An exhausted, jaded Western world awaits its Socrates


Socrates. Plato. Aristotle. These are the big names of Ancient Greek philosophy, of which Aristotle was the most influential. Together with philosophers they inspired, such as Aquinas, Plato and Aristotle would dominate Western philosophy for 2000 years, before being discarded by Descartes and the other early moderns. Read on to find out more about Plato and Aristotle and why they are still important today.

The Pre-Socratics

Some 2500 years ago there was a broad materialist trend in Ancient Greek philosophy. Over a few hundred years, the Greeks had moved from mystical, polytheistic philosophy to materialism and atheism. This culminated in atomism, which held that the material is all made of basic particles called “atoms” and that is all there is. The Sophists, another school of philosophy, taught that all thought was based on the senses and that truth is a matter of convention. Another ancient philosopher, Parmenides, said that time is an illusion and change is impossible. Do your senses tell you otherwise? Your senses are wrong!

All this led to a crisis, as the atomists could not explain how human knowledge was possible. For material things are constantly changing, so if the material is all there is, as soon as you understand something it changes and you don’t understand it any more. The Sophists taught their students to use any argument that was useful even if it was known to be fallacious; thus bringing philosophy into disrepute. More broadly, so many different positions and arguments had been advanced that many despaired of coming to any sort of consensus about the truth.

All this coincided with a broader crisis in Athens, as the elites were perceived as acting against the interests of broader society, bringing Athenian institutions and democracy into disrepute.

Does all this seem familiar? Am I talking about Greece in 500BC or the West in 2017?

The Socratic revolution

But this wasn’t the end. Socrates pulled philosophy from the abyss by re-imagining it not as just an intellectual exercise but a practical quest to understand how to live a flourishing, virtuous life. Socrates was executed, but according to Plato he was untroubled, convinced by his own philosophy not to fear death. Plato was Socrates’ student and Aristotle studied under Plato. As noted, they dominated Western thought for 2000 years.

Now, how can philosophy tell us how to live a flourishing, virtuous life? A nihilistic philosophy that denies that truth, goodness and wisdom exist cannot do this, that’s for sure. How can we know truth, goodness, wisdom?

How can we know anything? According to Aristotle, it is because the abstractions that the mind uses to think also exist in the objects the mind understands. These abstractions are called “forms”. Forms can be thought of as the organising principle of something; the prototypical forms for Plato were those of mathematics, so a form is something like a mathematical blueprint. No matter exists without a form; a material substance is composed of form and matter together. To understand something is to understand its form.

Closely related to this is essence, defined as whatever makes something what it is. For example, the essence of a knife is to have a sharp blade that can cut things. A knife can be made of steel or wood or hard plastic, so the essence of a knife (and thus it’s form) is logically separate from the matter it’s made of.

Just as the forms of material things exist objectively, so do abstractions such as truth, goodness and being – which are all the same thing considered from different points of view. What is good morally speaking also exists objectively, as a subset of what is good for us as rational animals. Following from this is “virtue ethics”, which emphasises the moral virtues of the agent as opposed to the consequences of their actions. Key themes in virtue ethics include virtues (duh), happiness, moral character and practical wisdom.

Then there are four types of causation. Efficient causation is that which creates something. Material causation refers to what the thing is made of. Formal causation refers to its form. Final causation refers to the reason why it exists.

Everything that exists needs all four types of causation to describe it. An example might help. A soccer ball was made in a factory – its efficient cause. It is made out of polyester and rubber – its material cause. It has the form of a ball – it’s formal cause. It is made for use in soccer matches – its final cause.

But what does it mean to say that everything has a final cause? Take water as an example. Water always boils at 100 degrees and never at 75 degrees. From this, it is said that water is aimed at or directed to boiling at 100 degrees. Thus it has the purpose of doing so. This purpose is internal to it, rather than being directed from outside and is not a conscious purpose, as water never consciously purposes anything. This is known as intrinsic teleology.

Final causes are also tied to Aristotelian ethics, since final causes tell us what is good for us as human beings, which is a subset of goodness generally, and is a guide to goodness in a moral sense. For example, since the final cause of our intellect is to discover truth, it is good for us to communicate truth and morally wrong to tell lies.

Aristotle explained change with the concept of potentials. For example, water is liquid but has the potential to become gas if you heat it. States that exist now are “actual”; ones that could exist but don’t are “potential”. Change is something moving from potential to actual.

To summarise so far: actuality and potentiality, form and matter, four types of causes, virtue ethics and intrinsic teleology. The metaphysical menagerie is now done. If you’re encountering all this for the first time, you might be feeling a bit lost. Never mind; the post must go on!

The forms of living things

According to Aristotle and Aquinas, the soul is the form of a living thing. Now don’t get too hung up on that word “soul” – the soul is still merely an abstraction. It comes in three kinds.

The first and most basic is a “vegetative soul”, which is the kind that plants have. The second is the “sensitive soul”, which animals have. It includes consciousness and self-movement on top of what a vegetative soul has. Consciousness on this view is entirely material. (By contrast, Descartes thought that consciousness is immaterial and that animals do not have it.)

