Welcome to the latest instalment in my Friday Philosophy series. Each week we look at a significant idea from a renowned philosopher from history. In recent posts we covered the presocratics of ancient Greece (like Xenophanes and Heraclitus), then went on to look at the Academics (with Socrates and Plato). This week, we’re covering the other great Academic yet to make an appearance – Aristotle.
Who Was He?
Aristotle (384-322 BC) is considered to be one of the most prolific thinkers in the history of Western thought. As well as being a groundbreaking philosopher, he was also a scientist, astronomer, and political theorist. I think the term polymath would be appropriate.
Aristotle’s thought has had an enduring influence on the history of religion. After his works were translated into Arabic in the Middle Ages, they influenced Islamic thought in Syria and the Muslim world. Later, due to the work of the famous Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle’s ideas were reconciled with Christian doctrine, and he remains an important figure in Catholic theology to this day.
What’s the Big Idea?
It’s difficult to draw a single big idea from Aristotle as his own philosophy taught that different approaches were necessary for different fields of study. But the big idea we will look at in this article is that of the purpose, or teleology, of created things. Aristotle believed that both living and inanimate things displayed the characteristic of being directed towards a certain end, goal, or telos.
Notably, Aristotle believed that teleology was built into nature, rather than coming from an outside force such as an intelligence or god. Because of this stance, his thinking is often contrasted with Plato, who looked to an immaterial realm to try to explain how we know what we know.
We often talk about things in the world as having purpose. For instance, I study so I can pass an exam, I eat so I can be nourished, I exercise to keep fit. Also, modern scientists tend to explain evolutionary biology in terms of a purpose, even if that purpose is mere survival.
All deep-thinking people try to establish whether there is meaning in life, and Aristotle, with his emphasis on empirical observation, realised from his studies of nature and biology that everything is happening for a reason. Where I might differ from Aristotle (and his beliefs in this respect are hotly debated), is that we need a God in order to explain why anything at all exists, and why change occurs.
I’m not sure what Aristotle would have made of my belief that every aspect of creation reflects the purposes of God being unfolded in accordance with His sovereign will, both in the microcosm and macrocosm. Teleology, I believe, depends on a power that is coordinating events, and I’m grateful that I’ve come to know that power is a living God.
Next week our focus on the ancient Greeks continues with Democritus, who is known as an atomist (all will be explained). If you’d like to receive an email each time I publish a post, please consider subscribing. Thank you for reading!