The Philosophers (Part 9): Aristotle

It’s time to talk about Aristotle.

Now, of course you know Alexander. No, I don’t mean the Alexander you went to school with, I’m talking Alexander the Great. That word “great” actually comes from the Greek word “megas”. It’s how we got the word, “mega.” Mega means great, large, tall, mighty, important… It began to be used alone as an adjective just in 1982! Anyway, Alexander the Great was taught by Aristotle from age 13 till age 16. That’s one of his claims to fame. Alexander ascended the throne at the age of 20, after the assassination of his father. By 30 he had created one of the largest empires in history. It stretched from Greece all the way to northwestern India. Alexander is regarded as one of history’s greatest commanders. He never lost a battle, died undefeated. He reigned from 332-323 BC. His ambition was to “reach the ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea.” (Please don’t confuse that with Eko Atlantic in Lagos). He would go on to found twenty cities that bore his name, the most notable being Alexandria in Egypt. Military academies throughout the world still teach his tactics. He was that good! But back to Aristotle.

Aristotle was a brainy kind of guy, a very talented fellow. He was a polymath, meaning he knew too much about too many things. His writings covered so many subjects – physics, biology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, linguistics, economics, politics, government and zoology. Aristotle actually pioneered the study of zoology. By the way, his name means “the best purpose.” As if you need that information. At the age of 17 or 18 Aristotle moved to Athens to continue his education at Plato’s Academy. Remember, Plato’s Academy was the first institution of higher learning in the western world. Aristotle left at age 37 after the death of Plato. He was already teaching there. His point of divergence from his teacher was over Plato’s theory of forms. According to that theory, which Apostle Paul adopted to explain the connection between the heavenly and the earthly, all earthly phenomena are shadows of ideal counterparts. These ideal counterparts were labelled Forms by Plato. He says these Forms gave earthly things their particular identities. We dealt with Forms extensively in Part 3 of The Philosophers series – Plato. You can find it here

Plato thought the way he did because he was a mathematician. Mathematicians think in abstract terms. But Aristotle’s father was a physician. His approach to knowledge was therefore different. His basic interest lay in what we’d call biological sciences today. Biology deals with every day realities, the world around us not abstract ideas. To Aristotle you don’t need to conceive a world of Forms. If you want to know what a dog is for example, you study dogs. As you do you will see common characteristics of dogs. Those common characteristics will tell you what makes a dog a dog. We can therefore find the truth from evidence from the world around us. By looking for constants we can discover the essential characteristics of a thing. Our senses hold the key. Our observation can give us the characteristics of “dogginess.” That’s how we’d recognise dogs. And this is not limited to the natural world, Aristotle says. Notions like “virtue”, “goodness”, “beauty” and “justice” can also be apprehended in this manner. We are born tabula rasa he says – no innate ideas. As we encounter instances of justice throughout our lives we build on the understanding of “justice.” The manifestations of “justice” around us is what gives us an idea of what justice is. This is of course arguable. There are holes in the argument. Imagine a society where values are aberrant, let’s say in that society the concept of justice as we ordinarily know it is turned on its head. If that notion pervades that society the children born into that society won’t know justice as we ordinarily know it, they would understand injustice. Examples abide in the real world. We find them in closed systems like the police force. A man reports an armed robbery to the police and ends up being the accused though he knows nothing about it. In some other police force racism is normative. If people are therefore born into that closed society they will definitely have a wrong notion of justice, which is injustice.

Question is, are we born with God’s laws inscribed on the fleshy tables of our heart, or is it that we learn the notions of goodness and justice from mere observation as Aristotle asserted? What about children with learning disabilities who are otherwise okay in every other respect? Are they incapable of understanding the notion of virtue or goodness or justice? They’re not able to process the essential qualities of “justice” or those other virtues from observations of instances around them. How do they know to do good, to care and to give? And does this theory apply to the concept of evil? Do we learn evil by observation or are we born with capacity for evil? If a child is abandoned in the wild and somehow grows up alone and he tortures animals, how did he learn the concept of evil seeing there are no cases of “evil” around him? Why would his conscience trouble him over THOUGHTS of evil? How did he learn a notion called “evil”? These are some of the challenges faced by the extension of Aristotle’s theory to virtues. His theory is no doubt useful for physical classification but runs into foul weather when extended to abstract and intangible concepts like virtue.

