Category Archives: Aristotle

Summary of Aristotle’s Theory of Human Nature

Aristotle: The Ideal of Human Fulfillment

(This is a summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Twelve Theories of Human Nature. Brackets indicate my comments.)

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was a student of Plato’s and the tutor of Alexander the Great. Aristotle’s background in biological subjects made him more of an empiricist [truth discovered primarily by the senses] as compared to the mathematician Plato’s rationalism [truth discovered primarily by reason.] Aristotle attended Plato’s academy but founded his own school, the Lyceum, later in his life. [Both schools would exist, in some cases off and on, for between 500 and almost 1000 years.]

Aristotle wrote on an amazing range of topics including: logic, metaphysics, physics, epistemology, astronomy, meteorology, biology, psychology, ethics, politics, law, and poetics. [We can say that Aristotle influenced more subjects for a longer period of time than any thinker in the history. His scientific ideas were orthodoxy for 2000 years, his logic is still used, and his influence in many areas of philosophy is still felt. For our purposes we will focus on the Nicomachean Ethics, based on lecture notes taken by his students.

Metaphysical Background: Forms as Properties, and the Four Kinds of Question – Aristotle is not a classical theist like Augustine or Aquinas, but he does have a conception of an unmoved mover, a changeless cause/sustainer of the processes of the universe. Again this is not a personal god who cares about human beings or is the object of worship. [It is more like a power or energy that keeps things in motion by attracting them toward it.]

Aristotle rejects Plato’s belief in independently existing forms. There is something common to things that share a concept x, but that essence/form/pattern/structure is embedded in thing itself. We don’t need to escape from a cave, but see clearly what is in it. [Everything is a composite of form and matter. The form is the pattern or structure of a thing and the matter is what makes something an individual thing. Everything in the world is a formed matter; that is matter in a certain form. You never find matter without form—which would be like a primordial goo—and you never find form without matter—with the exception of the unmoved mover. Some forms are very primitive—a brick is basically just the shape of heated clay—while others are very complicated—like that of a human being.]

But in what sense is the essence of catness shared by all cats? Is this form a thing or a quality? Does a given form like health or goodness apply to all healthy or good things? Aristotle thought not. You can be healthy or good in different ways so he doubted that there was a unitary form of goodness. Pleasure, honor, and wisdom may all be good, but they are good in different ways hence there is no single form of goodness.

Another way of understanding his metaphysics is to consider the 4 causes, four questions we can ask about a thing in order to understand it: 1) material cause—what something is made of? 2) formal cause—what kind of thing is it? 3) efficient cause—what caused it to exist? And 4) final cause—what is its purpose or function? [This works well to understand human artifacts like statues or books, but the idea of a final cause is harder to determine for people, much less for inanimate objects. Aristotle is expressing a teleological view of reality—the idea that nature is goal-oriented. [This view has been undermined and rejected by modern science.] But Aristotle’s analytic nature laid the groundwork for the analysis prevalent in modern philosophy.]

Theory of Human Nature: The Soul as a Set of Faculties, Including Rationality – Plato was a dualist who believed that we are composed of two substances, a material body and immaterial mind. Aristotle rejects this. [No wonder his views were so much harder to reconcile with Christianity than Plato’s.] As a biologist, Aristotle recognized that living things include plants as well as human and non-human animals. [He says that plants have a vegetative structure (a way of functioning) which is primarily about taking in nutrients, reproducing, and the like. Non-human animals have this structure plus a sensitive structure which uses senses to interact with the environment and initiates desires. Human animals add to this a rational structure which makes them unique.] Each different thing then has a different structure or form. This is its formal cause in his language. Thus some things have a richer or more complex form than other things.

Thus the form of something does not exist independently; it is not an entity in itself. Rather it is the specific pattern or structure or form of a thing which defines how it exists and functions. [It is different to be structured as a rock, tree, dog, or human.] Thus for Aristotle it makes no sense to talk of a soul or mind without a body, for the essence of a person is embedded and intertwined with their matter. You can’t take it out of the body. [And to think Roman Catholic natural law theory is Aristotelian through and through.]

