As we know, Plato had established an Academy, where a number of students and thinkers used to join in pursuit of higher knowledge, particularly of philosophy. Aristotle, who was born in 384 B.C. at Stagira in Thrace, came to Athens at the age of eighteen, and he remained in the Academy for nearly twenty years, until the death of Plato in 348-7 B.C. It may be remembered that Aristotle's father had inherited a position of family physician to the King of Macedonia. As a result, in 348 B.C. Aristotle became tutor to Alexander who was at that time thirteen years old. When he attained the age of sixteen, Alexander was appointed regent during his father's (Philip's) absence.
The relations of Aristotle and Alexander are difficult to ascertain. As we all know, Plato had visualized a Utopia, where the highest power would be laid in the hands of the Guardians, who would be philosophers. The ideal of a
philosopher-king has remained a dream for many great philosophers and for many rulers. It is quite likely that Aristotle wanted to see in Alexander a philosopher-king and he imparted to him a wide background of knowledge. But Alexander was highly ambitious, and although he had respect for Athenian Culture, and although he admired Aristotle, it appears that as in the field of political conquest, so in the field of knowledge, he wanted to be always superior and in fact first and supreme above all. He, therefore, expected that Aristotle should acquaint him with all the knowledge he possessed and that he should probably be the only confidant of Aristotle's new discoveries in the field of knowledge.
From 335 B.C. to 323 B.C., Aristotle lived in Athens. But it was during these twelve years during which he lived in Athens, that Aristotle founded his own school and wrote most of his books. In 323 B.C., Alexander died during his voyage of conquest. At the death of Alexander, Athenians rebelled and turned on his friends. Because of the relationship between Alexander and Aristotle, Athenians indicted Aristotle for
impiety. But Aristotle was not like Socrates, and in order to avoid punishment, he fled away from Athens. In 323 B.C., Aristotle passed away.
There is some kind of continuity in the development of philosophy starting from the tradition of the Greek mysteries. There is a ground to suggest that these mysteries were similar to those prevalent in India. There was no doubt that there was a good deal of contact between ancient India and ancient Greece, and one finds that the secrets of the Vedic knowledge and the mystical knowledge that we find in the Vedas are echoed in the Eleusianian mysteries, which were impregnated in Orphism. Orphism had certain ceremonies, which were sacraments, and they were intended to purify the soul. The Orphics had, like the Vedic and the Upanishadic Rishis, the practice of initiation by which the seekers, without distinction of race or sex, could be imparted secret knowledge. The idea of the secret knowledge, when it declined, rose again in the conception of philosophy as a way of life.
Pythagoras, who flourished about 532 B.C., established a religion, of which the main tenet
was the transmigration of souls. The school of Pythagoras represents the main current of the Eleusian mysteries, although Pythagoreans formed a movement of reforms. Pythagoras was on the side mysticism, though this mysticism had an intellectual aspect. Pythagoras thought that the soul is immortal, and that whoever comes into existence is born again in the revolutions of a certain cycle. In the society that he founded, men and women were admitted on equal terms and property was held in common. There was a common way of life. Scientific and mathematical discoveries were deemed collective. Pythagoras himself was a great mathematician, and it is well known that Pythagoras was immensely influential in the field of mathematics. It was on the basis of mathematics that thought came to be regarded as superior to the knowledge derived from senses.
Pythagoras maintained that all things are numbers. He discovered the importance of numbers in music, and the connection, which he established between music and arithmetic, survives in certain terms, which are used in
mathematics even today, such as Harmonic Mean, Harmonic Progression.
We are all aware of the greatest discovery of Pythagoras, which is taught as Pythagorean Theorem, according to which the sum of the squares on the sides adjoining the right angle in a right-angled triangle is equal to squares on the remaining side, the hypotenuse. This theorem was also known to Indians many centuries earlier, as it is found in Sulba Sutras of Indian mathematics.
It was through mathematics that the belief was generated in Greece in a super-sensible intelligible world. Geometrical numbers and figures are super-sensible, and in order to enter into the world of ideal which are super-sensible realities, one should pass through the discipline of mathematics. Greek thinkers came to maintain that numbers are eternal and they can be conceived as God's thoughts.
Pythagoras exercised a great influence on Parmenides, who we may recall, invented a form of metaphysical argument that, in one form or another, is to be found among many
metaphysicians right up to the present day.
His main teaching was related to what he called the way of truth as opposed to the way of opinions. What he says about the way of truth is, in its essential point, as follows:
“Thou canst not know what is not ─ that is impossible ─ nor utter it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.”
