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  Volume 3 - Issue 5
MAY 2005



- By George Bebedelis

Plato and Aristotle in the Academy at Athens

Aristotle was born in 384 BC in Macedonia, Northern Greece. His father, Nicomachus, was court physician to Amyntas III, the king of Macedonia and grandfather of Alexander the Great. While Aristotle was 17 years old, his father died and he was sent to the Academy of Plato at Athens in 367 BC. He studied there for 20 years under his revered teacher absorbing the essence of his teachings, which we can see reflected in his works. Aristotle made use of the basic ideas and terminology of Plato, Socrates and the other philosophers before him. Aristotle left Athens after Plato's death and travelled for 12 years.

Firstly he went to the town of Assus, to a newly created academy based on Plato's teachings. After three years, Aristotle moved to the nearby island of Lesbos where he established a philosophical academy. His centre of interest shifted to biology, in which he undertook pioneering investigations.


At the age of 42, Aristotle was invited by Philip II, the king of Macedonia, to tutor his 13-year-old son, Alexander, later known as Alexander the Great. Alexander later said: "To my father I owe my living, but to my teacher I owe my life”

This reminds us of what Swami often says: "Education is for life, not for a living". Alexander was taught by Aristotle that the day a king did not serve even one of the citizens of his country was a day lost. When a day passed without an act of service, Alexander used to say: "Today I did not reign, for I did not do anything good".

When nearing 50 years of age, Aristotle returned once again to Athens. There, he established a spiritual institution which was named "Lyceum" after a nearby temple dedicated to the Greek god Apollo. During the next 12 years he organized it as a centre for speculation and research in every field of scientific and philosophical inquiry and gave lectures on a wide range of relative topics. He died from a stomach illness at the age of 63.

The present article is based on Aristotle's treatise "Nicomachean Ethics". We will learn how Aristotle's philosophical thoughts are in concord with the teachings of Swami who has come to revive the ancient wisdom and to declare that:


"Truth is One, but the sages have spoken about It in many different ways".
"Ekam Sat Viprah bahudha vadanti".



Right from the beginning, Aristotle sets the subject of this work, saying that: "Every act and every inquiry aims to some good"(1094a, 1-2). But what is the highest good for man? The answer is very simple and clear: "The highest good is happiness" (1095a, 21)

The next question is "What is happiness?". With regard to this crucial question, people differ. Common men identify happiness with pleasure and that is why they love a life of enjoyment (1095b, 17-19). Others identify happiness with money, health, power, etc. However, all these are not true happiness, because true happiness is its own ultimate end.

Happiness is never chosen for anything other than itself. The final good is happiness, because it is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else. This self sufficiency is the main characteristic of true happiness.

"Happiness is something final and self-sufficient; it is the ultimate end of all actions"

(1097 b, 24-25)

To make the above clear we shall use the example of the five sheaths, which is found in Taittiriya Upanishad and very often mentioned in Swami's discourses. According to this, man's true Self, Atma, is covered by five sheaths (kosas), which are: the sheath of food (Annamaya kosa); of life energy (Pranamaya kosa); of mind (Manomaya kosa); of intellect (Vignanamaya kosa); and of bliss (Anandamaya kosa). The sheath of bliss is the state of consciousness reached before merging with the Oneness of Divinity, i.e. Atma or Brahman; it is the final sheath and the very first cause of everything. Everything is done for Happiness’ sake. That is why the Anandamaya kosa is also called the causal body.


Aristotle says:

“Happiness is among the things that are valuable and perfect. It is the first principle, because it is for the sake of happiness that we do everything else; and the first principle and cause of all goods - it is something priceless and divine” (1102a, 1-5)

Happiness is the highest good. But how can we reach it? What is the proper activity that leads man to happiness? A flute-player, a sculptor, a carpenter- all have a special function and activity. Eyes see, hands grasp, feet walk, for everything there is a characteristic function. What is then the characteristic function of man? What is his Dharma?

"The characteristic of man is action guided by Logos" (1098a, 14-15)

The word Logos is of fundamental importance in ancient Greek Philosophy. Logos is the faculty of discrimination, what we very well know as Buddhi or Intellect, which discriminates between right and wrong, truth and illusion, permanent and transient. It is our Conscience, the Voice of God within. Logos is the epicenter of spiritual life, the Divine, the knower of all beings ever present in the hearts of all.
That is why this sacred word was used by John the Evangelist and all the Christian Fathers to name Jesus. In the very first line of his Gospel, he says:

“In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God…And the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us." (Gospel according to John, A1-14)

Logos = Fundamental Discrimination = Buddhi= Vignana = Intellect = Conscience = Voice of God within

If a man acts guided by Logos, his actions are virtuous. That is why Aristotle says:

"Human goodness consists in action with Virtue" (1098a, 18-19)

Here again we come across a second very important word: Virtue or Arete in Greek. The whole book is actually a treatise on Arete, Virtue.

