Archetypes of Wisdom

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Archetypes of Wisdom

  • Douglas J. Soccio

  • Chapter 6

  • The Naturalist: Aristotle

Learning Objectives

  • On completion of this chapter, you should be able to answer the following questions:

    • What is naturalism?
    • How did Plato distinguish between knowledge and opinion?
    • What is form according to Aristotle?
    • What is matter according to Aristotle?
    • What are the four causes?
    • What is entelechy? What is teleological thinking?
    • What is Eudaimonia? What is Sophrosyne?
    • What is character?
    • What is the Aristotelian mean?
    • What is virtue according to Aristotle? Vice?

The Life of Aristotle

  • The son of a court physician, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was born in Stagira, a Greek community in Thrace.

  • What little we know of him comes primarily through Diogenes Laertius’ compilation of the lives of ancient philosophers.

  • Aristotle probably learned basic anatomy and dissection from his father before he was sent to study at Plato’s Academy at the age of eighteen.

Works of Aristotle

  • Aristotle is said to have written twenty seven dialogues.

  • Unfortunately, they were all destroyed when the Visigoths sacked Rome in 400 C.E.

  • What we know today as the “writings of Aristotle” are forty treatises including:

    • Physics
    • De Anima (On the Soul)
    • Metaphysics
    • Politics
    • the Nicomachean Ethics

Teaching Alexander the Great

  • In 343 B.C., King Philip of Macedon invited Aristotle to tutor his thirteen year-old son Alexander. The boy was wild and crude, but Aristotle was able to instill in him respect for knowledge and science.

  • Aristotle’s famous pupil even ordered his soldiers to collect specimens of plant, marine, and animal life from far away for his old teacher.

  • In 340 B.C., Philip sent Aristotle back to Stagira to write a code of laws in order to restore the community there, which had been disrupted by war.

  • Aristotle did well enough that Stagira celebrated a yearly holiday in his honor.

The Lyceum

  • In 334 B.C., Aristotle at last returned to Athens, where he founded his own school, possibly with money from Alexander.

  • He had it built near some of the most elegant buildings in Athens, and named it the Lyceum, after the god Apollo Lyceum.

  • His students were known as the “peripatetic” philosophers, because he often discussed philosophy with them along the tree cover walkways called the Peripatos. Socrates used to visit the same groves, remarking on what a wonderful spot they made for reflection.

“The Philosopher”

  • Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C.E. Because of his favored place under the protection of Philip and Alexander, Aristotle found himself in an uncomfortable position, with the Athenians resenting all things Macedonian.

  • He left Athens and the Lyceum after being legally charged with not respecting the gods of the state. Rather than stand trial like Socrates, he fled to Euboea (his mother’s birthplace) “lest Athens sin twice against philosophy.”

  • So great was his influence on later thinkers, that in 322 B.C.E., after his death, the man who had created the first important library, tutored the greatest ruler of the ancient world, invented logic, and shaped the thinking of an entire culture, was referred to simply as “the Philosopher.”

The Naturalist

  • Although Aristotle loved and respected Plato, he saw dangers in Plato’s rationalistic idealism. Partly in reaction to Plato, he is sometimes said to have brought philosophy down to earth.

  • Aristotle stands alone as an archetype of the philosophical naturalist. Naturalism is the belief that reality consists of the natural world, which follows consistent and discoverable laws.

  • Philosophical naturalists deny the existence of a separate supernatural order of reality. They believe that human beings, although special, are part of the natural order and behave according to fixed laws and principles.

Natural Changes

  • Aristotle is sometimes called “the father of science” because he was the first Western thinker of record to provide an adequate analysis of a process of change based on the claim that form is inseparable from matter.

  • Aristotle was troubled by Platonic dualism, the division of the universe into two worlds – the realm of becoming and the realm of being.

  • Aristotle argued that form can be distinguished from content only in thought and never in fact. He warned that we must not mistake “intellectual analysis” for “ontological status.”

  • For him, form exists within the natural order and cannot exist independently.

Form and Matter

  • According to Aristotle, all substances (things) are comprised of form and matter, which always occur together.

  • From the Greek word for “essence” (ousia), Aristotelian form is that which gives a thing its shape, structure, order, making it what it is.

  • From the Greek hyle, matter is the stuff which is formed in one way or another.

  • Change amounts to the movement of matter based on how it is formed (e.g., an acorn becomes an oak by actualizing the potential it has because of the way its matter is formed).

Aristotle’s Hierarchy of Explanations

  • Aristotle was the first philosopher to understand that not all “why” questions can be answered in the same way.

  • The answer to one “why” question may lead us to another (e.g.,“Why are you doing this?” “So I can get that.” “Why do you want that?” “So I can have the other thing?”).

  • Realizing this relation between means and ends, Aristotle equated reasons why with causes (for things being the way they are). The Greek word for cause (aitia) meant “the reason for something happening.”

  • So, knowing a reason why something happens means understanding what caused it. And one reason, or cause, leads to another in a hierarchy of explanations.

