#30, Part II: Aristotle

(To read Part I on Plato, click here.)

In 1511, the Renaissance artist Raphael completed his masterpiece, “The School of Athens.” Shown above, graced by some respectfully unobtrusive Microsoft Paint graffiti, it imagines all the great ancient Greeks living at the same time and hanging out in one room. We see Socrates, Archimedes, Epicurus, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Euclid, Ptolemy, and many more. Two, however, take center stage: Plato and Aristotle. Raphael considered them the most important Greeks of all. So does this ranking. The pair tie as the 30th most influential figures in Western history.

Yesterday was my entry on Plato. Today, his student.

Historian E.H. Gombrich writes that Aristotle was “the teacher of mankind for 2,000 years. . . . 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 during the Middle Ages. Gombrich’s generalization works, however, 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 most of the Middle Ages up to the 1300s, few dared stand up to the nearly omnipotent papacy. Heretics were burned at the stake. Princes were brought to their knees. Emperors 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. The world and universe worked according to His will and whim. To doubt any of these presumptions was heretical and punishable by excommunication and even 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 ultimately broke with Plato’s ideology.[1] By doing so, he 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 education, ethics, history, logic, metaphysics, philosophy, physiology, poetry, politics, rhetoric, society, and the sciences (including anatomy, astronomy, biology, geology, meteorology, physics, and zoology); he was considered a foremost expert in those areas. While he didn’t invent any of those fields, one could certainly argue that he was the first to standardize them.[2]

Aristotle’s guiding philosophical principle was that the universe was not governed by magic or divine intervention. Rather, it’s natural law that governs 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 — observe, measure, experiment, formulate hypotheses, test them, and then test them again. Only then do you truly know something.[3] Aristotle wasn’t the first to try this empirical approach, but he may have been the first to formalize it.[4] Scientists and philosophers of the ancient world openly referenced Aristotle for centuries after his 322 B.C. death.

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 referred to in all things scientific and dialectic. But with the medieval subdual of Aristotelianism, the Categories faced castigation, for God could not be measured by those examinations, yet He very much existed. 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.[5]

In contrast to western Europe, throughout the West’s “Dark Ages” — the term given to the dreariest period of the Middle Ages, up through about AD 1000 — the Byzantine Empire and Muslim world cherished Aristotle. 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.[6] 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 withstand clerical scrutiny.

The eventual return of Aristotle to the Western world can be partially attributed to one of the Church’s most ignominious moments — the Crusades. Starting in the late eleventh century, Western Catholics launched a series of raids into the Muslim-occupied Holy Land. After a triumphant, if sadistic, initial showing, each successive Crusade — one doesn’t have enough fingers to count them — was one embarrassment after another. The Westerners that traveled to the Middle East — which included journeys through Byzantium — returned with goods, ideas, and manuscripts not seen since the ancient world. The Fourth Crusade of the early 1200s hastened the downfall of Byzantium itself, which allowed Italian merchants to usurp the role of principal European traders. What naturally followed was a steady stream of cultural diffusion, mostly from east to west.

The ensuing “Recovery of Aristotle” revolutionized the Western zeitgeist. The Late Middle Ages re-embraced the lost philosopher. Even Christian theologians — most prominently Thomas Aquinas — used Aristotelianism to further their Christian teachings, a merging known as scholasticism. Aquinas saw that Aristotle should be accepted by Christians. Aristotle was by no means an atheist. He had insisted that there must be an “Unmoved First Mover” whose catalyzing presence allowed all other things in the universe to exist and change.[7] Aquinas felt that the path to strengthening Christianity lay not with fearing and debunking Aristotle, but welcoming him and using his logic to promote and reinforce Christianity. In his hallmark “Summa Theologica,” Aquinas sets out to prove the existence of God through Aristotelianism, and in his quinque viae — five ways — he claims to have done so.

With the approval of Aristotle from Aquinas and, consequently, 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 — Salamanca, ParisOxford, and more — developed as places of higher learning. Soon, a new wave of Classically-inspired thinkers promoted humanism and individuality. The Middle Ages crumbled around an overwhelmed Church.

Predictably, the evolution of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and modern world was met with stiff resistance from traditionalists. In the course of about a century, the papacy 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), and Protestantism (which had the audacity to proclaim there were other interpretations of Christianity besides the pope’s). Perhaps worst of all, science roared back into the Western world and a weakened Church couldn’t stop it. The Scientific Revolution had begun; prominent Western scientists (including a few who will make their way onto this ranking) pursued knowledge having nothing to do with Christianity. Instead, the scientific method guided them.