The only exception is that divine intellectual functioning may take place without a body. Yet it is hard to see how this could be the case. For example even if computers think without bodies their thought still depends on material components. Disembodied thought is conceptually problematic, although many Christians and Islamists who followed Aristotle welcomed the possibility. As for ordinary embodied human beings Aristotle’s major distinction is between their rational component and their emotions and desires. He also distinguished between theoretical and practical reasoning.

Aristotle also held that humans are social and political creatures who have activities common to all.  He also thought that we can only reach our full development in societies. However he does not think that women are rational creatures, and his remarks are quite disparaging toward them. Perhaps worst of all, Aristotle advocated a doctrine of natural slavery—the idea that some are naturally slaves. He thinks this is the status of non-Greek barbarians. Still we should not reject the rest of Aristotle’s thought because he was a misogynist, racist, and imperialist. [Aristotle’s doctrine of natural slavery heavily influenced the Catholic Spanish conquerors of the new world, many of whom used it to justify their horrific treatment of the people of the new world. For more see the disputations during that time, particularly those held at the University of Salamanca.]

Ideal and Diagnosis – Rather than diagnosing a flaw in human nature and proposing a remedy, Aristotle gives us an account of the end, purpose or meaning of life and how one might achieve it. Rather than offer an otherworldly account of salvation, he offers one for this world—one more akin to Confucianism or Buddhism.

Aristotle begins by asking if there is one thing at which all action aims; if there is one thing all action seeks for its own sake. Aristotle says that eudaimonia is that thing. This is variously translated as happiness, flourishing, well-being, living well, fulfillment, perfection, and more. In his own words “the human good turns out to be activity in the soul [mind] in accordance with excellence.” In other words the good life is activity that involves rationality and embodying excellence over an entire lifetime.

Anything, even inanimate things, can function excellently. A good pen or a good dog functions as they are supposed to. Humans have both excellences of intellect—theoretical and practical reason—and excellences of character—virtues (excellences) like practical wisdom, knowing what to do in real-life situations by having learned from experience, as well as temperance, courage, and justice. In general he presents these virtues as “the mean between the extremes.” A life of virtue (excellences of character) is the ideal for human life. [Like Plato he emphasizes moral and intellectual virtue.]

In contrast to the state of virtue [knowing, wanting, and doing the right thing] stand brutishness (vice) [which is to not know, want, or do the good]; badness (incontinence) [which is to not want or do the good, although one may know it] and lack of self-control (continence) [which it to not do the good, although one may want and know it. Unlike Socrates, who thought knowledge was sufficient for virtue (KSV) and Plato, who recognized inner conflict, Aristotle recognized how weakness of will implies that KSV is false. Knowing the good doesn’t mean one will do it.

Realization or Prescription: Political Expertise and Intellectual Contemplation – A key is that vice and virtue result from habits, which themselves are the result of past actions and environment, including the social and political environment. [Aristotle says that political science is the science which studies the good for humans.] This leads us to Aristotle’s conception of government and society. In brief Aristotle believed that societies can only survive and flourish if there is some basic agreement about issues of private morality. [The founders of the USA thought that individual moral and religious pluralism was allowable, as long as the public, secular good took precedence.]

In thinking about the ideal life, Aristotle contrasts lives of pleasure, honor, and intellectual reflection. Not surprisingly he felt the latter was superior. He thought that intellectual contemplation was the highest and best human activity. [Plato argued that intellectual pleasures are better than physical ones. He says you can confirm this by asking anyone who has experienced both types, and they will prefer intellectual pleasures.] But Aristotle doesn’t seem to account for how much one’s station in life affects their ability to live well.

On Living Well

Some interesting conversations yesterday caused me to think again about what makes a good life—specifically the role played by personal relationships and productive work. Some seemed to think productive, meaningful work was more important; others that relationships with family and friends were more important. I would say both are part of a good life, thus we should not mistake either as the whole of the good life.