The Four Causes

  • “Why” questions can be answered in four different but related ways.

  • The four reasons (or causes) – for a thing’s being what or how it is – are:

    • The Material Cause – the stuff it’s made of
    • The Formal Cause – the form it takes
    • The Efficient Cause – its “proximate” motion
    • The Final Cause – its purpose or goal


  • Manmade things have the form or structure they do because we made them to serve our purposes. Natural objects get their form “on their own.”

  • Aristotle used the Greek word entelechy to describe an object’s “having its end within itself.” Entelechy means that things do not just happen, but develop according to natural design.

  • Using the example of the oak, the acorn must have within itself the natural design enabling it to become an oak tree. Its goal or end (telos) is already inside of it – that’s entelechy.

Psyche as Entelechy

  • For Aristotle, psyche is the form of the body. Just as we cannot imagine matter moving around unformed, so we never encounter bodies and souls moving around apart from one another.

  • Aristotle believed that it was impossible to affect the body without affecting the soul or to affect the soul without affecting the body. He thinks of them in the same way that he thinks of wax and its shape: separable only in thought.

  • Just like the oak, then, humans have a form – a psyche or soul – that structures their body and the way that body is able to develop. So, psyche is our entelechy.

The Hierarchy of Souls

  • Aristotle does not think that humans are the only creatures that have souls.

  • Since psyche is the principle of life, or autonomous motion, all living things have psyches or souls.

  • Aristotle thinks there are three levels of soul, which form a hierarchy of complexity. They are:

    • The nutritive
    • The sensitive
    • The rational

Levels of the Hierarchy of the Souls

  • The lowest level is the nutritive, or vegetative, soul, which all forms of animate matter (such as plants) have, enabling them to absorb food, transform it into tissue, and to reproduce.

  • The next is sensitive, or sentient soul, which applies to those creatures capable of sensation or feeling (animals). These creatures can sense pleasure and pain, and move to get or avoid it.

  • The highest is rational soul, which only humans have. As rational animals, humans are capable of everything above, along with the capacity to reason.

Natural Happiness

  • Because people have this highest level of soul, they cannot just sit back and let their lives develop in the way an acorn’s does.

  • Because they are capable of reasoning, they must make a project of their lives in order that their lives be good.

  • A good life is one that provides all the necessary conditions and opportunities for a person to fully actualize their potential – and one in which the person has the character to do so.

  • So, a good life involves the development of one’s character.

Teleological Thinking

  • “Every art and every scientific inquiry, and similarly every action and purpose, may be said to aim at some good. Hence, the good may be defined as that at which all things aim.” – Aristotle

  • The technical name for this kind of thinking is teleological – from the Greek root telos, meaning end, purpose, or goal. Teleological thinking is a way of explaining a thing in terms of its ultimate goal, or final cause. For example, the telos of infancy is adulthood.

  • Both Aristotle’s ethic and conception of virtue are teleological.

The Science of the Good

  • In one sense, Aristotle thinks we can study the good the way we can study anything else. Once we know the four causes of human nature, we can figure out what is best for objects of our kind to do.

  • The work in which Aristotle considers issues of right and wrong, and what constitutes the good life, is the Nicomachean Ethics (dedicated to his son, Nicomachus).

  • However, in the first book of the Ethics, Aristotle says that “it would be wrong to expect the same degree of accuracy in all subjects.” Since life has incalculable variables, we should never expect the same exactitude in ethics as we do in mathematics.


  • If asked what we want from life, happiness is probably the answer most of us would give. The Greek word Aristotle uses is eudaimonia, which implies being really alive, rather than merely existing.

  • Aristotle considers whether pleasure or honor are sufficient for happiness, and finds that something more is required, something proper to the person, which cannot be taken away: our ability to reason. Eudaimonia – or well being – comes from right action in accordance with reason.

  • So ethics is a practical endeavor, rather than a purely theoretical study, one that should have practical benefits and help us to build a better character – by developing good habits.

Hitting the Mark

  • When dealing with everyday problems, it is easy to go to extremes. Aristotle thinks that this destroys our virtues.

  • He suggests we strive to find the mean between extremes – not too much or too little, with respect to each virtue.

  • Doing that requires moderation, which the Greeks referred to as sophrosyne. Learning to moderate our behavior is part of developing good habits (so that we fare better in future situations).

  • This is no easy task, though, and lasts a lifetime. As Aristotle says, “to miss the mark is easy, to hit it difficult.”

  • That makes what is today often referred to as “virtue ethics” the “study of a lifetime.”

Application of the Mean

Discussion Question

  • Study and discuss Table 6.1, Aristotelian Virtues and Vices. How do the concepts in each category compare?

  • Consider principles from the Nicomachean Ethics and the concept of the mean. Then add and discuss your own examples of virtues and vices. What might you add?

Chapter Review: Key Concepts and Thinkers

  • Naturalism

  • Aristotelian Form

  • Matter

  • Material cause

  • Formal cause

  • Efficient cause

  • Final cause

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