30 November 2006

Plato on Assimilation to the Divine, and Another Platonist?

When Aristotle writes like a Platonist, is he a Platonist? That's the question. A test case might be when Aristotle seems to endorse 'assimilation to the divine'.

As good a statement as any of this view in Plato may be found near the end of the Timaeus. (Pardon the long passages. There is no way around this.)

[90a] And as regards the most lordly kind of our soul, we must conceive of it in this wise: we declare that God has given to each of us, as his daemon, that kind of soul which is housed in the top of our body and which raises us--seeing that we are not an earthly but a heavenly plant up from earth towards our kindred in the heaven. And herein we speak most truly; for it is by suspending our head and root from that region whence the substance of our soul first came that the Divine Power keeps upright our whole body. [90b] Whoso, then, indulges in lusts or in contentions and devotes himself overmuch thereto must of necessity be filled with opinions that are wholly mortal, and altogether, so far as it is possible to become mortal, fall not short of this in even a small degree, inasmuch as he has made great his mortal part. But he who has seriously devoted himself to learning and to true thoughts, and has exercised these qualities above all his others, [90c] must necessarily and inevitably think thoughts that are immortal and divine, if so be that he lays hold on truth, and in so far as it is possible for human nature to partake of immortality, he must fall short thereof in no degree; and inasmuch as he is for ever tending his divine part and duly magnifying that daemon who dwells along with him, he must be supremely blessed. And the way of tendance of every part by every man is one--namely, to supply each with its own congenial food and motion; and for the divine part within us the congenial motions [90d] are the intellections and revolutions of the Universe. These each one of us should follow, rectifying the revolutions within our head, which were distorted at our birth, by learning the harmonies and revolutions of the Universe, and thereby making the part that thinks like unto the object of its thought, in accordance with its original nature, and having achieved this likeness attain finally to that goal of life which is set before men by the gods as the most good both for the present and for the time to come. (Lamb translation. Greek below. In his quotation of this passage, Gerson does not include the bit in red above.)
Gerson sees parallels between this passage and a famous one in the Nicomachean Ethics, and he cites David Sedley in corroboratione: "It seems to have gone unnoticed by scholars," Sedley wrote in a 1997 article, "how accurately the main structure of Aristotle's ethics reflects this passage of the Timaeus". The NE passage (1177b26ff) is as follows:
But such a life would be too high for man; for it is not in so far as he is man that he will live so, but in so far as something divine is present in him; and by so much as this is superior to our composite nature is its activity superior to that which is the exercise of the other kind of virtue. If reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life. But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything. This would seem, too, to be each man himself, since it is the authoritative and better part of him. It would be strange, then, if he were to choose not the life of his self but that of something else. And what we said before' will apply now; that which is proper to each thing is by nature best and most pleasant for each thing; for man, therefore, the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man. This life therefore is also the happiest. (Original Ross translation, warts and all. Gerson in his quotation does not include the bit at the end in red.)
Are the similarities merely superificial? Gerson makes a good case that they are not:
There are so many striking similarities between the foregoing passages and what Plato says in Timaeus and Theaetetus about assimilation to the divine that one cannot help but wonder at the prejudices that have induced many either to ignore or to discount them. It is not just the obvious verbal parallels that are so impressive but the eccentricities of the parallels.
  • Both Plato and Aristotle urge us to try to achieve immortality as much as possible, as if that were something both in our power and allowing of degrees.
  • Both urge us to emulate divine life, though the focus of ethics would seem to be our ineluctable humanity.
  • And both proclaim that the divine life is a contemplative one, specifically removed from human affairs.
  • Finally, both rest what they say upon an assumption that the 'we' of ethical striving is in fact different from an embodied human being.
    [p. 255, bullet points added for clarity's sake]
Gerson seems correct, does he not? The parallels are striking. So then is Aristotle expressing Platonism here? Perhaps even: Doesn't his use of such language signal his allegiance to the general outlook of the Platonic school? How could it have failed to do so? And then, if we realize that he is evincing Platonism here, what difference should this make to the interpretation of NE?

