Whereas Socrates taught mankind the germ of a method for determining values, Aristotle broadened and deepened that method as a means to pursue knowledge in any field. Aristotle is the fountainhead of the field of logic. Among other things, he formulated the rules for deductive reasoning; identified the primary errors of reasoning, the major fallacies; and emphasized that reasoning is grounded in observable facts. Reasoning, Aristotle understood, is not rooted in myths, personal desires, or any other nonobjective consideration. As John Herman Randall, a leading Aristotle scholar, states, “He was impressed by the fact that although facts alone do not give understanding . . . facts are nevertheless far more certain than any theory.”9 As such, reasoned Aristotle, facts are the necessary starting point of any proper speculative theorizing.
Aristotle applied his method to both philosophic and biologic questions. As philosophic historian W. T. Jones writes, “Much of his [biologic] work was based on close observation of actual animals.”10 Given that several Greek philosophers tended to theorize in the absence of observational data, Jones adds, “Aristotle’s method was a healthy corrective to the over-rationalism of his philosophical predecessors, including Plato.”11 Aristotle characteristically gathered a plethora of specimens as a starting point for his inquiry. “Just as he laid the basis for his political theory by collecting and studying all available constitutions,” explains Jones, “so in biology he began by recording everything he could discover about . . . reproduction, nutrition and growth, local movement, and so on.”12
By use of such method, Aristotle made signal contributions to metaphysics, biology, ethics, esthetics, and other fields. Today, for example, he is considered along with Darwin one of the greatest biologists in history. Historian David Lindberg writes of Aristotle: “He contributed monumentally to developments in the biological sciences.”13
In his work on metaphysics, Aristotle held that all things strive to actualize their nature, and he deployed this idea in the field of ethics. For man, he argued, the best life lies in eudaimonia, often translated as “happiness,” but which actually means “flourishing.” Eudaimonia refers to an activity, rather than an emotional state. How do men flourish or lead robust, successful lives? By achieving excellence in accordance with their rational nature—in other words, by the fullest development of the distinctively human faculty, the mind.
Aristotle held that a rational being finds fulfillment in a lifelong striving for intellectual excellence, and he claimed (somewhat optimistically), “All men by nature desire to know.”14 All things, he argued, have a nature or identity, and a proper function in accordance with that nature. For man, he asked, “What can this be? Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man. . . . Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be common even to the ox, the horse, and every animal. There remains then an active life of the element that has a rational principle. . . .”15 Jonathan Barnes, an eminent Aristotle scholar, makes the point concisely: “To flourish, to make a success of life, requires engagement in intellectual pursuits.”16
Aristotle’s approach is almost entirely secular, making only the most attenuated references to divinity. His extensive and profound work in moral philosophy demonstrates that this field flourishes independent of religion. Morality is a branch of philosophy and was born in Greece, four centuries before Christianity.
According to Aristotle, reality is nature and does not include a supernatural dimension. Knowledge is gained by observation-based reasoning. Man is the rational animal. Moral excellence is the fullest development of man’s mind; the ideal political state is the one that best promotes this.17
Aristotle was Greece’s towering philosopher and greatest all-around genius, but he was hardly its sole pioneering mind. Such great minds as Euclid, Archimedes, Hippocrates, Galen, and Ptolemy contributed in epic proportions to the development of one branch or another of science. Likewise, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes composed timeless literary masterpieces. And, as for Greek sculpture, Durant best sums up the Greeks’ accomplishments as follows: Here was “strength reconciled with beauty, feeling with restraint, motion with repose, flesh and bone with mind and soul. Here . . . the passionate and turbulent Athenians, contemplating the figures of Pheidias, might see how nearly, if only in creative sculptury, men for a moment had been like gods.”18
The Greeks colonized the far reaches of the Mediterranean, traded widely, and prospered fulsomely. In Periclean Athens, they developed democratic government; in war against overwhelming odds, they defended themselves against incursions of the mighty Persian Empire and retained their liberty from foreign domination. A century and a half later, Alexander, Aristotle’s student, sought more than mere foundation of empire. In turning the tables and conquering Persia, he strove to wed the genius of Greek culture with the best elements of Eastern civilization—and, to a significant degree, succeeded.
Overall, Durant concludes, “Greece flower[ed] into the richest culture of history . . . [providing] the spectacle of the human mind liberating itself from superstition, creating new sciences, rationalizing medicine, secularizing history, and reaching unprecedented peaks in poetry and drama, philosophy . . . history, and art.”19
But not all of those who came in contact with Greece’s blossoming secular genius were enamored.
- Aristotle Versus Religion (1 of 7)
- The Greeks Give Birth to Western Civilization – Aristotle Versus Religion (2 of 7)
- The Seminal Intellectual Achievements of Aristotle – Aristotle Versus Religion (3 of 7)
- The Birth of Monotheistic Religion – Aristotle Versus Religion (4 of 7)
- Christianity’s War against the Mind – Aristotle Versus Religion (5 of 7)
- Muslims Embrace and Then Repudiate Aristotle – Aristotle Versus Religion (6 of 7)
- The Enduring Positive Legacy of Aristotle – Aristotle Versus Religion (7 of 7)
9. John Herman Randall, Aristotle (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 28.
10. Jones, “Classical Mind,” p. 233.
11. Jones, “Classical Mind,” p. 234.
12. Jones, “Classical Mind,” p. 235; Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 8–9; Sir David Ross, Aristotle, 6th ed., introduction by John Ackrill (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. xiv, 117–18.
13. David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 62–68; quote p. 68. See also, Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 87–90.
14. Aristotle, “Metaphysics,” in Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), p. 689, 980a.
15. Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethic,” in Basic Works of Aristotle, pp. 942–43, 1097b25–1098a15.
16. Barnes, Aristotle, p. 79.
17. For a brief discussion of this point in Aristotle’s political theory, see Ross, Aristotle, p. 246.
18. Durant, “Life of Greece,” pp. 326–27.
19. Durant, “Life of Greece,” p. viii.
From The Objective Standard, Vol. 9, No. 1. Andrew Bernstein holds a PhD in philosophy from the Graduate School of the City University of New York and taught philosophy for many years at SUNY Purchase. He is the author of The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic, and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire (2005); Objectivism in One Lesson: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (2008); Capitalism Unbound: The Incontestable Moral Case for Individual Rights (2010); and Capitalist Solutions (2011). Dr. Bernstein is currently writing a book, Heroes and Hero Worship, at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, and is a contributing editor of The Objective Standard.