In researching some physical ailments over the last year, I happened to read twice about the importance of exercising outside. Apparently the exertion in the fresh air does wonders for brain chemistry similar to effects of certain popular pharmaceuticals. I found this news reassuring since I try to take a thirty-minute walk outside (while reading) every day. Getting out the door helps us feel better and think better, but the catch is that it doesn't always feel good at the moment. For one thing, the advice I found said the effect requires exercise, not just relaxing in the sun. For another, the weather isn't always perfect (well, in most places it isn't), so getting this regular exercise in means having the discipline to go out even when it's too hot or too cold or too cloudy or too sunny, even when the snow hasn't entirely melted, and sometimes even in a misty drizzle (although then I leave the book inside).
Although Aristotle is too heavy (in two senses of the term) to read while walking, reading Aristotle affects me much as outdoor exercise does. The phrase "like a breath of fresh air" always comes to mind when Aristotle comes up in my yearly schedule, and yet it isn't easy going by any means.
The first feature that strikes me each time I return to Aristotle contributes to both sides of the image -- both the invigorating surge of clear-headed good feelings and the daunting nature of a task that requires determined pertinacity to accomplish. Every year, Aristotle delights me again with his sense of organization. The Topics, like many of his treatises, is divided into books, which in turn divide into chapters. This helpful kind of organization survives and is common today: each of Aristotle's books, for instance, would correspond to a chapter in a modern textbook, and each of Aristotle's chapters to a section with a subheading. In the first chapter of the first book of the Topics, Aristotle explains the subject of the book: dialectical reasoning. In chapter 2, he tells us the uses of the material (intellectual training, casual encounters, and investigation in the philosophical sciences), in chapter 3 the goals of the study (to be prepared to meet any challenge), and in chapter 4 the main divisions of the study (propositions concerning essential properties, concerning definitions, concerning genera, and concerning accidental traits). What could be clearer?
Well, many modern textbooks are clearer -- even some music-theory textbooks. The problem is that Aristotle doesn't always follow through on his organized plans. For instance, the first chapter says that the book is about reasoning that draws necessary conclusions from given premises (i.e., deductive reasoning), but the ensuing chapters include several examples of induction. Again, Aristotle defines the differences between problems and propositions in chapter 4, but later doesn't keep to his defined distinction. (Although to be fair to him, Aristotle casually mentions in chapter 11 of Book I that consistency of terminology is not as important as understanding the actual distinctions of things.) Scholars suggest that what we read now are not words penned by the Philosopher himself but class notes taken by students. I always imagine that the inconsistencies and outright mistakes (as far as I can tell) must be due to a student who couldn't quite keep up with the lecture.
While dealing with Aristotle's organization starts out as an energizing experience but leads to hard work, assimilating the content usually goes the other way: from lucubration to satisfying enlightenment. Sometimes only the laborious, confused reading of several days can result in a refreshing moment of clarity, as it did two years ago when I was reading about syllogisms in the Posterior Analytics.
I once heard a professor say that Aristotle's syllogisms didn't prove anything. Knowing (a) that All men are mortal and (b) that Socrates is a man may lead logically to (c) that Socrates is mortal. But it doesn't prove this conclusion to a human who doesn't know it already. Without knowing that Socrates is mortal, said the professor, we don't know that all men are mortal, and without the first premise, we have no syllogism. Well, this was not the first time I had heard unjust attacks on Aristotle. Peter Kreeft somewhere offers one counterargument to the attack: we know that all men are mortal not by inductively adding up all the instances but by contemplating human nature.
But Aristotle shocked me two years ago by saying that the syllogism isn't about proving the third line at all. Rather, he says, it is about finding the middle term. I read for many days about the wit it takes to find the middle, but I didn't have the wit to understand what he meant by it. Then one day the pieces fell into place: finding the middle term is like finding the second premise of a syllogism after observing the conclusion. For instance, I observe that my coffee is hot. What makes it so? In Aristotle's teaching, the answer is the middle term: having been heated. The syllogism might go like this: (a) All heated things are hot. (b) My coffee has been heated. (c) My coffee is hot. The first line gives a universal rule that the investigator knows already. The last line gives an observation that the investigator wants to explain. The second line, not the "conclusion" to the syllogism, is the conclusion that the investigator draws. You might say we start with observations and principles and then seek the particular circumstance that led to the observation. That process goes on every day in my house when I lose my keys, on CSI as the investigators try to piece together the history of a crime, and in a thousand other cases.
One might also start with observations and controlled circumstances and then seek the principles, as, say, Galileo did. But that's a different story.