04 March 2005

Quotable Quote

I was looking through John Henry Newman's Idea of a University this morning, searching for examples of good writing to show students in my expository writing class (but can Newman, perhaps the greatest prose stylist in English, still be used in this way?--I am doubtful) and once again came upon one of my favorite quotations on Aristotle. Newman is explaining what it is for study to be liberal, as not directed to any end beyond itself; he quotes Aristotle from the Rhetoric in support, and then adds, in defense--since he is engaged in founding a university that conceives of itself as modern:

Do not suppose, that in thus appealing to the ancients, I am throwing back the world two thousand years, and fettering Philosophy with the reasonings of paganism. While the world lasts, will Aristotle's doctrine on these matters last, for he is the oracle of nature and of truth. While we are men, we cannot help, to a great extent, being Aristotelians, for the great Master does but analyze the thoughts, feelings, views, and opinions of human kind. He has told us the meaning of our own words and ideas, before we were born. In many subject-matters, to think correctly, is to think like Aristotle; and we are his disciples whether we will or no, though we may not know it (Idea of a University, 5.5).

The complete text may be found here.

Is Newman correct? Could something similar be said about Plato, or Kant ... or Hume? If not, why not? And if Newman is correct, is this an argument for studying Aristotle, or is it enough if one is an Aristotelian 'in spite of oneself'?

4 comments:

David said...

At the risk of overgeneralizing in the extreme, all philosophizing takes place within the terrain mapped by Plato. Even Nietzsche, who thought himself an anti-platonist, platonizes when he philosophizes. In my opinion, when we speak of nature, we speak the language of Aristotle, even if we conceive ourselves to be anti-aristotleans. Since Kant's volcabulary is more technical, it is more difficult to perceive his influence but I would assert that nearly everyone who came after him was a disciple of his in some fashion.

Wes DeMarco said...

I would be interested to know what you think it is to 'think like Aristotle.' Does that primarily mean to syllogize? Aristotle is so often dialectical--particularly when the issues are most intensively philosophical--even in spite of himself. Is it his brand of dialectic that we should emulate?
I believe Aristotle is at his most Aristotelian when he thinks in qualifications; that is, when he makes distinctions and sorts out aspects and in general is most intensional (e.g. the difference between the road from Athens to Thebes and the road from Thebes to Athens). In NE 9, the Stagirite refers to a man "qua human being"--as if he could be anything else?--and yet this is absolutely necessary in the context of a discussion of the ways in which people are and are not identical with our *nous*. These are remarkably subtle, very dialectical moments. A climax, for me, of the Ethics is when Aristotle distinguishes his view from Socrates and Plato by saying "hemeis de meta logou" (I think that's right; I 'm doing it from memory). It's a refinement that makes all the difference in the world.
So what is Aristotelian thinking? What is its large-scale structure? What are its fundamental operations? How is it distinct from Platonic thinking? I would like to know what you think.
(My stab is found in a very dense little nugget in May Sim's collection *The Crossroads of Norm and Nature*. There are some editorial glitches, I'm afraid.)

Anonymous said...

Is there any book or article on the influence of Aristotle on Newman?

Michael Pakaluk said...

I don't know of an article, but Ker's biography has some good material. It's a rich subject. Newman taught NE at Oxford: I've examined his interleafed copy in the Birmingham Oratory. He wrote a wonderful small book on the Poetics. But perhaps the primary influence was his teacher Whately, on logic.