Aristotle And Polluatuon

In all natural things there is something wonderful.

Parts of Animals 645a 1

The Greek philosopher and scientist, Aristotle, was born in Macedon, where his father was physician to the king. The son was himself to enter royal service as tutor of a future and more famous king, Alexander the Great—a grateful pupil, if we credit the story that he instructed his far-flung subjects to provide Aristotle with specimens for his biological research. Much of his life, from 367 to 347 and again from 335 to 322, was spent in Athens, first as pupil and teacher at Plato's Academy and later at the school he himself founded, the Lyceum. Both sojourns were ended by outbursts of anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens. After the first he lived in Lesbos, where his most important scientific work was done; after the second he moved to Chalcis, where he died a few months later.

Aristotle's life was one of unremitting study, the voluminous writings bequeathed to us forming only some 20 per cent, perhaps, of his original output. He wrote and lectured on an extraordinary range of subjects— including biology, astronomy, logic, metaphysics, ethics, poetics, and politics—as well as compiling massive records of, inter alia, the Pythian and Olympic Games. To say only this, however, underestimates his unique achievement: for, in the case of many subjects, he did not so much contribute to them as invent them. In some areas, moreover, such as logic and zoology, the taxonomies and general principles proposed by Aristotle remained almost unchallenged for more than 2,000 years. It is no exaggeration, therefore, to hold that 'an account of Aristotle's intellectual afterlife would be little less than a history of European thought'.2 To equal his achievement would require someone totally to redraw the map of intellectual enquiry.

Aristotle was not, of course, an environmental scientist or philosopher in the contemporary sense. The 'eco-crises' which have stimulated recent environmental concern were happily unknown in ancient Greece. Indeed, the very concept of 'the environment' was not one available to Aristotle. Nor did he address such issues as our moral obligations to non-human life. It is clear however—from my opening citation, for example—that Aristotle experienced and urged a profound regard for the living world and, as we shall see, several elements in his thinking prove attractive to contemporary environmental thought.

Some of those elements were integral to his general conception of the natural world, one which remains alive in a way that some of his pioneering studies in zoology and biology no longer do. (One should recall, though, that Aristotle was responsible for the modern notion of species, since it was he who proposed classifying animal kinds by reproductive criteria, rather than on the basis of less explanatory similarities.)

Aristotle divided the domain of enquiry into the theoretical, practical and productive sciences. The first are concerned with obtaining truth for its own sake, something of the first importance given that 'all men by nature desire to know' (Metaphysics 980a); the other two—ethics and poetics, for example—with how people should behave and produce things. The theoretical sciences, Aristotle divides into 'theology', 'physics' and mathematics. The former terms are misleading: 'theology', for Aristotle includes logic and metaphysics, while 'physics' is the study of the natural world in general. The distinction between 'physics' and the other theoretical sciences is that it deals with things subject to movement and change, where 'change' includes coming into and passing out of existence.

'Physics', therefore, directly addresses one of the two main questions Aristotle raises in his Metaphysics: What are the most basic entities in reality, the 'primary substances', upon which everything else depends?, and What explains regular processes and changes, such as the growth and decay of organisms? The questions are related for Aristotle, since not only is it, in the final analysis, substances which 'become' and change, but we have knowledge of a substance only 'when we have found its primary causes' (Physics 184a).

Aristotle rejected two views of substance or basic reality prevalent in his times: the doctrine that substance was some stuff, 'matter', out of which things are composed, and Plato's theory that what is truly real are immaterial Forms or Ideas of which ordinary things are both products and pale copies. For Aristotle, we should not confuse what something is with what it is made of, while Plato's view, by placing the Forms outside the ordinary world, is therefore 'useless' for explaining how, in that world, there are 'comings-to-be' of things (Metaphysics 1033b). Aristotle's own proposal is that a primary substance is a unity of form and matter. It is only through having a certain form that a region of matter constitutes a man, say, and it is this form which provides the essence—the 'what-it-is-to-be-a-...'—of something.

Aristotle connects his concept of form with the question of the causes of change and movement, since a being's form is also 'an end', a final 'cause as that for [the sake of] which' it begins and develops (Physics 199a). Achievement of its fully developed form, that is, is part of the explanation of why a plant, say, grows from a seed (which contains the form 'potentially'). Indeed, it is the main part of the explanation, the factor on which the biologist must focus to understand the process of development. Aristotle's notion of 'final causes', his teleology, has been much misunderstood. He did not mean, absurdly, that all living beings intentionally strive to attain their forms; nor, despite a notorious passage in Politics where he writes that 'since nature makes vain,...she has made all animals for the sake of man' (1256b), is it his considered view that nature is a divine, purposeful intelligence. (That one-off passage is inconsistent with: (1) Aristotle's usual view of 'ends' as internal to, or 'immanent' in, natural beings; (2) his general attitude of admiration for nature in its own right; and (3) his theology, in which God, absorbed in self-contemplation, is unconcerned with creaturely life.) Aristotle's notion is, rather, a 'functionalist' one. Unless we know what something is 'for', what its normal developed state should be— the tree to grow fruit, the duck to live aquatically—we cannot fully understand the changes which we observe it undergoing—the growth of roots or of webbed feet, say.