Parmenides had a great influence on Socrates, who developed the theory of concepts, which he employed in formulating definitions in regard to various terms that he discussed, particularly those relating to virtues and matters relating to wisdom.
Plato derived his philosophy largely from Pythagoras, Parmenides and Socrates. Plato maintained that mathematics has to be the starting point of the study of philosophy; he further maintained that mathematical numbers are super-sensible and that beyond mathematical numbers there is a realm of Ideas or Forms. Ideas or Forms can be conceived but not perceived. These Ideas are basically concepts which can be
used in defining terms, which may be related to physical objects but which are not themselves physical in character. According to Plato, Ideas are universal and supra-sensible as opposed to physical objects, which are all particular in character. Ideas, according to Plato, can be arranged in a hierarchy, so that larger Ideas subsume less large Ideas. This hierarchy is topped by a trinity of the most universal Ideas, namely, the Ideas of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. These three Ideas can further be subsumed under one supreme Idea, the Idea of the Good. The Good, according to Plato, far exceeds essence both in dignity and power. There is reason to believe that Plato conceived of God and the supreme Idea of the Good to be interchangeable.
Plato, like Pythagoras, believed in the immortality of the soul. God, according to Plato, did not create the world out of nothing but rearranged pre-existing material. He put intelligence in the soul and soul in the body. The soul, according to Plato, must strive to overcome the obstruction of the body and the physical senses, which give us no knowledge. The soul
should, therefore, develop the light of the reason which can conceive the Ideas, and the ideas which are general and universal and indivisible give us true knowledge. In fact, since the soul is immortal, it had a previous existence from which it had migrated into the body; since coming into the body and since obstructed by physical senses, it forgot the knowledge of the Ideas which it possesses inherently. When the soul returns to the Ideas by overcoming the obstructions of the physical senses, it comes back to itself -- to its own sense of immortality and it remembers the Ideas. According to Plato, true knowledge is reminiscence.
All this, in brief, can be considered to be the minimum background for understanding Aristotle.
The main difference between Plato and Aristotle lies principally in regard to theory of Ideas. As we know, Plato's theory of Ideas developed from the fact that a number of particular objects are similar to each other. One cat is similar to another cat, one chair is similar to another chair, and one bed is similar to another bed. The question is as to how these similarities can be
explained. Plato's answer is that similarity can be explained by the fact that the similar objects that we perceive are mere copies of a universal Form or universal Idea. All red objects are similar to each other in so far they are all red and that is because they are copies of the universal Ida of redness. All chairs are alike because they all partake of a universal Idea or Form of a chair or chariness; all cats are similar to each other because they partake of the universal Idea of cattiness. All ideas are universal, and they explain similarities among particular objects.
The question, however, that arose was as to how and from where particulars came into existence. Plato found it very difficult to maintain that particulars are manifestations of universals. He found the gap between the particulars and the universals so great that he could not think that particulars could have originated from the universals. According to Plato, particulars are copies of the universals but not manifestations of the universals. Universals do not consist of particulars; hence they could not have manifested from the universals. Universals, according to Plato, are not a sum of particulars,
since universals are indivisible and have no parts.
Moreover, universals are, according to Plato, real, and they alone are objects of knowledge. Particulars, on the other hand, are only partly real and partly unreal. They are real in so far as they partake of the universal, and they are unreal in so far as they are particulars and in so far as they are objects of sense perception. Sense-perception, according to Plato, does not give us knowledge; sense-perception can at best give us opinion.
From where do the particulars then originate? This is the question that remains obscure in Plato's philosophy. What one can gather from Plato's writings is that there is, apart from the realm of Ideas which exists really, there is something like Matter which does not really exist, but which can copy the universals, something on which universal Ideas are imprinted and by virtue of this imprinting, they partake of reality to some extent. These partly real and partly unreal imprints are what may be called particular objects.
But it can be seen that this answer is highly unsatisfactory, and it cannot stand the rigour of reasoning which cannot conceive of something that is at once real and unreal. In other words, Plato's philosophy can be seen as incomplete in so far as it does not give satisfactory answer to the question of the origin and sustenance of the ever-changing flux of the world of particular objects.
The starting point of Aristotle's philosophy is Aristotle's own theory of universals and particulars. According to Aristotle, a universal cannot exist by itself, but only in particular things. This is in contrast to Plato, who maintained that universals are real in themselves and that they are eternal, whether they are copied in particular things or not. According to Aristotle, a universal is not a substance. “It seems impossible”, Aristotle says, “that any universal term should be the name of a substance. For... the substance of each thing is that which is peculiar to it, which does not belong to anything else, but the universal is common, since that is called universal which is as such as to belong to more than one thing”.
