Aristotle’s revenge

I was discussing a project for a Philosophical Dictionary with Saint Thomas Aquinas last night (in a dream), & he made a typically acute remark. “It will have to be bilingual, to include Greek words.” Sometimes I have difficulty remembering dreams. In this one, there seemed to be a dispute going, on distinctions between téchne, phrónesis, sophía (Greek words for different kinds of intuitive knowledge). I do wish I could remember how it went. There was a remark made to the effect that one must fully understand the meaning in the terms, before arranging them in some kind of Heideggerian scheme; for having been understood, they will be happy to arrange themselves, in the Aristotelian manner. (Words, as the pagan Greeks knew, are holy.) I was also told, though not I think by the Angelic Doctor, that, “The schematic approach is words first, meanings second. It is the method of Humpty Dumpty.”

That we should have dreams in which we are visited by philosophers, up here in the High Doganate, is not surprising. Since abandoning an accidental career as a newspaper pundit, last July, I have been entering into my “second childhood.” The time spent crawling through places like the Internet, trying to keep up with current events, has gone back into the sort of reading I pursued as a young man, in books. Long ago, I resolved on a course of self-education, that consisted of studying everything that went into, & came out of, Aristotle. (That’s a lot; I didn’t get very far.) I was lucky to win quite a few years of poverty, free of serious material obligations, when I was in my teens & twenties; before I found myself married & it was time to “get real.” Few will understand as poignantly as I do today, why priests, philosophers, judges, lighthouse keepers, poets & artists, should never marry. And why the women who marry them are cursed.

Rather than break the flow of whimsical association, allow me to confront gentle reader with this:

“Believe that man’s happiness lies not in the magnitude of his possessions but in the proper condition of his soul. Even the body is not called blessed because it is magnificently clothed, but because it is healthy & in good condition, even if it lacks this decoration. In the same way only the cultivated soul is to be called happy; & only the man who is such, not the man who is magnificently decorated with external goods, but is himself of no value. We do not call a bad horse valuable because it has a golden bit & costly harness; we reserve our praise for the horse that is in perfect condition.”

It is a passage from Aristotle that washed up on papyrus, in the last century, from the Egyptian sands. We know it is a passage from Aristotle because a slightly different version survived separately, long enough to be included in a Byzantine anthology. I have myself lifted it from a book by Werner Jaeger, the great modern classical scholar who, for the purpose of showing how Aristotle expounds old saws in his new apodictic, went on to quote:

“Just as a man would be a ridiculous figure if he were intellectually & morally inferior to his slaves, in the same way we must believe a man miserable if his possessions are more valuable than himself. … Satiety begets wantonness, says the proverb. Vulgarity linked with power & possessions brings forth folly.”

Not bad, one might observe, as a description of what we suffer from today. (Count the figure as a politician or manager, & the slaves as his clever flunkeys.) Jaeger held Aristotle up as the one major ancient philosopher who has never enjoyed a modern vogue, except in the confined world of Thomism & Neo-Scholasticism. And yet he has never been forgotten, for all modern philosophy can be read as a desperate & hopeless attempt to uncreate Aristotle, or render him irrelevant.

His works in biology, for instance, are dismissed as laughably dated. With a child’s low-power microscope, we may see where many of his observations & inferences went wrong. But Aristotle did not have a child’s low-power microscope. Which makes what he was able to discern with his unaided human eyes the more astounding.

He “invented” the basic taxonomic order, slightly adjusted by Carl Linnaeus & now further adjusted through comparison of DNA, on which all botany & zoology still rests. And it was not easy: read the De Partibus, where he carefully explains why simple repetitive dichotomizing won’t work, in the construction of this Scala Naturae; why other short cuts will not help in comprehending exact but complex relations between creatures; & why — to put some edge in this — scientists then as now write nonsense unfailingly, when they fail to twig such logic as: “there are no species of that which is not.” (That is, the absence of a trait cannot define, & only positive determinables can be further differentiated.)

