What contributions were made by Aristotle?

Metaphysics and virtue ethics in Aristotle

This post deals with the topics of metaphysics and virtue ethics in Aristotle, Plato's most famous student. Aristotle lived in the 4th century BC, in antiquity. Nevertheless, his thoughts on ethics in particular are still relevant today. In the following, the focus is on Nicomacheanethics. But first we clarify questions about metaphysics: What does the term mean? What is the discipline about? And what influence did Aristotle have on this discipline? | Reading time: 7 min.

While Plato belonged to the Athenian high aristocracy and was a respected citizen, Aristotle was not a native of Athens and was considered a Metöke there. That means, as mentioned in the contribution to the Socratic method, that he had no civil rights in the city-state. That may have been one reason why Aristotle saw the world in a different light than his teacher Plato - which is also reflected in Aristotle's philosophy. For example in his thoughts on metaphysics.

Note: The post is on YouTube Metaphysics in Aristotle available as video.

Metaphysics in Aristotle

First of all, a general question: what is metaphysics anyway? The Large Complete Universal Lexicon of All Sciences and Arts from the 18th century writes about the word "metaphysics" (or metaphysics) that it has been used in various ways by philosophers of all times and therefore "cannot be explained at all." You will often find such a vague definition. For example, the first sentence on the keyword "metaphysics" in the Stanford encyclopedia on philosophy reads: It is not easy to say what metaphysics is. A lexicon entry that begins with bringing the expectations of the inquisitive down to earth. If there is such a floor at all. Let's first break down the term into its components.

The term "metaphysics"

"Metaphysics" is made up of the Greek words meta (μετά) - beyond, and phýsis (φύσις) - nature. So metaphysics includes things beyond nature. Everything that we cannot perceive with our five senses or grasp empirically (i.e. through observation) falls into the field of metaphysics. We have already roughly outlined it as a philosophical discipline. Metaphysics is considered to be Basic discipline philosophy, which deals with questions about the "first foundations" of all being in the cosmos. Even if we trace this discipline back to Aristotle today, metaphysical ideas were discussed beforehand - by Aristotle's teacher Plato, by Plato's teacher Socrates and even by some pre-Socratics. But no one in antiquity left behind such a well-thought-out work as Aristotle.

What did Aristotle invent or what?

Aristotle was the first thinker in Western philosophy to systematically explain why an investigation of the non-empirical is necessary in order to understand the empirical. An early editor of his writings was Andronikos of Rhodes. He sorted Aristotle's texts and referred to everything that thematically went beyond empirical, physical natural things as Metaphysics. Since then we have been talking about metaphysics in Aristotle - as a science that examines beings as beings. Declared goal: the acquisition of wisdom. What is wisdom Here: The knowledge of the first reasons and the last principles. What are first reasons and last principles? That needs to be clarified. Metaphysics poses such fundamental questions as: Why is there something and not nothing?

Human reason has a special fate in one species of its knowledge: that it is troubled by questions which it cannot reject, because they are given to it by the nature of reason itself, which it cannot answer either, because they exceed everything Faculties of human reason.

Immanuel Kant: Critique of Reason, A, VII.

Metaphysics in Aristotle

What is the difference between Aristotle and his predecessors? He criticized the pre-Socratic ideas for citing empirical things as the primary material or cause of beings - Thales, for example, water, Anaximenes, air, which means that from today's perspective they are part of natural philosophy rather than metaphysics. More on this in the article on the pre-Socratics. (Link follows) Aristotle, on the other hand, accuses the Platonic ideas of a kind of duplication. You can find more about the criticism of his teacher in the article on Plato's theory of ideas.

Metaphysics and ontology

While for Plato the perceptible natural things are only a reflection of conceivable ideas, for Aristotle these things are considered to be something existent. The "being" is, however, an ambiguous term in Aristotle. The doctrine of beings is also referred to as ontology. That can be confusing - where is it Difference Between Metaphysics and Ontology?

