“It is impossible, then, that “being a man” should mean precisely “not being a man”, if ‘man’ not only signifies something about one subject but also has one significance….…[It] will not be possible to be and not to be the same thing, except in virtue of an ambiguity, just as if one whom we call “man”, and others were to call “not-man”; but the point in question is not this, whether the same thing can at the same time be and not be a man in name, but whether it can be in fact.”
Category Archives: Aristotle[post_grid id="10037"]
by Joel Bowman
Don’t tell the politicians, Classical Reader, neither on the left, nor on the right. In the non-trivial jurisdiction of the metaphysical, there’s simply no such thing as a contradiction. At least not for Aristotle. The Father of Logic even went so far as to propose a law (more about which below) expressly forbidding it. But first, let us take a step back in order to afford ourselves a wider, grander view of the “world” of metaphysics.
We might begin our inquiry in the following manner: What is metaphysics and what is it like? Indeed, one would be hard pressed to conduct even the crudest analysis of anything without the service of these two, basic questions. And, in a way, it is precisely these questions which metaphysics itself seeks to answer…what is there? (what exists, the fundamental nature of the world and of being) and what it is like? (the characteristics that help us to describe these very natures).
Although the prefix “meta” actually means “beyond,” leading many scholars to misinterpret its meaning as the study of what is “outside of” or “beyond” nature, Aristotle himself used the term to describe what he saw as the “first philosophy.” For him, it was physics, then the basic questioning of and about them: metaphysics. The subject, to which Aristotle referred to as “Queen of the Sciences” was, and in many ways still is, the primary means by which we delve into both the existence and essence of all that is.
Kindly, and with the fastidious scientific exactitude for which he was known, Aristotle divided the study of metaphysics into three distinct (at least they remained so at the time) categories. They were:
1. The Universal Science – The study of first principles, the very method of inquiry itself and the correct procedure by which would be illuminated;
2. The Ontological – The study and (again, meticulous) classification of beings and entities, including those of both physical and mental nature, and the changes these beings and entities undergo and;
3. The Study of Natural Theology – All things germane to religion, creation, the divine and the endless and, perhaps, ultimately unknowable workings and motivations of the gods.
Having not ourselves confidently progressed past the first of the first (of the first…) of these principles, we shall confine our comments to that of the Universal Science category. By way of introduction, let us examine Aristotle’s three Laws of Thought, the basis of what is often called Term (or Aristotelian) Logic.
In the first such law, Aristotle gets what ought to be obvious out of the way with the Law of Identity (A = A). Of course, the question “why is an apple an apple?” is, in itself, meaningless. By being an apple, it cannot, logically, be something other than such. That a something is what it is – and not something else – ought to be apparent from the outset, says Aristotle. “The fact that a thing is itself is the single reason and the single cause to be given in answer to all such questions as why the man is man, or the musician musical.”
The second rule, as we’ve discussed, is the Law of Non-Contradiction, which holds that opposing statements cannot be both true in the same sense and at the same time. Eg. The claims “X = Y” and “X ≠ Y” are mutually exclusive. Indeed, Aristotle himself reasons, “One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time.”
Complement to this second law of thought is Aristotle’s Law of Excluded Middle. Here the mighty inquirer sets out to eliminate compromise – at least in the metaphysical sense of the word. Simply put, something must either be…or not. A proposition is true, in other words, or its negation is.
Of course it may be the case that a fleck of ambiguity of terms muddies the waters. This is not the point, however, but rather an underscoring of why precise definitions matter from the outset.
Aristotle, here from Metaphysics:
And from the sturdy moorings of these three Laws of Thought, Aristotle sets off into the oceanic philosophical undertaking ahead of him.
What is? he wonders, And what is it like?
We can’t say for sure why the Greeks took it upon themselves to embark on such a formidably exhaustive examination of all things under – and including – the gods, but we are certainly glad they did so. Without Aristotle’s Heraclesian efforts in paving the way in this, the first of all philosophies, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be so very confused by the subsequent minds who have tackled the subject.
