13 February 2011

Aristotle: Some Thoughts

The combination of Aristotle’s ethics with those of Christianity is a very awkward fit. Aristotle’s ethics was all about becoming the “great-souled man.” His audience consisted of those who had the necessary preconditions for his description of the great-souled: free born, for example, and at least comfortable in material things – enough so that crass matters of trade would not concern them. If this is so for you, then you can concern yourself with the greatness of your soul in Aristotle’s sense.

“He [the great-souled man] is one who will possess beautiful and profitless things rather than profitable and useful ones,” says Aristotle.

(By the way, in the translation of the relevant passage to which I just linked you, W.D. Ross uses the adjective "proud" where a more literal translation would be "great-souled," and a flat-footed transliteration would be "magnanimous." I know no Greek myself, ancient or modern -- but these alternative renderings of the word are easy enough to find in the literature, even when directed at a popular audience. Bertrand Russell explains, in a footnote to his famous "History of Western Philosophy," that neither "magnanimous" nor "proud" quite captures Aristotle's meaning.)

Well, proud buddy, some of us need those profitable and useful things. In the way that the first disciples of Jesus needed, say, a fishing vessel and a net. These weren’t luxuries. They weren’t beautiful in the luxury-goods sense Aristotle had in mind. So the first disciples of Jesus were not even in Aristotle's chosen audience.

A little later, still describing his protagonist, Ari writes that he will walk in slow steps, with “a deep voice and a level utterance; for the man who takes few things seriously is not likely to be hurried, nor the man who thinks nothing great to be excited, while a shrill voice and a rapid gait are the results of hurry and excitement.”

One wonders how this guy ever got his admission ticket to the Great Philosophers’ Club?

It doesn't seem to me that this guy ended up with a good referential morality for anything but the ruling elite, those who never had to adopt a rapid gait because someone else was doing all the work for them.

Indeed, although Aristotle is sometimes used as a figure of contrast to Plato, the contrast is not really as marked as often thought. Consider politics. Plato famously devised a three-class theory of the City (aka the State). At the top are the rulers, who should also be philosophers. In the middle are administrators and the military, whose guiding virtue must be bravery, and at the bottom are slaves and working free people who must actually ... you know ... do productive stuff. Their passions are dangerous so their guiding virtue must be obediance. Consider Dorothy's three friends on the way to the Emerald City, and you have the gist of this class structure. But Dorothy, with good Kansas/American sentiments, played no favorites among them. (And doesn't she say, in the balloon-launch scene, that she loved the Tinman best? An inversion of Platonism, then.)

Anyway, it seems to me that Aristotle adopted his teacher's politics without much change, except that he shrunk its geographical scale from the city to the estate. Consider a working estate in the countryside outside of Athens. There is the magnanimous man who owns the place, and who is a philosopher who has studied Aristotle and knows that he should walk slowly and buy beautiful trinkets for his home. He is top dog. Beneath him are his wife and children, and perhaps a hired estate manager, who must administer the place on his behalf. Because he's too wrapped up in magnaminity to do such things himself. Beneath them are the manual laborers, whether freeborn or chattel, and beneath them the beasts of the field.

This has nothing to do with Christianity, which was preached first to shepherds tending their beasts in the field. I don't imagine those shepherds had a lot of beautiful and useless things.

That some bright medieval thinkers managed to baptize Aristotle was a striking accident of history, a project that was also one of the borrowings of the west from the Muslim world of that time, but I can not accept what seems to be the presumption on the part of many Christians even today that it was a fortunate move.


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