The Christian position is that man is NOT born tabula rasa. We’re not as Aristotle put it, “unscribed tablets.” Christian theology says man is preconfigured from birth with evil tendencies because he was born with a sin nature. As the story goes, the sui generis of mankind, Adam sinned. He thus assumed a sinful nature and genetically passed on the sin nature to his descendants. We’re predisposed to sin therefore because we’re born sinners. It’s why the thoughts of man are continually evil. Genesis 6:5, Jeremiah 17:9-10.

Aristotle’s theory is good for the biological classification of Adam as a “man”, but it cannot be used to rationalise the ethics of Adam. His theory assumes a learning process, which in turn assumes cognitive ability to learn. It also assumes all men are locationed in a society.

The question of how we come into knowledge of things would eventually divide philosophers into two camps – the rationalists who believe in innate knowledge, and the empiricists who claim all knowledge comes from experience. Our friend, Thomas can be said to belong to the empirical school. He needed physical proof of the resurrection of Jesus. John 20:24-29. The question of innate versus empirical knowledge is however confounded by this passage of scripture: “God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light. The one who is the true light (Jesus), who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1:6-9 NLT. The word light in “who gives light to everyone” is “photizo” in Greek. It means to give light, enlighten, make something become clear. But it also means to instruct, inform, teach and spiritually imbue with saving knowledge. That passage suggests not all knowledge is learnt experientially, that God instructs and imbues certain types of enlightenment. This may explain why we just “know” some things. How for example do we know God intuitively?

Contrary to the hypothesis of Aristotle there are no examples of God we can aggregate to know what “God” is. There’s only one being and he doesn’t reside on earth. So how do we know “God”? There’s no way we can pick the attribute of “Godiness” from many Gods. The very definition of God presupposes a unique being that is unitary in quantity.

And how does a sinner know he needs something called “salvation”? Not everyone is preached to. Some people just know they need salvation; they just know they need God. We can argue it is a mere psychological state or that there’s a “God gene”; but then the idea of a “God gene” raises the question of why “God gene” and not “Satan gene”. How does the sinner recognise that what he needs is something called “salvation” in particular and not therapy by a psychologist? And without being preached to. What makes a man get on his knees to cry to a God he has refused to acknowledge all his life? Why does sin weigh so heavily on the heart? How does a six year old experience the need for salvation not having learnt enough about sin to even understand the full ramification? What about what we call “revelations” – things we intuitively know without a rational basis?

It would seem life is more complex than Aristotle’s theory can handle, that man is deeper than his physical identity. In fact according to Paul’s theology man is a tripartite being. He has a body with which he interacts with the physical world. It is that body which gives him capability to gather physical evidences. That seems to be the limit of Aristotle’s theory. But the Bible says man is much more than his body, that he is in fact a spirit. It is the spirit that will eventually appear before God to give an account of earthly sojourn. The body degenerates. But man also has an interface system called the soul. It helps us make sense of our physical world. It’s also a decoder of extra terrestrial intelligence, steps down the knowledge signals for the brain to process. The soul is immortal. It survives death. It’s like an indestructible black box. All the Bible accounts of life after death paint the picture of survival of this black box. Data is preserved. The soul attaches to the spirit at death. Luke 16:19-31.

The make up of man is unbelievably complex. There are depths to man. How for example does a legion of demons inhabit a man? A legion is the principal unit of the Roman army. It comprises 3,000 to 6,000 foot soldiers. Mark 5:9. How does God himself inhabit man? How does a dimensionless being occupy a dimension? And how does timelessness occupy time as Jesus did? These are very big questions.

Truth is, there are some things we’ll never know until we cross the great divide. Then we will know even as we’re known. 1 Corinthians 13:12.

If you’ll like to receive Jesus into your life please pray this prayer: “Father I acknowledge that I am a sinner, that Jesus died for me, that you raised him from the dead. Father please forgive me. I accept Jesus today as my Lord and my Saviour. Amen.”

This marks the end of The Philosophers series. To read parts 1-8, visit the previous posts.

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The soul is immortal. It survives death. It’s like an indestructible black box. All the Bible accounts of life after death paint the picture of survival of this black box. Data is preserved. The soul attaches to the spirit at death. Luke… Click To Tweet Not all knowledge is learnt experientially. God instructs and imbues certain types of enlightenment. Click To Tweet