Translated with introduction and notes by A.E. Taylor

The Origin of Knowledge and Wisdom← TOC→Four Kinds of Causes


General Character of Wisdom

Since we are in quest of this science, we have to ask what kind of causes and principles are treated of by the science which is wisdom? Well, the matter will perhaps become clearer if we enumerate the convictions which we currently hold about the wise man. Well, we currently hold, first, that the wise man, so far as possible, knows everything, but without possessing scientific knowledge of the individual details. Secondly, that he is one who is capable of apprehending difficult things and matters which it is not easy for man to apprehend; (for sense-perception is the common possession of all, and hence easy, and is nothing wise). Again, that in every science he who is more exact and more competent to teach is the wiser man. Also that, among the various sciences, that which is pursued for its own sake and with a view to knowledge has a better claim to be considered wisdom than that which is pursued for its applications, and the more commanding38 science a better claim than the subsidiary. For the wise man, it is held, has not to be directed by others, but to direct them; it is not for him to take instructions from another, but for those who are less wise to take them from him.

Here, then, is an enumeration of our current convictions about wisdom and the wise. Now, of these marks that of universality of knowledge necessarily belongs to him whose knowledge has the highest generality, for in a sense he knows all that is subsumed under it. These most universal truths are also in general those which it is hardest for men to recognize, since they are most remote from sense-perception. And the most exact of the sciences are those which are most directly concerned with ultimate truths. For the sciences which depend on fewer principles are more exact39 than those in which additional assumptions are made; e.g., Arithmetic than Geometry. And, again, that science is more competent to teach which is more concerned with speculation on the causes of things, for in every case he who states the causes of a thing teaches. And knowledge and science for their own sake are found most of all in the science of that which is in the highest sense the object of knowledge. For he who chooses science for its own sake will give the highest preference to (982 b) the highest science, and this is the science of that which is in the highest sense the object of knowledge. But the highest objects of knowledge are the ultimates and causes. For it is through them and as consequences of them that other truths are apprehended, not they through what is subordinate to them. And the most commanding among the sciences, more truly commanding than the subsidiary sciences, is that which apprehends the end for which each act must be done; this end is, in each individual case, the corresponding good, and universally the highest good in the universe. All these considerations indicate that the title in question is appropriate to one and the same science. For this science must be one which contemplates ultimate principles and causes; for the good or end is itself one type of cause. That it is not a productive science is clear, even from consideration of the earliest philosophies. For men were first led to study philosophy, as indeed they are today, by wonder.40 At first they felt wonder about the more superficial problems; afterward they advanced gradually by perplexing themselves over greater difficulties; e.g., the behavior of the moon, the phenomena of the sun, and the origination of the universe. Now, he who is perplexed and wonders believes himself to be ignorant. (Hence even the lover of myths is, in a sense, a philosopher, for a myth is a tissue of wonders.) Thus if they took to philosophy to escape ignorance, it is patent that they were pursuing science for the sake of knowledge itself, and not for any utilitarian applications. This is confirmed by the course of the historical development itself. For nearly all the requisites both of comfort and social refinement had been secured before the quest for this form of enlightenment began. So it is clear that we do not seek it for the sake of any ulterior application. Just as we call a man free who exists for his own ends, and not for those of another, so it is with this, which is the only liberal41 science; it alone of the sciences exists for its own sake.

Hence there would be justice in regarding the enjoyment of it as superhuman. For human nature is in many respects unfree. So, in the words of Simonides,42 "this meed belongs to God alone; for man, 'tis meet" to seek a science conformable to his estate. Indeed, if there is anything in what the poets say, and Deity is of an envious temper, it would be most natural that (983 a) it should be shown here, and that all the preeminently gifted should be unlucky. But Deity cannot by any possibility be envious;43 rather, as the proverb has it, "Many are the lies of the bards," nor is it right to prize any other knowledge more highly than this. For the divinest of sciences is to be prized most highly; and this is the only science which deserves that name, for two reasons. For that science is divine which it would be most fitting for God to possess, and also that science, if there is one, which deals with divine things. And this is the only science which has both these attributes. For it is universally admitted that God is a cause and a first principle;44 and, again, God must be thought to possess this science, either alone or in a superlative degree. To be sure, all the sciences are more indispensable, but none is nobler.

However, the acquisition of this science must in a sense lead to a condition which is the opposite of our original state of search. For, as has been said, all begin by wondering whether something is so,45 just as those who have not yet examined the explanation wonder at automatic marionettes. So men wonder about the solstices or the incommensurability of the diagonal.46 It seems, in fact, a wonderful thing to everybody that something should not be measurable by any measure, even the smallest. But this wonder must end in an opposite, and, as the proverb says, a better state, as it does in these cases when knowledge has been gained. A geometer would wonder at nothing so much as he would if the diagonal were to be found commensurable.

We have explained, then, the nature of the science of which we are in quest, and the character of the end at which this inquiry and this whole branch of knowledge should aim.

Taylor's Notes

(Taylor's footnotes have been converted to endnotes)


[38]. The distinction between "commanding" and subsidiary sciences is taken from Plato, Politicus, 260b.

[39]. The distinction of more and less exact sciences is again from Plato, Philebus, 56c ff.

[40]. An allusion to Plato, Theaetetus, 155d: "This emotion of wonder is very proper to a philosopher; for there is no other starting-point for philosophy."

[41]The conception of "liberal" science again comes from Plato. Cf. Republic, VI., 499a; VIL, 536e.

[42]. Another Platonic reminiscence. The lines are from the poem of Simonides on Scopas, quoted in Protagoras, 344c.

[43]. Again an echo of Plato, Phaedrus, 247a: "Envy has no place in the celestial choir." Timaeus, 29e: "He (the Creator) was good, and envy is never felt about any thing by any being who is good,"

[44]. Hence Aristotle's own name for what his commentators called "metaphysics" is indifferently "first Philosophy" or "Theology." His doctrine of God as the supreme efficient cause is more particularly contained in book Λ (12) of the present work.

[45]. Or, adopting Bonitz's proposal to transfer the words τοῖς—τὴν αἰτίαν (983a 14) and place them after πᾶσιν (a 16), "whether something is so. So men wonder at automatic marionettes, or the solstices, or the incommensurability of the diagonal. It seems, in fact, wonderful to all who have not yet examined the reason that something," etc.

[46]. i. e., the incommensurability of the diagonal of a square with its side; or, as we should say, the irrationality of √2. This was the earliest case of irrationality known to the Greeks, and was probably discovered by the Pythagoreans. The other quadratic surds from √3 to √17 were discovered by Plato's friends, Theodorus and Theaetetus (Theaetet., 147d). Aristotle, who had little mathematical capacity, regularly uses "the diagonal" as his one stock illustration of incommensurability as a non-mathematical philosopher to-day might use π. His constant recurrence to this example is perhaps explained by the prominence given to it in Plato, Meno, 82-84.

Created for Peithô's Web from Aristotle on his predecessors; being the first book of his Metaphysics; tr. from the text edition of W. Christ, with introd. and notes by A. E. Taylor. Chicago, Open Court, 1907.Taylor's footnotes have been converted to endnotes. Greek unicode text entered with Peithô's Younicoder.
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