ARISTOTLE: PHYSICS AND METAPHYSICS

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. Plato is a mathematician. Aristotle is a natural scientist (his father was a surgeon). Plato's view is geometrical and static (recall the importance of order for Plato). Aristotle's view is biological and dynamic. In Greek, the word physis means not just "nature," but "emergent nature," "erupting nature." The image of emerging nature is best depicted in the emergence of the oak tree from the acorn. The living thing comes out of hiding, as it were; it takes shape out of an indefinite and potential source. Whereas in Plato we see the conscious forming of unformed stuff according to a master blueprint, in Aristotle we see the conscious or unconscious striving of natural beings for self-realization, self-actualization, and self-fulfillment. It is the urge for relative independence and complete life that we see in Aristotle's picture of the universe.

Question: Explain how and why a mathematician and a biologist might see the universe differently.
2. Plato uses the model of craftsmanship to explain making a life, making a city, or making a cosmos. Aristotle uses the same craftsmanship language. But, because he sees a crucial difference between living beings and artificial beings, Aristotle is aware that the model of craftmanship is not entirely adequate to explain life.
Question: Why do you suppose the model of craftsmanship might be in adequate to explain life?
3. For Aristotle, the natural is distinct from and superior to the artificial; life is more important than products. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in "Circles,": "That which builds is better than that which is built." Nature -- in this case, human nature -- is more important than, better than human products. The people who build a temple are more important than the temple itself. For Aristotle, as for most Greeks, what is by nature is always best. Techne or art (craft) imitates nature; it is not as efficient as nature. The purpose of craft is to supplement, to assist nature; it cannot replace it.
Question: How would Aristotle's view that the natural is superior to the artificial be received today?
4. For Aristotle, there is only one world, the world of the particular things we experience -- trees, horses, shoes, people, temples, etc. There is no separate world of perfect (ideal) forms. There is no ultimate heavenly blueprint of the perfect maple tree, which all imperfect maple trees imitate; nor is there an otherworldly blueprint of the perfect city or the perfect human life. We must learn how to live in private or public, not by reflecting upon a pure idea, but by observing and understanding real just (more or less just) people and cities. We do not arrange our lives in accordance with an ideal model; we live our lives in imitation of the best actual citizens we see around us. The real things that surround us -- those are what we see and attempt to understand. To know what a maple tree is in general is to look at a number of maple trees and discover what they have in common. Aristotle is an empiricist, not an idealist.
Question: From an "ethical point of view," what is gained and what is lost in Aristotle's revision of Plato?
Question: How do living "role models" differ from ideal archetypes?

5. The things or events around us are of two kinds: those things or events that are or occur by nature and those things or events that are or occur through human intervention (artificial). There is a third category that we will not deal with at this time -- the factor of chance. Nature, human beings, and chance are three basic "causes." People share customs (nomoi), humanly made institutions.

6. The polis is composed of both natural beings (human beings and domestic animals, as well as plants) and artificial beings (products, institutions, laws, language, etc.). Not only are people natural, but their being together in the city is also natural. Aristotle would say that people are by nature social, that is, they have an inclination, a tendency, to gather together. They like and need each other. On the other hand, people live together in artificial or conventional or instituted ways.

Question: Do you agree that human beings are by nature social? State and defend an alternative view.

7. Aristotle's vision of nature is biological (life-centered) and teleological (full of ends and purposes). The universe, for Aristotle, is a series of layers, from the least developed and least sophisticated beings to the most developed and most sophisticated beings. It is a hierarchy that ascends a scale from undeveloped potential matter (unformed stuff) to perfect form (God). In order to understand these layers, we have to appreciate that, for Aristotle, all the things we see around us are changing. According to Aristotle, there are four kinds of changes:

1) coming to be and passing away (birth and death)
2) increase and decrease (growth and decay)
3) alteration (change in quality -- such as change of color)
4) change of place (movement from place to place -- can be straight line or circular movement)

Change is always for Aristotle the actualization of some potential. What can be changes to (becomes) what is. What previously lacked form now possesses form (takes shape). A seed can become a plant. An acorn changes -- that is, grows to become -- an oak. A human being who can be a piano player but is not in fact a piano player, changes into a piano player. An orangutan does not have the potential to become a piano player; he cannot change into a Chopin. Certain things have certain potentials; a tulip bulb cannot become an oak tree.

