The modern age has been a 500-year revolution against Aristotle. Bacon and Galileo assailed his authority in the natural sciences; neoplatonists rejected his metaphysics in favor of a false mysticism that was little better than black magic; Epicureans, thrilled with the insights of the rediscovered poem of Lucretius, preferred hedonism and materialism to Aristotle’s morality of balance and prudence and metaphysics that gave credit both to the world of the senses and to the higher reality that Parmenides and Plato had revealed. Most significantly, perhaps, was the war waged by moral and political philosophers, from Descartes and Leibniz to Kant and Marx, on Aristotle’s approach to human moral and social life.
In the official version of modernity, Aristotle was a false idol overthrown by brave men seeking the truth. In reality, Aristotle never intended to set up a reigning ideology; his whole method of patient accumulation of fact and careful analysis is against it. His greatest disciple, Thomas Aquinas, was no less open-minded in his explanation of reality, and neither, if presented with the evidence, would have quarreled with the results of a truly scientific investigation. They would both, however, have deplored the alchemical search for divine power that was pursued by the originators of modern science.
The magical quest to transcend human limitation and assume the divine power of creation has worked great mischief, symbolized by the pollution of the ancient elements of air, earth, and water; by the devastation wrought by modern weaponry in the hands of modern men; by the infanticidal rage that is “a woman’s right to choose”; and by the diabolical plot to create or clone human beings. Such mischief, bad as it has been, is trivial compared with the moral revolution made by the anti-Aristotelians.
Aristotle’s most important observations on human life are found in his Eudemian and Nicomachean Ethics, the Politics and Constitution of Athens, the Rhetoric and the Poetics. Because ethics, politics, rhetoric, and poetry are all concerned with human behavior (ethos), he seems to have lumped them together generically as ethica. In all these works, Aristotle says many invaluably true things about human behavior, politics, and art, but what is essential is not the specific truths or even his system itself, which may strike us moderns as entirely too teleological (that is, predicated on the assumption that all natural processes have a perfect form toward which they are either tending or from which they are falling away). Although the Aristotelian system, qua system, probably does offer a better intellectual framework than the alternatives, it is his approach to human questions that is so invaluable.
Aristotle’s father was a physician, who would have spent much of his time observing and recording symptoms. The young philosopher, in addition, seems to have been, from early on, a passionate naturalist, an avocation that requires patient observation of phenomena more than bold speculation. Aristotle always begins with the accumulation of evidence. In his study of metaphysics, for example, he began by collecting the opinions of his predecessors; in his Poetics, he clearly bases his theories on what he can observe of the most highly regarded poets; before writing his Politics, he sent his students across the Mediterranean world, collecting specimens of local constitutions—and not just from Greek communities.
In all “ethical” questions (that is, questions related to human life), Aristotle is suspicious of theories that supersede the evidence provided by custom, tradition, and common sense. Whenever Aristotle opposes a philosopher’s opinion to folk wisdom, he is setting up the philosopher for a fall. But which, after all, is more likely to be true, when it is a question of bringing up children, the speculation of a philosopher or the common wisdom of grandmothers?
Aristotle’s interest in the everyday opinions of ordinary people and his distrust of theory is neither a conservative reflex nor the sign of an irrational mind. At the heart of his ethical understanding is the realization that the methods of abstract science cannot be applied wholesale to moral and political questions. Near the beginning of the Ethics, he makes the point explicitly, drawing out the distinction between exact sciences, capable of demonstration, and the fuzzier disciplines that study human life (such as ethics and politics) where we must be content with partial truths and rough outlines, for
it is the mark of an educated man to seek precision only so far as the nature of the subject admits. To demand logical proofs from rhetoric is the rough equivalent of expecting mathematics to use the language of persuasion.
Nearly all modern political and ethical theories are based on a rejection of this (it seems to me) self-evident truth. Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, and Kant, Adam Smith and Karl Marx, and all their lesser successors today have founded elaborate systems on a priori principles, such as equality, liberty, individualism, class struggle, and the like. They then proceed from these baseless assumptions to construct vast moral, economic, and political systems that violate the most elementary understanding of human behavior. Modern science, instead of refuting Aristotle and confirming his enemies in the social sciences, has vindicated the philosopher and annihilated the false disciplines of sociology and political science. Despite the excesses and eccentricities of certain theorists, the researches of sociobiologists and geneticists have given us an understanding of human nature that is alien to the abstractions of both Smith and Marx, who made the basic mistake of ignoring Aristotle’s methodological warning against the application of pure reason to human things.
It is no detraction from Plato to say that he was so enthralled by the realization that mathematics and logic conveyed a truth beyond the senses that he was tempted to redesign human nature. For example, he acknowledged that most men are right-handed, but he believed that, with proper training, we could all be ambidextrous. Apply that sort of thinking to concrete social problems, and you end up with the total state. Aristotle, however, was more skeptical. In grappling with the concept of natural justice (Eth. Nic. V), he says that it is not, except for the gods, an absolute like fire, which burns the same in Persia as in Greece. Slyly answering Plato’s delusion, he suggests that it is more like right-handedness, a tendency that is quasiuniversal but does not exclude the possibility of ambidexterity.