According to Aristotle, universal is of such a nature that it has to be predicated of many subjects. By individual, Aristotle means that which is not thus predicated.
Let us try to understand this doctrine. There are, in our language, different kinds of words. There are proper names, and there are adjectives. The proper names apply to things or to persons, each of which is the only thing or person to which the name in question applies. Words such as France, Napoleon are unique. There are not a number of instances to which these names apply. On the other hand, words like cat, dog, man apply to many things. In addition, there are adjectives such as cattiness, dogness and human. But a particular cat is particular by itself, and it is different from another cat, and that particularity is not shared by anybody or anything else. It would be seen that adjectives depend on particulars. Adjectives do not seem to be hanging in the air but are to be found in particular objects.
This, in brief, is what Aristotle seems to suggest. And at this point, it may be argued that although
qualities which are designated by the words that we call adjectives, cannot exist without some subject, but they can exist without this or that subject; similarly a subject or a noun word or a proper name cannot exist without some quality, but can exist without this or that quality.
In fact, we find that Aristotle does not succeed in pointing out that universals must depend on particulars. In reality, the question of universals and particulars and the relationship has been a matter of continuous debate, and we shall require a larger ground to arrive at any satisfactory answer, and this can be done at a later stage.
There are three terms in the philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle regarding which greater precision is needed, and yet that precision is difficult to arrive at. These terms are: "Ideas", "Forms", and "Universals". It appears that in the Platonic philosophy, these three terms are interchangeable, but in the philosophy of Aristotle, it appears that they are not interchangeable. This is mainly because Aristotle is critical of Plato's theory of Ideas. One of the important criticisms that Aristotle advances
against Plato's theory of Ideas is that of the ‘third man’. The argument runs as follows:
“If two men resemble because they resemble the ideal man, there must be still a third man, a more ideal man similar to both ordinary man and the ideal man.”
Another argument of Aristotle can be summed up as follows:
“Socrates is both a man and an animal, and the question arises whether the ideal man is an ideal animal also; if he is, there must be as many ideal animals as there are species of animals.”
This appears rather strange and even impossible.
Aristotle points out that when a number of individuals share one common quality that cannot be the cause of their relation to something of the same kind as themselves, but more ideal.
In addition, Aristotle advances a number of other arguments, most of which were already found in Plato's own dialogue, ‘Parmenides’. From these arguments, Aristotle attempted to show that there are no Ideas independent of individuals,
even when they resemble each other; the common qualities that similar individuals possess among themselves are simply universals, which exist or persist only in individual things. And whereas individual things exist, universal qualities cannot exist independently of individual things.
It appears that the final outcome is the unsustainability of the theory of Ideas and to suggest that there are no such things as Ideas but universals, and that universals do not have any inherent existence, independent of individual things.
On the other hand, as we have seen above, this theory of Universals is not satisfactory, and this theory does not succeed in proving that universals cannot exist independent of individual things.
The philosophical position of Aristotle, however, becomes more complex when he introduces another important term in his philosophy, namely, ‘Essence’. Usually, the word ‘Essence’ is synonymous with ‘Universals’, but according to Aristotle, the words ‘Essence’ and ‘Universals’ are not interchangeable. According to him, ‘Essence’ is what you are by nature. In other
words, essence is one of your properties which you cannot lose without ceasing to be yourself. Thus essence is what makes an individual thing individual and what makes a species a particular species. But at this point, a question would arise: If the essence of species is what makes species specific, does that essence not exist in all the members of the species? In that sense, is essence not universal? Thus it would seem that the word essence and the word universal should be interchangeable. In this way, we can say that Aristotle's dealing with this term essence lacks precision.
Again, the complexity of Aristotle's metaphysics becomes more complex when we come to the distinction that he makes between ‘Form’ and ‘Matter’. To understand this distinction, we may take an example of a marble statue. Here marble is the matter, while the shape conferred by the sculptor is the form. If a man makes a bronze sphere, then Aristotle points out that bronze is the matter and sphericity is the form. Another example that has been given is that of a calm sea. Here water is the matter, and smoothness is the form.
According to Aristotle, it is in virtue of the form that matter is some definite thing, and this is the substance of the thing.
What does this mean? Let us look at a thing, it is normally bounded, and the boundary may be regarded as its form. A statue may be regarded as a thing, and the marble of which it is composed is matter; but marble that is matter becomes a thing only when a form is carved out of the marble so as to make it a statue.