Question: "Self-realization" or "self-actualization" or "realization of potential" are issues often talked about in our day. One should note that Aristotle had the idea first. Name some modern educators, psychologists, or social scientists who emphasize such themes.

8. What exists by nature? Earth, water, air, fire (the four elements), plants, animals, human beings, stars and planets, and God. Why do we say these exist by nature? Because they all have within them their own tendency to change, grow, etc. They have an innate tendency to change; they themselves strive for their own ends; they are more or less independent (depending on their grade of being). Wood cannot become a table by itself. An acorn can and does grow into an oak by itself. Plants grow by themselves; they have life. Aristotle makes this distinction: the natural has within itself (inside of itself) a cause of motion or change; the artificial has its cause of motion or change outside of itself. The inner principle of motion in living things we call soul; if something moves itself, it is besouled. Soul is an inward cause of motion. If one touches what looks like a dead twig and the twig moves, it means that the twig is alive (an insect that looks like a twig). It has a "mind of its own" (however small). It is self-determining. The layers are these:

1st) The elements (earth, water, fire, air), out of which all bodies are composed, exist and act by nature. How? According to Aristotle, each element seeks its own proper place in the universe. It has within itself a tendency to move upward or downward. Light things rise; heavy things fall. Earth seeks its natural place (the center of the earth). Fire seeks its natural place (the farthest reach of the heavens). Insofar as things are made of natural elements, they retain the natural tendencies of the basic elements. This book can fall by itself. It doesn't need me to help it fall. Smoke rises by itself; that is its nature. It doesn't need me to lift it. For Aristotle, motion upward and downward is not due to an external force (such as gravitation); it is due to the innate tendency of the elements themselves. If unmixed and unimpeded, all fire and air would move upward, and all water and earth would attain their natural place below.

2nd) Plants grow by themselves. They have the powers of nutrition, growth, and reproduction. Because they are made up of elements, they retain the natural tendencies of upward and downward, but they have added tendencies. The end or goal of a plant is not a place, but a form. What plants strive for, what they tend to maintain, reach, and reproduce is the form of their species. The end of the acorn is the form of the oak. The miracle is that the oak can reproduce its own form by itself. Joyce Kilmer wrote: "Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree." As far as Aristotle is concerned, trees are not made by any craftsman or creator. Trees make trees. They can do it on their own.

3rd) Each stage or layer incorporates the others. Plants can be heavy or light; they are formed from material elements. But their form, their life, exceeds these elements. A living being is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts; it is "besouled." Animals incorporate the nature of the elements and the nature of plants. They too are made up of heavy and light elements (elephants fall when dropped). They too nourish themselves, grow to maturity, and reproduce. Elephants pass on the form of the elephant (I don't know where you would get a stork big enough). But they have, by nature, certain powers lacking in elements and plants. They have the power of sensation and locomotion. They can sense things at a distance, and they can move around. They are less dependent on their immediate environment than are plants. The principle or cause of this sensation or locomotion is the soul within each. Soul is an inner cause of motion or change.

4th) Human beings, like plants and animals, are made up of elements. They too nourish themselves, grow to maturity, and reproduce. They too can sense or perceive things around them and can move around. But what humans possess and animals lack is the capacity for knowledge, the power to know. Animals can experience, i.e., store memories of particulars. But only human beings can generalize -- can find the universal in the particular, can arrive at general concepts and general judgments that go beyond immediate experience. Human beings can transcend their immediate experience andimmediate perception and can, by means of science, understand what they have not directly experienced. Human beings can not only move around from place to place; they can soar above and beyond particular places by means of concepts. Human beings are less dependent on their immediate environment than are plants or animals. The rise from lower to higher species is equally an ascent to greater independence and self-reliance (we will see later that the most independent and self-reliant being is God -- who needs and knows nothing beyond himself).

