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Aristotle: The Philosopher


Logos 8:3

Summer 2005

One of the great contributions Aristotle has made to philosophy is his distinction between means and ends. This insight gives us a key to many metaphysical problems. There are things the existence of which can be justified only by their capacity to achieve an end. This is primarily true of all tools and instruments: they are invented because they happen to be useful (or even indispensable) for the realization of a given end. A comb exists in order to groom one's hair. A pen is an instrument for writing. All machines are means. It is obvious that the end has a metaphysical superiority over the means, for the means have only a serving function. Yet, in a paradoxical fashion, the capacity of the means to serve the end is crucial for the realization of this end. For the end is dependent upon the efficacy of the means, but this dependence differs radically from the dependence of the means upon the end. For the end is sought for its own sake; the means are sought for the sake of their capacity to realize the end. Therefore, even though it comes inevitably at the end of a process, the final cause fully deserves to be called "cause"; hence its name final.

The biological sphere—to which Aristotle paid much attention—is dominated by the law of finality. Its metaphysical importance can hardly be overestimated, and this explains in part the poverty of Spinoza's philosophy, which systematically eliminated final causes. David Hume followed suit in waging war on efficient causality, which—to his myopic mind—had no fundamentum in re, but was the result of a psychological association between two things that we are used to seeing succeed one another in time. These two thinkers are responsible for many modern errors that their arbitrary rejection of two crucial causes has brought in its trail. But to go back to Aristotle—only a fool can deny his genius. He is certainly one of the great philosophical minds of all time. But no man, even if he deserves to be called a genius, can answer all questions. Furthermore, no man—because of the imperfection of the human mind—can avoid flaws, ambiguities, and even in some cases, downright errors in his philosophical system. Christ alone is the Truth. Unus est magister vester: Christus. For this reason it is somewhat baffling that St. Thomas Aquinas calls Aristotle the Philosopher. He is so convinced of the superiority of Aristotle over all other thinkers that he does not deem it necessary to refer to him by name. But the history of philosophy teaches one that, great as a thinker can be, his thought can never give us a master key opening all doors. What Aristotle discovered is a precious insight that we should respect. But he leaves many questions unanswered; his formulations, moreover, can be ambiguous, and this in turn can easily lead to misinterpretations and even downright errors.

To interpret Aristotle is not easy. This sheds light upon the fact that his main commentators disagree as to how he should be read. Avicenna, Averroes, and St. Thomas came to different conclusions. Today, great Thomists often disagree with one another. Let us recall Jonathan Swift's witty remark in Gulliver's Travels (part 3). He tells us that when Gulliver visited the country of the mathematicians who, at his request, had called Aristotle (whom Dante called "il Maestro di color che sanno" [the Master of those who know]) back to life, the great master was followed by a large crowd. Gulliver inquired who these people might be: he was told they were "his commentators." But then, Swift's biting irony added that, to Gulliver's surprise, he knew none of them.

Apart from the difficulty of truly understanding what an author meant, the point I am trying to make is that a great discovery can easily degenerate into a false interpretation of the riches of the cosmos if it is either very narrowly interpreted or indiscriminately applied. One case in point is Aristotle's erroneous belief that exemplary causality (so crucial in Platonic metaphysics) can, in fact, be reduced to finality. Plato viewed the world we live in as a pale imitation of the true world; the world of unchangeableness, the world of perfection, the world of beauty. The cosmos, which—in some modest way—reflects God, is so rich that no one key can open all doors. To deny this exemplaristic dimension because of a fascination with finality is philosophically unwarranted, because clearly the first cannot be reduced to the second. The copy resembles the original. The means need not have any similarity with the end.

Apart from finality, Aristotle mentions material causality, formal causality, and efficient causality—and once again, we are indebted to him for this insight. But there are other metaphysical laws that are also crucial, and that he largely overlooked or paid scarcely any attention to, such as hierarchy (higher and lower, more perfect and less perfect), the exemplarism just referred to, and one my husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, dubbed "superabundance”—to which I will turn my attention later. None of them can be reduced to strict finality.

