Delight Springs

Monday, September 8, 2014

Aristotle & God

We have Aristotle on two tracks (the Little History and Philosophy Bites) today in CoPhi. God's on 3d (pinch-hitting for Lucius Outlaw and last year's America the Philosophicaldiscussion of the historical role of African-Americans in philosophy, if you're interested).

Aristotle‘s in the Pythons' philosopher's song too, though he's even more sober than his Ionian predecessors. He rejected his teacher Plato’s metaphysics, returned to the cave of the phenomenal world to take a closer look, avoided universalizing abstractions and CAPS (preferring forms in things to transcendent and remote FORMS "above"), and inspired the name of our annual Spring speaker series in the philosophy department at MTSU, the Lyceum

(We actually now also have a *Fall Lyceum at MTSU, inaugurated last year by Carlin Romano.)

The best quick & graphic way of illustrating the difference between Plato and his student Aristotle, I’ve found, is by pondering Raphael’s famous painting School of Athens [annotated]. Pay close attention to the hands. 

A new history of western philosophy takes that painting to heart. The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, by Arthur Herman,  traces its implications for centuries of philosophers who lined up to squeeze into the School behind either Plato or Aristotle.
They began as student and master. They ended as rivals. Plato is supposed to have said, “Aristotle kicked me,as foals do their mothers when they are born.”All the evidence, however, suggests the crucial break between them came after Plato's death. Aristotle entered Plato's Academy in Athens at age seventeen, probably in 367 BCE. When he left, he was in his forties...
Why they broke is a fascinating story reflected in centuries of divergent influence. If I were going to have to line up in that painting I'd have to pick Aristotle's side.

"How Aristotle Invented Science"

Aristotle said one swallow doesn't make a summer, and a few moments of pleasure don't add up to a happy life. Nor does a "happy childhood." We must be in it for the long haul, and must see our good as coordinate with that of others including those who'll succeed us after we're gone. It's all about eudaimonia ("you die" is a helpful mnemonic, aggressive and hostile though it sounds, and though it really means you live.)

It's probably for his ethics that Aristotle is most widely renowned, but Bertrand Russell for one was unimpressed. "There is in Aristotle an almost complete absence of what may be called benevolence or philanthropy. The sufferings of mankind, in so far as he is aware of them, do not move him emotionally." (Hold that thought, when we talk about the problem of evil.)

Aristotle was a naturalist, noticing our continuity with the rest of nature. Like trees and plants we flourish when well-nurtured. Unlike them, we must take charge of our own nurture in order to reach our potential and achieve The Good Life in tandem with our peers.

It's so ironic that the middle ages made Aristotle "The Philosopher," i.e. the unquestioned Authority. That was indeed "against the spirit of philosophy."

Terence Irwin's podcast interview is compelling listening, for those unaccustomed to a Yorkshire accent (or whatever it is). He makes the same point I just did about coordinating the personal and the public good, and "identifying one's own interest with other people's interest" etc. 

He also helpfully corrects overly-simple reductions of Aristotle's ethics to a dogged middle-of-the-roadism. Avoiding extremes doesn't mean choosing the blandest, milk-toastiest possibility. No, his Golden Mean means doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason etc., and that could very well turn out to be something exciting. Or scary. (Like going after ISIS? What would Aristotle say?)

Aristotle's version of God, on the other hand, may just be too bland for your taste. It's not a he or she, or really even an it as we typically understand things. 
To Aristotle, God is the first of all substances, the necessary first source of movement who is himself unmoved. God is a being with everlasting life, and perfect blessedness, engaged in never-ending contemplation. IEP
This is a remote and impersonal God, who won't intervene in our affairs and could really care less about them. 

The God implied in the Hebrew Bible book of Ecclesiastes seems fairly indifferent to human suffering & flourishing too, and unpromising with respect to the old dream of Sunday School heaven and immortality. Jennifer Hecht glosses it smartly in Doubt:
Koheleth brushed aside the dream of an afterlife with a simple appeal to reason--Who knows this?--and the conclusion that humans have nothing above the beasts in this regard...
But it doesn't follow that simple happiness is unavailable in this life. The recipe's pretty simple too.
Love your spouse. Get some work to do, do it with all your might; enjoy the simple pleasures of food, drink, and love. Everything else is vanity. 
But, it's a form of vanity we can live with. The search for true love, solid friendship, good work, and daily delight might just be enough. Enjoy your life. A person could do worse. The search for happiness on this orb is anything but a "dismal" undertaking, as someone sadly suggested. You could ask Aristotle. It's the end and aim of life.

Not everyone agrees with Aristotle about that, of course. For some, the end and aim is to serve and glorify God (and maybe reap the reward of that elusive afterlife after all). Their god knows and cares about human striving, and presumably abhors gratuitous suffering.

But there's the rub that's rubbed raw in our Philosophy: The Basics reading today: the perennial problem of evil or suffering, or the worry that our world is too full of woe to lay at the figurative feet of an omni-being. And even if we think we can disarm some of the problem by deploying the timeworn Free Will Defense, we leave "natural" evil (killer storms, quakes, disease) unaccounted for.

We also read today of David Hume's posthumous objections to weakly-analogical Paley-ish Design Arguments. Human artifacts are one thing, the products of complex time-borne natural phenomena seem to be something very different. 

But natural selection, the "blind" and unpremeditated evolutionary process whereby organisms thrive when they develop adaptations suitable to the conditions of their environment, can be considered a form of Design without a Designer. We should ask and try to answer: Is there an important difference between intelligent design and natural complexity?

Must there have been a universal First Cause? But what caused the cause? That question is neck-and-neck with the problem of evil, in turning out many a young non-theist. J.S. Mill and Bertrand Russell, for instance.
[T]the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity. I may say that when I was a young man and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'" That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian

I think I've heard just about every imaginable response to this question, through the years in my classrooms, but I'll ask it again: 

If you believe in God, how do you attempt to reconcile or understand the full extent of human suffering? (Think of particular instances such as the "agony of a young child dying of an incurable disease," or an innocent gunshot or terror victim, or someone killed in a storm and their survivors.) Do you see it as part of a divine plan we just have to trust, or a deep mystery we shouldn't think too much about? Or do you believe in a God who is less than omnipotent and is just doing the best He/She/It can to bring about a harmonious and just Creation?

If you don't believe in God, is that in whole or in part because of the Problem of Evil? Or something else?

Or maybe you're like Charlie Brown's antagonist Lucy, who once responded to his Socratic query about the meaning of it all that "I just don't think about things I don't think about." Didn't seem to make her any happier, not thinking. Did it?

1 comment:

  1. Aubrey Kremer section 10September 9, 2014 at 2:19 PM

    fq| what is a naturalist/who?
    someone noticing our continuity with the rest of nature/Aristotle
    dq| how do you feel about Aristotles view off God?