When I describe myself as Aristotelian, the oddness of this description is sometimes very striking to me. After all, I regard most of Aristotle’s teachings as false. Much of it is outdated science. Some of it is self-contradictory or otherwise inadequate. What then, do I mean by calling myself an Aristotelian?
In the past, I have contented myself by saying that Aristotle possessed a way of seeing that transcends the particular content of his philosophy and remains perennially valid. Now, I want to flesh out what I mean by this and list some Aristotelian teachings. These are positions I find myself referencing or arguing in favor of frequently, which I have gleaned from Aristotle or from thinkers who have developed his core insights faithfully:
Community is an intrinsic good, not a merely instrumental one.
Man is an inherently relational being. The glue that holds society together is not raw self-interest, but friendship.
There is no sense in speaking of a pre-political “state of nature.” Man is a political animal. For man, to live in a political society is the state of nature.
Community is prior to the individual. It is the matrix that permits the individual to live and even grow into a free, moral agent.
There are two great forms of dramatic art, each answering our aesthetic needs and revealing deep truths about our condition: tragedy and comedy.
There is “commutative justice,” which deals with exchange, as well as “general justice,” which regards distribution.
A mixed constitution is the best practicable form of government.
Politics ought to be determined by ethics. The political treatise is part of the ethical treatise, or at least subordinate to it.
Morality is not about social problem solving, utility, or even rights and duties, although none of these should be discounted. It is about becoming a good person: someone whose character is profoundly shaped by virtue.
Ethical thinking should focus, not on the question, “What ought I to do?” but rather, “How ought I to be?”
Morality is not merely a set of side constraints, such that we can choose our goals arbitrarily provided our behavior stays within certain parameters. Instead, to live morally is itself a way of life that requires active effort.
The fruition of virtue is happiness.
Moral truth is objective, but practicing it requires the virtue of phronesis (prudence), whereby one takes account of the complexities and particularities of real life.
We can know causal relations. It is possible to reason from effect to cause.
Composite being is hylomorphic: it is composed of an indeterminate substratum (matter) and a determinate, intelligible “part” (form).
Knowledge is a conformity between one’s mind and the reality one is contemplating. The object is made present to the mind, or to use the Scholastic phrase, “The intellect is determined by the object contemplated.”
Common names do not necessarily refer to merely conventional groupings. There are common natures.
Items in nature have teleological ends. Function and dysfunction are real.
Natural law is both descriptive and prescriptive. With the practical syllogism, one may move from a descriptive observation to a prescriptive conclusion; morality may be discerned from the real.
Metaphysics must be prior to epistemology. We should begin our philosophy with thoughts about things, not thoughts about thoughts.
All knowledge is ultimately rooted in experience. Nevertheless, our reason allows us to move beyond the confines of an austere empiricism, such as Hume’s.
There is a sharp distinction between thought, on one hand, and imagination on the other.
Essence is prior to operation: what a thing is is prior to what it does.