5th) The sun, moon, stars, planets have a unique existence. Plants, animals, and humans are not eternal; as individuals, they come to be and pass away. What persists, what does not pass away, is the form of the species. For Aristotle, species or general forms are eternal (always were and will be), even though individuals come and go. The goal of individual plants and animals is their species. The goal of human beings includes both the maintenance of their own species and the knowledge of all species. Human beings are within the universe bodily, but strive to comprehend the universe (surround it) with their minds. It is their task to understand the whole of which they are a part. The sun, moon, and stars are eternal. Their motion is circular and does not come to an end. They are made of a special kind of fifth element that does not perish. Thus, the heavenly bodies are both superior to and inferior to human beings. Because they last, they are superior to human bodies; because they do not understand themselves and the universe as a whole, they are inferior to human minds.

6th) God is perfect form and exists unchanging beyond the farthest stars. God does not know that there is a universe beyond himself; God forever contemplates his own contemplation; he is thought turned totally inward upon itself. He does not create the universe (as Plato's demiurge), nor does he take care of it (providentially). He is not the ruler of the universe. But the universe needs him. The motion of the heavens is a perpetual imitation of God's self-reflective activity. The heavens aim at perfect form in the best way they can, by moving in a circle. Plants and animals on earth in turn depend upon the motion of the heavenly bodies (such as the sun and moon) for continued growth and reproduction. But more on this later.

9. Thus, all natural beings have natural inner inclinations, desires, tendencies for fulfillment appropriate to their own kind or species. Nature is dynamic. It is of the nature of an acorn to become an oak. It may never realize this potential; a squirrel may eat it (violence is interference with natural process). But it is not of the nature of the acorn to be eaten. It is its nature to grow. It is not the natural purpose or end of an oak to be made into tables and beds. The purpose of the oak is to survive and continue the species. Many artificial productions involve interference with the striving (life) of natural beings. This is a necessary factor of life, that one natural being achieves its purposes at the expense of other natural beings, their being frustrated and cut off from realizing their goals. Violence is the interference with the process of striving for fulfillment.

Question: According to Aristotle, plants and animals have their own purposes, apart from human affairs. These purposes are sometimes at odds with human purposes. Contrast this view to the "biblical" view that humans should have dominion over the earth and all its creatures. Discuss the effects of both views on the domain ofnon-human nature. In this light, discuss the meaning of "violence" (in Aristotle's terms).

10. All natural things seek fulfillment. They strive to live and to grow to maturity. They seek their appropriate form. The child wants to become an adult; the acorn wants to become an oak; the chick wants to become a hen. This characteristic of striving for ends is present in all natural things. The natural world is a drama of seeds coming to fruition, of potentialities being actualized, of forms reproducing themselves. Everything has an end. Human ends we call goals or purposes. All living things (with the help of their environment) have the power in themselves to realize their ends. Aristotle's universe is a universe of many different natures seeking many different ends. They do this by nature, i.e., because of an inclination or tendency (or soul).

11. The degree of life in anything is the degree to which it can bring about its own fulfillment (its degree of autonomy, self-sufficiency, or independence). The plant depends more upon its immediate environment than animal or man does. For Aristotle, anything has life to the extent that it contains its own principle of change, its own life. Life exhibits self-movement and independence.

Question: According to Aristotle, a thing is alive to the extent that it is self-moved and not moved by external causes. Does freedom mean self-determination? Is independence better than dependence? Why?
Question: In what ways are human beings dependent? In what ways are human beings independent?

12. A work of art or craft does not have an inner impulse to change. Products come about through the activity of an external principle or cause. Beds, coats, tables do not make themselves. You cannot plant a block of marble and get a statue. Wood does not by nature become a table. Trees do not by nature become wood (wood is a concept relating to human purposes). The nature of a tree is to grow and live. Something outside of a tree causes it to become lumber and furniture.

13. Yet, even in an artificial product, natural tendencies are preserved. A bronze statue of a bird won't fly, but the nature of the bronze will make it fall. If a car rusts, is it because it is a car or because it is made of metal? If someone burns this book, it is pulp that will burn, not Aristotle's lectures.

14. For Aristotle, the natural is better than the artificial because it brings about its own completion; it has its own life. It is self-moved; it gets itself going. For Aristotle, the self-moved is better than that which is moved from without. A squirrel grows by itself. A temple needs architects and stonemasons. Yet, according to Aristotle, some natural things are more perfect than others. That which is completely self-sufficient, that which finds fulfillment in itself and does not need anything outside of itself, is most perfect. In fact, that is Aristotle's notion of God.

15. But art (craft) imitates nature. Aristotle finds in both nature and art a similar process. Natural and artificial things can all be explained according to the same principles or reasons.

16. Even animals can know that something is. They can perceive it. To really know something, according to Aristotle, is not to know that it is, but why it is. What makes things to be the way they are? What is responsible for things' being what they are? To know anything is to know its causes or reasons. The Greek word is arche, which means principle, cause, ruling element, origin, source, beginning. Another word Aristotle uses is aition. The original meaning of aition is the explanation or cause shown by a litigant in court; what a person is responsible for, answerable for. Aristotle wants to bring all things -- both natural and artificial -- to court and to make them account for themselves, to explain themselves, to tell what causes are responsible for their being what they are. The four causes are --

1) the matter (material cause) -- that out of which a thing comes to be and which persists under the new form -- what it comes from, what it is made from: i.e., the bronze of a statue, the wood of a table.
2) the form or "shape" (formal cause) -- the essence, the definition, the species of a thing. Michelangelo's David -- marble and form of David. The sprouting plant assumes the form of a jade plant.
3) the agent (mover), the moving cause of the change or becoming (efficient cause). The sculptor is the active cause of the statue. The parents are the causes of the coming-to-be of the fetus; the growing child is, in part, the "cause" of his own development.
4) the end or purpose (final cause) -- that for the sake of which anything comes about. The universe is full of ends and final causes. What is a thing for? In natural beings, formal and final causes unite in the individual. The soul is the inner active principle that seeks, moves toward realization of form.The form of the oak is both the formal and final cause of the acorn's growth.
To understand anything is to understand its matter, its form, the external or internal force that moves it, and the end to which it tends. For Aristotle, the universe is a hierarchy from matter to form, from potentiality to actuality, from beginning to end, from dependence to independence.
Question: Is this "craftsmanship language"? If a thing is "besouled," is it in some sense its own agent or moving cause? In what ways does craftsmanship language help to explain life? In what ways does craftsmanship language obscure the difference between living and artificial things? For example, what are the problems of explaining the human body in terms of a machine?

17. Ends move beings by attraction. We will see later that God moves the universe, not as an efficient cause, but as an end. The universe admires and loves the self-sufficient perfection of God. As admiration moves an admirer to do great things, perhaps without the admired even knowing that the admirer exists, so the universe moves (the fixed stars primarily) because it loves a God who does not even know the universe exists. We will see later how Christian theology used and changed this conception in order to account for creation and providence.

18. The species continue because new individuals are continually generated. But why should the whole process of generation (reproduction) not come to an end? According to Aristotle there are "particular" efficient causes and there are "universal" efficient causes. The particular efficient cause of a living being is its parent. The universal efficient cause of all coming-to-be (generation on earth) is the sun and, in a more remote sense, the moon and planets as well. The cycle of birth and death on earth continues indefinitely because of the circular movement of the shining sun (rising and setting and bringing seasonal changes), which makes life, growth, and reproduction possible.

19. The sun, moon, and planets (except the earth, which lies stationary in the center of the universe) are kept moving by the motion of the stars (in a circle about the earth). The movement of the stars is governed overall by the movement of the fixed stars (the final sphere of the heavens). Why don't the fixed stars stop moving and bring the whole process of change to a halt?

20. The fixed stars are "moved" (actually attracted by) a "mover" that "moves" without moving (unmoved mover, God). God, for Aristotle, is not an efficient cause, but a final cause (an end desired and sought by the universe). God moves the universe by being loved (without loving in return -- unrequited love on a big scale). The desire of the fixed stars for fulfillment and perfect being (perfect actuality) makes them imitate the motionless perfection of God in the only way they know how -- by moving in a circle. Movement in a circle is, in a sense, endless motion. Unlike living beings who live in a straight line (from birth to death) or inanimate beings who seek a definite place, the stars do not come to an end. Thus, the eternity of the universe includes the eternal nature of God, the heavenly bodies, the earth, the elements, and the forms of the species (species persist, whereas individual members of species come and go). At the top of the pyramid is the unchanging form of God; at the bottom is the purely indefinite "matter."

