The Aim of Man
Translated by Martin Ostwald.
ARISTOTLE (384-322 B.C.) is the great inheritor of Plato's influence in philosophical thought. He was a student at
the Academy of Plato in Athens from age seventeen to thirty-seven, and by all accounts he was Plato's most brilliant pupil.
He did not agree with Plato on all issues, however, and seems to have broken with his master around the time of Plato's
.). In certain of his writings he is careful to disagree with the Platonists while insisting on his friendship
with them. In the
for example, the most difficult section (omitted here} demonstrates that Plato is
not correct in assuming that the good exists in some ideal form in a higher spiritual realm.
One interesting point concerning Aristotle's career is that when he became a teacher, his most distinguished student
was Alexander the Great, the youthful ruler who spread Greek values and laws throughout the rest of the known world.
Much speculation has centered on just what Aristotle might have taught Alexander about politics. The emphasis on
statecraft and political goals in the Nichomachean Ethics suggests that it may have been a great deal. A surviving
fragment of a letter from Aristotle to Alexander suggests that he advised Alexander to become the leader of the Greeks
and the master of the barbarians.
The Nichomachean Ethics is a difficult document. Aristotle may have written it with an eye to tutoring his son,
Nichomachus, but it is also meant to be read by those who have thought deeply about human ethical behavior. "The
Aim of Man" treats most of the basic issues raised in the entire document. It is difficult primarily because it is so
thoroughly abstract. Abstract reason was thought to be the highest form of reason, because it is independent of sensory
experience and because only human beings can indulge in it. Aristotle, whose studies included works on plants, physics,
animals, law, rhetoric, and logic, to name only some subjects, reminds us often of what we have in common with the
animal and vegetable worlds. But because he values abstract thought so much, his reasoning demands unusual attention
from contemporary readers.
Moreover, because he wrote so much on scientific subjects — and, unlike Plato, emphasized the role of sensory
perception in scientific matters — he is careful to warn that reasoning about humankind cannot entail the precision
taken for granted in science. That warning is repeated several times in this selection. The study of humankind
requires awareness of people's differences of background, education, habit, temperament, and other, similar factors.
Such differences will impede the kinds of precision of definition and analysis taken for granted in other sciences.