Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why Does Aristotle Keep Moving?

Every once in a while, someone actually taught me something in high school.  Don't get me wrong: I learned a lot of math, I learned that  Volts x Amps = Watts, and of course I learned useful, interesting things every day in Mr. Ammerman's music theory class.  But these facts, formulas, and patterns I could have learned from a book.  I'm talking about thought-provoking lessons about life and connections between ideas.  Lessons of this kind came so rarely, my memories of them twinkle like stars against the sable blanket of public-school night.  My health teacher taught me, for instance, that television commercials are carefully worded so as to seem to promise more than they actually do; that lesson nurtured an analytical eye that continues to serve me today.

One of these rare lessons seized my interest by its immense scope and all-explaining power.  For centuries, one teacher told me, western culture believed Aristotle just because he was an authority.  They passed his ideas down from generation to generation, never thinking to test the ideas for themselves.  Then one day we invented the Scientific Method.  Aristotle's theories were tested and found to be crazy!  The collective shoulder of the West shrugged off the degrading burden of Authority, we spread our wings, and climbed the exalting zephyr of Reason and Experiment.

Wow!  Aristotle taught that a heavy ball fell faster than a light one.  How much happier we are now that Galileo showed that the balls drop at the same speed!  (Never mind that we learned later that the heavy ball actually does fall infinitesimally faster than the other.)

Another day, I learned that Aristotle believed that an arrow continues to fly after it leaves the string because the air pushed aside from in front of the arrow rushes back in behind it and gives it a shove.  How much better life is now that we know to credit Inertia instead!  The sky is bluer, the flowers sweeter knowing that Aristotle was wrong.  How could people have been so foolish as to believe him on Authority?  Isn't Reason grand?

These ideas truly inspired me.  History made some sense, and I felt happy and privileged to be living in the Age of Progress.  But I had learned about this comic fellow Aristotle twice, and I had it in the back of my mind that I would read some of his writings someday just for a laugh.

In 1988, I finally got around to reading Aristotle and found out that the old crackpot was actually brilliant.  He thought clearly and deeply about and wrote systematically about almost everything he came across in the world: logic, the psychology of perception and learning, effective speaking and writing, life and death, material nature, immaterial nature, the heavens, the weather, emotions, how we should live, and how different types of governments work.  Was he right about everything?  No, but then his predecessors debated whether the world was all made of fire or of water.  Aristotle's body of writings constitutes one of the premier intellectual achievements in all of history.

This year I read his Physics and found some amazing things.  For instance, in bk. IV, ch. 8, Aristotle says that in a void "a thing will either be at rest or must be moved ad infinitum, unless something more powerful get in its way."  This sounds suspiciously like inertia to me.  And in the last chapter of bk. VIII, he says that the theory of air replacement is not sufficient to explain the continued motion of a thrown object: the flying stone or arrow also has a principle of motion within itself.

Of course Aristotle's science all needed refinement and correction.  And of course I acknowledge the value of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and others.  But it occurs to me now that in giving me that simplified view of history, my teachers made an ironic mistake and inadvertently taught me yet another lesson.  For they were passing down a faulty story about Aristotle that they accepted on authority, without checking it for themselves.  It seems our culture hadn't cast off authority after all.  We, like all generations before us, learn by observation, trial, reason, and authority.  The methods and emphases change, and our collective knowledge indeed grows, but these four remain.

So, yes, Aristotle's ideas are only partly true, but I have learned a lot from him.  And my teachers' history lessons were only partly true, but I have learned a lot from them, as well.

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