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.

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!