Aristotle and Original Sin?

It is a doctrine of mainstream Christianity (by which I primarily mean the Orthodox and Catholic Churches) that there was a primordial tragedy which caused humans to be subject to sin, to tend to be ruled by passions rather than by reason, to choose the less good rather than the true good. It’s for this reason that God becomes man, so the story goes, to end the subjection to death and heal the human race.

It’s a good story, but it’s not scientific, right? It’s not something a self-respecting philosopher would say, either. Religious superstition!

Aristotle says in Politics that some men are by nature slaves, lacking practical wisdom (phronesis) by which they would be able to direct their own actions to the good. Controversy!

But surely this is true, isn’t it? Lots of us do not choose the good when we are confronted with the choice. Maybe none of us really choose the good consistently.

I went to a water park with my family. It was fun! But there were very many people who were having difficulty choosing the right amounts and types of food to eat. What is obesity but a defect of practical wisdom?

Chesterton said somewhere that original sin is the one doctrine of Christianity that can be proved by reading the newspaper.

If we were simply natural animals, you might conclude that there is a mismatch between us and our environment, such that we tend not to thrive. Something seems amiss!

What is the proper function of the eye?

What is the meaning of the eye?

In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins with the question of what the good is. What is it that human beings aim at? What, in other words, is happiness? What is the meaning of life?

Surely it would be good, if there were such a thing, for us to know what it is. But we live in a secular age, in a time beyond superstition, and we know that there aren’t any such things. A twitter anon says that post-modernism means the failure of all meta-narratives. There’s no way anyone can believe in old things like Christianity or even the pagan virtues. Be whatever you want. Do whatever you want! Remake your body however you want! It doesn’t matter.

But how can we answer such objections? I like the approach Aristotle takes. He proposes that there must be a function, a proper activity, for man. The argument is interesting. Has an eye or a hand a function, and the human being none? It wouldn’t make sense for the parts to have functions but the whole not to have a function.

You go to the eye doctor and say that your eye doesn’t work well. You can’t see. How do we know that this is a problem? Maybe your eye isn’t sick at all! If we decide that the function of the eye is to serve as mere decoration for a face, then that’s the case, right? Who am I to say otherwise?

There are people who go to doctors to have perfectly healthy parts of the body amputated, because it feels wrong for them to have healthy limbs.

We presume that we know what an eye is for, and if it doesn’t doesn’t have 20/20 vision, we correct it until it does. How do we know that it needs correction? Correction implies the correct. Hidden in the background is the notion that humans ought to be able to see well. This “ought” is a hint to the telos or function or happiness of human beings.

What is it? Stay tuned.

Immateriality of the Intellect, the Real Reason

In the Commentary on the Metaphysics Aquinas drops another thought grenade, saying

“For the intelligible object and the intellect must be proportionate to each other and must belong to one and the same genus since the intellect and the intelligible object are one in actuality.”

The intelligible object, that is, the universal, is not a material thing. Think of your knowledge of the Pythagorean Theorem: is it a physical thing? Does it have atoms? Molecules? What is it made of? Certainly not anything material. And yet the mind, which, it is argued, is merely the brain, can know it.

What does “know” mean in this context? It means, according to Brother Thomas, that the mind and its object become unified. “One in actuality,” as he says it. The mind has to make real contact with the object, or there is no real knowledge.

The medievals and Aristotle thought that the mind was immaterial because it had to be for the possibility of knowledge.

Materialist objections: there isn’t anything that exists beyond the material world. Ok, fine, but this forecloses the possibility of knowledge in the sense that we used to understand it.

  • If there is knowledge, then the mind is not immaterial.
  • If the mind is material (aka just the brain), then there isn’t such a thing as knowledge.

I’m with Aristotle on this one. Yes, the soul is the form of the body, and it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to think of it apart from the body. “We are our bodies” as Gabriel Marcel says. And yet, there is some power of the soul which is not bodily, and this is required because we can actually know things. How can this be? I don’t know. See On the Soul and tell me what you think.

Metaphysics is a Statesman

I was reading Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics and came across an interesting line in the prologue. He is attempting to determine what the highest science is, and drops this line:

We can discover which science this is and the sorts of things with which it is concerned by carefully examining the qualities of a good ruler; for just as men of superior intelligence are naturally the rulers and masters of others, whereas those of great physical strength and little intelligence are naturally slaves, as the Philosopher says in the aforementioned book, in a similar way that science which is intellectual in the highest degree should be naturally the ruler of others.

