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Aristotle (384.322 B.C.)

Aristotle was born at Stagirus in Chalcidice (hence his epithet "the Stagir.ite"). His father was a doctor, which may explain why Aristotle had an interest in biology. When Aristotle came to the Academy at age seventeen, Plato was in his last stage of development, interested in logic and the criticism of the theory of ideas. At Plato's death Aristotle (and Xenocrates) withdrew from Athens. He spent time at Assos and Mytilene before Philip of Macedon invited him to come to his court in Pella to tutor the young Alexander. In 334. B.C.. Aristotle returned to Athens and founded his own school, renting buildings of a gymnasium (the Lyceum). These included a covered walk around a courtyard (peripatos), which gave the name Peripatetic to his school.111 An outbreak of anti.Macedonian feeling in Athens and a charge of impiety against Aristotle caused him to leave Athens ("lest the Athenians sin twice against philosophy") for Chalcis, where he died.

Aristotle's Thought

Aristotle saw himself, at least initially, as a true successor of Plato. Picking up the last phase of Plato's thought, he criticized the ideas as not separate but within things themselves. Individual objects develop toward their own perfection. Thus Aristotle had an interest in this world and in individual things. Whereas Plato started with the forms and moved to specifics, Aris.totle started with specifics and tried to group them into ever.higher genera. He set his students to the task of collecting all of the objects they could. Since each object is striving for the fulfillment of its own nature, i.e., per.fection for itself, it is possible to learn the ideal from studying individuals and what they have in common. Thus, by studying the parts one may under.stand the whole. For example, in preparation for his Politics Aristotle had his students collect the constitutions of the different Greek cities. Of the 158 they collected, only that of Athens survives. Aristotle divided things two ways: as substance, when we see nature in a moment; and as motion, when we see it as a world of change. Moreover, we may analyze nature into potentiality and actuality.

World as Substance.

When one looks at things in a moment, as they are in themselves, he sees that everything in nature is a particular substance. Substance is what something is in itself; its "accidents" are its attributes, how it is perceived. The distinction between substance and accidents became im.portant to the clarification of certain theological thoughts in the Middle Ages. Substance is divisible into form and matter (or pattern and possibility). In the world of nature everything is composed of "stuff and its arrangement or ordering. For example, a statue is marble to which the sculptor has given a shape. It is matter that has been given a form. For Aristotle it is impossible that all the individuals in a category be destroyed while the forms (ideals) still exist. This is because the forms exist only in matter, in the concrete individuals. This is not so for Plato in his characteristic thought, for in his theory the ideas (forms) exist outside and apart from the individuals. Aristotle's criticism of Plato was that he confused the process of knowing with the nature of reality. To be able to think we must make abstractions. Plato confused the necessary abstractions of thought with the way things really are.

World as Motion.

Change is a fact that all observe. While Plato wanted to go beyond the world of change to the unchangeable ideas, Aristotle stud.ied change itself. Change has a pattern that we can understand. There are four causes of motion or change. These are not causes in the modern sense of causality, but Aristotle, using the language of common sense, states the necessary elements in order to explain a change. First is the material cause the matter out of which something is produced. Today we would not call this a cause, for it is only necessary that it be there.not to do anything but to be the sine qua non of change. Second is the efficient cause.the active, producing cause. This is "cause" in the modern sense. Aristotle used the illustration of parents who produce children (the seed is the material cause). Third is the formal cause.the technique or way of doing something, the pattern followed. In nature this is the law of development, e.g., an acorn grows into an oak according to the laws of nature.' The fourth is the final (or telic) cause.the goal or purpose intended.

For Aristotle, everything in nature has an end or purpose. Here Aristotelian science conflicts with mod.ern science, which has given up the question of "Why?" and asks "How?" There is a goal toward which everything is ., a kitten to become a cat, an acorn to become an oak. The final cause is the cause of causality in the other causes. As with human beings, nothing in nature is done without a purpose (although~ for most things this may be unconscious). For Aristotle purpose is immanent, not transcendent. An illustration of the four causes may be seen in the work of a sculptor: the marble on which he works is the material cause; the sculptor himself is the efficient cause; the pattern for the statue is the formal cause; and the purpose for which the work is undertaken is the final cause. World as Potentiality. We may consider change as the development or transition from potentiality to actuality. There are active and passive potentialities. Not all possibilities are realized. A potency becoming" actual can mean that something new comes about or that something which is a part of an object is activated.

