Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

2,000 Years of Aristotle

2,000 Years of Aristotle

Photograph via Wikipedia

[quote]Do we say that justice itself is something? Of course. And the fair and the good? Surely. Then have you ever seen any of these sorts of things with your eyes? In no way. But then have you grasped them with any other sense through the body. . . . Is it through the body then that what is most true of these things is contemplated? Or does it hold thus?

—Plato, Phaedo[/quote]

[quote]No one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, no one fails entirely, but everyone says something true about the nature of things, and while individually they contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.

—Aristotle, Metaphysics[/quote]

[quote]You will always be a child of two worlds. . . . The question you face is: which path will you choose?

—Sarek to his half human, half Vulcan son, Spock, Star Trek[/quote]

For the last 2,500 years, the Western world has been at the center of a philosophical tug of war. Repeatedly stretched and twice torn asunder, the West has developed under two almost diametrically opposed worldviews. It’s remarkable that it ever mends, but it does. The two teams in this ceaseless struggle are the philosophical descendants of Plato (c. 428 – c. 348 B.C.) and his rebellious student Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.). These two ancient Greek titans of thought share my designation as the 30th most influential figure in Western history.{{1}}

Chances are you don’t know that you probably adhere, allowing some deviation, to one of their schools of thought. You’re either a Platonist, who believes in absolute morals, in the supremacy of the ultimate good, in objective truths unveiled by a series of deductions, and in the potential release of the soul from this material world into an idealized higher plane of existence. Or you’re an Aristotelian, who looks to the material world for answers in a never-ending, empirical quest to learn about the universe, studying and categorizing all findings, using not just deduction, but also inductive reasoning to slowly build knowledge. In personal relationships, mind you, they get along fine.{{2}} On larger scales, however, these competing schools of thought have been at each other’s throats throughout Western history.

Last week, I wrote about Plato. Today, I’ll write about Aristotle.


Historian E.H. Gombrich writes that Aristotle has been “the teacher of mankind for 2,000 years. . . . In the 2,000 years that followed, whenever people failed to agree on one thing or another, they turned to his writings. He was their referee.”

One might doubt Gombrich’s perspective, considering the supremacy of Platonism and Christianity during the Middle Ages. Gombrich’s generalization works when one considers that for the bulk of the medieval era, to disagree with prevailing Platonic, Christian wisdom was dangerous. In other words, it was unusual for people to “fail to agree.” For the millennium of the Church’s hegemony—roughly the 400s to 1300s—few dared stand up to the nearly omnipotent papacy. Heretics were burned at the stake. Princes were brought to their knees. Emperors largely served at the will of His Holiness, the pope. Philosophers, from Augustine to Aquinas, operated under the assumption of an all-powerful Christian God who sent His Word through the Bible and His son, Jesus. The world and universe worked according to His will and whim. To doubt any of these presumptions was heretical and punishable by death.

But in select medieval instances of open debate and reference to ancient knowledge, and in the innumerable intellectual breakthroughs since, the guiding philosopher of the West has surely been Aristotle. Son of the physician to the Macedonian king, Aristotle was born into science. He was sent to study at the Academy, where Plato cultivated the curious Aristotle’s intellectual gifts.

Aristotle, who ultimately broke with Plato’s ideology, may have eclipsed him just as Plato did his own teacher. The most prominent “Renaissance man” of the ancient world, Aristotle didn’t merely study the sciences (including anatomy, astronomy, biology, geology, meteorology, physics, and zoology), education, ethics, history, logic, metaphysics, philosophy, physiology, poetry, politics, rhetoric and society; he was considered a foremost expert in each of those areas. And while he didn’t invent any of those fields, one could certainly argue that he was the first to standardize them in Western history.{{3}}

[pullquote_right]Aristotle wasn’t the first to try empiricism, but he may have been the first to formalize it.[/pullquote_right]

Aristotle’s guiding philosophical principle was that the universe was not governed by magic or divine intervention. Rather, natural laws govern our world and the cosmos. The trick was to understand them, and the path to understanding was using what we now call the scientific method—observing, measuring, experimenting, formulating hypotheses, testing them, and then testing them again. Only then do you truly know something.{{4}} Aristotle wasn’t the first to try the method of empiricism, but he may have been the first to formalize it.{{5}} Scientists and philosophers of the ancient world openly referenced Aristotle for over 600 years after his 322 B.C. death.