He was the first to realize that, for instance, whales & dolphins are mammals (a fact not recovered for nearly 2,000 years). He distinguished the cartilaginous from the bony fishes, with the spectrum of associated physiological contrasts. He began the study of embryonic growth, noticing such things as the little speck of blood that appears on day four in the white of a chicken egg, correctly guessing that it is a tiny beating heart. He explains the four stomachs of ruminant animals. His detailed description of the behaviour of bees remains up-to-date. And so on & on. Read the Historia Animalium, with some knowledge of modern biology & its development, & one will find that Aristotle was not only “ahead of his times,” but ahead of subsequent times, being surpassed in many cases not until the 19th century. And not in one or two points, but in hundreds of points.

Yet his primacy in biological science is more significant than that. He did not merely pioneer the system of classification. At a much deeper level he discerned & imposed something so fundamental as to be hard to describe: the paradigm beneath the paradigms, as it were. To Aristotle we owe our very conception of “organic” development & relations. And he was able to conceive this by means of an unambiguously & shamelessly “teleological” way of thinking, banned from anti-Aristotelian modern science. He looked at every phenomenon with regard to its purpose within larger purposes, & by such means actually created the possibility of extended empirical research.

This point needs stressing. It remains extremely relevant.

Those ignorant of the history of science may not realize that Empedocles was the original proposer of Darwin’s fastidiously non-teleological “theory of natural selection.” He didn’t just anticipate it vaguely; he appears to have had the whole thing down. Nature throws up freaks at random, but only those well-adapted to their environments can survive. Which is how we get “species”: by survival of the fittest. Darwin claims, in 1858 AD, what Empedocles hypothesized twenty-three centuries earlier — unknowingly, for Darwin had not much of a classical education, & sneered at classical learning. (“No one can more truly despise the old stereotyped stupid classical education than I do,” as he wrote his cousin, William Darwin Fox.)

This Empedoclean hypothesis was, very thoroughly, demolished by Aristotle in his Physics (Book II). He does this not from any fluffy, alternative theoretical position, but from his direct & very broad experience of nature (vastly greater than Darwin’s, incidentally). Empedocles does not appreciate the permanence of types in nature, for animals breed true to type; does not grasp the rarity of “monstrous growths,” & how maladaptive they are; does not see the intricacy of design that is required to make a creature functional. By his very failure to apply teleological reasoning, Empedocles has drifted out of science & into an unsustainable fantasy. (There is more: but gentle reader must go to Aristotle.)


Sometimes one says something stupid, & on reflection, one wills to take it back. Let me identify with Empedocles in this respect. It often happens while overstating a position. In the hope of clarifying one’s own view, one supplies one’s own reductio ad absurdum. I did this myself just the other day, in replying to a Comment in my own website. I answered a remark I found too aggressively wrong-headed with a remark that made the opposite mistake.

The issue was the place of God in empirical science. By way of striking the decisive rhetorical pose, I said He has “nothing to do with empirical science” — meaning, more modestly, naught to do with it directly. God should be in the hearts & minds of biologists, I suggested, but as toilers in the empirical vineyards they seek only proximate & not final causation; the immediate “how” & not the ultimate “why” of creatures. But I was overlooking the transitional “wherefore.”

What I wrote was correct in a certain narrow sense; but so narrow, as to be misleading. It would have been  more correct to say that biology, as a separate science from theology, does not work from theological doctrines, having doctrines of its own. But even that assertion would get me in a mess.

Modern science more generally omits God as a theological distraction; but this cannot be a problem with God. Might it instead be a problem with modern science? I could perhaps have belaboured the point about “hearts & minds” — for as I have noticed on several planes, the omission of God from just such sciences as biology may very well blind us to empirical fact, then help to corrupt us in technical applications. We do not “avoid metaphysics” by this device, but rather grab the stick from the wrong end, assume a metaphysics that is untenable, then use it to poke out our own eyes.

“Metaphysics” is a dark & scary word, especially to those raised on Hollywood & hamburgers. It was not invented by Aristotle; his treatises entitled Metaphysics were so labelled by an editor in a later century, to distinguish them from those labelled Physics, which came right before. These titles are attributed to Andronicus of Rhodes (floruit 60 BC), who was scholarch (head) of the Peripatetic School, & therefore unlikely to have been dim-witted, or incapable of an intended irony. But it appears to be older, as a term synonymous with what Aristotle himself calls “first philosophy.” From the beginning, I should think, the ambiguity in the term was intended: that this treatise (with or without the notoriously sketchy Book XII, or Λ, “lambda” by the Greek alphabetical counting) does not merely fall after the Physics, in Andronicus’ edition of the collected works, but goes “beyond the Physics” in a fuller sense. There is thus nothing “afterthought” or throwaway about it.