This was exactly Aristotle’ position—we should not mistake a part of what makes life good with all of what makes it good. He thought that the good life consists in the possession, over the course of a lifetime, of all those things that are really good for us. What is really good for human beings corresponds to natural needs they all share. So what are the real goods that a person should obtain in order to live well? According to Aristotle they are:

1) bodily goods – health, vitality, vigor, and pleasure;
2) external goods (wealth) – food, drink, shelter, clothing, and sleep; and
3) goods of the soul – knowledge, skill, love, friendship, aesthetic enjoyment, self-esteem, and honor.

The items on this list, or something like them, are referred to as “universal human goods.” But again it is a not a question of which good is the most important (the “summum bonum” or highest good), but that they are all important (the “totum bonum” or whole of the goods.) We error if we mistake a part of what’s good for the whole of what’s good.

Look again at the list to see why. Suppose I think only bodily goods are important. I do nothing but jog or lift weights all day,  developing my body but not my mind, thereby missing the knowledge that is crucial to a good life. Or suppose I do nothing but accumulate wealth. I may have multiple cars, homes, and bank accounts, but I may have no friends. Again I have mistaken a good, wealth, for the whole of the goods. Consider the miser, asked Aristotle, who had wealth but no friends. Would we call him happy? In either case the same mistake has been made, confusing the part for the whole.

Even specific goods of the soul are susceptible to this analysis. Aristotle thought that knowledge and friendship are unlimited good—we cannot have to much of them—but we can still mistake one of them for the all of what is good for us. If I am the world’s greatest mathematician but have no friends or family, I do not live as well as I would otherwise. If I am a loving person but know nothing, I would live better if I were more knowledgeable.

The important point is the role that moderation plays in a good life. As Aristotle said, excellence is the mean between the extremes. Doing good work for the world, sacrificing for your family, or being a great scholar are all wonderful things to do, but they are part of living well, not the whole of a good life. Again, the good life consists in the possession, over the course of a lifetime, of all those things that are really good for us.

I always thought this was sound advice.

Aristotle, Robots, and a New Economic System

(This article was republished in Humanity+ Magazine, April 11, 2014)

My post of March 31, 2014 discussed the role that technology plays in both eliminating jobs and increasing income inequality. That post mentioned Jaron Lanier, whose recent book “Who Owns the Future?” touches on this topic. Early in that book Lanier quotes from Aristotle’s Politics:

If every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which, says the poet, “of their own accord entered the assembly of the Gods;”if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.

Aristotle saw that the human condition largely depends on what machines can and cannot do; moreover, we can imagine that machines will do much more. If machines did more of our work, everyone, even slaves, would be freer. How then would Aristotle respond to today’s technology? Would he advocate for a new economic system that met the basic needs of everyone, including those who no longer needed to work; or would he try to eliminate those who didn’t own the machines that run society? 

Surely this question has a modern ring. If, as Lanier suggests, only those close to the computers that run society have good incomes, then what happens to the rest of us? What happens to the steel mill and auto factory workers, to the butchers and bank tellers, and, increasingly, to the accountants, professors, lawyers, engineers, and physicians when artificial intelligence improves? (Lanier discusses how this will come about in his book.) 

Lanier worries that automata, especially AI and robotics, create a situation where we don’t have to pay others. Why pay for maid service if you have a robotic maid, or for software engineers if computers are self-programming? Aristotle used music to illustrate the point. He said that it was terrible to enslave people to make music (playing instruments in his time was undesirable and labor intensive) but we need music so someone must be enslaved. If we had machines to make music or could get by without it, that would be better. Music was an interesting choice because now so many want to play it for a living, although almost no one makes money for their music through internet publicity. People may be followed online for their music or their blog, but they rarely get paid for it.

So what do we do? Should we eliminate the apparently unnecessary people, so we no longer have to deal with them? (Remember that virtually all of us will become unnecessary in the near future!) Should we retire to the country or the gated community where our apparent safety is purchased by the empire’s military outposts and their paid mercenaries around the world? Where the first victims of society sleep on street corners, populate our prisons, endure unemployment, or involuntarily join our voluntary armies?(Remember all you accountants, attorneys, professors and software engineers, this world is coming for you too!) Or should we recognize how we benefit from each other, from our diverse temperaments and talents, from the safety and sustenance we achieve in numbers?