Aristotelianism was back, and it’s been here ever since.

It should be noted that Aristotle ultimately turned out to be wrong about many things.[8] Whereas Socrates’s questions can always be asked and Plato’s unearthly philosophy never contradicted, 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 fallen short.

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 them. More importantly, his approach to science stood the test of time. Even his “guesses” became the foundation of Western science. Cracks emerge in foundations over time, but it’s with his method that we could later plaster over those cracks with new knowledge.

As #30 draws to a close, it must feel like Aristotle has separated himself from Plato as ancient Greece’s superior ambassador to our modern world, and therefore to have them tied in this ranking makes little sense. But we are so much more than science, aren’t we? 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 Raphael’s “School of Athens,” with Plato and Aristotle centered. (Here’s a high resolution image where you can zoom in.) Now, look at their hands. Plato points to the heavens, the source of all knowledge. Aristotle’s hand hovers over the material world, which must be studied and categorized in our quest for understanding.

We do a little of both, don’t we? For better or worse, the West still looks to this linked pair. And so, the tug of war continues. Plato and Aristotle, incompatible yet inseparable, are tied as Western history’s 30th most influential person.

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[1]Whereas Plato’s rationalism stated that knowledge is a priori (already within us before we peel off the layers hiding it), the empirical Aristotle believed knowledge is a posteriori (built after experience). Thus, Platonists rely on deductive logic (a rational series of deductions can turn premises into conclusions, like a syllogism) but Aristotelians favor inductive logic (only through observation can we accrue knowledge, consequently producing firmer conclusions). You might notice that many arguments today between theists and atheists comes down to theists favoring the deductive approach while atheists prefer inductive. You’ll also notice that these two sides are always respectful of each other’s beliefs. (Hit back to return to where you left off.)

[2]His Wikipedia page lists 12 things under his “Main Interests,” which I think is a record until I make my own page. His body of written works — corpus Aristotelicum — is quite the list to behold. The rudimentary titles — Mechanics, Metaphysics, Meteorology, History of Animals, 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. Modern British philosopher Bryan Magee put it best when he said, “it is doubtful whether any human being has ever known as much as he did.” If that’s not the dream for the first line of my obituary, I don’t know what is.


[4]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 those could be known. Many of the ancient Greeks embraced this approach, the most famous manifestations of which are their beloved syllogisms: “If A = B” and “B = C,” then “A = C.” Or, to put it into practice: “If Socrates is a mortal” and “All mortals love PPFA,” then it stands to reason that “Socrates loved PPFA.” See? Universal truths.

[5]I’ve spared the main body from the following footnoted evidence that you can definitely skip unless you want to wade hip deep into the schism between early Christians and Greek philosophy. In First Corinthians, Paul, referring to the curious, scientific, Aristotelian minds of the Greco-Roman tradition, boasts of “destroying the wisdom of the wise” and “frustrating the intelligent” with this new brand of philosophy. (No comparison to actual persons or Presidents is intended or should be inferred.) Three hundred years later, St. Augustine’s “City of God” (De Civitate Dei) blamed pagan amorality and unchristian philosophers — save Plato — as a reason for the devastating Visigothic sack of Rome in A.D. 410. Fourth century Church father John Chrysostom argued that man should “restrain our own reasoning, and empty our mind of secular learning.” Contemporary Basil of Caesarea, a Greek bishop, agreed, writing, “Let Us Christians prefer the simplicity of our faith to the demonstrations of human reason.”

Even after the turn of the millennium, Christian leaders such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux criticized using one’s “intellect” for any pursuit other than a holy one. Plato is one of the only ancients that survived this Catholic onslaught, mostly because Christians owed him for much of their worldview. (For a brilliant summarization on the suppression of the Aristotelian curiosity that permeated Classical Europe, I highly recommend Charles Freeman’s “The Closing of the Western Mind.”)

[6]Alexander ends our famous teacher-student run. Socrates taught Plato who taught Aristotle who taught Alexander the Great. Or, as my students acronymize, “Spaa.” Though the meat of this four-Greek sandwich made the Top 30, the two pieces of bread did not.

[7]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. Enlightenment philosophers did not ascribe any morality to their clockmaker. Speaking of an indivisible source of all things Good, check out this website.

[8]Aristotle’s inaccuracies arguably slowed the West’s scientific advancement as much as the Church did. After his death, to doubt the great Aristotle was akin to a cleric doubting the papacy. Aristotle would have bristled at being such a hindrance.


6 thoughts on “#30, Part II: Aristotle

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