Aristotle comes close to Plato when he considers the underlying factor responsible for the movement of all things. This factor is their form (eidos), which is the mover. Everything has in itself a power, a potency (e.g., the pupa of a butterfly has the potency to fly). Only in the act itself (en energeia) is the thing perfect. The goal toward which the activity moves is the entelechy (entelecheia, complete raity) of that thing. The perfection of things is im. immanent in them, and they move toward actuality. (This explains Aristotle's close investigation of everything.) The most perfect entelechy is thought, hence the prime mover is thought (nous). This supreme mind is transcen.dent; it has to think about itself, or it would not be perfect. The prime mover is not a causal agent in an active moves other things by being an object of their desire: they desire its supreme perfection and thus are moved. God.19 Late in his life Aristotle allowed for a n.multiplicity of unmoved moves, but his surviving work does not explain how they would have been related to the prime mover. Even without this complication,

Aristotle's view of "God' was quite unlike the biblical conception. The eternal mind, always contemplating its own thinking, was the logical culmination of the hierarchy of substances and the ultimate explanation of motion and change.but it was not a person exercising providence or revealing his will. It affected the universe only through the desire for its unattainable perfection that it in.spired, but was not in any sense the creator of the universe. Aristotle's thought was centered in the universe; and his "God' was a part of the structure of reality, at its pinnacle to be sure, but not outside it or its cause.


Aristotle preferred to speak of powers of the soul rather than parts. He found three kinds of souls:

1. Nutritive or vegetative souls. These lowest souls simply possess the principle of life: nutrition, repair, and repro.duction. This is sheer biological life shared by all living things.

2. Sensitive or animal souls. In addition to possessing the principle of life, the middle level possesses sensations: senses, impulses, instincts. The sensitive faculty is the source of desire and motion, which separates animal life from plant life.

3. Thinking or rational souls. The highest level of life possesses reason or intellect, in addition to all the faculties of the lower souls. This level is found in human beings alone.

Aristotle's view of form and matter was ready.made to fit his view of humanity. Soul and body are related as form and matter, with the soul as the organizing principle of the body. Soul and body can be distinguished only in thought, not in fact. For Plato, following Pythagorean thought, the body is the instrument or vehicle of the soul: "I am a soul; I have a body." This is not so for Aristotle: there cannot be body without soul, or soul without body. His view had the advantage of preserving the human being intact, but it created problems for Christian thought in the later Middle Ages. Aristotle allowed that a part of the intellect might survive death, but his followers developed this in reference to the universal soul shared by individuals, and not as allowing an individual immortality.

Theory of Knowledge.

Aristotle reversed Plato's epistemology, as he did other things. Knowledge depends on sense experience. By sensation a ,asps the particular; by the intellect he learns the universal. Sensations provide the beginning or basis of knowledge, ts end. Since the universal is in the particular, the intellect can go sense experience and abstract the form from matter, the universal particular. The mind has no form or structure of its own to impose on things perceived. It finds the universal by taking the common elements he individuals.


Since human beings are distinguished from other life by realities, the supreme good for them is a rational life. Persons have retical. reason and practical reason. Theoretical reason is the capacity (, understand, and contemplate, while practical reason is reason ) conduct. For a human being, therefore, happiness will include intellectual and moral virtues. The fulfillment of theoretical reason is e, learning the truth; the fulfillment of practical reason is moral is analysis influenced Hellenistic philosophical thought and through in categories for many centuries. Aristotle's successors classified ers as theoretical or practical. Christian thinkers spoke of theoretical (contemplative). ) and practical (active) lives.

Moral virtue requires that actions possess three qualities: that they be chosen, and in conformity. to the mean. A voluntary action is a volition. An unwilling action involves external compulsion or ignore circumstances (here Aristotle distinguishes culpable from ignorance). A chosen act is a product of reflection, of deliberation. ine of the mean identifies virtue as the middle term between the )f excess and deficiency~ For example, courage is the mean between icss (excess) and cowardice (deficiency).

Aristotle did not define happiness in terms of externals, but unlike " Heflenistic moralists he aflowed that some goods were instru.iecessary to the good life. Of great importance for the future was ~tion of happiness with the highest part of human nature. lf the divine in comparison with the rest of human nature, the life of tion will be divine in comparison with human life in general and ;s in the highest degree the quality of self.sufficiency.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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