Rebirth of Reason


Aristotle: Ayn Rand's Acknowledged Teacher
by Edward W. Younkins

Ayn Rand, whose philosophy is a form of Aristotelianism, had the highest admiration for Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). She intellectually stood on Aristotle’s shoulders as she praised him above all other philosophers. Rand acknowledged Aristotle as a genius and as the only thinker throughout the ages to whom she owed a philosophical debt. According to Rand, Aristotle, the teacher of those who know, is the fountainhead behind every achievement in civilized society including science, technology, progress, freedom, aesthetics (including romantic art) and the birth of America itself. Aristotle’s philosophy has underpinned the achievements of the Renaissance and of all scientific advances and technological progress to this very day. He is the most significant thinker and most successful individual who has ever lived.

Aristotle defended reason, invented logic, focused on reality, and emphasized the importance of life on earth. The importance of reality, reason, and logic in Aristotelian philosophy has enabled science and technology to develop and flourish.

His philosophy of reason embodied a primacy-of-existence approach that states that knowledge of the world commences by looking at and examining what exists. Recognizing the validity of man’s senses, Aristotle taught that men can increase their knowledge by augmenting the evidence of the senses through reason (i.e., through logic and the formulation of abstractions). He explained that conceptualization should be preceded by inductive observation in our efforts to understand the world. Reason is competent to know reality but it is necessary to begin with what exists in the world.

Aristotle teaches that each man’s life has a purpose and that the function of one’s life is to attain that purpose. He explains that the purpose of life is earthly happiness or flourishing that can be achieved via reason and the acquisition of virtue. Articulating an explicit and clear understanding of the end toward which a person’s life aims, Aristotle states that each human being should use his abilities to their fullest potential and should obtain happiness and enjoyment through the exercise of his realized capacities. He contends that human achievements are animated by purpose and autonomy and that people should take pride in being excellent at what they do. According to Aristotle, human beings have a natural desire and capacity to know and understand the truth, to pursue moral excellence, and to instantiate their ideals in the world through action.

Metaphysics and Epistemology

Aristotle espouses the existence of external objective reality. For Aristotle, the existence of the external world and of men’s knowledge of it is self-evident. He contends that the basic reality upon which all else depends is the existence of individual entities. He insists upon an independent existing world of entities or beings and that what exists are individuals with nothing existing separately from them. For Aristotle, the ontologically ultimate is the individual.

The basic laws of being, or first principles of reality, in Aristotle’s metaphysics, are the philosophical axioms or laws of non-contradiction, identity, and excluded middle. According to Aristotle, these presuppositions or assumptions govern, direct, or command scientific explanation.

For Aristotle, causality is a law inherent in being qua being. To be is to be something with a specific nature and to be something with a specific nature is to act according to that nature.

Aristotle heralds the role of reason in a proper human life. He examines the nature of man and his functions and sees that man survives through purposeful conduct which results from the active exercise of his capacity for rational thought. The ability to reason separates man from all other living organisms and supplies him with his unique means of survival and flourishing. It is through purposive, rational conduct that a person can achieve happiness. For Aristotle, a being of conceptual consciousness must focus on reality and must discover the knowledge and actions required if he wants to fully develop as a human person.

Aristotle is a this-worldly metaphysician who avowedly rejects mysticism and skepticism in epistemology. His view is that human nature is specific and definite and that there is some essence apparent in each and every person and object.

An advocate of this-worldly cognition, Aristotle’s theory of concepts was reality-oriented. It follows that Aristotle considered essences to be metaphysical and every entity to be comprised of form, the universalizing factor, and matter, the particularizing factor.

For Aristotle, essences or universals are phenomena intrinsic in reality and that exist in particulars. Rand interprets this to imply that to comprehend essences or universals is at root a passive intuition or receptivity. Aristotle, the naturalistic realist, explains that knowledge begins and arises out of our sense experiences which are valid. It follows that a man can build on the evidence of the senses through reason which includes logic and the formation of abstractions.

Rand finds fault in Aristotle for viewing essences as metaphysical rather than as epistemological which is how she regards them. She opposes Aristotle’s intuitionist view that essences are simply “intellectually seen.” Rand contends that universals or concepts are the epistemological products of a classification process that represents particular types of entities.

Individuals, Communities, and the State

The highest or most general good to which all individuals should aim is to live most fully a life that is proper to man. The proper function of every person is to live happily, successfully, and well. This is done through the active exercise of a man’s distinctive capacity, rationality, as he engages in activities to the degree appropriate to the person in the context of his own particular identity as a human being.

Because man is naturally social, it is good for him to live in a society or polis (i.e., a city-state). Aristotle emphasizes the individuating characteristics of human beings when he proclaims that the goodness of the polis is inextricably related to those who make it up. For Aristotle, social life in a community is a necessary condition for a man’s complete flourishing as a human being.