In Sanskrit we have the same word: Ritam. Swami very often speaks about this word as a fundamental one in spiritual life. For example in His Discourse on Educare on 20.11.01, He said:

"Education, which originates from within has a sound basis and is permanent. It is referred to as Sathyam. A step higher than Sathyam is Ritam as proclaimed in the Vedas. Ritam transcends both good and evil. This is the one you really are, the Atma. How long can we lead a truthful and ideal life in the world without trying to discover Ritam?"


This word is very ancient and is found in the Vedas again and again, as for example in the prayer:

"May Mitra, Varuna, Aryaman, Indra, Brihaspati and the all pervading Vishnu be propitious to us and grant us welfare and bliss.
I bow down to Brahman and Vayu in loving reverence.
You are verily Brahman perceptible.
I shall declare: Thou art Ritam; Thou art Satyam.
May That Universal Being protect me. May That protect my Teacher.
Let there be Peace, Peace and Peace."

In this prayer the word Ritam is used for Brahman along with the word Satyam.

Aristotle emphasizes again and again that the characteristic human quality, the human good - what we would call man’s Dharma, is to act with Virtue-Arete-Ritam guided by Logos (Intellect). This is a natural inherent state of man and not something that is brought from outside. This is exactly the meaning of the Latin word Educere, which is the root of the word Education. Swami has emphasized this Latin root to point out that the real aim of Education is a life that manifests Virtue and Character. Aristotle says:

"For most men their pleasures are in conflict with another, because these are not according to man’s real nature, but the lovers of goodness and Beauty taste the things that are by nature pleasant; and such are the virtuous actions… Their life, therefore, has no further need of any other pleasure, but it is in itself pleasant, sweet and blissful"(1099a, 15-19).

"It is natural then, that we call neither ox nor horse nor any other animal happy, for none of them is capable of such virtuous action (guided by Logos). For the same reason also, a child is not happy, for it is not capable of such action, because of its age." (1100a, 1-3)

As we said before the aim of Education is to uplift the soul to the sphere of virtues and values and manifest the inner beauty. According to Aristotle this is the end of political science as well. That is why

"The man who is a true politician (i.e. who really cares about the “politia”= society, the “socio-care” man) must spend great pains in his study of human virtue above all things; for he wishes to make his fellow citizens of good and noble character, obedient to the laws and capable of virtuous acts. He must know the science of the soul, as the man who is to heal the eyes must know the science of the body; and all the more since political (social) science is more valuable and higher than medicine" (1099b, 34-37), (1102a, 9-12), (1102a,21-25).

There is a very important parameter for true happiness: it must be permanent and not transient. "One swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so one day does not make a man blessed and happy." (1089, 21-23)

The only kind of happiness, which is permanent and lasting, is the happiness based on virtuous acts. "For no function of man has so much permanence as virtuous activities, which are more durable even than knowledge of the sciences." (1100b, 14-16)

The happiness that comes out of virtue does not depend in outer circumstances.

"The noble and wise man bears all chances of life becomingly and always makes the best use of circumstances, as a good general makes the best use of the army at his command, and a good shoemaker makes the best shoes out of the hides that are given to him. So, the really happy man (whose happiness is based on virtue) can never become miserable." (1101a, 1-8)

"Even in great misfortunes his nobility shines through and he bears all chances of life with serenity, magnanimity and greatness of soul" (1100b, 35-37)

"So, we should consider happy the man who acts with perfect virtue throughout his whole life" (1101a, 15-16).

Bringing together what we have already said, we see that:

The characteristic of man (his dharma) is action guided by Logos (Intellect, Buddhi), which is Virtue, and that leads to Happiness-Ananda.

Having stated clearly that the way to reach the highest good, i.e. Happiness, is virtue, Aristotle continues investigating in depth what virtue is and its two kinds.

"By human virtue we mean not that of the body, but that of the soul; and happiness also is an activity of the soul" (1102, 19-21).

So, let us analyze the soul, i.e. the inner structure of man. Basically there are two parts: one without Logos, the irrational part, and one with Logos, the rational part. Again, each of these two parts is divided into two.

Of the irrational part one division is common to all living beings, men, animals and plants. This causes nutrition and growth and is the pranamaya kosa.

