The Enduring Positive Legacy of Aristotle

In one of history’s great and tragic ironies, in the late Middle Ages Aristotle became the patron Greek philosopher of the Catholic Church. Many of that era’s thinkers, the Scholastics, were Christian Aristotelians. But a critical and often overlooked point is that, in the centuries following Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, they too often rejected Aristotle’s method and clung to his specific conclusions as dogmatically as they did Biblical myths. In effect, they often treated Aristotle as one of the Church fathers, as an infallibly authoritative guide regarding all cognitive matters. Often, they were opponents of observation-based science—and, by repudiating Aristotle’s method, led many to believe that he, too, opposed it.

Nevertheless, despite a jaw-dropping subsequent conflation of Scholasticism with Aristotelianism—including among outstanding scientists and philosophers of the modern period—the reintroduction of Aristotle’s method by Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and others resuscitated science and philosophy. It also vitiated religion’s grip on Western civilization, wrought the Medieval Renaissance, spelled doom for the Middle Ages, and catalyzed the ensuing Italian Renaissance and Enlightenment.

It is instructive to note the converse ways in which Islam and Christianity confronted Aristotle’s ideas. Muslims first embraced them and soared into a golden age; then rejected them and plunged into a dark age. Christians initially warred against Aristotle’s ideas—and the Greeks generally—and plunged into a dark age; then embraced them and soared into a renaissance.

Meanwhile, centuries of crushing persecution in Christian Europe had oppressed the Jews. At the same time, with such notable exceptions as Maimonides (1135–1204), the Jews’ rejection of Greek rationalism since the 2nd century BC had kept the Jewish community overwhelmingly religious and backward. In 18th-century Germany, however, this started to change: Philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and other Jewish heroes embraced the Enlightenment and ventured successfully out of the ghetto. In 19th-century Germany, Jewish orthodoxy was shattered with the inception of Reform Judaism—the idea that Jewish traditions should be adapted to current culture—which was soon transported to America by Jewish emigrants. Combined with a birth of religious freedom in the 18th century, this led to an extraordinary outpouring of Jewish intellectual achievement, first in Germany and then elsewhere, especially America.

The German Jews’ embrace of the Enlightenment was the second major turning point in Jewish history, this time a glorious one. Most contemporary Jews emphasize the importance of reason, intellectual development, and secular education; consequently, they are far more Greek than they are Jewish. Modern Jews have effectively established a template of how religious fundamentalism can give way to Aristotelian rationalism.74

All three major religions have had to confront the ideas of the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Averroes tried to integrate Aristotle with Islam. Maimonides tried to integrate Aristotle with Judaism. Aquinas tried to integrate Aristotle with Christianity. All necessarily failed.

Rationality cannot be integrated with faith; nor reason with anti-reason; nor, in philosophy, fact with fantasy.

Durant refers to Aristotle as “this amazing Greek who . . . upset three religions.”75 Barnes writes, “He bestrode antiquity like an intellectual colossus.”76 Aristotle continues to upset the religions, and he now bestrides the modern Western world. His philosophy provides a proper understanding of the method of reason—and from that comes all that is good in modern secular culture: rational philosophy, the arts, the sciences, medicine, technology, prosperity.

Durant, speaking of the medieval renaissance, writes, “Aristotle’s philosophy was a Greek gift to Latin Christendom, a Trojan horse concealing a thousand hostile elements. These seeds of the Renaissance and Enlightenment were . . . ‘the revenge of paganism’ over Christianity.”77 To put it more accurately: the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were the triumph—not the “revenge”—of Greek rationalism over Christianity. More precisely still, these monumental events were the triumph of Aristotle over religion.

Reason Versus Anti-Reason

Throughout most of Western (and Middle Eastern) history, reason versus anti-reason is Aristotle versus religion.78 The 2nd-century BC Judaic rejection of Greek rationalism represents one of history’s most tragic turning points. If Hellenizing Jews had triumphed over the fundamentalists, religion might have quietly expired, and mankind possibly spared the horrors of Christianity and Islam. But the fundamentalists triumphed, and history bears grim witness to the consequences.

History reveals a two-thousand-year death struggle of faith versus reason; and though it is true that religion is not the only form of irrationalism plaguing the modern world, it remains one central form of it—most obviously in the case of Islam, the least-reformed of the three Middle-Eastern religions. The religious “method” of faith is irredeemably irrational and, as such, antithetical to human life. Conversely, Aristotle’s method of observation-based rationality is essential to human life. For any individuals genuinely concerned to promote man’s earthly life, the takeaway lesson from this monumental struggle is that they must support reason over faith—which means: Aristotle over religion.

The death struggle of reason versus anti-reason continues. Everyone must choose a side.

 


References:

74. Chaim Potok’s outstanding novel, The Chosen, provides a brilliant fictitious depiction of this 20th century struggle between Jewish traditionalism and the Greek spirit of rationalism. Potok, The Chosen (New York: Fawcett Books, 1987).75. Durant, “The Age of Faith,” pp. 954–55.

76. Barnes, Aristotle, p. 1.

77. Durant, “The Age of Faith,” p. 982.

78. The Enlightenment philosophes held a similarly dualistic view of history. See, for example: Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume 1, “The Rise of Modern Paganism” (New York: Knopf, 1966), pp. 33–37.

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 9, No. 1. Andrew Bernstein holds a PhD in philosophy from the Graduate School of the City University of New York and taught philosophy for many years at SUNY Purchase. He is the author of The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic, and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire (2005); Objectivism in One Lesson: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (2008); Capitalism Unbound: The Incontestable Moral Case for Individual Rights (2010); and Capitalist Solutions (2011). Dr. Bernstein is currently writing a book, Heroes and Hero Worship, at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, and is a contributing editor of The Objective Standard.

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