Aristotle explains that friendship, the mutual admiration between two human beings, is a necessary condition for the attainment of one’s eudaimonia. Because man is a social being, it can be maintained that friendship has an egoistic foundation. It follows that authentic friendship is predicated upon one’s sense of his own moral worth and on his love for and pride in himself. Moral admiration, both of oneself and of the other, is an essential component of Aristotelian friendship. Self-perfection means to fulfill the capacities that make a person fully human, including other-directed capacities such as friendship.

Noting that individuals form communities to secure life’s necessities, Aristotle also emphasizes the importance of active citizen participation in a semi-paternalistic government. Of course, he does view the proper end of government as the promotion of its citizens’ happiness. It follows that the goodness of the polis is directly related to the total self-actualization of the individuals who comprise it.

Aristotle contends that the state exists for the good of the individual. He thus preferred the rule of law over the rule of any of the citizens. This is because men have private interests whereas laws do not. It follows that the “mixed regime” advocated by Aristotle was the beginning of the notion of constitutionalism including the separation of powers and checks and balances. He was the first thinker to divide rulership activities into executive, legislative, and judicial functions. Through his support for a mixed political system, Aristotle was able to avoid and reject both Platonic communism and radical democracy.

Human Flourishing

For Aristotle, an entity that fulfills its proper (i.e., essential) function is one that performs well or excellently. He explains that the nature of a thing is the measure or standard in terms of which we judge whether or not it is functioning appropriately or well. Things are good for Aristotle when they advance their specific or respective ends.

Aristotle bases the understandability of the good in the idea of what is good for the specific entity under consideration. For whatever has a natural function, the good is therefore thought to reside in the function. The natural function of a thing is determined by its natural end. With respect to living things, there are particular ways of being that constitute the perfection of the living thing’s nature.

According to Aristotle, there is an end of all of the actions that we perform which we desire for itself. This is what is known as eudaimonia, flourishing, or happiness, which is desired for its own sake with all other things being desired on its account. Eudaimonia is a property of one’s life when considered as a whole. Flourishing is the highest good of human endeavors and that toward which all actions aim. It is success as a human being. The best life is one of excellent human activity.

For Aristotle, the good is what is good for purposeful, goal-directed entities. He defines the good proper to human beings as the activities in which the life functions specific to human beings are most fully realized. For Aristotle, the good of each species is teleologically immanent to that species. A person’s nature as a human being provides him with guidance with respect to how he should live his life. A fundamental fact of human nature is the existence of individual human beings each with his own rational mind and free will. The use of one’s volitional consciousness is a person’s distinctive capacity and means of survival.

One’s own life is the only life that a person has to live. It follows that, for Aristotle, the “good” is what is objectively good for a particular man. Aristotle’s eudaimonia is formally egoistic in that a person’s normative reason for choosing particular actions stems from the idea that he must pursue his own good or flourishing. Because self-interest is flourishing, the good in human conduct is connected to the self-interest of the acting person. Good means “good for” the individual moral agent. Egoism is an integral part of Aristotle’s ethics.

Ethics, Virtues, and Self-Interest

In his ethical writings, Aristotle endorses egoism, rationality, and the value of life. He insisted that the key idea in ethics is a human individual’s own personal happiness and well-being. Each man is responsible for his own character. According to Aristotle, each person has a natural obligation to achieve, become, and make something of himself, by pursuing his true ends and goals in life. Each person should be concerned with the “best that is within us” and with the most accomplished and self-sufficient success and excellence.

According to Aristotle, the “moral” refers to whatever is related to a person’s character. He taught that the value of virtuous activity resides in realizing a state of eudaimonic character. Such a state must be achieved by a man’s own efforts. A person needs to pursue rational or intelligent efforts in pursuing goods and in otherwise taking control of his own life. Because a man might fail or be thwarted in his efforts, Aristotle explained that a person should be more concerned with his fitness to achieve success than with the existential attainment of the success itself.

Aristotle insists that ethical knowledge is possible and that it is grounded in human nature. Because human beings possess a nature that governs how they act, the perfection or fulfillment of their nature is their end. A human being is ordered to self-perfection and self-perfection is, in essence, human moral development. The goal of a person’s life is to live rationally and to develop both the intellectual and moral virtues. There are attributes central to human nature the development of which leads to human flourishing and a good human life. According to Aristotle, the key characteristics of human nature can be discerned through empirical investigation.

Aristotle teaches that ethical theory is connected to the type of life that is most desirable or most worth living for each and every human being. It follows that human flourishing is always particularized and that there is an inextricable connection between virtue and self-interest. He explains that the virtuous man is constantly using practical wisdom in the pursuit of the good life. A man wants and needs to gain knowledge of virtue in order to become virtuous, good, and happy. The distinction of a good person is to take pleasure in moral action. In other words, human flourishing occurs when a person is concurrently doing what he ought to do and doing what he wants to do. When such ways of being occur through free choice, they are deemed to be choice-worthy and the basis for ethics.