Aristotle takes the reality of human life as he finds it. Men and women are born into a family, grow up, rear children, take part in the life of their community. Their happiness is determined by the friendship or love that kinfolk and friends feel for one another. He refuses to boil all these particular relationships down to the unsightly goo of universal duties. Justice cannot be reduced to simple universals, because different kinds of virtue are required of different people. “A father’s or a master’s justice is not the same as that of the citizens,” he observes and makes all the routine distinctions of Greek society (and every other society but ours). It is worse to cheat a comrade than a fellow citizen; to fail to help a brother is worse than failure to aid a stranger; and striking a father is a more terrible crime than any other assault.
According to Aristotle, all laws are, by their nature, universal statements that cannot comprehend every contingency. For human beings, at least, fairness and reasonableness (epieikeia) are better adapted to the needs of justice than the kind of dogmatic absolutism that leads to error, and, while Aristotle seems to be discussing actual legislation, his strictures apply with equal force to the absolute moral laws proposed by such modern philosophers as John Rawls or Robert Nozick or Thomas Nagel (to name only three conspicuous offenders).
In contrast with Kant, who thought that mother-love was too irrational to be genuinely moral, Aristotle recognizes the central fact of kinship in human life. At times, he writes as if he has been studying sociobiology. One cannot be just to one’s children, for example, because they are so much a part of oneself. Parents, he says, love children as their very selves, and brothers love each other as being born from the same parents: Their identity with the parents makes them identical with each other (Eth. Nic. 1161b). It is the reality of friendship, not the abstractions of liberty and equality, that is at the heart of his understanding. In his discussion of friendship in the Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle starts with the general opinion that, since
Justice and injustice are chiefly a question of friends . . . justice and friendship are the same thing, or close to it. . . . [O]ur personal acts of justice directed toward friends are up to us, while just behavior directed toward others is established by law and not up to us.
By friendship (philia), Aristotle means something like affection or love, and the most natural (as well as the most powerful) form is the love between parents and children. More broadly spread throughout the community, it is friendship, rather than justice, that holds the city together. Although most people would rather receive than give love, the hallmark of friendship is loving, and the strongest example is the unselfish love of a mother who may even be willing to give her child up, if that is in his best interest.
Friendship is the basis of all human associations that require sharing and mutual responsibilities. To the extent that we have a “relationship,” there is friendship to the same extent—and justice. In this sense, justice and friendship are concerned with the same things. Aristotle’s arguments seem to lead to a conclusion that most Greeks would have readily accepted: It is only by loving others and by treating them as part of ourselves that we can behave justly toward them.
Modern readers are often puzzled by Aristotle’s insistence that only the virtuous are happy. We have all seen successful, apparently “happy” people who achieved success by immoral means and often at the expense of friends and family members. The successful immoralist cannot be happy, however, precisely because he has harmed his relatives, neighbors, and fellow countrymen.
Aristotle thought happiness was an ultimate good both because we would give up other things—e.g., wealth and power—if they stood in the way of happiness and because happiness is “self-sufficient”—that is, complete in itself, not requiring anything beyond it. But Aristotle recognized that self-sufficiency (or autarky) was not possible for individuals (Eth. Nic. I.7 1097a 9-13):
By self-sufficient we do not mean that which is sufficient for a man by himself, for one who lives a solitary life, but also for his parents, wife, children, and more generally for his friends and fellow citizens, since man is a naturally social creature.
Aristotle concedes that some limit has to be set to avoid an infinite regression toward that abstraction we now call “society” or even “humanity,” and, for the sake of analysis, he agrees to isolate the quality of happiness as that which makes life happy and complete; it was still difficult, however, for a Greek, even in the fourth century, to isolate individual happiness from its social context. Aristotle had warned his fellow Greeks against the perils of a large commonwealth in which aliens can usurp the privileges of citizens, and, if he were alive today, he would be pointing out the problems of vast nation-states that destroy the human scale.
Aristotle is often lumped together with Plato, because they both upheld the philosophical ideal of contemplation as the highest form of happiness, but Aristotle was more alive to the importance of friendship and kinship as conditions for a happy life. Anthony Kenny, who has made a controversial argument for the Eudemian Ethics as Aristotle’s final vision of the good life, makes an essential point that Aristotle wants to prove that “[T]he good man needs friends by showing that the good involved in perceiving and knowing is essentially a shared good.”
Human beings are not born in isolation, and their happiness is bound up with the fate of those they love. Not everyone would go as far as Aristotle in wondering if the fortunes of the living affect the dead (Eth. Nic. I), although that was a common Greek sentiment. Nonetheless, even modern Christians speak of “the communion of saints,” the belief that, in receiving the bread and wine, all believers—regardless of time and space, life and death—are in mystical communion with Christ’s Body and Blood and with one another.
For Aristotle, as for Plato and St. Paul, God is the ultimate object of our attention. Even in the Eudemian Ethics, as Kenny points out, “the intellectual love of God is . . . also the prime motive within the soul,” and the key to virtue is to know, love, and serve God.” Unlike other philosophers who had a theocentric vision of human life, however, Aristotle never contemned the duties and pleasures of everyday life. This sane and all-embracing vision that leads us from love of family to love of our neighbor to love of
country to love of God may be the prin-cipal reason why St. Thomas always calls him The Philosopher. The road that leads from Descartes to Locke to Mill and Marx is the road to the madhouse. Aristotle is our guide back to sanity.