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The Psychology of Aristotle, The Philosopher

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In this book, the author collects and discusses views and ideas of the ancient philosopher Aristotle which have psychological interest and compares them with today's theories. First, the soul-body problem is presented showing that Aristotle accepts a psychosomatic unity theorizing the human being in a holistic approach. Then the mental functions are described according to the aristotelian definitions, together with their interactions.

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CHAPTER ONE: The soul-body problem: (psyche-soma)

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The philosopher deals with the subject of the relations between the soul and the body by putting from the very beginning a question. He wonders whether all the phenomena of the soul are common with those of the body, or if some of them are peculiar to and carried out solely by the soul. And with humility he answers: “That is necessary for us to understand, but it is not easy” (403a). He then proceeds to the syllogism that since in most cases no manifestation of the soul can happen or act without involvement of the body, for example, in anger, desire, or courage, one may conclude that the soul has no separate existence. To reinforce his conclusion the philosopher brings many more examples of common soul-and-body manifestations, like passion, gentleness, fear, pity, joy, love, and hate. His final statement “because in all those conditions the body is concurrently somehow affected” (403a) is a laconic and clear explanation of the psychosomatic unity in which he believes.

When one studies the text carefully, one will notice that in spite of insisting on the interaction between soul and body, Aristotle does not adopt absolute positions, however. His phrases very often contain words leaving a margin for some other view: “it seems that …”; “in most cases …”; “somehow”; and the like. At one point in the same passage of On the Soul he expresses the probability of a mental function acting by itself: “Thinking seems to be par excellence a separate phenomenon” (403a). Yet the philosopher of Logic is immediately ready and open to either support or disprove the above view; so he reminds us of the fact that thought is related to imagination (see relevant chapters later) and, knowing that images are connected with the sensory system of the body, he expresses his doubts about the nature of thought: only if such phenomena were exclusively the work of soul, would it be possible for soul to be considered separate.

 

CHAPTER TWO: Sense-perception

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Aristotle gives great importance to the function of sense-perception; he considers it as the primary basis for other functions, like imagination, memory, and thought. For that reason he devotes a rather long treatise to Sense and Sensibilia (Peri aestheseos kai aestheton); but also in his work On the Soul many chapters (in Books II and III) deal with subjects of special interest to psychology.

The philosopher starts the discussion by stating that sense-perception is the result of an activation and a process which leads to change (alloiosis) in the organism, functional and possibly structural—as one can gather from his whole exposition. Sense-perception is considered an active phenomenon and not one passively produced by an external stimulus, as other philosophers of his time thought. That is why, according to Aristotle, both the function of sense-perception and the perceptible object must be viewed at a certain moment as being “in a potential state” (dynamei [417a]) and at other times as “in action” (energeia [417a]). So a sensory organ does not function by itself, but is always alert and ready to accept a stimulus and be activated for a percept to be produced. When stimulation starts, both the stimulating object and the sensory organ are in action until the process is completed and the external object has become perceptible by the person.

 

CHAPTER THREE: Thought and judgement

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The faculty of thought together with those of affects and volition occupy the main interest of psychologists and psychiatrists, especially when they examine the present mental state of a patient. Modern psychiatry distinguishes two basic parameters of thought: i) coherence, which concerns the stream of talk and the way that thoughts are connected to each other, and ii) content of thought, which may be normal, logical, and corresponding to reality, or abnormal with delusions, phobias, obsessive ideas, and so on. Aristotle, of course, as a philosopher, has a different starting point, but still the various issues he raises about thought are of great interest to anyone who more deeply studies the mental functions: the nature of thought, its attributes, its various types (understanding, knowledge, etc.), the relation of thought to other faculties, the somatic involvement (or not) in thinking, and so forth. A great part of the work On the Soul (in Book III 3–7, 10) is devoted to such questions, but they are scattered in the text and here an attempt is being made to collect in a sequence what is psychologically important, with due respect to the prototype.

