Monday, May 31, 2010

The Length and Breadth of Aristotle

It doesn’t take long, once one examines the works of Aristotle, to appreciate the accomplishments of this great ancient philosopher and scientist. I call him a tertiary thinker – taking human thought to the highest levels and building a world view around its components.

Perhaps the best way to impress you is through a simple listing of his works and subject areas. I have placed relevant quotes under some of the sections and noted the quote's relationship to modern thinking where appropriate.

Logic (Organon)

Categories – enumeration of things that can be the subject or predicate of a proposition
On Interpretation – describes the relationship between language and logic
Prior Analytics – inferences and how they are used in syllogisms.
Posterior Analytics – describes deductive reasoning
Topics – treatise on the art of the dialectic
Sophistical Refutations – discussion of thirteen logical fallacies

Physics (the study of nature) – discusses the principle causes of change, movement, and motion

“Why then should it not be the same with the parts in nature, e.g. that our teeth should come up of necessity-the front teeth sharp, fitted for tearing, the molars broad and useful for grinding down the food-since they did not arise for this end, but it was merely a coincident result; and so with all other parts in which we suppose that there is purpose? Wherever then all the parts came about just what they would have been if they had come be for an end, such things survived, being organized spontaneously in a fitting way; whereas those which grew otherwise perished and continue to perish, as Empedocles says his 'man-faced ox-progeny' did.” (Darwin’s evolution and natural selection)

“Further, no one could say why a thing once set in motion should stop anywhere; for why should it stop here rather than here? So that a thing will either be at rest or must be moved ad infinitum, unless something more powerful get in its way.” (Newton’s first law of motion)

On the Heavens – behavior of heavenly bodies

“There are similar disputes about the shape of the earth. Some think it is spherical, others that it is flat and drum-shaped. For evidence they bring the fact that, as the sun rises and sets, the part concealed by the earth shows a straight and not a curved edge, whereas if the earth were spherical the line of section would have to be circular. In this they leave out of account the great distance of the sun from the earth and the great size of the circumference, which, seen from a distance on these apparently small circles appears straight.

“Also, those mathematicians who try to calculate the size of the earth's circumference arrive at the figure 400,000 stades (45,000 miles). This indicates not only that the earth's mass is spherical in shape, but also that as compared with the stars it is not of great size.”

“That the heaven as a whole neither came into being nor admits of destruction, as some assert, but is one and eternal, with no end or beginning of its total duration, containing and embracing in itself the infinity of time, we may convince ourselves not only by the arguments already set forth but also by a consideration of the views of those who differ from us in providing for its generation.”

“Secondly, like the upward movement of fire, the downward movement of earth and all heavy things makes equal angles on every side with the earth's surface: it must therefore be directed towards the centre. Whether it is really the centre of the earth and not rather that of the whole to which it moves, may be left to another inquiry, since these are coincident.” (Gravitation)

On Generation and Corruption – do things come from causes, prime material, or alteration?

On the Soul – the kinds of souls possessed by living things. This does not mean soul in the religious sense but the character of the mind (ego?).

Little Physical Treatises

On Memory and Reminiscence
On Dreams
On Prophesying by Dreams

The History of Animals – zoology and natural history

The Parts of Animals – the character of natural science and a defense of the study of animal structure.

On the Generation of Animals – Sexual reproduction in animals and plants

Metaphysics (above physics) – what can be asserted about anything that exists apart from its qualities. Causation, form and matter, and God.

“Now all causes must be eternal, but especially these; for they are the causes that operate on so much of the divine as appears to us. There must, then, be three theoretical philosophies, mathematics, physics, and what we may call theology (or metaphysics), since it is obvious that if the divine is present anywhere, it is present in things of this sort. And the highest science must deal with the highest genus. Thus, while the theoretical sciences are more to be desired than the other sciences, this is more to be desired than the other theoretical sciences.”

