Chapter 2

The philosophies of Plato and Aristotle

by Adam Smith Icon

Philosophy first became known to the world via Socrates’ school from Plato and Aristotle. They consolidated the former systems, which were consistent with their own general principles to make their own systems.

They did not derive anything from the Ionian Philosophy.

  • Plato and Aristotle derived the fundamental principles of almost all their doctrines from the Pythagorean school.
  • Plato also borrowed something from the sects of Cratylus and Heraclitus, and Xenophanes, Parmenides, Melissus, and Zeno.

The extreme obscurity of Cratylus and Heraclitus prevented them from acquiring any extensive reputation. It would be vain and useless to rescue the system of those antesocratic sages, from that oblivion that they are in.

Plato discredited and exposed the Philosophy of Leucippus, Democritus, and Protagoras which consequently became dormant. They were almost forgotten until it was revived by Epicurus.

Plato’s doctrine on the Species or Specific Essence of things

In every transmutation, there was something different and something the same.

  • When Fire was changed into Air, the Stuff or Subject–matter of this Air was the same with that of the former Fire.
  • But the Nature or Species of the Air was entirely different.

When fresh, green, and fragrant flowers were thrown together in a heap, they entirely changed their nature in a short time.

  • They became putrid and loathsome which do not resemble their former beauty

But no matter how different the species, the following was the same=

  • the subject–matter of the flowers
  • the subject–matter of the dung

Therefore, in every body, whether simple or mixed, there were two principles of the whole nature of that body.

  • The Stuff, or Subject–matter, out of which that body was made.
  • This was the same in all bodies.

It did not have qualities nor powers of any kind. It was inert and imperceptible by the senses until it was qualified and rendered sensible by its union with some essential form.

The Species, the Specific Essence, the Essential, or the Substantial Form of the Body.

All the qualities and powers of bodies depended on their species or essential forms.

  • It was not the element of Fire, Air, Earth, or Water, which enabled those elements to produce their effects, but that essential form which was peculiar to each of them.
  • Fire must produce the effects of Fire, by that which rendered it Fire.
  • All other simple and mixed bodies must produce their effects, by their specific Essence or essential forms which constituted them such or such bodies.

It is from the effects of bodies on one another that all the changes in the material world arise. These become the business of philosophy since these depend on the specific essences of those bodies. It is the science which tries to connect all the different changes that occur in the world together, to=

  • determine what is the specific Essence of each object
  • foresee what changes may be expected from each object

But the specific Essence of each object is peculiar to all other objects of the same kind. Thus, the specific Essence of the Water before me is not in its being heated by the Fire or cooled by the Air.

  • It is in its being contained in a vessel.
  • These are all accidental circumstances extraneous to its general nature.
  • Water does not depend on the effects of such circumstances.

Philosophy, therefore, takes no notice of those particularities which are peculiar to this Water.

  • It confines itself to things common to all water.

If philosophy should consider the nature of Water modified by such accidents, it still would not confine its consideration to this water in this vessel.

  • It would extend its views to all Water contained in such vessels.

In every case, therefore, Species, or Universals, and not Individuals, are the objects of Philosophy.

  • Because whatever effects are produced by individuals, whatever changes can flow from them, must all proceed from some universal nature that is contained in them.

It was the business of Physics, or Natural Philosophy, to determine the Nature and Essence of every particular Species of things to connect together all the events in the material world.

  • There were two other sciences which originally arose out of Natural Philosophy which were thought to go before Natural Philosophy to communicate the knowledge of Nature.
  1. The first is Metaphysics.

It is=

  • the general nature of Universals
  • the different species into which they might be divided.
  1. The second is Logics.

It was built on this doctrine of Metaphysics. From the general nature of Universals and the sorts which they were divided into, it tried to=

  • ascertain the general rules to distribute all objects into general classes
  • determine to what class each object belonged

They thought that this was the whole art of philosophical reasoning.

Metaphysics is subordinate to Logic.

  • Before Aristotle’s time, they were regarded as one.
  • They made up that ancient Dialectic of which we hear so much but understand so little.

Aristotle’s followers were called the Peripatetics. They, nor any other old sect of philosophers, did not attend this separation much.

The later schoolmen distinguished between Ontology and Logic.

  • But their Ontology contains only a small part of the subject of Aristotle’s metaphysical books.
  • Since the days of Porphery, the doctrines of Universals and everything preparatory to the arts of defining and dividing, has been inserted into their Logic.

The objects of science, and of all the steady judgments of the understanding, must be permanent, unchangeable, always existent, and not liable to generation nor corruption, nor alteration of any kind.

  • Such are the species or specific essences of things.
  • Things of so fleeting a nature can never be the objects of science, or of any steady or permanent judgment.
  • While we look at them to consider them, they are changed, gone, and annihilated forever.

The causes of those sensations are also not permanent.

  • No corporeal substance is ever exactly the same in whole or in any assignable part during two successive moments.

Instead, they are in continual flux and succession by the perpetual addition of new parts and the loss of old ones.

  • Our sensations, therefore, never properly exist or endure one moment.
  • They perish the very instant of their generation and are annihilated forever.

According to Plato and Timaeus, there were three eternal principles out of which the Deity formed the World.

  1. The Subject–matter of things
  2. The Species or specific Essences of things
  3. The sensible objects themselves, or what was made out of these

These last had no proper or durable existence, but were in perpetual flux and succession.

Heraclitus said, no man ever passed the same river twice, because the water which he had passed over once was gone before he could pass over it a second time.

In the same way, no man ever saw, heard, or touched the same sensible object twice.

