Durant 1926: Criticism (Aristotle)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter II, Section 9 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


IX. Criticism

What shall we say of this philosophy? Perhaps nothing rapturous. It is difficult to be enthusiastic about Aristotle, because it was difficult for him to be enthusiastic about anything; and si vis me flere, primum tibi flendum.* His motto is nil admirari—to admire or marvel at nothing; and we hesitate to violate his motto in his case. We miss in him the reforming zeal of Plato, the angry love of humanity which made the great idealist denounce his fellow-men. We miss the daring originality of his teacher, the lofty imagination, the capacity for generous delusion. And yet, after reading Plato, nothing could be so salutary for us as Aristotle’s sceptic calm. 

*[“If you wish me to weep you must weep first”-Horace (Ars Poetica) to actors and writers.]

Aristotle approached his investigations very calmly.

Let us summarize our disagreement. We are bothered, at the outset, with his insistence on logic. He thinks the syllogism a description of man’s way of reasoning, whereas it merely describes man’s way of dressing up his reasoning for the persuasion of another mind; he supposes that thought begins with premisses and seeks their conclusions, when actually thought begins with hypothetical conclusions and seeks their justifying premisses,—and seeks them best by the observation of particular events under the controlled and isolated conditions of experiment. Yet how foolish we should be to forget that two thousand years have changed merely the incidentals of Aristotle’s logic, that Occam and Bacon and Whewell and Mill and a hundred others have but found spots in his sun, and that Aristotle’s creation of this new discipline of thought, and his firm establishment of its essential lines, remain among the lasting achievements of the human mind. 

Aristotle was a pioneer in organizing the subject of logic.

It is again the absence of experiment and fruitful hypothesis that leaves Aristotle’s natural science a mass of undigested observations. His specialty is the collection and classification of data; in every field he wields his categories and produces catalogues. But side by side with this bent and talent for observation goes a Platonic addiction to metaphysics; this trips him up in every science, and inveigles him into the wildest presuppositions. Here indeed was the great defect of the Greek mind: it was not disciplined; it lacked limiting and steadying traditions; it moved freely in an uncharted field, and ran too readily to theories and conclusions. So Greek philosophy leaped on to heights unreached again, while Greek science limped behind. Our modern danger is precisely opposite; inductive data fall upon us from all sides like the lava of Vesuvius; we suffocate with uncoordinated facts; our minds are overwhelmed with sciences breeding and multiplying into specialistic chaos for want of synthetic thought and a unifying philosophy. We are all mere fragments of what a man might be. 

Aristotle lacked experimentation in the field of science, instead he depended on making wild suppositions.

Aristotle’s ethics is a branch of his logic: the ideal life is like a proper syllogism. He gives us a handbook of propriety rather than a stimulus to improvement. An ancient critic spoke of him as “moderate to excess.” An extremist might call the Ethics the champion collection of platitudes in all literature; and an Anglophobe would be consoled with the thought that Englishmen in their youth had done advance penance for the imperialistic sins of their adult years, since both at Cambridge and at Oxford they had been compelled to read every word of the Nicomachean Ethics. We long to mingle fresh green Leaves of Grass with these drier pages, to add Whitman’s exhilarating justification of sense joy to Aristotle’s exaltation of a purely intellectual happiness. We wonder if this Aristotelian ideal of immoderate moderation has had anything to do With the colorless virtue, the starched perfection, the expressionless good form, of the British aristocracy. Matthew Arnold tells us that in his time Oxford tutors looked upon the Ethics as infallible. For three hundred years this book and the Politics have formed the ruling British mind, perhaps to great and noble achievements, but certainly to a hard and cold efficiency. What would the result have been if the masters of the greatest of empires had been nurtured, instead, on the holy fervor and the constructive passion of the Republic?

Aristotle’s Ethics is passionless and full of platitudes.

After all, Aristotle was not quite Greek; he had been settled and formed before coming to Athens; there was nothing Athenian about him, nothing of the hasty and inspiriting experimentalism which made Athens throb with political elan and at last helped to subject her to a unifying despot. He realized too completely the Delphic command to avoid excess: he is so anxious to pare away extremes that at last nothing is left. He is so fearful of disorder that he forgets to be fearful of slavery; he is so timid of uncertain change that he prefers a certain changelessness that near resembles death. He lacks that Heraclitean sense of flux which justifies the conservative in believing that all permanent change is gradual, and justifies the radical in believing that no changelessness is permanent. He forgets that Plato’s communism was meant only for the elite, the unselfish and ungreedy few; and he comes deviously to a Platonic result when he says that though property should be private, its use should be as far as possible common. He does not see (and perhaps he could not be expected in his early day to see) that individual control of the means of production was stimulating and salutary only when these means were so simple as to be purchasable by any man; and that their increasing complexity and cost lead to a dangerous centralization of ownership and power, and to an artificial and finally disruptive inequality. 

Aristotle is looking for order in everything so much so that he loses any sense of adventure.

But after all, these are quite inessential criticisms of what remains the most marvelous and influential system of thought ever put together by any single mind. It may be doubted if any other thinker has contributed so much to the enlightenment of the world. Every later age has drawn upon Aristotle, and stood upon his shoulders to see the truth. The varied and magnificent culture of Alexandria found its scientific inspiration in him. His Organon played a central role in shaping the minds of the medieval barbarians into disciplined and consistent thought. The other works, translated by Nestorian Christians into Syriac in the fifth century A. D., and thence into Arabic and Hebrew in the tenth century, and thence into Latin towards 1225, turned scholasticism from its eloquent beginnings in Abelard to encyclopedic completion in Thomas Aquinas. The Crusaders brought back more accurate Greek copies of the philosopher’s texts; and the Greek scholars of Constantinople brought further Aristotelian treasures with them when, after 1453, they fled from the besieging Turks. The works of Aristotle came to be for European philosophy what the Bible was for theology—an almost infallible text, with solutions for every problem. In 1215 the Papal legate at Paris forbade teachers to lecture on his works; in 1231 Gregory IX appointed a commission to expurgate him; by 1260 he was de rigueur in every Christian school, and ecclesiastical assemblies penalized deviations from his views. Chaucer describes his student as happy by having 

At his beddes hed
Twenty bookes clothed in blake or red,
Of Aristotle and hill philosophie;

and in the first circles of Hell, says Dante, 

I saw the Master there of those who know,
Amid the philosophic family,
By all admired, and by all reverenced; 
There Plato too I saw, and Socrates, 
Who stood beside him closer than the rest.

Such lines give us some inkling of the honor which a thousand years offered to the Stagirite. Not till new instruments, accumulated observations, and patient experiments remade science and gave irresistible weapons to Occam and Ramus, to Roger and Francis Bacon, was the reign of Aristotle ended. No other mind had for so long a time ruled the intellect of mankind. 

But Aristotle’s mind remains unmatched in its contribution to the enlightenment of the world.


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