The disciples of a great master often have the tendency to codify his thought in a fashion that does not necessarily do justice to the initial intuition of the author. Be it said in passing that this phenomenon keeps repeating itself in the history of philosophy. Hegel's disciples thought ''history" was a master key to an understanding of human thought. This leads to the unfortunate distinction (so fashionable today) between “historical" truth and non-historical truths—a distinction that has created much confusion in theology. Then came "sociology," advocated by Auguste Comte, and it became the cry of the day, claiming to hold the key to both theology and philosophy. Freud was convinced "sex" was the golden key to human existence, and psychiatry gives us the ultimate explanation of who we are. Psychology followed suit and became a welcome substitute for religion. That these so-called sciences do give us some valid information does not justify the naive belief that they alone can shed light on the whole of human existence.

When presenting his views, Aristotle usually takes a prudent stance: he offers them as possible interpretations of a philosophical question. Others are presented authoritatively. Let us turn to his Ethics. After having convincingly shown that it is impossible to view all things as mere means for something else—for this would lead to a regress ad infinitum—he raises a crucial question: What is the highest good? Most people, he tells us, claim it is happiness. One can question whether this is the answer, but what concerns us here is that Aristotle then draws the daring conclusion that this one absolute end (for, obviously, no one seeks happiness for the sake of something else) is the one end for the sake of which everything else is sought. “Since then of all things which may be done there is some one End which we desire for its own sake, and with a view to which we desire everything else... " (emphasis mine). 

This proves our thesis that a major discovery can lead to erroneous conclusions. Even if it were true that happiness is the one absolute end, the chief good, this does not justify the assumption that everything else is a mere means for reaching it. A philosopher has to be on the alert every step of the way, for error always lurks in the background. That happiness is undoubtedly an end and cannot by its very nature be a means does not justify the claim that, therefore, everything man does is a means for the attainment of this end. This is a position that we shall challenge. For everyone has a right to refuse to be victimized by another man's genius. This is why "midgets" like myself can respectfully disagree with the views of some giants of thought.

The Aristotelian overemphasis on finality can lead to regrettable consequences, the seriousness of which becomes particularly ominous if we turn to Christian philosophy. We shall limit ourselves to a couple of examples that, hopefully, will shed some light on our problem. Let us focus once again on finality. As stated previously, some things exist exclusively because they serve an end outside of themselves. If all human beings were bald, combs would be meaningless. But there are other cases in which something that has its own meaning and justification can at the same time bring about an end, even though it cannot possibly be viewed as a mere means for that end. 

A few examples are called for: St. Augustine, whose life was blessed with several great friendships, tells us emphatically that he loved his friends "for their own sake," and therefore, not as a means for his happiness, even though there is no doubt that a noble friendship is one of the great sources of happiness on this earth. Friendship has its value in itself, but because of its inner fecundity, it brings happiness in its trail.

All of us know cases in which a young man who faces the struggles typical of his age meets a young woman who strikes him as a lily of purity. He falls in love with her, and this very love helps him to overcome his difficulties. The young woman is loved for her own sake, but her very being is "instrumental" in helping him to stay on the path of virtue. This is a type of metaphysical relationship that Dietrich von Hildebrand calls superabundance. It resembles finality and yet differs from it because the "fruit" does not cancel the full independent validity and value of the so-called means. To call them "means" is, in fact, inadequate and misleading. Their inner nobility justifies their own existence, but because every love, every friendship is essentially fruitful, it brings in its trail an "effect" essentially related to it—but nevertheless, an effect that does not instrumentalize the dignity of the value producing it. It flows over from its inner plenitude.

In the March 2002 issue of The Latin Mass Magazine, John Galvin published a severe criticism of Humanae Vitae on the grounds—among other things—that Pope Paul VI introduced "a novel and untried" philosophy that established a distinction between the meaning of marriage and its purpose. To Galvin, this distinction has disastrous consequences and—down the road—is largely responsible for the moral sexual chaos plaguing our society. According to his views, marriage has one purpose and one purpose only: procreation. In other words, he rejects the "unitive" dimension of marriage and concentrates exclusively on its procreative side. To put it in Aristotelian terms, the marital union is a pure means for procreation, which is its end. Unfortunately for Galvin, this is definitely not the teaching of the Church. For the Church grants the holy sacrament of matrimony to couples who, because of age or some quirk of nature, cannot have children, thereby telling us it is the marital union that is the sacrament and not procreation. Such spouses receive as much the graces of the sacrament as those who are fertile, and their union is as indissoluble as the union of those who can hope to have a large progeny. This, of course, is not meant to deny or even weaken the admirable bond that God Himself has created between the marital embrace and the potential coming into being of a new person, made to God's image and likeness. For love is essentially fruitful, and if a couple chooses to sever the beautiful bond existing between their embrace and procreation—a link that God Himself has established—it would not only constitute a grave sin, but moreover, will inevitably sow seeds that sooner or later will weaken the loving bond existing between the spouses. Once God is excluded from the mysterious union taking place between husband and wife, the spouses no longer "pro-create" but—like animals—they copulate.

