Jacques Maritain Center : Aristotle and the Christian Church



ARISTOTLE will now enter upon a career of conquest and influence far exceeding the conquest and the influence of his great pupil, Alexander. Let us pause a moment at the threshold of his power. Schools and systems rise and flourish and become a thing of history; but centuries, now of neglect, now of undue admiration, having elapsed, Aristotle blooms into perennial freshness long after those who admired or condemned him have passed into oblivion. Certainly, the secret of this influence lies not in elegance of style, nor in glow of expression, nor, as we now possess him, in harmony of arrangement. His language is at this day sometimes obscure, sometimes almost unintelligible, generally severe; with much weariness of spirit is he read, but also with none the less avidity.{1} "The half-understood words of Aristotle have become laws of thought to other ages."{2} Even when he was handed down in imperfect translation and was but ill-understood, his genius, though clouded, remained not without recognition. He was called the Prince of Philosophers;{3} the Master of them that know;{4} the limit and paragon of human intelligence.{5} Among the lesser intellectual lights, veneration for him became a superstition, and no word of his would they dream of disputing. Such over-estimation led to reaction. The pious regarded him as the root of all heresy.{6} The Humanists found the polished pages of Plato more congenial, and accordingly upon Plato expended all their enthusiasm. The Reformers found him too identified with Catholic dogma to subserve their purposes. We know what Luther thought of him "If Aristotle had not been of flesh, I should not hesitate to affirm him to have been truly a devil."{7} Both Bacon and Descartes, each after his own manner, directed their whole energies towards the overthrow of the Stagyrite in order to prepare the way for their respective systems. The philosophers of the eighteenth century neither understood nor appreciated him.{8} Diderot calls his philosophy one of the greatest plagues of the human intellect.{9} The nineteenth century is more just. After having tested many systems of philosophy -- after Kant and Hegel and Schopenhauer and Cousin and Mill and Herbert Spencer have spoken -- we find the current of thought drifting back once more towards Aristotle. And we are returning with many advantages over his early admirers. We have purer texts. The history of philosophy is better known, and throws light upon many points hitherto but imperfectly understood. The spirit of study at the present day is thoughtful and many-sided. It ignores no element. It recognizes no break. It finds opinions of the present intimately related to ideas in the remotest past. It accepts as a primary principle that in the world of ideas, as in that of society, thoughts are generated, grow, and develop according to laws as rigid as those governing the generation and development of the human body. It postulates as an elementary condition of right-knowing, that in order to apprehend any subject properly, one must search and consider the contributions that have been made to that subject in the past, and, if possible, lay finger upon the germs of the thoughts that are now full-blown. The spirit of study pursued in conformity with these principles, must needs appreciate the importance of an intellect that during twenty-odd centuries has been moulding the forms of thought and constructing the grooves in which the trained intellects of civilized Europe should reason.

The genius of Aristotle stands out in strong contrast with that of his great master, Plato. His frame of mind was in many respects diametrically opposite. He lacked the religious fervour of his master. He was emphatically a man of the world, whereas Plato was a recluse. He was wanting in that reverence for antiquity and all belonging to it -- the old myths, the old cosmogonies, the old traditions -- that lend such a charm to the pages of Plato; and if he does speak of his predecessors, and accept what they handed down, with a certain modesty, it is simply the modesty belonging to every close student who knows his own limitations. Plato was governed by an enthusiasm that lit up his soul and revealed to him the highest and noblest regions of ideal thought and emotion; Aristotle looked at the cold facts of the case, dissected every element of thought and expression with the coolness of the surgeon handling the scalpel, and set down his observations in the dryest and baldest manner.

What were the personal feelings of the Stagyrite towards his great teacher? Were they friendly, or were they antagonistic? We know not. We can only surmise. But, whether Aristotle gave the sense of Plato as he understood that sense; whether he concealed the true meaning of his master's teaching and gave only the literal external rendering thereof; or whether he deliberately, and with malice aforethought, changed and distorted his master's doctrines; or whether, still, he merely took the imperfect expression of them as given by disciples unable to grasp their whole bearing, and answered these with a view simply of making them so many pegs on which to hang his own doctrines: be the explanation what it may, the real position of Aristotle's philosophy in the history of thought is that it stands out from the philosophy of Plato, not as a mere contradiction to that philosophy, but as completing and perfecting it, and supplying its shortcomings. He laid hold of the laws of thought and made of them a science. He separated philosophy from fable and myth and metaphor, and gave it a method and a scientific terminology.{10} He developed the syllogism to a degree of perfection that has left it the admiration of all succeeding thinkers. He taught after-ages how to classify and how to define with accuracy and with method. More than this has he done; but this much suffices to establish his claim upon the appreciation of men for all time.

{1} Cicero studied Aristotle in Athens, in the very atmosphere of his writings, and surrounded by all the traditions of the Lyceum, and yet he found the study of him difficult: "Magna animi contentio adhibenda est in explicando Aristotele" (Frag. Hortensius). See J. B. Saint Hilaire, Met. d'Arist., tom. i., Pref., p. ii.

{2} Jowett, Politics of Aristotle, Introd. p. ix.

{3} St. Thomas Aquinas.

{4} Dante.

{5} Averroes.

{6} See the concluding chapter of Postello, in Eversio Falsorum Aristotelis Dogmatum, p. 75, sqq.

{7} Ueberweg, Hist, of Phil., vol. ii. p. 17. Later on, through the influence of the more conservative Melancthon, his Dialectics were exempt from Luther's general condemnation.

{8} See J. Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire, De La Logique d'Aristote, tom. ii. p. 194.

{9} OEuvres, tom. xix. p. 372.

{10} He himself tells us the philomuthos was also the philosopsos. Met., i. 2, § 4.

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