(a.) dio_ fulakte/on o3pwj a2n e1xwsin ta_j kinh&seij pro_j
a1llhla summe/trouj. to_ de\ dh_ peri\ tou~ kuriwta&tou par'
h(mi=n yuxh~j ei1douj dianoei=sqai dei= th|~de, w(j a1ra au)to_ dai/-
mona qeo_j e9ka&stw| de/dwken, tou~to o4 dh& famen oi0kei=n me\n
h(mw~n e0p' a1krw| tw|~ sw&mati, pro_j de\ th_n e0n ou)ranw|~ sugge/neian

a)po_ gh~j h(ma~j ai1rein w(j o1ntaj futo_n ou)k e1ggeion a)lla_ ou)ra&-
nion, o)rqo&tata le/gontej: e0kei=qen ga&r, o3qen h( prw&th th~j
yuxh~j ge/nesij e1fu, to_ qei=on th_n kefalh_n kai\ r(i/zan h(mw~n

(b.) a)nakremannu_n o)rqoi= pa~n to_ sw~ma. tw|~ me\n ou}n peri\ ta_j
e0piqumi/aj h2 peri\ filoniki/aj teteutako&ti kai\ tau~ta dia-
ponou~nti sfo&dra pa&nta ta_ do&gmata a)na&gkh qnhta_ e0gge-
gone/nai, kai\ panta&pasin kaq' o3son ma&lista dunato_n qnhtw|~
gi/gnesqai, tou&tou mhde\ smikro_n e0llei/pein, a3te to_ toiou~ton

hu)chko&ti: tw|~ de\ peri\ filomaqi/an kai\ peri\ ta_j a)lhqei=j
fronh&seij e0spoudako&ti kai\ tau~ta ma&lista tw~n au(tou~ gegu-

(c.) mnasme/nw| fronei=n me\n a)qa&nata kai\ qei=a, a1nper a)lhqei/aj
e0fa&pthtai, pa~sa a)na&gkh pou, kaq' o3son d' au} metasxei=n
a)nqrwpi/nh| fu&sei a)qanasi/aj e0nde/xetai, tou&tou mhde\n me/roj
a)polei/pein, a3te de\ a)ei\ qerapeu&onta to_ qei=on e1xonta& te au)to_n
eu} kekosmhme/non to_n dai/mona su&noikon e9autw|~, diafero&ntwj

eu)dai/mona ei]nai. qerapei/a de\ dh_ panti\ panto_j mi/a, ta_j
oi0kei/aj e9ka&stw| trofa_j kai\ kinh&seij a)podido&nai. tw|~ d' e0n @1
h(mi=n qei/w| suggenei=j ei0sin kinh&seij ai9 tou~ panto_j dianoh&seij

(d.) kai\ periforai/: tau&taij dh_ sunepo&menon e3kaston dei=, ta_j peri\
th_n ge/nesin e0n th|~ kefalh|~ diefqarme/naj h(mw~n perio&douj
e0corqou~nta dia_ to_ katamanqa&nein ta_j tou~ panto_j a(rmoni/aj
te kai\ perifora&j, tw|~ katanooume/nw| to_ katanoou~n e0comoiw~sai
kata_ th_n a)rxai/an fu&sin, o(moiw&santa de\ te/loj e1xein tou~
proteqe/ntoj a)nqrw&poij u(po_ qew~n a)ri/stou bi/ou pro&j te to_n
paro&nta kai\ to_n e1peita xro&non.

o( de\ toiou~toj a2n ei1h bi/oj krei/ttwn h2 kat' a1nqrwpon: ou) ga_r h|{ a1nqrwpo&j e0stin ou3tw biw&setai, a)ll' h|{ qei=o&n ti e0n au)tw|~ u(pa&rxei: o3son de\ diafe/rei tou~to tou~ sunqe/tou, tosou~ton kai\ h( e0ne/rgeia th~j kata_ th_n a1llhn a)reth&n. ei0 dh_ qei=on o( nou~j pro_j to_n a1nqrwpon, kai\ o( kata_ tou~ton bi/oj qei=oj pro_j to_n a)nqrw&pinon bi/on. ou) xrh_ de\ kata_ tou_j parainou~ntaj a)nqrw&pina fronei=n a1nqrwpon o1nta ou)de\ qnhta_ to_n qnhto&n, a)ll' e0f' o3son e0nde/xetai a)qanati/zein kai\ pa&nta poiei=n pro_j to_ zh~n kata_ to_ kra&tiston tw~n e0n au(tw|~: ei0 ga_r kai\ tw|~ o1gkw| mikro&n e0sti, duna&mei kai\ timio&thti polu_ ma~llon pa&ntwn u(pere/xei. do&ceie d' a2n kai\ ei]nai e3kastoj tou~to, ei1per to_ ku&rion kai\ a1meinon. a1topon ou}n gi/noit' a1n, ei0 mh_ to_n au(tou~ bi/on ai9roi=to a)lla& tinoj a1llou. to_ lexqe/n te pro&teron a(rmo&sei kai\ nu~n: to_ ga_r oi0kei=on e9ka&stw| th|~ fu&sei kra&tiston kai\ h3disto&n e0stin e9ka&stw|: kai\ tw|~ a)nqrw&pw| dh_ o( kata_ to_n nou~n bi/oj, ei1per tou~to ma&lista a1nqrwpoj. ou{toj a1ra kai\ eu)daimone/statoj.