The Disaster of Aristotle

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aristotleAristotle revered Plato, but his was a more ‘this-worldly’ temperament. He was an empirical scientist down to the core. There could be nothing in the intellect, he asserted absolutely, that did not get there via the senses. He quickly abandoned Plato’s premise of distinct levels of existence: for Aristotle, there was no purely intelligible realm of invisible Forms, since everything was on the same level, and everything was available to observation and logic. He wrote extensive criticism of Plato’s theory of the Forms, denying that universal principles exist over and above particular sensible objects, or distinct from them.

Forms do exist, he believed, but not as things-in-themselves, and certainly not on some different level of Being. Instead, he brought the Forms down from the perfect bliss of unchanging eternity, and plunged them into the world of time and sense. They were more like “blueprints” or, as he called them, “potentials”, but they were potentials which only existed within each particular material object. An acorn, for example, contained the Form of an oak tree. For this reason, it tended to move toward the goal of becoming an oak tree. It might not make it (it might be eaten by a squirrel), but if allowed to proceed to its destiny it would and could only become an oak tree, since beech trees, or other things, were not part of its ‘Form’.

In Plato’s view, the transcendent Forms lent purpose and meaning to the world of the senses, they provided the template for the most perfect possible world, a moving image of divine eternity. Aristotle’s Forms, as ‘potentials’ within matter itself, were depleted of these attributes. Plato and Socrates apparently discerned much of their vast knowledge by a direct spiritual confrontation with reality, by means of an awakened Nous. Aristotle claimed no such ability, and without this he could only view their statements as ‘unproven’. He was bothered by their assumption that a sensible object can somehow ‘partake’ of something else, particularly when that something else is a separate and distinct entity existing in some alleged higher world. He concluded instead that a sound foundation of knowledge must begin with the objects of the sensible world, and thus for Aristotle there was only this one level of reality.

Socrates believed that a Divine Power must plan and order the universe for the best. When Plato turned to a consideration of the sensible external world, his science and theology met this demand. But none of this remained in Aristotle’s system. God did not create the world for any good end: his influence on the world was restricted to merely causing the movements of the stars. The striving of the soul for perfection, conceived of by Socrates and expanded by Plato to include a purposeful movement of all Creation toward the same divine perfection, was reduced by Aristotle to a dry mechanical philosophy. If Socrates could have read Aristotle’s book, Metaphysics, he would never have recognized the mundane outcome of the great philosophical and spiritual work that he himself had initiated.

My opinion? Aristotle was a far inferior intellect compared to his predecessors, and the power that his intellect has asserted into human history has been an utter disaster.