So a question we now face is this: what happens to the extra people, almost all of us, when technology does all the work or one is unpaid for the work that the machines cannot do? Are the rest of us killed or slowly starve? Surprisingly Lanier thinks these questions are misplaced. After all human intelligence and human data drives the machines. Rather the issue is how we think about the work that machines can’t do.

I think that Lanier is on to something. We can think of the non-automated work as anything from essential to frivolous. If we think of it as frivolous, then so too are the people that produce it. If we don’t care about human expression in art, literature, music, sport or philosophy, then why care about the people that produce it.

But even if machines write better music or poetry or blogs about the meaning of life, we could still value human generated effort. Even if machines did all of society’s work we could still share the wealth with people who wanted to think and write and play music. Perhaps people just enjoy these activities. No human being plays chess as well as the best supercomputers, but people still enjoy playing chess; I don’t play golf as good as Tiger Woods,  but I still enjoy it.

I’ll go further. Suppose someone wants to sit on the beach, surf, ski, golf, smoke marijuana, watch TV, or collect coins. What do I care? Perhaps a society comprised of contented people doing what they wanted would be better than one informed by the Protestant work ethic. A society of stoned, TV watching, skiers, golfers and surfers would probably be a happier one than we live in now. (The evidence shows that the happiest countries are those with the strongest social safety nets, the ones with the most paid holidays and generous vacation and leave policies; the Western European and Scandinavian countries.) People would still write music and books, lift weights, volunteer, and visit their grandchildren. They would not turn into drug addicts!

This is what I envision. A society where machines do all the work that humans don’t want to do; and humans would express themselves however they liked, without harming others. A society much more like Denmark and Norway, and much less like Alabama and Mississippi. Yes I believe that all persons are entitled, yes entitled, to the minimal amount it takes to live a decent human life. All of us would benefit from such an arrangement, as we all have much to contribute to each other. I’ll leave with some words inspiring words from that young, auto-didactic Californian, Eliezer Yudkowsky

There is no evil I have to accept because ‘there’s nothing I can do about it’. There is no abused child, no oppressed peasant, no starving beggar, no crack-addicted infant, no cancer patient, literally no one that I cannot look squarely in the eye. I’m working to save everybody, heal the planet, solve all the problems of the world.


Note: This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, April 11, 2014



The Gap Between Theory and Practice

Reflecting on recent columns about love, the issue of the gap between theory and practice has resurfaced. It is one thing to write or theorize about love, but quite another to practice loving. One may theorize about being moderate, courageous, just or healthy, but that is different from practicing these virtues. Similarly, one may have theoretical knowledge as to why one shouldn’t smoke cigarettes or get more exercise, but putting this theory into practice is something else indeed.

The Greek word “praxis” refers to freely engaged-in activity by which a theory, lesson or skill is practiced, embodied or realized. Aristotle held that there were 3 basic human activities: 1) theoretical, whose goal is knowing the truth; 2) productive, whose goal is making the beautiful; and 3) practical, whose goal is doing the good. Theoretical thinking pursues knowledge for its own sake; productive activity refers to humans as artisans, making clothes, homes, art, music, books and the like; practical activity concerns humans as moral and social beings trying to do the right thing and be just.

As we saw in a previous post, Aristotle thought that the idea of moral habits or virtues bridged he gap between, for instance, theoretical knowledge of love and loving action. If I know that I should be patient or loving with my spouse but have difficulty being patient or loving, Aristotle says I should practice patience or love until I they become habits. If I practice waiting patiently, as well as expressing the care, concern, and understanding characteristic of love, those actions will become second nature. 

While this is insightful, I have always thought there was a problem in his analysis. For in the same way there is a gap between knowledge and practice, there is also a gap between knowing I should have good habits and actually having those habits! Even if I know I need to practice patience or love that doesn’t guarantee I will practice them. The only answer here seems to invoke will. We just keep trying to be patient or loving and, after years of long and arduous toil, we might begin to transform ourselves.

