaginable.  Aristotle saw ethics as something not only right, but also dazzling, and there’s something quite beautiful in that kind of perspective.


On Metaphysics


            Another of Aristotle’s more famous books is Metaphysics, and although he (or his editor) coined the term, defining what is meant by metaphysics is a bit trickier.[2]  In his own words, metaphysics is the study of “being qua being,” where qua is best translated as “in so far as.”  The best clue to gleaning an actual definition from this is by looking at another breakdown of the book: he studied beings and substances.  In this way, we can understand that those who engage in “being, in so far as being” are those who have a conscious, however sentient, and substances is a broad category that covers everything that does not.


            In an earlier work, Categories, Aristotle recorded a comprehensive list of what he considered to be beings.  Substances, unlike other categories, are fully independent; their existences do not depend on the existence of anything else. This can get pretty abstract.  A person can be intelligent, for example, but the actual concept of intelligence cannot exist on its own, without a person to embody it.


            Substance is therefore a vital part of studying “being qua being” for Aristotle, as the two concepts are mutually exclusive.  Metaphysics, unlike other scientific disciplines, is too broadly conceptualized to be broken down into more narrow interests, and must be studied as a single scholarly focus.  How can we do this, though, when the state of “being” itself is so difficult to define?  Well, we can start by figuring what “being” is not--and that’s where substances come in.


            Again, to what purpose did Aristotle create such an in-depth study of being in so far as being?  Metaphysics was designed to lay the ground for all subsequent philosophies.  Before we can think more deeply, we must first understand the basic truths of our reality.  It is from there that we get the name “metaphysics,” which directly translates to “beyond physics,” as it describes objective truths of the universe that, while Aristotle was thoroughly convinced were real, lay beyond the scope of his contemporary scientific advances.


On Logic


            It’s hard to summarize Aristotle’s work on logic; his writings cover such an incredible breadth and depth of discourse and it can be difficult just to figure out where to begin.  All of it can be marked by a rejection of much of the work of Plato and Socrates.[3]  Logic for Aristotle was less of a goal and more of a means to an end; it is the method by which anyone should come to any conclusion.  Aristotle always started by applying a subject of discussion to a grouping--thus, the creation of Categories.


            Categories exists as Aristotle’s basic treatise on, well, existence.  Aristotle thought the best way to engage in philosophical discourse was to look at everything in the world, both tangible and abstract, and assign categories to it.  Substance, which we discussed earlier, was the most important of these categories, but there are nine more: quantity, quality, relative, where, when, being in a position, having, acting on, and being affected by, all of which serve to distinguish things from one another.


            Using this basis, Aristotle believed we could get to the root of inherent truths of the universe.  He combined the categories with assertions, which were inevitably true of false; the only philosophical debate at that point was to discover which was which.  You can read more about this in my piece on fate vs free will [LINK HERE], but the thesis here was thought of in regards to actions, past, present, and future; either something has come to pass, is coming to pass, or will come to pass--or not—and one of those statements is inherently and unchangeably true.


            As fascinating as all of this is, it’s hard to figure out how to ground Aristotle’s logic in reality.  Fortunately, he also wrote two works on analytics, both of which describe a scientific method for substantiating theoretical claims.  Between two books, it’s a fairly in-depth process, but the core tenet is thus: any new knowledge must be based on already proven and accepted knowledge.


A Thinker’s Legacy


            However you slice it, Aristotle was a true pioneer in the world of philosophy, and there’s good reason his thoughts have endured over the course of several millennia.  He sought truth, yes, but also happiness, and there’s much that we can still learn from that.

[1] Broadie, Sarah. Ethics with Aristotle. Oxford University Press, 1994.

[2] “Metaphysics.” Aristotle, pp. 161–194., doi:10.4324/9780203379530_chapter_vi.

[3] Robinson, T. M., et al. “Aristotle: Poetics.” Phoenix, vol. 21, no. 3, 1967, p. 232., doi:10.2307/1086753.

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