THEOSOPHY, Vol. 28, No. 4, February, 1940
(Pages 147-155; Size: 31K)
(Number 2 of an 8-part series)

[Compiler's Note: All 8 articles have the same name.]



THE principle of form is a central conception in the philosophy of Aristotle. While not an initiate, Aristotle had learned from Plato much that is known to initiates. The Nous, in Aristotelian philosophy, is the "active reason," pre-existent and immortal, while the psyche is the mortal soul, the formative principle of the physical body. As put by H.P.B.:

Although Aristotle himself, anticipating the modern physiologists, regarded the human mind as a material substance, and ridiculed the hylozoïsts, nevertheless he fully believed in the existence of a "double" soul, or spirit and soul.(1) He laughed at Strabo for believing that any particles of matter, per se, could have life and intellect in themselves sufficient to fashion by degrees such a multiform world as ours.(2)
At the end of the third chapter of Book I of De Anima, Aristotle asserts that the Pythagoreans taught it is possible for any soul, taken at random, to pass into any body, with no mutual relation. "This," he observes, "is absurd, for each body appears to have a distinctive form or shape of its own." Here is illustrated Aristotle's habit of distorting the doctrines of his predecessors, either intentionally or through misconception. That on occasion he did so deliberately H.P.B. proves by showing that he suppressed some of the views of Xenocrates while criticizing his doctrines.(3) A similar charge is made by W. A. Heidel, who points to the serious consequences which have resulted from Aristotle's misrepresentation of earlier thought: "The Aristotelian conception of philosophy has in fact entirely dominated the historical study of the subject; and the earliest Greek thinkers appear to have found a place in the survey solely because Aristotle thought he recognized in them a preparatory stage to his own philosophy."(4) Werner Jaeger, one of the most eminent of Greek scholars, says that the celebrated sketch of the development of Greek philosophy from Thales to Plato in the first book of Aristotle's Metaphysics is not historical at all, but was written to provide the principles Aristotle regarded as useful. "It compresses and distorts the facts for the sake of what he wishes to extract from them."(5) Now, in the course of time, many of the criticisms of Aristotle offered by H.P.B. are being repeated by modern scholars. Aristotle, she wrote in 1877, "was no trustworthy witness. He misrepresented Plato, and he almost caricatured the doctrines of Pythagoras."(6) Aristotle's failure to appreciate the profound meaning in Plato's teaching, his egotism, which made him want to have a philosophy of "his own," and his unnatural division of the departments of knowledge into separate fields, were his undoing, as of all his faithful followers.

Many of Aristotle's works are believed to be notes or outlines for lectures, and it is doubtful that any of them were not to some extent edited by his disciples or by later hands. Moreover, as H.P.B. says, "His philosophy is so abstruse that he constantly leaves his reader to supply by the imagination the missing links of his logical deductions."(7) It is probable, therefore, that important misconceptions have arisen as to his intended meaning. But whatever his intent, his general influence has been toward materialism, despite the fact that his system is classed as "idealistic." It is significant, also, that the Church found Aristotle useful in the formulation of its theology and that throughout the Middle Ages Aristotle was spoken of by the schoolmen as the Philosopher. The adaptability of the Aristotelian system to Christian dogma is made plain by a passage in Windelband's History of Philosophy attributing to Aristotle the first conceptional and scientific formulation of monotheism. The God-idea, Windelband says, with Aristotle "passed over from the pantheistic form, which it had with Xenocrates, and even still with Plato, into the theistic form, since God is conceived of as a self-conscious being different from the world."(8) Thus both the science and the theology of the West are predominantly Aristotelian in spirit and method. It is, perhaps, for this reason that occasionally H.P.B. uses the doctrines of the great logician to illustrate tenets of the occult philosophy. Aristotle's modes of expression are familiar to the western scholar, and where his ideas are in general correct they serve to convey her meaning. This is the case with respect to the astral body. In Physics I, vi and vii, and in Metaphysics XII, ii-v, Aristotle establishes three principles which are necessary for the formation of all natural bodies: Matter, Privation, and Form. Matter is the indeterminate "stuff" which has no existence except as the matter of some form. "No form," wrote H.P.B., "can come into objective existence -- from the highest to the lowest -- before the abstract ideal of this form -- or, as Aristotle would call it, the privation of this form -- is called forth."(9) "Privation," she explains, "meant in the mind of the great philosopher that which the Occultists call the prototypes impressed in the Astral Light -- the lowest plane and world of Anima Mundi."(10) -- In still another place she uses the illustration of the acorn to distinguish between the privation of Matter on the Astral plane and the resulting individual form:

From the acorn will grow an oak and this oak, as a tree, may have a thousand forms, all of which vary the one from the other. All these forms are contained within the acorn, and though the form which the tree will take depends on extraneous circumstances, yet that, which Aristotle called the "privation of matter" exists beforehand, in the Astral waves. But the noumenal germ of the oak exists beyond the plane of the Astral Light; it is only the subjective picture of it that already exists in the Astral Light, and the development of the oak tree is the result of the developed prototype in the Astral Light, which development proceeds from higher to lower planes, until on the lowest plane it has its last consolidation and development of form.(11)
Following is H.P.B.'s discussion of Aristotle's principle of Form:
His philosophy teaches that besides the original matter, another principle is necessary to complete the triune nature of every particle, and this is form; an invisible, but still, in an ontological sense of the word, a substantial being, really distinct from matter proper. Thus, in an animal or a plant, besides the bones, the flesh, the nerves, the brains, and the blood, in the former, and besides the pulpy matter, tissues, fibres, and juice in the latter, which blood and juice, by circulating through the veins and fibres, nourishes all parts of both animal and plant; and besides the animal spirits, which are the principles of motion; and the chemical energy which is transformed into vital force in the green leaf, there must be a substantial form, which Aristotle called in the horse, the horse's soul.(12)
This soul Aristotle defines as "the form of a natural body having in it the capacity for life." It is the entelechy, or "realization" of a natural body:
If we be required to frame some one common definition, which will apply to every form of soul, it would be that soul is the earlier perfect realization of a natural body.

The definition we have just given should make it evident that we must no more ask whether the soul and the body are one, than ask whether the wax and the figure impressed on it are one, or generally inquire whether the material and that of which it is the material are one; for though unity and being are used in a variety of senses, their most distinctive sense is that of perfect realization.(13)

After arguing that the faculties of the embodied man are dependent on the organs for their activity, -- as vision needs the eyes for actual seeing, --Aristotle observes:
It is not then difficult to see that soul or certain parts of it (if it naturally admit of partition) cannot be separated from the body: for in some cases the soul is the realization of the parts of the body themselves. It is, however, perfectly conceivable that there may be some parts of it which are separable, and this because they are not the expression or realization of any particular body. And indeed it is further a matter of doubt whether soul as perfect realization of body may not stand to it in the same separable relation as a sailor to his ship.(14)
This indecision has been a source of great confusion to students of Aristotle who have desired to claim his support, either for or against individual immortality. Grounds for almost every view of the problem can be found in his works. He says further on:
But as regards intellect and the speculative faculty the case is not yet clear. It would seem, however, to be a distinct species of soul, and it alone is capable of separation from the body, as that which is eternal from that which is perishable. The remaining parts of the soul are, as the foregoing consideration shows, not separable in the way that some allege them to be: at the same time it is clear that they are logically distinct.(15)
Elsewhere in De Anima Aristotle describes the immortal principle as the "creative reason," in itself timeless and unaffected by material conditions. This is the mind or nous by means of which a man knows:
This creative reason does not at one time think, at another time not think (it thinks eternally); and when separated from the body it remains nothing but what it essentially is; and thus it is alone immortal and eternal. Of this unceasing work of thought, however, we retain no memory, because this reason is unaffected by its objects; whereas the receptive passive intellect (which is affected) is perishable, and can really think nothing without the support of the creative intellect.(16)
While maintaining that this active intellect has the same relation to the world of forms and ideas, the intelligible objects, that the faculty of sense has to sensible objects, still, Aristotle says the active intellect is nothing but a capacity to be developed and is the source of "general ideas" only in this way. Aristotle now proceeds to one of his most serious contradictions of the Platonic teaching, affirming that the forms known by reason are not different from the forms perceived by the senses:
As there is, according to the common opinion, no object outside the magnitude of sense, it follows that the ideas of reason are contained in the forms of sense, both the so-called abstract conceptions and the various qualities and attributes that determine sensible phenomena. And further, without the aid of sense-perception we never come to learn or understand anything; and whenever we consider something in the mind, we must at the same time contemplate some picture of the imagination: for the pictures of the imagination correspond to the impressions of the senses, except that the former are without material embodiment.(17)
It is all too obvious that Aristotle was no initiate. Plato taught that true knowledge is possible only when the impressions of the senses are entirely suspended by the will of the adept. The vision of the soul is "simple, pure, and unchangeable, without form, color, or human qualities: the God -- our Nous."(18) If we read the Phaedo and the seventh book of the Republic in the light of the Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, the identity of teaching is at once apparent. "There is an eye of soul," says Plato, "which, when by other pursuits lost and dimmed, is by these purified and re-illumined; and is more precious by far than ten thousand bodily eyes, for by it alone truth is seen."

