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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Aristotle

Ancient Greek philosopher who lived 384-322 BCE. One of only two philosophers from that period whose works are still extensively studied today, the other being his teacher, Plato (427?-347 BCE). In fact, throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, Aristotle’s ideas, especially in the realm of political philosophy, predominated. He was born in Stagira, Ionia, so is sometimes referred to as “the Stagirite.” His father, Nicomachus, a court physician to Amyntas II, king of Macedon, died when he was just a boy and he was raised by a guardian, Proxenus, who sent him to Plato’s Academy in Athens when he was 17. After his studentship, he joined the faculty of the Academy and taught there until Plato’s death. When Plato’s nephew, Speusippus, succeeded as head of the Academy, Aristotle and several others left. During the next few years, he made zoological investigations in various places in the Grecian world. In 342 BCE he accepted an invitation to become tutor to Philip II (later called Alexander the Great) at the Macedonian court in Pella, an appointment which lasted three years and which later rather tarnished Aristotle’s reputation. After five years back in Stagira, he returned to Athens and started his own school called the Lyceum. Probably due to his habit of walking back and forth under a portico or “walking place” (peripatos) while lecturing, it was also known as the Peripatetic School. When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, Aristotle’s school was threatened with attack from anti-Macedonian forces in Athens, so he left it in charge of Theophrastus and fled to Chalcis where he died the following year at the age of 62.

Aristotle’s principal philosophic works have been characterized as lecture notes (some think they were actually made by his students) due to their generally dry, terse style. He identified them as “esoteric” works, meaning writings intended for students within his school and implying no secrecy or mystic teaching. He also wrote several “exoteric” works, meant for the general public, all of which are lost in their original although considerable portions of some of them have survived in quotations by other authors. In addition to some poetry, a few dialogues in the Platonic style which were praised for their eloquence, and a record of dramatic festivals, the most important are EudemusProtrepticusOn PhilosophyOn the Good, and On Ideas. He also preserved the constitutions of 158 Greek city-states, of which only that of Athens has survived on a papyrus discovered in 1890. His so-called “esoteric” works are classified by scholars into five general categories: logical works, works on physics, works on psychology, works on natural history, and philosophic works. He is credited with being the first philosopher to develop a system of formal logic, based on what is called the categorical syllogism. So powerful was his system that it dominated Western philosophy until the latter years of the 19th century; it is still taught in most universities to this day. But he also classified various fallacies people use when reasoning informally in his Sophistical Refutations. Most of these also survive to this day in logic textbooks. His theories about physics, especially his rejection of the heliocentric theory of the solar system, actually constitute a throw-back to ideas previously refuted by some Egyptian astronomers. Unfortunately, they dominated medieval Catholic thinking until the rise of modern science and were responsible for the condemnation of Copernicus and the death of Galileo, among other things. His other writings on natural science show remarkable observations, but have long since been outdated. It is in his philosophic works that his reputation survives.

Those major works consist of three books on ethics (Nicomachean EthicsEudemian Ethics, and Magna Moralia) still studied to this day, Politics which contains a number of very perceptive insights, Rhetoric which also has valuable advice, Poetics, and Metaphysics. Concerning the latter, it was Aristotle who gave us the term “metaphysics,” taken from the otherwise untitled book following the Physics in his canon of works. It was called there simply, “the book after the Physics,” in Greek meta ta physika, and dealt with an attempt to talk about Being abstractly. In it, he rejects Plato’s theory of Forms — conceptual realities existing independently of objects or actions — and substitutes his own theory, that abstract qualities (such as red, round, virtuous, etc.) exist inherent in the objects they qualify, not in some transcendent realm. Since theosophical philosophy asserts the existence of nonphysical realms of being, it obviously has little in common with Aristotelianism.

Some scholars believe that Aristotle’s views underwent considerable change during his life. They say that initially, he was a firm believer in Plato’s theories (found in Phaedo and Republic), as indicated in those portions of his dialogues which have survived. In his second period, from about 347 to 335 BCE, he became increasingly critical of Plato’s doctrine of Forms, as indicated in those portions of On Philosophy which have survived. And in his final period, he was moving increasingly toward what we would now consider empiricism, especially related to his scientific and medical observations. At that point, he had come to reject all of Plato’s “otherworldly metaphysics” (as G. B. Kerferd puts it in his article on Aristotle in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy). They claim that he ultimately even rejected the idea of a soul which existed separately from the body, interpreting soul to be the form of the body. That view of his writings, however, has been criticized by other scholars who are of the opinion that Aristotle had rejected Plato’s doctrines all along. Even that is not quite accurate. Although he modified Plato’s doctrine of morality, he retained its basic idea that well-being (eudaemonia) does not consist in the pursuit of pleasure, but in the pursuit of contemplation. He also gave us the idea that virtue consists in a “golden mean” between extremes, a view similar to that taught by the Buddha. And his concept of the soul was that it had a dual nature, like Plato’s, consisting of psyche and nous, the former which he considered to be immortal and the only latter to be inherent in the body.