Aristotle goes farther and points out that the soul is the form of the body. It is here that it becomes clear that ‘Form’ does not mean ‘shape’. According to Aristotle, it is the soul that makes the body one thing, having unity of purpose, and the characteristics that we assign to the word organism. To illustrate the matter further, it is pointed out that the purpose of an eye is to see but it cannot see when parted form its body. In fact, it is the soul that sees.
What do we arrive at? It appears that ‘Form’ is what gives unity to a portion of matter. And unity can be understood in terms of a purpose. To use a technical phrase, it can be said that according
to Aristotle, ‘Form’ is to be understood as that which confers unity, and unity is teleological. Aristotle goes farther. The form of a thing is its essence and primary substance. Forms are substantial, although universals are not. But having said this, when we take an example, the situation seems to be more puzzling. When a man makes a brazen sphere, both the matter and form already existed, and all that he does is to bring them together; the man does not make the form just as he does not produce brass. But from where does form originate? According to Aristotle, there are eternal things and these have no matter, except those of them that are movable in space. Things increase in actuality by acquiring form; matter without form is only a potentiality.
In this view, forms exist independently of the matter in which they are imprinted in exemplified manner.
It will be at once seen that Aristotle seems to return here to the Platonic theory of ‘Forms’ or ‘Ideas’. Aristotle tried to reject the reality of Ideas, but he could not reject the reality of forms.
By his own argumentation, he was obliged to speak of forms as existing independently, and there does not seem to be any ground for Aristotle's rejection of what Plato had conceived of ‘Ideas’. According to Plato, ‘Ideas’ and ‘Forms’ are interchangeable, and Aristotle's account of Forms also seems to suggest that ‘Forms’ are ‘Ideas’. It is true that Aristotle tries to suggest that a Form is quite different from a universal, but this attempt is hardly successful. According to Aristotle, Forms are more real than matter, and this reminds us of Plato's view of real reality of the Ideas. Aristotle's view that Form is identical with Essence and that Form is more real than Matter leads us to the conclusion that Forms are universal in character. Thus we come once again to Platonic view that Forms, Ideas and Universals are interchangeable. It appears that although Aristotle wanted to depart from Plato, he could not eventually succeed in doing so.
Parallel to distinction between Matter and Forms in the philosophy of Aristotle is a distinction between potentiality and actuality. Matter is, according to Aristotle, a potentiality; it is a
potentiality of form, when matter assumes form, it becomes more actual. If we consider things of the world in a kind of hierarchy, things which have greater forms, are more actual, and at the highest point we arrive at that which is pure form, having no matter. Pure form is thus pure actuality.
According to Aristotle, God is pure form and pure actuality; in Him, therefore, there can be no change. The universe and everything in it is in a state of potentiality in varying degrees of actuality; hence, everything continues to change to attain greater and greater form; everything in the world is thus going towards pure form and therefore, towards God.
This brings us to Aristotle's theory of God.
According to Aristotle, there are three kinds of substances: those that are insensible and perishable, those that are sensible and perishable, and those that are neither sensible nor perishable. The first class includes plants and animals, the second includes the heavenly bodies, which according to Aristotle undergo no change except in respect of motion, and the
third, includes the rational soul in man and also God.
Aristotle points out that there must be something which originates motion, and this something must itself be unmoved, and must be eternal, must itself be substance, and must be actual.
The object of desire and the object of thought, according to Aristotle, cause movement, without themselves being in motion.
Thus God produces motion by being loved, whereas every other cause of motion works by its being in motion.
God is the first cause; He is the unmoved mover of things.
God is pure form, and pure form is pure thought, for thought is what is best. Life belongs to God; for the actuality of thought is life and God is that actuality.
God is actuality, and that means that God exists. And since God is unmoved mover, He is self-dependent, and His life is good and eternal.
God is thus a living being, eternal, most good,
so that life and duration continue to be eternal and belong to God. This is God. This is what Aristotle states:
“It is clear then from what has been said that there is a substance which is eternal and unmovable and separate from sensible things. It has been shown that this substance cannot have any magnitude, but is without parts and indivisible... But it has also been shown that it is impassive and unalterable; for all the other changes are posterior to change of place.”
Aristotle goes farther and points out that the perfection of God consists in his thinking of what is perfect. And what is perfect is God Himself. To use his own statement: “It must of itself that the divine thought thinks (since it is most excellent of things), and its thinking is of thinking on thinking.”
In order to discuss the concept of God, we would require the study of the entire world-history of philosophy, religion and spirituality. And we cannot venture upon this task in this brief note on Aristotle. But if one wishes to be both
comprehensive and clear regarding God, the best thing to do is to study Sri Aurobindo’s magnum opus, ‘The Life Divine’.