In one of the many memorable passages in the first book of the Politics Aristotle is making the case for what we might call a division of labor. Aristotle says that men and women are disposed such that men are the natural leaders while women are naturally subservient, similar to the relationship between master and slave. On his understanding one must rule and another must be subject, the former belonging to intellect and the master while the body and the slave represent the subservient element.
Additionally, as part of promoting this argument, Aristotle says that things are made by nature so as to be distinct (and presumably complementary).
Therefore the feminine and the slavish are distinguished (for Nature makes no such thing as the blacksmiths make the Delphic knife, in need of something, but Nature makes one thing for one thing. For in this way each tool will turn out most splendidly, not serving many functions but one) (1252b1-5).1)οὖν διώρισται τὸ θῆλυ καὶ τὸ δοῦλον (οὐθὲν γὰρ ἡ φύσιςποιεῖ τοιοῦτον οἷον οἱ χαλκοτύποι τὴν Δελφικὴν μάχαιραν,πενιχρῶς, ἀλλ’ ἓν πρὸς ἕν· οὕτω γὰρ ἂν ἀποτελοῖτο κάλλιστα τῶν ὀργάνων ἕκαστον, μὴ πολλοῖς ἔργοις ἀλλ’ ἑνὶ δουλεῦον.
Now unfortunately, we do not know the exact utility or makeup of this “Delphic knife,” so we have to make some guesses as to its exact use. Walter Burkert notes, “the Delphic knives were made in a special form which we are unable to construct with certainty in spite of numerous ironical allusions.”2)Homo Necans, 1984, pg. 119 There is also the proverbial saying that, “When you sacrifice at Delphi, you will have to bring extra meat for yourself.”3)Com.adesp. 460; Plut. Q. conv. 709a This may imply that not only does the knife cut, but, as a second function, it takes away the meat.
So, with one line of interpretation, we might say that the Delphic knife is like that uniquely American contraption, the spork, half-spoon, half-fork, serving as both that which cuts the sacrificial victim and that which serves this meat as a kind of spatula. (It matters little which two particular roles the knife is serving in this scenario, as long as we ascribe to it more than one). Now keep in mind, on analogy with either the man/woman or master/slave dynamic, in those relations the man is retaining a single role in that as both husband and master he is the ruling element, in virtue of his intellect. In the case of the Delphic knife, it tries to do too much, and, incurs the contempt of Aristotle just as much as a Swiss Army knife would.
There is another passage in the Parts of Animals however, which, in enumerating the uses of tails, makes this statement:
There are many differences of tails, and nature makes use of it in the following ways, not only as a protection and covering of the bottom, but also as a help and use for those possessing it (690a1-4).4)No Greek as the TLG does not yet have this text!
Previously Aristotle had also mentioned the various functions of the Elephant’s trunk.
Therefore the elephant has for breathing a nostril [i.e. trunk], just as each of the other animals having a lung, but because he spends his time in water and his torpid egress from water the nostril is lengthened and able to wrap around things. And with his [fore]feet being deprived of their use, Nature, as we said, uses the nostril as a help toward that help which the feet normally supplies (659a30-37).5)No Greek as the TLG does not yet have this text!
So in these two passages from the Parts of Animals we see that Aristotle does not have a problem in granting that different parts of animals, at least, can and do have multiple functions.
Where does this leave us with regard to the statement above in the Politics, that “Nature makes one thing for one thing. For in this way each tool will turn out most splendidly, not serving many functions but one?” Does Nature make one thing for one thing or many things? Is the elephant not “splendid” because its trunk is used for many purposes instead of just one? But doesn’t Nature also make the elephant?
Perhaps the overarching purpose of an organism is what Aristotle means when he talks about Nature making one thing for one thing. That is, nature makes men to rule (even though their hands, or eyebrows, etc serve many ends) and elephants to serve X role (even though their trunks can be used both to breathe and as hands).
Or is Aristotle just changing his mind on the subject, or inconsistent, or most frustrating of all, is he just being brilliantly opaque, as he so often can be?
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||οὖν διώρισται τὸ θῆλυ καὶ τὸ δοῦλον (οὐθὲν γὰρ ἡ φύσιςποιεῖ τοιοῦτον οἷον οἱ χαλκοτύποι τὴν Δελφικὴν μάχαιραν,πενιχρῶς, ἀλλ’ ἓν πρὸς ἕν· οὕτω γὰρ ἂν ἀποτελοῖτο κάλλιστα τῶν ὀργάνων ἕκαστον, μὴ πολλοῖς ἔργοις ἀλλ’ ἑνὶ δουλεῦον.|
|2.||↑||Homo Necans, 1984, pg. 119|
|3.||↑||Com.adesp. 460; Plut. Q. conv. 709a|
|4.||↑||No Greek as the TLG does not yet have this text!|
|5.||↑||No Greek as the TLG does not yet have this text!|