13 December 2006

Ten Points of Agreement between Plato and Aristotle

I'll try to post regularly over the next few days. I was busy last week with hosting Matt Evan's visit at Clark University through BACAP, and since then I've been grappling with trying to understand Gerson's thesis, that Aristotle my profitably be read as a "Platonist". Perhaps it is enough simply to state some unformed thoughts, since I have not arrived at many definite judgments.

I have no objection to Gerson's argument, but rather agree with it, insofar as it is a critique of Jaeger. Gerson is correct that, if there is development in Aristotle, it consists not of movement away from a strongly metaphysical picture of reality, but rather a transition within it. The contrast between Plato and Aristotle is not suitably understood as rationalist versus empiricist; metaphysical versus empiricist; or dualist versus naturalist. It is a mistake to say that a passage in Aristotle is earlier, or does not reflect his mature thought, because it is rationalist, metaphysical, or dualistic.

On the other hand, it seems to me that Gerson looks for agreement between Plato and Aristotle at too low a level of generality. It is not illuminating, I think, to maintain that Plato and Aristotle basically agree on the Theory of Forms, because Aristotle, too, allows that 'form' may exist independently of concrete, sensible particulars. Also, even though Aristotle holds that some aspect of the human soul is not mortal, clearly the doctrine of immortality plays little or no role in his philosophy, and therefore his doctrine is not the same as Plato's.

But how would I characterize their agreement? More structually, and in something like the following way:

1. Both Plato and Aristotle affirm the existence of non-corporeal ('immaterial') realities and substances, with real agency.

2. They agree that the human person is distinct from other substances in the natural world by having a power and agency which is non-corporeal.

3. They agree that the most fundamental and important realities are non-corporeal.

4. They agree that at first 3. seems to be false; that is, that the world as it appears to our senses seems entirely corporeal, and that therefore an advance in knowledge requires that we reverse or overturn this appearance, so that we come to recognize that what at first seems primary is, in reality, most distant from fundamental reality.

5. They agree that our achieving this overturning of appearance involves some kind of intellectual progress, which is appropriately understood as a some sort of ascent, from lower things to higher things.

6. They agree in holding that the lower things somehow imitate or strive after higher things.

7. They agree in accepting a principle of receptivity: viz. that lower things, in their imitation of higher things, take on as much of the reality of the higher things as they can, given the sorts of things that they variously are. ("What is received is received in the manner of the recipient, not in the manner of the thing received.")

8. They agree that what enables a human being to achieve this overturning of appearance, and intellectual ascent, is precisely the rational, non-corporeal power of the soul.

9. They therefore agree that there is an important affinity between the most fundamental reality of the universe ('God') and a human being.

10. They therefore agree that the highest activity of a human being is some kind of recognition of God or divine things--that knowledge and intellectual 'contemplation' are what a human being should most suitably strive after.

Now these points of agreement may usefully be placed in contrast with the standard viewpoint of the schools of Hellenistic philosophy, or with varieties of naturalism today, and if we additionally call these points of agreement 'Platonism', then to this extent one may usefully hold, with Gerson and the neoplatonists, that Aristotle is a Platonist.


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