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Aristotle, with Plato, were the two Greek philosophers who most influenced Western thought, including views of the natural world. Aristotle’s original and systematic compilation of observation and speculation shaped the history of science and philosophy for centuries.
Aristotle wrote treatises on nearly every branch of human knowledge, from politics to poetry. He was profoundly interested in the facts of nature, and his best scientific work includes a number of volumes on biology, which formed the greatest synthesis of his time. Of note are his studies of the anatomy and physiology of Mediterranean animals, which show him to be a keen observer and anatomist. His work was not without error, however. Some of his more improbable ideas appear to have come from secondhand data or folklore.
Aristotle classified animals by genera and species and arranged over 500 of them into hierarchies, some of them having correspondences with modern classification systems. He also wrote on earth science, including observations on the hydrologic cycle, as well as on other terrestrial and celestial phenomena, and he presented a model of cyclical changes in the earth’s history over great spans of time.
Aristole’s Scala Naturae
Aristotle proposed a system to make sense of the relationship between natural beings. His scala naturae, or ladder of life, ranks all species from the simplest to the most advanced in terms of their “soul,” or organizing principle. Plants were the lowest forms of life on the scale, having a soul that preserves itself. Animals were above, with a soul that allows them sensations, desires, and movement. Humans shared the principles of the ranks below them, but also had a rational element, which was uniquely their own. This teleological system was authoritative in Western thought until at least the 17th century.
Aristotle considered the universe as ultimately perfect, so he did not allow for any empty spaces on this ladder nor for any change in species. This restrictive concept of fixed species was not entirely rejected in science until Darwin’s evolutionary theories suggested a more dynamic vision for the natural world. It is also indicative of Aristotle’s failure to recognize that the earth is neither stable nor eternal.
The “ladder of life” analogy is considered anthropocentric in that it encouraged the view that humans are the ultimate beneficiaries of the lower stages on the scale of nature. It also places humans in the privileged position of being the only species having logos, or reason. This criticism has been rejected by some philosophers who point to Aristotle’s frequent discussions of animal intelligence as evidence that he saw some form of kinship between humans and animals and had a gradual continuum in mind for species, not a series of distinct gaps. Other philosophers argue that Aristotle’s ethics provide a basis for concern for others, even nonhumans.
One of the reasons why there is much speculation about Aristotle’s views on environmental issues is that he, and most Greek philosophers, said almost nothing about the subject directly. It appears that they did not see their environment as threatened, despite evidence that environmental degradation was occurring in the ancient world. Many environmentalists regard Classical and biblical attitudes toward the environment as insensitive and thus bearing some measure of responsibility for today’s ecological crisis. Despite this, several ecophilosophers feel that the writings of the founders of Western philosophy make a positive contribution to discussions of environmental ethics.
- Gabriela R. Carone, “The Classical Greek Tradition,” in Dale Jamieson, , Companion to Environmental Philosophy (Blackwell Publishing, 2003);
- Susanne E. Foster, “Aristotle and the Environment,” Environmental Ethics (Winter 2002);
- J. Donald Hughes, Pan’s Travail: Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans (John Hopkins University Press, 1994);
- Laura Westra and Thomas M. Robinson, , The Greeks and the Environment (Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).