Sunday, February 24, 2013

Aristotle Covers It All

I’ve said sometime before in this blog that one of the very few interesting things I learned in high school sadly turned out to be totally misleading. I don’t remember who said it or what class it was in, but I learned once that a long time ago a crazy fool named Aristotle said many crazy, foolish things that other crazy fools believed for two thousand years because no one ever tested them out. He may have been mostly trusted for two millennia, and the new scientific method coming out of seventeenth-century Florence certainly ended Aristotle’s prime authority on natural law. But he was anything but a crazy fool. Every year when I come back to the man Aquinas called “the Philosopher,” I’m amazed all over again at the brilliance of the man who wrote a systematic (well, almost systematic) and organized (well, almost organized) account of physics, metaphysics, logic, rhetoric, ethics, politics, art, biology, and psychology.

I may be just a guy with a teaching position in a lightweight field amazed at anyone whose intellectual achievement goes beyond counting half steps. But in my reading of philosophy and history, I come across many more passages praising Aristotle than ones belittling him. In preparing to tackle an anthology by American philosopher Charles Peirce, I’ve been reading a bit in an introduction to his works by James K. Feibleman. In the first chapter, Feibleman quotes Peirce as saying that his goal was “to make a philosophy like that of Aristotle, that is to say, to outline a theory so comprehensive that, for a long time to come, the entire work of human reason, in philosophy of every school and kind, in mathematics, in psychology, in physical sciences, in history, in sociology, and any other department there may be, shall appear as the filling up of its details.” Of what other scholar in all of history could that be said?

I assigned myself the Metaphysics this year. Notes scribbled on the table of contents show that I have already read several parts of it over the last fifteen years or so: whatever highlights Mortimer Adler had me read in the first ten-year plan. But this year I want to read all of the book. And on the first or second day of it, I got a reminder of the reason I do this. Aristotle starts the book off with a history of philosophy, from Thales to Plato. I already knew the sound bytes that go with the names Thales (“Everything is water”), Democritus (“Nothing exists but atoms and the void”), Heraclitus (“Everything changes; you cannot step twice into the same river”), and most of the others Aristotle names, but he puts them all into perspective and explains what they were trying to do in making these sometimes rather bizarre statements. Being a good philosopher, he also shows neatly how all his predecessors prepared for the insights he himself offered without any of them seeing it all as clearly as he.

But the part of the account most interesting to me centered on his most immediate and most successful predecessors: Socrates and Plato. I had known that scholars believed that the Socrates of Plato’s dialogs wasn’t exactly the historical Socrates and that Plato had planted some of his own ideas (or Ideas) into the words of his mentor. But I always assumed that critics of our time teased out the strands by some sort of careful textual analysis, trying to identify word patterns that didn’t fit in with the rest, or some such thing. It turns out that the truth (at least the basis of it) is much simpler: Aristotle tells us what’s what. Socrates, he says, in fighting the notion that everything is in flux and hence unknowable, sought stable definitions of things but mostly limited his search to ethical issues. Plato, on the other hand, granted the constant change of physical objects and posited stability in a transcendent world of ideal Forms. Simple.

In an essay on “old books” in C. S. Lewis’s God in the Dock, I recently read Lewis’s advice to get philosophy and theology straight from the sources. Most people, he says, approach these topics with too much humility, assuming that they’ll need a contemporary guide, when Plato, for instance, is much easier to understand than any modern interpreter of him. (Lewis even warns against reading his own books in lieu of the Bible, Augustine, and Aquinas.) I experienced a case in point when I discovered how clearly Aristotle told the story of philosophy. Now I wonder two things: (1) Have any scholars of the last four-hundred years decided that Aristotle was a crazy fool to have told this history in the simple way he did? and (2) Why am I reading Feibleman before I read Peirce himself?

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