Aristotle and His Legacy

by S. T. Joshi
(A World History of Atheism, draft, April 2021)

In dealing with Aristotle and his successors, we need to pause to assess the sociopolitical state of Greece and the Near East in the fourth, third, and second centuries.

The defeat of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 B.C.E.) resulted in the end of its military and, to some degree, its political supremacy: it was forced to join the Lacedaemonian League, operated by Sparta; but otherwise Athens continued an independent existence and retained intellectual and cultural superiority in the figures of Plato, Aristotle, and others. Renewed fighting with the Persians resulted in Sparta giving up the Greek cities in Anatolia to Persia in 386. Meanwhile, other cities chafed at Spartan dominance, and Thebes under Epiminondas defeated Sparta in 371 at the battle of Leuctra. Spartan power collapsed, and the various city-states all went their own ways, engaging in constan fighting with one another.

The Greeks were constantly menaced by Persia on the east and Carthage on the west. It was at this time that Macedonia on the northern part of the mainland—not then a part of Greece, although it had long engaged in extensive trade with Greek cities, notably Athens—began to emerge into prominence, especially under Philip of Macedon (r. 360–36). He took over much Greek territory, but his motive lay in uniting the country for its battle with Persia. Macedonia definitively defeated the Greeks at Chaeronea in 338; but Philip was assassinated two years later. His son Alexander took over, quickly conquering Phoenicia, Egypt, and then Persia (336–31).

Alexander’s continuing conquests in the East, all the way to India, led to his declaring himself divine. To some degree the decision was political: many eastern peoples were habituated to believe in the close connexion of political rulership with religion; and Alexander (who as a boy had been tutored by Aristotle) was savvy enough to recognise that secular leadership of such an immense territory was unfeasible. But there is no doubt that he was influenced by longstanding beliefs in Greece itself that tended toward the divinisation of kings and heroes, extending back to the Mycenaean age; Alexander himself believed he was descended from Herakles. But his unexpected death in 323 resulted in the breakup of his sprawling empire.

After a generation of disputes among Alexander’s successors, the region was divided into three kingdoms following the battle of Ipsus in 301: there was the Syrian (or eastern) Empire, ruled by the Seleucid dynasty; there was Egypt, ruled by the Ptolemies; and there was Macedonia (now including the whole of mainland Greece), ruled by the Antigonidae. It is at this point that the Hellenistic age commences.

With the decline of Athens as a commercial centre, Alexandria (a city at the delta of the Nile in Egypt founded by Alexander) became dominant. But the Greeks were constantly threatened by outside threats, whether it be the Celts from the north, the Parthians from the east, or the emerging Romans from the west. Rome conquered Greece following the battle of Corinth in 146, and Greece ceased to exist as an independent nation.

Aristotle (384–322) was born in Stagira, in Chalcidice, a region in northwest Greece, but came to Athens in 367, enrolling in Plato’s Academy and remaining there for the next twenty years, until Plato’s death. Disagreements with Plato’s successor, Speusippus, led him to leave the Academy and stay away from Athens for a period of twelve years; for part of this period (roughly 343–340) he was in the court of Philip of Macedon, where he acted as Alexander’s tutor. In 335 he returned to Athens and established his own school, the Lyceum. Upon the death of Alexander in 323, Aristotle had to flee Athens because of the anti-Macedonian sentiment that had developed, and he died the next year in the city of Chalcis.

The difficulties in studying Aristotle are formidable. Chief among them is the fact that his extant works are, by design, not “literary” in any meaningful sense, and some may in fact be lecture notes written by him (or perhaps, in part, by others), and there is doubt whether some of his major works—say, the Metaphysics—are assembled in the manner he would have authorised. Some of these works did not come together until centuries after his death; indeed, the extant Aristotelian corpus is derived from an edition prepared by Andronicus of Rhodes toward the end of the first century B.C.E. The other major difficulty in treating Aristotle is the dense complexity of his idiom, where he is clearly striving (with varying degrees of success) to craft a technical philosophical language for the many areas of thought—metaphysics, logic, the life sciences (biology, zoology, etc.), politics, ethics, aesthetics—that concerned him. There is no question that many phases of Aristotle’s thought constitute the profoundest philosophical and scientific analysis of any Greco-Roman thinker whose work survives in extenso.

The central fact to bear in mind about Aristotle is that he was a pupil and colleague of Plato for two full decades. During this period he actually wrote dialogues in imitation of his mentor, none of which survive. For all that in important particulars he departed from Plato—chiefly because he vigorously advocated and practiced an empirical approach to the acquisition of knowledge, especially in those areas (biology, zoology, botany, and the like) where at the time knowledge was possible—he was exceedingly reluctant to break definitively with Plato, at least in his public remarks. In regard to Plato’s central contention regarding the existence of Forms, Aristotle comes close to asserting the elementary conclusion that the Forms are merely mental constructs rather than actually existing entities, he never explicitly makes such a declaration. In effect, he simply ignores much of Plato in putting forth his own theories.