Question: Explain how one who is admired can "move" his admirer to accomplish great tasks without ever knowing that the admirer exists.

21. God does not create or rule, as Plato's demiurge (craftsman) and ruler-god (providence). In the Laws, Plato writes that anyone who denies that God takes part in particular affairs is an atheist. This is because for Plato, the best life (God, ruler, or citizen) is a life that, basking in a vision of order (idea of the good) orders the raw material of cosmos, city, and soul. For Plato, self-improvement and political improvement are intertwined.

22. Aristotle's God does not know the universe exists. He is eternally detached from particulars; he neither produces nor governs. He has no friends, needs nothing outside of himself. He is forever engaged in contemplation. His thought is self-directed to the pure act of thought. He is pure mind. If a man's mind is like a mirror, in which are reflected the myriads of forms (species) of existing things, God is a mind that mirrors only itself.

23. Consider the intellectual attitude. Suppose you back away from a particular thing in order to see it better. You see a bigger picture. Suppose you back away even farther - infinitely farther, so that particulars go completely out of view. Even general forms disappear. That would be a pure state of "objective" detachment that coils back upon itself: a mind even without concepts. Aristotle's God is the essence of intellectual detachment. The big picture - the biggest picture of all is no picture.

Question: If the best human life imitates the life of God, explain how Plato's and Aristotle's views might lead to different consequences.

24. Human beings are not gods. They have minds - and bodies. The desire for knowledge is the urge of the soul to imitate God as far as possible, i.e. by enjoying knowledge of the order of the universe. This knowledge is enjoyed for its own sake; that is, it does not aim at some end outside of itself, such as practical or political activity or any kind of production. It is knowledge for its own sake. But because humans have bodies, they have needs that can only be fulfilled in concert with other bodies in the city. The soul is the life of the body. The mind cannot pursue independent scientific contemplation without the body being nourished by agricultural and productive efforts, etc. Thus, the necessities of life must be secured - one must have leisure - in order to pursue scientific wisdom. One must pay attention to practical and political affairs insofar as these may facilitate or obstruct contemplation. If a city is at war, the philosopher-scientist will not be able to do his work.

25. God does not need friends, but human beings (as body/soul composites) need friends. Speech or dialogue with another is desirable. But the scientist can enjoy his findings alone. Knowing is superior to speaking. Teaching is speaking what one already knows (general scientific knowledge). But the happiest moment is the moment of knowing that one knows - an essentially individual occupation.

26. For Aristotle, happiness comes down to the achievement of excellence (virtue). But the excellence of the intellect or intellectual virtue (science, wisdom, etc.) is superior to the excellence of the mind/body unit or moral virtue. Knowledge of the universe is superior to knowledge of one's role in the city. Knowledge for the sake of practical or moral or productive action is inferior to theoretical knowledge. The problem of justice is a human or city problem, not a "universal" structure. Plato sees the cosmos as a large city, governed by a providential ruler, in the light of geometrical principle. Aristotle sees that the affairs of nature and human affairs are different in kind. Natural beings pursue their own ends out of a love for perfection (ultimately belonging to God). Motion is for the sake of rest; change is for the sake of unchanging form. Detached contemplation is better than political engagement.

27. Thus, in human beings we have the tension between the desirability of self-sufficient contemplation (the desire for knowledge - a private look at the entire universe) and interdependent social, moral, political life (the natural desire for company). In Aristotle we have a definite tension between private and public; individual and social; soul (and its "upward" tendency) and body (and its physical involvement - horizontally with others). The mind has both theoretical and practical tendencies. As theoretical, the mind tends upward (vertically) to be like God. As practical, the mind tends outward with the body (horizontally) toward social communion and friendship. According to Aristotle, the only one who would not need friends or city would be a beast (sub-human) or a god (superhuman). Human beings are rational animals, in whom part of reason (theoretical) soars above and beyond the city, part of reason (practical) regulates activity within the city, i.e. administers bodily affairs. Contemplation is superior to practical activity, but practical activity brings about the personal and social order without which contemplation would be impossible.

