04 December 2006

Two Types of Imitation of God

The passage from the Timaeus to which Gerson had likened a passage from the Nicomachean Ethics raises the question: when are the differences rather than the similarities between philosophers decisive?

For often--perhaps typically--the most interesting philosophical differences are between philosophers who belong broadly to the same 'movement', since, when differences are too great, there is never any meeting of minds in the first place.

The difference between (early) Wittgenstein and Hegel is uninteresting, but that between Wittgenstein and Frege (or Russell) is very interesting. The significance of the differences implies some shared outlook at the start. But for all that it would be grossly mistaken, of course, to talk about the 'harmony' of early Wittgenstein and Frege, or to assert that Wittgenstein was a Fregean.

And there are noteworthy differences in the passages from Plato and Aristotle. I mention two:

1. For Plato, the human soul does not 'belong' in the body, in the sense that it originates elsewhere (w(j a1ra au)to_ dai/mona qeo_j e9ka&stw| de/dwken), and its true home is elsewhere (pro_j de\ th_n e0n ou)ranw|~ sugge/neian). For Aristotle, the human soul is naturally fitted to the human body and it would be nonsense to say that some other life naturally belongs to it.

2. For Plato, then, the ethical task, 'assimilation to God', consists in practicing the sort of life to which the soul is naturally akin, as a way of recovering that life and of making oneself worthy of living it once again (pro&j te to_n paro&nta kai\ to_n e1peita xro&non). For Aristotle, 'assimilation to God' is rather 'imitation of God'--that is, living well within one's rank by imitating something of a higher rank (to_ zh~n kata_ to_ kra&tiston tw~n e0n au(tw|).

I won't take up everyone's time by pointing to other details of the cited passages which illustrate these differences; and anyone familiar with the other 'assimilation' passages in Plato would agree, I think, that these differences are manifested there as well.

To find an analogy to illustrate the difference, we need to find some clear example of a difference in station or rank. Baseball can provide such an example. For Plato, the human soul is like a major league baseball player who, because of some injury (say), has been sent down to the minor leagues. What he should do, then, is to avoid being distracted by the inconveniences of small-town minor league life and resume playing like a major league player as promptly as possible. After all, he belongs in the major leagues and should aim to return there. For Aristotle, in contrast, the human soul is like a minor league player who belongs in the minor leagues--that's where his talent suitably places him. Nonetheless, it's a good rule of action for him, too, that he should avoid being much distracted by the inconveniences of small-town minor league life and should strive to imitate, as best he can, a major league player.

Someone might say in reply--"But there will be no difference in how these two minor league players act; likewise, Plato and Aristotle accept the same view of a good human life, which is all that Gerson means to assert."

To this I would reply:

(i) That's a pragmatic answer. I suppose that for ethical philosophy, too, the truth is important, viz. whether the human soul really does belong in an everlasting realm and is only periodically incarnated, as Plato holds. For one philosopher to regard this as true and another to regard it as false is a big difference.
(ii) Platonic ethics arguably requires this notion as its ultimate justification of a good life. (Suppose that the first minor league player in our example were told that he is simply mistaken, and that he never is going back to the majors, as he had thought--how does he act then?) Or, at least, Platonic ethics is vulnerable to this difficulty in a way that Aristotelian ethics is not.
(iii) The two outlooks imply different ways of classifying desires as 'bodily', and different conceptions of the extent to which it is 'necessary' to yield to, indulge in, or satisfy non-intellectual desires.

I don't take myself to be saying anything earth-shattering here. This is boiler-plate history of philosophy for Plato and Aristotle. I'm simply wondering whether and why it's fruitful to emphasize only the similarities between Plato and Aristotle, as Gerson does, and whether these similarities are not relatively superficial--because, recall, I've adopted Gerson's criterion as my own standard: Is it exegetically fruitful to identify such similarities?

(One cannot say: the comparison shows that an 'intellectualist' reading of the NE is correct, since, again, everything hinges on how broadly one interprets the 'necessity' of our non-intellectualist aims. Also, someone might say that it remains unclear how much weight should be given to the cited NE passage: after all, perhaps the only thing that that passage is intended to accomplish by Aristotle is to show that what people look for in the 'assimilation to God' viewpoint may be adequately accounted for within his own viewpoint-- it is simply Aristotle's way of handling important Platonic endoxa about imitation of God.)


Anonymous said...

good writing , thx , could please write about plato's Aesthetic , i like the way you write , thx .