Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Essay: The writings of Plato and Aristotle and their Influence on the Philosophy of pre-Renaissance Europe

A couple years ago I took some university courses. I thought that it might be interesting to convert a few of my essay assignments into blogs. For a course titled 'Western Culture', I selected the essay assignment: “Discuss the writings of Aristotle with emphasis on how they became lost and were later rediscovered in the Middle Ages. Include a discussion of how European thought was influenced by his ideas during the 12th to 15th centuries. Contrast the influence of Aristotle's works to the influence of Plato's writings”. 
This was one of the essays where, after struggling to fit into the assigned essay length, I got instructor feedback asking for more detail and comment in every section. (Sigh). I have no problem in increasing my output. My problems are in making the thing succinct and readable. My submission was as follows:

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato (429 -347 BCE) and his student Aristotle (384 - 322 BCE), following the example of intellectual exploration that was forged by Socrates (c. 469 BC - 399 BCE),wrote theories that fundamentally influenced European philosophy in every subsequent period; especially in the late Middle Ages. Plato conceived of an unseen ideal Form that was outside the more mundane ordinary human world of our senses. Aristotle saw the ideal Form and the mundane world as one and the same; and he emphasized studying the sensory world around us. In some periods—such as when the Neo-Platonic Roman writers were working—their writings were springboards for further investigation and commentary. In other periods—such as when they were being studied by Averroës or being taught in thirteenth century Scholastic schools—their writings were seen as having ultimate authority. Plato appeared to pluck his concepts from the realm of ideal Forms while Aristotle developed his philosophy using a more analytical approach that we might now term scientific. They both expounded in ways that left much room for interpretation, expansion and argument over the centuries.
In the eighteenth century, Diderot’s Encyclopedia praised their equal status while recognizing their differing methods:
“We see Plato walking in equal steps with Aristotle … Plato led with his suite of eloquence, enthusiasm, virtue, honesty, decency and grace. Aristotle had the method on his right, & the syllogism on his left: he looks, he divides, he distinguishes, he argues, while his rival seems to make divine predictions.” [1]
Socrates forged a Sophist path for Plato and Aristotle. He believed that man is the measure of all things and encouraged his students to follow inquiries to their logical destinations. Plato followed that same path, coming to conclusions based on observations and reasoning.[2] Western idealism was born from Plato’s philosophy, “a thought system that emphasizes spiritual values and makes ideas, rather than matter, the basis of everything that exists.”[3]
Plato emphasized the world of Forms or Ideas rather than the ordinary world of matter and the human body. In Plato’s “Parable of the Cave”, he imagined some humans chained so they can only view the reflected shadows of events that were unfolding behind them. In his universe, ideal Forms remain as template patterns; outside of human perception observed only as shadows on a wall or, perhaps as it is stated in the Bible, reflected in a mirror darkly.[4] In his conceptual universe, perfection was achieved through awareness of those perfect Forms outside the realm of our perception. Plato concentrated on learning ideal universal truths without worrying about the details of the common world.
Plato wrote of an ideal Republic where social status was determined by intellectual ability rather than wealth or inherited class. Social status was the consequence of a long and rigorous period of intellectual training.[5] This training though, wasn’t book learning, or the rigorous observation of human life, it was something much closer to the divine inspiration that later Christians might describe as Faith or Grace. In Plato’s theories the ideal Forms are somehow already built into the human mind, “suggesting that at some point the soul must have received some kind of illumination”.[6]
Following Plato’s theory of ideal prototype Forms leads to interesting conclusions. On the subject of justice, Plato thought there must be an unambiguous example of ideal justice, “not in this world but in some other, and that we must once have been acquainted with it. This is what he calls the ‘Form’ of justice.”[7] We are born into this world with a dim recollection of this prototype Form and therefore some imperfect inkling of what justice is all about. Intellectual training opens the doors to further understanding by divine revelation.[8] As an other example of where Plato’s theories lead, Professor Weber says[9] Plato thought that the truths of geometry were not simply the result of logical reasoning, or the end result of a thought experiment, but rather they were “ideal memories of geometric shapes, existing in some timeless realm that reason could barely comprehend”[10].
