Aristotle: The Master of those who know
Outline of Book 1 (of 13)

All men by nature desire to know. Thus, the senses are loved not only for their usefulness but also for themselves. Sight is loved best of all, for, of all the senses, it is the one that brings the most knowledge. Animals are by nature sensing, and from sensation memory is produced in some of them, which are thereby more intelligent and apt at learning than those which cannot remember. Those that have both memory and the sense of hearing can be taught, but the others cannot. Animals other than man live by appearances and memories and have but little of connected experience, but man lives also by art and reasoning. From several memories of the same thing man produces a single experience, and it is through this single experience that come science and art. With a view to action, experience (knowledge of individuals) is not inferior to art (knowledge of universals), and men of experience succeed better than those with theory but no experience, for actions are concerned not with the universal but with the individual. And yet people suppose artists to be wiser than men of experience because artists know the ‘why’ and the cause, and can therefore teach, whereas men of experience cannot teach. Again, none of the senses are regarded as Wisdom because, although they give the most authoritative knowledge of particulars, they do not reveal the ‘why’ of anything. At first all the arts were admired, but as more arts were invented, the recreational arts (those that pertain to Wisdom) were admired more than the practical arts.

What are the causes and principles of Wisdom? As far as possible, the wise man knows all things, even though he may not have detailed knowledge of them, and he can learn things that are difficult and farthest from mere sense perception. He is more exact, more capable of teaching, and more suited to ordering than to obeying. The most exact of the sciences are those that deal most with first principles, for the sciences that involve fewer principles are more exact than those that involve additional principles. First principles are most truly knowledge, and most knowable; from these all other things come to be known, but not vice versa. The science which knows to what end each thing must be done is the most authoritative, and this end is the good of that thing, and in general the supreme good in nature. As the good is one of the causes, this science must be the same as that which investigates the first principles and causes. That it is not a science of production is obvious even from the earliest philosophers, owing to whose wonder men first began to philosophise. A man who wonders and who is puzzled thinks of himself as ignorant, and philosophises to escape ignorance and accede to knowledge, not for the sake of something else but for its own sake. Such a free science only God can have, or God above all others; and God himself is thought to be among the causes of all things and to be a first principle.

Evidently, then, we have to acquire knowledge of the original causes, and causes are spoken of in four senses (see the Physics). In one sense, a cause is the substance or essence, in another the matter or substratum, in a third the source of the change, and in a fourth the purpose or the good that it serves. Of the first philosophers, most think that the principles of matter are the only principles of all things. They argue that that of which all things consist, that from which they come to be, and that into which they are resolved (the substance remaining, but changing its modification) is the element and the principle of things; thus, nothing is either generated or destroyed in the sense that the substratum (or substrata) remains. Yet they do not agree as to the number and nature of these principles. Thales says the principle is water (a view that may have been shared by those who first framed accounts of the gods), Anaximenes and Diogenes that it is air, Hippasus and Heraclitus that it is fire, Empedocles that it is all four of the elements, and Anaxagoras that it is infinite in number. However true it may be that all generation and destruction proceed from some one or several elements, why does this happen and what is the cause? The substratum does not make itself change, bronze does not manufacture a statue, but something else is the cause of the change, and to seek this is to seek the second cause, namely, that from which comes the beginning of movement. Some of the first philosophers who maintain that the substratum is one, as if defeated by the search for the second cause, say that the one and nature as a whole is unchangeable not only in respect of generation and destruction, but also of all other change. Those who allow for more elements are better able to account for the second cause; however, it is unlikely that fire or earth or any one element, or indeed spontaneity and chance, can explain why things manifest goodness and beauty both in their being and in their coming to be. When Anaxagoras and Hermotimus of Clazomenae first suggested that reason is present, as in animals, so throughout nature as the cause of order and movement, they must have seemed like sober men. Perhaps Hesiod is the first to look for such a thing, and Parmenides and some others also think of love or desire as the first principle. Certainly, Empedocles is the first to conceive not only of an aggregative first principle which he calls love or friendship, but also of a contrary segregative first principle which he calls strife. Empedocles is also the first to speak of four material elements, even though he only treats them as two, fire as one kind of thing, and earth, air, and water as another. Leucippus and Democritus say that the full and the empty are the elements, calling the one being and the other non-being, and making these the material causes of things. Those who make the underlying substance one generate all other things by its modifications; similarly, they make differences in the elements (namely, differences in shape, order, and position) the causes of all other qualities. All these thinkers evidently grasp, if only imprecisely, two of the causes which I distinguish in the Physics, namely, the matter and the source of movement.

