Aristotle at 2400
Return of the all-rounder
Aristotle is one of the most famous of all philosophers and best known to a wider public as Alexander the Great’s tutor. LMU philosopher Christof Rapp and classical scholar Oliver Primavesi explain why his work is still worth reading.
The British philosopher Alfred Whitehead famously defined the European tradition of philosophy as “a series of footnotes to Plato”. Why then should anyone today be interested in Aristotle?
Primavesi: Aristotle was one of Plato’s students, but his own thinking developed into a profound critique of his teacher’s philosophy, and his response to Plato led him to formulate standpoints that are far more robust and modern than the positions taken by his predecessor. Here are just two examples. First, logic. In order to be accepted as logical, conclusions must be shown to follow from the assumptions made at the outset of the argument. But a conclusive argument is not enough to establish that the propositions on which it is based are actually true. Aristotle, not Plato, was the first to make this crucial distinction. Second, biology: Both thinkers agree that we can only have reliable knowledge of things that are stable. An object that is in constant flux cannot be conclusively defined. For Plato, the source of this stability lies in his concept of unchanging, ideal forms, of which the empirical entities that we perceive are but imperfect reflections. Aristotle rejected this notion, and replaced Plato’s static ‘essences’ with the organic forms of the living world. That’s why Aristotle was the founder of biology.
Rapp: I would add a third example: In Plato’s view, all knowledge was subsumed into a single system, and could be comprehended on the basis of a single philosophical principle which was accessible to discovery. Aristotle invented the idea of reality as a set of diverse systems of knowledge, each based on its own underlying principles and standards of rationality. And he contended that each of these fields must be studied and understood on its own terms, even though standards of proof and precision in certain areas – such as politics or ethics – are less rigorous than those that are valid in geometry, for instance.
Aristotle developed his political philosophy from the Greek city-state or polis, a small-scale collective made up of free male citizens, in which women, slaves and children had no active part. That is very remote from modern notions of democracy. So what can Aristotle teach us about the political sphere?
Rapp: The sort of polis on which his political thought was based did not survive for long beyond his own lifetime. And the aspects of his theory that we find objectionable today, such as the fact that women have no say in politics, or the existence of slavery – reflect the prevailing conditions of his time and were accepted without question by many of his fellow-philosophers. For Aristotle, democracy was a disorderly form of government because it promoted the welfare of the poor at the expense of the affluent. But he also developed a positive concept of the rule of people – a constitutional government dedicated to the welfare of all – and in this context he came up with some interesting ideas. For example, he argued that the exclusion of a substantial fraction of citizens from participation in politics endangers the community’s long-term stability.
Primavesi: The radical form of Greek democracy proved to be unstable – precisely because it espoused the principle of participation – and eventually led to the downfall of Athens. Its insistence on equal rights for all freemen went so far that political offices were assigned by lot, and the obviously superior abilities of certain individuals counted for nothing. This was the core of the problem – and Plato’s solution was the equally radical anti-democratic model outlined in his Politeia. Faced with a radical democracy that was prone to implosion on the one hand, and Plato’s politeia on the other, Aristotle develops several more balanced models and probes their stability. I find this approach very interesting, at a time when we are no longer as confident as we were 20 or 30 years ago that the Western model of multi-party democracy is the ideal solution.
Rapp: One solution he favors is his mixed constitution and the idea of a proto-middle class. This preference is based not on any moral assessment, but on purely pragmatic grounds: In Aristotle’s view, a state of political upheaval and lawlessness is the worst of all worlds, and radical democracies frequently turn into tyranny.
Can a student of logic still profit from Aristotle? Or is reading him a waste of time?
Primavesi: The idea that Aristotle’s thought might be outmoded certainly doesn’t apply to his contributions to logic. His work on logic explains why so many of Aristotle’s writings are still being discussed as if he were our contemporary, and it has always been at the root of the successive revivals of his thought and its repeated incorporation into the contemporary philosophy of the time.
Rapp: Exactly! It is perfectly possible to acknowledge the enormous strides that have been made in formal logic since the days of Frege and Russell without having to dismiss Aristotle’s own contributions to the field. After all, he was the first to develop a complete system of formal logic that could be written on a few pages. There are even some modern protagonists of argumentation theory who remain unconvinced that the kind of formal logic that is taught in philosophy departments nowadays does provide a good basis for effective argumentation – and therefore invoke his Topica against his Syllogistics.
Ever since the Enlightenment, culminating in Kant’s ethics of duty, Aristotle’s ethics of virtue has been largely discredited. How do you account for the recent reawakening of interest in Aristotle’s moral philosophy?
Primavesi: Attempts to base ethical systems on the idea of duty became suspect over the course of the 20th century. In that sense, this revival represents a contingent or incidental resuscitation of Aristotelian ethics. But here too, the contrast with Plato is of great interest. Plato constructs a highly intellectualist kind of ethics, which leaves no room for maneuver between right knowledge and right action. The attractiveness, flexibility and adaptability of Aristotelian ethics lie in his categorical distinction between so-called rational virtues and ethical virtues. Rational virtues are based on understanding and can be taught, while the conquest of desire by the irrational virtues is a matter of acclimatization or inurement. This distinction turns out to provide a much more realistic approach to ethics than assigning every decision to the realm of rational knowledge.
Rapp: Other reasons for the return of Aristotelian ethics lie within philosophy itself: Current models of ethics – such as consequentialism or the ethics of duty – do not provide convincing answers to the question of what a person gains from acting in a morally responsible fashion. Thus, current ethics is sometimes thought to be overly demanding. Both the ethics of duty and consequentialist ethics also tend to avoid the questions that were at the origin of all ethics in Antiquity: ‘How should one live? What does a happy life consist in?’ The answer given by Aristotle and most other ancient philosophers was: ‘In the exercise of virtue.’ This response avoids any fundamental strain between the virtuous action and the nature of the payoff. In my opinion, modern philosophy has a tendency to – quite deliberately – treat the classical notion of virtue as implausible and rather silly.
Aristotle’s work not only had a profound impact on Western thought. It also influenced Eastern philosophy. Can Aristotle perhaps serve as a bridge between starkly contrasting views of modernity?
Primavesi: In the 12th century, Islamic philosophers had a far better understanding of Aristotle than any of their contemporaries in the West, and the great Christian commentators on Aristotle – in particular, Thomas Aquinas – drew heavily on the writings of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and then went on to roundly criticize him. The question is whether this relationship can be interpreted as a paradigm for an East-West dialog or divan. I have my doubts, for Ibn Rushd was very much of an outlier in the Arabic world. He did formulate a fatwa in which he stated that unfettered philosophical reflection can be justified on the basis of the Koran. But it didn’t do him any good. He was forced to leave Al-Andalus and went into exile in Morocco. The West profited from the superior civilization of the Arabs in his day, but the element of give-and-take was already under attack in Ibn Rushd’s lifetime.
Prof. Dr. Oliver Primavesi (Chair of Greek Philology I at LMU). Prof. Primavesi’s research is primarily concerned with the work of the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles of Agrigentum and with the critical analysis of the texts of Aristotle. He has also published studies on Aristotelian dialectics.
Prof. Dr. Christof Rapp’s research interests center on Classical Philosophy and its relationships to modern debates in the fields of epistemology, ethics, the philosophy of action, the philosophy of mind, as well as argumentation and rhetoric. He currently holds the office of Director of the Center for Advanced Studies at LMU.