Ancient Source of Katharsis for the Lived Nihilism of Modernity
Daniel C. Wagner, Ph.D.
Aquinas College, Grand Rapids MI
The following is part II (of II) in a working paper adapted from an oral presentation given in Grand Rapids, MI. See Part I here.
3. Aristotle on Nature (φύσις)
What I want to propose now, then, is that Aristotle’s conception of nature provides a katharsis for the erroneous idea (reductive-materialism) that has led to bad practices (the culture of death) and our lived modern nihilism. Here, for the most part, I will summarize, in natural English, the difficult text of Aristotle’s Physics.
The first important point we need to take from Aristotle’s approach to nature, in Physics, I.1, is that his method is empirical. Indeed, our word, ‘empirical’ (‘having to do with sensation’) is from Aristotle’s Greek, ἐμπειρία (empeiria), which meant technically for him a basic sense-perceptive experience and understanding, that also serves as a point of departure for higher levels of specificity in scientific knowledge. In order to answer the question, ‘what is nature,’ Aristotle begins methodologically with basic sense-perceptive knowledge of nature. This is important in our argument with reductive-materialists: Aristotle holds that, starting with basic evidence of sense-experience (ἐμπειρία), we come to see by analysis that ‘nature’ means more than extended matter—and, that it is also, ultimately, purposeful.
What, then, is the datum of sense-perceptive experience of nature with which Aristotle begins? It is the fact that natural beings, generally speaking are in motion or change: they come in and out of existence, they grow and diminish, change qualitatively, and in place. Following his own rigorous scientific methodology (set down in Posterior Analytics), by analysis/division, Aristotle then works from this most general understanding of what natural beings have in common—motion—to set out the principles (ἀρχαί/archai), causes (αἴτιαι/aitiai) elements (στοιχεῖα/stoikiea) of nature.
First, at Physics I.5-7, Aristotle shows the necessity that nature must have as principles, form (positive state/disposition) and privation (lacking of being) (opposites/contraries), and subject/matter. On the supposition that nature is motion (which cannot be reasonably denied as a datum of sense-perceptive experience), it is necessary to suppose that nature has form, privation, and matter as its principles. Why does the supposition of motion have this consequence? Because, if you take away any one of these principles, the motion of the natural being is impossible (reductio ad impossible). To illustrate, two propositions constitute the intelligibility of the change, ‘the man becomes musical:’ (i) ‘the man is not musical’ (this privation is necessary, or there would be no change to ‘musical’; (ii) ‘the man is musical’ (here, the positively possessed form/disposition, musicality, must actually be present or no change has taken place). Finally, if you look at both of these propositions, you will notice something common to them, which persists, as it were, through the change: the man as the matter or subject (grammatically and actually) of the change. The form (musicality) and its lack are not actually changes in themselves; rather, we must also have a material subject of the change.
So, as St. Thomas says (De Principiis Naturae), the principles of nature are two or three: in positive existence, there is form and matter; but we add a third since not-being is a necessary condition for change—though it does not actually exist. Now, since all beings given to us in experience are capable of change, it follows that every natural being must be complex in this way: it must be a single (substance/being) constituted by the principles of form and matter (Physics, II.7) This is a famous docrtine in Aristotle: hylomporphism. Every natural being is a complex of matter (ὕλη/hule) and form (μορφή/morphe). Here, we have reached a first stage of our kathartic taking away of the erroneous idea of reductive-materialism: all natural beings, because they are mobile, are necessarily complex, consisting of matter and form. The intelligibility of nature as motion, from the outset, necessitates the principle of form. Matter is not sufficient, but we must also appeal to the formal dispositions of matter to account for nature.
Next, (Physics II.1), Aristotle gives a proper definition of nature in contrast to artificial beings, incorporating the principles of matter and form, but also bringing in already the notion that nature is teleological—i.e., that nature is purposive and end-directed. If you have time to set out all the things we say exist by nature, inorganic elements, organic plants and animals, and then to abstract a single common meaning from them, which would allow you to distinguish such natural beings from artificial beings, here is what you, following Aristotle, would find:
But the bed and the cloak, and whenever there is any other such kind of thing, to the extent that these happen to belong to any particular category (τῆς κατηγορίας ἑκάστης) and according just to the degree to which they exist by art (ἀπὸ τέχνης), not one possesses an innate (ἔμφυτον) impulse of change or motion (μεταβολῆς); but insofar as they happen to be stone or earth or a mixture from these, they do possess, and to just this extent, such an innate impulse, so that nature (φύσις/phusis) is some sort of principle or cause of being in motion and at rest in that to which it belongs primarily and according to itself [i.e., essentially], and not according to accident.
Whereas, the artifice has no principle of motion toward being and resting in what it is by definition qua artifice (e.g., the wood of trees does not tend toward being a coffee table), but their being is extrinsically granted by an artificer, natural beings possess, precisely, just such an internal principle of motion and rest. This is why we commonly think of nature as a set of beings and activities that are pristine—rivers flowing, trees and flowers growing, spiders spinning webs and birds nesting—these are all motions which do not involve extrinsic imposition of form through human agents. They happen of their own account, proceeding from within, as it were. Now, while natural beings must be material and formal, since they are all capable of change, as we have already noted, Aristotle argues that nature must be primarily form for two reasons. First, because we define natural beings primarily by their forms and the capacities that follow on them, and not their material constituents, which they share in common with other beings. This is obvious in the case of an artifice. The matter of a house is not a sufficient condition for its existence (lest, wherever the material be…etc.). Similarly, as humans we share the same matter in common, not only with other animals (blood, DNA, flesh, bones, etc.), but also with inorganic beings, (carbon, calcium, iodine, h2o, proteins, etc.). These materials, then, are not sufficient to make us what we are qua human and set us apart by definition.
Rather, we must appeal to distinct activities in relation to particular formal dispositions (morphology) in the matter (for example, we walk upright, have speech and reason, and there are corresponding morphological features—legs, tongues, the Broca region in the frontal lobe of the brain, and intellect and so on). Second, form is more nature because the motions of nature are ordered to form as the end of their productions. Here is Aristotle’s reasoning:
What, therefore, is growing (φύεται) [itself]? Not that out of which (ἐξ οὗ) [or the matter], but that into which (εἰς ὅ). Therefore, shape/form (ἡ μορφὴ) is nature.
Form must be nature because it is the end of natural motion. The form is the ‘that for the sake of which’ (τὸ οὗ ἕνεκα/to hou heneka) of the motion and the τέλος (telos), i.e., the end/perfection/completion of the natural being. Here, Aristotle is claiming that observation of natural motions shows that it is teleological: natural motions, especially biological ones, are such that pre-existent states of matter are ordered toward higher levels of formal perfection. Moreover, he is not imposing an abstract idea of teleology on natural motion; rather he discovers it in the principle of form. As Aristotle says in the Metaphysics,
Nature is the first matter […] and it is also the form (τὸ εἶδος) and the essential being (ἡ οὐσία); and this latter is the end/completion (τὸ τέλος) of becoming.
What a foal or a tadpole is actually, is the potential for the mature horse or frog. The point of the cells that divide out after conception and syngamy in human reproduction is the production of the organic parts and whole of the human being. There are cells for bones, soft tissue organs, flesh, tissues, and so on. Not one of the stages of ontogenesis is accidental. Rather, they are ordered to the production of subsequent stages and, ultimately, to the mature/complete/perfected human being. Here, by analyzing natural movement as ordered toward completed-form, Aristotle has discovered for us that nature is end-directed. Aside from appealing to material, formal, agent/efficient causation, then, natural motion (Physics, II.3) also requires an appeal to end or final cause. If this is true, a full katharsis of the nihilism resulting from reductive-materialism is coming into view. However, Aristotle holds that more work needs to be done to fully establish that nature is essentially teleological. This is because Aristotle had his own reductive-materialists to address.
The atomists, Leucippus and Democritus, and also Empedocles had claimed that natural phenomena can be explained without an appeal to form as end. Rather, nature can be explained by appeal to material necessity found in the parts of natural things, and their chance concatenation(s). Here is the example: excess rain is not ordered to the end of spoiling a farmer’s crop—this just happened to follow when the rain fell, which it must, and the corn was exposed. Similarly, teeth do not come to be for the end of chewing and nutritional sustenance in the animal, but these things result from the unqualified, chance combination of material constituents. This should remind us of the views of Hawking and Dawkins.
While Aristotle acknowledges that some events in nature happen out of a simple material necessity (e.g., bodies falling, water flowing down, rain falling down), he also shows conclusively that chance events, both in nature and in human affairs, can never provide a foundational/prior explanation for the coming to be natural beings. Indeed, whenever we are able to call an event a chance event, it turns out, it is only because we have already identified the end-directed movements of the natural agents involved. We know the chance event as undetermined (we cannot predict it), precisely because it is an outcome that is not contained in end-directed motions. In human affairs (i.e., intention), this priority of final cause is easy to see: if I say it was only by good chance that I ran into Bill at the grocery store, the intelligibility of my claim resides in the fact that I was there for the sake of beer and he for the sake of cheese. ‘Meeting each other,’ was not part of our teleological intentions, which is why we could not predict the event (it was extraordinary) and why we said it was chance/fortune in the first place. If we remove our intended ends from the account, the chance event is no longer intelligible. The same thing is true in natural (non-intentional) events. Aristotle uses the example of a man being struck by a rock rolling down a hill. The purpose of the man does not include being struck (by nature or intention), nor can we search the nature of the rock to find in it the effect of striking the man. The man was headed to the agora to mooch a bite to eat, and the rock followed its tendency toward the center of gravity when the impediment on the hillside was removed by a gopher. Two end-directed paths just happened to cross at the right time—and this is bad luck for the man!
The empirical fact that beings in the natural world consistently and repetitively achieve the same ends/goals provides Aristotle with what I think is his most powerful argument against the reductive-materialists of his time. This reduction of nature and its movements to material necessity and chance is impossible (ἀδύνατον/adunaton), says the Stagirite, given the observable fact that things like teeth and all the various species of plants and animal in general, come to be in nature invariably and normatively, while nothing from chance can exist in this manner. Here is the point: by definition, chance events are not regular/normative. If they were, they would no longer be extraordinary or surprising. Chance events then are not sufficient to explain the empirical fact that many of the motions of nature are normative—because they cannot, by definition, produce normativity. If chance is the ultimate cause of the existence of natural beings, and they do not result from a prior causal order, we should not find the same inorganic and organic beings coming to be on a regular basis. However, we do find this phenomenon—it is all around us—so that, in the end, end/purpose/goal/directedness (τέλος/telos) must be an essential part of nature.
This is profound first stage of katharsis: Aristotle has shown that nature is teleological at its very foundation: without goal-directed motions, we would not even be able to identify chance events, nor would there be normativity in the way that nature discloses it. Prior order (form) is the source of motion and the productions of nature. The ultimate explanation as to why human beings exist (or anything else in nature), cannot be that matter came together by random/uncaused or purely accidental chance. Aristotle believed that the species of animals, including us, in some sense, were eternal. However, we can still make the point using his principles, supposing the theory of evolution (this is a Thomistic move!). If life came to be from the inorganic, it is because there is something about the inorganic formally that gives it the potential to become the organic, just as the formal atomic properties of sodium and chlorine are in potential to combining in the generation of salt. So too, genetics shows us that, if speciation is the manner in which a diversity of animals have come to be in the natural world, including human beings, it is not a matter of random chance: the formal genetic potency of a parent species explains causally how subsequent species come into existence (if it explains at all!). And, these prior material states are ordered toward subsequent productions—here, the human being. Let us return now to the existential plight of modern persons living in the culture of death. Having grown up and out of the culture of death, even if our existence was not fully intended in the realm of human agency, nonetheless, it was intended by nature. The natures of our parents’ bodies—their reproductive parts—were doing exactly what they are directed/programmed to do: they have an essential intrinsic principle of motion toward the end (rest) of reproduction, and they achieved this goal (in spite of any intended obstacles). I find this fact kathartic—in purely naturalistic terms! It would allow one to remove the false notion that one’s natural existence is meaningless in the sense that it was not intended. For such persons at least a partial naturalistic fulfillment of that ancient Greek maxim and essential orienting point of Socrates’ life as a philosopher, γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnōthi season) or “know thyself,” is possible: We are τύχη καὶ τέλος (tuche kai telos), which is to say, we are chance (in human intention) and end sought in perfection (in natural motion). Perhaps, one might further inquire into the meaning of nature in order to determine what a flourishing human existence might entail. Though my account must be general, here, I will make two points along these lines.
First, natural teleology provides foundational principles for the natural law and virtue ethics. Because flowers (plants) have an intrinsic principle of motion toward growth, blooming, and pollinating, it is not nonsense to speak of these activities as the end, good, perfection, and completion of such beings. Moreover, it is not nonsense to speak certain acts as beneficial to flowers and others as harmful, relative to these ends. In fact, this is how both Plato and Aristotle, following Hippocrates, thought of good and bad. It is good for the flowering plant to obtain nutrients, water, and sunlight. Why? Because these materials allow it to achieve the end it is ordered toward by nature. It bad/harmful (for the flower) to place the flower in a closet, depriving it of these materials—why? Because this will prevent it from achieving its natural end—it will lack in being what it is tending toward through itself and nature as a member of its species. When we say that it is good for the human being to freely exercise the animal and intellectual capacities in a perfective manner, i.e., in such a way that these capacities obtain their objects well, again, this is not nonsense or a matter of mere emotive preference. Moreover, and relative to these ends or goods to which human nature is normatively ordered, it is not nonsense to speak of actions, say medical and educational, that remove obstacles to these goals as good and beneficial while saying that those obstacles themselves are bad and harmful. Is this not why, the medical field—which is unintelligible, by the way, without the naturalistic senses of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ I am proposing—seeks to heal its patients (so they can freely exercise their human capacities) and identifies conditions that prevent such flourishing as harmful disorders? Assuming prima facie that injustice occurs when innocent human beings are essentially harmed, these principles can be appealed to in order to provide naturalistic explanation of the Catholic Church’s controversial and difficult teachings on abortion and human sexuality. In general, these senses of good and bad extend through ontogenesis to operative perfection to show what a good human life (by nature) looks like: since human beings have, by nature, the animal and intellectual capacities, which are ordered to their own proper ends/objects, it good for human beings to perfect these capacities; and we can meaningfully talk about activities that would be harmful/bad for humans, i.e., those which prevent us from achieving such perfection (positively, this is virtue ethics; negatively, natural law).
Second, as St. Thomas Aquinas also holds, Aristotle’s view of natural teleological motion that is contingent (where every natural being is dependent for its existence on prior causes), allows us to reason to the necessity of a transcendent creator God. In fact, Aristotle sees the separate/transcendent, non-material, non-natural, prime un-moved mover (Physics VIII.6) as the last first principle of the general science of nature: without this being, natural motion would be un-intelligible and natural science would be impossible. The being, which Aristotle calls θεός (theos) or god in his natural theology (Metaphysics XII.7, 1072b25), is one, not a part of nature, and the ultimate Good and Final Cause at which all natural beings aim in their motions. As he says, “On such principle, therefore, depend heaven and nature (φύσις/phusis).” Here, then, katharsis takes on an even higher meaning, as it turns out that, not only is nature fundamentally purposive (I am here for a natural reason), but it is also true that I am endowed with the possibility of my own natural motions by a transcendent deity, which also provides my ultimate sense of purpose.
I have attempted here to set out the pernicious idea of reductive materialism, and its consequent loss of meaning or nihilism in modern times. For the kathartic removal of this idea, so that we might recover meaning and move toward capturing what is good for us as humans, I have proposed Aristotle’s hylemorphic and teleological conception of nature. This is a conception of nature, not where inert atoms merely bounce off one another in a vacuum and concatenate by extrinsic coercion and random chance, but where plants grow toward light and stand through cell structure and hydraulic pressure for the sake of—for the goal and good of—obtaining nutrition, blooming and reproducing in continuance of their natural kinds. This is a conception of nature where human beings possess the capacity of intellect for the sake of satisfying wonder and obtaining knowledge about natural phenomena and for their own perfection and freedom; where what is beneficial/good and harmful/bad can be discerned by looking at the functional order of the organic human being. This is conception of nature that leads us to a transcendent God and ultimate Divine purpose. This is the image and conception of nature the author of the book of Wisdom and St. Paul had in mind when they expressed that we could reason from our knowledge of nature to knowledge of God and the moral law. Finally, we should note, this is the conception of nature held by Aristotle and the Ancient Greeks, which in the fullness of time and history led the Greeks to convert to Christianity. They could see the correct image of nature and something of the divine already. For this reason, St. Paul was heard well when he began his preaching in Athens at the Areopagus to the Greek Philosophers (Stoics and Epicureans) by telling them that the ‘unknown god’ to which they give tribute is the “God, who made the world, and all things therein.” (Acts 17:24)
 See Physics, I.1, Posterior Analytics, II.19, and Metaphysics I.1. Aristotle’s empiricism is to be distinguished from modern, Humean ’empiricism’ precisely to the extent that it does not constitute a reduction of all that is knowable to extended things of sensation. As we will see, there is much more to phusis than can be seen and touched, etc.
 See Physics I.2 (185a12-14): “ἡμῖν δ’ ὑποκείσθω τὰ φύσει ἢ πάντα ἢ ἔνια κινούμενα εἶναι· δῆλον δ’ ἐκ τῆς ἐπαγωγῆς.” Or, “In relation to us (ἡμῖν), however, it must be set down that the things that exist by nature, either all or some of them, are moving. And this is manifest from induction (ἐκ τῆς ἐπαγωγῆς).” In his opening comments on the methodology appropriate to the study of nature, Aristotle says that we must move from a sense-perceptive universal to the principles and elements that define it through division. See again, Physics I.1 (184a21-26): “Therefore, it is necessary to advance from the universals (ἐκ τῶν καθόλου) to the particulars (ἐπὶ τὰ καθ’ ἕκαστα). For the whole (τὸ ὅλον) according to sense-perception (κατὰ τὴν αἴσθησιν) is better known (γνωριμώτερον), and the universal is a certain whole—for the universal embraces many things as its parts.” Aristotle’s Greek is taken from Aristoteles et Corpus Aristotelicum Phil., ed. by W.D. Ross (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950, Repr. 1966). The translations of Aristotle’s Greek are my own. For a parallel but more technical and detailed account, see my Dissertation, φύσις καὶ τὸ ἀνθρώπινον ἀγαθόν: The Aristotelian Foundations of the Human Good, available through ProQuest.
 Physics, II.1 (192b16-23) κλίνη δὲ καὶ ἱμάτιον, καὶ εἴ τι τοιοῦτον ἄλλο γένος ἐστίν, ᾗ μὲν τετύχηκε τῆς κατηγορίας ἑκάστης καὶ καθ’ ὅσον ἐστὶν ἀπὸ τέχνης, οὐδεμίαν ὁρμὴν ἔχει μεταβολῆς ἔμφυτον, ᾗ δὲ συμβέβηκεν αὐτοῖς εἶναι λιθίνοις ἢ γηΐνοις ἢ μικτοῖς ἐκ τούτων, ἔχει, καὶ κατὰ τοσοῦτον, ὡς οὔσης τῆς φύσεως ἀρχῆς τινὸς καὶ αἰτίας τοῦ κινεῖσθαι καὶ ἠρεμεῖν ἐν ᾧ ὑπάρχει πρώτως καθ’ αὑτὸ καὶ μὴ κατὰ συμβεβηκός.
 Physics, II.1 (193b6-9): καὶ μᾶλλον αὕτη φύσις τῆς ὕλης· ἕκαστον γὰρ τότε λέγεται ὅταν ἐντελεχείᾳ ᾖ, μᾶλλον ἢ ὅταν δυνάμει. “And this [i.e., ἡ μορφὴ καὶ τὸ εἶδος] is more nature than matter (τῆς ὕλης); for each being is defined (λέγεται) at a given time in accord with its actual-fulfillment (ἐντελεχείᾳ), rather than because of that which it can be (δυνάμει).”
 Physics, II.1 (193a31-32): …ἄλλον δὲ τρόπον ἡ μορφὴ καὶ τὸ εἶδος τὸ κατὰ τὸν λόγον. Or, …but in another manner, [nature is said to be] the shape (ἡ μορφὴ) and the form (τὸ εἶδος) which is in accord with the definition (κατὰ τὸν λόγον).
 Physics, II.1 (193b17-18): τί οὖν φύεται; οὐχὶ ἐξ οὗ, ἀλλ’ εἰς ὅ. ἡ ἄρα μορφὴ φύσις.
 Physics, II.2 (194a27-30)
 Metaphysics, V.4 (1015a6-11): φύσις δὲ ἥ τε πρώτη ὕλη […] καὶ τὸ εἶδος καὶ ἡ οὐσία· τοῦτο δ’ ἐστὶ τὸ τέλος τῆς γενέσεως.
 Physics, II.8 (198b16-19): ἔχει δ’ ἀπορίαν τί κωλύει τὴν φύσιν μὴ ἕνεκά του ποιεῖν μηδ’ ὅτι βέλτιον, ἀλλ’ ὥσπερ ὕει ὁ Ζεὺς οὐχ ὅπως τὸν σῖτον αὐξήσῃ, ἀλλ’ ἐξ ἀνάγκης… Or, “But there is a puzzle, for what prevents the production of nature being not for the sake of something nor because it is best, but as Zeus makes it rain not in order for corn to grow, but from necessity…”
 For a helpful discussion of the position that Aristotle is rejecting in these passages, see Susan Sauve Meyer, “Aristotle, Teleology, and Reduction,” in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 101, No. 4 (Oct., 1992), 791-825. Meyer argues convincingly that the position Aristotle is criticizing is not a mere reductionism—claiming that the explanation of higher order biological phenomena can be reduced to material constituents—but rather an eliminativism that seeks to completely eliminate form, thus denying hylomorphism and Aristotle’s claim that plants and animals are beings, i.e., substances, altogether.
 Physics, II.8 (198b21-29). Aristotle’s summary statement of the position is at 198b29-31: ὅπου μὲν οὖν ἅπαντα συνέβη ὥσπερ κἂν εἰ ἕνεκά του ἐγίγνετο, ταῦτα μὲν ἐσώθη ἀπὸ τοῦ αὐτομάτου συστάντα ἐπιτηδείως· Or, “Where ever, therefore, all these things have been joined, just as if they came to be for the sake of an end, having been fittingly arranged by chance (ἀπὸ τοῦ αὐτομάτου);”
 Physics, II.8 (198b34): ἀδύνατον δὲ τοῦτον ἔχειν τὸν τρόπον. Or, “But this manner of account is impossible (ἀδύνατον).”
 Physics, II.8 (198b34-36): ταῦτα μὲν γὰρ καὶ πάντα τὰ φύσει ἢ αἰεὶ οὕτω γίγνεται ἢ ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πολύ, τῶν δ’ ἀπὸ τύχης καὶ τοῦ αὐτομάτου οὐδέν. Or, “For these [i.e., teeth] and all things existing by nature come to be in this manner either always or on the whole, but this never belongs to things from fortune and chance (ἀπὸ τύχης καὶ τοῦ αὐτομάτου).”
 Physics, II.8 (199a6-7): ἔστιν ἄρα τὸ ἕνεκά του ἐν τοῖς φύσει γιγνομένοις καὶ οὖσιν. It is concluded: “Thus, the that for the sake of which is in those things coming to be and existing by nature.”
 For contemporary Positive Psychology’s verification of this Ancient claim, clearly expressed in the virtue ethics of Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, see the following: Martin E.P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fullfillment (New York: The Free Press, 2002); Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008). A debt is owed to my Sister, Lauren Crittenden for pointing me toward the latter text.
 See, Edmund Pellegrino, The Philosophy of Medicine Reborn: A Pellegrino Reader (South Bend, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008).
 So, for example, the AMA considers eating disorders eating disorders. We say they are harmful, not out of some arbitrary emotive preference, but precisely because they are obstacles to the nutritive end/good of the organic parts (and ultimately the whole) that they destroy.
 I take the distinction between entitative and operative perfection from Fr. William A. Wallace, The Modeling of Nature (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997.
 Aristotle, Metaphysics XII.7 (1072b13-14): “ἐκ τοιαύτης ἄρα ἀρχῆς ἤρτηται ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ φύσις.”