GREEK PHILOSOPHY - II.
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
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
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.
The theory of Pleasure, its various kinds, and the transcendency of mental
(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
(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.
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.