 

CHAPTER FOUR: Volition (will) and psychomotor function

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Volition is accepted today in psychological circles to be the function by which a person consciously chooses the planning and performing of a certain action. We can consider as equivalent to that what Aristotle calls “the appetitive part of the soul” (432b), in which he includes wish (voulesis), desire (epithumia), and appetite (orexis). He says that these form a faculty distinct from the others he enumerates, in respect of both reason and potentialities.

In Book III of On the Soul the philosopher proceeds to a differentiation by stating that wish has at its disposal the calculative abilities of logic, while desire and appetites (as well as passion) are characterized by irrational thinking. In our discussion about thought and imagination we have seen some parameters of their relation to volition. “Contrary to appetites and desires which are ignoring logic, wish always follows nous” (432b), that is, a right way of syllogisms, since nous represents a total of thought processes functioning correctly and according to reality. Wish, in addition, is not determined in its choices by imagination because, we were told, the latter can be true but it may be false.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: Affect (mood)

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The emotional condition that bears the term “affect” or “mood” in psychology and psychiatry is not dealt with by Aristotle in On the Soul to the extent that one would expect. In a few passages he uses the word thym-ikon, which in modern Greek even today means “emotional disposition” and the root of which is met in many other languages; for example, in English, “dysthymia”, “hypothymia”, and “athymia”. The philosopher does not analyse the content of the term thym-ikon, nor does he bring any examples, while he connects it with epi-thymia, that is, desire, by saying that in both states man is seeking pleasure. Of course, to some degree it is true that the mood is usually searching for something pleasurable and that man's emotional condition moves between opposite poles: pleasure–displeasure; joy–sadness; love–hate. Aristotle comments on the reactions to such conditions by saying that man, depending on the situation, will either proceed and pursue or avoid and leave (an equivalent to the modern psychophysiological rule of fight-or-flight).

 

CHAPTER SIX: Memory

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Many schools of psychology and psychophysiology today accept that the sensory organs when activated produce percepts, which then remain in the mind as mental representations—visual, auditory, and so on. We have seen that Aristotle describes a very similar process and calls such a mental representation a phantasma—”image”, according to an Oxford translation. The Greek word comes from a Homeric verb meaning “to appear”, “to be seen”—so in fact the philosopher means mainly something which had been seen, and then kept in “imagination” (phantasia) as an image. He underlines this visualization when he states that one cannot think or understand without images. He further clarifies such a connection of thought and images by saying that thinking proceeds by using “pictures”, “impressions”, or “written words” (graphe).

Aristotle in all his works gives great importance to the senses, to which he also devotes a separate book (Sense and Sensibilia). Regarding memory, he points to sense-perception (aesthesis) as the primary function, which through the formation of images constitutes the basis for thinking and for memory. In his treatise On Memory, he specifically writes: “Memory only incidentally belongs to the function of thought, but essentially it belongs to the function of sense-perception” (450a). In order to support his view he adds that if memory were a function exclusively of thought, it would not be found in many animals possessing no thinking abilities.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Consciousness-dreams

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Consciousness is disturbed in various psychiatric conditions and so it is necessary for the examiner to evaluate its level during psychological testing or psychiatric diagnosing. Being awake does not always mean that somebody is conscious enough of the surroundings and of himself, and sufficiently alert and ready to accept stimuli, to concentrate and respond. Aristotle in his treatise On Sleep of his book Parva Naturalia deals with the subject more by discussing wakefulness than directly about consciousness.

In some cases, he is more exact; he describes loss of consciousness in persons who have fainted or have received blows to the neck. He also refers to epilepsy as characterized by loss of consciousness similar in a way to that of sleep. Otherwise, he clearly states that sleep is a different condition than disturbances in which there is unconsciousness of the form seen in asphyxia, or when a person falls into a deep trance and is considered dead. In such cases, the perceptive faculty is extremely weakened, and although—the philosopher correctly comments—one may sometimes see images and speak about them when in a trance, that experience is not a dream.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: Nutrition and reproduction

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Nutrition and reproduction are enumerated by Aristotle in Book II of his work On the Soul, together and on the same line with basic mental functions (sensory, psychomotor, thought), while today we consider those two more as biological. Yet, in a broader sense, one can speak of them as psychosomatic—see, for instance, psychogenic anorexia, bulimia, and impotence.

