Aristotle (part 2) – Politics, Logic & Physics


Following on from my previous post, ethical virtues are aimed at achieving happiness, but happiness also requires communities to be organised in a political State. Indeed the purpose of the State is to facilitate the happy life of its citizens, by introducing laws which encourage virtuous behaviour. People cannot fulfil their natural function unless they are part of a State, in the same way that an eye cannot see unless it is part of the body. In contrast to Plato, Aristotle defends private property on the basis that things held privately are better looked after, and because it is necessary for virtues such as benevolence and generosity. He believes in equality in proportion to virtue. Reminiscent of Animal Farm, this suggests that the more virtuous should be ‘more equal’. Aristotle does not address the issue that virtue is very difficult to measure, and in reality will be equated to wealth. As Russell says, every kind of ‘justice’ other than absolute equality will in practice reward some quality other than virtue, and should therefore be condemned.

It is curious that Aristotle believed that the Greek City State was the ideal form of State at a time when Alexander the Great was proving it to be obsolete. He says that the State must be able to defend itself in war at a time when Athens and the other city states had recently been conquered by Macedonia. His failure to give any mention to Alexander and the emerging period of empire appears wilful. It is impossible to know how much influence these two had on each other, but Russell believes it to be nil. He cannot see anything in Alexander that could be attributable to the teachings of Aristotle, who may have seen Alexander as idle, headstrong and impatient of schooling. Aristotle’s ‘rule by cultured gentlemen’ would not appear again until the Renaissance and the Italian City States.


Aristotle’s influence was greatest in the field of logic, where his pre-eminence lasted until the modern era. Russell writes that he made a great advance upon his predecessors, but his work turned out to be a dead end, leading to 2000 years of stagnation. Aristotle’s most important work in logic is the doctrine of the syllogism, which is an argument consisting of three parts: a major premise, a minor premise and a conclusion.  For example, ‘all men are mortal (major premise), Socrates is a man (minor premise), therefore Socrates is mortal (conclusion)’. This is the beginning of formal logic. Aristotle believed that if all arguments are written in syllogistic form it is possible to avoid all fallacies. However Russell presents some criticisms to this system, for example the over-estimation of the syllogism which is only one type of deductive argument (deduction being to start with a universally believed premise and deduce a specific conclusion from that premise). This can be shown by the fact that Mathematics is wholly deductive but it would be absurd to try and write Mathematical arguments in syllogistic form. Another criticism is the over-estimation of deduction relative to induction (starting with observations and using this information to generate new knowledge). This is a criticism that applies to all ancient Greeks. Using the above example of syllogism, we start by assuming that ‘all men are mortal’ based on the historical evidence, but it is possible that some people alive today may live forever. I won’t spend any more time on this topic, noting Russell’s view that any person today who wishes to learn logic will be wasting their time if they read Aristotle.


Russell is no more forgiving of Aristotle’s scientific work, noting that Aristotle dominated science until the time of Galileo, but hardly anything he writes can be accepted in the light of modern understanding. As with everyone, Aristotle’s scientific understanding is heavily influenced by his imaginative background, which dictates the kind of thing which he expects to find true. To Greeks, the motion of animals and of the heavenly bodies seemed particularly important, and for Aristotle this was a basis for a general scientific theory. The movement of the heavenly bodies differs from that of animals due to their superior perfection – they are moved directly by the will of God, whereas animals (including humans) have their own will. Physics for Aristotle is the science of nature, which in ancient Greek terms is related to growth and broadly means the purpose for which something exists. Nature is the purpose that drives change, and describes the final form of something. Aristotle would say for example that the purpose of an acorn is to be an oak, and that its nature is to grow into an oak. For an acorn to do anything else would be unnatural. Changes due to nature are fixed and reach predetermined conclusions; therefore Aristotle rejects Empedocles’ view of evolution via survival of the fittest. Aristotle said that everything on earth is subject to generation and decay, and is made of the four elements, with the earth at the centre of the universe. Everything in the heavens is indestructible and everlasting, is perfectly spherical, and is made of a separate fifth element. This view is driven by the pagan worship of the sun and moon and planets.

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