It’s difficult to overestimate the breadth of Aristotle’s thought. In today’s world information overload has developed to such an extent that it’s impossible for any one person to have anything like the breadth of interests that Aristotle had, and anything like the diverse knowledge of the world in which he lives. Aristotle was a Renaissance man before the Renaissance and the prince of philosophers.
Amongst his many achievements, Aristotle:
Studied a wide range of societies in the Politics;
Considered the nature of existence itself in the Metaphysics – thereby inventing the term that now refers rather loosely to the basic categories of existence;
Discussed and began to formulate scientific enquiry in the Physics;
Virtually invented the subject of Biology in his treatise On the Parts of Animals;
And, as Mark points out, he also had time to write the official record of the Olympic Games.
Some of his thought is fairly disreputable today, some is wacky, but entertainingly wrong, and much of it – I think - still rings true.
Here are examples of each. In the Politics, Aristotle makes it clear that he approves of slavery, and that he thinks women are fitted by nature for a subordinate position. In doing so, he was, of course in keeping with his time: the elegant democracy found in Athens was a democracy only for free men who were citizens of the city-state. Aristotle also comes a cropper in some of his scientific treatises that haven't passed the test of time: it’s not true that the world is comprised of four elements - water, earth, air and fire, but this was part of his world view. Here, Aristotle’s explanations fell apart in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as quantitative methods began to be applied to everyday objects, and maths and physics came to be seen as more basic sciences than biology.
Some of his thought is just very odd. In the Physics he argues that plants have souls. Why is this? A soul is a unifying element – it is the thing that gives coherence to a thing. And plants need this unifying element because… their roots grow towards the centre of the earth and their leaves grow towards the sky. If it wasn’t for them having souls, they would split in two.
This sort of explanation is difficult to take seriously, because we no longer share the pre-scientific world view within which it makes sense. However, in the Metaphysics, Aristotle lays down some of the most basic categories of thought – and these are categories that cannot be shown to be right or wrong by investigating material things, because they come before material things. So for example, Aristotle divides events into those that happen by necessity, and those that are accidents. He goes on to argue that we can only have knowledge of necessity. When a child attempts to escape blame for something by saying ‘but it was an accident’ they are appealing to a version of Aristotle’s distinction. He thinks very carefully about the distinction between ‘form’ and ‘matter’ and uses this distinction to say interesting things about the essence of a thing.
In the Lecture, Mark worries about whether he had ever seen the Four Tops. If the essence of the Four Tops consists in their matter, then it can’t survive any changes in that matter (so the Four Tops cease to exist when even one of them drops out and is replaced – or even, perhaps, has a haircut.) But if the essence of the Four Tops resides in their form, then material changes can take place.
In the Politics, Aristotle is the first to come up with the realisation that humans (well, alright: he says men) are social animals, and he argues that friendship is one of the greatest achievements, and the root of a happy life. The ethical writings which expand on this are featured prominently in a fairly new approach to moral philosophy, known as virtue ethics. Aristotle seems to be asking (and giving answers to) questions about moral character and education, morality and the emotions, and what it is to be a virtuous person; questions that are vibrant today.
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Running through his work is a passion to understand. Aristotle can be set against the (post) modern tendency to regard the world as just too complicated, or variable, or ‘relative’ (whatever that means) to be understood.
His driving assumption is that, if we try really hard, we can work out how things fit together, and what they are for. And this is a collective effort, thinks Aristotle.Investigation of reality is in a way difficult, in a way easy. An indication of this is that no one can attain it in a wholly satisfactory way and that no one misses it completely: each of us says something about nature and although as individuals we advance the subject little if at all, from all of us taken together something sizeable results – and, as the proverb has it, who can miss a barn door?
His ethical work is still relevant and so (I’d suggest) is his take on politics. To argue this you need to assert that these are separable from his advocacy of slavery and the subordination of women – but that is a fairly straightforward task. This is because Aristotle’s omnivorous approach to knowledge and understanding stops him from developing a tight, formally structured system in which each part depends on every other part. In fact, this is one of the attractions of Aristotle’s thought: he is cautious about the amount of precision we should aim at in our answers – asking, he says, for no more precision than the subject matter has itself.
So if the thing under examination is slippery and vague, then our account of it must reflect this, rather than forcing it into an elegant system.The best way to get into Aristotle is to read him: get hold of a good translation of the Nicomachean ethics, for a start, and work through it. It can take a little while to get into Aristotle’s writing – but he is a lot clearer than some modern philosophers! It would also be sensible to combine this with a study of some of the most exciting topics in philosophy now, such as you would get on the Open University course A211: Philosophy and the Human Situation. If you have a background in philosophy, why not come to our residential school next year Doing Philosophy? But whatever you choose to do, Aristotle would be sure that we should keep on ‘investigating reality.’