The ancient philosopher explains his categorization on the fact that nutrition through food maintains life, and life exists in beings possessing a soul (he even coined the term “nutritive soul”). “Since nothing is fed which is not alive, the body which is fed is besouled—and that happens not by chance” (416b). He also remarks that nutrition is necessary from birth until death for everything that is alive. Without nutrition, it is impossible for a being to grow, mature and, lastly, decay. The Stagirite underlines the psychic power of nutrition, which continuously preserves a creature in order to remain the way that it is; food in addition prepares a being to act appropriately.

 

CHAPTER NINE: The gifts of Nature

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Aristotle was an untiring student of Nature in the broadest possible sense. By personal observation and introducing the empirical method in philosophy, he examined hundreds of plants and animals, as well as various phenomena of Nature, and so it was impossible not to connect the existence of Man with the latter. His approach and the animalistic qualities he attributes (along with the psychological) to the human being, led to what some call “naturalistic theorization”, although it could equally be called biological.

The Stagirite expresses his admiration for the great power and wisdom of Nature in his treatise On the Soul with a phrase that has become standard: “Nature never does anything in vain (without a reason), nor does it leave out something necessary” (432b). With yet another phrase, complementary to the previous, he stresses the pur-posefulness of Nature: “All things in Nature exist for a certain aim” (434a), and that for every creature to reach its target the work of Nature is a prerequisite.

 

CHAPTER TEN: The effects of the environment

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Apart from the capabilities and potentialities with which Nature has supplied Man, did Aristotle accept that the environment also is influential in the shaping of the personality? The answer is definitely positive. Before I present relevant passages from his books for a more extensive discussion, I will here first make reference to a few descriptions of his indicating that even in animals the environment, animate or inanimate, has a direct effect on their behaviour and ethos.

During periods of shortage of food, the philosopher describes, there is war among wild animals, sometimes of the same species, until some leave the place of shortage or die. On the contrary, if there is ample food in the environment the animals live in peace; in the text there is the example of crocodiles which in ancient Egypt the priests managed to tame by caring for and feeding.

There are cases of animals and birds which show a change in their behaviour when they lose their partner and remain alone in their environment. The Stagirite cites the case of a cock that, when the mother of his young chickens dies, starts “taking them around and feeding them” (631b). The surprising change mentioned surpasses a simple alteration in behaviour, since such a cock no more acts as a male: he does not crow at dawn nor does he want to have sex with a new hen. A similar change of gender role and instinctual drives takes place, according to History of Animals, in the case of a hen that fights and beats a cock; such a hen then begins to crow early in the morning and even tries to have sex with other hens!

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN: The responsibility of one's Self

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The qualities with which Nature supplies Man, somatic and psychic, and the various effects which he receives from the environment, after a period produce for him the possibility to contribute himself to the course of his life that follows. How much this is done consciously or unconsciously, to what degree this is the result of the laws of learning, and so forth, is a matter of theorization, according to the “school” (psychoanalytic, behavioural, or other) to which each researcher belongs. In any way, Man goes through a developmental process, during which at various stages his own Self more and more takes over his fortune undergoing certain intra-psychic procedures. (The word “Self” is used in this chapter in its everyday meaning, and not in the sense it holds in the writings of the psychoanalyst Kohut or elsewhere where it is used as a specific term.)

In this chapter, there will be a discussion of the views of Aristotle on the above subject in relevance to the formation of the personality, and an attempt to find possible corresponding, parallel, or opposing theories to those of modern psychology and psychiatry.