There is also another division in the irrational part, which however has a connection with Logos. This contains impulses and desires and many times fights against and resists the Logos, and it moves in contrary directions. However, in the man with self-control, it obeys the Logos. This second element of the irrational part is the desirous element, which we may call lower mind.


In the same way we may distinguish two divisions in the rational part: the one which is the Logos itself (Pure Intellect), and can be called Buddhi, Conscience, the Logos and also Constant Integrated Awareness. The other which is obedient to Logos, which we may call higher mind or practical intellect.

The combination of the higher element of the irrational part (lower mind) and the lower element of the rational part (higher mind) is actually the manomaya kosa; mind and senses, which consists of thoughts, desires, impulses, emotions etc.

According to this analysis, virtue, which is a function of the part with Logos, may be distinguished into two kinds. The one which is related with Logos or Intellect itself is called “intellectual virtue” and the one which is related with the part which is obedient to Logos, i.e. practical intellect, is called "practical virtue".

Action is a word that Aristotle uses very often in his book. Right from the beginning he emphasizes that the aim of the whole treatise is action and not mere knowledge (1095a, 7-8). Swami also is a very demanding teacher and always reminds us that we have to act. He calls that practical knowledge, i.e. to put into practice the values, to act with virtues.

“Education is not mere knowledge but it must take you into action”. (Divine Discourse, 20.11.2001)

Once in an interview a Greek lady asked Swami: “Swami, we know all about spiritual teaching and principles of spiritual life, but we often fail in our daily duties. What should we do?” Swami answered: “It is all based on practice! Practice makes habit; habit makes nature”.

Aristotle says exactly the same about ethical or moral virtue: “We are made by nature to receive the virtues, but we become perfect by habit (= ethos)”(1103 a, 26 – 28).

That means that in our hearts there is a seed, which we have to cultivate and make blossom into a fragrant flower. That is why Swami has named the Human Values programmes as Bal Vikas, which literally means “blossoming of the children”.

According to Aristotle: "Nature first grants the potentiality and it is up to us to exhibit later the activity. Like in the case of the senses of seeing or hearing; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them. So, we get the virtues by first exercising them, as happens in the case of the arts as well,… e.g. men become builders by building and guitar players by playing the guitar. In the same way, we become righteous by doing right acts, temperate (self-controlled) by doing temperate acts (self –controlling) and brave by doing brave acts.” (1103a 28-1103b)

"We should therefore act righteously, because the state of character is shaped out of the kind of activities. So, it makes not a small difference, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth. On the contrary it makes a great difference, or rather all the difference”. (1103b, 27 – 30)

Swami says: “Skill the knowledge, not kill the knowledge”

How do we know if a virtue has really been acquired and is not superficial? By the pleasure or pain that one feels when one acts.

“The man who abstains from bodily pleasures and is happy with this is really a self-controlled, temperate man; while the man who is sad about it, is in reality a lover of pleasures, self-indulgent. Similarly, he who bears the difficulties patiently and in a good spirit is really brave, while the man who is pained is cowardly." (1104b, 6-10)

Knowledge is the basis. That is why Socrates said that “nobody is voluntarily bad”. It is only because people do not know, that they do wrong.

Knowledge > Right Choice > resolute action (determination)

Of course along with knowledge, action is of paramount importance:

“It is by doing just acts that the just man is made and by doing temperate acts that the temperate, self controlled man is made; without practising no one ever would have any chance to become good. However most people do not practise, but are lost in argumentation and imagine that they are being philosophers and that they will become virtuous in this way. They behave like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things they are advised to do”. (1105b, 10-20)

Virtue is a state of Balance

Aristotle defines practical or ethical virtue as a state of balance, an intermediate state between excess and deficiency, between too much and too little. He introduces the principle of right balance, which is of paramount importance in ancient Greece.

"Virtue is an intermediate state relative to us, determined by Logos and by the wise man. It is a mean between two vices, one being the excess and the other being the deficiency". (1106b, 40 – 1107a, 3)

Both of these extremities destroy virtues.

Excessive or defective exercise destroys the strength of the body, too much or too little drink or food destroys health, while that which is proportionate produces and increases and preserves it.” (1104a, 15-20)

“Excess and deficiency are characteristics of vice, while the mean (intermediate state) is characteristic of virtue”. (1106b, 36-38)

But how is to define this intermediate state?

"The intermediate state is not an objective and absolute principle but relative to each situation and is determined by Logos or by a wise man." (1107a, 1-3)

We may compare the excess with rajas, the deficiency with tamas and the intermediate, balanced state with sattva. The sattvic man, is the virtuous man.

