Saturday, December 17, 2016

Encounter With Aristotle

Leading Western cultures encountered Aristotle at critical times. What was the result?

This is a continuation of last week's appreciation of Norman Cantor's "The Civilization of the Middle Ages", which devotes a great deal of space to the renaissance of the twelfth century. This was when most of the extant writings of Aristotle- an enormous corpus- reached Europe, from various sources, including translations from Arabic and then later, translations from the original Greek, which had remained on file in Christian Byzantium.

I can not claim any expertise on Aristotle whatsoever; it is a mountain I have yet to climb. But his central position in both ancient and later philosophy is clear. This episode of recovery and rediscovery by Western Europeans after their long intellectual darkness is particularly interesting and momentous in many ways, not just to philosophy.

Aristotle.

Aristotle was the proto-scientist, to Plato's idealist. Christian thought had developed as a fusion of Judaism and Platonism. Ideals such as god, categories, spheres, were to Plato not only real, but the only real things at all, with particular, empirical manifestations being of far less interest, merely the deficient instantiations of ideals and inferences which an intensely abstract intellectual would find the only compelling things. Imagine that you had just discovered gravity. The examples of it in everyday life are interesting, but the universal idea of it is vastly more powerful and conceptually deep.

On the other hand, Aristotle, while not dismissing Platonic idealism, matched it with a regard for empirical complexity and existence. His biology is a good example, where actual observations and even dissection support a classification scheme without a lot of idealistic baggage. Aristotle believed in god, but in a sort of deistic version- the prime mover. Nor did he think we have immortal souls, but that all life forms have souls in various gradations that are just our vital motive forces, and which, at best, reunite with a universal soul at death, but in most instances die with the body. One can portray Aristotle as a stage in humanity's maturation, from childish magical thinking, where all concepts have to revolve around the self, to an ability to deal with reality forthrightly, with fewer mythical crutches, and more humility.

His huge and advanced corpus was clearly far beyond what the local philosophers and scientists of the Muslim, Jewish, or Western European worlds had achieved. Naturally, it challenged them in fundamantal ways. The greatest intellects of each tradition grappled with Aristotle and wrote commentaries: Averroes, Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas. Cantor writes:
"In both Moslem and Jewish thought, the attempts of great thinkers to deal with the relationship of revelation and the new Aristotelian science thus ended in defeat and disaster at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Islam turned away from science because it was considered heretical by religious leaders who were able to obtain the assistance of fanatical princes to destroy rational speculation. The general decline of vigor in Islamic civilization undoubtedly also played a part in the termination of the great scientific and philosophical movement in the Arabic world. Judaism at the same time turned its back on science and secular thought, partly again because of the hostility of orthodox leaders and partly because of the ghettoization of European Jewry which began in the twelfth century."

The result here was that, for all the heroic efforts of Averroes and Maimonides (and their followers and colleagues) to blaze a compatibalist path that shoehorned the two systems together, the larger community was not having it. Any shoehorning of elements of the faith, especially of the Koran, was unacceptable. One can surmise that the social functions of the respective faiths were recognized as such, and as more important than free searches for truth that were clearly sowing the seeds of heresy if not total obliteration of the faith.

Saint Thomas Aquinas.

On the other hand, the European scholastics such as Aquinas, in their innocence, had such faith in the truth of their faith that they did not even consider that another truth, whatever its source, could threaten it. Heresy was untrue, but true things necessarily had to be consistent with the Gospel and church. So Aquinas adopted Artitotelianism in large part, and insisted on compatibalist solutions- on the soul, on natural morality, on sensory empiricism. This took quite a bit of interpretive effort, but was rewarded by everlasting fame and sainthood- quite a different result than in the other religious traditions. Aquinas is still a bedrock of Catholic theology.
"It was his Aristotelian epistemology that allowed Aquinas to work his way to his conclusion. His whole system rests on the principle that knowledge comes not from the illuminating participation of the mind in pure and divine ideas, as was held by Augustinian Platonism, but that it is primarily built up out of sensory experience. As an Aristotelian he could not accept that Platonic theory of forms; to him it was not scientific, and any Christian philosophy that was based on a false epistemology would fail, as the twelfth-century realists had failed, in the face of nominalist attack. ... He admitted that  there are certain ultimate areas of the Christian faith to which reason cannot penetrate: it is impossible to prove the miracle of the Incarnation or the Trinity. But it is possible to prove rationally the existence and many of the attributes of God. Aquinas presented five proofs for the existence of God, all of which were based on the Aristotelian argument for the existence of a first cause. ... He proceeded to argue, with a validity that was doubted by many, that from this premise could be derived the Christian attributes of God as perfect, omniscient, omnipotent, and free.... Similarly, he proceeded from Aristotelian causality by way of logical argument to prove creation ex nihilo, and similarly from Aristotelian psychology to the human soul, and from Aristotelian ethics to Christian virtue."

Yet acceptance of the innovations of Aristotle, of natural theology and rational ethics, etc., obviously also sowed the seeds of theological destruction, since if god is read in his or her works- the book of nature- the more carefully you read, the less you may find, if that god does not actually exist there, and faith was the key ingredient all along. First the Protestants insisted in reading the books of nature and scripture for themselves, and then scientists discarded scripture entirely. Now here we are in the post-Newtonian and post-Darwinian epoch, shorn of any (natural) rationale for god other than Aristotle's wan prime mover, though even that remains only as an unknown possibility rather than a necessity.

Lastly, what of the status of Aristotle in the culture where his writings were originally preserved- Eastern Rome, or Byzantium? Obviously, despite their wealth and institutional stability, they had no more of a scientific or philosophical revolution in the first millenium than the Western Europeans had. They were just as, and perhaps more, besotted with Christian theology, in characteristically "byzantine" disputes over iconography in particular, such that free thought seems to have been in very short supply. There was evidently just enough attention paid to the classics to keep them in print, but little more.

The endless and exceedingly complex ruminations about the nature of the soul through all this time were especially remarkable and saddening in their vacuity. They expressed little more than a profound ignorance of biology, which is understandable, as we still are some ways from understanding how it all works. The vegetable, animal, and rational souls of the Aristotelian system were reasonable stabs at classifying the levels of consciousness / biological being. Nor did they, in Aristotle's hands, appear to be immortal, with all due respect to Aquinas's efforts, but at best universal as "forms" by way of Plato's idealism / realism about such things, not individually. Death, is, after all, such an obvious and final fact of life. The centrality of the afterlife- the promises on which the whole Christian corpus and attraction is based- led to the very unfortunate dominance of intuition and magical thinking over simple reasoning, which haunts us to this day.



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