« Prev Section XVI. Aristotle. Next »


The completer of the Platonic philosophy, and of Greek philosophy in general, namely, Aristotle, who in many respects passed independently beyond Plato, and who was less idealistic than he, and more devoted to the study of sober reality, presented ethics for the first time as a special systematically carried-out science,—in connection with Physics on the one hand, and with Politics on the other. The greatest possible repression of the dualism of the primitive elements of existence, as still yet admitted by Plato, leads Aristotle not to a deriving of the moral idea from his more fully developed God-idea, but to a still more confident grounding of the same in the rational self-consciousness, which appears here less clogged than in Plato. A sound psychology affords for ethics a scientifically firm basis, but the repression of the Platonic antithesis of the ideal and of reality gives it a morally feebler character.

Of the three different presentations of Aristotelian ethics, only the Ethica Nicomacheia (that is, ad Nicomachum) is, in the eyes of the trustworthy results of criticism,8181   Spengel, in his Abhandl. d. Kgl. Baierschen Akad., philos.-philol. Klasse, 1841, iii, 2; 1846, p. 171 sqq. Brandis: Aristoteles, 1851, i, p. 111 sqq.; ii, p. 1555 sqq. to be regarded as 93a genuine work of Aristotle, though probably not prepared by himself for publication, but only sketched for personal use in his lectures; while the Eudemic ethics (Εὐδημια) is very probably a work of Eudemus, a disciple of Aristotle, and is derived mostly from the first-mentioned work, with some original additions,—the so-called large ethics (μεγάλα) being a digest from both. In his Politics, which Aristotle separates from ethics, though as subordinate thereto, morality is contemplated in its complete realization in the state as the moral community-life. Hence this work is evidently to be reckoned to his Ethics, and to be regarded as its carrying-out.

Aristotle gives to ethics its name—which it has ever since borne—and a scientific form which served as a model for the entire Christian Middle Ages. His comprehensive Ethica, consisting of ten books, contains indeed many excellent thoughts, and, above all, gives evidence of a close observation of reality, and in this respect is by far more sober and less idealistic than Plato; as a system, however, it is still very defective, and contains chasms on very essential points. Only relatively few general thoughts are really scientifically developed; by far the larger part is treated rather empirically and aphoristically; Aristotle expressly renounces all attempts at scientific strictness of demonstration and development, for the reason that, in his view, the subject does not admit of this, but only of probability. Hence the form of presentation—in direct contrast to Plato's uniformly spirited and either scientifically or poetically inspired style,—sinks not unfrequently to dry common-sense observations, and lingers for the most part entirely within the sphere of the popular grasp.8282   Compare Biese: Philos. des Arist., 1838 sqq., 2 vols.,—a studious presentation, though not sufficiently digested philosophically. Brandis: Arist., 2 Abth., 1857 (especially pp. 1335-1682); profound but too detailed. Trendelenburg: Histr. Bietr. z. Phil., ii, 1855, p. 352 sqq.

Aristotle does not rise to the full idea of the absolute God—an idea which is attained to only in the thought of creation—but he halts immediately before reaching it; he pushes, however, still further into the back-ground the primitive antithesis between God and the not truly real proto-material of things, which was already very much enfeebled in Plato, without, however, entirely overcoming it. He is loth to admit a primitive 94antithesis of being, but he also fails to pronounce the word which alone leads beyond it,—the word with which the Old Testament begins. The world is in his view not merely the best possible one, but it is the absolutely perfect expression of the will of the rational spirit. Hence he gets rid also of that notion of Plato, of an evil that pervades all real existence, and especially humanity. All reality is, on the contrary, good; also the corporeality of man is no longer an imprisonment inflicted for a previous guilt, but it is the normal organ of the soul. And of an historically-originated depravity, Aristotle has no notion whatever. It is true, the great mass of the populace are so qualified by nature that they have no inner tendency toward virtue, but are guided by sensuous impulses and fear (Eth. Nic., x, 10), but the better-gifted free-born man is by nature thoroughly good, and hence has in his own reason the pure fountain of moral knowledge. On this presupposition Aristotle can have perfectly free and confident scope on the basis of the subjective spirit; and notwithstanding that lie conceives the idea of God as the rational absolute spirit, more profoundly than Plato, still he connects the study of nature and of the moral spirit much less closely with the God-idea than does Plato. From the very circumstance that he finds in the real world a much more pure expression of the divine thought than Plato, he is enabled to confide himself more unquestioningly to reality, to merge himself trustingly into the real world, to read in its traces the words of divine truth; and he has also much less need of the supernatural element, which, because of the God-opposed undivine substratum of the universe, was highly necessary in the system of Plato.

Hence in Aristotle morality is entirely rooted in the soil of the subject; it appears less as the holy will of God to man, than as the absolutely normal essence of the spiritual life, as called-for by the rational human spirit itself. While there was in Plato at least the foreshadowing of the truth, that the goal of the moral striving lies in God-likeness and in the pleasure of God in man, and hence bears an objective character, in Aristotle the subjective character comes decidedly into the fore-ground, namely, in the thought that this goal is the personal well-being of the moral subject. In Plato the highest and truest is and remains an object of the yon-side, an absolutely ideal somewhat 95that is never perfectly presented in reality, and never entirely to be attained to,—in Aristotle all ideality becomes also real, and all that is true a quality of the this-side, and that, too, not as brought into reality from without, but as wrought out from within. The real world is also in moral respects a perfect expression of the idea, and no longer a mere feeble impression thereof,—is the original, is an organism that potentially unfolds itself with its own inherent power. Hence we find no longer any longing and thirsting after a better and ideal world, no poetical contemplating, no painful consciousness that the spirit is fettered and bound in bands of unfreedom by an unspiritual substratum of the universe; with Aristotle life has no longer a tragical character; from his world-theory there spring no longer any dark and mysterious tragedies; his theory is a quieting, genial one; and with the falling away of the longings of unsatisfaction, falls away also poetry; the sober prose of the spirit as contenting itself with the world as it is, takes its place. And in this very contentedness there lies a greater antithesis to the Christian world-theory than is presented in the Platonic consciousness of an inner antagonism of existence. The rather mystical contemplativeness of Plato gives place to a calculatingly rationalistic view.

The psychological examination of the presuppositions of ethics, is much more largely and deeply carried out by Aristotle than by Plato, and constitutes the bright point in his philosophy; but that his ethics has, in fact, predominantly only a psychological character, and is rooted neither in religion nor in history, is its weak side. While Plato makes at least an effort to give to morality an ideal character transcending reality, the ethics of Aristotle rather confines itself with unquestioning satisfaction to the sphere of the reality of man, without even raising the query, whether this reality is in a state of normal purity, or on the contrary of deterioration; and it is characteristic of their respective views of the moral, that the thought of personal immortality which stands forth so prominently in Plato, and which gives to the moral striving its proper tone and consecration, retires in Aristotle into a very dubious back-ground. In fact, he directly declares it as absurd (ἀτοπον) to affirm, that no one is happy until after he has died (Eth. Nic., i, c. 11, 13); he knows only of a morality of the this-side. And he expressly 96declares death as the greatest of all evils (φοβερώτατον ὁ θάνατος); “for it is the end of every thing; and for the deceased there appears to be no longer either any good or any evil” (Eth. Nic., iii, 9), and hence death robs man of the highest goods (iii, 12).

« Prev Section XVI. Aristotle. Next »


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |