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Aristotle: Sociopath or Machiavellian?

This week, I am departing from the usual and sharing an essay written by someone else. My daughter turned 17 this week and is applying to start college early. I have often felt sorry for her because she has had to endure my pontificating on the nature of humanness. As part of her application she was asked to comment on a quote from Aristotle. I was shocked at the level of insight she had into the implications of the quote. I was mostly surprised that her response indicates she does indeed listen when I speak! She wrote this essay without any help from me. It sounds like Aristotle was rather like a sociopath, or in the very least, like a Machiavellian in his views. I’ll let you decide:

Modern Science and the Tenets of Aristotle: An Empty Existence?

The modern science of psychology has determined the human being to have seven basic motivations—food and water, comfort, entertainment, possessions, sex, affection, and dominance. The latter of these drives, dominance, has played a significant role in both human and animal society. Just as the alpha wolf keeps in line his subordinates, so does man attempt to collect money, power, and celebrity. As these three factors have come to indicate status, so too has intellect; however not in the progressive way one would hope for. Intellect as a status symbol is not what a person knows, but what university he has attended; it is not how he can use his intelligence to better the world, but how he can use it to earn money serving the interests of corporations. These facts, in conjunction with the reality that many scholars use their minds to fuel feelings of superiority, show the corruption of the educational system at its very core.

Although Aristotle acknowledges that friendship is important, he regards it as more of a political attraction rather than deeply rooted love or affection. Indeed, his feelings on intelligence correlate strongly with his idea of friendship; while seemingly noble, again Aristotle misses the point. He fails to see the human aspect of intelligence and perceives it more as a divine source of power. Aristotle, like the minds of modern science, fails to acknowledge what truly makes the existence of man worthwhile—the bonds of love that people share.

Aristotle presents friendship in a very non-emotional way. He discusses it as though it were an object, another of man’s material assets. He writes that friends are “thought to be the greatest of external goods” (chapter 9). Aristotle’s choice of the noun goods seems both oversimplified and inappropriate to replace friends. A friend is not a possession and one should not act as though a friend is such—it is much more in the realm of the abstract. A true friend will do more than just support a person in the way that money will; he will love him.

Love, or affection, is a topic that Aristotle appears to not understand. When rhetorically asking whether friends are more valuable in prosperity or adversity, he provides this answer, “Surely it is strange, too, to make the blessed man a solitary; for no one would choose to possess all good things on condition of being alone, since man is a political creature and one whose nature it is to live with others” (chapter 9). In this statement Aristotle again fails to see the true value of friendship. Although it is undeniable that man is a political creature, and as such a creature of dominance, Aristotle muddles this with friendship. A relationship based on dominance is both not enjoyable and unhealthy. One may think of extremes turning to battered women or merely to the unpleasantness of a colleague who uses his friends to gain a promotion. Either way, it is undeniable that a true friendship, one based on affection, is more desirable.

Despite oftentimes an emphasis on dominance, science has proved the benefits of affection over all other drives. In one experiment, they placed infant monkeys in a cage and gave them two choices for where they could spend their time. The first place was where they could receive food, atop a model mother made of wire. The second place, with no food, was a model mother made of a soft material. The infants spent almost all of their time on the soft mother, rather than face the hard mother; though it was most necessary for survival. This experiment provides a powerful example of a creature’s need to feel love. Indeed, excluding a human’s internal drive for affection, if one thinks of the consequences to the other drives, affection has no contest. If not in moderation, food and water, comfort, entertainment, possessions, sex, and dominance can all have disastrous effects. In fact, it is not so hard to reason that in combination with the eighth unnatural drive for illegal substances, the inability to regulate those drives are what most ail the human race. By not promoting affection in friendship, Aristotle in fact makes humanity worse instead of better.

A similar principle applies to Aristotle’s opinions of intelligence. He holds it to be above all else, including human life, “If intellect is divine, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life… its power and worth surpasses everything” (chapter 7). Indeed this wording suggests that Aristotle sees intelligence as a source of power and social dominance. While intelligence is undoubtedly important, weighing it higher than human life seems to go too far. Is intelligence worth dying for? Is it worth the murder of innocent people? Surely, the answer is no.

Another flaw in Aristotle’s philosophy on intelligence is definitely his contention that intelligence is always, “the authoritative and better part of him [man]” (chapter 7). This belief, along with the inability for mankind to regulate its drives, is perhaps humanity’s greatest flaw. While intelligence is corruptible and susceptible to the desires of social dominance, empathy is not. If every neighbor loved his neighbor as himself, the world would certainly be a better place. In fact, it is the intelligent rationalization of atrocities that causes events such as genocide. The greatest attribute of man is his ability to empathize with others and love.

If one values intelligence and views friendship under the tenets of Aristotelian philosophy, he will undoubtedly live an empty existence. Like the monkeys with two mothers, for humans, clinging to any force other than affection will leave a person scared, lonely, and starved of love. Mankind should learn to use intelligence to serve love, not to fight it.


Posted in: Liane Leedom, M.D.

6 Comments on "Aristotle: Sociopath or Machiavellian?"

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  1. Swivelchair says:

    Hello, very interesting!

    She’s 17? She is very lucky to have such wisdom early in her life, it will serve her well. I hope the college admissions are smart enough to recognize this.

    I think this is more important than we realize. I don’t know what Aristotle’s problem was, but absolutely, the elimination of emotion from decision-making is wrong, wrong, wrong.There’s an article about Google’s philosophy in this month’s Scientific American that talks about this in the corporate world, the difference between Google and Enron.

    http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=do-all-companies-have-to-be-evil

    This is a pretty good illustration of what your daughter is talking about, in the real world.

    Good luck with colleges, Swivelchair



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  2. alohatraveler says:

    Beautiful work. I bet she will be accepted to any university she applies for. I can’t write like that!!! and I am more than double her age. That was like a flash back to college… I had to put my brain in gear.

    Good job!



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  3. gillian says:

    What a fantastic essay! I’m just shaking my head in amazement that an almost-17-year-old wrote this.



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  4. wp says:

    Most of the modern scientists I have heard interviewed, talk of a deep affection for the universe, or almost a spiritual goal involved in their interest in the way things work, when asked why they chose to be “modern scientists”.
    I’m not a professional scientist, but I know my interest in the physical workings of the universe and all in it is very much a spiritual affection for life and existence. I’m an artist, and people think that’s far from science… and yet my interest in art is fueled by the same sense of wonder, awe, and spirit as my interest in science.

    Just saying.



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  5. loux2 says:

    Wow! Dr. Leedom you have to be proud of that girl of yours! The apple did not fall to far from the tree, for sure!

    Just think – if she is thinking, writing and articulating complex ‘critical thinking’ such as this at 17 …. just imagine her a few years from now when she graduates and enters the professional world!

    Awesome essay at ANY age, but particularly for someone so young!

    Please update – what did the college admissions committee think??



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