Indeed, the ever insightful Voltaire put it thus: “When he to whom one speaks does not understand, and he who speaks himself does not understand, that is metaphysics.”
But again, Classical Reader, we must do all we can to keep these historical insights from our politicians and their mischievous ilk, lest we deny ourselves their incessant pursuits of circular logic and self-contradiction. If such public figures begin to make sense, any sense at all, they will surely lose all comedic value. And who will make the gods laugh then?
The achievement of happiness, according to Aristotle, is the end goal of every man.
His reasoning is thus: All human activities are done in order to attain something that is good. We don’t do something because we think it will be bad for us. In addition, most of these activities are not the main objective, but rather a means to a higher end. Consequently, the activity that is an end in itself, writes the prolific philosopher, is the highest good, and that good is happiness. We aim at happiness for its own sake, not because it will achieve something else. Happiness, therefore, is our greatest mission.
Supposing this to be our aim, Aristotle then proceeds in his Nicomachean Ethics to figure out how best to achieve this goal.
Aristotle starts with the claim that happiness is dependent on virtue. He describes virtue as a disposition, rather than an activity. The individual needs to be naturally a ‘virtuous’ person, rather than just acting accordingly. This exemplary man finds doing virtuous acts pleasurable, which is presumably why he does them.
But then, what is ‘virtuous’?
At this moment our scientific philosopher is uncharacteristically vague. Virtue exists somewhere in the mean, and therefore is subjective. The right path lies between excess and deficiency. The man should not be a coward nor rash. He shouldn’t be wasteful, nor stingy. He shouldn’t be described as boorish nor acting as a buffoon. The pattern is quick to reveal itself.
Plato’s student then clarifies that one’s actions can only be judged as praiseworthy or blameworthy if they are voluntary. Oedipus sleeping with his mother unknowingly, therefore, was not sinful. The decision to act must come from the rational and deliberating agent who executes the action, and not from some outside third party. This definition does get a little tricky, unfortunately, when considering actions committed under duress or severe threat.
In true Aristotelian fashion, he then proceeds to outline and categorize all of the virtues and vices as he sees them. It’s good to be patient, for instance, when facing anger, but every now and then, it’s advisable to display a small amount of wrath yourself. It’s recommended to have the social virtues of wit, amiability and sincerity. Modesty is most appropriate among the young, and so on.
We now come upon the issue of Justice, which Aristotle comments, encompasses all of the other virtues. This is because we need to exhibit the full range of proper behavior in order to be deemed ‘just’. This term is further examined and dissected into two primary forms of justice: distributive and rectificatory. The former, which at first appears socialist, addresses the need to distribute wealth and honors among the people… but only according to merit. The latter justice is concerned with the exchanges between two or more people. It aims at maintaining a sense of balance and equality among those involved.
The philosopher then asserts that it is impossible to treat oneself unjustly or to suffer injustice willingly. Afterwards he concedes that while the law is a suitable guideline, it is by no means exhaustive. At times men must discuss the issue and come to an agreeance.
Moral virtues, unfortunately, aren’t quite enough. The ideal man also needs the intellectual virtues. These are described as calculative reasoning, such as art or technical skill and prudence. There is also contemplative reasoning, which is detached from from human affairs. This includes scientific knowledge, intuition, and wisdom. With these abilities we can rationally choose what is the most virtuous thing to do.
What about the people who know what is good, some might ask, but lack the self-will to do anything about it? Aristotle assigns them the special category of “incontinent”. Incontinence is not desirable, but it is also not quite as bad as actual vice. This is because it is deemed partially involuntary.
Aristotle’s investigation then takes a huge right turn into the arena of friendship. While it is realm of ethics not usually explored in modern times, our ancient greek philosopher took it very seriously. He began by separating out the different types of friendship: Those based on utility, on pleasure and on goodness of character. Not surprisingly, the latter is the most preferable. Friendship based on goodness will last because it is between two people who love each other for who they are, not for what they can gain from each other.
Justice and friendship are closely connected, says Aristotle, because the state needs its citizens to be friendly with each other. He proceeds then to outline the three different types of political institutions based on friendship, nominating monarchy over aristocracy and timocracy as preferable.
