Aristotle: Expository Essay

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Historians and Philosophers speculate that Aristotle wrote more than 200 separate works, of those around 30 survive. While his former teacher and colleague Plato wrote in a more poetic way, Aristotle writes in a more systematic textbook way. Therefore, a lot of parsing and unpacking of the text is required to understand what Aristotle is saying.

Aristotle (384 BCE - 322 BCE) was from Stagira, (not Athens) in Macedonia (northern Greece). He was a student of Plato and taught in Plato’s Academy for twenty years. After Plato’s death, Aristotle founded his own school, the Lyceum, near Athens. According to historian Will Durant, “a sharp rivalry developed between the Lyceum, whose students were mostly of the middle class, and the Academy, which drew its membership largely from the aristocracy.” Aristotle also had the distinction of tutoring a student that would become one of history's greatest military minds. Who, as King of Macedonia and Persia, established the largest empire the ancient world had ever seen, Alexander the Great.

Aristotle advocated leading a happy, contemplative life of moderation, virtue, and character. One can only wonder what Aristotle would have thought of his most famous student’s character, given the fact that Alexander became a warmonger whose sole mission in life was world domination and who allegedly when he contemplated the breadth of his domain, wept because there were no more worlds to conquer.


The assigned readings have a linear quality to them and if there is one concept that Aristotle discusses most frequently and encapsulates all of the readings, it is the word change. From the emptiness of matter “becoming” and giving it form in Physics, Book 1; to establishing its causes (four) in Physics, Book 2; to identifying and categorizing the soul (or essence) in De Anima; to elevating the human experience through virtue in Ethics, Book 1; to creating types of character and, to come full circle, “becoming” virtuous in Ethics, Book 2, the concept of change is the central theme of Aristotle’s writing.

Change is the constant throughout the readings, whether it is in nature as a living organism or inhuman “nature” itself. In fact, change is so prominent in the texts that given the order of the assigned readings, I suspect they were chosen to walk the reader through a progression of change. As part of that progression, Aristotle asked and helped to answer some of the most profound questions we as humans can ask:

    • What does it mean to be alive?
    • What does it mean to be human?
    • What does it mean to be happy?
    • What does it mean to live a virtuous life?

Aristotle argues that only through the process of change can we address the above questions and through these questions I’ll discuss how change influences and relates to the reading. For an inquiry into change look no further than Physics, Book 1. Aristotle argues that since nothing comes-to-be from nothing, in order for an entity to exist it must consist of both matter and form. That is to say, they are inextricably linked but matter is the ultimate subject of change and form is what is gained or lost in the change.

Aristotle suggests that “ a person remains a person and is such even when they become musical, whereas what is not musical or is unmusical does not continue to exist, either simply or combined with the subject.” But nevertheless, change has occurred to the form (the man). Or thinking it about in another way; matter is to form as potentiality is to actuality. Aristotle categorically states that “everything that exists is composed of matter and form” and “change is present everywhere.”

When Aristotle talks about change, he is not only referring to the nature of change, but also change in nature, and change in human nature. He further states that not only is change everywhere but that nature requires it. Therefore, if nature requires (some would say demands) change, what does this then tell us about our world and our role in it? In Physics, Book 1 and volumes that follow, the change Aristotle writes about is something “coming to be”, the so-called arche (from the Greek meaning the 'beginning', 'origin' or 'source of action”.)

Although Aristotle discusses it in later assigned readings, this telos (the full potential or inherent purpose or objective of a person or thing) is best exemplified in Physics Book 2, with Aristotle’s discussion of the so-called four causes.

Aristotle refers to them as:

    • Out of what?
    • What is it meant to be?
    • By what agent?
    • For the sake of what it is?

Today we refer to these causes respectively as the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause.

    • The material cause is what the thing is made of (in the case of human beings, skin, bones, and viscera; for a table or chair, wood.)
    • The formal cause is the essence of the design of an object (this function or cause is the basis for discussion of the soul in De Anima.)
    • The efficient cause is the change agent (the source of an object’s principle of change or stability).
    • The final cause relates to the ultimate goal of the object, or what the object is good for.

These causes ultimately help us get to the root of our initial questions in the sense that they are asking; What does it mean to be alive (ie, what material are we made of )? What does it mean to be human (ie, what is our essence or purpose)? What does it mean to be happy (ie, how does this come about and what is the change agent at play)? What does it mean to live a virtuous life (ie, what is our ultimate purpose )?

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In Physics Book II, Aristotle draws a distinction between natural objects and unnatural (artifacts). Natural objects have an “internal” principle, while artifacts have the defining principle of a thing that is derived from the outside (eg, a woodworker making a table) and not the source of its own (re)production. Aristotle further argues that with an artificial entity, all four elements are present in creation, however with nature, “the last three [causes] often coincide” the form (formal cause), the change agent (the efficient cause), and the “final” cause (or as Aristotle calls it, “ that for the sake of which.”)