“It is not an easy task to be virtuous, for it is not easy to find the middle. Anyone can get angry or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy. Therefore goodness is rare and praiseworthy and noble” (1109a, 26-33)

Moral virtue implies actions performed with right choice. The right choice is what we call discrimination or Buddhi, similar to Logos. Aristotle elaborates on choice by saying:

“Choice (Discrimination) is not found to irrational being (without Logos), but desire and anger are. The uncontrolled man acts forced by desire, but not with choice. On the contrary, the continent man acts with choice, and not forced by desire. Desire is contrary to choice. Desire is connected with what is pleasant or unpleasant, joy and sorrow but choice is beyond pleasure or pain." (1111b, 13-20)

Right choice is beyond the pair of opposites. Swami always speaks about equal mindedness (samatva), i.e. to remain unaffected by good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant,

“Fame and blame all the same”.

"Endowed with right choice the virtuous man judges correctly and sees the truth in each situation, so he becomes the model and the ideal. However, most of the people are deluded because of pleasure, which appears to them as good and avoid unpleasant things as bad.” (1113a , 33 – 1113b, 2)

Swami speaks about two paths; sreyo marga, the path of virtue and goodness, which might be sometimes hard and unpleasant and preyo marga the path of pleasure, which might be sweet and charming in the beginning, but unfortunately it leads finally to pain and sorrow.

And Aristotle concludes: “Man is by nature endowed with a spiritual sight, which makes him judge correctly and choose what is truly good… This greatest and noblest quality is not something that we can get or learn from another, but we have it as a natural quality.” (1114b, 7-13)


Friendship needs no justice

Friendship is the highest virtue and “it is most necessary in life. For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.” (1155a, 1-4).

"In poverty and in other misfortunes friends are the only refuge. It helps the young to keep from error; it aids older people by caring to their needs; it stimulates those in the prime of life to noble actions." (1155a, 10-15)

Friendship is a natural quality not only among men but among birds and animals. Friendship is of paramount importance for society, because it is a bond much more powerful than justice.

“Friendship (or Love) holds society together and lawgivers care more for it than for justice. WHEN MEN ARE FRIENDS THEY HAVE NO NEED OF JUSTICE, while when they are just they need friendship (or Love) as well; the truest form of justice is Friendship - Love.” (1155a, 25-32)

That is why Swami says:

Duty without Love is deplorable
Duty with Love is desirable
Love without duty is Divine

True friendship is one which is based on virtue and good character and not one which is based on profit or pleasure. Among all kinds of friendship or love, the love of parents to children is the strongest and the children should serve their parents even more than their own selves.

“One should give honour to one’s parents as one does to the gods” (1165a, 27)

"We should also give respect to older persons appropriate to their age, by rising to receive them and offering seats for them." (1165a, 31-32)

Aristotle analyzes the internal nature of friendship by saying that our friendship and love to other people depends on our friendship and love to our own selves. The love for our own selves is very important and comes before the love for others.

However, what does love of one’s own self mean? Who is this self? Aristotle clarifies this point in many passages.

“Each man’s self – man himself is the intellectual element in him” (1166a, 18-19)
“Each one seems to be the element that contemplates" (1166a, 25-26)
“The self of the virtuous man is especially the element which thinks wisely”
(1166a, 20)
“Reason (Nous) more than anything else is man” (1178a, 8-9)
(Logos) "This is man himself" (1168b, 43-1169a, 3),
and "This is what a virtuous man loves most" (1169a, 4).

As we have seen so far this intellectual element that contemplates or thinks wisely is not other than Logos, Buddhi, Conscience, Nous, the Intellect which meditates on the things that don’t change, on the Being itself. It is the Divine in man. So, according to Aristotle, man’s real self is the divine self, Atma, Soul. Love of one’s own self means love of the divine Self. Then man can truly love other people as well. Then he has true friendship.

Aristotle lastly considers happiness. This is the greatest good, because all things move towards this and it is desired by all. Happiness has a very special characteristic: we aspire for it not for the sake of something else, but it is desirable in itself.

That is why "Happiness does not lack anything, it is something final and self efficient, and is the end of all action" (1097b, 24-25 1176b, 4-6). This is already stated in the first book and now Aristotle comes back to give a final answer to the initial question.

“Since activities differ in respect of goodness and badness, and the first are worthy to be chosen and the latter to be avoided, so, too, are the pleasures; for to each activity there is a relevant pleasure. The pleasure of a virtuous activity is noble while that of an immoral activity is bad.” (1175b, 29-34)

Pleasure is so much superior and purer the higher it rises above the material level. Spiritual pleasure is much higher than the one derived from the senses.