In a nutshell: Metaphysics was divided into a general (metaphysica generalis) and a special metaphysics (metaphysica specialis). General metaphysics corresponds to ontology and special metaphysics with subjects such as the eternal or divine, roughly speaking, to theology - which did not prevent theologians from providing an ontological proof of God.1

All people strive for knowledge

It would go beyond the scope here to go into Aristotle's metaphysics in detail. In any case, his writings had a great influence on thinking in the Middle Ages. We come to this in the article about the proofs of God in Thomas and Anselm. (Link follows) A fitting quote from the historian Jacob Burckhardt, once again: "The religions are the expression of the eternal and indestructible metaphysical needs of human nature." But the penultimate word belongs to Aristotle himself and himself Introduction to metaphysicswhich reads:

All human beings naturally strive for knowledge; this proves the joy in the sensory perceptions, for these delight in themselves, also apart from the use, and above all the perceptions by means of the eyes.

Virtue ethics in Aristotle

So far it has been about how things are. Now let's look at how to do it should be - and thus the ethics of virtue in Aristotle. In the following, the focus is on Nicomachean Ethics. This work by Aristotle is presumably named after his father Nicomachus.

Note: The post is on YouTube Virtue ethics in Aristotle available as video.

The goal of life

In the first part of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle determines the »Guiding goal of human action«. Ethics in general is about moral action. There is a separate article on this here. (Link follows) Aristotle now asks: Why do we do what we do? Our medicine serves health, the economy (or economy) serves prosperity, but who is health and prosperity for?

Aristotle names as the ultimate goal of our actions: happiness. Or: eudaemonia, which the next articles on Epicurus and Hedonism will also be about. Eudaemonia is a complex term that is poorly translated as "happiness" or "bliss" and can have different meanings depending on the concept. So with Aristotle, happiness, unlike in hedonism, is not just the most important goal, but that too all-encompassing Aim. Happiness does not serve anything else. We strive for it for its own sake. But how do we achieve this goal? This is where virtue comes in, or in Greek: Arete.

The purpose of man

In German, the term »virtue« is related to »suitability«. What is suitable is what fulfills its purpose - a net, for example, when it catches fish. Everything had a purpose or a function to Aristotle. What is the special function of humans? All organisms, including plants and animals, have life-support functions. Animals and humans have functions of perception. One function that only belongs to humans is that Logos - which we already met in the article on the pre-Socratics (link follows), here again well translated as: reason.

If, for Aristotle, the goodness of a thing depends on the fulfillment of its function, and if the function of us humans is reason, then we would do well to use this reason. Just as a net is good for catching fish, a person is good for thinking. And a fit person is a virtuous person. In ancient philosophy, "Arete" was the term for "virtue" - namely virtue in the sense of the best possible condition. We can strive for this in every character trait and area of ​​life, whereby best state does not mean an extreme.

The middle way to happiness

Aristotle defines virtue as "a behavior of decision that keeps the center [...] and is determined by deliberation" (NE, 1106b). That means we think about the best middle ground. Using the example of courage as a character trait, we behave neither tired of life nor cowardly - the two extremes of courage when we have too much or too little of it - but we behave bravely. Bravery is well-considered courage between extremes, and thus: a virtue. Another example: When dealing with money, we are neither stingy nor wasteful - we are generous, because generosity is a virtue.

But whoever behaves virtuously does not immediately have a virtuous character. This takes habit: by always deliberately aligning our behavior with the best possible middle ground, we develop a virtuous character. And it is such a virtuous character that Aristotle extols as true bliss. So easy!

  1. Just take a look at that as an example Metaphysics with Gottfried W. Leibniz: »If one takes the classification of metaphysics established by Christian Wolff (1679-1754) as a basis, Leibniz gives a new answer to the problems of the ontology or metaphysica generalis. What about that metaphysica specialis concerns, then (give) the doctrinal pieces of God as the last, sufficient reason (...) in the rational theology also answers that only appear traditional at first glance. «- Hubertus Busche (ed.): Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz:Monadology, P. 2.