The last and final kind is the “rational soul” that humans have. It includes rationality on top of what an animal has, making us “rational animals”. To be rational is to comprehend forms. But the forms are not themselves matter, and matter cannot contain the non-material, so rationality must be immaterial – therefore it must be a form, in this case a “subsistent form”. So the rational soul is not just an abstraction, for our rationality must reside in our form rather than in matter.

This is quite different to Cartesian dualism in a couple of ways. Descartes said that we are thinking beings and our bodies are almost optional extras. But according to Aristotle we are rational animals, so our bodies are just as important to us as our minds and the two work seamlessly together. Arguably this means that there is no interaction problem for Aristotle’s form of dualism.

What about intentionality? To recap, intentionality is the “aboutness” of thought; the way your thought about a cat is “about” that cat. But intentionality is also anything that is “directed towards” something else. Since intrinsic teleology implies that all causes are “directed towards” their effects, the intentionality of thought is not mysterious for Aristotle as it is for Cartesian dualists or materialists.

God and life after death

Plato and Aristotle invented two arguments for the existence of God: the cosmological (or First Cause) argument and the teleological (or design) argument. But the result was very different from Greek polytheism. For Aquinas, God is Existence Itself, and since truth and being are the same thing considered from different points of view, God is also Truth Itself. Since the final cause of our intellect is to know truth, the ultimate final cause of humanity is to know God – and this as a matter of rational argument, rather than just faith.

Given that we have “subsistent forms”, that God exists and our rationality is immaterial, is life after death possible? People still debate Aristotle’s opinion on this, but Aquinas clearly thinks it is possible, with a few caveats.

For Aquinas, since we are rational animals, we are supposed to have bodies and if we exist without them after death, it means we are in an incomplete state. Furthermore, since our minds are dependent on our physical senses for their input, after death our minds cannot receive any new information and we cannot change our opinions; we are locked in place, as it were.

Summing up

Science and philosophy have advanced somewhat in the last 2500 years [citation needed]. Aristotle did make scientific errors. So is the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas still a viable option today?

This is a very large question that cannot be addressed properly in one blog post. Aristotle is so different from how people think today that it takes some time to comprehend, much less critique. Nevertheless many aspects of Aristotelian thought have persisted, in particular his ethics; but even his essentialism is undergoing a revival. Here are a few reasons to take Aristotle’s philosophy seriously:

1. It explains the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” or why mathematics is so effective in explaining the material world.

2. At the same time, it answers the riddle posed by Bertrand Russell, that the mathematical explanations of physics cannot be the whole story, as mathematics can only explain structure and structure presupposes something that has the structure.

3. Arguably it solves the mind-body problems that have plagued philosophy since Descartes, such as intentionality, mental causation and personal identity. This is huge; I know of no other philosophy that can make this claim.

4. It does all of the above without committing any of the following clangers: denying consciousness in animals, denying abstract thought, denying change, denying human knowledge, claiming that consciousness is an illusion or denying science. Again, a large percentage of philosophy does at least one of these things.

Here’s the thing: The way we think about science, matter, mind, God, morality, nature – almost every topic of importance – can ultimately be traced back to Descartes and his decision to dump Aristotle. You are a Cartesian materialist or a Cartesian dualist; a Cartesian Christian, Cartesian atheist or Cartesian agnostic. So if Descartes was wrong when he dumped Aristotle, that means that everyone is wrong, wrong about everything, because they build on faulty foundations.

If that’s so, we are in an ideas cage with iron bars, in an ideas prison, stumbling blindfolded through an ideas fog. We need a new Socrates to let us out.

Further reading

Mathematical Platonism by Massimo Pigliucci. “If one ‘goes Platonic’ with math, one has to face several important philosophical consequences, perhaps the major one being that the notion of physicalism goes out the window.”

Aristotle’s Revenge: Software Everywhere by James Ross. “Adequately replacing the deformed 17th century picture of nature and mind amounts to Aristotle’s revenge: for to explain the success of science, we have to postulate dynamic, inherent explanatory structures everywhere in nature [forms], the equivalent of “software everywhere”… Thus, the stones the builders of the 17th century discarded will become the cornerstones of the new foundations for science.”

David Oderberg on intentionality and final causes. “Proponents of physical intentionality argue that the classic hallmarks of intentionality highlighted by Brentano are also found in purely physical powers … I show that they all point to one overarching phenomenon of which both the mental and the physical are kinds, namely finality. This is the finality of ‘final causes’, the long-discarded idea of universal action for an end to which recent proponents of physical intentionality are in fact pointing whether or not they realise it.”

Virtue Ethics at the Internet Encyclopaedia Of Philosophy.

Read Plato for yourself. He is surprisingly readable. Start with Meno perhaps.

Read Aristotle for yourself. He is not surprisingly readable.

Still there? Read Aquinas for yourself.


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