Aristotle then employs what we now think of as the ‘oxygen mask first’ principle. When we are on a plane, we need to apply our own oxygen mask first, before assisting others. Likewise, we have to love ourselves before we can love another. Therefore self-love, argues Aristotle, is considered higher than friendship. While a fully self-sufficient person can technically be happy, he will have with a better, more contented life if he has true friendship.
Finally Aristotle advocates a life with as much contemplation as possible. This is because doing good things will make good people happy and rational thought is the highest good. The practical sciences, therefore, should be pursued. They will enable us in finding the right path in life, as well as help with the practical issues that consume our time and attention. Essentially, go to a park… but remember to take a book.
In this life, whether you are a philosopher or not, you will need to know how to persuade people.
Aristotle tells us as much within his work on rhetoric, aptly titled Rhetoric.
This was one of old Artie’s books that I only glossed over in my formative years. Depending on whom you read in your introductory to philosophy class as an undergrad, you might be of the belief that philosophy and rhetoric are mutually exclusive. They are as incompatible as cats and dogs, cops and robbers, Giants and Jets fans. You get the picture.
Plato was one such chap who despised rhetoric. He describes it, not as an art form, but as “a type of flattery”, within his dialogue Gorgias.
Plato’s distaste for rhetoric is perhaps not surprising. The rock stars of rhetoric during the age of classical Greece would have been the Sophists, the ancient equivalent of personal injury attorneys.
The Sophists were a series of wandering lecturers, skilled rhetoricians who would happily use their abilities to argue on behalf of anybody or any cause, so long as the price was right. Plato viewed them as the anti-philosophers. They did not care for objective truth or wisdom, only in convincing others through dubious and questionable means. To Plato, the Sophists, as well as rhetoric in general, was something of a disease that infected the minds of citizens and distracted them from the noble pursuits of philosophy.
Aristotle, on the other hand, was a bit more realistic about the state of human nature. He did espouse that through contemplation and rigorous study, we could come to an understanding of that which is virtuous and noble. However, it does little good if we are unable to convince others to believe us!
Rhetoric then becomes something of a necessary evil, a means to convince people who don’t already agree with us about the virtuous and noble lessons that we discover through philosophical contemplation.
Aristotle also makes the claim that rhetoric is not only essential to the field of philosophy, but to every other field of study as well. For in medicine it is crucial for the physician to persuade his patients to pursue the proper habits for health. A political scientist must be skilled in rhetoric so he can convince the lawmakers to enact laws that are beneficial for the polis. This goes for all crafts and art forms, Aristotle says.
Rhetoric, additionally, is also a means of defense for us. Just as we must be physically fit and strong in order to protect ourselves form physical violence, we must also be skilled rhetoricians so as to defend ourselves against discourse aimed at harming our reputation.
In short, the stakes are actually pretty high. So, what is rhetoric and how do we be better at it?
Rhetoric, Aristotle says, is in many ways similar to dialectic, or philosophical argumentation. It can be said that both rhetoric and dialectic are concerned with answering questions that are the concern of everybody. Both practices can be applied to any topic, and both are incredibly useful.
Dialectic, however, is more clinical while rhetoric, out of necessity, is more emotional. Dialectic demands that we arrive at a conclusion by virtue of the plausibility of the argument. Rhetoric, however, cares only that we arrive in close proximity to the truth by any means necessary. Dialectic, therefore, is the best method for teaching, while rhetoric is used as an art form for getting people to agree with you.
Pivoting momentarily, we can see the difference between dialectic and rhetoric within Plato’s The Apology. Within the dialogue, Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, is defending himself in court against charges of impiety and corrupting the youth.
Rather than make use of the tools of rhetoric, Socrates leans heavily on what we might consider a philosophical, or scientific argument to make his case. He does not appeal to the emotions of the crowd. He does not parade his children before the jurors. He does not flatter or appeal to the emotional proclivities of his jurors.