For the Pythagoreans, all things seem to be modelled on numbers, and so they suppose the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things. Evidently, they also consider that number is the principle as matter for things and as both their modifications and their permanent states. According to them, the elements of number are the even and the odd, from which the One, which is both even and odd, proceeds, and number from the One. Other Pythagoreans say that there are ten principles, which they arrange into two columns of cognates, limit and unlimited, odd and even, one and plurality, right and left, male and female, resting and moving, straight and curved, light and darkness, good and bad, square and oblong. Alcmaeon of Croton also advances that the contraries are the principles of things, but how these principles can be brought together under the causes that I have named neither Alcmaeon nor the Pythagoreans can explain, although they do seem to range the elements under the head of matter. There are also those who speak of the universe as if it were one entity, but since they also maintain that change is impossible, the discussion of them is in no way appropriate to my present investigation of causes. In summary, then, of the earliest philosophers, there are on the one hand those who regard the first principle, whether single or plural, as corporeal, and on the other hand those who posit both this cause and also the source of movement, whether single or dual.

In most respects, Plato follows these thinkers. In this youth, Plato became familiar with Cratylus and with the teachings of Heraclitus that all sensible things are in a state of flux and that there can hence be no knowledge about them. Whereas Socrates seeks out the universal in ethical matters, Plato holds that the problem applies not to sensible things, which are always changing, but to the Ideas or Forms in which sensible things participate. For the Pythagoreans things exist by ‘imitation’ of numbers, whereas for Plato they exist by ‘participation’ in Forms, but what ‘imitation or ‘participation’ involve they do not say. Moreover, Plato maintains that, besides sensible things and Forms, there are the objects of mathematics, which occupy an intermediate position. Since the Forms are the causes of all other things, their elements are the elements of all things. As matter, the great and the small are principles; as essential reality, the One; for from the great and the small, by participation in the One, come the Numbers. Plato agrees with the Pythagoreans that the One is substance and not a predicate of something else, and that Numbers are the causes of the reality of other things. However, he constructs the infinite out of great and small instead of treating it as one, and conceives of the Numbers as existing apart from sensible things.

The essence, that is, the substantial reality, no one expresses distinctly. It is hinted at chiefly by Plato, who does not suppose either that the Forms are the matter of sensible things and the One the matter of the Forms, or that they are the source of movement. Instead, he advances that the Forms are the essence of every other thing, and that the One is the essence of the Forms. When the early philosophers speak of a cause, for instance, reason or friendship, they do not speak as if anything that exists came into being for the sake of it, but as if movements started from it. Thus, they both say and do not say that reason or friendship is a cause, in the sense that it is only an incidental cause.

Those who say that the universe is one and posit one kind of thing as matter, and as corporeal matter, only posit the elements of bodies and not of incorporeal things, though there are also incorporeal things. In giving a physical account of all things, they neglect the cause of movement. Furthermore, they do not posit the substance, that is, the essence, as the cause of anything, and call one of the simple bodies (water, fire, air) the first principle without asking how the simple bodies are produced out of each other, and so without considering their priority and posterity. Empedocles posits that all four bodies are the first principles, but he can be criticised on the same ground and also on grounds that are peculiar to his position. The Pythagoreans do not say how there can be movement if limited and unlimited and odd and even are the only things assumed. It appears that they have nothing to say about perceptible things, for if spatial magnitude does indeed consist of these elements, how, for instance, could some bodies be light and others heavy? Moreover, is the number that is each abstraction the same number that is exhibited in the material universe, or is it another than this? According to Plato, both bodies and their causes are numbers, but intelligible numbers are causes whereas the others are sensibles.

