Aristotle (part 1) – Metaphysics & Ethics

Aristotle came at the end of the most creative period of Greek thought, and after his death it would be 2000 years before the world would see a philosopher that was his equal. His authority became as unquestioned as the Church, which became a serious obstacle to progress. Aristotle was very different to his predecessors: a professional teacher rather than inspired prophet, he is critical, careful and pedestrian. The Orphic passion of previous Greek philosophers is replaced with a heavy dose of common sense. According to Russell, he is good in detail and criticism, but lacks the clarity of thought for grand ideas.


Aristotle’s metaphysics, which is his theory of universals and theory of forms, could be described as Plato diluted with common sense – two things that apparently do not mix well. Aristotle says that there are proper names which only apply to one thing (e.g. the sun, France or Napoleon), and adjectives which are description words. But there are also words like ‘cat and ‘dog’ which apply to many different things. The problem of universals is concerned with the meaning of such words. Proper names signify a substance, which is something specific to the object and does not apply to anything else. A universal signifies something which is common and applies to many things. A universal cannot exist by itself, but only in particular things. For example the game of football is a universal which applies to many things, but cannot exist without the constituent substances (e.g. football players).  This does not apply the other way – the people who play football would still exist without football. The value of this theory appears to be in the distinction between words that apply to actual objects and those that do not, but Russell freely admits that he doesn’t find Aristotle’s theory very clear.

The theory of forms relates to the difference between ‘form’ and ‘matter’. To start with a simple example, in the case of a marble statue the marble is the matter and the shape conferred by the sculptor is the form. The boundary of any object is its form, and it is form that turns something from a universal (such as marble) to a substance (such as a specific statue). Form does not just mean shape but is what allows an object to be defined as a single thing and gives its unity of purpose. The soul is the form of the body because it allows the body to function. The function of the eye is related to sight, but the eye cannot see on its own; the soul enables sight by allowing all the parts of the body to work together as one unified object. The form of an object is its essence, which are those properties which an object cannot lose without becoming a different object, or which you cannot lose without ceasing to be yourself. (My personal view is that only our souls or minds are our essence). Aristotle believed that forms exist independently of matter. The final form of the statue exists before the sculptor gets to work – they only bring the form and the matter together. Forms can exist without matter, such as souls not associated with a body. More than that, forms are more real than matter (much like Plato’s ideas are more real than their tangible imitations). Matter is defined as potential form, such that a block of marble is a potential statue. In a teleological sense, the most important cause of change is that everything is constantly evolving to be more like God, who represents the perfect form and is entirely form (rather than matter). This is due to the love and admiration for God that all living things feel, either consciously or otherwise.


Russell writes that Aristotle’s ethics are appealing to the respectable middle-aged, and has since been used by them to repress the over-enthusiasm of the young. Virtues can be either intellectual or moral. Moral virtues are defined by the doctrine of the ‘golden mean’, where every virtue is a mean between two extremes, which is a vice. For example the virtue of courage is between cowardice and rashness, and modesty is between bashfulness and shamelessness. In common with the views of his day, Aristotle does not believe that equality is necessary for justice. For Aristotle some people are worth more than others, and so it is right to have unequal relations. For example wives and subjects should have more love for their husbands and monarchs than the latter have for them. Perfect friendship is only possible between two people of equal worth (e.g. equal virtue), otherwise it would be imbalanced. Aristotle’s best individual is quite different to the Christian Saint. They must be intelligent and magnanimous and are assumed to be high-born. They must have the right level of pride and will disdain help and praise from those who are socially beneath them. Aristotle believed intellectual virtue was an end unto itself, whereas moral virtue is a means to an end, and that end is happiness, which consists in successful activity. Some inequality is therefore essential in Aristotle’s view, as it allows the community to be managed more successfully (because some are naturally better politicians than others). This example illustrates the fact that Aristotle considers ethics to be merely a branch of politics. Intellectual virtue gives a greater happiness than moral virtue, because reason and contemplation set humans apart from animals and bring us closer to God (who is always in contemplation).

Aristotle’s acceptance of inequality is striking to us in modern times, but was the majority view among his contemporaries. His ethics are different to Christian and Humanist ethics which focus on the importance of the individual, but which struggle when the interests of two individuals clash. It appears a little like the utilitarian view in that it seeks happiness as the goal, but includes an aristocratic sense that the greater happiness should be reserved for the high-born of society. For Russell there is an emotional poverty in Aristotle’s ethics – he has nothing to say about the suffering of mankind except in a cold intellectual sense, which includes a pervasive smugness. He appears to talk of friendship more like an impartial observer rather than from personal experience.

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