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Introductory Paragraph

Early Ionic Natural Philosophers

The Pythagoreans

The Eleatics


Later Natural Philosophers

General Character of the First Period in the History of Greek Philosophy

The Sophist


The Followers of Socrates

The Lesser Socratics

Plato. Life. Works

Plato. Philosophy

The Disciples of Plato

The Old Academy

Aristotle: Life and works

Aristotle: Theory of Knowledge

Aristotle: Metaphysics

Aristotle: Physics

Aristotle: Psychology

Aristotle: Practical Philosophy

Aristotle: Rhetoric and Poetic

Aristotle: Sources

Aristotle: Unity of Plato and Aristotle

Aristotle: result

The Peripatetic School

Three Leading Post-Aristotelian Schools

The Stoics and Stoicism

The Epicureans and Epicureanism

The Sceptics

The Common Ground of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics

Philosophy in Rome: Eclecticism

The Later Peripatetics

The Later Academics

The Later Stoics

General Character of the Second Period

Standpoint and Schools of the Third and Latest Period of Greek Philosophy

Jewish-Alexandrian School


The Eclectic Platonist

Neo-Platonism. Plotinus

Neo-Platonism. Porphyry. Jamblichus

Neo-Platonism. Proclus




B. C. BURT (1852-1915) - Table of contents                        




§ 14 - Aristotle

Sources and Genesis of Aristotle's Philosophy

We have now to consider (briefly) the sources and genesis of the philosophy of Aristotle, and its points of contact with earlier systems. And it is well to bear in mind here that Aristotle prepared a historico-critical sketch of Greek philosophy from its beginning down to Plato (1), that frequently in various works he refers to and comments upon the doctrines of earlier thinkers, particularly, as we have seen, of his master, Plato, and that he was in mental temperament a natural, though not uncritical, conservative. It would, perhaps, be safe, then, to say, even without comparison of his doctrines with those of earlier thinkers, that there was no important doctrine of any earlier philosopher that had not passed under his critical notice, and that no leading principle of his own was discovered and adopted by him without reference, positive or negative, to the theories of those earlier speculators.


   A consideration of the sources and genesis of his philosophy and its point of contact with earlier systems involves, therefore, a glance at the principal features of the earlier Greek thought. Aristotle's logical theories appear to be, for the most part, new and original with him, and yet it is evident that they sprang out of the intellectual conditions of his age. The time was ripe for bringing out of the relative chaos of dialectic, false and legitimate, Sophistic and Socratico-Platonic, the formal order of logical system.

In metaphysics Aristotle's Being and God are in a direct line with the Being of Parmenides, the Nous of Anaxagoras, and the highest Idea of Plato, and his attempt to unite being and phenomena through the doctrine of the four causes and the conceptions of possibility and actuality is an organic continuation of the effort of most of the thinkers before him, after Parmenides and Heraclitus, to reconcile the grand ideas of these two heroes in early Greek thought. The first suggestion of the doctrine of causes must, it would seem, have come to him from his teacher or his teacher's works, e.g., the Timæus, but, judging from his point of view in his history of Greek philosophy(2), it seems not improbable that Aristotle himself regarded his doctrine of causes as substantially his own, and as the summing-up and flower of all previous Greek thought; and there seems to be no reason for denying that he was right in so doing. The theory of possibility and actuality is peculiarly Aristotelian. The first solid "putting" of the idea of a perfectly efficient, concrete, intelligent power, an actual immanent (as well as transcendent) mind must be credited to Aristotle. Possibility and actuality as organic unity is, virtually, Aristotle's formula for the universe as living, thought-determined being. In physics Aristotle deviated very widely, in one respect, from almost the whole previous course of Greek philosophy; he declared the world to be uncreated and always the same, whereas earlier thinkers, from Anaximander down, had held a doctrine either of physical evolution or of creation. This deviation finds its explanation, as we have seen, in the theory that motion, the characteristic of the phenomenal world as such, presupposes, in the last analysis, an eternal being which is the eternal cause of motion,—motion consequently having no temporal origin. The conception, also, of nature as a self-realizing end, or system of such ends, is peculiarly Aristotelian. In other respects Aristotle's theory of nature is, on the whole, that of Plato, and in minor points agrees with those of Parmenides, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras. To Plato and Aristotle alike the universe is spatially finite; it is a sphere, of which the outer portion is divine in nature, the central human and imperfect, the former through a descending series giving the law to the latter. Aristotle's definition of the elements has points in common with those of Parmenides, Heraclitus, Empedocles, and Plato. His theory of the soul, the first system of psychology, was framed after a thorough review (3) of all previous Greek theories on the subject; and it embodies and unites in a truly organic way the real aperçus, or true insights, of those theories. Here as almost everywhere else, he follows Plato more closely than he does any other thinker. Adopting substantially Plato's subdivision of the soul into parts and faculties, he yet by means of his original insight of the entelechy, or perfect realization, has made a true advance in thought, upon Plato, in the mode of viewing the soul as a substance, or real unitary being, though it must be confessed that in his negative attitude towards immortality he seems to fall far below the spirit of Plato's teaching. As regards his ethical doctrines we have already indicated sufficiently, perhaps, their relation to Socrates. (There are no ethical teachings prior to those of Socrates with which it is necessary here to compare Aristotle's.) In showing Aristotle's affinity in this respect with Plato, we cannot, perhaps, do better than borrow the words of Sir Alexander Grant. Aristotle plainly enough owes to Plato:

 "(1) The conception of moral science as a whole, —that it is a sort of politics, which is the science of human happiness.

(2) The conception of the practical chief Good, —that it is τέλειον and άυταρκές ["perfect" and "self-sufficient"] and incapable of improvement or addition.

(3) The conception that man has an έργον, or proper function, that man's άρετή perfects this, and that his well-being is inseparable from it.

(4) The conception of Psychology as a basis for morals.

(5) The doctrine of Μεσότης [the Mean], which is only a modification of the Μετριότης of Plato.

(6) The doctrine of φρόνησις, which is an adaptation, with alterations, of the Socratico-Platonic view.

(7) The theory of Pleasure, its various kinds, and the transcendency of mental pleasures.

(8) The theory of Friendship, which is suggested by questions started but not answered, in the Lysis of Plato.

(9) The Agnoiology, a theory of Ignorance, in Book XII., —to explain how men can act against what they know to be best, —which appears to have been considerably suggested by Platonic discussions.

(10) The practical conclusion of the Ethics,—that philosophy is the highest good and the greatest happiness, being an approach to the nature of the Divine Being". (4)

Aristotle's theory of the state has much less, relatively, in common with Plato's. The end of the state, as conceived by both philosophers, was, no doubt, the same, viz., the happiness or good of the whole, not of any part of the state; but Plato's preferred state was a state governed merely by wise men, Aristotle's a state governed by law (made and understood by the citizens). Each had in view a state that should have a true psychological basis, a state in which reason and not passion should rule; but Aristotle's, it would seem, is a theory which better accords with actual human nature and better provides for the natural rule of intellect over passion. Here, as elsewhere, Aristotle follows more closely than Plato the conception of the universal immanent in the particular. Aristotle's "best polity" has more kinship with Plato's "second best" state, expounded in the Laws; but Plato is as much an extremist in one way in the Laws as he is in another in the Republic (5). Finally, Aristotle (it is easy to see) attained to his conception of the state largely through a struggle with Plato's, and his divergence from Plato here seems to be but a part of that general divergence which is the result of a natural development in metaphysical standpoint. Aristotle's rhetoric, or theory of persuasion, is the first systematic philosophical theory of the subject it treats, and is mostly original. He had thoroughly sifted the Sophistic rhetoric and, instead of adopting it or any part of it, condemned it as the false art of warping the judgment. Fundamental hints for his theory are to be found, however, in the Phædrus and Gorgias of Plato. The idea that men can be really persuaded only by instrumentalities capable of reaching their moral and logical faculties and habitudes is quite Platonic; but circumstances and Plato's hatred of the Sophists having made it his business to destroy false rhetoric rattier than construct a theory of true rhetoric, it falls to Aristotle to construct such a theory, which, of course, as a thinker, if not as a stylist, he was qualified to do. To the homeliness (if we may apply the term here) of the Socratic conception of beauty and the austerity of the Platonic, there is little in Aristotle's that is akin. Aristotle would merely purify and elevate the inborn play-instinct in human nature; Plato would severely restrict feeling and imagination, which, in their union, constitute the art-instinct in human nature.


(1) See Metaphysics, Bk. I. chs. 3-9.

(2) See above, p. 3.

(3) Occupying nearly the whole of the first book of the De Anima.

(4) See Essay in Vol. I. of Grant's Ethics of Aristotle.

(5) Aristotle has without doubt come nearer to the mean that is within reach of a race of beings that naturally tends towards truth and justice. The truth would seem to be that Aristotle had an abiding sense of the substantial rightness of his conception of nature as instinct with intelligence and hence right and truth, and could afford to rely on the natural positings of the human soul.



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