Aristotle on Human Nature

“All men by nature require to know”[1]

This quote by Aristotle was taken from ‘Aristotle: a Very Short Introduction’ and there is no-one of whom this is more true than Aristotle as he was dedicated to every possible discipline he could sink his teeth into making him one of the utmost key figures within philosophy, not only in classical philosophy but he is still regarded as influential in modern philosophy.

As well as being a devoted biologist, botanist, moral philosopher, psychologist, zoologist and many more things besides Aristotle held a view about human nature that he interwove into his concept of virtue theory, this is described at some length in the text Nicomachean Ethics. It is this view on human nature that I intend to explain and discuss throughout this essay with reference to some more recent philosophers to show that Aristotle’s view was not only linked directly to Athenian society but has managed to stand the test of time. A point I will return to later in a yet to posted article ‘Can we Consider Modern Ethics to be Aristotelian or Nietzschean?’, this article is much better written and argues the points in greater detail. I must admit this was in fact a very early work of mine and although some editing has been made it still lacks the strength some of my later pieces possess.

From quite early on in the text Aristotle starts to interweave his views on human nature[2]. He makes the claim that by nature man is blind to morality suggesting that man is naturally an amoral creature, this is backed up by a earlier on where he says that man is born without knowledge hence morality cannot be part of human nature as man has yet to acquire knowledge of morality[3]. Here Aristotle is not just making the suggestion that man is amoral but also that morality itself is a posteriori as opposed to being a priori knowledge. This suggestion is backed up again later by the phrase “None would be evil…wickedness is voluntary[4]; Aristotle was claiming that no one is born immoral it is our choices that we make after birth that make us either moral or immoral. Again this points towards the idea that Aristotle believed that man is an amoral creature and that morality is a posteriori.

French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau expressed disagreement on these points since Rousseau strongly believed that man is by nature good”[5] and not amoral as Aristotle would have us think, but both agree that external factors will later corrupt man. Also since Rousseau believes if we are moral by nature then it must follow that morality is a priori and not a posteriori as Aristotle would have us believe.

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes who was writing during the English Civil War is also in complete disagreement with Aristotle’s claim that human nature is amoral yet at the same time disagrees with Rousseau. Instead Hobbes claimed that man acts according to a natural law”[6] and it was this natural law that compels man to act with aggression, envy and a number of other vices that induce war, yet a firm sovereign could control this natural law. What Hobbes was hinting at is the idea that human nature is immoral and needs controlling; not as Aristotle would have us believe, amoral at birth and then corrupted as we age. Like Rousseau, Hobbes’ view also supports the theory that morality is a priori.

The next point about human nature put across in Aristotle’s writing is the idea that man is hedonistic; a term meaning to pursue pleasure and shun pain by nature. A feature which later shaped the works of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill when drawing up their moral theories of utilitarianism. There is a slight hint towards this where he comments on human nature being highly impulsive making man a creature of impulse “the lives that men lead, most men, of the vulgar type…identify the good, or happiness, with pleasure[7].

Psychologist Sigmund Freud in his psychodynamic theory of the psyche makes good use of this point about men being impulsive creatures and argues that the our unconscious drive is completely selfish, irrational and blind to the world beyond it but at the same time entirely hedonistic[8]. The former points support Plato’s account of human nature as described in ‘The Republic’.  Plato held onto the idea that man by nature was corrupted by power, irrational and blind to true knowledge but the final point about being hedonistic supports Aristotle’s account, this possibly suggests that Freud built his psychology upon the wisdom of the ancient Greeks but this is a matter for a later article. More importantly (at least presently) it hints at the idea that Aristotle didn’t always disagree with his mentor Plato, something contrary to popular belief.

After laying down the point about man being impulsive Aristotle moves into an argument suggesting that if man is to become moral we must learn to go against our nature and control our impulses so that reason and rational judgement can guide us accurately towards being moral agents. Later on though there is a more explicit argument suggesting human nature is hedonistic[9]; again the notion that man is amoral by nature is repeated but then this notion is extended to provide a reason as to why man is immoral. The reason is thus, we follow our natural impulses to seek pleasure, hence we are hedonistic, but we are ill-educated in where we seek pleasure and so fall into the trap of seeking it within the vices making us immoral. This leads us back into Plato’s idea of human nature since the vices corrupt us as does power so both agree that it is in our nature to become corrupt, although Aristotle thinks that it is by habituation of the virtues that we can fight against this part of our nature. To summarise man is born amoral with hedonistic impulses, which if left unchecked or uncontrolled will lead us directly into immorality unless we are properly educated as to where we ought to seek pleasure.

