Aristotle in Outline


Robinson provides clear and engaging overview of Aristotle's entire system of thought. Extremely beneficial for anybody just getting into Aristotle and/or philosophy since it provides a very broad but concise overview of his different schools of thought.

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Key Takeaways

  • Aristotle is a "systematic" thinker - his philosophies, thoughts, ideas are all interconnected so unless you get an understanding of his beliefs in other areas, some concepts might seem strange/inconsistent
  • Reasons for studying Aristotle
    • Represents a case study of systematic thought and is more accessible than many alternatives
    • Is a very methodical philosopher - steps and procedures taken to reach conclusions are laid out and consistent - allowing readers today to follow easily
    • His findings have been extremely influential
    • Many of his conclusions have been outdated but his theories on political science and ethics are still viable
    • Read the works of one of the great men of history ("He [Aristotle], if anyone, truly felt comfortable in this universe")
What I got out of it
  1. Great read for people just getting into philosophy and/or Aristotle and wanting to get a broad understanding of his thinking. Of course it is incomplete but its purpose is well-served as you get to see Aristotle's main points in wisdom/science, ethics and politics.
I - Wisdom and Science
  • Philosophy = the love of wisdom
  • For Aristotle, love = desire, wisdom = intuition and scientific knowledge of the most valuable things
    • Goal or end of an activity (thing at which it aims) is key to understanding it
    • Must not only know something is true, but why it is true
    • Fact = must mean that something cannot be otherwise than what it is, it is necessary - if I was not born, it would not violate any law of nature for example. Therefore, I am not a fact but can have facts about our broader species
  • First substance = any individual entity (dog, horse, chair, etc.)
  • Second substance = the species in general
    • Can only have facts about secondary substances
  • The Four Causes (revolves around changes, can be found in every change and don't require an intelligent being)
    1. Place - Motion, or change of place
    2. Substance - the coming to be or passing away of a thing (generation or corruption - conception, death)
    3. Quantity - Growth and diminution (putting on weight)
    4. Quality - alteration in quality (changing colors or getting warm)
  • Form does not mean shape - if stand by fire, getting form of "warmth"
  • Subject = what is undergoing the change
  • In all artificial processes, the agent cause (active element) is external whereas for natural processes, the agent cause is internal
  • Qua = in the function, character or capacity of
  • First cause to try to identify is the end - where will something naturally terminate?
  • Seek form by asking what characteristics distinguish the end from the beginning
  • Identify the matter by asking what received the form
  • Figure out agent by asking what brought about this process? what initiated the change?
  • The Vocabulary of Science
    • Nature = nature of a thing (the cause of something behaving someway)
    • Believed there existed 5 elements - earth, wind, fire, water and ethereal
    • Essential attributes - attributes which something must have in order to be that thing. If it didn't it would be something else
    • Property same as essential attribute but it can only belong to that species (humans and rationality)
  • The Form of Scientific Explanation
    • Demonstration = argument
      • Tightness of fit - how strictly the conclusion follows from the premises
      • Validity - conclusion follows directly from the premises
    • Organon - Six treatises on logic
      • Categories - classification of words (substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, having, acting, being acted upon)
    • On Interpretation (propositions) - simplest sentences
      • Prior analytics - identify forms of syllogism which are valid (all A are B...)
      • Posterior analytics
      • Point of demonstration is to show the fact stated in the conclusion is necessary
      • Something can be self-evident (intuition) or needs evidence to be proven as necessary
  • What Wisdom Knows
    • Most valuable things = most universal principles and causes (metaphysics), the soul and the gods
  • The Soul
    • For the Greeks, soul = whatever gives life to an organism (therefore, all animals and plants have souls too)
    • Only prime matter can create anything but nobody has access to this
    • Aristotle differentiates between actuality and potentiality (and differs depending on POV)
    • Potential = the capability of something to receive form, or the power to act
    • Soul is source of active potentiality
    • Soul is that form which enables an organism to carry out life functions (for humans, soul takes form of a living body or a state of activity)
    • Rationality is also part of the soul and in that sense the soul is immortal
    • Mind or intellect is capable of taking on the form of anything. in this respect, it is like prime matter. it is necessary for the mind to be of no other nature than that of potentiality
    • Aristotle claims that active intellect (agent intellect) is only form of soul which is immortal since it is eternal and does not change
    • All that makes the soul "mine" dies with the body (memories, emotions, desires, etc.)
    • Overall, pretty difficult to determine what Aristotle believed the rational soul is
  • The Gods
    • Determined there is a God(s) as follows - since everything is in motion, there must be a prime mover(s) (an unmoved mover) who started it all
    • Godlike qualities - unchanging awareness of a single object
    • Desire to imitate gods results in spherical movements - this desire is a form of love - love makes the world go round
    • Gods in no way intervened in human events
    • Prayer and sacrifices to these gods would make no sense and best way to serve them is to devote self completely to developing the mind
II - Aristotle's Ethics
  • Ethics is a practical science - knowledge gained for the sake of action