Man cannot create anything: God has enriched the human body with living seeds that can contribute to the body of another human being but are incapable of producing a soul, for the soul being immaterial is not made of preexisting material. It is not by accident that couples who choose to practice artificial birth control are much more likely to divorce than those who do not. The reason is that lust has crept into their relationship—and lust is the enemy of true love. In fact, the holy sacrament of matrimony has been granted to weak and sinful human beings to help them through the very grace of the sacrament to eliminate the evil seed of lust, which started to blossom between our first parents the very moment that they sinned and discovered "that they were naked." This has been powerfully highlighted by our Holy Father. Through the sublimity of the sacrament, the marital embrace can be of spotless purity. We dare assert that when a husband whose soul is transformed by Christ embraces his sterile wife (who, like him, is on the way to holiness) as an expression of his love, it is "self-donation" to her, just as when she gives herself to him, and this union glorifies God more than in cases in which the love between the spouses is less ardent, less pure, and yet leads to a conception.

The ordination of the marital embrace to procreation is a fact that cannot be denied, but in cases when procreation is excluded, it keeps its meaning and beauty. Childless couples must deeply regret their lack of fecundity, but they are called upon to have spiritual children, for, as stated above, every love worthy of this name is essentially fruitful. There are many cases that shed light on the words of Psalm 112: "qui habitare facit sterilem in domo matrem filiorum laetantem" (who makes a barren woman to dwell in a house, the joyful mother of children). On a higher plane, consecrated virgins do not renounce maternity, but—through their total donation to God—they yearn for a much wider, more spiritual form of maternity: the virgin opens her heart to innumerable children whom she spiritually adopts through her prayers and sacrifices. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was truly the mother of thousands and thousands of little ones. She was maternal par excellence. In Catholic teaching, consecrated virginity is the highest form of maternity as exemplified in the Holy Virgin. 

To go back to Aristotle, it should now be clear that the marital embrace cannot be interpreted as a "mere means" for procreation and be denied any meaning of its own. This is definitely not the case. Not only is the woman fertile during very few days every month, and the Church has never prohibited the marital embrace during her infertile days, but moreover, when she is already pregnant (and therefore cannot conceive), the marital embrace keeps its meaning as an expression of spousal love. Why is it the male animal is attracted to the female only when she is in heat, and that does not apply to human beings? God, who speaks through His creation, is clearly telling us that the tenderness of the marital embrace has its own meaning and beauty even when procreation is impossible.

The relationship between the marital embrace and procreation is certainly not a case of a pure means-end relationship. For in the latter case, means are metaphysically inferior to the end; whereas, in superabundance, the (erroneously called) means are in no way inferior to the "end" and might, in some cases, even be superior to it, as we shall see later. Dietrich von Hildebrand's concept of superabundance highlights the nature of this type of relationship well. It is a metaphysical relationship that resembles final causality and yet differs from it for the plain reason that the marital embrace is not a mere means but has its own meaning—a loving donation to one's spouse—even though it is so essentially related to the capacity to bring about another life, that, as stated above, to decide to frustrate it is to sow the seeds of disunion between the spouses. On the other hand, when this superabundance is impeded for reasons that the couple has no control over, it keeps its own full meaning and should even lead to spiritual fruitfulness. All of us know sterile couples who have many spiritual children. For no true love can be sterile. A husband whose wife has had a hysterectomy knows while embracing her that she is now infertile: to claim—as a strict Aristotelian might do—that he embraces her for the sake of procreation is to leave the sphere of the concrete and fly into abstraction.