Socrates is interested in convincing others of his position via the merits of his arguments. He has his own reasons for this. As a man who championed wisdom and understanding above all, it would have been slightly hypercritical for him to make use of rhetoric, which relies heavily on emotional appeals, to win his case.
Still, it might have been in the best interest of the philosopher to utilize some of rhetorician’s tools. Socrates’ dispassionate argument is insufficient. He is found guilty and subsequently shuffled off of this mortal coil.
But now back to Aristotle.
A good persuasive argument often appeals to commonly held beliefs. Depending on your opinion on the state of humanity, this might be a very bad thing indeed. However, Aristotle is insistent that human beings have a tendency to lean towards truth and that they mostly arrive at truth on their own. Appealing to popular beliefs, therefore, will often land us in close proximity to the truth.
“Moreover human beings have a sufficient natural tendency toward what is true, and they mostly reach the truth. Hence the one who is good at aiming at the truth is also the one who is good at aiming at what is commonly believed.” –Aristotle (Rhetoric)
To craft a good persuasive argument, we must consider three things.
- The character of the speaker
- The condition of the listener
- The strength and plausibility of the argument itself
The character of the speaker is defined by the speaker’s intelligence, virtue, and goodwill. An intelligent, virtuous man will be deserving of confidence, and he will inspire confidence quickly within the listeners.
While Aristotle is speaking of virtue within the context of making a persuasive argument, this small bit of information also supplements Aristotle’s ethical philosophy. Namely that the best life is one that actively expresses virtue.
We must also consider the condition of the listener in order to craft a persuasive argument. We must recognize and soothe people’s fears. We must identify the emotional side of the argument. Is somebody’s pride on the line? Are they feeling embarrassed? Are they fearful that retracting their position will make them look weak?
We must recognize and acknowledge these possibilities and edge around them accordingly if we hope to be persuasive. We must also recognize that people’s attention spans are notoriously short! Consider inserting witty remarks within your argument to grab people’s attention. I like to consider myself a good student of Aristotle in this regard.
How many philosophers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Four- one to screw in the light bulb and three others to say “Most assuredly Socrates!” “Excellent point Socrates!” “I believe you are correct Socrates!”
Finally, a good persuasive argument must still lean heavily upon the same rules that make a good philosophical, or scientific, argument.
Identify premises that are true and demonstrable. Construct these premises in such a way so that they naturally support a final, previously unknown supposition that we call a conclusion.
Ask yourself, “Are my premises plausible?” “Do they naturally follow and support the conclusion?” “Are their any lapses in my logic that could leave room for implausibility?”
Aristotle’s insistence that a good persuasive argument must still be founded upon a good logical argument is demonstrative of his idea of rhetoric in general. Rhetoric is not some unwieldy weapon that we can use for our personal glory or interest.
The sophists were guilty of such a crime. They used a bastardization of rhetoric to convince people of a position no matter the truth-value contained within that position. They were self-serving in this regard and were subsequently damaging the souls of their fellow citizens.
It is likely that Aristotle had it in his mind to combat such dangers when he laid out his philosophy of rhetoric. He wanted to equip thoughtful, serious, well-intentioned people with the intellectual ammunition that would allow them to cut through the infuriating malarkey of public debate.
He was something of a realist in this regard. He recognized the infuriating tendency for convenient nonsense to win out over logical arguments, and he set about to discover a way to correct such an injustice.
The reason I find Aristotle’s Rhetoric to be of such interest is because he wrote on the topic not for his own curiosity or even for the sake of knowledge itself. In many ways Rhetoric is very much a public service announcement. It is the philosopher’s attempt to better humanity by equipping us with the tools to guide our fellow man away from ignorance, away from prejudice, and toward the light of understanding.
We learn equally from those who were right as from those who were wrong. We cherry pick ancient ideas, forcing us to choose what we believe is morally and ethically correct. Other concepts, however, are cast aside with appropriate disgust.
This is true for Aristotle, who enormously contributed to human knowledge and western thought, and more importantly laid the foundations for a way of thinking and approaching a problem. However our current society, it might be argued, only truly advanced once we started to question the man Dante called “the master of those who know.”
