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Untitled Essay, Research Paper
Aristotle: 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
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.”
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