Still more crucial is the application of the principle of superabundance in relation to beatitude. Thomas Aquinas was not only a faithful disciple of Aristotle, but also a saint. When one reads his works, one is struck that at times he is only a faithful disciple of Aristotle. For example, when he writes that the male is superior to the female because he is active and she is passive—thereby confusing passivity (which is indeed inferior to activity) with receptivity, a totally different case. Or when he tells us that the soul of the male child is produced forty days after conception, whereas the female child receives its soul after eighty days. At other times, this great saint writes the Adora Te and the Lauda Sion Salvatorem, which are impregnated with the perfume of the supernatural.

But no thinker is always at his best, and possibly one of the most baffling sentences in St. Thomas (quoted by one of his disciples, Josef Pieper) is "if God were not man's beatitude, the latter would have no reason whatever to love Him." At its face value, this formulation is extremely unfortunate. It is regrettable indeed because it seems to imply that "happiness" is the highest good, and that everything else is a means to achieve this absolute end—Aristotle’s thesis. I am sure that some dedicated Thomists would manage to give to this sentence a positive interpretation—on the ground that St. Thomas, being Saint Thomas, and so honored by the Church, can and should always be positively interpreted—but the overwhelming majority of people reading it will be tempted to see beatitude (eudemonism) as the absolute end: that is, man's beneficial good, as opposed to "goodness itself," namely God. Never—absolutely never—can God be viewed as a means for another end. As we saw, the means is always metaphysically inferior to the end, and to make this claim about God edges on blasphemy. For according to the Church's doctrine, the glorification of God is man's primary end; beatitude is our secondary end, and secondary not only in the order of time, but also in the order of importance. How much more adequate is it to view the relationship between God and beatitude as a relationship of superabundance. Superabundance spiritualizes and elevates finality on a much higher level. This mercenary view just sketched above explains why numerous are the Communists who claim that Christians are "working for a reward," whereas they themselves selflessly work for the "good of humanity," even though "the paradise of the workers" will not be realized in their lifetime.

The Divine teaching as handed to us through the holy Catholic Church can alone claim inerrancy. No human being can—great as he may be. St. Thomas was given a gigantic mission: to save the West from Averroes's interpretation of Aristotle, which was creating intellectual havoc among some Christian thinkers. Aristotle claimed he had proved the eternity of the world—thereby explicitly denying Creation. It was St. Thomas's great mission to "baptize" the pagan thinker—not always an easy task—and thereby build a bridge between him and Christian revelation. What St. Thomas has accomplished deserves our gratitude and admiration. But once again, we should remember that no human thinker—gigantic as he may be—is protected against ambiguities, flaws, and even downright errors. Errors in a thinker as truth-loving as St. Thomas can be called "accidental errors" as opposed to the errors proliferating in many thinkers who "love themselves more than truth" (to quote Plato). When the latter states a truth, we can benefit from a truth discovered accidentally (for as Plato writes in Phaedrus, "in the worst of authors, we can find something to the point"). Every error should be corrected because—even if their perpetrators are sincerely convinced of the validity of their views—each one of them creates a metaphysical disharmony because it is in conflict with truth and ultimately with Truth itself.

To go back to St. Thomas: God should be loved for His own sake because "He alone is Holy, He alone is the Lord, He alone is the most High," but the sublimity of this very love brings in its train what we call "beatitude." We do not love God because loving him will make us happy. We love Him because He deserves to be loved. All of us should pray that at the moment of death we should make an act of perfect contrition— one expressing our immense sorrow for having offended the Holy One, and not because of our fear of hell (a legitimate fear) and our loss of beatitude. But our very happiness flows over from our loving Him for His own sake. To instrumentalize our love of God because it will give us happiness is to adopt a mercenary attitude that is radically opposed to the very essence of true love. 

Granted today, there is, alas, little respect for great intellectual traditions; a wise thinker will approach them respectfully, while, at the same time, enriching and deepening them by making new distinctions that the original thinker would have gratefully approved of had he seen them. This is called “development of doctrine” by the great Cardinal Newman and should be welcomed by all who understand that—to quote Aristotle once again— “As much as we love Plato,” (in this case Aristotle), “we should love Truth more.” 


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