Here are 5 of the Best Breakthroughs of Aristotelian Philosophy

Imagine being so profound in your discipline you’re known as THE practitioner of it? Below are five great breakthroughs of Aristotelian philosophy, earning him his medieval nickname: The Philosopher.

Mar 2, 2021By Alexander Standjofski, BA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian Ideology
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The School of Athens by Raphael, c. 1509-11, via Musei Vaticani, Vatican City 


The work above depicts a scene of ancient Greek philosophy. Aristotle walks with his teacher and mentor Plato (whose appearance is modeled on Raphael’s close friend, fellow Renaissance thinker and painter Leonardo da Vinci.) The figure of Plato (center left, in orange and purple) is pointing upwards, symbolizing the Platonic ideology of philosophical idealism. The more youthful Aristotle (center right, in blue and brown) has his hand outstretched in front of him, encapsulating Aristotle’s pragmatic empirical mode of thought. Aristotle examined affairs practically as they are; Plato examined affairs idealistically as he thought they ought to be.


Central To Aristotelian Philosophy: Man Is A Political Animal

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Bust of Aristotle, via The Acropolis Museum, Athens


As a polymath, Aristotle was interested in many different subjects. The powerhouse of Greek philosophy wrote on a very wide plethora of subjects, a fraction of which survives today. Most of what survives of Aristotle’s work is via notes taken by his students during his lectures, and his personal lecture notes themselves.


A primary interest of Aristotle (among many others) was biology. In addition to greatly furthering the field itself, the Greek thinker incorporated biological reasoning into his field of natural philosophy.


His work Nicomachean Ethics, written and named for his son Nicomachus, makes one of the most clear-cut distinctions in the entirety of Aristotelian philosophy: man is a political animal. Invoking his observances in biology, Aristotle reduces humankind to an animal.


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With Aristotelian fashion, he continues to justify his reasoning by arguing a sense of categorical distinction pivotal to western thought. The whole of Greek philosophy separates life into the categories of body and soul. Animals – true animals – live primarily based on their bodies: constantly seeking to eat, scratch an itch, and so on. Humankind, though also possessing this essence of bodily life, is endowed with a sense of higher intellectual reasoning and understanding – though we are animals, we are the only animals with a sense of reason.


Aristotle believed that the empirical evidence of this sense of reason was the gift of speech, given to us by the gods. As human beings alone possess an internal monologue and can uniquely speak and communicate ideas, we become the political animal: communication helps us organize our affairs and conduct our day to day lives – politics.


Morals, Ethics, And Modesty: Aristotle’s Golden Mean

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Medieval aquamanile (vessel for pouring water) depicting Aristotle being humiliated by the seductress Phyllis as a lesson on modesty to his pupil Alexander the Great – the punchline of a medieval joke, c. 14th-15th century, via The Met Museum, New York 


In all of Aristotle’s encyclopedia of philosophy, his ethics outline how one should conduct themself in daily life – likely one of the world’s first self-help books. Aristotelian philosophy exemplifies two extreme modes of conduct in any given scenario: a virtue and a vice; neither being truly virtuous in Aristotelian thought.


Taking the Christian virtue of charity for example (from the Greek χάρης (charis), which has come to mean “thanks” or “grace”), Aristotelian philosophy outlines two possibilities. Upon seeing somebody less fortunate, extreme virtue dictates giving them a substantial amount of money whether you can afford it or not. Extreme vice dictates walking by and saying something rude. Obviously, most people would do neither of those things: exactly Aristotle’s point.


Aristotelian philosophy upholds its own virtue as the “Golden Mean”: a middle ground between true vice (deficiency) and true virtue (excess). Moderation, prudency, and modesty thrive – a quasi-stoic notion. To sum, think of how J. Jonah Jameson and the New York taxpayers saw Spider-Man as a menace equal to the villains he fought: the vice of evil and the virtue of heroism being equally destructive to the city.


In the governance of when to act by leaning-virtue or leaning-vice, Aristotle invokes the notion of καιρός (Kairos). In Greek, καιρός literally translates to both “time” and “weather,” but is philosophically interpreted as “opportunity” – the “quality” of the moment of “time” we are in. Aristotelian philosophy tells us to calculate the καιρός and act accordingly.


A Pivotal Notion In Greek Philosophy: Circles Of Relative Relationships

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Aristotle etching by P. Fidanza after Raphael Sanzio, mid-18th century, via the Wellcome Collection, London


Aristotle’s views of relative relationships were essential to western thought and echo throughout the work of many thinkers subsequent to Aristotle himself. The analogy best fit to describe Aristotle’s idea is a stone being tossed into a pond.


The primary relationship of an individual – the true center of the circle – is represented by the stone itself. Central to any relationship formed by a human being is first and foremost a person’s relationship with themselves. With a sound center, the ripples through the pond become all ensuing relationships one might have.