As stated, however, many in the medieval Catholic Church suppressed his legendary status. Take his celebrated work, the Categories. In it, Aristotle posits that all things in the universe, in order to be understood, must stand up to ten examinations—that of its substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, posture/attitude, state, action, and affection. Before the Middle Ages, Aristotle’s Categories were commonly referenced in all things scientific and dialectic. But with the medieval subdual of Aristotelianism, the Categories faced castigation. Anastasius of Sinai, a prominent seventh century abbot, eviscerated the work, saying the ten horns of the dragon from Revelation 12:3 represented Aristotle’s ten categories, which Anastasius deemed as ten heresies. As late as 1210, with the Church’s “Condemnations” of that year, Aristotle’s works were anathema to most Western Christians.

Meanwhile, throughout the West’s “Dark Ages”—the term given to the dreariest period of the Middle Ages, up through about 1,000—the Byzantine Empire and Muslim world cherished Aristotle.{{6}} Byzantine and Arab scholars preserved Aristotle’s works, which is due in no small part to the regions’ earlier conquests by Aristotle’s warrior-student, Alexander the Great.{{7}} When Alexander conquered from Greece to Egypt to the Himalayas, the residual Hellenistic culture left in his wake led to the spread of Aristotle’s works across north Africa and southwest Asia. There, Aristotle’s works never had to deal with central papal authority attempting to control the whole of Christendom.

[pullquote_left]In the Late Middle Ages, Christian theologians (most prominently Thomas Aquinas) used Aristotelianism to further their  teachings.[/pullquote_left]

The return of Aristotle to the Western world can be attributed to one of Catholicism’s most ignominious blunders—the Crusades. After a triumphant, if sadistic, initial showing against the Muslims in the Holy Land in 1099, each successive Crusade—one doesn’t have enough fingers to count them—were one embarrassment after another, many of them not even fighting Muslims. But the Westerners that did go to the Middle East—which included journeys through Byzantium—returned with goods and manuscripts not seen since the full Roman Empire dominated Mediterranean trade. The Fourth Crusade of the early 1200s hastened the downfall of Byzantium itself, which allowed Italian traders to usurp the role of principal European trader from their Byzantine rivals. More cultural diffusion—almost always east to west—followed.

What ensued became known as the “Recovery of Aristotle.” The Late Middle Ages re-embraced the lost philosopher, with Christian theologians—the most prominent of whom was Thomas Aquinas—using Aristotelianism to further their Christian teachings, a merging known as scholasticism. Aquinas and other scholastics could justify their adoption of Aristotelianism because, unlike this column may have led you to believe, Aristotle was not an atheist. Far from it, Aristotle insisted that there must be an “Unmoved First Mover” whose catalyzing presence allowed all other things in the universe to exist and change.{{8}} Aquinas felt that the path to strengthening Christianity lay not with the need to challenge and debunk Aristotle, but to welcome him and use his logic to promote and reinforce Christianity. In his hallmark “Summa Theologica,” Aquinas sets out, among other goals, to prove the existence of God through Aristotelianism and does so in five ways (quinque viae).

With the approval of Aristotle from Aquinas and, later, the rest of the Catholic Church, Aristotelianism thundered back into the Western world. So, too, did Classical writings and Greco-Roman ideas of all kinds. Meanwhile, new universities across Europe—like Salamanca, Paris, and Oxford—developed as places of higher learning. Moreover, thanks to the influx of foreign goods, the rise of merchants and businesses distracted Europeans from their narrow focus on the afterlife. Soon, humanists furthered individualism by claiming that man was a potent, beautiful creature capable of great things. For these and many other reasons, the Church steadily lost its grip on education and society as the Middle Ages crumbled around them.

[pullquote_right]With the return of the scientific method, Aristotelianism was back and back for good.[/pullquote_right]

Understandably, the evolution of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and modern world was met with stiff resistance from traditionalists. Clerics had to deal with the rise of secular leaders (who steadily siphoned local power from the Church), nationalism (which usurped the allegiance of people from their religion), exploration (whose discoveries of people who had never even heard of Christianity cast doubt on Christian reach), Protestantism (which had the audacity to proclaim there were other interpretations of Christianity besides the pope’s), and, perhaps worst of all, the full-fledged comeback of science with the Scientific Revolution, when Andreas Vesalius, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and so many more pursued knowledge having nothing to do with Christianity. With the return of the scientific method, Aristotelianism was back and back for good. The Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and technological age of the twentieth and twenty-first were born from observation, measuring, testing, and testing again.

