On the Heavens by Aristotle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is quite a charming little book. In it, one can find the description of an entire way of viewing the natural world. Aristotle moves on from the abstract investigations of the Physics to more concrete questions: Is the earth a sphere or flat? What are the fundamental constituents of matter? Why do some things fall, and some things rise? Is the earth the center of everything? Aristotle’s answers, I’m afraid, have not stood the test of time; such, it appears, is the risk of all science—obsolescence.

The reader is immediately presented with a beautiful piece of Aristotelian reasoning. First, the good philosopher reminds us that “the perfect is naturally prior to the imperfect, and the circle is a perfect thing.” Circular motion, therefore, is more perfect than simple up-and-down motion like we see on earth; and since we do not find bodies whose natural motion is circular on earth, and since nature always strives towards perfection, it follows that there must be bodies not on earth which naturally move in a circular fashion. Again, since none of the earth-bound elements—fire, water, air, and earth—exhibit natural (i.e. unforced) circular motion, it follows that the heavenly bodies must be composed of something different; and this different substance (let us call it aether), since is exhibits the most perfect motion, must be itself perfect.

In Aristotle’s words:

… we may infer with confidence that there is something beyond the bodies that are about us on this earth, different and separate from them; and that the superior glory of its nature is proportionate to its distance from this world of ours.

Everything below the moon must be born and pass away; but the heavenly bodies abide forever in their circular course. Q.E.D.

In his physical investigations, it seems that Aristotle was not especially prescient. For example, he argues against “the Italian philosophers known as the Pythagoreans… At the centre, they say, is fire, and the earth is one of the stars, creating night and day by its circular motion about the centre.” Not so, says Aristotle; the earth is the center. He also argues against Democritus’s atomic theory, which posits the existence of several different types of fundamental particles, which are intermingled with “void,” or empty spaces in between them.

To be fair, Aristotle does think that the earth is round; he even includes an estimation of the earth’s circumference at 400,000 stadia, which is, apparently, somewhere around 40,000 miles. (The current-day estimate is about 24,000 miles.) Aristotle also thinks that “heavy” objects tend toward the earth’s surface; but puzzlingly (for the modern reader), he doesn’t think this has anything to do with the pull of the earth, but instead thinks it has something to do with earth’s position in the center of all things. In his words: “If one were to remove the earth to where the moon now is, the various fragments of earth would each move not towards it but to the place in which it now is.”

Then Aristotle launches into his investigation of the elements. As aforesaid, Aristotle posits four sublunary elements: earth, water, fire, and air. Earth is the heaviest, followed by water, and then air; and fire is the lightest. Aristotle believes that these elements have “natural” motions; they tend toward their proper place. Earth tries to go downward, towards the center of the planet. Fire tries to go upward, towards the stars. Aristotle contrasts this “natural” motion with “unnatural” or “violent” motion, which is motion from an outside source. I can, of course, pick up a piece of earth, thereby thwarting its natural tendency towards its proper place on the ground.

The elements naturally sort themselves into order: we have earth on the bottom, then water floating on top, then the air sitting on the water, and fire above the air. (Where all that fire is, I can’t say.) There are some obvious difficulties with this theory. For example, how can boats float? and birds fly? This leads Aristotle to a very tentative definition of buoyancy, with which he ends the book:

… since there are two factors, the force responsible for the downward motion of the heavy body and the disruption-resisting force of the continuous surface, there must be some ratio between the two. For in proportion as the force applied by the heavy thing towards disruption and division exceeds that which resides in the continuum, the quicker will it force its way down; only if the force of the heavy thing is the weaker, will it ride upon the surface.

The more one reads Aristotle, the more one grasps just how much his worldview was based on biology. The key word of his entire philosophy is entelechy, which simply means the realization of potential. We can see this clearly in his definition of motion: “The fulfillment of what exists potentially, in so far as it exists potentially, is motion.” That’s a mouthful, but think of it this way: the act of building a house can be thought of as the expression of the potential of a house; the physical house in progress is the partially actualized house, but the building itself is the potential qua potential.

It is easy to see how Aristotle might get interested in the expression of potentialities from investigating living things. For what is an egg but a potential chicken? What is a child but a potential man? This idea of fully realizing one’s potential is at the basis of his ethics and his physics; just as fire realizes its potential for moving upwards, so do citizens realize their potential through moderation. Aristotle’s intellectual method is also heavily marked by one who spent time investigating life; for it is the dreary task of a naturalist to catalogue and to categorize, to investigate the whole by looking at the parts.

While this mindset served him admirably in many domains, it misled him in the investigation inanimate matter. To say that chickens grow from eggs as an expression of potential is reasonable; but to attribute the downward motion of rocks as an expression of their potential sounds odd. It is as if you asked somebody why cars move, and they responded “because it is the nature of the vehicle”—which would explain exactly nothing. But it is difficult not to be impressed by Aristotle; for even if he reached the wrong conclusions, at least he was asking the right questions.

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