In the Greek epics The Iliad and the Odyssey, death brings the soul of a man to the underworld where it continues its existence though stripped of its earthly physical component. In the popular understanding fostered by Greek mythology, a living creature, whether dog or human, could conceivably be imagined to endure past the point of the mortal life of the body. And yet, with the arrival of philosophy, the Greeks began to see all objects as composed of tiny particles, humans included. Aristotle, the brilliant man that he is, didn't find himself fazed by the confrontation of the more mythical view of human existence transcending material conditions with the emerging philosophical conception of the human being as purely defined by materialism. Would this materialism demystify and deflate the great men of Greek myth by declaring their actions to be simply the result of random yet determined natural processes? It seems that Aristotle heeded Plato's criticism of the atomistic philosophers who attempted to explain human activity largely through the movement of particles. I am going to explain how Aristotle was able to advance a scientific, particle-based view of life without letting the materialistic aspects of his thought render human action and thought itself materialistic and determined. 

How Matter Grows in Complication to Form Objects and Living Beings

Before we start talking about how a human being fits into a materialistic conception of the world, let's first delve into Aristotle's take on physical substances. The best way to explain it is by using the metaphors of building, shaping, and construction. Matter becomes more sophisticated when given a form. It starts out as non-functional and then acquires a specific function by being fashioned in accordance with a design. Thus, a shapeless lump of bronze, lacking a function, can be converted into a statue. Now, starting out with the metaphor of a human-made artifact, we can use the same principles to show how Aristotle views basic matter progressively build itself up to a complex living being. It all starts with moist, dry, cold, and hot particles combining into one of four elements - earth, water, air, and fire. The four elements in turn combine to form the uniform parts within the human body - blood, flesh, and bone. These uniform parts are combined to create the non-uniform parts - the human organs such as ears and eyes. All these non-uniform parts are joined together to create the whole human being. It is important to consider the reverse side of this process. Just like a statue can be stripped of its form and turned into formless matter, so can a human being or an animal break down into lower levels of matter. An ear severed from a body can be hacked up into chunks of flesh which itself will further break down to the four elements (air, earth, fire, and water) and then all the way down to the dry ,moist ,hot, and cold particles. This is line with the earlier thought of the atomists such as Empedocles and Democritus, who asserted that the lowest level particle released by a broken-down substance would eventually be absorbed by another one. Thus moist and dry elements released by a decaying fly could eventually be absorbed into the skin of a new-born baby. This is a radical change in the self-understanding of a human being because it's not the gods in Olympus that are controlling human fate but a complex system of particles that function mechanically and deterministically.

How the Development of Matter is Guided by Goals

Mechnically, deterministically, but not chaotically and randomly. You see, even though Aristotle doesn't see the hands of gods involved in the manufacture of creatures, he endows the material process itself - the progressive transformation of matter into living being - with a goal-like determination. The matter is being shaped with a certain end in mind - in the scheme of Aristotle's causality this is the final cause -  rather than randomly being heaped together so that the results are unpredictable. For Aristotle, being is before becoming, which means that even at the start of the transformation process of matter to living being, the living being is already initially present as a guiding, shaping principle. Thus, for a hand to come into being, the right particles (dry, moist, etc..etc..) have to be assembled into the right elements (water, fire, etc.. etc..) which in their turn have to be correctly combined to produce the needed uniform material for the hand (flesh, blood.) Without the right combinations selected by the "final cause" at the beginning of the process, the wrong result would come about.1 Unguided combinations of matter might just end up creating something totally different where the hand is supposed to be. Indeed, nowadays, unexpected genetic mutations have been observed to produce various deviations from a standard body in various newborn animals and even humans.

The Role of Potential in Making Matter Capable of Receiving Form

If Aristotle had lived long enough to confront our genetic research, he wouldn't have been surprised at the role genetics plays in determining the development and unfolding of a newborn's life. Hence, Aristotle views matter really in a passive role, secondary to the form that shapes it. He defines matter as something that has the capacity to receive a form or be deprived of it. Thus, matter is about the possible; it has the potential to take on forms. Again, for the sake of illustration, let's return to the construction metaphors. Brick and timber is a sort of matter because it has the potential/the possibility for taking on the form of a house. A builder/artisan, the active power that gives form to the matter, selects his matter based on what he wants to create. (Incidentally, in Aristotle's causality, a force's action, whether it be human or not, in contributing form to matter is termed the "efficient cause.") If he wants to create a pillow, he is not going to decide to use timber as his material for it. Similiarly, if he wants to build a boat, he is unlikely to use horsehair or feathers, which would be more appropriate for the pillow. Now, this emphasis on matter as potential has several implications, the most important of which is that matter ends up being transformed somehow or other; it always fulfills some sort of potential. The lowest level of the particles of dry,moist,cold, and hot as well as the the level just above in complication - the elements of air, earth, fire, and water - are always in the process of being formed and shaped in order to produce things and living beings. Hence, the fact that matter has the potential for taking on a form is not meant abstractly by Aristotle but rather factually, as in matter is always fulfilling its potential to acquire form and therefore always becomes an actual thing or an actual living being. Either that, or actualized matter fulfills its potential for losing a form and reverting to a lower level. I think kids are already getting a taste of Aristotle's thought in playing Legos. You put together a bunch of pieces and there's a castle; take the castle apart and use the pieces to build a pirate ship.