Yet in almost every one of Aristotle's major doctrines there is the ghost or shell of its Platonic inspiration. As Werner Jaeger says in his careful study of Aristotle's development, the Aristotelian Form is Plato's Idea intellectualized:

Everything that Plato's spirit touched has a certain plastic roundness, than which nothing more strenuously resists than the analytical urge of Aristotle's thought, which is to Plato's as the anatomical diagram is to the plastic human form. Perhaps this shocks the aesthetic and the religious man. Anyhow it is characteristic of Aristotle. The execution of this principle was the birth of science in the modern sense.(19)
Dr. Jaeger shows that during his association with the Academy Aristotle accepted and taught the Platonic doctrines of individual immortality, of pre-existence and reminiscence. His views, Jaeger thinks, were largely Platonic almost until the time of the death of his teacher. A poem believed to have been written by Aristotle soon after Plato's death describes the latter as one "whom bad men have not even the right to praise." This fragment tells of an altar to Friendship, presumably set up by one of Plato's disciples. The inscription on the altar Aristotle renders as "The Friendship of Plato," indicating the fraternity of the members of the Academy, who called themselves the "Friends." As Jaeger says, "Plato's friendship was holy to them all, because it was the innermost bond of their community." The closing lines of Aristotle's elegy revere Plato as having been a mortal in whom the perfection of friendship and goodness was realized. Plato alone, Aristotle says, showed us, or was the first to show us, "that man is the free master of his own life and fate if he is good; and he did not teach it in theory, but was a living example of it to his friends." No one else will ever do it again -- or rather, no one of this generation will equal him.(20) Here Aristotle, the disciple, speaks. He looks upon Plato as the founder of a religion, the doctrine of the principle of the Good.

But Aristotle was destined to deny that man's happiness depends only on the moral power of his soul and to reject the Good as the fundamental principle of ethics and morality, So also, in his later works, he discarded Reminiscence, the doctrine that soul-knowledge is carried from incarnation to incarnation, and ended by criticising and attacking the basic conceptions of Plato's philosophy.