Plato’s writing seems almost designed for intellectual argument. Perhaps because of the fate of his teacher Socrates, who drank hemlock rather than recant his controversial ideas, most of Plato’s books consisted of conversational dialogs between Socrates and several students instead of straight-forward lectures or exposition. All sides of arguments were examined without any clear declaration of a winner. Consequentially his writings left much room for interpretation, expansion and argument.
Aristotle was a student under Plato and remained at his Academy for 20 years until Plato’s death around 348 BCE. Unlike Plato, whose conceptual universe included both universal Forms and separate incarnate embodiments, Aristotle wrote of a universe where the ideal Forms and their embodiment as viewed by humans, were one and the same. Aristotle was “the first to develop the study of deductive inference”[11]; he thought that by starting from a few common observations or syllogisms – such as observing that all trees have leaves and only plants have leaves – that he could deduct a more universal truth such as concluding that all trees are plants.[12] According to Matthews and Platt, the Aristotelian philosophy emphasized that the natural world is the only world. He emphasized empiricism; the role of human senses was to observe and human intellect to classify and compare.  Each material object contained a potential purpose.  With training and nourishment it tended to grow towards this ultimate end.[13]
Aristotle “had the most comprehensive mind of the ancient world. His curiosity and vast intellect lead him into every major field of inquiry of his time except mathematics and music.”[14] Like Plato, what Aristotle wrote left much room for interpretation. Both of these philosophers would expound on both sides of an argument without clearly declaring which side they considered the most correct. Aristotle’s arguments could be quite circular. For example, he writes what the “virtuous see what is good, but elsewhere writes that what is good is so because it appears good to the virtuous”[15].
Aristotle’s God was “purely rational, self-absorbed, and uncaring about the world and its inhabitants.”[16] Obtaining knowledge did not require divine intervention. Aristotle rejected Plato’s dualism and devised an ethical goal—a sound mind in a healthy body—that he called happiness.  Like Plato he believed “that the cultivation of the higher intellect was more important than that of the body.”[17] Aristotle believed in a “golden mean” in ethics.[18] All behaviour should be balanced between extremes. “For example, courage is the mean between the excess of foolhardiness and the deficiency of cowardice.”[19]
The school, or Lyceum, founded by Aristotle continued long after his death in 322 BCE. His manuscripts were edited in the first century BCE, and up to the sixth century CE his ideas were not only studied and interpreted but also criticized. In this period he was certainly not seen as an unimpeachable ultimate authority.[20] To the extent that he was seen as authoritative, it was “not because he was above criticism, but because he deserved to be studied carefully.”[21]
In the centuries after the deaths of Plato and Aristotle, several Roman schools expanded on the writings of Plato. Their leaders were Plotinus (204/5 to 270 CE) and his disciple Porphyry (234? to 305? CE). They saw themselves not as revolutionaries but as interpreters of the Platonic tradition. They rejected the essential dualism of Plato and put his thoughts into a monist unified system. Much later, in the early nineteenth century, their philosophy became known as Neo-Platonism.[22] Plotinus wrote the Enneads where he:
affirms the themes common to the general Platonic tradition, namely, (1) the non-materiality of the highest form of reality, (2) belief that there must be a higher level of reality than visible and sensible things, (3) preference for intellectual intuition over empirical forms of knowing, (4) belief in some form of immortality, and (5) belief that the universe is essentially good. The difference, however, is that Plotinus affirms all of these as a monist interested in asserting a real identity between the natural and the supernatural both in man and throughout all of nature.[23]
Porphyry was a Boswell to Plotinus’s Johnson, writing an extensive biography of his mentor; in addition though, he was also an important independent thinker. Porphyry was the one who made Aristotelian logic an important subject within the Neo-Platonic curriculum.[24] He saw Aristotle as one of the most effective expositors of Plato, as someone who knew Plato personally and understood the true meaning of Plato’s writing. He adopted many Aristotelian arguments and distinctions; accepting them both as compatible with Platonism and as useful for articulating the Platonic position.[25] As seen by Porphyry, briefly, there was a super-ordinate principle, the One, on which the Platonic Forms were based. Similarly, according to Porphyry’s view of Aristotelian ideas, Intellect was the principle of intelligent differentiation; it was the essence that all mankind, uses to make sense of the One by dividing up the Forms according to their separate “whatness”.  The One and Intellect interact with the Soul: “As the One is virtually what Intellect is, so Intellect is paradigmatically what Soul is.”[26] (These concepts can be difficult to simplify and summarize).