For our purposes, we will necessarily focus on two central issues relating to Aristotle’s theology—the nature and constitution of the universe and the existence and nature of the soul. Both issues are of immense complexity—and, at times, obscurity—but the latter is somewhat easier to address than the latter. We are here concerned chiefly with the short treatise De Anima.

The concept of the soul (psyche) in Aristotle rests upon his distinction of form and matter. A statue, for example, consists of marble; this is its matter. But its specific shape is its form. Aristotle uses this analogy to maintain that the soul is to the body as form is to matter. In effect, the soul is what distinguishes “the animate from the inanimate” (413a).[1] Even plants have souls, although seem to be of a limited or rudimentary nature; animals certainly do. But more than this, it is the soul that establishes the difference between one entity and another of the same species: it is the soul that makes John Smith John Smith as opposed to Jack Robinson. “The soul is that whereby primarily we live, perceive, and have understanding” (414a). As John Herman Randall, Jr. put it, the soul is not a “thing” but “an activity or function of the living organism.”[2] It is what gives the body its motion, chiefly in the areas of “nutrition, appetency, sensation, locomotion and understanding” (414a).

There was a lively controversy in the later mediaeval era, when Aristotle’s work was rediscovered, whether Aristotle believed the soul to be immortal or not. He seems to be somewhat cagey on the matter, but the bulk of the evidence suggests that he did not. He ridicules the Pythagorean—and, by implication, the Platonic—hypothesis of the transmigration of the soul (De Anima 407b), going on to say: “Those are right who regard the soul as not independent of body and yet at the same time as not itself a species of body” (414a). If it is really the soul that differentiates every living thing from every other living thing, it is difficult to imagine how it could be immortal—or, at any rate, how it could have come from outside and entered a given body, as the transmigration hypothesis advocates.

And yet, there is a part of the soul that is immortal and divine—and that is the mind. Aristotle argues that “intellect would seem to be developed in us as a self-existing substance and to be imperishable” (408b).[3] The account is full of difficulties. How does this substance become implanted in the soul in the first place? Where does it go after the death of the body? Aristotle engages in some specious argumentation as to why, in old age, it is not the mind that decays, but apparently some other part of the soul. While it is true that the mind performs its intellectual functions by means of input from the senses, it is possible that this whole idea of the divine soul is a feeble gesture of reconciliation with the Platonists. Even so, Aristotle’s general conception of the soul is marked by subtlety of thought and general soundness of approach.

His views on the cosmos are much more inscrutable. At a minimum we can say that the cosmology he puts forth in Book 12 of the Metaphysics is a substantial departure from the one found in Plato’s Timaeus; and yet, remnants of Platonism remain, to say nothing of certain age-old prejudices that extend back centuries in Greek thought. The chief among these is the notion that motion is indicative of life. For Aristotle, who believed that both the universe as a whole and motion within the universe are eternal, it was necessary to fashion some kind of force or entity that could generate this motion; for him this was the unmoved mover. This conception is very difficult to grasp. The critical passage is this:

There is, then, something which is always moved with an unceasing motion, which is motion in a circle; and this is plain not in theory only but in fact. Therefore the first heavens must be eternal. There is therefore also something which moves them. And since that which is moved and moves is intermediate, there is a mover which moves without being moved, being eternal, substance, and actuality. (1072a)

Here again Aristotle has lapsed into another Greek prejudice regarding the “perfection” of circular motion. But the critical issue is why Aristotle felt the need to postulate such an entity. It does not appear as if this entity is the First Cause—a cause that is itself uncaused, lest there be an infinite regress of causation. Since Aristotle has explicitly declared the universe, motion, and also time to be eternal, he did not seem to require a First Cause, at least in a temporal sense. Randall asserts that the unmoved mover is really “an arche, a principle of intelligibility, a ‘reason why.’”[4]

And yet, from another perspective it does seem that Aristotle’s postulation of the unmoved mover has much to do with his notions of causation. In other parts of the Metaphysics he advocates a fourfold breakdown of causation, as follows: 1) the formal cause; 2) the material cause; 3) the efficient cause; and 4) the final cause. In the case of, say, a statue, the formal cause is the statue itself; the material cause is the marble out of which it is made; the efficient cause is the agent that made the statue (i.e., the sculptor); and the final cause is the end or purpose for which the statue is made.

In Aristotle’s resolutely teleological mind-set, the final cause is far and away the most significant. Even if the unmoved mover is not conceived as a person in the manner of a sculptor, it is nonetheless a “final cause” by virtue of its being “the object of desire”: “The first mover, then, of necessity exists; and in so far as it is necessary, it is good, and in this sense a first principle” (1072a–b).