  • 3 cases of complexity - obvious, don't know how to react but once see how "hero" reacts, then obvious, and finally our spontaneous reactions fail us entirely
  • While some situations are instinctive, many times what we fell is learned/cultural
  • Actions determined by emotions felt and how strongly you feel these emotions
  • To feel an emotion not suitable to a situation is to be mentally unbalanced
  • Virtue - feeling the right amount of the relevant emotion for a given situation
    • However, a situation may call for one to get as angry or happy as one could possibly get
  • Vice - feeling either too little or too much of the emotion
  • Aristotle's ethics is concerned with the type of person you are, not every act you commit
  • Doesn't provide rules on how to be virtuous as this is too stagnant and following the rules may sometimes lead you to do the wrong thing
  • In today's culture, virtue is seen as more legalistic and people today have no idea how to inculcate virtue or motivate right behaviors, in ourselves and in others
  • Being in a situation in which we confront powerful desires to do things that are not virtuous is the best test of virtue
  • Virtuous people do not even desire to do what is wrong in the first place
  • Aristotle attempted to make ethics a science - by discovering necessary facts
    • Not as pure as math or physics but studies habits ("second" nature)
  • Happiness subsumes itself or integrates into itself all ends we pursue and hence all activities we engage in - it is the ultimate goal
  • The end of an action can be separable from it or a result from the action itself
  • Since being human qua human is being rational - a good human is a human who reasons well (trying to understand things and figure out exactly what you want and the best way to get it)
  • Happiness = activity of soul in accord with virtue
    • Life lived virtuously, exercise of critical thinking and appropriately moderated passion, is the happy life
    • Basic needs must also be met and must live a decently long life in order to be happy
    • Life devoted to the attainment of wisdom is the happiest life a human can lead
  • Appendix - The Virtues and Vices
    • Courage
    • Temperance
    • Generosity or Liberality
    • Magnificence or Munificence
    • Pride or high-mindedness
    • Ambition
    • Good temper
    • Truthfulness
    • Wittiness
    • Friendliness
    • Modesty
    • Righteous indignation
    • Justice
III - Politics
  • Function of the state is to promote happiness of the people
  • Politics = science of government - how to run a country
  • For Greeks, the polis was not essentially the land, it was wherever the people were and consisted of the government + society
  • Vital to know what the end for which the state exists
  • Aristotle's Politics more concerned with ideal government than any real government
  • When something is said to be good, one must realize what subject the good is of or for
    • To understand the nature of a thing is to understand the final cause that is programmed into it and thus governs its behavior
  • While everyone is different, and nature and nurture play a part, Aristotle still believes there is a best way to live in accordance with human nature
  • A good human being is one whose life most perfectly expresses what it means to be a human being
  • To understand anything that people make or do you must understand why they make or do it
  • Any activity can be seen as a way of trying to fulfill our natural potentialities - the better they do this, the better the activity
  • For politics, important to know the nature of the human because a state is a collection of humans
  • Acquisition of virtue the most important ingredient in human well-being
  • State helps with protection, specialization, pursue the goods of body and soul (external goods like food as well as possibility for leisure time which is extremely important for advancing a civilization), economics,
  • An association of people becomes a state when it is big enough to become self-sufficient
  • One of the biggest benefits of a state is the fact that it allows people leisure time which leads to specialization, creativity, technological breakthroughs
  • State came into existence for the sake of living, but exists for the sake of living well
  • Aristotle called people political animals - capable and share the prerequisites to have politics (debate, logic...), are naturally social and complete happiness can only be found in the state (by cooperating and socializing with other people)
  • The Forms of Government
    • Politician needs to know what form of government will best help achieve goal - happiness of the people (depends on location, customs, culture...)
    • The political good = common interest = what is just
    • For Aristotle, the number of people who hold power is less important than the type of people (merchants vs. noble land owners..)
    • Monarchy (one), aristocracy (few), oligarchy (few and rich), democracy (many, but bad in Aristotle's view because the many cannot be counted on to be virtuous)
  • The Best Form of Government
    • In ideal situation, would have most virtuous person lead the aristocracy
      • Since not feasible, a blend of oligarchy and democracy (politeia) was deemed as the best form
    • When Aristotle says ideal, he takes it to mean ideal with the limits humans have - it is not a utopia
    • Some people are more natural slaves and cannot acquire virtues (at least as well as others)
    • Main areas for cultivation are warfare, scientific inquiry, social life and politics
    • Manual labor was looked down upon and Aristotle didn't think these people could be as virtuous as they had little/no leisure time in order to cultivate them
    • Had a radical idea for the time that education would be the metric used to see if people would be admitted into political power instead of wealth or ancestry
    • Aristotle remains surprisingly quiet on what should be public vs private - where can the government legitimately intervene?
    • Most important part of happiness was the cultivation of ethical and intellectual virtues
    • There is hardly any feature in life which does not have an effect on character
    • Only in a well ordered society can humans become fully human - we are political animals

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