Aristotle’s Ideal Man

Published by Michael Marx on August 10th, 2011

In his Ethics (c.330 B.C.) Aristotle describes his ideal man or how a man should live an ethical life:

He does not expose himself needlessly to danger, since there are few thing  for which he cares sufficiently; but he is willing, in great crises, to give even  his life–knowing that under certain conditions, it is not worthwhile to live. He is of a disposition to do men service, though he is ashamed to ha service done to him.  To confer a kindness is a mark of superiority; to receive  one is a mark of subordination….He does not Take part in public displays…. He is open in his dislikes and preferences; he talks and acts frankly, because  of his contempt for men and things….He is never fired with admiration, since there is nothing great in his eyes.  He cannot live in compliance with others, except it be a friend; compliance is the characteristic of a slave…He never feels malice, and always forgets and passes over injuries…He is not fond of talking…It is no concern of his that he should be praised, or that others should be blamed.  He does not speak evil of others, even of his enemies unless it be to themselves.  His carriage is sedate, his voice deep, his speech measured; he is not given to hurry, for he is concerned about only a few things; he is not prone to vehemence, for he thinks nothing very important. A shrill voice and hasty steps come to a man through care….He bears the  accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of his circumstances, like a skillful general who marshals his limited forces with all the strategy of war….He is his own best friend, and takes delight in privacy whereas the man of no virtue and ability is his own worst enemy, and is afraid of solitude.

Above, Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy paraphrases Aristotle’s description in his Ethics of his ideal man.  This Greek view of the ideal man is quite a contrast from the Christian-Judeo ideal embodied in the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was one of the most thought-provoking and brilliant men who ever lived.  At his death he left mankind some four hundred written works on a vast variety of subjects although only a fifth have survived to the 21st century.  These surviving works have made the world what it is today.  The works of Aristotle have become the textbooks of knowledge for the next twenty-five hundred years for those who heeded him.  Aristotle conquered the world of the mind as his pupil Alexander the Great conquered the land.  Twenty-five centuries of wise men have referred to Aristotle as The Philosopher.

In her Lexicon, Ayn Rand admiringly adds:

                      If we consider the fact that to this day everything that makes us civilized

                     beings, every rational value that we possess–including the birth of science,

                      the industrial revolution, the creation of the United States, even the

                      structure of our language–is the result of Aristotle’s influence, of the

                      degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, men accepted his epistemological

                      (the study of the philosophy of knowledge) principles, we would have to

                      say: never have so many owed so much to one man.

Aristotle wrote an introduction to biology called History Animalium (“inquiry into animals”), in which he classified all the animals known in existence, their methods of reproduction and their evolution.  If Aristotle had written nothing else, these essays alone would have made him the first among the ancients because he was the father of zoology. Aristotle invented logic, a science that has remained much as he left it, and logic is his greatest contribution to knowledge.  Logic is defined as the art and method of correct thinking, the method of every science, of every discipline and every art, even music and mathematics.  Aristotle codified the rules of valid thinking, analyzing the deductive syllogism, which is a form of reasoning in which two statements or premises are made and a logical conclusion is drawn from them.  For example: all mammals are warm-blooded (major premise); dolphins are mammals (minor premise); therefore, dolphins are warm-blooded (conclusion).

The great biologist Charles Darwin once said:

     “Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle.”

      In Aristotle’s work Metaphysics, he inquired into the true nature of reality.

      Aristotle advocated that the universe is a universe of form and matter in whose union

      reality is found.  Things about which each individual learns through the senses (from

      one’s eyes, ears, nose, skin, and tongue) are not mere Imitation of Ideas hidden in the

      heavens (as Plato said), but rather the beginning of truth and part of the structure of

      reality.  What does this piece of knowledge mean to the rest of mankind?  Aristotle was

      the first to state that  A is A, that two is two, that a table is a table; he defined reality like

       no man before him.  Aristotle’s reality was the direct opposite of his teacher, Plato.

        Aristotle is ascribed to have remarked: “Dear is Plato, but dearer still is truth.”

