Aristotle was born in 384 BC in Stagira, Greece where his father was the Royal Doctor. His death at 28 was in 322 BC, at Chalcis, Greece. He grew up to be arguably the most influential philosopher ever with modest nicknames like the master The Master, and simply “the Philosopher.” As if there were no others. He is probably best known for his first big job of tutoring Alexander the great, who went on to conquer the known world and unite all of the Greek city states which (and a great deal more) which had been constantly at war for centuries. Aristotle then headed off to Athens, where he met up with his mentor and teacher Plato, with whom he studied for a good dance and then branched out on his own to found the school known as The Lyceum. French secondary schools are called to the say are named in honor of errors Aristotle’s school. He used to walk around as he talked and his followers were known as peripatetic, or the wanderers.
The Father of Science – Then Known as Natural Philosophy
He is the unquestioned founder of science. Alexander the Great gave Aristotle carte blanche as far as scientific samples as the Hunters, fishers, etc. were at The Philosopher’s disposal. After gathering the specimens of from land, air and sea from anywhere in Alexander’s Empire and perhaps first true scientific laboratory. Aristotle’s Organon is thought to be the product of Aristotle’s students based on the lectures of the Master. Like Aristotle, it delves into every scientific field known and many Aristotle essentially founded. The treatise is full of errors along with the countless genius observations never before known to have been made by another human being. Most errors can be traced to the complete absence to any scientific instruments to study specimens. Aristotle had his eyes, his two hands and his unmatched brilliance and revolutionary mind.
The Organon was finally published by Andronicus of Rhodes in 40 B.C. Thereafter it was the textbook of (Western) science, or Natural Philosophy as it was called then as once a field is defined by the philosophers, a Scientific Specialty is born and Philosophy goes on her merry way to deal with the unsettled, harder questions humanity has yet to solve. For nearly 2,000 years Aristotle literally wrote the textbook Western Students would study until Sir. Frances Bacon published his masterful Novum Organum (New Organon) in the year 1620. Natural Philosophy would be guided by these two books and led to the birth of early science that blossomed into a massive tree of specialties but rooted in the minds of two geniuses. But the relevant questions to ask, the topics of investigation… the actual maps to lead us 2.500 years later to the amazing things we see today. The scientific method began here, the emphasis on evidence and observation rather than looking to the super-natural or superstitious phenomena.
Part of the misguided thinking that Philosophy is a waste of time, it is comical if you understand the thinking 25 centuries ago that has proven far more accurate that initially suspected. This is why most people look at philosophy as having done nothing, but in reality philosophy has given birth to every science ever created. If begins the questioning & the scientific inquiry, but once enough information, knowledge and date is gathered through the philosophical inquiry, the infant science (i.e. biology) is born. Meanwhile philosophy modestly marches forward to wrestle with the difficult and still under answered questions. Giving the appearance progress is never made. Simply put, if not for philosophy, the binary code & logic that is the basis of all computing so thank Philosophy for that Smart Phone.
Now science is so massive and the amount of knowledge available to us is so vast there is now a specialty of philosophy known as Philosophy of Science, for example. And there needs to be because there is so much science to follow that it helps to have philosophy take all of that knowledge and synthesize it into a body of work that continues to (1) educate people about the state of science; and (2) continue to point science in the right direction. I believe Philosophy should act as a guide and the conscience for science as for all other subjects.
For Aristotle, philosophy was about practical wisdom. Here are what you might call his four big practical questions he thought it important for Society to consider:
1. What makes people happy?
In the Nicomachean Ethics (350 BC), which got its name because they were a compilation of his lecture notes in this case edited by his son Nicomachus, Aristotle set himself to find the factors that led people to lead a good life… or not. We believe the good and successful people all possess distinct virtues. And he proposed that we should get better at identifying what these virtues are so that we may nurture and value the virtues in ourselves and honor them in others.
The Eleven Virtues: 1) Courage, 2) Temperance, 3) Liberality, 4) Magnificence, 5) Pride 6) Magnanimity, 7) Patience, 8) Truthfulness, 9) Wittiness, 10) Friendliness, 11) Modesty.
This was the basis of The Golden Mean as these virtues were always the middle-ground – or “The Golden Mean” – between the two separate Vices. For example, courage is the golden mean between cowardice and rashness. Magnificence is the golden mean between stinginess and all guaranty. Modesty is the mean between shamelessness and shyness.