This is particularly evident when the modern reader picks up Politics- Book I and bitterly digests it, spoiled by the centuries of personal liberation and autonomy. It is a treatise which states who should naturally rule and who with unfortunate circumstance is doomed to be ruled. It goes further to say this subjugation is both just and beneficial.
But we can forgive a man who postulated such beliefs over 2000 years ago, in arguably less enlightened times. We pardon Aristotle for viewing himself as sufficiently more knowledgeable than others and therefore just in reigning over them.
We can not condone, however, today’s rulers who continue such abhorrent beliefs.
His political posits start innocently enough. Man, Aristotle argues, is a political animal, as are the social swarms of bees and ants. It is only the human, however, who has the capacity of rational speech. Nature makes nothing pointlessly, so this unique attribute is for the political ends of man.
Aristotle continues that the city-state is the highest goal of community, because it has reached its perfected end and that it is a natural, though crafted, occurrence.
We start out as couples with the need to procreate. This in turn becomes a household, ruled by the eldest as king. Eventually, individual houses collect, choosing to co-exist for the benefits of trade. The village becomes a city-state, but only once it has achieved total self-sufficiency. This all proceeds naturally, and those who can survive beyond the town’s limits without anyone else is either “a beast or a god”. (1253b 30)
Within the society, says our late philosopher, you have the rulers and the ruled. Just as the soul and reason control the body, so too do those in charge of the community have the right to domineer over the rest. Only those with practical wisdom and virtue have the necessary characteristics to exercise control. This, according to Aristotle, is true at every level of human interaction, both intimate and national.
In begins in the household. Within this ‘whole’ micro-kingdom reside the following ‘parts’: the husband and the wife, the father and the child, and the master and the slave. In each situation there is, naturally, according to Aristotle, the one with control and the other who must obey.
Aristotle submits, “For ruling and being ruled are not only necessary, they are also beneficial, and some things are distinguished right from birth, some suited to rule and others to being ruled”. 1254a 21-22.
The reason why slaves are naturally meant to be ruled is because they are missing the deliberative part of the soul. This is evidenced, says Aristotle, by the fact that they are ruled. Women are fortunate enough to possess this crucial virtue, but lack the authority to use it. Children also have it, but it is not completely developed. Non-Greeks essentially fall into the ‘slave’ category. Consequently, everyone must be ruled by Free, Greek Citizen Men.
This domination, according to the philosopher who knows it all, is good for the slaves, women and children because it keeps them safe, just as a domesticated animal is more secure than its wild counterpart.
Many modern readers will balk at Aristotle’s claim of the right of men to rule over their wives and slaves. What then are we to make of the exponentially scaled up version of this idea? Aristotle provides an example here of how a slight mismeasurement of first principles can lead to dramatic, reductio ad absurdum consequences.
These guidelines as argued by Aristotle, also hold true at the level of city-state. In this larger arena, the rule is administered by Free men over other citizens. The most intelligent and capable reserve the honor of telling the others what to do. In cases where they are equal, they take turns.
The premise then is that some men have the inherent right to rule over others because they know what is “best for them”. It separates those who know what is good and bad from others who are supposedly deficient in this knowledge. Rather than allowing each individual the right to choose for themselves what course of action they will take, other – according to Aristotle – better people will tell them what they should do.
Something, unfortunately, we still hear politicians say today.
In every major social debate, there are some who believe that they know best and therefore have the right to tell others what to do. This presupposes that the rest are deficient in virtue, just as slaves, women and children were in Aristotle’s day. Maybe, in the end, the autonomy and liberation Aristotle claimed for some should be extended to all.
“Aristotle’s Virtue For Some” was written by Anya Leonard
By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
While the works of Aristotle are numerous, detailed, and profound in their own ways, it is arguable that the philosopher’s most notable contributions are in the realm of Ethics. It was once believed that all you really needed to know about Western philosophy could be found within the pages of Plato’s The Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
While we may be hesitant to dismiss the numerous other philosophical contributions so quickly, this notion does accurately display the profound influence Aristotelian ethics has had on the world of philosophy and beyond. More of a guide to self improvement rather than a series of abstract musings, Nicomachean Ethics aims at making us better people, or as Aristotle puts it, “excellent people.” It is for this reason that these ideas are of such importance. No longer are we trapped in the realm of theoretical consideration. We are on a mission to find “The Good” and shape ourselves accordingly.