 

CHAPTER TWELVE: Special characteristics according to age and gender

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Aristotle divides personality characteristics into two main categories: virtues and vices. His concern is, of course, philosophical; in the Nicomachean and Eudemian Ethics, moral, to teach men how to become good and virtuous (agathos); and social in Politics, in order to advise how one can be a good citizen (polites). Yet in one of his more analytic descriptions of virtue, there are parameters of psychological interest: Virtue is a characteristic that has been reached after deliberation and choice, which always tends towards the mean—to a middle road relative to us, and which is determined by rational thoughts such as those of a prudent man. The elements in this passage refer at the same time to some psychic potentialities that a virtuous person should possess: freedom of thought, good judgement, self-knowledge, logic, and moral strength.

A fundamental theory in the Aristotelian philosophy is “the rule of the mean”, according to which in all phenomena, natural or human, the middle way for actions—rather than the extremes— always brings the best results. Aristotle considers that a personality trait belonging to the categories of virtues is the mean between two vices, the one characterized by excess and the other by deficiency. A classical example is bravery, its excess being audacity and its deficiency cowardice. In Eudemian Ethics, the philosopher presents a table of 14 virtues and their corresponding vices—a total of 42 specific characteristics (1221a). It is psychologically significant that his approach is not impersonal, but on the contrary very human. He himself stresses that the mean in interpersonal relations is not like in mathematics, “where 6 is at an equal distance from 2, as well as 10” (1106b).

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: Family relations

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Family relations are described in quite some extent in three chapters (Book VIII) of the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle gives particular importance to the structure and function of the household (oikos), as shown in his epigrammatic phrase “the household comes first and is more indispensable than the state (polis = city-state)” (1162a). This statement, combined with another in the same text—”Man is by Nature inclined to live in couples rather than as a political being” (1162a)—makes clear the position of the philosopher, who gives more weight to the psychological needs of an individual through intrafamilial relations than his role in the state as a citizen. Such a view is not frequently found in ancient Greek literature, since in those times the duty of a free citizen (polites) and generally his life were inseparable from that of the city. Even when Aristotle formulates his classical phrase in the Eudemian Ethics— “Man is a sociable (koinonikon) animal” (1242a)—a few lines further he completes: “It is in the household that one can find the beginning and the sources of love, of community life and of justice” (1242b).

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: Friendship

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Friendship is a fundamental interpersonal relation for all ages in every society. The Aristotelian key words characterizing friendship are contained in a laconic sentence: “All kinds of friendship exist by interrelating/intercommunicating” (1161b). En koinonia is the ancient Greek expression having, as one can gather from the detailed descriptions later, a double meaning: psychological—to participate, to communicate feelings, ideas, and so on with others; and sociological—to have things in common, to act in common. (Koinonia in modern Greek means “society”, and in the Greek Orthodox Church “Holy Communion”.)

An important view of Aristotle at the beginning of Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics is that friendship is most indispensable in life, since nobody would prefer to live without friends, even if he had all the goods at his disposal. The philosopher enumerates many categories of people needing friends, explaining also the reasons for that. The rich and those in power require friendship in order to keep their prosperity, while people in poverty or suffering misfortune can find refuge only in friends. In addition, the young need friends in order to avoid mistakes and sins, as well as persons in their prime to be reminded of and proceed to noble actions, and old people to be helped in whatever they cannot anymore achieve. The Stagirite extends his view even further—friendship is necessary for fellow-citizens in order for their state to be held together safe; in this way the wise lawgivers take care more of the concord between fellow-men than they do for justice.

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: Erotic love

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Aristotle describes erotic love in the chapters of Nicomachean Ethics in which he examines the subject of friendship. Indeed the definition he gives to this type of love is made in comparison to friendship; a laconic definition: “Being in love (eros) is a kind of excessive friendship” (1171a). He explains this similarity by adding that in both friendship and love a person cannot have a close bond with more than one. It is a fact of life, he says, that an erotic love should be unique, like it happens in bosom companions.

The Stagirite connects erotic love with youth. His arguments are based on the similar behaviour of young people with that of those in love. In doing so, he proves himself remarkably observant regarding age changes and emotional conditions: Young people are inclined to get in love driven mostly by their emotions and passion. Their aim is pleasure, as it happens in friendships of youngsters. In both cases, these bonds are often temporary and feelings may change within one day following what the moment brings. Yet with the passing of years, tastes change and consequently different kinds of associations are sought. Young men become friends or get in love quickly, while old men do not.