Unfortunately, to posit the Ideas as causes is, so to speak, to introduce an equal number of causes to the causes. Besides which, there is no convincing proof for the existence of the Forms: from some proofs no inference necessarily follows, and from other proofs there arise Forms even of things which are not thought of as having Forms. Of the more accurate arguments, some lead to Ideas of relations, and others introduce the ‘third man’. There are also other objections to the Ideas. Above all, one might ask what on earth the Forms contribute to sensible things, whether eternal or perishable, if they cause neither movement nor change in them.

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe (NYP)


The immortal Titan Prometheus (Ancient Greek, ‘forethought’), the champion of mankind, stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortal man. Zeus punished him by having him bound to a rock in the Caucasus; every day an eagle ate out his liver, only for it to grow back overnight and to be re-eaten the next day. Years later, the hero Heracles (Hercules) slayed the eagle and delivered Prometheus from this Sisyphean ordeal.

According to Hesiod, Prometheus was the son of Iapetus by Clymene, and brother of Epimetheus, Atlas, and Menoetius. In the Theogony, Hesiod says that Zeus punished Prometheus and mankind by sending Pandora, the first woman, who was fashioned out of clay and brought to life by the four winds. ‘…of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.’

In the Works and Days, Hesiod adds that Epimetheus accepted Pandora (‘all gifts’) despite a warning from Prometheus. Pandora carried with her a jar, from which she lifted the lid and released ‘evils, harsh pain and troublesome diseases which gave men death’. By the time she had returned the lid, only blind hope remained at the bottom of the jar.

Prometheus is also given significant treatment by Plato, Aeschylus, Sappho, Aesop, Ovid, and several others. In the Protagoras, Plato tells us that, once upon a time, the gods moulded the animals in the earth by blending together earth and fire. They then asked Prometheus and Epimetheus to equip them each with their proper qualities. Taking care to prevent the extinction of any of the animals, Epimetheus assigned strength to some, quickness to others, wings, claws, hoofs, pelts and hides. By the time he got round to human beings, he had nothing left to give them.

Finding human beings naked and unarmed, Prometheus gave them fire and the mechanical arts, which he stole for them from Athena and Hephaestus. Unfortunately, Prometheus did not give them political wisdom, for which reason they lived in scattered isolation and at the mercy of wild animals. They tried to come together for safety, but treated each other so badly that they once again dispersed. As they shared in the divine, they gave worship to the gods, and Zeus took pity on them and asked Hermes to send them reverence and justice.

Hermes asked Zeus how he should distribute these virtues: should he give them, as for the arts, to a favoured few only, or should he give them to all?

‘To all,’ said Zeus; I should like them all to have a share; for cities cannot exist, if a few only share in the virtues, as in the arts. And further, make a law by my order, that he who has no part in reverence and justice shall be put to death, for he is a plague of the state.

Adapted from Plato’s Shadow

In a recent film, Professor Richard Freund from Hartford University in Connecticut explains his use of deep-ground radar, digital mapping, and satellite imagery to find the best candidate for Atlantis in Spain’s Donaña National Park, north of Cadiz. Plato, our principal source on the myth of Atlantis, claimed that it had been destroyed in around 9000 BC by a natural disaster, most likely – Professor Freund contends – a tsunami.

But what exactly did Plato have to say about Atlantis? The first of two extended references to Atlantis is contained in the Timaeus, the only Platonic dialogue available to Latin readers in the early Middle Ages. At the beginning of the Timaeus, Socrates runs through a speech that he gave on the previous day. The speech is about the institutions of the ideal state, which are, or closely resemble, those of the Republic. Socrates asks to see this ideal state set in motion with an account of how it might engage in a conflict with its neighbours. In response to Socrates, Hermocrates asks Critias to relate a tale that he heard from his grandfather, who heard it from his father, who heard it from Solon, who heard it from an Egyptian priest in Saïs on the Nile Delta. According to this Egyptian priest, Athens was first founded nine thousand years ago, at which time she was the fairest, best-governed, and most god-like of all cities. The citizens of this Ancient Athens accomplished many great deeds, but their greatest deed of all was to fend off an unprovoked invasion by Atlantis, an island empire that lay beyond the pillars of Heracles, and that was larger than all Libya and Asia put together. Following Athens’ victory over the Atlanteans, the earth was ravaged by earthquakes and floods, and in a single day and night of misfortune Athens fell to the ground and Atlantis sank into the sea.

