29 November 2006

Jaeger, Gerson, Gilson, and the Neoplatonists

Two 'thats':

(1.) There is some kind of deep difference between the philosophy of Plato and that of Aristotle. (This seems to be so, even if we are unsure of how that difference is to be characterized.)
(2.) There are many passages in Aristotle that look like passages in Plato, or passages that Plato might have written. (They seem that way, even we are unsure what their sense is ultimately.)
Now, how to deal with this? One way is to characterize (1.) in such a way that it becomes necessary to explain away (2.): thus Jaeger, who understands the difference to be that between an other-worldly and metaphysical rationalism, and a this-wordly and anti-metaphysical empiricism. The latter viewpoint simply cannot accommodate any significant portions of the former. Jaeger therefore needs to explain away the Plato-sounding passages in Aristotle by appeal to developmentalism: those passages really are passages that Plato could have written, but they belong to an early, platonizing period of Aristotle's development.

Gerson, insofar as he explores a 'harmony' between Plato and Aristotle in the spirit of the neoplatonists, takes a different approach. He characterizes (2.) in such a way that it becomes necessary to explain away (1.). The neoplatonists held that those passages in Aristotle that look like Plato could have written them really do say much the same as what Plato said. But from this one is meant to conclude-- contrary to what is commonly thought in modern times--that there are no deep differences between Aristotle and Plato: Aristotle is a Platonist; and the disagreements between them are on the level of a quarrel within a school.

Gerson quotes something from Gilson as an example of the view he wishes to call into question:
...reduced to their bare essences, these metaphysics are rigorously antinomical; one cannot be for the other without being against all those who are with the other, and that is why Saint Thomas remains with Aristotle against all those who are counted on the side of Plato.
There is perhaps some irony in the fact that, although Gerson understoods his book as a contributing to a critique of Jaeger, he apparently shares with Jaeger the view that the Plato-sounding passages in Aristotle are of a piece with Platonic philosophy. Gerson disagrees with Jaeger on how to resolve the difficulty posed by (1.) and (2.), but they are agreed in taking the Plato-sounding passages to be truly platonic.

To this, I think, we need to bring to bear the criterion that we had adopted for evaluating Gerson's approach. We said that Gerson's exploration of a harmony, in the spirit of the neoplatonists, is saved from being an 'exercise in historical perversity' precisely to the extent that it yields exegetical and philosophical fruit. But is it fruitful to read Aristotle's Plato-sounding passages in that way--as platonic? I do not prejudge an answer to this question; I simply raise the question.

In my next post, I'll consider a specific example, namely, Gerson's treatment of a passage in Aristotle which seems similar to those passages in Plato that recommend 'assmilation to God' as the goal of human life. As Gerson explains in his introduction:
There is not much Neoplatonic commentary material on Aristotle's ethical writings. It is, however, possible to piece together something that can legitimately be called a Neoplatonic reading of the Nicomachean Ethics and to show how on this reading the view of happiness and virtue there is in harmony with the central idea of Neoplatonic ethics: namely, assimilation to the divine (21).
The question is: Is the passage in Aristotle illuminated by taking him to be saying (more or less) what Plato says?