Returning to Aristotle

In this article, I invite the reader to return to Aristotle’s basic concepts. The discussion of soul, happiness, virtues, and politics will be presented. The main goal here is to explain them briefly, to facilitate the reader’s understanding. The following discussion was based on the book “History of Philosophy” by Reale and Antiseri (2003).

For Aristotle, in the world we live in there are animate and inanimate beings. The soul is the main characteristic of the former, differentiating them from the latter. These beings live through matter and form – two metaphysical conceptions. Matter is the potency for life, while form is the act. The human material body has the potency for life, but is not life itself, because his life is, in act, on his soul.

Aristotle then proposes the structure of the soul divided into three parts. They are ways to deal with the three basic phenomena of life: 1) vegetative phenomena, such as reproduction and nutrition; 2) sensitive phenomena, such as sensation and movement; 3) intellective phenomena, such as knowledge and deliberation. To regulate these functions, respectively, the soul is divided into: 1) vegetative soul; 2) sensitive soul; 3) and intellective soul. Different living beings have different soul combinations. Plants only have the vegetative soul; animals have the vegetative and sensitive; while humans have all three of them – vegetative, sensitive, and intellective.

The vegetative soul is elementary for life. It regulates basic biological activities such as nutrition and reproduction. In the process of nutrition, the being assimilates something different from him. This action is mediated by heat and made possible by the soul. Also guided by the vegetative soul is the process of reproduction, which is the main biological objective of life. Both functions are essential for all animated living beings.

The sensitive soul regulates three functions of living beings: sensations, appetites, and movement. Living bodies can feel (potency), this characterizes the function of sensation. The senses assimilate the object’s form, a process that transforms potency into act. As a result of this process, beings acquire memories and accumulate them, forming their experiences. Some beings may experience feelings of pleasure and pain. When experiencing these, they have the appetite (or desire) to seek pleasure. The movement of beings happens based on their appetite. They move in the direction of the desired object, captured by sensations.

In the intellective soul, rational functions exclusive to human beings are operated. In the sensitive act, the sensitive forms are assimilated. However, in the intellective act, the intelligible forms are assimilated. These forms are pure. Using intelligence, human beings capture these pure forms, transforming them into knowledge. Aristotle thus divides the intellect into two – the passive intellect, which is the potency to know pure forms, and the active intellect, which captures the form and transforms its image into a possessed concept. Based on the knowledge captured, deliberations and choices become possible. The active intellect “comes from outside” but remains “inside the soul”. For the philosopher, the intellective soul originates from a spiritual dimension, which transcends the body. However, the intellect is inside the soul, making humans able to use it.

In “Practical Sciences”, Aristotle studies the end to be reached by humans. To analyze humans as individuals, he studied “ethics”; considering them as part of society, he wrote “politics”. All human actions tend to “ends” which are “goods”. There is an “ultimate end” for human beings, which is the “supreme good” called happiness.

Aristotle presents three insufficient definitions of happiness: 1) happiness as pleasure, which would be equivalent to a life “worthy of animals”; 2) happiness as honor (or success, by modern terms), which would be insufficient because it is a consequence of the recognition of others; c) and, finally, happiness as obtaining wealth, which would be an absurd life, because wealth is a mean, not an end.

As an alternative to the faulty conceptions of happiness, Aristotle presents his proposal. For him, happiness consists of what differentiates the human being from other living beings. Thus, could not be found in simply living (vegetative soul) or in sensations (sensitive soul). Human beings who wish to live well, that is, happy, must live according to reason (intellective soul). Happiness consists in living according to the values of the intellective soul, which must be dominant in relation to the other souls.

The vegetative soul, being elementary and biological, does not participate in reason. The sensitive soul, in turn, participates and must obey reason. To dominate this part of the soul, Aristotle presents ethical virtues, which are directed to practical behavior. These virtues allow reason to dominate impulses to seek the balance or middle ground between two extremes: excess and absence of passions. Ethical virtues are practical. Humans can acquire them through habit, that is, through the repetition of successive acts. With these habits it is possible to dominate the sensitive soul by reason, bringing humans closer to happiness.

In addition to practical virtues, for Aristotle, there are also the contemplative virtues called dianoetics. These are acquired by the activities of the intellective soul, which is purely reflective. These virtues bring human beings closer to knowing immutable truths and the ultimate good. Wisdom is used to apply this knowledge to concrete reality. Wisdom governs morality, determining the means to carry out acts. Alternatively, when the end is purely contemplative, humans must use sapience, which can lead human beings to meet the divine, resulting in maximum happiness.

When considering the human being as part of society, Aristotle defines him as a “political animal”. The political human has political rights. Thus, the political dimension is limited to those who have the political privilege. To be a Citizen it is necessary to participate in public administration which excludes strata of society such as workers and slaves. It is noteworthy that slaves were considered by Aristotle as instruments to produce goods, conditioned by nature to do this job.

Aristotle presented different forms to constitute a State – a structure that dictates the city’s order, which establishes its functioning. This structure would be determined by those who rule it: 1) governed by one person; 2) governed by a few; 3) governed by the majority. Also, it depends on the government’s intention: a) for the common good; b) for self-interest. Thus, the following forms of state are presented: 1) Monarchy (governed by one, for the common good); 2) Aristocracy (governed by a few, for the common good); 3) Republic (governed by the majority, for the common good); 4) Tyranny (governed by one, for self-interest); 5) Oligarchy (governed by a few, for self-interest); and, finally, 6) Demagogy (governed by the majority, for self-interest). Among these possibilities of state, Aristotle considered the first two as best. However, considering the concrete life, he believed the Republic to be better, given the nature of man.

The purpose of the State in this conception is to increase the virtues. As the virtues of human beings, the State must also have virtues. Thus, the perfect and happy City is the virtuous City. In this sense, Aristotle makes a series of practical recommendations, so that the City reaches its equilibrium: a) balanced population; b) sufficient territories; c) citizens must have Greek characteristics; d) citizens must be warriors when young and priests when old, to take advantage of young strength and elder wisdom; e) and at last, citizens must be educated to increase their virtues. Besides, Aristotle argues that the supreme ideal of the state is to live in peace and do beautiful things. The City’s actions must be carried out to establish peace and freedom. This makes it possible for people to achieve beautiful things, that is, contemplation.


Reale, G., & ANTISERI, D. (2003). História da filosofia: filosofia pagã antiga. São Paulo: Paulus1.

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