I mention this because our very reading of Aristotle is cluttered by so much modern argle-bargle about texts, imputed authorship, & chronology. The works that have survived were put in good logical order by Andronicus & preceding ancient editors, & transcribed with care. The approach of Thomas Aquinas & other scholastics to them — to read them & make sense of them as they stand, then argue with them “in situ” — was all along the wise & commonsensical strategy. Better that than spend your academic life chasing hypothetical hares. More basically: read Aristotle for what he can teach us, & not for what we can teach him. For the man is dead. There is nothing we can teach him.

(We have the same garbage in Biblical studies: endless coursing after hypothetical hares, to avoid actually reading & coming to terms with what the books say, & will continue to say when all the coursing is done.)

In my modest & frequently embarrassing, but extended attempts to read philosophy, I have often been reduced to abject confusion at the “interface” between ancient & modern terms, & the anachronistic habits of modern scholars, who present ancient philosophers broken out into modern packages; shrink-wrapped, as it were.

Take “epistemology” for instance, one branch of “modern metaphysics,” if not meta-meta, or perhaps even a file folder on its own. We all know (we do all know, don’t we?) that this word denotes the analysis of consciousness & knowledge itself; of how we can know, believe, or justify anything. Though founded on a Greek stem, it is quite certainly not an ancient term, but instead invented by some Victorian Scotsman, a good Tory fellow writing for Blackwood’s magazine, James Frederick Ferrier. In a fine, clear, noble style, he tries to get behind mere psychology, to where the Ouroboros of Reason eats its own tail. And finally fails, as all such Cartesianism.

Whole books — & not a few of them — have been written to examine e.g. “Plato’s epistemology,” including rather a fine one we retain, up here in the High Doganate: a scintillating running commentary on the Theatatus & Sophist by F.M. Cornford entitled, Plato’s Theory of Knowledge, from which I long ago learnt much that may or may not be true. But thinking of other such works, which seem to grow glibber & glibber as they multiply in our drive-in universities, it occurs to me our current view of Plato may be skewed in fundamental ways, rather as our view of cattle is skewed when they are ground into burger meat & slabbed on styrofoam, with perhaps a little horsemeat cut in.

To Plato, & ditto to Aristotle & successors in the Western philosophical tradition, before modernity, knowledge is essentially innate. So is sin & ignorance, the Christians may have added, & one is free to disagree with anything, but when it comes to interpreting the older philosophers, & trying to extract an “epistemology” from them, we should ask: “What part of ‘innate’ do you not understand?”

Other parts of e.g. Plato are hived off, into ribs, shanks, briskets, sirloin, & so forth — “Plato’s ethics,” “Plato’s metaphysics,” whatever — which is all very well for the culinary purposes of our post-secondary cafeterias. But the pieces can’t be used to reconstruct the cow which, in the original, lives & moos & has its own being in a certain animate unity. The “parts” are, so to say, interdependent, so that for instance, we cannot grasp what Plato conveys as innate without also grasping some of his cosmology, then wrestling with extremely sophisticated literary devices by which he presents appropriate Greek myths, more as parable than as fact or fiction.

“We murder to dissect,” & let me add that the project of modern empirical science, as modern “humane” scholarship, is a great meat-packing factory. It is arbitrary in the sense that the French cuts are made differently from the British or American cuts (to say nothing of halal dicing), but in no case can the animal survive them. Only (alas?) in plain practical religion is any attempt made to get at animate wholes again, & employ the intuitive together with the analytical reason on things that move.

Now, metaphysics, or “first philosophy,” has itself been sliced & diced, so that what the word might mean depends on which recent philosopher one is consulting. By some it is now rejected tout court, by others reduced to one of its playthings. The notion of a broad enquiry, into what our innate reason can make of an overall picture emerging from the specialized sciences, & what it can give back to them in panoramic view, has rather receded into a pipe dream.

A pity, because sans the attempt at that view, we are left mentally shrunken & atomized: Catholics as much as other people. Our only intellectual nutrition comes from shrivelled dogmas, although they at least contain some hard protein. Add water & the dogmas come gloriously to life; subtract it & our faith in both religion & science becomes as parched as the dried lizards I see, pressed against the bottle glass in the Chinese apothecary.