Conversation was one of the key aspects of knowing how to live a good life according to Aristotle. He gave the example of the boorish man whose boorishness gave him nothing to offer because he lacks a subtle sense of humor. The Boor is basically useless for any kind of social intercourse because he contributes nothing and takes offense at everything. Others carry humor to excess. A buffoon cannot resist a joke whether appropriate or not. They will spare no one including himself or those with them, the embarrassment just for a laugh and will say things a man of taste would never even dream of saying. So the virtuous person is the golden mean between the two which is the individual possessing wittiness. Witty but tactful. We have a whole page (This does not look right on a phone – sorry):
- The Deficiency The Mean The Excess
- Cowardice Courage Rashness
- Insensibility Temperance Self-indulgence
- Meanness (illiberality) Liberality Prodigality
- Stinginess/pettiness Magnificence Vulgarity
- Pusillanimity Magnanimity Vanity
- Unambitiousness Pride Ambition
- Lack of spirit Patience Irascibility
- Understatement Truthfulness Boastfulness
- Boorishness Wittiness Buffoonery
- Cantankerous Friendliness Obsequiousness
- Shamelessness Modesty Shyness
- Spitefulness Righteous Indignation Envy
Moral righteousness is a habit. Like all habits it takes practice and encouragement. Aristotle believes that people lacking in virtues should be recognized as unfortunate rather than wicked, pitied instead of punished. They rather need better teachers & more appropriate guidance.
2. What is Art For?
The blockbuster art at the time of Aristotle was the Greek Tragedy drama. As Athenians would sit and watch tragic plays in open-air theaters all across Greece most would see a gory, horrible tragedy of a play by playwrights like Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, who were household names at the time.
Aristotle wrote “The Poetics”, his manual on how to write great poetry. It was a rather rigid guide to how poetry should be written but some very useful tips the ancient philosopher gave are still seen in dramatic writing today.
What was the point of the tragedy, though? What is the point of the entire community coming together to watch horrible things happen to the lead characters like Oedipus in the play by Sophocles who, inadvertently kills his father, marries his mother and once he learns of his hideous misfortune, he gouges out his eyes in remorse and despair. Aristotle’s answer is Catharsis. A kind of cleaning where you get rid of the bad stuff, in this case cleaning up our emotions and supposedly getting rid of feelings of fear & tragedies remind us all too often that terrible things can befall good people, normal people, including people like you and me. Perhaps that is why the vampires, zombies and other gory fantasy television and film is so popular today?
Therefore, we should have more compassion & empathy toward those whose actions have gone disastrously wrong for them. Instead of what seems to be popular today, which is to look down upon the person as if they deserve their lot in life because of stupid decisions you assume they must have made. Of course, this view gives no consideration to the obvious role that luck, better opportunities given the upbringing, caring and involved parents that emphasize education, parents having the basic financial resources to care for child or children. These are thing that are unequally provided in this society as in every society. Aristotle believes we need to be collectively re-taught these truths on a consistent basis. The task of art, as Aristotle sought, was to make the profound truths of life stick in our minds. Perhaps because our conveniently insulated lives keep us away from anything unpleasant unless we elect to see it. The world is full of unpleasant things and those problems remain whether noticed or not.
3. What Are Friends For?
In Books 8 & 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies three kinds of friendship:
- Friendship which comes about when each person is seeking fun. Their chief interest is in their own pleasure and the opportunity of the moment, which the other person present provides.
- Strategic Acquaintances (think political friendships) – where each member is as friendly as need be only to get what they are seeking out of the relationship.
- Then there is the True Friend. Not someone who’s just like you, but someone who isn’t you, but about who you care as much as you do for yourself.
In the true friendship, the other person’s pain is your pain, their joys are your joys. This makes you more vulnerable, should anything awful befall this friend of yours, but it also strengthens you because it relieves you of the too small orbit of your own thoughts & worries. You expand your own life into the life of another and together become larger, more resilient, and more fair-minded. You share virtues and cancel out each other’s defects. Friendship teaches us what we ought to be and it is, quite literally, the best part of life.
4. How Do We Get Ideas Through in Such a Distracted World?
Like a lot of people, Aristotle noticed that the better argument didn’t always win the debate. Aristotle wondered why this was, and you know why an argument that consists of convenient bull shit can seem victorious over a beautifully and subtly argued, very detailed analysis of the complex causes of our current problems, etc. or something similar. Some silly phrase or soundbite, often called Talking Point will prevail because it’s simple and easy to understand versus a detailed analysis of a complex problem that naturally requires a complex analysis in hopes of arriving at an answer to the complex issue. Aristotle wanted to know what he could do about it so he decided to teach people how to win arguments. This was known as “Rhetoric.” The art of convincing others to agree with you.
This is what Aristotle notice drove serious people away from the inane debate that made up the talk of the masses (why do I hear an intense discussion over the Kardashians?). Aristotle expected more from society and wanted something more for society. He wanted thoughtful, serious, well-intentioned people to learn how to be persuasive so they get involved in the welfare of the people as a whole.