In the Early Middle Ages, the most learned scholar was Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 475–7 CE to 526? CE). A Roman aristocrat and courtier, he was a rare intellectual of his time. Boethius used his knowledge of Greek to translate much of the vast writings of Aristotle into Latin.  Later Latin scholars knew of Aristotle solely through these translations.[27] He was “one of the most important intermediaries between ancient philosophy and the Latin Middle Ages”[28]. Boethius chose Porphyry as his main authority in logic.[29]
The Byzantine Christians broke significantly with Aristotle on the nature of the universe. John Philoponus (c.490 to 570) taught philosophy at Alexandria and placed a decidedly Christian interpretation on the universe of the Greek philosophers.  In his On the Eternity of the Universe, Philoponus wrote that God had created the universe out of time and therefore it could not be eternal as written by Aristotle. He concluded that God, in making the cosmos, made no distinction between heaven and earth. God had created a universe that unfolded through natural laws and was therefore no difference between celestial and terrestrial bodies.[30]
In the eleventh century, at Chartres and at the St. Victor monastic school in Paris, the teachers emphasized the Greco-Roman classics in general “as a means of gaining insight into universal truths.  Gone was the guilt reflected in many early medieval thinkers when they read the pagan classics.”[31] These new cathedral schools used the same curriculum as codified by Boethius in the sixth century.  The liberal arts were taught from basic texts based on the works of the classical authors and the early church scholars. Student and teacher communicated in Latin and the works studied by the students were written in Latin. Classic Greek works were known only by misleading Latin summaries.[32]
These new educational ideas, and new ways of thinking, have become known as Scholasticism. These Scholastic thinkers attempted to harmonize both Aristotle’s rational thought and the Christian emphasis on faith. Scholasticism also involved a formal way to attack intellectual problems and find solutions during oral debate. Questions were “set forth for intellectual analysis; next, a discussion thoroughly summarized the arguments for and against the question, usually citing the Bible, the church fathers, Aristotle and other ancient authors; finally, a solution was offered, reinforced with support from religious and secular sources.”[33] The scholastic method was not used to discover and promote new ideas.  It was certainly not meant to question religious beliefs.  It was used to clarify existing issues and explore their intellectual ramifications.[34]
Many of these scholastic debates were about the problem of whether universals or Forms truly exist.  The Realists, following Plato, reasoned that there were general universal concepts—accepted by faith—that existed independently of those real objects that we can see and feel with our senses.  For example, they conceived of an ethereal universal “human being” or “humanity” that was manifest in our everyday material human bodies. The Nominalists denied the existence of universals. They followed Aristotle’s emphasis on things that can be seen, counted and measured.[35] A major figure in these debates was French theologian Pierre Abelard (1079 - 1142), a “brilliant and controversial”[36] scholar.  Abelard showed that “extreme Realism denied human individuality and was thus inconsistent with church teachings”. He taught a more moderate form of Realism where the universals were simply useful human intellectual conveniences. They were not some ideal concept outside of the plane of material human existence.[37]
Arabic scholars became familiar with Aristotle and other thinkers of classical Greece much earlier and more thoroughly than their western European counterparts.[38]  “For example between 750 and 1050 all of Aristotle and much of the work of his ancient commentators were translated into Arabic. Muslim thinkers did not simply accept the works of Greek writers; they corrected them, commented on them, and made their own original and brilliant discoveries.”[39]
The Arab scholar, Ibn Rushd ‘the Commentator’ (1126 - 1198), known in the West as Averroës, produced comprehensive commentaries on nearly all the works of Aristotle, reconciling the Greek thinker’s ideas with Islamic thought. He believed that Aristotle “both initiated and perfected the study of logic, natural science, and metaphysics”.[40] He saw Aristotle as an ultimate authority.  After Christian conquest of Toledo in 1085, clerical scholars in Spain and then Sicily began translating classical works; first from Arabic and later from Greek.[41] Western scholars used these Arabic versions of Aristotle, translated into Latin, to help reconcile Aristotelian and Christian thought.  Ibn Rushd’s writings remained basic texts in Western schools and universities until modern times.[42]