Although only humans can intentionally aim at their telos or end, all living beings, according to Aristotle, have 'soul'. But 'soul', with its connotation of an immaterial homunculus 'inside' the body and surviving it, is a poor translation of the Greek term psuche (lit. 'breath'). The 'soul', he writes, is 'the substance qua form of a natural body' (On the Soul 412a), that which, so to speak, 'holds together' the body in a cohering whole, the 'principle' of its organization. That Aristotle intends something very different from the Christian concept is clear from his view that nutrition and sensation are faculties of the soul. Only at the level of human life is the faculty for rational thought present, and even there it is only the operations of an obscurely described 'active reason' which could intelligibly occur in the absence of body.

Aristotle's picture of the natural world, then, is a graduated one of beings ranging from 'mere things' through plants, the lower and higher animals, to human beings, each with a specific form which both constitutes its essence and plays the crucial role in explaining its behaviour. Despite its variety and complexity, therefore, the natural order is precisely that, an order—an interconnected and intelligible whole whose 'excellence', as Aristotle puts it, resembles that of an 'orderly' army, whose individual members, its soldiers, perform their appropriate functions (Metaphysics 1075a).

For many Arab thinkers from the tenth to the thirteenth century and, from the thirteenth century on, for many Christian ones too, Aristotle was 'The Philosopher', 'the master of those who know' (as Dante put it). It would be rash to assume, however, that their 'Aristotelian' conception of the natural world was the Greek's own, for it incorporated Stoic and theological elements foreign to Aristotle's thinking. In particular, the doctrine of 'final causes' was given an 'anthropocentric' twist to make it accord with the conviction that the divinely ordained purpose of each being was to serve the ends of man— a twist encouraged, admittedly, by the Politics passage. Later champions of science, such as Francis Bacon and Galileo, who took themselves to be refuting Aristotle, were more often than not only refuting a bowdlerized 'Aristotelianism'. The same is true of nineteenth-century Darwinian critics, although Darwin himself fully recognized Aristotle's contribution, declaring that even the greatest of recent naturalists, such as Linnaeus, were 'mere schoolboys to old Aristotle'.3 (Incidentally, Aristotle was well aware of the 'Darwinism' of his day. Although he rejected Empedocles' theory of, in effect, random mutation and natural selection, he did so on grounds that many contemporary naturalists take very seriously.)

Aristotle was not, to repeat, an 'environmentalist', but it is not difficult to see why some environmentalists, especially perhaps 'deep ecologists', are attracted to him. To begin with, they share his perception of the natural world as an integrated, continuous whole, without sharp 'breaks', especially between human and non-human life. Second, they can applaud his concept, once properly understood, of the 'end', the 'for-the-sake-of-which', each creature develops: for this favourably contrasts with a purely 'mechanistic' picture of nature which is, in their view, both impoverished and dangerous. Third, they can welcome Aristotle's view that a being's 'end' is 'a good' for it. A tree or a duck whose 'end' is actualized 'flourishes' qua the being it is, and to prevent anything from flourishing, Aristotle strongly implies, is to do a wrong.

Finally, some environmental ethicists have looked for inspiration to Aristotle's general approach to ethics, which focuses not on questions about rights and duties, but on ones about the 'excellences' appropriate to a flourishing human life, one which realizes the human telos. Such a life is one of 'virtue', and some of the practical virtues Aristotle prescribes, like self-restraint in material pursuits, are ones which surely have application to the treatment of our environments. More important, perhaps, are the implications of that 'intellectual virtue', 'theoretical wisdom', which, for Aristotle, is 'the highest form of activity' (Nicomachean Ethics 1177a). The 'contemplation' of 'the loftiest things' in which that wisdom consists is not, for Aristotle, a passionless investigation into truth, but something imbued with a sense of wonder at, and admiration for, the cosmos and its ingredients. The passage from which my opening citation comes—one which 'expresses some of the best in Aristotelian man'4—continues with an endorsement of Heraclitus' rebuke to some visitors disappointed to find the sage doing something as mundane as warming himself by a stove. 'There are gods here too', Heraclitus told them. The lesson Aristotle draws is that even the humblest creatures should be contemplated 'without aversion', for in them too 'there is something natural and beautiful' (Parts of Animals 645a).


1 References are to the standard pagination of Aristotle's works, which is retained in all good translations.

2 Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle, p. 86.

3 Quoted by W.D.Ross, Aristotle, p. 112.

See also in this book

Bacon, Darwin

Aristotle's major writings

The Complete Works of Aristotle, 2 vols, ed. J.Barnes, various translators, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

A New Aristotle Reader, ed. J.L.Ackrill, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987. Contains generous excerpts from all the works cited in the entry.

Further reading

Barnes, J., Aristotle, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, ed. J.Barnes, Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 1995. Ross, W.D., Aristotle, 5th edn, London: Methuen, 1949.


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  • Julia
    How would aristotle environment?
    8 months ago

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