Aristotle: The Philosopher of Everything
Episode #5 of the course Ancient Greek philosophy by Dr. Will Buckingham
Hello and welcome to the fifth lesson. In this lesson, we are going to look at Aristotle, Plato’s most famous disciple.
Aristotle has a right to be called a philosopher of everything. He wrote about politics and zoology, physics and ethics, the art of writing comedy and tragedy, the constitution of Athens, logic, the mating habits of octopuses, and the nature of the soul. He was one of the most influential philosophers in the medieval Arab world, and in Medieval Europe, he was so important that he was referred to simply as “the Philosopher.”
Aristotle was born in the Macedonian city of Stagira in 384 BCE. While still a teenager, he moved to Athens and became a follower of Plato. He studied with Plato for the next two decades until around 348 BCE, when he left Athens. He traveled throughout the Greek world and was a tutor to the young Alexander the Great. Eventually, he returned to Athens, where he settled and founded his own philosophical school, the Lyceum. It is likely that he would have remained there, but after Alexander the Great died, there was an outburst of anti-Macedonian feeling in Athens. Like Socrates, Aristotle was accused of impiety. But unlike Socrates, he decided to flee. He left for his family home in Chalkis and died there later that year.
The Philosophical Foal
Aristotle may have been Plato’s most famous follower, but he was not the most faithful. Plato sometimes compared Aristotle to a foal who takes his mother’s milk and then kicks her. Aristotle owed a huge debt to Plato. But he completely reinvented Plato’s philosophy and was happy to be fiercely critical of Plato’s thought.
If you were having trouble making sense of Plato’s ideas—these deeper realities that can only be accessed by the intellect—then you are not alone. Aristotle also had a serious problem with the way that Plato carved up the world. But instead of getting rid of the distinction between appearance and reality, a distinction that goes back to the presocratics, Aristotle reinvented it.
The Forms Reformed
For Plato, all cats in the world are imperfect reflections of the perfect form of a cat. The cats you know and love are all inferior copies—shadows or reflections—of the ideal cat in the world of forms. The same goes for horses, tables, giraffes, and everything else.
You can perhaps already see the problem with all this. Is there a single perfect form for “cats”? Or is there one form for tabby cats, one for Burmese cats, one for Scottish wildcats, etc.? Is there one single ideal form for three-legged tables, six-legged tables, and those tray tables that fold down in trains and aircraft? Or are they all variants on the form, “table”? Once you start asking these questions, Plato’s forms seem quite weird.
For Plato, forms were intellectual and abstract: They transcended space and time. But Aristotle brought Plato’s forms down to earth. Instead of seeing forms as eternal and accessible only to the intellect, he saw form simply as a property of all things. Everything, he said, was made up of matter and form. The matter of a chair is wood, and the form is its chair shape. Unlike Plato, Aristotle insisted that there is no form separate from matter. If there are no chairs, there is no form of a chair. Form is the thing that takes matter and shapes it into a single object.
But this is more mysterious than it seems. In his book, On the Soul, Aristotle says that the soul is the “form of the body.” What does this mean? One way of thinking about it is in terms of pattern. We are not just bundles of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and other elements all stuck together. Instead, these things have a particular pattern. The pattern involves not only our shape, the size of our feet, etc. but also our thoughts, dreams, and activities. We are not only chemicals (matter) but also chemicals stuck together in such a way that we think, dream, and act in particular ways (form).
Doubting the Philosophers
By this point, you may be wondering about all these philosophers and their strange, abstract ideas. You may be far from convinced about the claims that they are making, and you’re starting to feel a bit skeptical. If so, you will be glad to know that skepticism itself goes back to the ancient Greeks and was a long-standing school of ancient philosophy. In the next lesson, we’re going to discuss skepticism.
For more on Aristotle’s work as a biologist, there is a great episode of the BBC podcast, In Our Time.
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