  • When I look at the window, for example, the visible species which strikes my eyes this moment, though resembling, is different from that which struck my eyes previously.
  • When I ring the bell, the sound, or audible species which I hear this moment, though resembling, is different from the sound I heard the moment before.
  • When I lay my hand on the table, the tangible species which I feel this moment, though resembling, is numerically different too from that which I felt the moment before.

Man is perpetually changing every particle of his body.

  • Every thought of his mind is in continual flux and succession.

But humanity, or human nature, is=

  • always existent
  • always the same
  • never generated
  • never corrupted

Therefore, this is the object of science, reason, and understanding, as man is the object=

  • of sense, and
  • of those inconstant opinions which are founded on sense.

The objects of sense were thought to have an external existence, independent of the act of sensation.

  • These objects of the understanding were much more supposed to have an external existence independent of the act of understanding.

According to Plato, those external essences were the exemplars, according to which the Deity formed the world and all the sensible objects in it.

The Deity comprehended within his infinite essence, all these species, or eternal exemplars, in the same way as he comprehended all sensible objects. However, Plato regarded the first of those as equally distinct with the second from the Thoughts of the Divine Mind*.

He even supposed that they had a particular place of existence, beyond the visible corporeal world.

  • This has been much controverted by the later Platonists and by some very judicious modern critics.
  • Those critics followed the interpretation of the later Platonists, as what did most honour to Plato’s judgment.

Plato said that all the objects in this world are particular and individual.

  • Therefore, the human mind cannot see any Species, or Universal Nature.
  • Its ideas of such beings must be derived from the memory of what it has seen before, when it had an opportunity to visit the place or Sphere of Universals.

During its infancy, childhood, and youth, the violence of its bodily passions, hinder it from turning its attention to those Universal Natures.

  • Its attention is all directed to the particular and individual objects of this world.
  • The mind was conversant with the Universal Natures in its prior world.
  • The Ideas of the Universal Natures seem overwhelmed in this first period of its existence during the confusion of those turbulent emotions.

These are almost entirely wiped out of its remembrance.

During this state, it is incapable of Reasoning, Science and Philosophy, which are conversant about Universals.

  • Its whole attention is turned towards particular objects.
  • Since it is directed by no general notions, it forms many vain and false opinions.
  • It is filled with error, perplexity, and confusion.

But when age has abated the violence of its passions and composed its confusions, it then becomes more capable of=

  • reflection
  • turning its attention to those almost forgotten ideas it had been conversant in its former state of existence

All the particular objects in this sensible world, being formed after the eternal exemplars in that intellectual world, awaken because of their resemblance. Insensibly, and by slow degrees, the almost obliterated ideas of these last.

The beauty shared among terrestrial objects, revives the same idea of that Universal Nature of beauty which exists in the intellectual world.

  • Particular acts of justice shares the universal nature of justice.
  • Particular reasonings and sciences shares the universal nature of science and reasoning.
  • Particular roundnesses share the universal nature of roundness.
  • Particular squares share the universal nature of squareness.

Thus science, which is conversant about Universals, is derived from memory. To instruct anyone about the general nature of any subject, is to awaken in him the memory of what he formerly knew about it.

Plato and Socrates imagined that they could further confirm this by the fallacious experiment. A person might be led to discover himself, merely by being asked a number of properly arranged and connected questions concerning it, without any information or any general truth, of what he was ignorant of before.

The more the soul was accustomed to the consideration of those Universal Natures, the less it was attached to any particular and individual objects. It approached the nearer to the original perfection of its nature, from which it had fallen.

Philosophy accustoms the soul to=

  • consider the general Essence of things only
  • abstract from all their particular and sensible circumstances.

Philosophy was thus regarded as the great purifier of the soul. Death separated the soul from=

  • the body
  • the bodily senses and passions

The soul originally descended from that intellectual world where no sensible Species removed its attention from those general Essences of things.

Death restored the soul to that intellectual world. Philosophy, in this life, habituated the soul to the same considerations. Philosophy brings it to that state of happiness and perfection, to which death restores the souls of just men in a life to come.

Plato was understood by Aristotle, who was his most intelligent and renowned disciple.

  • Like many other doctrines of abstract Philosophy, Plato’s doctrine is more coherent in expression than in idea.
  • It seems to have arisen more from the nature of language, than from the nature of things.
  • It was excusable with all its imperfections in the beginnings of philosophy.
  • It is not much farther from the truth than many other doctrines which have since replaced it by some of the greatest pretenders to accuracy and precision.

Mankind has always had a strong propensity to realize their own abstractions.

  • This is seen in the notions of Plato and Timaeus.
  • They first exposed the ill–grounded foundation of those Ideas, or Universals.

Even to this day, the greatest difficulties in abstract philosophy is to=

  • explain the nature of general ideas, and
  • account for the origin of general Ideas.

It is not easy to answer how the human mind

  • conceives the idea of a triangle, which is not obtuse, rectangular, nor acute, but is none and all of those together, when it reasons on the general nature of triangles.
    • This is Mr. Locke’s notion.
  • comprehends all infinite possible triangles of all possible forms and dimensions,
    • This is Malbranche’s notion
    • He is ingenious and sublime
    • He solves it by giving an enthusiastic and unintelligible notion of the intimate union of the human mind with the divine.

Only the divine’s infinite essence could alone=

  • comprehend the immensity of such possibilities
  • have an opportunity of viewing all finite intelligences

If after more than 2,000 years reasoning on this subject, Malbranche was forced to such a strange fancy to explain it, it is understandable why Plato adopts a similar hypothesis that is more out of the way.

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