Aristotle: Setting the Philosophical & Scientific Standard for Millennia


Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolution[1], proposes that Aristotle held the scientific high ground for millennia, not because of dogma but because his theories proved true. Similarly, the Church via the writings of Thomas Aquinas finds Aristotle’s theories about man true not because of Hellenistic religious custom but because they provide an accurate framework of discussion. What are Aristotle’s theories? Are they relevant for modern man? Should there be a renaissance of Aristotelianism in our journey towards truth?

Aristotle came from noble birth. At the age of 18 years he entered Plato’s Academy. Plato recognized Aristotle’s brilliance and recruited him as a teacher at the Academy. Philip II of Macedon, also recognizing the superior intellect of Aristotle, engaged him to teach his son, Alexander the Great. After this tutorial, Aristotle returned to Athens and established a school, the Lyceum, where he taught until his death.

Aristotle, like Plato and Socrates, asked questions about the nature of the soul and the good life. Additionally, he had a keen interest in the material world. Some philosophers suggest that he is an intellectual son of Hippocrates. Aristotle will bridge the perspective of the Forms espoused by Plato and Parmenides and materialism espoused by the Pre-Socratics such as Democritus the Atomist . A more thorough comparison of the epistemologies of Plato and Aristotle can be found here Plato & Aristotle: A Comparison of Epistemologies

In summary, Aristotle proposed hylomorphism, matter and form, essence or soul. Hylo in Greek means lumber, the stuff builders use to make houses. Morphe means essence, form, or that ‘which something is’. A typical example is the podium. The substance or hyle is wood. The form is the intention of what the builder gives the wood, in this case that of podium. The wood could have been made into other things such as, a ship or a home by the artisan.

In man, the soul, which is the source of life, gives form to the material

constituents of a body. Death is defined as the separation of the soul from the body. It is readily observed, that when the soul is no longer present, instead of a human body a corpse is left, subject to the laws of decomposition.

The human soul is immaterial, and as a consequence is immortal. An immediate question for immortality is the moral life. If man’s worth is only from Form, as it is the immortal part of man, then a body’s actions eventually become irrelevant. Many Gnostics through the ages have seen the philosophy of releasing the soul entrapped by the body as a good.

Yet Aristotle, 400 years before the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, will say that the human soul is fitted for a body, and the person would be ‘in a sense’ incomplete without a body after death. He does not know how to reconcile this intractable contradiction of the soul continuing but the body returning to dust. Outside of Christ, it cannot be reconciled.

Another consequence of immortality is that there is more to life than the material world. Aristotle systematizes the moral life in the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle will divide intellectual inquiry into three parts each with its own proper object and method: Mathematics, Nature (or Physics) and Metaphysics. The Soul and Ethics are a subset of Metaphysics. Aristotle will be contra to Descartes and the Enlightenment Project proponents, who seek to reduce physical phenomena to solely mathematical discussions. Only that which can be quantified is real, all else is illusory or opinion originates from this belief.

Beavers certainly have numerical characterizations. They have a range of weight, habitats, color, etc…. However, as a physical reality, beavers transcend these measurable quanta to the point that when one sees a beaver, it is the beaver’s form or essence that elicits the statement, “A beaver.” Zoologists readily observe how there are different personalities with each beaver.

The Study of Nature, Physics II 3 and Metaphysics V 2 gives rise to Aristotle’s elucidation of the four causes as a means of understanding something completely. The four causes briefly stated are material, form, efficient, and final cause. The Enlightenment Project will discard form and final causes as irrelevant to knowing a thing. These philosophers will present form as some sort of ‘Casper the Ghost superstition’ and telos, final cause, never is mentioned. Why do beavers exist? is not a question modern zoologists ask. Aristotle proposes that beavers exist to produce more beavers. This begetting of beavers is the animals’ mirroring of the First Cause, who is immortal and brought them into existence and thus is the animals way of existing eternally.

Nicomachean Ethics begins with the assertion that all men want to be happy. Is happiness to be found in power, wealth, health, and the usual materialistic standards? Aristotle, recognizing the needs of the body, does believe there is a level of materiality that is needed to sustain a happy life. After this, he will propose that it is the virtuous life, which will lead to the greatest source of happiness for the human person. Suffering, like the resurrected mortal body, will not be reconciled with happiness until the Cross of Christ.

A return to an Aristotelian mindset in both science and theology would be beneficial to the pursuit of truth. The chemist does not stop being human when studying carbon. It is a human activity to ask “Why is there Carbon, a final cause question? Where did Carbon come from, an efficient cause question?” Aristotle will demonstrate that there is an Unmoved Mover, a First Cause, an immaterial immortal Being who brought all material beings into existence. In an age of New Atheists, his proofs of the existence of an Unmoved Mover, is a very good starting point. These demonstrations do not reveal the inner life of God, only God in the Person of Jesus, can do that. But they do go a long way towards having a manner of speaking about God and Nature that is revelatory.

For a more detailed consideration of The Prospect of an Aristotelian Biology by Christopher O. Blum.

NB access to entire article is needed via a research library account or $$. I have read the entire article, and it was excellent.

            [1] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago Press: Chicago, 2012) 68.

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