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Aristotle’s Children

by Rick Lewis

Welcome to another edition of Philosophy Now, which contains articles on a number of extremely contemporary subjects. Roger Caldwell discusses the implications of the latest advances in cosmology for our view of the purpose of the universe. Bob Sharpe criticises the Churches’ traditional stance on marriage. And three articles and a book review examine the heritage of Aristotle.

“Aristotle? But it says Philosophy Now on the cover!” says the aggrieved reader. “Why aren’t there articles about hip, trendy thinkers like Derrida or Eagleton? Why are you bothering with those dead Greeks? Let’s have some philosophy relevant to conditions today!”

However, getting away from the dead Greeks isn’t easy. Alfred North Whitehead said “The history of Western philosophy is no more than a series of footnotes to Plato’s philosophy.” And Coleridge apparently remarked that everyone is, by temperament, either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. He seems to have meant that people are either attracted by the soaring generalities and lofty idealism of Plato or by the endlessly specific, down-to-earth approach of Aristotle, who categorised, subdivided and labelled nature and invented half a dozen sciences in the process. And when you think about it, most people do seem to fall into one or other of these two camps (this is a game you can play at home!). This doesn’t really tell us anything about the continuing influence of the dynamic duo themselves. All Coleridge has done is take one of the many ways of differentiating between personalities and then labelled the people on one side Platonists and those on the other side Aristotelians. Anyway, dividing people up into such broad categories underestimates the diversity of the individuals involved. As Oscar Wilde said, “The world is divided into two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the rest.” (Please excuse all the quotations; I’ve just acquired a dictionary of famous quotations and the novelty hasn’t worn off yet. Here’s another good one, from Thomas Hobbes this time : “The praise of ancient authors proceeds not from the reverence of the dead, but from the competition and mutual envy of the living.”)

Having said which, it is apparent that both Plato and Aristotle have had immense influence on all subsequent thinkers, and continue to do so. It is always in the nature of philosophy to draw on its past for inspiration. To show this process in action, this issue not only contains a brief introduction to the life and ideas of Aristotle himself, but also focuses on two modern-day Aristotelians who believe that his thinking on ethics is as relevant as ever. Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum are among the most prominent American philosophers writing today. Why do they think that someone who lived in a small city state so long ago should have anything worthwhile to say about how we should live in our immeasurably more complex world?

The legacies of both Plato and Aristotle remain contentious. Plato’s Republic, classic though it is, has been seen by some as the blueprint for the totalitarian state. Aristotle is controversial for more subtle reasons. His approach to science and to reasoning in general, is often said to underlie much of our scientific and philosophical thinking even today. So people who think there is something wrong with our notions of rationality sometimes blame Aristotle. This is what Robert Pirsig did in his immensely popular 1970s blockbuster Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He attacks Aristotelian logic for concentrating entirely on what is true, and excluding entirely questions of what is best. So Pirsig sees Aristotle as the originator of much of the modern world but believes that in originating it he built a terrible flaw into its structure. He blames Aristotle both for being the father of a value-free science and for the resulting hostility which many today feel towards technology; for the schism between the world’s scientists and the world’s artists. Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum couldn’t be more at odds with this view. They both in their different ways see Aristotelianism as challenging prevailing habits of thinking and as a source of new values for a sceptical postmodern world.

Aristotle (and Plato) lived at a time when philosophy was heatedly discussed in public in the forums and marketplaces of the big cities. It would be wonderful if we could bring informed philosophical debate back into the centre of public life, and enable ever more people to join in. The growing amount of philosophical discussion on the Internet (see page 13) may be one more sign that this is starting to happen.

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