Ethics – moral problems as related to political circumstances
Politics – things concerning the Polis, origin and structure of the state

Rhetoric – the art of persuasion
Poetics – treatise on drama as an art form

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Aristotle and Democracy

Aristotle in his Politics lays out a thorough discussion of the various forms of government – monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. His focus is the character of men and their ability to govern rather than identifying the best political system.

In Book 2, he is harshly critical of Plato and his Republic. Plato envisioned a communist society where all citizens are alike. To Aristotle this is impossible because the differentiation of functions is a law of nature. Moreover, the abolition of property will produce dissention and not harmony. As Aristotle pointed out, the advantages expected from the communism of property would be better secured if private property were used in a liberal spirit to relieve the wants of others. Private property makes men happier and enables them to cultivate generosity.

In Book 3, Aristotle tackles the aims of the state and how they are represented in the various governmental models.

“A constitution is the arrangement of magistracies in a state, especially of the highest of all. The government is everywhere sovereign in the state, and the constitution is in fact the government. For example, in democracies the people are supreme, but in oligarchies, the few; and, therefore, we say that these two forms of government also are different: and so in other cases.”

No matter what the form of government, knowledge of its true forms is essential to be able to understand its perversions.

“The true forms of government, therefore, are those in which the one, or the few, or the many, govern with a view to the common interest; but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one or of the few, or of the many, are perversions.”

It’s not a great leap to see how this statement applies to the United States today, where the Congress and the people have gravitated to their own parochial interests and away from the common good.

The common good made the Polis successful. When it was ignored, the Golden Age came to an end.

Aristotle goes on (Book 3 Chapter 7) to describe the perversion of Democracy as the needy. What does he mean by this? When Democracy becomes extreme and the numerous poor control the state, they will not be good rulers because they do not have the skill. Better to limit their function to a deliberative one, such as participation in the courts.

“Our conclusion, then, is that political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere companionship. Hence they who contribute most to such a society have a greater share in it than those who have the same or a greater freedom or nobility of birth but are inferior to them in political virtue; or than those who exceed them in wealth but are surpassed by them in virtue.”

This means that a successful political system must employ those possessing the greatest skill in its most important roles. But skill in itself is not enough, because power must be used for good.

“There is also a doubt as to what is to be the supreme power in the state: Is it the multitude, or the wealthy, or the good, or the one best man, or a tyrant? Any of these alternatives seems to involve disagreeable consequences.

If the poor, for example, because they are more in number, divide among themselves the property of the rich- is not this unjust? No, by heaven (will be the reply), for the supreme authority justly willed it. But if this is not injustice, pray what is? Again, when in the first division all has been taken, and the majority divide anew the property of the minority, is it not evident, if this goes on, that they will ruin the state? Yet surely, virtue is not the ruin of those who possess her, nor is justice destructive of a state; and therefore this law of confiscation clearly cannot be just. If it were, all the acts of a tyrant must of necessity be just; for he only coerces other men by superior power, just as the multitude coerce the rich. But is it just then that the few and the wealthy should be the rulers? And what if they, in like manner, rob and plunder the people- is this just? If so, the other case will likewise be just. But there can be no doubt that all these things are wrong and unjust.”

Doesn’t this property confiscation example sound amazingly similar to the Progressive agenda before us today in the United States – the leveling of wealth the current administration seeks? We must take care that social agendas do not break down our society for the wrong reasons. After all, human beings behave in ways that cannot be re-programmed into some kind of utopian construct.

Monday, May 24, 2010


I have written extensively about the Athenian Polis and its accomplishments -- the revolutionary political system which gave power to the people, and the intellectual successes which have profoundly influenced Western thought for 2,500 years. Though the number of great Athenian thinkers is large, two stand out -- the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. How different they were: idealist and practical thinker, external ideal versus internal essence, patron of Augustine and patron of Aquinas.