Uninitiated, and endowed with great intellectual pride, how could Aristotle appreciate the real meaning of his teacher? Plato had taken the exaggerated notions of the time -- remnants of the doctrines of earlier teachers -- and had developed them into rational theories and metaphysical conceptions. His first principles he knew, as every occultist knows them. As to the myths, Plato declares in the Gorgias and the Phaedo that they were the vehicles of great truths well worth the seeking. Teachings not possible of direct public transmission could be revealed in this suggestive though seemingly indefinite way. His obligatory veiling of the truth, H.P.B. indicates, was an important reason why the doctrines of Plato perhaps "would not quite stand the inductive method of reasoning established by Aristotle," although "they are satisfactory in the highest degree to those who apprehend the existence of that higher faculty of insight or intuition, as affording a criterion for ascertaining truth."(21) As she says in another place:

Aristotle has bequeathed his inductive method to our scientists; but until they supplement it with "the universals of Plato," they will experience still more "failures" than the great tutor of Alexander. The universals are a matter of faith only so long as they cannot be demonstrated by reason and based on uninterrupted experience. Who of our present-day philosophers can prove by this same inductive method that the ancients did not possess such demonstrations as a consequence of their esoteric studies?(22)
But the father of modern science, like his descendants, lacked "such demonstrations"; hence, in the metaphysics embodying Plato's teaching of the real and substantial noumenal world, Aristotle saw only speculation, and in the myths, mere imagery. As a consequence Aristotle made into logical abstractions everything he borrowed from Plato. Even Aristotle's ethical doctrines were intellectualized and separated from their true first principle, Plato's Supreme Good.(23) In the Magna Moralia, Aristotle accuses his teacher of "confusing" the treatment of virtue with that of Ideal Good. "This," says Aristotle, "was wrong, because inappropriate. The subject of moral Virtue should have been excluded from the discussion of Being and Truth; for the two subjects have nothing in common." Introducing his own work, Aristotle says:
But we are now dealing with the Social Science and faculty; and this does not investigate this Ideal Good, but what is good for us men. For no science or faculty predicates goodness of its end; and Social Science is no exception to the rule. Ideal Good is therefore not the subject of its discourse.(24)
This is equivalent to saying that the concept of Deity or the highest Reality -- the subject of the First Fundamental Proposition of the Secret Doctrine -- has no bearing on "what is good for us men." Induction and analysis, until the very soul of all truth has fled, formed the method which Aristotle bequeathed to modern science. His uncertainty regarding the destiny of the soul, to which the dissection of Platonic philosophy led him, is also an inheritance of the West. The late William McDougall indicated the nature of this influence in his history of the idea of soul:
Aristotle's interpreters have generally attempted to show either that he taught the immortality of the soul or of the active reason, or that he denied it. We shall be wiser if we recognize the plain implication of his words, namely, that he held it impossible to return a decisive answer to this great question without further empirical knowledge of the bodily processes involved in mental activities; ... whatever degree of truth there may be in the view that Aristotle's indecision in the face of this question was due to Plato's influence, it is clear that his doctrine of the creative reason has none of the practical and ethical significance of Plato's doctrine of immortality.(25)
Precisely: Aristotle did not feel the all-pervading love of mankind that was Plato's sole motive in life; hence, he failed to realize that ethical principles are first. Had Aristotle possessed the heart doctrine of his Master, in addition to his own great intellectual power, he would, like Plato, have been initiated; he would have known at first hand the secret teachings respecting the principles of the human constitution; he would not have found it necessary and even desirable to depend on theoretical speculation and logical inference for his doctrines.

Returning to the problem of form, there is the question, Where did Aristotle get his theory of the entelechy? It is commonly thought that the idea was the result of his biological studies, that it had, in short, an empirical origin. In all probability, however, the doctrine actually derived from the unpublished teachings of Plato, as was the case with so many of Aristotle's basic conceptions. While it is true that Aristotle was a great collector of facts, it can also be shown that his theories about the facts were far from being a mystic secretion of the inductive process. He approached the field of natural phenomena with definite metaphysical preconceptions. Lange observes:

We speedily discover that his [Aristotle's] proceeding from facts, and his inductive mounting from facts to principles, has remained a mere theory, scarcely anywhere put in practice by Aristotle himself. At the most, what he does is to adduce a few isolated facts, and immediately spring from these to the most universal principles, to which he thenceforward dogmatically adheres in purely deductive treatment.(26)
Dr. Jaeger is at pains to correct the view that the idea of the entelechy grew in Aristotle's mind from his studies of nature, as some scientists might prefer to think. He says:
We have always supposed that ... the conception [of entelechy] was first developed in the case of organic life and from thence transferred to other spheres by a generalization -- that it means, therefore, something vitalistic or biological like the modern "life force." This assumes that Aristotle possessed from the beginning the complete mastery of zoology and biology that he displays in the History of Animals, and that he more or less saw this principle in the object during his researches. Recently we have come to believe that the conception of biological development was his real achievement, which is a thoroughly vicious modernization. The meaning of "entelechy" is not biological; it is logical and ontological.(27)
In other words, it is a speculative doctrine, affirmed because it is logically necessary. Speculations may sometimes correspond with truth, as in this case, where the theory of the entelechy covers the function of the astral body as the pattern for the physical. But when no distinction is made between speculation and knowledge, only initiates can recognize the truth. This is why the later Platonists accepted some of the statements of Aristotle, but rejected others. Their use of Aristotle's analytical method does not mean that they uncritically accepted his mistakes. As H.P.B. says: "In the most vital questions of metaphysical speculations Aristotle is constantly contradicted by the Neo-platonists."(28)

In the difference between Aristotle and Plato, we have the difference between modern philosophy and the metaphysics of the Wisdom-Religion. Modern philosophy consists of intellectual abstractions, whereas Theosophy teaches the real existence of the world of noumena, as did Plato. Excepting such men as Henry More and Ralph Cudworth in the seventeenth century, and Thomas Taylor in the eighteenth century, all the modern students of Plato, as H.P.B. says, "shrink from every passage which implies that his metaphysics are based on a solid foundation, and not on ideal conceptions."(29)

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:


The Darwinian theory of the transmission of acquired faculties is neither taught nor accepted in Occultism. Evolution, in it, proceeds on quite other lines; the physical, according to esoteric teaching, evolving gradually from the spiritual, mental, and psychic. This inner soul of the physical cell -- this "spiritual plasm" that dominates the germinal plasm -- is the key that must open one day the gates of the terra incognita of the Biologist, now called the dark mystery of Embryology. 

--The Secret Doctrine.

[Note: Here is the link to HPB's article, entitled "Old Philosophers and Modern Critics", that was referred to in footnote number 3 by the Editors. --Compiler.]

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(1) De Generat. et Corrupt. lib. ii.
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(2) Isis Unveiled I, 319-20.
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(3) THEOSOPHY V, 170. [Note: The reference here is found in the 70th, 71st, and 72nd paragraphs, counting both regular and indented ones, in an article by HPB entitled "Old Philosophers and Modern Critics". There may also be other places in the article where she speaks of Aristotle. A link to it has been placed at the end of this article. --Compiler.]
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(4) W. A. Heidel, The Heroic Age of Science (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins Co., 1933), p. 28.
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(5) Werner Jaeger, Aristotle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934), pp. 401-2.
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(6) Isis I, xv.
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(7) Ibid., 320.
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(8) W. Windelband, History of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1910), p. 146.
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(9) Isis I, 310.
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(10) The Secret Doctrine I, 59.
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(11) Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge, p. 98. See also Isis I, 310-11.
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(12) Isis I, 312.
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(13) De Anima II, i.
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(14) Ibid., Loc. cit.
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(15) Ibid., II, ii.
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(16) Ibid., III, v.
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(17) Ibid., viii.
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(18) Isis II, 591.
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(19) Aristotle, p. 372.
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(20) Ibid., pp. 45, 105-10.
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(21) Isis I, xiii.
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(22) Ibid., 405.
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(23) Jaeger, Op. cit., p. 397.
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(24) Magna Moralia I, i.
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(25) Body and Mind (London: Methuen, 1938), p. 24.
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(26) History of Materialism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1925), I, 88.
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(27) Op. cit., p. 384.
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(28) Isis I, 430.
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(29) Ibid., xi.
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