What then are we to make of a passage, later in the Metaphysics, that asserts the existence of as many as fifty-five unmoved movers (1074a)? It appears that this conclusion was reached as Aristotle digested the findings of the mathematician Eudoxus of Cnidos (390?–340?), who devised a mathematical system for accounting for the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies by means of a series of concentric spheres. Whether we are to regard the initial unmoved mover—the one responsible for the motion of the “first heavens” (protos ouranos), i.e., the sphere containing the fixed stars—as a kind of primus inter pares among the other unmoved movers is unclear.

And how this unmoved mover relates to God is also unclear. Aristotle’s valorisation of intellection (recall the memorable first sentence of the Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know”) has, as we have seen, already led to his assertion of a divine and immortal mind in (some) human beings; and so Aristotle concludes:

If, then, God is always in that good state [i.e., the state of thinking] in which we sometimes are, this compels our wonder; and if in a better this compels it yet more. And God is in a better state. And life also belongs to God; for the actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality; and God’s essential actuality is life most good and eternal. We say therefore that God is a living being, eternal, most good, so that life and duration continuous and eternal belong to God; for this is God. (1072b)

I am not at all sure that this passage is intelligible—or, at any rate, that it truly has any bearing on the rest of Aristotle’s metaphysics. This God does not actually seem to figure significantly in the rest of his philosophy, and may once more be in some sense a nod to his mentor Plato. Elsewhere he declares that all these matters, being not easily amenable to the gathering of information in the manner he generally prefers (i.e., through the senses), are filled with obscurity:

Of these beings that are works of nature there are two kinds; those that are ungenerated and indestructible throughout all ages, and those that partake of genesis and destruction. The former are of the highest worth and are divine, but they are less open to knowledge. The evidence that might throw light on them and on all the things we long to know about them is given but scantily through the senses. (De Partibus Animalium 644b)

True enough! But it did not prevent Aristotle from making blandly dogmatic statements that are in themselves baffling and that are not easy to reconcile with the rest of his philosophical enterprise.

Aristotle’s entire theology seems to be the result of a series of deductions—rather than of an accumulation of data, which, by the very nature of things, would seem to be impossible—based upon his own theories of causation, of desire, and of what “ought” to exist if the universe is to be intelligible. But even a single flaw in his reasoning would be sufficient to cause this entire theoretical edifice to come crashing down—and, on a charitable assessment, it must be said that there are any number of flaws in his reasoning all apart from the purely abstract and evidence-free nature of his speculations.

A brief aside can be made on Aristotle’s view of the role of (conventional) religion in society. Here we turn to a notorious passage in the Politics:

He [the tyrant] should always show a particular zeal in the cult of the gods. Men are less afraid of being treated unjustly by a ruler, when they think that he is god-fearing and pays some regard to the gods; and they are less ready to conspire against him, if they feel that the gods themsevles are his friends. At the same time, the tyrant should show his zeal without falling into folly. (1314b–15a)[5]

Before one concludes that this is an appallingly Machiavellian suggestion, some context is needed. In his relentlessly empirical fashion when dealing with the subject, Aristotle is well aware that tyrants do exist in the Greek world; and he is merely advising how such a figure can best rule his domain. Aristotle makes analogous suggestions relating to the maintenance of traditional worship in regard to oligarchies (1322b) and to his ideal commonwealth, a fusion of aristocracy and democracy (1331a).

From an atheist’s perspective, the intellectual dominance that both Plato and Aristotle exercised over the next two thousand years of Western history is a catastrophe of the first order. Perhaps such dominance was inevitable with the political triumph of Christianity in the early fourth century C.E., but the obscurity into which their predecessors, contemporaries, and successors fell until at least the sixteenth century remains a tragedy of human thought. It may be true that Aristotle himself was not responsible for the superstitious reverence with which his work was regarded from the later Middle Ages onward, including such of his views as the doctrine of the four elements, the rejection of the Atomists’ void (leading to the doctrine of the impossibility of actio in distans), and the rejection of any sort of evolution of individual species; but the long centuries during which Plato and Aristotle were both regarded as animae naturaliter Christianae made a departure from their doctrines a matter of heresy. In the case of Aristotle, this is particularly regrettable because he himself, when not speculating on theology or metaphysics, was a resolute empiricist who was convinced that his own conclusions would be developed or modified by subsequent research; and there is clear evidence that Christian thinkers deliberately distorted some of his views to shoehorn them into conformity with their dogmas, as we shall have occasion to discuss in later chapters. It has taken the work of many scholars over the past century or more to scrape away the Christian incrustations on his conceptions to reveal a persistently inquiring thinker who, for all that he was subject to unconscious bias on many fronts, did much to expand both the range of knowledge available in his time and to clarify the way in which knowledge should be established and organised.

[1] I use the translation of W. D. Ross.

[2] John Herman Randall, Jr., Aristotle 64.

[3] The divinity of the soul is explicitly asserted in the Nicomachean Ethics (1177b).

[4] Randall, Aristotle 135.

[5] I use the translation of Ernest Barker.