Ancient History & Civilisation

3. The Philosopher

Whether through a sincere piety, or through a cautious respect for the opinions of mankind, Aristotle becomes less of a scientist and more of a metaphysician as he turns to the study of man. He defines the soul (psyche), or vital principle as “the primary entelechy of an organism”—i.e., the organism’s inherent and destined form, its urge and directon of growth. The soul is not something added to, or residing in, the body, it is coextensive with the body; it is the body itself in its “powers of self-nourishment, self-growth, and selfdecay”; it is the sum of the functions of the organism; it is to the body as vision is to the eye.183 Nevertheless, this functional aspect is basic; it is the functions that make the structures, the desires that mold the organs, the soul that forms the body: “All natural bodies are organs of the soul.”184

The soul has three grades—nutritive, sensitive, and rational. Plants share with animals and men the nutritive soul—the capacity for self-nourishment and internal growth; animals and men have in addition the sensitive soul—the capacity for sensation; the higher animals as well as men have the “passive rational” soul—the capacity for the simpler forms of intelligence; man alone has the “active rational” soul—the capacity to generalize and originate. This last is a part or emanation of that creative and rational power of the universe which is God; and as such it cannot die.187 But this immortality is impersonal; what survives is the power, not the personality; the individual is a unique and mortal compound of nutritive, sensitive, and rational faculties; he achieves immortality only relatively, through reproduction, and only impersonally, through death.*

Just as the soul is the “form” of the body, so God is the “form” or “entelechy” of the world—its inherent nature, functions, and purposes. All causes at last go back to the First Cause Uncaused, all motions to the Prime Mover Unmoved; we must assume some origin or beginning for the motion and power in the world, and this source is God. As God is the sum and source of all motion, so he is the sum and goal of all purposes in nature; he is the Final, as well as the First, Cause. Everywhere we see things moving to specific ends; the front teeth grow sharp to cut food, the molars grow flat to grind it; the eyelid winks to protect the eye, the pupil expands in the dark to let in more light; the tree sends its roots into the earth, its shoots toward the sun.189 As the tree is drawn by its inherent nature, power, and purposes toward the light, so the world is drawn by its inherent nature, power, and purposes, which are God. God is not the creator of the material world, but its energizing form; he moves it not from behind, but as an inner direction or goal, as something beloved moves the lover.190 Finally, says Aristotle, God is pure thought, rational soul, contemplating itself in the eternal forms that constitute at once the essence of the world, and God.

The purpose of art, like that of metaphysics, is to capture the essential form of things. It is an imitation or representation of life,191 but no mechanical copy; that which it imitates is the soul of the matter, not the body or matter itself; and through this intuition and mirroring of essence even the representation of an ugly object may be beautiful. Beauty is unity, the co-operation and symmetry of the parts in a whole. In drama this unity is primarily a unity of action; the plot must concern itself with one action chiefly, and may admit other actions only to advance or illuminate this central tale. If the work is to be of high excellence the action must be noble or heroic. “Tragedy,” says Aristotle’s celebrated definition, “is a representation of an action that is heroic and complete and of a certain magnitude, by means of language enriched with all kinds of ornament . . . it represents men in action, and does not use narrative; and through pity and fear it brings relief to these and similar emotions.”192 By arousing our profoundest feelings, and then quieting them through a subsiding denouement, the tragic drama offers us a harmless and yet soul-deepening expression of emotions that might otherwise accumulate to neurosis or violence; it shows us pains and sorrows more awful than our own, and sends us home discharged and cleansed. In general there is a pleasure in contemplating any work of true art; and it is the mark of a civilization to provide the soul with works worthy of such contemplation. For “nature requires not only that we should be properly employed, but that we should be able to enjoy our leisure in an honorable way.”193

What, then, is the good life? Aristotle answers, with frank simplicity, that it is the happy life; and he proposes to consider, in his Ethics,* not (like Plato) how to make men good, but how to make them happy. All other things than happiness, he thinks, are sought with some other end in view; happiness alone is sought for its own sake.194 Certain things are necessary to lasting happiness: good birth, good health, good looks, good luck, good reputation, good friends, good money, and goodness.195 “No man can be happy who is absolutely ugly.”196 “As for those who say that he who is being tortured on the wheel, or falls into great misfortunes, is happy provided only he be good, they talk nonsense.”197 Aristotle quotes, with a candor rare in philosophers, the answer of Simonides to Hieron’s wife, who had asked whether it was better to be wise or to be rich: “Rich, for we see the wise spending their time at the doors of the rich.”198 But wealth is merely means; it does not of itself satisfy anyone but the miser; and since it is relative, it seldom satisfies a man long. The secret of happiness is action, the exercise of energy in a way suited to a man’s nature and circumstances. Virtue is a practical wisdom, an intelligent appraisal of one’s own good.199 Usually it is a golden mean between two extremes; intelligence is needed to find the mean, and self-control (enkrateia, inner strength) to practice it. “He who is angry at what and with whom he ought,” says a typically Aristotelian sentence, “and further, in right manner and time, and for a proper length of time, is praised.”200 Virtue is not an act but a habit of doing the right thing. At first it has to be enforced by discipline, since the young cannot judge wisely in these matters; in time that which was the result of compulsion becomes a habit, “a second nature,” and almost as pleasant as desire.

Aristotle concludes, quite contrary to his initial placing of happiness in action, that the best life is the life of thought. For thought is the mark or special excellence of man, and “the proper work of man is a working of the soul in accordance with reason.”201 “The most fortunate of men is he who combines a measure of prosperity with scholarship, research, or contemplation; such a man comes closest to the life of the gods.”202 “Those who wish for an independent pleasure should seek it in philosophy, for all other pleasures need the assistance of men.”203

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