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Some basic psychoanalytic concepts

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Instinctual drive is defined in The Language of Psycho-analysis by Laplanche and Pontalis (1985; my emphasis) as “a dynamic process consisting of a pressure (charge of energy) which directs the organism towards an aim”. We have seen when discussing volition (Chapter Four “Volition [will] and psychomotor function”) that Aristotle in his work On the Soul in a similar way expresses the role of orexis (appetite), containing all the above qualities in one passage: “Appetite is an active process, with energy, giving a direction towards what it desires (towards the orecton)” (433b; my emphasis). Orecton is the desirable object, which gives pleasure and alleviates psychic pain. So the addition existing in the psychoanalytic definition that “through an object the instinct achieves its aim, that is, to eliminate the state of tension” (Laplanche &Pontalis, 1985), and consequent unpleasure, is also fulfilled in the Aristotelian passage.

Furthermore, the fact that in the psychoanalytic theory the instinct is considered to have its source in bodily stimuli is also mentioned by Aristotle about orexis, in the lines just following the above passage: “That which is motivated and directed is the animal and the instrument which appetite employs to produce a move is bodily” (433b). Under the instinctual appetites and desires, the Stagirite includes what psychoanalysis calls ego-instincts of self-preservation when he says: “Hunger and thirst are also desires” (414b). It is noteworthy that the philosopher having a psychobiological approach adds: “Hence the examination of all these falls within the province of the functions common to body and soul” (433b).

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: Narcissism-self-love

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Aristotle in two chapters (Book IX) of Nicomachean Ethics, as well as in Eudemian Ethics, and after discussing friendship from various aspects, ends up in a psychologically very important conclusion: Friendships are determined according to one's feelings for oneself. His position is explicit: If one does not love one's own self, one cannot offer any true friendship or love to somebody else.

The philosopher's argumentation proceeds as follows: A good (agathos) man, a man with a sound personality, chooses a friend and is ready to offer to him if they both have common principles and wishes, and if they prefer the same things. The friend should be consistent in his likes and dislikes, so that the good man can spend time with him in a pleasant atmosphere. The friend should also be in a position to share joys and sorrows with the good man.

The philosopher's second part of the arguments in his syllogism starts with a sort of title: “But the good man possesses the same feelings for himself” (1166a). And he explains: The good man with a mature personality has virtuous principles and values which he follows steadily. He is after good targets and acts accordingly for his own sake. He is not changeable in his likes and dislikes. He can have a pleasant behaviour towards a friend, but he is also satisfied if alone and feels pleasure whenever in company with himself. He can even suffer, as well as rejoice by himself, since he is a realist and sees things as they are, following permanent criteria.

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: Pleasure (hedone)

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Aristotle examines the subject of pleasure (hedone) from multiple aspects—its qualities, its role, its targets, and such like. To the moral question of whether pleasure is good or not, a question to which previous philosophers held various opinions, the Stagirite takes a realistic, human, down-to-earth position. He states that pleasure is a fact of everyday life, since “all those things which are acceptable by everybody we call existing-as-such” (1173a).

He adds several qualities: not all men receive a stimulus in the same way or at the same level of intensity—for some something is desirable and for others not so. There are special pleasures that are felt more by specialists; for instance, a nice melody is more pleasurable for a musician. The philosopher even registers a psycho-biological phenomenon, that of the extinction rule. If one is under the effect of two stimuli at the same time, then the most delightful will expel the other; that is, a great joy will not allow us to pay attention to something else we are told at that moment. Pleasures increase an activity, is another observation of Aristotle; but, he continues, when they are appropriate to it and enjoyable by the performer. For instance, one who likes geometry is more efficient and accurate in solving geometrical problems because of the joy that he derives from doing so, while a musician would not.

 

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