Study Guide

Aristotle Quotes

"A difficulty presents itself: why should not nature work, not for the sake of something, nor because it is better so, but just as the sky rains, not in order to make the corn grow, but of necessity? …If a man's crop is spoiled on the threshing-floor, the rain did not fall for the sake of this-in order that the crop might be spoiled-but that result just followed. Why then should it not be the same with the parts in nature?...Wherever then all the parts came about just what they would have been if they had come be for an end, such things survived, being organized spontaneously in a fitting way; whereas those which grew otherwise perished and continue to perish?... Yet it is impossible that this should be the true view. For teeth and all other natural things either invariably or normally come about in a given way; but of not one of the results of chance or spontaneity is this true. …It follows that they must be for an end; and that such things are all due to nature even the champions of the theory which is before us would agree." —From Aristotle's Physics, Book II

This is a sort of weird passage, I'll admit it. On the one hand, I'm showing how modern I can sound with my ideas. I even seem to anticipate Darwin's theory of evolution! But then I also sound a little dense, or at least very ancient in the way I go on to reject that idea. Strange, huh?

Anyway, at issue here is my teleological view of nature. This, remember, is the view that there are purposes inherent in the natural world, in both animate and inanimate objects. So I'm considering an alternative to this conception—the possibility that things happen by "necessity." Happening by necessity describes something like the modern view of the world, where everything happens in accordance with mechanical causes.

What I'm saying is that the rain may look as if it serves a purpose—as if it falls in order to water the crops. In reality, though, we know this outcome is just a happy coincidence. So couldn't it be the same way with other aspects of the natural world? Yes, it looks as if our teeth have developed a certain way because of some larger purpose. But maybe it's just a random accident and in reality those beings with teeth formed like this just happened to be more capable of surviving?

I know what you're thinking: "Keep going, Aristotle—you are on to something big with this survival of the fittest idea!" Sorry to disappoint you, but I don't see it that way. After all, if we were to accept that this is how nature operates in general, we would be saying that everything is random and that the appearance of purpose is the result of coincidences.

Why not? Well the thing about coincidences is that they happen only rarely. But when we look to nature we find patterns, regular occurrences. So these can't be the result of accidents. There just have to be purposes built into phenomena. Nature must operate teleologically.

So I'm not Charles Darwin. But it seemed like a good argument at the time.

"We have said in the Ethics what the difference is between art and science and the other kindred faculties; but the point of our present discussion is this, that all men suppose what is called Wisdom to deal with the first causes and the principles of things; so that, as has been said before, the man of experience is thought to be wiser than the possessors of any sense-perception whatever, the artist wiser than the men of experience, the masterworker than the mechanic, and the theoretical kinds of knowledge to be more of the nature of Wisdom than the productive. Clearly then Wisdom is knowledge about certain principles and causes." —From Aristotle's Metaphysics, Book I

This passage is the end of my description of how we go from bare sensation to the fullest kind of knowledge possible. And what a journey it is! We begin with bare sensation, the awareness of particular objects. The next stage is memory, the ability to assemble together a bunch of past sensations.

After that we have the stage of "experience," where we identify individual things as instances of broader concepts. From there we progress to "craft" and then finally to "science." What I call "wisdom" or "first philosophy" constitutes the highest part of the domain of science.

Look, there are all sorts of fun and interesting details in my discussion of this progression, but we're not worried about all of those right here. No, my question is this: what makes the later stages higher than the early ones? And the answer is simply that at the higher stages, we have knowledge of the causes; we can therefore explain why some phenomenon occurs.

Let's take an example. At the level of experience, say, a man has practical knowledge, but it's not organized in any fashion. The experienced man might know that when Sean came on The Bachelor he said he was looking for his "best friend"—and that Jake and Arie said the same thing.

But at the level of craft, a man knows that all people on The Bachelor will say they are looking for their best friend. The man of craft, unlike the man of experience, has knowledge of the causes of or reasons for some occurrence. He is in a position therefore to make very general statements about how things behave.

I use the same kind of thinking to show why science is the highest kind of knowledge and "wisdom" is the highest kind of science. The point is: they are able to identify the most general causes of phenomena. The more general or universal the principles, the higher the form of knowledge. Make sense?

"But as for those who posit the Ideas as causes, firstly, in seeking to grasp the causes of the things around us, they introduced others equal in number to these, as if a man who wanted to count things thought he would not be able to do it while they were few, but tried to count them when he had added to their number. For the Forms are practically equal to-or not fewer than-the things, in trying to explain which these thinkers proceeded from them to the Forms. For to each thing there answers an entity which has the same name and exists apart from the substances, and so also in the case of all other groups there is a one over many, whether the many are in this world or are eternal.

Further, of the ways in which we prove that the Forms exist, none is convincing…and from some arise Forms even of things of which we think there are no Forms. For… according to the 'one over many' argument there will be Forms even of negations, and according to the argument that there is an object for thought even when the thing has perished, there will be Forms of perishable things; for we have an image of these." —From Aristotle's Metaphysics, Book I

When I talk about "those who posit the Ideas (i.e. the forms) as causes" on whom could I be throwing shade? Hmmm, could it be…Plato? I'm too demure here to mention him by name, leading some people to think I'm only criticizing his followers. But, come on, let's not get too cute.

I'm in my attack mode here, and as you see, I can be pretty relentless—just one criticism after another. My main point, though, is that the forms don't explain anything. Look, according to Plato's "one over many argument," any time you call a group of things by the same name—whether we're talking about virtuous acts, tall things, or chairs—we have to assume the existence of a corresponding form.

But then there are going to be countless of these transcendent forms—basically one for every general term in our language. There will be the form of Virtue, the form of the Tall, the form of the Chair, the form of the Bachelor and on and on. How does that actually help us to make sense of the world?

And what of things like hair and mud, or Juan Pablo's abs—do we have to assume forms here, too? According to Plato, there is absolutely no reason not to, since we refer to such things by general terms. Apparently, there will even be eternal forms of negations things like "unjust" and "not smart," as well as things that don't even exist any more—like those flowers that used to be growing in my yard.

That's more than just a bit cray cray, wouldn't you say?

"Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these (e.g. wealth, flutes, and in general instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy." —From Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Book I

Remember how I mentioned how important the notion of teleology is in my thinking? Well, you see it again here. The end or purpose of a thing is the key. I am concerned to identify the highest good—namely, happiness (or what I call eudaimonia). Given my teleological mindset, that highest good is going to be the final end of all action.

Now it's true that all of our actions are aimed at some goal. For example, the plebeians work for the sake of money—so I've heard, anyway. But though they may love money an awful lot, even the plebes don't seek money for its own sake.

Why do they want it, then? Well, because they think it will bring them happiness. Silly fantasy, of course; one of the benefits of having grown up with a certain amount of money is that it disabuses you of such notions. (Alternatively, you could just spend a little time reading TMZ.)

Anyhow, once you start to think about it, you realize that everything we do is ultimately for the sake of happiness. Pursue careers, get married, even act virtuously—all of this, it seems, is in the end done in order to achieve happiness.

So what's the purpose of being happy? Even you brilliant Shmoopers can't answer that question, can you? That's because happiness is sought for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else. That's what makes it the highest good and the goal of all human actions. And that's why happiness is the central notion in my study of ethics.