Aristotle makes the claim that all things have a final end or purpose for which they aim. This is known as “the final cause” and it is the culmination of a things potential. For a seed, the final cause would be an adult tree. For a sailboat, the final cause would be the act of sailing. However, for a human being, the final cause is… what exactly?
You may be tempted to say that there is not final cause, no ultimate end at which we aim. That would beg the question, ‘why do anything at all?’ Aristotle argues that there must be a final end to our actions. All of our suffering and our struggles must be an attempt to arrive at some final good that is intrinsically desirable. Otherwise, we would find ourselves stuck in an infinite regression where we continuously seek out extrinsic goods but never arrive at some final destination.
An illustration of this is quite simple. If you were to ask me why I write philosophy newsletters, I would undoubtedly give you an answer. I might tell you that I get paid to do this, or that I have an obligation that I wish to fulfill. Receiving money or living up to obligations is good, but they are only good insofar as they can get you other things such as a cozy apartment or the respect of your employers. Therefore, these things are not good in themselves, but only good in that they allow us to receive other things.
If I were to find myself lost in the desert, with millions of dollars in my briefcase, I would sooner burn the money to attract the attention of a passing jet liner rather than carry around so much worthless paper. With nothing to spend it on, money is of no use. It’s value only extends as far as it’s ability to obtain other things. In this way, money and material wealth are extrinsic goods. From this we understand that wealth can not be our final cause, for it is not intrinsically desirable.
If we were to continue on this line of questioning about why I write, you could ask why I want a cozy apartment or the respect of my employers. With every answer I give, you could then ask me once more, ‘why?’ After some time of this, I guarantee that eventually I will tell you “… because I want to be happy.” If you were to ask me again why I want to be happy, I would immediately stop talking to you and walk away.
Why do you want to be happy? The answer, it would seem, is that we just do. Unlike money, happiness needs no alternate goods to be of use. Happiness is of value; it is perhaps the most valuable asset we can ever achieve. You cannot store it in a bank or invest it in emerging markets. It cannot gain compounding interest, nor can it be converted to gold. Yet there it is, happiness: it is desirable in itself. Happiness is complete, fulfilling, and intrinsically desirable and it can be argued that once you have happiness, you need nothing else.
Before we go on (and we undoubtedly will), we must address some common misunderstandings. While it is often said that money cannot buy happiness, we can certainly agree that a deficiency of money can certainly bring miseries. Aristotle is something of a pragmatic thinker and so he admits that while wealth will never bring you true happiness, one still has to eat. Therefore, it might not be a bad idea to acquire some wealth so that you can afford things like groceries or a studio apartment. An old professor of mine once described this notion in the following way:
“Being rich won’t make you happy. Still, if you are going to sob, it will be much more comfortable while sitting in a Mercedes Benz rather than on a public bus.”
Money will not bring you happiness. That still leaves the rather obvious question, “what is happiness?” Modern readers often get bogged down when considering this idea. For Aristotle, acquiring happiness is the same thing as “living the good life.” Okay then, fine, whatever…Now you may be asking yourself, “what is the good life,” wringing your hands in unbridled anticipation.
Surprisingly, Aristotle takes a page from Protagoras of all people. Protagoras, a sophist of ancient Greece, is best known for his assertion that all virtues are determined by the opinions of man which is explained by the quote, “Man is the measure of all things.” Aristotle changes this just enough so that it serves our purposes. Rather than judging a good life by the opinions of any man, Aristotle examines the beliefs of “the excellent man.”
“If this is correct, as it seems to be, and virtue, i.e., the good person insofar as he is good, is the measure of each thing, then what appears as pleasures to him will also BE pleasures. Whatever things are truly pleasant, they will be enjoyed by him.” -Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics)
The excellent person is something of a hypothetical, for it is very unlikely we could ever find one single, perfect, person. Whatever pleasures are enjoyed by this most excellent person will be the truest and most excellent of all pleasures. There may certainly be others who would disagree with the excellent person. Aristotle dismisses this rather easily.