The second extended reference to Atlantis is contained in the Critias. The Critias was designed to be the second part of a trilogy, preceded by the Timaeus and succeeded by the Hermocrates. Unfortunately, the latter was never written and the Critias was left unfinished, literally breaking off in mid-sentence. According to Critias, whereas the gods Hephaestus and Athena had obtained Attica, Poseidon had obtained the island of Atlantis. Poseidon fell in love with the mortal Cleito who dwelt together with her parents Evenor and Leucippe in a low mountain near a fertile plain in the centre of the island. To secure his love, the god enclosed the mountain with rings of various sizes, two of land and three of sea. Here Cleito bore him five pairs of male twins. The eldest sibling, Atlas, was made king of the centre island, and the other nine siblings were made kings of other parts of the island. As their relations were regulated by the injunctions of Poseidon, the ten kingdoms remained at peace. Critias describes in great detail the fabulous riches of Atlantis amongst which fruit trees and forests, herds of elephants, and minerals including the legendary precious metal orichalcum. With these fabulous riches, the Atlanteans built temples and palaces, harbours and docks, bridges and canals, aqueducts and baths, and a very large standing army with ten thousand chariots and twelve hundred ships.

For many generations, as long as the divine nature lasted in them, [the Atlanteans] were obedient to the laws, and well-affectioned towards the god, whose seed they were; for they possessed true and in every way great spirits, uniting gentleness with wisdom in the various chances of life, and in their intercourse with one another. They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold or other property, which seemed only a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury; nor did wealth deprive them of their self-control; but they were sober, and saw clearly that all these goods are increased by virtue and friendship with one another, whereas by too great regard and respect for them, they are lost and friendship with them.

However, the virtue of the Atlanteans began to weaken,

…when the divine portion began to fade away, and became diluted too often and too much with the mortal admixture, and the human nature got the upper hand, they then, being unable to bear their fortune, behaved unseemly, and to him who had an eye to see grew visibly debased, for they were losing the fairest of their precious gifts; but to those who had no eye to see the true happiness, they appeared glorious and blessed at the very time when they were full of avarice and unrighteous power. Zeus, the god of gods, who rules according to law, and is able to see into such things, perceiving that an honourable race was in a woeful plight, and wanting to inflict punishment on them, that they might be chastened and improve, collected all the gods into their most holy habitation, which, being placed in the centre of the world, beholds all created things. And when he had called them together, he spake as follows – [The dialogue ends, literally in mid-sentence.]

Adapted from Plato’s Shadow

In the Theaetetus, a young Theaetetus admits that he has thought about the problem of defining knowledge many times before and suffers from his lack of an adequate solution. Socrates says, ‘These are the pangs of labour, my dear Theaetetus; you have something within you which you are bringing forth’. Socrates compares himself to a midwife, who can establish whether a woman is pregnant, induce labour, calm its pain, and bring about the delivery of a healthy child. He differs from a midwife only in that he works with men rather than with women, and with the soul rather than with the body. Just like the midwife is past bearing age, so he is barren – not of children, but of wisdom. All he can do is to bring forth wisdom in others, and the triumph of his art is ‘in thoroughly examining whether the thought which the mind of the young man brings forth is a false idol or a noble and true birth’. Sometimes the young man takes all the credit for himself, leaves him sooner than he should, and once again begins to set more value upon phantoms than upon the truth. In such cases the young man loses whatever he gave birth to and miscarries whatever remains in him. Then one day he realises that he is an ignorant fool and falls upon his knees, begging to return. Socrates warns that, should Theaetetus give birth to a phantom or false idol, he will tear it away from him and expose it.

And if I abstract and expose your first-born, because I discover upon inspection that the conception which you have formed is a vain shadow, do not quarrel with me on that account, as the manner of women is when their first children are taken from them. For I have actually known some who were ready to bite me when I deprived them of a darling folly.

Adapted from Plato’s Shadow

Outline of Plato’s Cratylus

…the knowledge of names is a great part of knowledge.

The principal concern of the Cratylus is the ‘correctness of
names’: if a given name (or word or phrase) is the correct
one for denoting a given thing, what is it that makes it so?
Socrates discusses the correctness of names with Cratylus, a
former pupil of Heraclitus, and Hermogenes, the impecunious
brother of Callias, at whose house the Protagoras takes place.
Cratylus has been telling Hermogenes that a thing’s
name is not whatever people agree to call it, but that there
is a ‘natural correctness’ of names such that a thing’s name
belongs to it by nature and is the same for everyone, Greek or
foreigner. Cratylus says that his name is ‘Cratylus,’ and that
Socrates’ name is ‘Socrates,’ but that Hermogenes’ name is
not ‘Hermogenes,’ even though everyone agrees to call him so.
Hermogenes is baffled by this, and asks Socrates to ‘interpret’
what Cratylus is saying. Socrates suggests that Cratylus is
simply making fun of Hermogenes, who is unable to make
any money despite being named after the god of profit.

Hermogenes argues that the correctness of names is simply
determined by convention and agreement. For example, he
says, when a new name is given to a domestic slave, the new
name is just as correct as any of the old ones. It follows that
a person or object can have more than one name, and also
different names to different people: ‘…whatever each person
says is the name of something, for him, that is the name’.

Socrates asks Hermogenes whether he agrees with
Protagoras when he says that ‘man is the measure of all
things’. In other words, are things merely as they appear
to a given person, or do they have some fixed being of their
own? Hermogenes confesses that he has at times been so
perplexed as to ‘take refuge’ in Protagoras’ doctrine. Socrates
is astonished: at such times, did Hermogenes actually believe
that there was no such thing as a bad man? Hermogenes
replies that, on the contrary, he has often thought that there
were very bad men, and plenty of them. Socrates asks whether
Hermogenes believed that there was no such thing as a good
man, to which he replies ‘some, but not many’. They agree
that what distinguishes bad men from good men is that good
men are wise whereas bad men are foolish. But how, asks
Socrates, can one man be wise and another foolish if ‘man is
the measure of all things,’ and whatever each man believes to
be true is true for him? Furthermore, if one man can be wise
and another can be foolish, then Euthydemus’ doctrine that
‘all things equally and always belong to all men’ must also
be false. Therefore, people and things must have some fixed
being of their own. If people and things have some fixed being
of their own, it follows that this is also true of the actions
performed in relation to them. So if, for example, we want to
cut something, we can only be successful in cutting it if we cut
it in accordance with the nature of cutting and being cut and
with the natural tool for cutting. Speaking is also an action
performed in relation to people and things, and so is saying
names. Thus, if we are to speak correctly or achieve anything,
we cannot simply name things as we choose.

If we want to cut something, we must cut it with the natural
tool for cutting, and if we want to name something, we must
name it with the natural tool for naming, which is a name. If a
name is a sort of tool, who, asks Socrates, makes this tool? In
other words, who or what provides us with the names that we
use? Socrates replies that the names that we use are provided
by a legislator – a very rare kind of craftsman indeed. Just as
a carpenter embodies in wood the type of shuttle naturally
suited to each type of weaving, so the legislator embodies in
sounds and syllables the name naturally suited to each type of
thing. And just as different blacksmiths who are making the
same tool do not necessarily need to make it out of the same
iron, so different legislators who are naming the same thing
do not necessarily need to use the same syllables, so long as
the name that they give to the thing is naturally suited to it.
This explains why the same thing can have different names
in different languages. Thus, Cratylus is correct in saying that
there is a ‘natural correctness of names’.

But what is the best way to name things? Socrates suggests
that the best way to find out is to ask a sophist, but since
neither of them can afford to pay a sophist’s fee, they should
look instead to Homer and to the other poets. For example,
Homer says that the river god who fought with Hephaestus is
called Xanthos by the gods and Skamandros by men. Socrates
argues that the river god is more correctly called Xanthos
than Skamandros, since the gods are bound to call things
by their naturally correct names. Homer also ascribes two
names to Hector’s son, Skamandrios and Astyanax. Socrates
argues that Hector’s son is more correctly named Astyanax
than Skamandrios, since the Trojan men call him Astyanax
whereas the Trojan women call him Skamandrios, and Homer
thought that the Trojan men were wiser than their women.
Socrates quotes Homer in saying, of Hector, that ‘He alone
defended their city and long walls’. Thus, it seems correct
to call the son of the city’s defender Astyanax or ‘lord of the
city’. Furthermore, Hector itself means ‘holder,’ which is very
similar to ‘lord of the city’. If it seems right to call a lion’s
whelp a lion, or a horse’s foal a horse, then it also seems right
to call the son of a king a king. Thus, those born according to
nature should be given the same name as their fathers, even
though the names of father and son may, as in the case of
Hector and Astyanax, vary in their syllables.

Socrates now races through a long list of words to show
how they have been correctly named, speaking like an oracle
because inspired by Euthyphro. For example, truth or ale¯ theia
is a compression of the phrase ‘a wandering that is divine’
(ale¯ theia). The god of the underworld is called Hades because
he knows (eidenai) everything fine and beautiful, and Pluto
because he is the source of wealth (ploutos). Most people
prefer to call him Pluto rather than Hades because they are
afraid of what they cannot see (aeides), and assume that
Hades refers to that. Socrates says that many people are
terrified of Hades because, after we die, our souls remain
with him forever. However, the reason our souls do not escape
from him is because they are bound to him by the strongest of
desires, namely, the desire to associate with someone who can
make us a better person. Socrates adds that Hades must be a
philosopher, since he has realised that a person only becomes
interested in virtue once he is detached from his body.

Some names, says Socrates, cannot be explained in this
way, either because they have a foreign origin, or because
they are so old and ‘basic’ that they cannot be recovered.
Such ‘primary’ names are based on syllables and letters, and
are used to make other ‘derivative’ names. Socrates argues
that one must know about the correctness of primary names
if one is to know about the correctness of derivative names.
So, for example, the letter ‘r’ seemed to the legislator to be
an appropriate tool for copying motion, for which reason he
used it in words such as rheo ¯ (flow), trechein (running), tromos
(trembling), thruptein (breaking), and rhumbein (whirling). As
the tongue glides most of all in pronouncing the letter ‘l,’ the
legislator used this letter in olisthanein (glide), leion (smooth),
liparon (sleek), and kollo¯ des (viscous). However, as the gliding
of the tongue is stopped most completely in pronouncing the
letter ‘g,’ he preferred to use this letter to imitate something
cloying, as in gloiodes (clammy), glischron (gluey), and gluku
(sweet). And so on.

Hermogenes turns to Cratylus and asks him whether he
agrees with what Socrates has just been saying about names.
Cratylus replies by quoting Achilles’ words to Ajax,

Ajax, son of Telamon, seed of Zeus, lord of the
All you have said to me seems spoken after my
own mind.

Socrates says that he has long been surprised at his own
wisdom, and also doubtful of it. He insists on the importance
of re-investigating whatever he says, since ‘self-deception is
the worst thing of all’.

Cratylus agrees with Socrates’ statement that ‘the correctness
of a name consists in displaying the nature of the thing it
names’. However, he thinks that all names have been correctly
given, whereas Socrates argues that, just like paintings, some
names are finely made and others are badly made. Just as
there are good craftsmen and bad craftsmen, so there are good
legislators and bad legislators. In particular, Socrates insists
that a name cannot resemble the thing that it names in every
respect, since it would then be a duplicate of that thing, and
no one would be able to tell the difference between them. As a
name cannot perfectly resemble the thing that it names, there
is scope for a name to be well given or less well given.

Socrates says that there are times when we understand
a name that does not resemble the thing that it names, in
which case our understanding of the name is a matter of
usage and convention. Usage, it seems, enables both like and
unlike names to denote things. Thus, whilst it may be possible
to know things through their names, it is far better to know
them in themselves. Socrates concludes that the matter calls
for further investigation.

This may be true, Cratylus, but is also very likely
to be untrue; and therefore I would not have you
be too easily persuaded of it. Reflect well and like a
man, and do not easily accept such a doctrine; for
you are young and of an age to learn. And when
you have found the truth, come and tell me.

Adapted from Plato’s Shadow