In this same work, Metaphysics, Aristotle describes a hierarchy of existence, a “Ladder of nature,” proceeding from all but formless matter at the bottom to pure form, Which is the “Unmoved Mover” (or God), at the top.  The “Unmoved Mover” energizes The massive whole, so that each thing (being) strives to attain its complete or perfect Form, and thus the universe is constantly moving and changing.  “Change” is therefore merely the name for this struggle.  The poet Dante writes: “Aristotle is the master of them that know.” Aristotle was the tutor of the thirteen-year-old Alexander the Great who later conquered the known civilized world by the afe of thirty-three.  Aristotle’s instruction to Alexander in politics (Colonists and Monarchy) may have sown the seeds of Alexander’s interest in governmental rule.  Aristotle founded a school in Athens called the Lyceum– the prototype or model for all great libraries of the ancient word–where he collected manuscripts, maps, and a museum of objects to illustrate his lectures, especially those in zoology.  Alexander gave Aristotle millions of dollars (from his world conquests) to form this collection, and Alexander ordered the hunters, fowlers, and fisherman of the empire to report to Aristotle all matters (old and new) of scientific interest.  Thanks to Alexander, Aristotle had some thousand men scattered throughout the known civilized world collecting the fauna and flora of every land. Under Aristotle’s leadership and organization, other researchers studied and organized scholastic disciplines in botany, music, history, physics, cosmology, psychology, mathematics, astronomy, theology, medicine, meteorology, and even the political constitutions of 158 Greek states.  Mankind owes to Aristotle the classification of the sciences (thanks to Aristotle’s love of order).  Although Plato believed that “Nature” was governed by general laws, Aristotle discovered that this whole panorama (of life on earth) could be reasoned out and comprehended.  Thus Aristotle logically categorized by massive investigation that each of the various sciences were each separate departmental fields of inquiry (Durant 45). Aristotle’s orderliness of mind shows itself in the development of a terminology that has even been of great service to the study of philosophy.  The vocabulary of philosophy derives more from Aristotle than from anyone else.  Universals and particulars, premise and conclusion, subject and attribute, form and matter, potentiality and actuality–these are a few of the many antitheses that Aristotle first introduced by name (46).

Aristotle’s Poetics, which is now a fragment, much of it lost throughout the centuries, is still the world’s greatest piece of literary criticism.  All art, drama, creativity is judged by its form and content.Aristotle’s Politics is still one of the most widely read and debated books on government.  In it, Aristotle states that a human being is by nature a political animal (46).  It is natural for man to live in communities of men.  The purpose of government (the state) is to provide its citizens the means for living the good life, for the state alone is able to do this for the good life cannot be lived in isolation.  An ancient Greek adage states: “Life is the gift of nature; but beautiful living is the gift of wisdom” (qtd. in Durant 46).

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is still to this day the finest introduction to the study of moral conduct ever written. Though Socrates held that no man is willingly bad, Aristotle said that virtue and vice are matters within a man’s power; it is up to each man or woman to choose virtue or vice.  Aristotle believed that education is ethical; it trains a person’s emotions and body as well as intellectual and moral capabilities.  To Aristotle, seeking and gaining knowledge (which could be called education) and possessing control of one’s mind are the highest activities a human being can do in life (Durant 46). Read again the first part of this quotation describing Aristotle’s “Ideal Man.”  Do not take it lightly.  Do not smirk and say: Why this is everything which today’s men and women have all been taught (by all the world’s religions) not to value; these values of Aristotle, we have been told, are the values of  a selfish, egotistical human being. Look at it this way: Aristotle’s ideal of how a man shoud think and act have been turned upside- down the past twenty-five hundred years by the world’s religions. Look at today’s chaotic, immoral, crime-ridden, undisciplined, irresponsible world and consider the illogical values its so-called moral leaders preach–all values which are quite the opposite of Aristotle’s ideal Man.  Mankind today has been religiously taught to value equality (when there can logically be no equality among unequal) and to oblige and accommodate the feelings and beliefs of all fellow beings (as if all were of equal value). According to socialism, communism, and the world religions, all human beings are supposed to share everything with their brothers and sisters, a dogma that is quite the opposite of Aristotle’s capitalism.  Today’s ideal that it takes a village to raise a child would be laughable to Aristotle who said: “How much better it is to be the real cousin of somebody than to be a son after Plato’s fashion!” (qtd. In Durant 64). In the same vein, Aristotle calls today’s complacency the characteristic of a slave. Aristotle’s  ideal man’s values throw a monkey wrench in the scheme of things valued today in the 21st century.  One can especially enjoy: He is his own best friend and takes delight in privacy whereas the man of no virtue and ability is his own worst enemy and is afraid of solitude.

