Aristotle studied under Plato as a student at the latter's Academy for twenty years. He was a prodigy and generally regarded as Plato's heir apparent. However, Aristotle disagreed with the master on several key points. After Plato's death, Aristotle traveled the known world, and spent five years as the tutor of a precocious thirteen-year-old who went on to make a name for himself in an area other than philosophy — that of world conqueror. Aristotle's pupil was none other than Alexander the Great, who went on to capture the known world before dying at a young age.

Aristotle eventually established his own academy and called it the Lyceum. Aristotle liked to walk as he philosophized, eager students in tow. His students became known as peripatetics, which means “to walk.”

Aristotle's Challenges to Plato

Aristotle disagreed with Plato on many theories. Though some may consider it “bad form” to challenge one's mentor, Aristotle did just that on the Platonic notion of Forms.

Plato believed that a whole other dimension was out there with a bunch of Forms floating around. Truth, Beauty, Love, and other concepts were actual entities that existed separate of the humanly perceived concepts of these ideas. Aristotle thought the theory of Forms to be illogical and impossible to prove. Plato believed that what we call reality was less real than the ethereal realm of the Forms. Aristotle held that the substantial here and now was quite real and that Forms are not separate things, but characteristics embodied in what we can perceive with our senses. He called his revised version of the Forms, Universals. There were universal truths, but they could be found without our own space-time continuum.

Plato believed that there were Ideals and their pale imitations. The Presocratic Parmenides and Heraclitus believed respectively that everything was stagnant and everything was in flux. Aristotle was able to draw upon and adapt these opposing viewpoints and come up with his own, a radical belief at the time and perhaps his major contribution to philosophy. This is the theory of potentiality.

The Theory of Potentiality

Potentiality means that within everything, people included, there exists a natural evolution toward fulfilling its own potential, in essence becoming its own Form. A movement in nature and in humans from imperfection to perfection, or as close as anything can get to perfection. This is a hardwired component in all things that is an involuntary process, according to Aristotle. The universe is in a constant progression of being and becoming, from the Big Bang to the inevitable Big Chill on a cosmic scale to the cycle of birth and death in the human condition.

Aristotle speaks of causes in the process from potentiality to actuality and identifies four:

  • The material cause means that an external force is creating or initiating the new thing.

  • The efficient cause is the process of creation.

  • The formal cause is that certain something in its natural state.

  • The final cause is what it can become when it fulfills its potential.

The first cause of all things is what Aristotle defines as God. God is what Aristotle calls the Unmoved Mover. God is the first thing ever to exist, separate from all other matter, and is the ultimate (and only, as far as Aristotle is concerned) Form. God, by Aristotle's reckoning, is pure mind, or what he calls Nous. God essentially looms around out there somewhere, removed and not especially concerned with the doings on planet Earth, spending all its time in endless, eternal self-contemplation. Totally self-absorbed is the Aristotelian God. Perhaps you have met more than a few people like that in your life.

Aristotle viewed the human soul as an integral part of the body, not a separate entity. He believed in what is now called the “bodymind” concept — that is, we are one human organism comprised of physical and spiritual matter. Hence, the soul did not exist after death. However, each soul is imbued with a piece of the Nous, or universal mind, and that Nous within you would fly off into the ether at the time of physical death.

Happiness and Friendship

Aristotle's ethical philosophy is that happiness is the ultimate goal of humankind. This does not mean “anything goes,” however. For Aristotle, true happiness can only come from leading a virtuous life. He believed in a happy medium in all things. Moderation was a major virtue. It kept one free from vice and free to work toward one's potentiality. In this goal-oriented age, people may mistake this for ambition and getting ahead in the material world. Aristotle was referring to an innate forward motion of potentiality that unconsciously drove all things in the universe, people included. So, we are constantly “potentializing,” whether we know it or not. This is the path and the goal of the person living the truly virtuous and happy life.

Aristotle is famous for the syllogism, an argument that takes two truths, connects them, arriving at a third truth. The most celebrated syllogism is “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” Aristotle believed that the syllogism was the best means to lead to absolute knowledge.

Aristotle places a high premium on friendship as well. True friendships are to be cultivated and treasured. Your true friend is almost like your doppelganger, your spiritual double. A true friend is there “to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” In other words, Aristotle advocates a virtuous buddy system.

In politics, Aristotle sees humankind as a naturally social animal that seeks out community. The society is like an extended family and certain rules apply. The rules of Aristotle's day are different from ours. Aristotle accepted slavery and felt that the slave was a piece of property that had no rights. In commercial dealings, he said that usury, or collecting interest on a loan, was an egregious obscenity — as many modern men and women will attest as they pay their credit card bills.


Aristotle stated that the three best forms of government are monarchy, aristocracy, and constitutional republic, and when perverted, they degenerated into tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy. Yes, democracy was a negative in Aristotle's mindset. He believed it to be a chaotic rule of the masses, just as oligarchy means a rule by a few rich elitists. America is a constitutional republic, not a democracy.

Art and Drama

Aristotle differed from Plato in yet another area: art appreciation. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and humankind likes representations of reality from everything from Manet and Monet to Elvis on velvet and bulldogs playing poker. Aristotle, unlike Plato, did not believe that art was a weak imitation of reality (itself a weak imitation of a higher reality). Aristotle saw art as a means to enhance and idealize reality, therefore striving in our limited human way to touch the Ideal. He though it was ennobling and not a waste of time.

In drama, Aristotle believed that comedy helped people see human absurdity and foolishness and tragedy in the classical sense allowed the audience to achieve a catharsis — that is, a cleansing emotional response within the safe confines of the Greek amphitheater. Seeing mankind represented in all its splendor and stupidity had a therapeutic effect, according to Aristotle.

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