If you are to disagree with the excellent person, then you are just wrong. This is unsurprising since many are corrupted by evils and selfish desires. They make take pleasure in harming others, for instance. We need not consider these people, for they misunderstand true happiness and are flawed for this reason.
Finally Aristotle tells us that the pleasures enjoyed by the excellent person are expressions of virtue. Expressing virtue is the most excellent of activities and so it would be loved most of all by this excellent person. Of all virtues that we could possibly choose to constitute our happy lives, Aristotle tells us there is one above all others that prevails.
Remember that happiness is intrinsically good. Happiness is desirable in itself and requires no external goods in order to be appreciated. Certain virtues, however, do require these external objects. A just person, although very admirable, still needs other people to receive his just actions. A generous person, similarly, needs an abundance or resources so that he might give them to others in need. So there remains only one virtue that is desirable in itself, complete and eternally fulfilling.
Happiness is a life in pursuit of wisdom. Finally, after so much consideration, we receive our answer, friends. This idea corresponds very well to earlier Aristotelian essays where the philosopher describes a human being as being a rational animal. While other virtues require others to receive the bounty, wisdom is desirable in itself. The activity of study aims at no thing beyond itself and is pleasurable by its very nature.
Aristotle considers wisdom to be, in some ways, divine, for it is believed that the gods are happiest of all. Of all the virtues the gods may possess, eternal and complete wisdom is the most fundamental and powerful. By pursuing wisdom and a life of study, we become closer to the gods, divine in our own small way.
“…what is proper to each things nature is supremely best and pleasantest for it; and hence for a human being the life expressing understanding will be supremely best and pleasantest, if understanding above all is the human being. This life, then, will also be happiest.” -Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics)
This idea that a life of study will bring us happiness falls very closely to the ideas of Socrates. The father of Western philosophy once prompted us to live an examined life; to explore and endeavor to discover the true depths of our wisdom and to never falter in our pursuit of understanding and truth.
If a pursuit of wisdom is truly the happiest of lives, then it is perhaps unsurprising that after accumulating great wealth, and raising a beautiful family, so many people find themselves returning to study, the activity that is supremely pleasant. Our ability to learn and our penchant for wisdom make us divine in our own rights; and it is only though the expression of our supreme element that we may truly be happy.
Aristotle probably would have liked Titanic. He might have even compared it to Sophocles’ Theban Plays, celebrating Jack and Rose as one might appreciate Antigone and Oedipus. We can’t be sure, of course, but in all likelihood Plato’s student would have praised the late 90’s sob story as an exemplary specimen of tragedy. Maybe that’s the reason Aristotle’s treatise on Poetics runs into a few icebergs of its own.
His first Titanic-sized mistake was equating poetry to science. Aristotle tried to dissect plays and the art of tragedy as if they were a pickled frog in high school biology class. He applied his consistently rational mind to a sphere of ideas which are usually assigned to the emotional and, at times, even irrational.
In Poetics, Aristotle outlines what he sees as the essential components of tragedy, along with a few interesting literary devices that can be thrown in to spice things up. These legislations on literature went on to have a significant influence throughout the ages and, in fact, remained prevalent and often unquestioned until the 19th century.
Of course, some of his ‘rules’ do work… but when fully applied, you end up with a James Cameron cry fest.
Before anything else, Aristotle defines ‘tragedy’. It is something, says he, that evokes pity, fear and emotion in us. It is a katharsis, a cleansing of feeling. Interestingly, we can only feel so much for these characters because of another attribute of tragedy; mimesis, or the idea that the actions that occur are possible and relatable. It doesn’t have to be realistic, per se, but it has to be something we can imagine…
This is important precisely because the events are not actually happening, but still inspire deep emotion within us. Therefore, we can cry and feel better without having to contemplate too much the real tragedies that exist all around us.