Question: Aristotle denies the existence of "ideal forms" outside of the universe, yet he seems to divorce philosophy from politics. Explain how Plato is both more "otherwordly" and "this-worldly" than Aristotle.
Question: Do modern philosophers and scientists more closely resemble Plato or Aristotle? Explain.
28. Final Fragments on God: God is actuality without potentiality, permanence without change. This is not as a state of rest or sleep, but a state of continuous "activity." And what is the only real self-sufficient activity? Obviously, God does not act as a producer, for he would then require something outside of himself. How can the perfectly self-sufficient one lack anything? God has no practical affairs for that would make him depend on something outside of himself. God is eternally self-sufficient thought thinking about thought, contemplation contemplating the act of contemplation. He has no foreign affairs, he has no political involvements. He is a hermit, an anchorite. He "moves" the cosmos by inspiring desire for his perfect actuality and activity. All natural things imitate consciously or unconsciously this perfect activity as far as the possibility of their species permits. All things do as much as they can in imitation of that which acts perfectly throughout all time. God is the eternal model, the living example of perfect activity, which all things, more or less active, imitate. He does not depend on any external goods. He is himself the perfect good. The natural world is a hierarchy of things which depend less and less on things outside of themselves. Human beings, because they too can engage in self-sufficient contemplation (at least in rare moments), share in the "joy" of divine self-sufficient thinking. Insofar as a man can withdraw from the hustle and bustle of public affairs and retire to self-sufficient contemplation, an activity which needs nothing besides itself (is even distracted and annoyed by things outside itself), he can for a moment know what it is like to be God. The only peace, the only true independence we can find is in our thoughts. All other activities need something else, are in some way dependent.
Question: What has happened to the Socratic distance between God and human beings?
29. What then is the place of human being in the Aristotelian universe? Human beings are composites of body and soul. The soul is the life (form) of the body. With human beings, as with all living beings, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The soul is life. Human souls, like animal souls, have desires for nourishment, perception, etc. But unlike animal souls, human souls possess reason. The use of reason frees humans from their immediate environment. As bodies, human beings are within an environment, are part of it. As minds, human beings can comprehend (surround) their environment. In fact, the mind can even comprehend or surround the universe (conceptually) by understanding it (scientific knowledge). But this comprehension is intellectual detachment. The more of the forest we see, the smaller each tree becomes. For Aristotle, detachment (contemplation) is enjoyable in itself. It is not for a re-attachment. Remember that for Plato detachment from the city (contemplation of the good "above ground") led to a re-attachment (returning to the cave to help others). For Aristotle, the knowledge enjoyed in detachment is not necessarily applicable to moral or political life. Knowledge of the natural universe is not necessarily relevant to ethics. For Plato, even the knowledge of the natural universe reveals greater insight into geometric order or structure, which is, Plato claims, relevant to ordering personal and social life. For Plato, a cosmic view does not escape the polis, only attends to a bigger polis (the universe). Detachment (or ascent from the cave) is for the sake of a greater responsibility for fellow citizens (in the cave). Thus, we can contrast the attachment/detachment/re-attachment structure of the ethical with the attachment/detachment structure of "knowledge for its own sake." Aristotle carries over Plato's ethical view, but makes it subordinate to scientific contemplation. The ethical or practical, very important for Aristotle, is nevertheless subservient to the intellectual and scientific.
Question: In a sense, Aristotle's God is intellectual detachment carried out to an extreme. Describe the dangers and the attractions of intellectual detachment.

Question for Discussion:

1. Discuss how the non-political pursuit of scientific knowledge has led to great technological advances as well as a divorce between scientific and ethical or practical concerns. Why are those who develop new technologies often unable or unwilling to ask ethical questions or foresee ethical consequences? Why do ordinary citizens protest possibly dangerous new technologies (such as recombinant DNA) which they are not able to understand? Give further examples of this scientific/ethical divorce.


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Copyright © 1996 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.