In the opening section of book three Aristotle mentions that it is possible for man to go against his nature; this can be done by force or via choice, however to go against our nature would cause us to suffer some pain[10]. So following what has been said so far being hedonistic we would choose to follow our ill-educated nature and become immoral as opposed to suffer pain and become moral.

Throughout the second book Aristotle makes a detailed account of how to acquire the virtues in order to become moral[11], since we have already established that he argues morality was a posteriori then it holds that the virtues (not to be confused with the Christian concept of virtue. Aristotelian virtues refer to human excellences) are not part of our nature and need to be learnt. According to Aristotle the virtues need to be habituated into our nature if we are to become moral agents. Again this requires suffering, practise and time. Sadly our hedonistic impulses would much rather have us sit around dining on the elegances of fine cuisine with a glass of vintage wine deep in the art of philosophic conversation with our acquaintances. Thus it can be argued that one of the impulses that we seek pleasure from is idleness. Although what I have just described to a utilitarian would be a great achievement and ought to be applauded as it maximises pleasure, therefore a moral action, but I digress. For Aristotle, however, idleness is a vice as it is the lack of motivation. Idleness also happens to be a Christian vice as it relates to the deadly sin of acedia and as Christianity holds a strong grip on public opinion of morality in modern western culture is would seem that at least one part of Aristotle’s idea has lasted, although this could be thanks to St. Aquinas who, being a neo-platonic philosopher and therefore aimed to synthesise the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, set up the Christian virtues based on Aristotle’s moral philosophy in the latter half of the thirteenth century.

Aristotle also acknowledges that there may be a component of human nature which drives us to idleness[12]. He accepts the fact that we are all enticed by the vice of idleness, but being enticed by something would surely meant we find pleasure in it would it not? If so then if follows our hedonistic component as we find pleasure in idleness.  Aristotle then goes on to talk about each person’s individual nature being compelled towards particular vices more than others[13] although we are all naturally open to corruption again hinting at the suggestion that Aristotle agrees with Plato. There are other links to be made to idleness being part of human nature[14] where some time is spent discussing this issue along with the notion that man is ignorant and not just idle. Aristotle himself does not attempt to hide the fact that he is guilty of falling under the vice of idleness as at several points in his work he fails to elaborate on his ideas or doesn’t provide a full description; in chapter nine of the first book there is this passage Now if there is any gift of the gods to men, it is happiness…but this question would perhaps be more appropriate to another inquiry”[15] this points at the idea that Aristotle is passing on the workload to someone else instead of doing it himself making Aristotle look guilty of idleness. However what Aristotle is doing is accepting that his knowledge has reached its limits and is allowing those with a greater understanding to fill in the details of his theory, hence he was not being idle but prudent; prudence being one of the four most worshipped virtues in Ancient Greece (the four being prudence, justice, temperance and courage); about how much he knows. Perhaps Aristotle was trying to pay homage to Socrates who stated “wisest is he who knows he does not know”[16]?

Renowned commentator on Aristotle, Jonathan Barnes comments on his zoological researches as beingby any scientific standards, slapdash”[17]. Although this is not a fair comment due to the lack of scientific tools and principles available to Aristotle at the time, it unfairly helps to strengthen the point about Aristotle being idle and should be dismissed. There is however one piece from Aristotle himself to counter this argument. Aristotle claims that man chooses to be idle and ignorant they are not part of human nature[18]. However the weight of evidence put forward by Aristotle is heavily weighed towards the view that some part of human nature compels man to be idle and ignorant.

Rousseau accepted the idea that man was by nature ignorant but at the same time held the view that man had a driving force compelling them to acquire knowledge; a view also held Aristotle.

To return to a point made earlier about Aristotle arguing that there was no such thing as an underlying human nature shared by all men. Instead he believed that each man has a unique nature belonging to that individual alone. It is this individuality within nature that compels us towards certain vices over others, so some are likely to be more idle, some more ignorant, others tempted by avaritia.