Ayn Rand wrote:

Aristotle may be regarded as the cultural barometer of western history.

                  Whenever his influence dominated the scene, it paved the way for one of 

                   history’s brilliant eras; whenever it fell, so did mankind.  The Aristotelian

                  revival of the thirteenth century brought men to the renaissance.  The

                  intellectual counter-revolution turned them back toward the cave of his

                  antipode, Plato.  (Rand, Lexicon, 34)


Aristotle’s ideal man reminds one of the ideal men who founded the United States of America.  Aristotle’s ancient values of some twenty-five hundred years ago seem more like those of America’s Founding fathers of the late 18th century than the values held in high esteem today in the 21st century.  Reading Aristotle’s ideal man reminds one of the independent characters like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and many others, not as well known to the masses today, who signed the Declaration of Independence and helped write and form America’s Constitution.  They knew and understood what Aristotle idealized in mankind, for most of them exemplified his ideal.  Of course, Aristotle says it best:

                  The operation of the intellect…aims at no end beyond itself, and finds in

                   itself the pleasure which stimulates it to further operation; and since the

                   attributes of self-sufficiency, unweariedness, and capacity for rest,…plainly

                   belongs to this occupation, in it must lie perfect happiness. (qtd. In Durant



Aristotle’s ideal man talks and acts frankly…he does not speak evil of others, even of his enemies, unless it be to themselves.  Aristotle, it seems, never thought much of gossip mongers.  Words said behind another’s back, heard by way of the grapevine, do not build any type of positive relationship between men and women.  Talking one on one, communication, makes one’s life so much more interesting, moral, fulfilling and helps each human being grow in experience and wisdom. Let all mankind communicate face to face with dignity and honor.  Get involved in life with other individuals; no not neglect a valid criticism or compliment.  As Goethe says in The Sorrows of Young Werther: “misunderstanding and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice.” (4)

 Ayn Rand idealizes Aristotle best:

                    For Aristotle the good life is one of personal self-fulfillment.  Man

                     should enjoy the values of this world.  Using his mind to the fullest,

                     each man should work to achieve his own happiness here on earth.

                     And in the process he should be conscious of his own value.  Pride,

                     writes Aristotle–a rational pride in oneself and in one’s moral

                     character–is, when it is earned, the “crown of virtues.”…A proud

                     man does not negate his own identity.  He does not sink selflessly into

                     the community.  He is not a promising subject for the Platonic

                     [communist] state….

                     Throughout history the influence of Aristotle’s philosophy (particularly of

                     his  epistemology) has led in the direction of individual freedom, of man’s

                     liberation from the power of the state…. Aristotle (via John Locke) was the

                     philosophical father of the Constitution of the United States and thus of 

                     capitalism….it is Plato and Hegel, not Aristotle, who have been the

                     philosophical ancestors of all totalitarian and welfare states, whether

                     Bismarck’s, Lenin’s, or Hitler’s.

                  There is no future for the world except through the rebirth of the

                    Aristotelian approach to philosophy.  This would require an Aristotelian

                    affirmation of the reality of existence, of the sovereignty of reason, of life

                    on earth–and of the splendor of man. (Lexicon 36)




20 Responses

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  2. Janisa says:

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