The purpose of ethical inquiry is a practical matter according to Aristotle. He explains that practical wisdom is not only concerned with universals (such as good or value), but also with particulars which became known through experience in the choices and activities of life. He states that it is important to have practical experience with particulars if one is to optimally benefit from philosophical inquiry into ethics. Aristotle thus emphasizes the power of judgment beyond the guidance of general theory. Experience helps to perfect a person’s power of moral judgment. He notes that one’s facticity, including his past choices, and the contingent situation are relevant considerations in determining a correct choice. Proper actions are in the particulars that differ considerably from case to case.

Aristotle did not regard ethics as an exact science. He said that matters of conduct are not found in an exact system, not only in dealing with specific cases of conduct, but also with respect to the general theory of ethics. He explains that a person must both investigate the nature of virtue and learn through experience to discern, consider for himself, and competently judge the particulars of the circumstances of each situation. Aristotle thus emphasizes both the difficulty of devising general principles of moral action and the importance of perception and judgment in practical decisions. One’s practical wisdom is a kind of insight, perception, or sense of what to do.

Aristotle tells us that virtues, as constituents of happiness, are acquired through habituation. He also explains that virtue can be understood as a moral mean between two vices – one of excess and one of deficiency. Such a mean is not scientific or easy to calculate. Aristotle’s moral virtues are desire-regulating character traits which can be found at a mean between extreme vices. For example, courage is the virtuous mean between rashness as a vice of excess and cowardice as a vice of deficiency.

With respect to ethical judgments, Aristotle expounds that a person should not expect more certainty in methods or results than the nature of the subject matter permits. It is obvious then that Aristotle did not regard ethics as an exact science. The Randian explanation of Aristotle’s position on ethical exactness is that it was a consequence of the intrinsicist elements of his epistemology.  Because Aristotle considers universals, concepts, or essences as metaphysical rather than as epistemological, it is difficult, if not impossible, for him to explain how one sees or intuits “good,” “value,” “ethical,” and so on when he is confronted with various optional actions or objects.

Ayn Rand’s Aristotelian Philosophy and Sense of Life

As naturalistic realists, Aristotle and Ayn Rand are the philosophical champions of this world. Both appeal to the objective nature of things. They agree that logic is inseparable from reality and knowledge. Affirming reality, reason, and life on earth, they concur that a man can deal with reality, attain values, and live heroically rather than tragically. Men can grasp reality, establish goals, take actions, and achieve values. They view the human person as a noble and potentially heroic being where highest moral purpose is to gain his own happiness on earth. Their shared conception of human life permits a person to maintain a realistic moral vision that has the potential to inspire men to greater and greater heights. Rand follows the Aristotelian idea of eudaimonia as the human entelechy.

Like Aristotle, Rand ascribes to only a few basic axioms: existence exists, existence is identity, and consciousness is identification. Aristotle and Rand agree that all men naturally desire to know, understand, and act on the knowledge acquired. For both, all knowledge is arrived at from sensory perception through the processes of abstraction and conceptualization. They each see rationality as man’s distinctive capacity. Both develop virtues and concrete normative behavior from man’s primary virtue of rationality.

For both Aristotle and Rand, the issue of how a person should live his life precedes the problem of how a community should be organized. Whereas Aristotle sees a social life as a necessary condition for one’s thoroughgoing eudaimonia, Rand emphasizes the benefits accruing to the individual from living in society as being knowledge and trade. Although Rand does not expressly discuss the human need for community in her non-fiction writings, her portrait of Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged closely approximates Aristotle’s community of accord between good men. Of course, the organization of Galt’s Gulch is along the lines of anarcho-capitalism rather than the minimal state political system of capitalism advocated by Rand or the somewhat paternalistic ideal of Aristotle’s polity.

Viewing human life in terms of personal flourishing, both Aristotle and Rand teach that we should embrace all of our potentialities. Their similar visions of the ideal man hold that he would have a heroic attitude toward life. The ideal man would be both morally and rationally heroic. They both saw pride (or moral ambitiousness according to Rand) as the crown of the virtues.

So, where do Rand and Aristotle most differ? Rand argues that her philosophy diverges from Aristotle’s by considering essences as epistemological and contextual instead of as metaphysical. She envisions Aristotle as a philosophical intuitivist who declared the existence of essences within concretes.

Whatever their differences, it is clear that Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is within the Aristotelian naturalistic tradition. Rand inherited significant elements of the Aristotelian eudaimonic tradition. Rand, like Aristotle, recognized her task as helping people to know. Because of Rand, we have had a rebirth of Aristotelian philosophy with its emphasis on reason and on man the thinker and doer.

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