His Rhetoric enables one to reach those people who don’t agree with them already and, using reason and logic properly, would get the listener to see the wisdom in the position… or not. But at least the decision is made with more information. The goal is to ensure that reason would always prevail. That holding a position reason seems to defeat would not be seen as a defect of one’s character, just faulty reasoning. This seems like a utopia as divided as society is now, when opposing views tends to lead one to believe the other has a character flaw – to put it kindly – simply due to an opposing intellectual position they hold. This would be especially helpful to get people in society to rediscover what it is like to keep an open mind. The loss of a debate is a win for the Greater Good so long a reason prevails. Unfortunately, that does not represent today’s political or cultural climate.
Aristotle does make some timeless points in his advice on rhetoric: You have to recognize, acknowledge & reassure people’s fears. You have to notice the emotional side of the issue. Is someone’s pride on the line, are they feeling embarrassed? In that case one needs to edge around the issues particular to that discussion accordingly.
Finally you also have to try and make it FUNNY, because attention spans are very short and you may have to use examples and illustrations to make your point, bring it to life and sink into the brain of the less naturally curious. Amazing to consider these words are from Aristotle’s pen over 2000 years ago, when there were no distractions compared to 2016. Yet even he discussed how to combat short attention spans and how using examples and illustrations can help get your point across and make it memorable. What do you suppose Aristotle would say of distractions today?
Conclusion: Metaphysics is the Problem
When people think of the word philosophy, rarely is their first thought how practical it is. That is unfortunate because the ancient Greeks were adamant that philosophy (literally translated to Love of Wisdom), not be an abstract endeavor to be done by tweed jacket wearing professors and the occasional self-actualized individual. The Greeks were adamant that philosophy is for everyone, a deeply useful skill that should be learned and practiced by all in order to help us live, and die well. Help us find the best way to run a government, when and why we should go to war, how to deal with race relations, how we can lift up those in poverty so they can help themselves, etc. etc. Perhaps it is not this way because we haven’t listened enough recently to Aristotle.
Most people think of Metaphysics when they think of philosophy, which reminds them of the very obscure & difficult philosophers and makes them turn away as fast as they can. Philosophy should be about how it can be used to help citizens live a more satisfying and useful lives and benefits society as a whole. Metaphysics is what the people that took a mandatory introduction to Philosophy class remember most… the endless discussion over the meaning of life. How the brain processes information? Free-will v. determinism? Why we’re here? Even whether we are here at all. It can seem like useless mental gymnastics for sure. It is this author’s opinion that Metaphysics has hijacked philosophy and nearly ruined it, leaving little room for the practical uses in our daily lives.
The Practical Use for All of Humanity
The origin of philosophy, as emphasized by Aristotle’s teacher Plato, is not an abstract endeavor but rather as a useful and practical activity that all members of society should use & practice. In fact it may be more important now than ever in America given the bitterly divided society we live in. It is apparent the masses are unmoved by reason & logic, but we went through the Enlightenment once and learned the power of reason so we can rediscover the virtue of those lessons once again. The United States of America was born out of the Enlightenment and must return to its Enlightenment roots.
Philosophers need to be Front & Center to remind our citizens the importance of critical thinking skills and show our Citizens to again use Reason and Logic to arrive at informed decisions rather than allow themselves to be influenced by campaign ads, Corporate media or just whatever society is giving its fickle attention to at the moment. Not only should Philosophers be here for the discussion, they should be forcing the discussion and forcing our elected leaders into this discussion so they can be held accountable for their decisions that have no basis in reason or logic unless you are on of his or her donors.
Philosophers should recall that Socrates called himself the “gadfly of the state.” Meaning he was always buzzing around the leaders and leading citizens questioning their decisions and the motivation for those decisions, whether those decisions were just and beneficial to society as a whole. Socrates asked so many questions of the wealthy and powerful in Athens, questions they considered inconvenient. So inconvenient, in fact, they put Socrates to death because of his incessant questioning (sometimes speaking truth to power is dangerous).
EVERY CITIZEN should be making sure their own decisions are properly thought out after investigating various perspectives so decisions are well-informed. Furthermore, that the leaders in government we send to represent our interests are also making well-reasoned decisions that benefit the people. Make them answer for their positions and their votes. This is what Philosophers should be doing for society right now… addressing the important issues, forcing society to think about them and to make sure to let their elected representatives know how they feel about it and hold them accountable to address the needs of “We The People” as opposed to their donors.
We must be sure to ask all the right questions, looking at society as part of a much Bigger Picture as opposed to a single issue so we arrive at the right answers to the right questions and don’t destroy ourselves in the meantime because of things like greed, the lust for power, or the unintended consequences of an important decisions. These are decisions we ALL face together and should make together as a society. It may sound like something we needn’t concern ourselves with right now, but I assure you… existential issues are closer than any of us think. And it’s better to find the right questions and the right answers to those questions earlier since the alternative may mean… well let’s just be early.