During my review of the Sophists, I became focused on Aristotle because of his book on rhetoric. I wanted to see whether he was as critical of them as Plato and whether he saw rhetoric as a positive development in the communication between men. Unfortunately, you can’t bite off little pieces of Aristotle, so I became immersed, and moved beyond rhetoric to other subjects. It will take a few posts to say all that should be said about Aristotle.

His dates are 384 B.C. to 322 B.C, and he began life in Stagira on the peninsula of Chalcidice. His father was a physician serving as the court doctor for the King of Macedon. The son had probably begun training as a physician when he was sent to Athens and became a pupil in Plato’s Academy. Aristotle stayed there for some twenty years until Plato’s death in 347 B.C. Then, after studying biology for five years in Asia Minor, he began to tutor the future Alexander the Great. Aristotle mentored Alexander until the death of Alexander’s father Philip in 335 B.C., He then returned to Athens, and founded the Lyceum, an academy for scientific research.

Aristotle’s reputation has waxed and waned over the centuries through no fault of his own. The first books to be translated into Latin were Categories and On Interpretation by Boethius in the sixth century. They were ignored until the other books were translated in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Embraced by Aquinas, Aristotle suffered during the renaissance for that association. Later, his physics was debunked by Newton and the picture of discredit was made complete. Still, Aristotle’s reputation was revived a hundred years ago when new editions and translations stimulated scholars to look under the covers.

Today, we recognize Aristotle as the first scientist – a man who took the contemplation of man’s place in the world to a new level. How many of his contemporaries knew what he had accomplished?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Athenians – Disrespected until 1830

One assumes that when the true history of antiquity became widely known during the enlightenment, popular opinion of the ancient political systems was equal to that held today. This is not so. In those days, Sparta was seen as the model political system – structured, authoritarian, and efficient. Democracies, like Athens, were seen as idealistic examples of excess power given to the common people.

According to Paul Cartledge, the noted historian, the English writer Edward Bulwer Lytton was the first to proclaim the virtues of the Athenian society and its contribution to the founding of modern democracies. Lytton was a prolific writer, having penned such popular novels as The Last Days of Pompeii. He also wrote Athens, Its Rise and Fall, completed in 1837, but not published until after his death.

Lytton wrote,

“This principle settled, it may perhaps be generally conceded, that on comparing the democracies of Greece with all other contemporary forms of government, we find them the most favorable to mental cultivation—not more exposed than others to internal revolutions—usually, in fact, more durable,—more mild and civilized in their laws—and that the worst tyranny of the Demus, whether at home or abroad, never equaled that of an oligarchy or a single ruler. That in which the ancient republics are properly models to us, consists not in the form, but the spirit of their legislation. They teach us that patriotism is most promoted by bringing all classes into public and constant intercourse—that intellect is most luxuriant wherever the competition is widest and most unfettered—and that legislators can create no rewards and invent no penalties equal to those which are silently engendered by society itself—while it maintains, elaborated into a system, the desire of glory and the dread of shame.”

Since Lytton’s time, the stock of the Athenians of the Golden Age has risen – helped along by the stain on Sparta caused by its association with failed the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. The Athenians, today, bask in the glory of association with the great modern democracies of the United States and Europe: their incredible intellect and concept of freedom standing as a beacon for mankind to evolve his political systems.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

More Sophistry

We find the Sophists interesting and want to continue our discussion about them.

Protagoras of Abdera (490-420 B.C.) wrote many books including, The Art of Controversy, On Wrestling, On What is in Hades, and On the Misdeeds of Men.
He was a pupil of Democritus, the atomist, and his father, a wealthy Thracian, was a friend of the Persian King Xerxes. Xerxes granted the young Protagoras instruction from the King’s priestly cult, the Magoi.

The Magoi communed with the gods in secret and in public denied any belief in the Divine. Later, when Protagoras stated that he was perplexed about whether or not the gods existed, he was ostracized and his books were burned.

He said, “Concerning the gods, I am not in a position to know whether or not they exist, or they do not exist; for there are many obstacles in the way of such knowledge, notably the intrinsic obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.”