The University of Paris set the standard for advanced learning in the High Middle Ages.  They issued degrees in several faculty specializations.  Achieving their liberal arts degree basically meant that a scholar was a master of the new translations of Aristotle.[43]  The new translations and commentary from Averroës elevated Aristotle to the status of an unquestionable authority. “By 1300 Aristotle’s writings virtually monopolized the curriculum at every educational level.”[44] Ethics was added to study of grammar while the study of logic absorbed Aristotle’s natural philosophy.  The sciences of physics, ethics and metaphysics were taught in addition to the study of the liberal arts.[45] These scientific studies created fears by theologians that accepting pagan Greek philosophy would also bring acceptance of pagan concepts about God’s creation of the world. There was growing conflict between philosophy and theology.  In the thirteenth century, the bishop of Paris condemned errors taught in the arts faculty of the local universities. This played a strong role in turning philosophy away from strict Aristotelianism.[46]
Also in the thirteenth century, the Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas (1224/25 - 1274) created a theological system that reconciled the study of Aristotle with more orthodox Christian beliefs. Known as Thomism, it remains “in its complex design and sheer elegance … one of the outstanding achievements of the High Middle Ages”.[47] Aquinas saw that mankind had two paths to divine truth: reason and faith. He saw the Aristotelian path of sensory perception as the way to learn the truth about the world that we live in. Reason based on our senses was the only way to prove certain truths. At the same time, Aquinas claimed that certain universal concepts, such as the immortal soul or the role of the Holy Spirit, existed outside the doors of human perception; they could only be learned by faith. In other words, some types of knowledge required the path forged by Aristotle and other types kinds of knowledge were found along the path as described by Plato.
While Thomas Aquinas was fundamentally an Aristotelian, that doesn’t mean he did not have other influences; but whatever he borrowed from other sources was carefully examined as to its relationship to Aristotelian concepts.[48] He wrote arguments against both the Averroistic interpretations of Aristotle and the Franciscan tendency to reject Greek philosophy. “The result was a new modus vivendi between faith and philosophy which survived until the rise of the new physics.”[49] Aquinas was eventually canonized by the Catholic Church and his theological writings accepted as part of the official church dogma. His close textual commentaries on Aristotle represent a cultural resource which is even now being recognized and studied.[50]
In fifteenth century Florence, a group of scholars organized themselves as an Accademia Platonica, under the leadership of Marsilio Ficino (1433 to 1499). Ficino translated the Enneads of Plotinus into Latin and harmonized Platonic concepts with Christian teachings. He taught that love and beauty were divine gifts with the ultimate goal being union with the divine; a concept still popularly known as Platonic love. Ficino also revived the Platonic concept of free will; each human being had the choice of loving God and accepting God’s gift of love in return.[51]  Ficino’s concepts contrasted with Plato’s idealism where the Forms are the basis of everything yet represent an unattainable ideal outside the world of everyday substance.[52] Neo-Platonist writings, as influenced by Plotinus and translated by Ficino, brought broader humanism into Italy and other European countries.[53]
In conclusion, both Plato and Aristotle expounded on the most basic foundations of how we see the universe. Theologians have subsequently argued about how the world was created and how all those animals managed to fit on the Ark; cosmologists have argued about whether the sun revolved the earth or, perhaps, it was the other way around; but Plato and Aristotle at their most basic, thought about whether the world of our senses was the entire universe or perhaps there is some universal ideal or Form, unseen by human senses, that can only be recognized by faith or divine revelation. Thinkers of differing times, and differing religious faiths, have found concepts in both Platonic and Aristotelian writings to bolster whatever side of these basic questions that they choose to explore. In some periods of the Middle Ages, their writings were seen as having impeachable authority in any intellectual question.
Bibliography and references used in this Essay
Bostock, David.  "Plato"  The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.
Oxford University Press 2005.

Charles, Dr David. "Aristotelianism"  The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.
Oxford University Press 2005.
Charles, Dr David. "Aristotle"  The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.
Oxford University Press 2005.
Diderot, Denis and Jean le Rond D'Alembert (eds). Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers.
