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Aristotle's Categories, Measure, Spirit forces and Racism

Eventually Aristotle would replace Plato as a most admired philosopher. He was not as devoted as Plato to abstractions and idea compared to specifics and the senses.

Supported by his father, a medical doctor, Aristotle at eighteen went to Athens to study under Plato, and he remained at Plato's academy for twenty years – until Plato's death in 347. Aristotle began as an ardent supporter of Plato's philosophy, but he modified his beliefs. He examined philosophers who had preceded him and tried to bridge their contradictory positions. He believed in intellectual progress through effort rather than revelation from the gods. He believed in reason and the spirituality of the heavens as did Plato, but he also believed in observation of the material world – rather than relying on commonplace opinion. Many, for example, still assumed that rivers flowed from some great pool of water hidden from humanity's view. Aristotle advised such people to climb mountains and observe that rivers begin as small streams in high places.

Aristotle became a collector of facts. He had little interest in testing theories in a laboratory, or theories of anatomy by dissecting dead people. The Greeks disliked the idea of dissecting people. But he believed in exact classifications – while classification was still largely ignored. Aristotle divided things into classes and sub-classes. He made his classifications according to common sense, finding consistent attributes that ignore insignificant differences (humans, for example, having common attributes that allow them to be classified as humans while differing in minor attributes such as height). He made contributions in biology, botany, and embryology, and he wrote numerous works.

With others he believed that the earth was the center of the universe, and he saw what we now know as gravity as objects having a will to rush to this center. He believed that the natural state of all bodies was rest, that all bodies tended to return to rest and needed a mover to keep them in motion. For Aristotle this mover was Zeus. (Not until the late 1600s CE would anyone advocate inertia as a law of motion.) Unaware of gravity, Aristotle held that everything moved in a straight line until something intervened to deflect it or to stop it and that the object then fell to earth. He believed there was no such thing as a void, or vacuum. Zeus himself, he stated, could not make one.

Aristotle combined his study of the world, his classifications, with his work in logic and theology. In ancient times he became recognized as the foremost authority on logic, and he would be recognized as such during the Middle Ages. He began his study of logic as lessons on how to succeed in the kind of debates found in Plato's writings. He built his logic on the rejection of contradiction, and he drew from the law in geometry with which Pythagoras had worked: a simple and obvious proclamation that if two items are alike and a third is similar to one, it is similar to the other. Aristotle recognized that the consistency on which his logic rested depended upon properly distinguishing between classes and subclasses. And he recognized that logic cannot take one from a false premise to a valid conclusion.

But Aristotle did not fully appreciate the extent to which premises might consist of hidden, often unexamined complexities. Using Aristotle's logic, people would build with confidence from premises to a great variety of conflicting conclusions. Aristotle himself used his logic to arrive at conclusions about which he had no knowledge, such as: because the eye disconnected from the body does not see, it is not the eye itself that sees but the soul.

Aristotle's logic was deductive. It conflicted with science, which made generalities from observed particulars (facts) – in other words, induction.

Leaving his study of logic, Aristotle added to his philosophy a concern with what was right and wrong in everyday life. He believed that people pursued self-fulfillment, or happiness, and he believed that people should search for happiness both in the divine and in the material world. And not surprising for a philosopher, he believed that the greatest happiness, the greatest  self-benefit and the greatest virtue came with the pursuit of theoretical wisdom. Similar to the Hindus, Socrates and Plato, Aristotle believed that the pursuit of knowledge moved one closer to harmony with God.

Regarding what was thought of as substance, Aristotle had three categories: One was earthly matter that could be both seen and felt. Another consisted of the visible heavenly bodies, seen but not felt: the moon, planets, sun and stars. His third substance was the invisible world of spirit. In not understanding inertia Aristotle assumed that the moon, planets, sun and stars needed a force to move them. Everything, he reasoned, must have a cause. Soul, on the other hand, according to Aristotle, was that which was not moved by some external force. Soul, he assumed, was the mover. Like Plato, Aristotle saw soul as embodying reason. Soul, he believed, moved itself with a sense of purpose. The cause of motion of all things, he concluded, is Divine Will.

As for humans moving themselves, Aristotle believed that happiness could be achieved by choosing a golden mean between extremes. Aristotle advocated moderation over the extremes of gluttony and self-deprivation, and he chose courage over the extremes of rashness and cowardice. Aristotle believed in moderating one's passions. He compared a man in a state of passion to a man asleep, drunk or insane.

Aristotle applied his Golden Mean to economic and social order and to the relationship between the state and the individual, but he could not, of course, apply it to those matters that had no median, such as choosing between honoring and ignoring one's contracts or commitments.

Harmony was central to Aristotle's theory of politics, as it had been with Plato. Aristotle saw humans as social creatures and that social participation was inescapable. In other words, Aristotle believed that no citizen belonged just to himself, that every civilized person was a member of the state, and that no one should be immune from the rules of a community. He believed that the welfare of a community contributed to the well-being of its individual members.

Drawing again from classification, he put the city-state above the family and individuals, claiming that the whole must necessarily be prior to the part. He saw the state as necessary in creating harmony – by promoting balance, moderation and protecting the individual from abuse. He favored a balance between the powers of the state and the rights of individuals, between regimentation and anarchy, claiming that the state should not be so powerful or all encompassing that it fails to offer a good amount of liberty to its individual citizens – which put him at odds with Plato's totalitarianism.

Much of Aristotle's political writing was a retort to Plato's republic. He believed that Plato's communism – the elite holding everything in common – was impossible. He wrote that property owned in common received less attention than property owned by an individual. Men, he wrote, care most for their private possessions.

In addition to opposing communism, Aristotle opposed excessive wealth. Responding to strife between Greece's rich and poor, Aristotle applied his golden mean and advocated a balance between great wealth and poverty. To this end he favored the creation of a strong middle class and government assistance to the poor, with everyone having the right to property but no one accumulating more than was needed for what he called "intelligent living."

It was Aristotle who made the first effort at political science. His interest in data led him to gather information on 158 Greek and other cities. From his data he concluded that the best form of government was rule by an elite. He believed that democracy was unsuitable because of the lack of wisdom among common people and that common people were swayed by demagogues. The best rulers, he claimed, were people who had first learned to be good subjects. There was, he wrote, nothing degrading about obedience when obedience is directed toward good ends. When men are young, he suggested, they should be warriors. They should not rule until they are older. And they should be priests when they are older still – past an active life.


Aristotle believed that superior people should rule inferior people, and superior people, according to Aristotle, were Greek. He believed that Greeks had the high spirit of "the northern races" and the intelligence of "the eastern races." He wrote that Greeks should not be slaves but that they should be slave owners.

Aristotle believed in torture for eliciting truth from slaves – as was commonly practiced among Greek slave masters. "Torture is a kind of evidence," he wrote, "which appears trustworthy, because a sort of compulsion is attached to it." Aristotle recognized that a person being tortured might say whatever the torturer wants to hear in order to stop the torture, but he accepted it for use against foreigners and slaves – those he considered barbarians – because they were simple like children and inclined, therefore, to tell the truth.


The Politics, by Aristotle, translated by Sir Ernest Barker, 1995

Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: from Thales to Aristotle, edited by Marc Cohen, Patricia Curd and C.D.C. Reeve, 1995

A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy and Religion, Chapter 1, "Science in the Ancient World," by Sir William Dampier, 1948

Metaphysics, by Aristotle, translated by John H. McMahon, 2008

Plato Complete Works, edited by John Cooper, 1997

Wisdom of the West, pages 48-101, by Bertrand Russell, 1959

Karl Popper on Plato: The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1966

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