Final Cause in the Case of the Man-faced Ox

One of the strangest opinions related in Aristotle, is the view he ascribes to Empedocles in Physics II.8.  In context, Empedocles is invoked after Aristotle asks why we should not treat every natural occurrence like the rain, that is, as a process which does not occur for the sake of something, and applying this line of explanation to everything in nature, also say, for example, that teeth came to be in such a way as to be merely coincidentally felicitous for animal chewing.  Of course, on the other hand, things can also turn out coincidentally poor for animals as well, and such is the case when Aristotle relates the monstrous suggestion of Empedocles:

ὅπου μὲν οὖν ἅπαντα συνέβη ὥσπερ κἂν εἰ ἕνεκά του ἐγί-
γνετο, ταῦτα μὲν ἐσώθη ἀπὸ τοῦ αὐτομάτου συστάντα ἐπι-    (30)
τηδείως· ὅσα δὲ μὴ οὕτως, ἀπώλετο καὶ ἀπόλλυται, κα-
θάπερ Ἐμπεδοκλῆς λέγει τὰ βουγενῆ ἀνδρόπρῳρα.

So when all turned out just as if they had come to be for something [ἕνεκά του, i.e., final cause], then the things, suitably constituted [συστάντα ἐπιτηδείως] as an automatic outcome, survived; when not, they died, and die, as Empedocles says of the man-headed calves. (Trans. Charlton, Physics II.8, 198b29-32).

It was perhaps because of Aristotle’s own example of teeth coming to be fortuitously arranged that prompts his introduction of the man-headed calves, whose dentition was not favorable to the kind of food suitable for a bovine digestive system.  Whatever was the cause of the demise of the poor man-headed ox (were Aristotle to grant that it ever existed), however, we can infer that due to some mismatch of parts, the animal was unable to survive.  Yet, remember that the man-headed ox is an interlude to the discussion of rain, to which Aristotle now wishes to return, adding an important qualification to emphasize how in fact rain is determined by a final cause.       

ὁ μὲν   (32)
οὖν λόγος, ᾧ ἄν τις ἀπορήσειεν, οὗτος, καὶ εἴ τις ἄλλος
τοιοῦτός ἐστιν· ἀδύνατον δὲ τοῦτον ἔχειν τὸν τρόπον. ταῦτα
μὲν γὰρ καὶ πάντα τὰ φύσει ἢ αἰεὶ οὕτω γίγνεται ἢ ὡς ἐπὶ   (35)
τὸ πολύ, τῶν δ’ ἀπὸ τύχης καὶ τοῦ αὐτομάτου οὐδέν. οὐ
(199a) γὰρ ἀπὸ τύχης οὐδ’ ἀπὸ συμπτώματος δοκεῖ ὕειν πολλάκις
τοῦ χειμῶνος, ἀλλ’ ἐὰν ὑπὸ κύνα· οὐδὲ καύματα ὑπὸ κύνα,
ἀλλ’ ἂν χειμῶνος.

This [i.e. the biologically advantageous occurring by coincidence], or something like it, is the account which might give us pause.  It is impossible, however, that this should be how things are.  The things mentioned, and all things which are due to nature, come to be as they do always (αἰεὶ) or for the most part (ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πολύ) and nothing which is the outcome of luck or an automatic outcome does that.  We do not think that it is the outcome of luck or coincidence that there is a lot of rain winter, but only if there is a lot of rain in August; nor that there are heatwaves in August, but only if there is a heatwave in winter. (Trans. Charlton, Physics II.8, 198b32-199a3).

Here Aristotle adds that when things occur with a level of considerable frequency, they cannot be attributed to luck or the automatic.  When rain comes about in the winter (as opposed to a meteorologically unusual time), it is the result of a final cause.  Alan Code points out how this teleological explanation of rain can be fruitfully paralleled to Aristotle’s other example of teeth, “So too we can distinguish the formation of a front tooth simpliciter from the formation of a front tooth during the development of a human, and see that the latter is not coincidentally connected with the suitability of the tooth for biting”  (132).  This is saying, in a way suitably technical for Aristotle, that teeth are not things that come about out of the blue, as if a set of marbles or flowers were just as likely candidates to have filled the mouth of a lion as were canines and molars.  Rain happens frequently or for the most part in the winter, while in lions frequently or for the most part teeth come about during its process of maturation.  These teeth, considered as parts, of the animal must be considered with an eye to the form, that is, the final cause of the animal, if we are to make any sense of why they happen to come about with regularity.

A passage that might be pressed into service on this point of the poverty of material explanation is in Physics II.9 as Aristotle us tells how a real rube might suppose a wooden city wall is built.  On this person’s misunderstanding, what happens is that the foundation of the wall, the stones and gravel, sink down into the earth because they are heaviest, then the earth, a little lighter, comes to rest on top of this, while finally, lightest of all, the wooden posts of the fence itself surmount the earth.  His criticism of this understanding of a city wall is that although it is necessary for a city wall to have these three parts, they are nevertheless nothing more than a material cause of the wall.  They do not tell us that the wall is for the protection and preservation of certain things (ἕνεκα τοῦ κρύπτειν ἄττα καὶ σώζειν) (Physics II.9, 200a6-7).  Aristotle’s explanation helps to draw out the fact that the form of something can also be referred to as its account or definition (λόγος).  Within the definition of a city wall, of course, is the notion that it is for the protection and preservation of certain things, and definition to a greater degree in fact, than whether it is made of wood, chain links, or concrete, gives us a meaningful explanation of the wall.  In the ox-headed man example, then, the reason a man has a man-head is because the form of the man dictates that he has such a part as a man, not, as Empedocles might erroneously assert, that the reason a man has a man-head is because, of the parts that happened to come about, one was a man-head.  Similarly, if Empedocles’ ox-man was more than merely fanciful, but based on observation of biological deformation, then the rare irregularity of these monsters presents the same case: the regularity of the occurance of non-deformed boys and oxen testifies to the existence of a final cause, their form.

Does Aristotle’s Nature have One or Many Uses?

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!