Aristotle identified four different kinds of cause, which he considered to be basic principles of the explanation of all things: material cause (what a thing was made of), formal cause (its shape or design), efficient cause (what brought it about), and final cause (its purpose or function). With the exception of what he called “the Prime Mover” (his rather abstract notion of a Creator), he believed that the form of a thing did not have a separate existence from its matter, a view generally held by most people today. Whether or not this constitutes a rejection of Plato’s concept of Form depends on how one interprets Aristotle’s use of the word, since shape was only one kind of Platonic Form (or Idea, ίαέά), but most scholars believe it does. To Aristotle, form is inherent in matter and separable from it only in our thought. Part of his theory of causality was that the efficient cause working through form brought a potential aspect of the material into actuality. In some sense, then, the potential was the privation of the form which eventually became actualized. Change to him consists of a substance (matter) acquiring a form which it did not previously have. That led Aristotle to identify three principles involved in change: matter, privation, and form. Most scientists and philosophers today would say that “privation” is a dispensable concept and that all one needs to explain change is a rearrangement of a thing’s material constituents. Actually, theosophy disagrees with this, arguing that organizing principles (the etheric double, emotions, mind, creative intelligences, archetypal ideas) are needed as well as the mere rearrangement of matter to explain change of form, especially in biological organisms. Blavatsky interprets Aristotle’s “privation” to refer to “that which Occultists call the prototypes impressed in the Astral Light — the lowest plane and world of Anima Mundi” (SD I:59), but this does not sound like Aristotle at all.

Madame Blavatsky has very little good to say about Aristotle’s philosophy, at one point comparing it unfavorably with Indian philosophy (IU I:621). She commends his view of the soul and “the sublime morality of his Nichomachean Ethics,” but she claims that he derived the latter from “a thorough study of the Pythagoric Ethical Fragments” (IUI:320), not from his own original thought. She also claims that he accepted the decimal system of numbers, citing Metaphysics 7f. (loc. cit., vol. 2, p. 300), but also says that he misunderstood and therefore misrepresented the teachings of both Pythagoras and Plato regarding number (loc. cit., vol. 1, p. xv). She cites favorably the view that “Aristotle taught the identity between the life-principle of plants, animals, and men” (loc. cit., vol. 1, p. 503). And she commends two ideas in his de Caelo: that he recognized that the earth was spherical based on his observation of eclipses of the moon (SD I:117) and his belief that the stars and planets are not inanimate, but living, bodies (loc. cit., p. 493). The former had been proven years before by the Egyptians. The latter, of course, is an occult teaching which is quite at odds with the view of modern science. But Aristotle derived this latter concept not from a mystery teaching, but from his belief that inanimate things could not move of their own accord and also because he considered everything outside the earth to be a heavenly body. The theory of universal gravitation now undermines his reasoning. And one must remember that in that same work he also explicitly claimed that the earth is at the center of the universe, rejecting the heliocentric theory taught by “the Italian School” (de Caelo, II, 13).

But most frequently Blavatsky criticizes Aristotle’s inductive method, which has been adopted by modern scientists (actually starting with Francis Bacon), who “only creep” from particulars to universals when they could “run,” using Plato’s method of starting with universals and deducing particulars from them (IU I:7). She says, “The Aristotle-Baconian method may have its advantages, but it has undeniably already demonstrated its defects” because the true understanding of everything proceeds from “universals downwards” (SD II:153; cf. IU I:405). Whether due to Aristotle’s influence or whether it was just a coincidence, the growth of materialism and decline of spirituality, she claims, was “[a]t the time of Aristotle . . . the prevailing tendency of thought. . . . The Mysteries themselves already had degenerated in a very great degree into mere priestly speculations and religious fraud.” (IU I:15; cf. p. 135). That has pretty much been the case ever since.

R.W.B.

 

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