So again we end without easy answers, but with Spinoza:

 If the way which, as I have shown, leads hither seem very difficult, it can nevertheless be found. It must indeed be difficult, since it is so seldom discovered, for if salvation lay ready to hand and could be discovered without great labour, how could it be possible that it should be neglected almost by everybody ? But all noble things are as difficult as they are rare.

Aristotle on the Good Society

In our previous post we considered the pursuit of the good or meaningful life as if it were a solitary affair. But Aristotle does not think we can live well alone—we are social creatures—and we need to consider other persons. Justice is that virtue that is concerned with the good of others, both of our friends and all the others in society. Having friends and living in a just society greatly increases our chances of having good lives.

But since all people are not friends, we need justice to bind people together in society. Justice intervenes when love or friendship fails; it determines what one person has a right to expect from another. Were it not for justice, groups might not stay together, and having a good life would become more difficult. In short, his point was that a good human life is most likely if one lives in a just society, a society with good government. And to the extent that government is not good, it will be much more difficult for an individual to have a good life. And that is why Aristotle said that political science is the most important science.

What Do Others Have a Right to Expect from Us?

That we keep our promises, tell the truth, return what we borrowed, pay our debts, do not steal, injure or kill them, interfere with their freedom, etc. In short, others have a right to expect that we not do anything that would impede their living well, anything that would interfere with their obtaining the real goods necessary for a good life. Since they need these goods to live well, that gives them a right to expect them.

While others should expect that we not interfere with them, Aristotle did not think that justice demands we act positively to help them live good lives. Love or friendship or generosity may imply that we act positively to help others, but justice does not.

Still the state should make and enforce laws that require such action, inasmuch as the existence of the good society is important for individuals trying to live good lives. The end, goal, or purpose of the good state, Aristotle says, is to promote the happiness of the individuals who compose it. It should promote their pursuit of good lives. When the state promotes the welfare of others, it is indirectly promoting their chance of living well.

What Do We Have a Right to Expect from Others and from the State?

You have a right to expect from others exactly what they have a right to expect from you—that they tell the truth, keep their promises, not kill or injure you, etc. And that is because what is really good for them is also good for you.

Furthermore, among the things we need to live well is to live in association with others. This is where the obligations of the state—what we have a right to expect—comes into play. Bad societies fail to help or actively hinder people’s abilities to live well; good societies do the reverse. Just as a family is bad to the extent it did not have concern for its children’s health; a society is bad to that extent for similar reasons. In both cases the institutions are not doing what we have a right to expect from them.

Thus some societies are better than others to the extent that they provide the condition in which their citizens to flourish. As the point of an individual life is to live well; the point of civilization is to provide the conditions where all individuals have the opportunity to flourish. While Aristotle thought government necessary and good—since humans have a difficult time living together peacefully—some governments are better than others.

To determine whether a government is good or bad Aristotle asked three basic questions: 1) Does the government serve the common good or does it serve the selfish interests of those with power? 2) Does the government rest on the power at the ruler’s disposal or does it rest on laws that have been made in such a way that the ruled have agreed to them and have had a part in making? And 3) If the government is constitutional, is that constitution just and are the laws made by that government just?

The best government is not tyrannical or despotic, and has a just constitution and just laws. Constitutional government is one of free men and equals; whereas those ruled by a despot are subjects not citizens, and those ruled by tyrants are no better off than slaves. In short, we have a right to expect to be ruled as citizens under a government to which we have given our consent and which allows us to have a voice in that government.

But even more so, we have a right to expect that the state do everything in its power to promote human flourishing, to provide the conditions under which all individuals have the opportunity to live well. While achieving moral virtue or knowledge may be largely within our power, other goods like wealth or health may be largely determined by fortune. While a good government cannot guarantee that citizens will attain moral virtue or have good lives, it can provide the condition under which this is possible, and it can help alleviate much of the injustice caused by misfortune.

Summary –  If justice prevails, we will receive what we should expect from others and they will receive what they should expect from us. And if our civilization also provides the conditions under which we can flourish, then we have an excellent chance to not only live … but live well.