How Aristotle Keeps The Concepts of Life and Matter Intertwined Yet Separate and Distinct

Once matter constitutes a living being or an animal, Aristotle conceives of the soul as a functional, embodied but not a transcendent principle. The body itself is a mechanism for furnishing the various organs with life. Since the living, sentient status is conferred by a functional whole to specific organs such as eyes, ears, and hands, the organs themselves can also be defined separately, outside of their functioning status within the living body, as "matter."  Thus a hand severed from the body is distinguished from a living hand, with the dysfunctional hand defined only as matter and not as a living, functional organ. The distinction between the functional and nonfunctional is key for Aristotle. It allows him to coherently specify how life comes from matter. Only once all the matter is joined together to create the whole mechanism does the form of life dominate the matter. Otherwise, the form of life is unrealized and matter is lifeless either because the form of life is in the process of being composed or has already decayed. This way of conceiving of life and matter may seem obvious and logical to us, but in his time it was an approach that differed from the mythological view of the soul as separate from and able to survive the body. Plato had Socrates talk about the release of his soul from the confines of a corrupt physical existence in the Phaedo, but Aristotle's natural philosophy defined the soul simply as the functioning state of joined matter. This means of course that life, produced by matter, would cease with it and not descend either to mythological Hades or ascend to Plato's pure realm of ideas. This isn't to say that Aristotle's thought is free of all trascendent/supernatural principles. After all, he does posit a realm of pure actuality where ideas reign supreme and the unmoved mover who, free of all engagement with matter and only producing actualized forms, is responsible for all movement in the sphere of matter while standing still himself.

Why the Worlds of Human Action and Materialistic Science Are Kept Apart

Now, the confrontation with Aristotle's conception of the pure ideas/pure mind moving matter while not being affected by matter itself may make you not want to take him seriously as someone who could discourse on matter and nature. But that just shows how Aristotle's thought is rooted in a different tradition. Aristotle doesn't have the eye of the pure empiricist. In fact, in spite of his deep analysis of the functionings of matter, he doesn't seek to reduce the products of matter to their particles. The human being with all his actions, senses, and thoughts is exactly that. It's him actually doing all that - not a set of particles that explain his actions. Aristotle concedes that these particles and elements make up the living being that is man. In his philosophy, once you are done explaining how the living human being is constructed, you stop discussing the particles and elements and start talking about human actions and thoughts as you would have otherwise. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses personal development in human terms; motivations, desires, goals, and actions are not discussed materialistically. However, Aristotle does carry over some concepts from the philosophy of nature to the philosophy of human life; hence his exploration of how human behavior grows in complication and takes on form as the human being develops.2 Just like matter, human behavior can be formed through education and mentoring to take on the forms of virtue. The most important point to take away from contrasting and comparing Aristotle's theories of matter and human life is that he knows how to discuss what is human in human terms and what the scientific in material terms. He will not extensively discuss bits of matter making decisions and pondering issues or experiencing emotions. Neither will he extensively discuss the materialistic/biological changes that human behavior causes in the self and in the other.


It's not that other materialistic philosophers of his time wouldn't engage in such discussions. He certainly could have as well, but he wanted to preserve doxa/appearances.That means that he wanted to discuss philosophical issues in a way that would resonate with people's preexisting intuitions. This is his way of continuing the Greek tradition of myth; the Greek myths and the epics provided models of behavior and answered questions about how people should best live their life, much like Socrates and Plato would go on to do. That is why when discussing ethics in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle felt that people wanted answers on how to act but didn't really want details on the materialistic/biological level of their actions. Similarly, when discussing materialism and nature, he believed that knowing the natural components of living beings had little to tell us about our human needs and motivations. How friends and family should treat each other can be expounded upon in myths or philosophical dialogues but certainly not with reference to the detailed processes occurring within the body.

Thank goodness Aristotle divided his thought into the material and the human. If he had based his ethics on biological issues like the movement of particles, body temperature fluctuations, and the functioning of various organs, then it would be a bit impractical to turn to his philosophy for guidance in life-related matters. Not only that, but later science would have made his observations ludicrous. Thousands of years later, the key insights that we retain from Aristotle are neither his thoughts about particles nor necessarily his specific cuturally-rooted views on virtue. What remains as his overarching legacy is to see that matter, while going through successive stages of organization, never makes understanding a human being simply reducible to the level of its divisible parts.


1.) Both the hand and the whole body each have a final cause. The hand has its own function that it's supposed to perform and its process of material creation will accordingly end up in a form that will fufill that function. The same logic applies to the body.

2.) That topic has been briefly touched upon in Aristotle on Friendship.

Works Cited:

Lewis, Frank A. "Form and Matter." A Companion to Aristotle. Ed. Anagnostopoulos, Georgios. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 162-185. Print.

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