Which is not to say that Metaphysical Philosophy “mediates” between religion & science. Not quite. The relations are more living & mysterious than that, & the borders, including the frontier between Nature & Supernature, cannot be drawn with surveyor’s precision. Not, at least, by anyone who was ever, or will ever be, born. There are hills in the plains, & plateaux in the mountains.

In my humble & yet earnest view, the old “science” of metaphysics falls out as much into “ethics” & “aesthetics” as onto the ground beneath verifiable “scientific fact.” And as I am hardly the first to observe, the philosophical tradition from, say, Plato through Aristotle through Augustine through Thomas Aquinas through modern attempts to revive philosophia perennis — is flagrantly teleological. That is to say, nothing is examined without interest in its purpose & “fittingness” to its place within a larger view. As well as to its beauty, in itself.

Let me go so far as to assert — rather boldly since I could myself be reduced to mincemeat by the rotating blades of our modern industrial logic-choppers — that without the (perfectly innate) teleological habits of a “first philosophy,” we are right up a tree; not only with respect to religion & philosophy, but also to empirical science. I would describe the contemporary, self-styled “secular humanist” man as up it with a false metaphysics, rather as Alasdair MacIntyre does, & a host of other trending-Catholic philosophers who, typically, began swimming the Tiber when they realized there is only desert on the other side.

This false metaphysics (which might alternatively be described, falsely, as “no metaphysics at all”), by fanatically excluding the teleological, blinds or skews our understanding of phenomena at the most basic level, where they do in fact display anticipation in the obvious ways: as the acorn anticipates the oak; as inward genetic change anticipates outward adaptive change. It is, as Aristotle knew from his own grand conception of non-contradiction, bad news when our “theory” must ignore our “observations.”

Nature herself is taken for blind, when she is foreseeing; taken for mundane when she is miraculous by disposition; taken for drab, & thus insufficiently loved. By false reasoning, we dismiss as “theoretically impossible” what is happening constantly before our eyes, in an unambiguously testable & thus empirical way; so obvious that we are constantly sneaking the teleology back in, unconsciously or under the table, through our use of normal language. We forget ourselves, & start using words not as the cuckold’s jargon, but for what they actually mean. For no one can “do science” without constantly asking, What does this thing do? What is it for? What other purposes might it have? How does it coordinate with these other things? Et cetera.

That is in fact the foundation of Western science. The very assumption that things will make sense, if we persist in our inquiries, is at its root teleological. Yet the modern scientist, or scienticist, shrugs all this off, to repeat with smug assurance: “There is no such thing as Purpose in Nature.” He is lying, to himself if not to me. Animate nature is ridden with purpose throughout. And the cosmic joke gets bigger & bigger: for in the domain of necessity, in physics & chemistry, nature also turns out to be purposeful, & as is increasingly evident, downright anthropic in an extremely uncool, Aristotelian way.

“Nature does nothing in vain, nothing superfluous.” … “Nature like a good householder throws nothing away that could be made useful.” … “Nature behaves as if it foresaw the future.”

These aphorisms, taken respectively from De Caelo, from De Generatione Animalium, & from De Partibus Animalium, are in themselves the little doctrinal suggestions that dwell in the foundations of all Western science; & as may be seen, each is flagrantly teleological.

Curiously, it is the Aristotelian theology (within the Metaphysics) that is most out of date. In that strange Book XII — the “Lambda of God,” as I like to call it — the Master of Those Who Know is himself put to chasing his own tail in astronomical speculations, none of which remain useful once we have disposed of the old geocentric cosmology. It is only in passing, there & elsewhere in his works, that Aristotle uses “God” in a more colloquial sense — as something casually acknowledged because self-evident — & presents the Prime Mover or Original Cause as an inevitable Thought, not dependent upon any subsidiary scheme of celestial mechanics. (The notion of an “unmoved mover” of the outermost heaven is much older than Aristotle, incidentally. Homer attributes it to Zeus early in Book VIII of the Iliad.) And the funny thing is, when he speaks of God in this intuitive & unqualified way, Aristotle stays right on the money.

I think there is something to be said from this. To leave God out of biology is to be wrong, about biology. Ditto all other empirical sciences. But to make God a mechanical force is to be wrong, about God.