Thursday, March 21, 2013

On Reading Aristotle

A couple of weeks ago, my wife looked over my reading list for the year and mentioned that she would like to read some of the items on it. I’ve talked enough about Dr. Johnson, for instance, to make her want to read some of Boswell’s great biography. She said she’s eager to read some of Durant’s history. (Actually, I’ll probably read several chapters of it out loud to her while in the car later this year on a trip. Reading together aloud while driving makes it easy to concentrate on the material for a sustained time and helps the miles go by much more quickly!) And she might even try some Aquinas (although we won’t read that together in the car).

When she mentioned a desire to read Aristotle, though, she raised an interesting problem. If someone wants to read some manageable samples of Aristotle in order to get a general overview, what should she read? Many years ago, I got my first taste of Aristotle in a reader I checked out from the library of Westminster Choir College, in Princeton, NJ. That reader started with excerpts from the Prior Analytics, and I loved it, but I barely understood it and wouldn’t suggest that anyone else start there. My godfather in this reading project, Mortimer Adler (who has also served as pitching coach for my fantasy baseball team) had readers who followed his ten-year plan start with the first book of the Ethics and the first book of the Politics. These selections are appropriately easy, but aren’t broadly foundational and don’t reach many conclusions.

I googled “beginning to read Aristotle” and found a couple of forums on which people had asked this very question. The most common answer by far was a good one, I think: start with the Categories. In this relatively short book, you get a summary of Aristotle’s doctrine of being, and basic accounts of species and genera, substance and attributes. After this, people generally recommended Prior Analytics, Metaphysics, Politics, and Ethics. But no one mentioned the book I decided should come second on the list: On Generation and Corruption. Here Aristotle outlines his important theory of change and becoming and of the matter that underlies change. As for the rest of that list that other people suggested, I think they found the right books but should have recommended certain passages only.

Now I haven’t thought this all out to find the perfect order. But here’s my first draft of a program for reading Aristotle:

Physics: bk. II, ch. 3; bk. III, ch. 1; bk. VII, ch. 1 (Four causes, types of motion, First Mover)
Metaphysics: bk. XII, ch. 7 (God)
On Generation and Corruption
Ethics: Bks. I, II, V, X
Politics: Bks. I, III, VII
Prior Analytics: Bk. I, Chs. 1-7
Physics: Bks. II, III, VIII
Metaphysics: Bks. I, IV, VI, XII

Note 1: Instead of the sample from Prior Analytics, you could just read the first few chapters of a modern logic book. The information on syllogisms and deduction will essentially be Aristotle’s, but symbols and Venn diagrams help a lot!

Note 2: I’m tempted to add bk. VII of Metaphysics. I just read it two weeks ago, and it was full of important tidbits. But it seems especially disorganized (even for Aristotle, whose works, as I understand it, really consist of class notes by students and as a result contain a lot of digression, omission, repetition, and seeming contradiction). I became very confused as to whether universals can be substances. I wouldn’t have thought Aristotle believed it, but he said it once or twice, in spite of stating adamantly at other times that it was impossible. Then I turned to the wonderful online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy looking for answers, and at least derived great comfort from discovering that this question is the most disputed in all of Aristotle scholarship.

Note 3: I couldn’t even get to the second item on the list without changing my mind. I said earlier that On Generation and Corruption should come second, and then when I got to typing the actual list, I inserted just a few crucial chapters from books later in the list.

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