In closing, it should be noted that Aristotle ultimately turned out to be wrong about many things.{{9}} Whereas Socrates’s questions can always be asked and Plato’s unearthly philosophy never disproven, Aristotle wrote about everything around him and made the best guesses he could with the limited evidence he had. Inevitably, with the improvement of instrumentation and the accumulation of experience, many of his best guesses have been trumped.

But that doesn’t mean he’s unimportant. Quite the contrary, his contributions to dozens of fields of study furthered the West’s knowledge of all of them. His “guesses” became the foundation of Western science. Cracks always emerge in foundations over time, but it’s with his method that we could later fill those cracks with new cements of knowledge.

Ultimately, it’s Aristotle, not Plato, who has emerged as the West’s dominant philosopher, but we are so much more than science, are we not? We cannot separate our Platonic roots from Western history, even if it’s Aristotelianism that has blossomed over the last few centuries. As a people, we look for answers in all sorts of places. Take another look at the art hanging over this column. The detail is the center of Raphael’s “School of Athens.” Located in the middle of all the great Greeks of the ancient world—Socrates, Epicurus, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Plotinus, Euclid, Ptolemy, and others—are the most important Greeks of all: Plato and Aristotle. Now, look at their hands. Plato points to the heavens, where the root of all knowledge is stored. Aristotle references the material world, which must be studied and categorized in our quest for understanding.

For better or worse, the West still looks to both. The tug of war continues. Plato and Aristotle, often incompatible yet still inseparable, are tied as the West’s 30th most influential person of its history.

[[1]]Apologies in advance about this month’s inevitably lengthy column. It’ll be the only time I’m covering two figures, so don’t let the size of the piece turn you off from future installments![[1]]

[[2]]For example, I’m Aristotelian and my wife is Platonic. How will we raise the children, you ask? We’ll compromise, of course. (They’ll be Platonic.)[[2]]

[[3]]His Wikipedia page lists 11 things under his “Main Interests,” which I think is a record. (Until I make my own page.) His body of work—corpus Aristotelicum—is quite the list to behold. The rudimentary titles—History of Animals, Mechanics, Metaphysics, Meteorology, On Plants, On the Universe, Physics, Poetics, Politics, Rhetoric, and 37 more—are a reminder that he is among the earliest to standardize our most basic fields. Only 47 of these works survived; he’s believed to have written over 120 more. Living British philosopher Bryan Magee, in his “The Story of Philosophy,” perhaps put it best when said, “it is doubtful whether any human being has ever known as much as he did.”[[3]]


[[5]]It should be noted that his championing of inductive reasoning did not mean he dismissed the deductive reasoning of his teacher. Quite the contrary, as stated in his Posterior Analytics, he felt that deductive logic was helpful in discerning universal truths, to whatever extent they could be known. Many of the ancient Greeks embraced this approach, the most famous manifestations of which are their beloved syllogisms.[[5]]

[[6]]The Byzantine Empire—a.k.a. the Eastern Roman Empire—was what was left of the larger Roman Empire upon the collapse of the western half in A.D. 476. The term “Byzantine” stems from Constantinople’s original name—Byzantium. It was renamed after Emperor Constantine moved the Roman capital there in 330 and humbly named it after himself. (The reason for the move will be discussed in a later entry.) Ruling from Constantinople, the Eastern emperors claimed supremacy over the whole of the Empire dating back to that migration. Consequently, when the western half collapsed to the Germanic invasions in the fifth century, the Roman Empire survived despite no longer controlling Rome itself, and the people in it considered themselves as “Roman” as any other territory of the empire. In fact, the term “Byzantine Empire” wasn’t used until well after its 1453 fall to the Ottoman Turks, when scholars wanted to differentiate the western “Romans” with the eastern “Byzantines.”[[6]]

[[7]]Alexander ends our famous teacher-student run. Socrates taught Plato who taught Aristotle who taught Alexander the Great. Or, as my freshmen remember them, “Spaa.”[[7]]

[[8]]His theory is similar to the deistic values of the Enlightenment in that such a Mover (or, to many deists, a “clockmaker”) must have set the universe in motion, but dissimilar in that Aristotle, like his teacher Plato, cites the Mover as the indivisible source of all things Good.[[8]]

[[9]]Aristotle’s erroneousness arguably slowed the West’s scientific advancement as much as the Church did. In ancient and medieval scientific circles, to doubt the great Aristotle’s findings was nearly as controversial as a cleric doubting the papacy. Aristotle would have bristled at being such a hindrance.[[9]]