Now for Aristotle’s rules on what makes a tragedy as “good” as Titanic.
His first posit regards plot, or mythos. Plot is more important than Character, according to Aristotle, as it drives a course of actions that captivates the audience, no matter what teenage heart throb is the mouthpiece.
These series of events must occur in order and in a sequence that makes sense, argues Aristotle. There must be a beginning, a middle and an end. The ship can only start sinking once it has hit a block of ice. In addition, a tragic story must move from happiness to desolate sadness, such as a sunken vessel and a dead lover.
The actions have to be complete and fully contained within the story. We don’t care where Rose went to school or if Jack has a pirate tattoo. All the essential plot points occur within the tale, with nothing unnecessary added nor anything important missing. This is also crucial for the Unity of the plot. It should be something that nicely ties together with a big bow at the end.
Aristotle’s next regulation concerns the magnitude of the art itself. It must, he assures us, be consumed as a unity, within the eye’s spectrum or an audience member’s patience. The never ending works of Wagner and crop circles, only visible from the sky, would hold little value for this philosopher. The two and half hours it takes for the Titanic to capsize, however, fits the bill perfectly.
Then Aristotle throws a bone to the writers of the world. He gives them the “rule of possibility”, allowing them to write whatever they want if it makes the story more compelling. Aristotle believes, after all, that poetry is more significant than history because it speaks more universally.
Did Rose and Jack actually walk the boards of that famous ship? Probably not. But does their moonlight traipse tell a nice story of class struggle? Sure, why not.
Then there are the clever ways of stirring up the plot’s pot. Elements such as ‘Recognition’, where someone discovers some great unknown, can change the course of action to its finale.
‘Reversal of the Situation’ is another fantastic way to swiftly switch things around. At the close of the art, the audience should be surprised, while still believing the possibility of what happened. For instance, we may not have expected to see an elderly Rose reveal that she has had the jewel all along! But it is, by no means, outside the realm of possibility.
Admittedly, Titanic was a blockbuster. It was clearly a very successful film, one of the most recognized movies of our time. It adheres to a plethora of Aristotle’s prescriptions… down to the ever popular Greek theme of Hubris, as witnessed in the initial description of that unsinkable ship.
Then surely Aristotle must be right, describing exactly what poetry in tragedy should be. Following that logic, Titanic is everyone’s favorite sad movie because it encompasses all the qualities of the ideal tragedy. Unfortunately, Titanic isn’t universally appealing. While some people love the emotive film, other individuals hate it.
This inconvenient truth disrupts Aristotle’s literary laws because art is not as rational as a chemistry set. Art is subjective.
In the end, tragedy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Throughout history, critics and theorists have tried to put rules around artistic endeavors and have failed. The impressionists, for instance, broke all the regulations according to the French academy…and yet their masterpieces now adorn the walls of the very best art museums.
So then, what was the point of Aristotle’s Poetics? What did he achieve?
He actually accomplished a lot.
Aristotle was sticking up for art by rebelling against Plato. In his teacher’s famous work, The Republic, Plato admonishes the creative pursuits, insisting that it has no value. According to Plato, life as we know it is just an imitation of the things that truly exist. Why, then, would you want something that is an imitation of an imitation?
Aristotle countered this accusation head-on in Poetics. We know art is an imitation, and yet we are still moved by it. Why?
Aristotle believed that we are naturally attracted to poetry and art. He observed that imitations of things have the power to fascinate and enthrall us, while the real thing might in fact leave us disgusted. So too can we learn from art forms, an act that in and of itself brings us pleasure. Likewise, art has the power to inspire feelings, states of mind and awareness of abstract, general ideas.
To Aristotle, the emotive arousal, the acts of katharsis, the release of sentimental tensions are, indeed, good for us. This is probably why blockbusters, like Titanic, do so well.
After all the rules, definitions and posits, can we say that the scientifically minded Aristotle understood tragedy? We aren’t certain, but we do respect that this unlikely champion was the first to even think about art critically… and stand up for it.
“Aristotle’s Poetics – The Science of Tragedy” was written by Anya Leonard