Central to the ripples is the smallest circle. This nucleus circle, the next logical relationship an individual should have, is ideally the one with their immediate family or household – this is from where we get the term “nuclear family.” Subsequently, we have an individual’s relationship with their community, their city, their country, and so on and so on with each further ripple in the pond.


This tenet of Aristotelian philosophy nestles into the broader encyclopedia of philosophy as other thinkers and theorists often use it to justify their ideology. In his work The Prince, political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli accounts that his “Prince,” the ideal political leader, should have a specific set of relationships. The Machiavellian mind holds that a Prince should have no family ripple. The next logical ripple, that of the community, becomes closer to the center of the self. Machiavelli’s Prince should therefore love his community as his family to best lead them – based on the Aristotelian principle.


Beyond Self And Family: Aristotle On Friendships

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Education of Alexander the Great by Aristotle by Jose Armet Portanell, 1885


Peppered through Aristotle’s notions of relative relationships are his views on friendship – a topic on which Aristotle wrote extensively. Aristotelian philosophy upholds three different types and bonds of friendships.


The lowest and most basic form of human friendship is incidental, utilitarian, and transactional. This is a bond formed between two people who are both seeking a benefit; a bond one might have with their local coffee shop owner or a co-worker. These bonds terminate when the transaction between both parties terminates.


The second form of friendship is similar to the first: fleeting, incidental, utilitarian. This bond is formed on pleasure. The sort of relationship one has with someone only when doing an activity of mutual interest – golf buddies, bandmates, teammates, or gym partners. More emotional and loving than the first relationship, but still contingent on mutual interest and external activity.


The third and highest form of friendship is known in Greek as καλοκαγαθία (kalokagathia) – a portmanteau of the Greek words for “beautiful” (kalo) and “noble” or “brave” (agathos). This is a chosen relationship; a bond in which two individuals genuinely enjoy having each other around based purely on virtue and character, not an external factor. This higher bond is identifiable by the capacity to put one’s own needs and wants to the side for the sake of this other person. In Aristotelian philosophy, this bond is lifelong.


The Political Friendship: Aristotelian Philosophy On Government

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Archaeological remains of Aristotle’s Lyceum in Athens


Man is a political animal. Aristotle culminates his views on politics, modesty, and relationships in the final books of his work Nicomachean Ethics. Unlike the other views discussed, Aristotle’s ideas on government are very dated relative to government as we know it today. Still, governance in Aristotelian philosophy proved so sapient in its time it dominated global governmental conduct for more than two thousand years.


Aristotle considered whether the ideal form of government was a monarchy. Ideally, the monarch of a state would be the most intelligent, just, virtuous, and fit to rule in a given realm – another point furthered by Machiavelli 1700 years later. In being the most virtuous (and in maintaining a strong relative relationship with the kingdom or polis) the monarch engages in a friendship or kalokagathia with his or her people. By being the best in the realm and being engaged in friendship with his or her subjects, in which the needs of the people are placed before the monarch’s own, the monarch leads and does so by example.


This system is ideal for Aristotle. As a pragmatic thinker, Aristotle also lays out the potential for a monarchy (and other systems of government) to become flawed. Should the monarch not be engaged in kalokagathia or a love for the kingdom, monarchy crumbles into tyranny. The nature and peak operation of a political system, therefore, depends on the relationship between subject and ruler.


If a ruler performs immodestly, corrodes his or her love of the kingdom, or delves from kalogakathia to a lower form of relationship with the people, monarchy becomes polluted. The idea does not stop at monarchy – this is the case for any system of government. Aristotelian philosophy holds that monarchy is ideal since it relies on one person’s honesty, love, and transparency rather than many.


The Legacy Of Aristotelian Philosophy

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Aristotle with a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1653, via The Met Museum, New York 


The saliency of Aristotelian philosophy exists in history. Many of Aristotle’s claims hold true to this day – keeping them in mind still makes us scratch our heads and observe situations differently.


After the Classical era, the western world fell under the power of the Christian church. Aristotle’s work largely disappeared from the western mind until the Renaissance, which brought back a rebirth of humanism and ancient Greek thought.


In its absence from the west, Aristotle’s work prospered in the east. Many Islamic thinkers, such as al-Farabi, incorporated Aristotelian justification in their ideas of the ideal political system – in thoughts on the pursuit of happiness and ethical conduct in a city. The Renaissance imported Aristotle back into the west from the east.


Medieval authors east and west regularly referred to Aristotle in their work simply as The Philosopher. Some weaponized him in advocacy of the control of the church (such as Aquinas); some for the sake of monarchy. Is there more to be extracted from Aristotle’s work?

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By Alexander StandjofskiBA in History & Political Theory w/ pre and post-Christian IdeologyAlexander holds a BA in history and political theory from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He has studied the historical narrative of the western world as well as pre and post-Christian political thought and ideology spanning from 500 BCE to 1800 CE.