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384-322 B.C.


Literature on Aristotle and Virtue Ethics


On-line Works by Aristotle

Aristotle was born in Stagira in northern Greece in 384 B.C. His father, Nicomachus, was a physician, under whose influence Aristotle developed his great observational talents. For twenty years he was a member of Plato's Acadamy as a student and teacher. When Plato died in 347 BC, Aristotle moved to Assos, a city in Asia Minor, where a friend of his, Hermias, was ruler. There he counseled Hermias and married his niece and adopted daughter, Pythias. After Hermias was captured and executed by the Persians in 345 BC, Aristotle went to Pella, the Macedonian capital, where he became the tutor of the king's young son Alexander, later known as Alexander the Great. In 335, when Alexander became king, Aristotle returned to Athens and established his own school, the Lyceum. Because much of the discussion in his school took place while teachers and students were walking about the Lyceum grounds, Aristotle's school came to be known as the Peripatetic ("walking" or "strolling") school. Upon the death of Alexander in 323 B.C., strong anti-Macedonian feeling developed in Athens, and Aristotle retired to a family estate in Euboea. He died there the following year.

The early writings of Aristotle were intended for the general public, some written in dialogue form, with a largely Platonic outlook. Very few of these writings survived; the works that we read are his systematic treatises which were intended for serious students. They are basically lecture notes which have been edited several times over several generations, which makes the chronology of his writings very complicated. His approach to philosophy is systematic yet not dogmatic; he constantly questioned his conclusions and found difficulties, and it is in this constant analysis and acute argument that he gained his reputation as one of the most influential philosophers in Western thought.

Aristotle characterizes everything that exists into certain categories; substance, quality, quantity, relation, etc. Substance is prior to the other categories since substances exist as separate entities, while the other categories exist only as the qualities of substance. These substances include individual substances like "dog" and "chair" and also their species and genera like "animal" and "furniture." For a dog is an animal, a dog is not just some quality of an animal.

Form is different from matter. A chair's form is the structure of the chair, the chair's matter is wood. He does not accept Plato's notion of a transcendental Form of Chair; the form of the chair is the form of that particular chair. The chair's matter, wood, can also be divided into form and matter, since wood is made of earth, air, water, and fire combined in a particular way. Aristotle calls prime matter the "stuff" that has no particular form. He raises the question whether form can have no matter, to which he answers that this form without matter is God.

If matter becomes a chair the matter is chair potentially, or capable of being a chair, whereas the form is the actuality in virtue of which it is now an actual chair. Matter and form are the "causes" of what comes to be. Aristotle defines four kinds of causes; 1) material cause - what something is made of, 2) formal cause - what it is essentially, 3) efficient cause - what brought it into being, and 4) final cause - what its function is. The causes apply to things and not events.

Aristotle divides the sciences into theoretical, practical, and productive sciences. Theoretical science includes metaphysics, or "first philosophy," physics, and mathematics. The practical sciences are ethics and politics, and the productive sciences aim to make things. He considers logic the prerequisite to all philosophy. The Prior Analytics contains his theory of syllogism, and works out all combinations of premises and conclusions. The Posterior Analytics contains the logic of science. A science starts with certain axioms and demonstrates by syllogisms that certain properties belong to certain objects. Contrary to Plato, Aristotle demonstrates that there are different sciences, and each begins with different premises.

In the Physics Aristotle proves that movement is eternal and that there is an eternal Prime Mover. He argues that since movement is eternal there can be no first or last change. If there were a first change there would have to have existed something capable of causing change, and to explain why something caused a change at a certain time and not before we must assume some actual change just prior to that time, or a change before the supposed first change. Change therefore must be eternal. Eternal change is explained by the assumption of the existence of a being which is unmoved (for if it were self-moved it would cause change and also undergo it) which can cause eternal movement. This immaterial Prime Mover causes all movement and maintains the eternal life of the universe. In the Metaphysics he calls this Prime Mover "God," whose only activity is pure thought. It must think of itself only, since it is the most excellent of all things, and "its thinking is a thinking about thinking." God causes the movement of the heavens out of love.

Nicomachean Ethics is probably the best book written on the subject, in which he discusses virtues as separated into moral and intellectual virtues. Moral virtues are acquired by practice. One becomes virtuous by doing virtuous acts, and ideally will do so willingly. Virtue is a mean between opposite vices, and there are no simple rules to decide what is appropriate. Intellectual virtue presupposes moral virtue and is divided into practical and theoretical wisdom. The practical is concerned with questions of proper conduct, the theoretical is concerned with intuitive knowledge of concepts and truth and what follows from them, and is the highest virtue one can have; the life of theoretical philosophy is best life one can lead.

De Anima contains Aristotle's notion of soul and its relation to body. He dismisses the question of whether soul and body form a unity. Soul is the form of the body, the actuality of a body with suitable organs to live, with one exception; intuitive thought does not depend on the body so it can exist separately from it. In the Poetics Aristotle defends poetry against Plato's criticisms. Aristotle regarded the poet's creations as imaginative, ideal truths closer to reality than the records of historiography. He also rejected the view that poetry should be judged by the morality of what it depicts.

Aristotle's works were lost in the West after the decline of Rome. During the 9th century A.D., Arab scholars introduced Aristotle, in Arabic translation, to the Islamic world. The 12th century Spanish-Arab philosopher Averroës is the best known of the Arabic scholars who studied and commented on Aristotle. In the 13th century, the Latin West renewed its interest in Aristotle's work, and Saint Thomas Aquinas found in it a philosophical foundation for Christian thought. Church officials at first questioned Aquinas's use of Aristotle; in the early stages of its rediscovery, Aristotle's philosophy was regarded with some suspicion, largely because his teachings were thought to lead to a materialistic view of the world. Nevertheless, the work of Aquinas was accepted, and the later philosophy of scholasticism continued the philosophical tradition based on Aquinas's adaptation of Aristotelian thought.

The influence of Aristotle's philosophy has been pervasive; it has even helped to shape modern language and common sense. His doctrine of the Prime Mover as final cause played an important role in theology. Until the 20th century, logic meant Aristotle's logic. Until the Renaissance, and even later, astronomers and poets alike admired his concept of the universe. Zoology rested on Aristotle's work until British scientist Charles Darwin modified the doctrine of the changelessness of species in the 19th century. In the 20th century a new appreciation has developed of Aristotle's method and its relevance to education, literary criticism, the analysis of human action, and political analysis.

1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.

Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, Copyright 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation.
The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, J. O. Urmson and Jonathan Rée, editors. London: Unman Hyman, 1991.