Throughout ‘The Communist Manifesto’ Marx & Engels highlight just how man is naturally compelled towards avaritia because of the course politics takes. This point is taken up by the writer George Orwell who writes about the dangers of communism in his socio-political novel ‘Animal Farm’. Within this novel there is a quote to be found at the very end of the book that supports both Aristotle and Marx that man is susceptible to avaritia via politics “The creatures outside looked from pig to man…it was impossible to say which was which”[19]. Aristotle also believes that politics carries the temptations of avaritia, which appeals to those susceptible to the vices of superbia and avaritia, so Orwell, Marx and Aristotle appear to be in agreement on this point despite talking in different times and cultures. On the other hand there is a more positive side to the notion of individual nature. That is the potential for virtues to exist within our nature if we habituate them; this is one of the foundations for Aristotle’s concept of eudemonia.

Human nature plays a part in the eudemonia theory since it is based on man having an end goal; this end goal is to seek happiness. This happiness is a specific type of happiness rooted within our function in society (be it doctor, teacher, scholar, bard or soldier), not pleasure. By performing well, sometimes called flourishing in some translations, within our function we are able to receive happiness from it and in order to perform well we must act in accordance with our virtues. However Aristotle claims that man does not naturally have a function it is determined by society, yet the potential to harbour the virtues is part of human nature along with the hedonistic component linking eudemonia to human nature. Therefore eudemonia is something based within human nature but needs a social input in order to reach actualization. One final point to make on this is that if Aristotle did not include function within human nature it might be argued that he was hinting at the suggestion that man by nature is useless unless entered into a functioning society ready to make use of him, a concept used by Plato when talking about why philosophers were useless[20].

To conclude Aristotle seems to be pretty condemning in his account of human nature since he sees man as a vice-filled hedonistic creature, totally dependant on others else he is to be useless. It would seem that elements of Aristotle’s account on human nature have been able to stand the test of time, making him an influential figure in modern moral philosophy.

References

  • Aristotle, (1998), ‘The Nicomachean Ethics’, New York: Oxford World’s Classics
  • Barnes J.(2000), ‘Aristotle A Very Short Introduction’, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Freud. S, (1995), ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, in Gay. P, The Freud Reader, London: Vintage
  • Gaardner J.(1995), ‘Sophie’s World’, London: Orion Books
  • Marx K. & Engels F.(1992), ‘The Communist Manifesto’, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Orwell G.(1972), ‘Animal Farm’, London: Heinemann Educational Books
  • Plato(2003), ‘The Republic’ (2nd edition with additional revisions and further reading), London: Penguin Books
  • Stokes P.(2003), ‘Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers’, London: Arcturus Publishing Limited

[1] Barnes. J, Aristotle a Very Short Introduction, 2000, Pg.3

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1998, 1094b

[3] Ibid, 1094a

[4] Ibid, 1113b

[5] Gaardner. J (quoting Rousseau), Sophie’s World, 1995, Pg. 243

[6] Stokes. P (quoting Hobbes), Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers, 2003, Pg. 69

[7] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1998, 1095b

[8] Freud. S, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1995, Pg. 595

[9] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1998, 1104b-1105a

[10] Ibid, 1110a-1111b

[11] Ibid, 1103a-1109b

[12] Ibid, 1109a-1109b

[13] Ibid, 1108b-1109a

[14] Ibid, 1095b-1096a and 1105a-1105b

[15] Ibid, 1099b

[16] Gaardner. J (quoting Socrates), Sophie’s World, 1995, Pg. 45

[17] Barnes. J, Aristotle a Very Short Introduction, 2000, Pg. 20

[18] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1998, 1105a-1105b

[19] Orwell. G,  Animal Farm, 1972, Pg. 89

[20] Plato, The Republic

Posted on December 31, 2011, in ethical/political, philosophical and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Rousseau believed man was naturally good but not moral. Since savage man lived in solitude for the most part, morality never came into play. Civil society created morality along with greed and corruption, according. To Rousseau

  2. Are Aristotle’s views still applicable to modern society ??

    • I would agree yes they are as nearly all forms of modern ethics are based upon either Kantian or Aristotlean values [my reasons for arguing this is to be a later post], and considering Aristotle’s ethical theories were significantly based on his views of human nature then his views still have some applcability in modernity. However as we now shift further and further into a post-modern political world for how much longer this remains to be the case is a different question.

  3. Okoro chiamaka

    Thank you

  4. angel george stanslaus

    i read the aristlore’s theory but it took me in a wrong path i just wanted the exact point of my question and some explanations otherwise i have acquired something from the theory, thanks!

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