University of Chicago : ARTFL Encyclopédie Projet (Winter 2008 Edition), Robert Morrissey (ed)
Falcon, Andrea. "Commentators on Aristotle", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/aristotle-commentators/
Gerson, Lloyd. "Plotinus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/plotinus/
Harris, Prof. R. Baine. "Neoplatonism"  The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.
Oxford University Press 2005.
Marenbon, John. "Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/boethius/
Matthews, Roy T., and F. DeWitt Platt. The Western Humanities Volume 1: Beginnings through the Renaissance.  Fifth Edition.
New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
McInerny, Ralph and John O'Callaghan. "Saint Thomas Aquinas", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/aquinas/
Pasnau, Robert. "Divine Illumination", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/illumination/
Peters, Edward Europe And The Middle Ages (3rd Edition)
Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997.
Riddle, John M. A History of the Middle Ages, 300-1500
Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008.
The Western Tradition (Video Series)
 
Video 6: Greek Thought
 Barzyk, Fred (Executive Producer) with Professor Eugene Weber
Boston, MA: WGBH Boston with Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989.


[1] Denis Diderot and D’Alembert eds, Encyclopédie p. 12:745
(Personal  translation with some assistance from Google Translate). The original:
On voit Platon marcher d'un pas égal avec Aristote … Platon conduit à sa suite l'éloquence, l'enthousiasme, la vertu, l'honnêteté, la décence & les graces. Aristote a la méthode à sa droite, & le syllogisme à sa gauche: il examine, il divise, il distingue, il dispute, il argumente, tandis que son rival semble prophétiser.
[2] Eugene Weber The Western Tradition, Video 6: Greek Thought
[3] Roy T. Matthews and F. DeWitt Platt. The Western Humanities, Volume I: Beginnings through the Renaissance (Fifth Edition. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2004) p. 70
[4] Based on “Plato” article in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford University Press 2005);
The Biblical reference is to 1 Corinthians 13:12
[5] Matthews and Platt p. 70
[6] "Divine Illumination" The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition)
[7] “Plato” Oxford Companion
[8] “Plato” Oxford Companion
[9] Weber Video 6
[10] Weber Video 6 at 18:30
[11] Quote from “Aristotle” Oxford Companion
[12] Paragraph based on “Aristotle” Oxford Companion
[13] Matthews and Platt p. 71
[14] Matthews and Platt p. 71
[15]Aristotle” Oxford Companion
[16] Matthews and Platt p. 71
[17] Matthews and Platt p. 71
[18] Matthews and Platt p. 68
[19] Matthews and Platt p. 71
[20] “AristotelianismOxford Companion
[21] "Commentators on Aristotle" Stanford Encyclopedia
[22] "Plotinus" Stanford Encyclopedia
[23] Based on “Neoplatonism” Oxford Companion
[24] "Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius" Stanford Encyclopedia
[25] "Plotinus" Stanford Encyclopedia
[26] "Plotinus" Stanford Encyclopedia
[27] Matthews and Platt p. 194
[28] "Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius" Stanford Encyclopedia
[29] "Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius" Stanford Encyclopedia
[30] John M. Riddle A History of the Middle Ages (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) p. 124
[31] Riddle p. 288
[32] Matthews and Platt p. 239
[33] Matthews and Platt p. 239
[34] based on Matthews and Platt p. 239
[35] based on Matthews and Platt p. 240
[36] Matthews and Platt p. 239
[37] Matthews and Platt p. 240
[38] Edward Peters Europe and the Middle Ages (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997) p. 177
[39] Peters p. 177
[40] “Aristotelianism” Oxford Companion
[41] Peters p. 302
[42] Matthews and Platt p. 214
[43] Matthews and Platt p. 240
[44] Matthews and Platt p. 239
[45] Peters p. 303
[46] Peters p. 303
[47] Matthews and Platt p. 240
[48] "Saint Thomas Aquinas" Stanford Encyclopedia
[49] "Saint Thomas Aquinas" Stanford Encyclopedia
[50] "Saint Thomas Aquinas" Stanford Encyclopedia
[51] Matthews and Platt p. 350
[52] Matthews and Platt p. 68
[53]Neoplatonism” Oxford Companion

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am in Hist. 201 online and I was wondering if you could give me any advice as to what to expect for the final exam. I still have to write my second essay as well! Kind of freaking out..