The order of the sciences is argued to be parallel to the proper order of a society, with the more intellectual ruling the less intellectual. While I don’t think he is wrong, I was struck by the casual way in which he said it. For Aquinas, it seems that the qualities of a good ruler were obvious.

It seems to me that we generally esteem someone who represents our interests much more than we esteem someone who is wise. In other words, a modern “good ruler” is one who defends my in-group and gives me what I want. Whatever my desires, that ruler needs to make sure I can satisfy them. Opposed to this is the notion of the statesman, as found in Plato and Aristotle, whose goal is the good of the people. The real good of the people, not the apparent good. It is such a ruler that is the proper model for first philosophy, not the demagogue or tyrant.

Happiness is an activity

I remember as a grad student being floored by the straightforward comment of St. Thomas Aquinas that happiness is an activity. I know I should have figured this out from reading Nichomachean Ethics, but I was not very bright and it took me awhile to figure it out. Take a moment and think about what this means. Happiness, as the ancients believed and the best of the medievals followed, isn’t a feeling or a state of being. It’s not contentedness or satisfaction. It’s an activity, a doing, an energia in entelechia.

It is hard for English speakers to grok this since the word “happiness” means for us something of chance. It is related to the word “happen” and also to “mayhap”. If I happen to come across a $10 bill on the street, I am happy, because of the thing that happened to me. I am happeny. But this sort of thing is not really up to me. Chance is fickle. Fortune’s wheel may grind me to dust or lift me high. Either way it’s not my doing.

But if happiness is an activity, it’s something that I can do. I can make it “happen.” For Aristotle and Aquinas, it’s more than mindless activity or business. It’s an activity of the highest part of you devoted to the highest objects. Maybe to the Highest Object. Reason is the highest thing in the human soul, they assert, and if this is the case, we should use our reason on the highest things we are capable of. For Aristotle this is the contemplation of the first principle, and for Aquinas it’s the contemplation of the Christian God.

This is not relaxation or satisfaction, but a constant work of one’s life. If you take this seriously you aren’t going to sit around, Netflix and chill, and figure that you are happy. The pigs in the pen do as much. Rather you are going to strain yourself a bit to the highest things.

Will it be fun? Sure! Aquinas says somewhere that joy is what happens when you possess a sought-after good. The active life is the most joyful. But you don’t get to have cheap joy.

All Men Desire To Know

so says Aristotle. At the beginning of the Metaphysics, Aristotle makes this statement. It’s a universal claim about human nature. I usually perk up at such claims, and my immediate reaction is “Is this true? Do all men desire to know?”

Note: in this context, ‘men’ means men and women, just like “man-eating tiger” means a tiger that eats both men and women. It’s how Ross translates the Greek.

Think of the people you know. Do they desire knowledge? How is it evident? It’s true that if you go up to someone and say “I have a secret,” they will want to know it. It’s true that we generally want to find things out. Aristotle uses our delight in vision as evidence for his universal claim. When you enter a room, you look around you. If other people look up, you look up.

But real knowledge is to know the causes of things. You know not merely that the sun comes up in the east, but why it comes up in the east. You know not merely that penicillin is good to cure a bacterial infection, but why it is the case. Knowing the causes is what wise people really have accomplished, according to Aristotle. This takes observation, study, and work. It’s hard! Mostly what we do is kill time.

Augustine categorizes curiosity as a vice. It’s the false version of the virtue of seeking to know. The merely curious are seeking novelty. They want to fill their eyes and ears with newness. It’s less knowledge-seeking and more itch-scratching. Think about all the time you spend on your phone, scrolling through social media. You aren’t usually trying to learn anything.

Aristotle makes the point in the beginning of the Metaphysics that it takes leisure to advance in wisdom. It took the Egyptians having double harvests from the Nile floods to be able to make advances in math and geometry. They needed free time or leisure. But all leisure isn’t the same. Sitting on the couch binging on a TV show isn’t leisure. It’s a step above being asleep. It might be a step below.

We all desire to know, but we don’t all do a great job of it. Try harder!