Saturday, March 4, 2023

What does it mean to be an Aristotelian?


In my view,  Aristotelians are people who seek guidance from Aristotle's ethics in considering how to live their lives. Please read on for an explanation.

I was prompted to pose this his question by an article by John Sellars entitled ‘How to be an Aristotelian’ (recently published in Antigone).  While thinking about the question I read Sellars’ new book, Aristotle, Understanding the World’s Greatest Philosopher. By coincidence, at the same time I was reading Stoicism Today, Volume 4, which contains an article by John Sellars entitled ‘Hard Truths and Happiness’. I mention the Stoicism article because the approach that Sellars adopts in discussing what it means to be a Stoic seems to me to be relevant to considering what it means to be an Aristotelian. (I also think many of the articles in Stoicism Today are worth reading. It is fascinating to read about how people seek to apply this ancient philosophy in their daily lives.)

This article will meander around, so it is particularly important in this instance to foreshadow what I am going to tell you before I tell it to you. I will begin by outlining Sellars’ view about what it means to be a Stoic. I will then discuss the view Sellars presents of what it means to be an Aristotelian in his Antigone article before moving to a discussion of the approach he adopts in his book. I will conclude with some personal comments on what it means to be an Aristotelian.

What principles do you need to accept to be a Stoic?

In his Stoicism Today article, John Sellars’ argues that Stoicism is a philosophy that is guided by the idea that people want to live well. Stoicism is a philosophy which makes claims about the nature of the world. It is a way of living, not merely a collection of exercises, or therapies, aimed at making people feel happy. Stoics believe that learning to live well within the world involves understanding what it is and how it works. However, Sellars implies that means more than just a commonsense understanding. He argues that if you want to get to grips with Stoic philosophy as a way of life, you need to get to grips with the fundamental principle that “everything is ultimately matter in a process of continual change”.

Everything in this world does seem to be in a process of continual change. Perhaps everything in the cosmos is matter. Who knows? I am not even sure what that means. In any case, I don’t understand how trying to get my head around the ultimate nature of the cosmos would make me a better human. It is interesting to read about the Higgs boson etc. but that seems to have less relevance in considering how I should live my life than the views of Robert Higgs on Facebook.

What principles do you need to accept to be an Aristotelian?

In his Antigone article, John Sellars makes what he describes as “a wild claim” that Aristotle “is the single most important human being ever to have lived”. To support that claim he finds reasons to rule out Jesus and other possible candidates. However, his main argument is that Aristotle shaped the way we think about so many things including by laying “the foundations for all empirical science”.

In considering what it means to be an Aristotelian, Sellars suggests that there are two ways in which we can use the word Aristotelian. The first involves “dogmatic Aristotelianism” – to subscribe to the truthfulness of the assertions that Aristotle made in the texts that he left behind. The second simply involves joining Aristotle in the ongoing process of trying to understand the world in which we live.

A few weeks ago I drew attention to the Antigone article in a Facebook post. In his response, Roderick Long, a philosopher, wrote:

Seems like a false dichotomy:  either being an Aristotelean means being a rigid, dogmatic adherent of a fixed and detailed Aristotelean system, or else it means something so watered down that any sincere seeker after truth counts as an Aristotelean.  Neither of these, of course, is what we who call ourselves Aristoteleans mean by Aristoteleanism.  Sellars is unfortunately failing to reckon with the possibility that we can learn not just from Aristotle's truth-seeking attitude but from his actual arguments.”

My response to Roderick: 

“I am inclined to agree with you. However, when I praise Aristotle’s arguments about happiness, ethics etc. I am sometimes reminded (by people with science training) of all the things that Aristotle got wrong. So, if a case can be made that he was an early advocate of scientific method (rather than a dogmatist) that does seem an important rhetorical point”.

I added that I was interested to read Sellars’ book, to see what he writes there about Aristotle’s arguments.

What does Sellars’ book say about Aristotle’s arguments?

John Sellars’ book is a short intellectual history of Aristotle. It is intended to serve as an introductory text but some people who already have some knowledge of Aristotle’s writings may also benefit from reading it. I found it enlightening because I had not previously considered how one thing may have led to another in the development of Aristotle’s views at different stages of his life. For example, the time Aristotle spent studying animals on Lesbos seems to have been important in his rejection of reductive materialism and the development of his thoughts about the purposes of living organisms, including humans.

In the book, Sellars provides an account of Aristotle’s struggle with Plato’s views and the development of his own ideas about being, substance, the idea that natural entities have intrinsic purposes (natural teleology) and the difference between actuality and potentiality. He summarises thus Aristotle’s argument about what it means to be a human being:

“So, a human being is a living thing with a certain set of capacities: the ability to grow, move, and reproduce. These capacities are ones that we share with other animals. The distinctive capacity of humans, Aristotle says, is the ability to reason: humans are rational animals. The defining characteristic of humans, then, is the ability to think rationally. The vast majority of adult humans have this capacity; we are all, we might say, potentially thinking beings. However, we are only truly thinking beings when we are actually thinking, when we actualize that potential and use the capacity. In short, to be a human being is not to exist statically, but instead to engage in a whole range of distinctively human activities, the most important of which is thinking.”

However, the book also presents Sellars’ view, referred to above, that there are two different ways in which we can use the word Aristotelian and that he prefers the second view - being an Aristotelian simply involves joining him in the ongoing process of trying to understand the world in which we live.

While I think Sellars view of what it means to be an Aristotelian is excessively broad, I think he performs a useful service in demolishing the view that Aristotle was a dogmatist. He notes that some thinkers in the 16th century, who were critical of clerical dogmatism, were aware that Aristotle was a champion of observation and open inquiry. He notes that even Galileo was happy to describe himself as an Aristotelian because he knew that Aristotle recognised that every theory is open to refutation by further observation.

My view

As already noted, I find it difficult to accept that everyone who is trying to understand the world in which we live is an Aristotelian. I think that is a necessary condition to be an Aristotelian, but not a sufficient condition.

It seems to me that Aristotelians accept certain philosophical principles, such as natural teleology, that are not accepted by everyone who is trying to understand the world. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Aristotelian philosophy is not sufficient to enable me to advance that argument with much confidence. Perhaps I am wrong. If you think that is so, please tell me why.

My main point is that in considering what it means to be an Aristotelian it is appropriate to adopt a line of argument like that adopted by John Sellars in considering what it means to be a Stoic. Like Stoics, Aristotelians are also guided by a philosophy which is concerned with what it means to live well. That philosophy is Aristotelian ethics.

The passage from Sellars’ book about the nature of a human being (quoted above) describes the philosophic foundation for Aristotelian ethics.

Many people who are trying to understand the world have no understanding of Aristotelian ethics and obtain no guidance from it in how they live their lives. I don’t think it makes sense to view such people as Aristotelians.

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