Aristotle is one of the greatest thinkers in the history of western science and philosophy, making contributions to logic, metaphysics, mathematics, physics, biology, botany, ethics, politics, agriculture, medicine, dance and theatre. He was a student of Plato who in turn studied under Socrates. Although we do not actually possess any of Aristotle’s own writings intended for publication, we have volumes of the lecture notes he delivered for his students; through these Aristotle was to exercise his profound influence through the ages. Indeed, the medieval outlook is sometimes considered to be the “Aristotelian worldview” and St. Thomas Aquinas simply refers to Aristotle as “The Philosopher” as though there were no other.
One of Aristotle’s most influential works is the Nicomachean Ethics, where he presents a theory of happiness that is still relevant today, over 2,300 years later. The key question Aristotle seeks to answer in these lectures is “What is the ultimate purpose of human existence?” What is that end or goal for which we should direct all of our activities? Everywhere we see people seeking pleasure, wealth, and a good reputation. But while each of these has some value, none of them can occupy the place of the chief good for which humanity should aim. To be an ultimate end, an act must be self-sufficient and final, “that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else” (Nicomachean Ethics), and it must be attainable by man. Aristotle claims that nearly everyone would agree that happiness is the end which meets all these requirements. It is easy enough to see that we desire money, pleasure, and honor only because we believe that these goods will make us happy. It seems that all other goods are a means towards obtaining happiness, while happiness is always an end in itself.
According to Aristotle, happiness consists in achieving, through the course of a whole lifetime, all the goods — health, wealth, knowledge, friends, etc. — that lead to the perfection of human nature and to the enrichment of human life. This requires us to make choices, some of which may be very difficult. Often the lesser good promises immediate pleasure and is more tempting, while the greater good is painful and requires some sort of sacrifice. For example, it may be easier and more enjoyable to spend the night watching television, but you know that you will be better off if you spend it researching for your term paper. Developing a good character requires a strong effort of will to do the right thing, even in difficult situations.
Another example is the taking of drugs, which is becoming more and more of a problem in our society today. For a fairly small price, one can immediately take one’s mind off of one’s troubles and experience deep euphoria by popping an oxycontin pill or snorting some cocaine. Yet, inevitably, this short-term pleasure will lead to longer term pain. A few hours later you may feel miserable and so need to take the drug again, which leads to a never-ending spiral of need and relief. Addiction inevitably drains your funds and provides a burden to your friends and family. All of those virtues — generosity, temperance, friendship, courage, etc. — that make up the good life appear to be conspicuously absent in a life of drug use.
Aristotle introduced a theory of causality, for the first time in human thought, which brought together elements of various thinkers of his time. He reaffirmed “”becoming””, arguing that change is not an illusion but that humans actually experience nature as change. Reality is not some external given, but an experience one perceives. Humans can trust their experience; indeed, this is the only way of making sense of reality.
The emphasis on the concept of cause explains why Aristotle developed a theory of causality which is commonly known as the doctrine of the four causes. For Aristotle, a firm grasp of what a cause is, and how many kinds of causes there are, is essential for a successful investigation of the world around us.
- Matter: a change or movement’s material cause, is the aspect of the change or movement which is determined by the material that composes the moving or changing things. For a table, that might be wood; for a statue, that might be bronze or marble.
- Form: a change or movement’s formal cause, is a change or movement caused by the arrangement, shape or appearance of the thing changing or moving. Aristotle says for example that the ratio 2:1, and number in general, is the cause of the octave.
- Agent: a change or movement’s efficient or moving cause, consists of things apart from the thing being changed or moved, which interact so as to be an agency of the change or movement. For example, the efficient cause of a table is a carpenter, or a person working as one, and according to Aristotle the efficient cause of a boy is a father.
- End or purpose: a change or movement’s final cause, is that for the sake of which a thing is what it is. For a seed, it might be an adult plant. For a sailboat, it might be sailing. For a ball at the top of a ramp, it might be coming to rest at the bottom.