Although, Aristotle never uses the actual words he is referring to what we have come to know as animate (nature) and inanimate (artificial manufactured) objects. The difference between the two is motion and change. Natural things Aristotle argues have a source of motion or change within them. Artificial objects have no source of change within and therefore, require an external cause to become different.

The concepts of the source of motion or change from within are the cornerstones for Aristotle’s arguments about the soul as found in De Anima. In that reading, Aristotle discusses the soul and how change is integral to a living entity. When we think of the word “soul” in the modern context we look at it as either the material essence of a human being or a supernatural element. However, when Aristotle describes the soul, he is most definitely not referring to conventional modern Western tradition especially informed by the Christian view of the soul as life after death or in some cultures reincarnation. Aristotle did not believe in either an afterlife or reincarnation.

Aristotle argued that not only do humans have souls but so do beasts and plants and they are intrinsic principles of animal and vegetable life. He also contends, while a soul does not survive death, that the soul’s very essence is tied directly to its relationship to its organic structure and its ability to change.

Aristotle defines the soul as the essence of an individual living entity. According to Aristotle, the soul is to the body as form is to matter and since matter is always present the form is the actuality (manifestation) of a living entity. A soul, Aristotle says, is “the actuality of a body that has life,” where life means the capacity for self-sustenance, growth, and reproduction, in a word, change. Aristotle further contends the soul applies only to living things that are defined as an entity that change from within rather than external forces.

The souls of living things are ordered by Aristotle in a hierarchy of three categories. Plants have a vegetative or nutritive soul, which consists of the powers of growth, nutrition, and reproduction. Animals have, in addition, the powers of perception and locomotion—they possess a sensitive soul, and every animal has at least one sense faculty. Humans, in addition to the above, have the power of reason and thought which is called a rational soul. Aristotle defines the rational soul as the part of human of a human responsible for reason, wisdom, and understanding. This brings us to the final readings and in my view the most compelling philosophical readings to contemplate, Ethics.

In Ethics, Book 1, Aristotle contends that virtue is central to a well-lived life and suggests that because we are rational beings, we should study ethics in order to improve our lives and human well-being. He says that 'Every art and every kind of inquiry, and likewise every act and purpose, seems to aim at some good; and so it has been well said that the good is that at which all things aim.' This harkens back to what Aristotle says in Physics, Book 1, where he categorically states that “everything that exists is composed of matter and form” and “change is present everywhere.” From this, we can infer that a human’s function in life should be “the pursuit of good (some would say happiness).” Aristotle explains how the good he is searching for must be the most complete good. To determine the highest good for a human being Aristotle concludes that it is the “activity of the soul in accord with reason.” That is to say, someone who performs this function well has achieved the highest human good, and that “good” is the human telos (the ultimate object or aim), the one key to happiness. Much like what Aristotle describes as the goal of the four causes, especially as it applies to formal and efficient causes, Aristotle suggests that all change that is undertaken is undertaken for good.

If we agree with Aristotle that change is constant in all natural things and not only matter and form have a purpose, then logically we have to ask the question, what is our purpose? In Aristotle’s De Anima, he identifies that which gives humans their uniqueness, the rational soul and by extension our mind. In Ethics, he suggests that using our minds to make good decisions is the key to living the best life we can. Only then can we become good by knowing the truth and cannot know the truth without being good? Therefore constant searching and constant change are the keys to becoming good and finding happiness.

In Ethics, Book 2, Aristotle discusses the ultimate prize; how change applies to living a virtuous life. According to Aristotle, wisdom is the best virtue and the activity of philosophical contemplation is happiness itself. Wisdom involves study or philosophical contemplation and he considers it superior to other virtues of character.

Aristotle divides the human soul into two parts, the rational part of the soul that has reason where virtues reside, and the irrational part of the soul that causes growth and nutrition and requires no reason at all. In Ethics, Book 2, Aristotle describes two types of virtue; virtue of character and virtue of thought. Together they are sort of a soul in miniature.

It is important to note that when Aristotle refers to the word “virtue,” he is not using the expression as we use the word today. When we think of “virtue” Today, we are referring to behavior that shows high moral standards. Aristotle uses “virtue” to refer either to being excellent at something or as something integral to achieving a greater goal. Aristotle thinks virtues of character are not innate but people can be developed. He suggests that by practice and habits, we have the potential to acquire virtues of character by developing ourselves and changing things about us that are less “good”.

In Ethics, Book 1, Aristotle states that “Every craft...line of inquiry, and action seeks some good”. In other words, harkening back to the function and purpose of an entity in multiple readings, we become better human beings by practicing the virtues of being human. It seems, in Aristotle's view, everything is about potential and change, from an original form to living a virtuous life.

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