“Our measure is virtue and the noble man. So, what is good for the noble man is truly good. Therefore, real pleasures are those which the noble man enjoys.” (1176a, 18-23)

“We should consider that the disgraceful pleasures should not be named pleasures at all, except to a vicious man.” (1176a, 27-28)

“Only the pleasures of a perfect and noble man can be considered as man’s real pleasures.” (1176a, 31-34)

“For the noble man virtue is indeed desirable. Happiness, therefore, lies in virtuous activity and not in amusement. To work hard for the sake of amusement is silly and utterly childish.” (1176b, 30-37)

“Happy life is the virtuous life; a virtuous life requires exertion and does not consist in amusement. The serious activity of the best element of our being is superior to amusement and gives real happiness. And any person can enjoy the bodily pleasures, even an animal. However, happiness does not lie in such kind of pleasures, but in virtuous activities,
as already has been said.” (1177a, 2-13)

That is why Swami says:
Bend the body
Mend the senses
End the mind

However, is there a higher happiness than the one connected with noble and virtuous activities, i.e. the one which is connected with the practical knowledge or ethical virtue. As we have already said there is a part, which is Logos itself or Nous, pure Intellect, which contemplates Truth itself and is connected with the intellectual or pure spiritual virtues like Wisdom and Divine knowledge (Theoria). This part is the highest part in us.

“The highest part in us is Nous, which is by nature the Master and Guide, and contemplates things noble and divine. This part is divine and the contemplative activity of this will bring perfect Happiness.” (1177a, 16-21)

Wisdom is the sweetest activity for man. Most of all, philosophy offers pleasures marvellous for their purity and permanence (1177a, 28-32). The philosopher is self-sufficient and needs nothing else, because he contemplates the Truth. Even when by himself, he is united with Truth and derives perfect Happiness; the wiser he is, the more happiness he derives.

“The (contemplative) activity of Nous (i.e. meditation, samadhi) is superior (to the practical activity or ethical virtues). It aims at no end beyond itself, the happiness that comes out of it is final and perfect, it is self-sufficient, brings peace and comfort and rest and all the other attributes ascribed to the supremely happy man. This is indeed the perfect happiness.” (1177b, 22-29)


The (contemplative) activity of Nous is called Theoria (i.e. contemplation of Truth, meditation, Samadhi), which is the highest stage of spiritual life. In it man is blessed with the Darshan of the Lord.

“Such a (spiritual) life is the highest for man. He does not live anymore as a common man, but as an owner of a divine spark… His life is divine and not a common human life. So, we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human matters, and, being mortal, to think of mortal matters, but we must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the most valuable part of our being. For the divine element in us, even if it be small in bulk, it surpasses everything much more in power and excellence. Moreover, this divine element is man, since it is the more powerful and wonderful part of him. It would be strange then, if he were to choose not the life of himself but that of somebody else. And, as we said before, that which is one’s real nature is the best and most pleasant. For man, therefore, the life according to Nous is the best and most pleasant, since man is essentially Nous. This life is also the happiest.” (1177b, 31-1178a, 9)

“He who acts according to Nous and serves him is in the best state of mind and most dear to gods. For gods delight in that which is the noblest and most akin to them (i.e. Nous) and they reward those who love and honour this most, because they care for the things that are dear to them and act rightly and nobly. All these attributes belong most of all to the wise. He, therefore, is the dearest to gods and also the happiest. So, the wise is the happiest.” (1179a, 28-39)

What is the highest good, which makes a man happy? This is the initial question, which Aristotle elaborates in his treatise “Nicomachean Ethics”. The answer is not different than what his divine teachers, Plato and Socrates have taught:

Perfect happiness is attained through a life of wisdom and inner contemplation of Truth, along with virtuous activity in society.

'Know thyself', was the heritage of Aristotle's Gurus. This is the core of all his thoughts. Man has to cultivate the divine element in him and manifest his latent Divinity (Educere), becoming one with God.

God is Bliss, Ananda Swarupa. When man unites with God he does not only experience Bliss, but he becomes Bliss itself. He becomes what he has always been. Swami has very concisely and clearly declared that “Happiness is union with God”.

Let us conclude with a small passage of Swami, which actually contains all the essence of Aristotle's teachings:

"The result of Right action (Karma) is purity of heart, leading to acquisition of higher Knowledge (Jnana). The coming together of karma and Jnana leads to supreme bliss. This is the ultimate goal of every human being."




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