Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and scientist. Yet to say only that about him, falls far short of his true genius. Some have claimed that he was the expert of his time in every field of knowledge except for perhaps mathematics1. For twenty years, he was a student of Plato. Later he became tutor to Alexander the Great, the conqueror of empires from Europe to India.
Aristotle was one of the greatest thinkers of ancient western civilization. He was a biologist, a zoologist, a political scientist, a master of logic and rhetoric, an ethicist and a theoretician in physics and metaphysics. Aristotle synthesized knowledge in many fields, developing a coherent system of understanding. His mind was expansive and his writings prodigious. His work was considered authoritative not only in ancient times but through the medieval era as well. Unfortunately, only a fraction of his writing has been preserved for us. However even today, his thought has continued to exert a strong influence, although admittedly our knowledge and understanding, particularly in the scientific realm, have advanced beyond his. Nevertheless, it remains a remarkable achievement to have had such a prominent presence over the course of 2500 years.
Aristotle’s father was a royal physician in the Macedonian court. As a youth, Aristotle was sent to Athens to study under Plato at the Academy. Eventually, he became a teacher there himself. When Plato died in 348 BC, Aristotle returned to Macedonia and served King Philip by tutoring his teenaged son, Alexander. When Alexander assumed the throne in 336 BC after his father’s death, Aristotle returned to Athens and founded his own school, the Lyceum. Aristotle remained there until Alexander’s death in 323 BC. Fearing the anti-Macedonian sentiment of the Athenians, Aristotle then fled to an island in the Aegean Sea where he died the following year.
Aristotle was meticulous in his scientific work. For example, he was one of the first to collect plant specimens, classify them according to observed characteristics and categorize them. His approach was so careful and methodical that it became the standard for future scientific work. Perhaps more importantly, Aristotle developed a philosophy of science. He gave us the categories in which to think He attempted to find ground between the position of Plato (who believed that the real world exists in the realm of the Forms; this present world is but a shadowy copy of it) and the atomists (who believed that real world was senseless matter). Aristotle wanted us to discover the meaning of the good life in this world – that it was real, that it was understandable by our senses and that it was worth knowing.
Aristotle developed four levels of explanation which cause things to change. The foundation of all things for Aristotle was the union of Form and Matter. While they are distinguishable, they are not separable. The classic example used to understand this is a statue. The matter is what it is made of (marble, let’s say) and form is what it is (a statue of a person as conveyed by its shape and contour). The first cause, Aristotle believed, was the formal cause – the idea in the mind of the sculptor before the statue came into being. The second cause was the material – the actual physical goods that the sculptor manipulates. The third cause was the efficient cause – the sculptor, the tools employed, the process to which the material is subject which makes the statue come about, and the fourth was the final cause – the goal or purpose of the process.
Today science focuses on the material cause and the efficient cause. Science has defined the scope of its field of study in the what and how of things and events, not the why. Meaning and purpose are the domain of philosophers and theologians. For Aristotle, god was a necessity of his theory, not a personal being. God was the Unmoved Mover – a being who was not subject to change or process or growth or decay. He was the first cause, an uncaused cause, fully actualized without any room or need for potentiality. God was an impersonal force, a starting place for Aristotle’s metaphysics rather than a personal, spiritual being who is involved in the universe as creator, sustainer and Lord.