Protagoras had a close personal relationship with Pericles, as demonstrated by the following story. A pentathlete, accidently struck Epitimus with a javelin and killed him. When Pericles heard about this he spent an entire day with Protagoras debating whether the javelin, the thrower, or the officials who organized the contest were to blame for the accident.

Protagoras said that man is the measure of all things. That is what is perceived to be the case by one man really is the case for him. By this definition, that which is must also be not, or is at the same time both good and bad, based on the perception of the viewer.

Being, for things that are, consists of their being perceived. “It is clear to you, being present, that I am sitting. To one who is not present, however, it is not clear that I am sitting. Therefore it is unclear whether I am sitting or not sitting.”

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Sophists

Societies evolve and change over time. Whether the causes are economic, driven by war, or merely fallout of an evolving political system, the results are the same. New generations have new outlooks and seldom embrace tradition.

So it was in Athens during the middle of the Golden Age, when the Sophists began their rise to prominence. Athens, during that time, had grown more man-centered, not unlike the Renaissance two thousand years later, when traditional views were called into question. The Greeks decided they wanted to rule themselves instead of being ruled by the unseen world of myth.

Wealthy men sought better academic training for their sons and began to look about for professional educators. In the Sophists they found a way to supplement traditional elementary education with the knowledge required to become an influential citizen. “Sophist” originally meant a person who makes it his business to be wise, but later the word was used to designate a class of men who sold wisdom for pay.

The Sophists helped create new currents in intellectual thought – some of which made a permanent mark on human society. What follows is a discussion of these ideas, all of which have had an impact on human history, the concept of political systems, and the relationship of man to his world.

Idea number 1 -- Those who sought teachers for their sons wanted them to develop the skill to gain the voluntary support of other men. What a profound step this was to overcome “might makes right” with logic in a way that would put man on a path to rational behavior. We owe the stable political systems of today to this concept, and, even though men fall back to the use of force from time to time, the world as a whole has accepted the legitimacy of a government based on wisdom instead of force.

The Sophists built a system of higher education in Athens around a concept of Greek culture different from the culture of non-Greeks. There was a sense of pride on the accomplishments of Athens and the power of the new Athenian Empire. Maybe this was overdone and more hubris than pride, but it was a natural result of the position Athens held at the time.

The first well known Sophist was Gorgias (c. 473-386 B.C.) of Sicily, who brought rhetoric to Athens. He traveled throughout Greece, giving speeches for pay, taking impromptu questions from audiences, and answering them. He was particularly fond of taking an absurd position and making it seem stronger than its rational opposite. Gorgias introduced the concept of paradoxical arguments.

Idea number 2 – The Sophists disconnected rhetoric from ethics to the horror of the traditionalists who saw rhetoric only as a technique to support proof of the ideal. This “disconnection” made rhetoric the most valuable tool for debate – fortifying a position with logic instead of arguing its innate rightness or wrongness.

Protagoras (c. 490-420 B.C.), another of the great Sophists, wrote an essay on the Gods where he questioned their very existence. He labeled man as “the measure of all things”. This idea was revolutionary because the traditional view had been that the universe was an objective entity external to man. Similarly, Antiphon (dates unknown), stressed the difference between the laws of men and the laws of nature. He instructed his pupils to “develop their own nature”.

Idea number 3 – These Sophist positions made relativism fashionable. If a man could create his own nature as an individual, then that nature would be different from someone else’s nature and relative to it. Relativism is the subject of much debate today, as a part of the post-modernist milieu. Post-modernists deny universals while their opponents, including the Christian Church, argue for a unity of the spirit.

These ideas are samples of the revolutionary thinking of the Sophists. Unfortunately, their tone became darker during the Peloponnesean War as they shared the starvation and suffering of the Athenian people. Ultimately, their questioning of traditional Athenian values helped undermine the strength of the Polis and push it into decline.