Aristotle on Human Nature

Aristotle was a student of Plato but ended up teaching his own ideas which are quite different from Plato.

The human soul

Aristotle uses the word form too, but in a different way to Plato. He shows how something has matter and form. For example, a statue may be made out of bronze (it’s matter). But the shape the bronze has been caste into is its form. Thus matter is formed in a certain way and form is realized in matter.

Aristotle was possibly the world’s first biologist or zoologist. He takes a very biological, scientific view at first in explaining human nature. He says we must look not at the matter humans are made of (flesh, blood, bone) but at the form we have taken, the arrangement of our organs, circulation, reproductive system etc. The nature of a living thing is revealed through it’s progression and growth into it’s mature form.

A living thing’s soul is its form. Body and soul are one and the same, just as matter and form are one. Matter and form are just different aspects or descriptions of an object. A soul is a combination of certain abilities, with the make-up of abilities possessed defining the soul.

Anything that has a soul is alive, but there are different ways of being alive. Different organisms have different functional capacities. For example, plants have powers of growth and self-nutrition. Animals have mobility and sensations such as taste, hearing, smell, sight.

From this he creates a hierarchy of souls.

  • rational soul: humans; possess all other aspects listed below plus ability to reason in scientific, theoretical ways.
    • locomotive soul: animals; possess all other aspects listed below plus ability to move from place to place.
      • sensitive soul: has sensations but no movement.
        • nutritive soul: plants.

Humans have the same functional capacity as other souls but also the ability to reason, which sets us apart.

Aristotle breaks this down into two different kinds of reason (an interesting foreshadowing of Kant):

Scientific reasoning is the ability to form concepts and reason discursively.

Practical reasoning is means-ends reasoning, deliberation, finding practical steps to achieve a goal.

We are the only species that exercises scientific reasoning.

The goal of human life

Aristotle was all into his telos – a Greek philosophical term meaning end, purpose, divine order.  All human action is thought to aim at some end. If there were no ultimate goal, then all this striving for ends would be in vein, so there must be some ultimate goal to human life.

It is widely accepted that this ultimate goal is human happiness, which is identified with living well and doing well. The Greek word for this is eudaimonia, which has other meanings linking to prosperity and fortune. It is similar to the word flourishing.

  1. Someone is good at something if they perform it’s characteristic function well.
  2. Man’s characteristic function is reason.
  3. Human happiness is to live according to reason.

The argument is that man seeks to flourish. His characteristic function is reason. To use his characteristic function well, to reason excellently, is flourishing.

Man is also frequently corrupted by desire and excess. The answer to this is to achieve a mean, the concept of balance found in many religions.

For example, instead of being gluttonous or ascetic, practice temperance. Instead of being cowardly or rash, practice courage. We are to avoid the extremes of human emotion and action.

Aristotle thought there are two mains ways of achieving this:

Right desire comes by habituation, through good upbringing and living in a well-ordered society.

True reasoning through practical wisdom. From experience and deliberation we figure out what is the best way to respond to scenarios, what will promote excellence.

A continuation of Aristotle’s telos argument is that if happiness is the highest goal and achieved through excellence, then the most excellent life would be filled with our highest human function. This would be intellectual contemplation.

So basically, Aristotle thinks the highest form of human excellence is for people to think about science and philosophy and brainy stuff, as it uses our highest function.


I like much of Aristotle’s theory on human nature. I agree with the way he begins by looking at humans biologically, using his matter and form concept, to show what separates us from other animals is our advanced capacity for reason and intellectual deliberation.

The idea of human soul and body being one appeals to me. It is similar to a Zen view I guess, where the we are one mortal body, not dually split between spirit and body. When I say appeals, I mean sound convincing. I would rather have a spirit and be immortal but from a philosophical standpoint I think Aristotle’s view is more plausible.

I also agree, at least mostly, with the thoughts around achieving a mean of action and emotion. This is very much like the ‘middle path’ in Buddhism. However, if everyone followed this exactly to the letter we would live in a pretty boring world. Much of what the makes world interesting is deviation from means, outliers, quirks and basically not being ordinary.

Where I tend to disagree is thinking that human happiness comes from using our intellectual capacities most excellently. A common critique of Aristotle is that he is too intellectual, and places too much importance on intelligence and intelligent activity. I agree with this critique and think for many people happiness often comes from abandoning intellectual deliberation, embracing the physical and emotional world instead of the abstract thoughts of the mind.


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