Aristotle’s Metaphysics. . .

 “We must reckon up the results arising from what has been said, and compute the sum of them, and put the finishing touch to our inquiry.”  These words, beginning book VIII of Aristotle’s The Metaphysics, sum up the attitude of the work, and encapsulate the thorough and often laborious pace at which it plods along.  Leaving no stone unturned, Aristotle sets out on a quest to determine”…of what kind are the causes and the principles, the underlying knowledge of which is Wisdom.”  In short, he seeks to define the very essence of that which constitutes Wisdom, under the assumption that “all men suppose what is called Wisdom to deal with the first causes and the principles of things…”

 After laying out this assumption, he undertakes a ponderous inquiry into the very nature of substance, elements, experience, the Universe, the Prime Mover, the necessary conditions under which these things might come about, and the forces causing this to happen in the event said conditions should occur.

 Aristotle’s world is one of cause and effect.  Science is the torch whose light is capable of piercing through any shadow of unknowing, given that one chooses the science applicable to the task at hand.  Man is Master of his domain.  His ability to plumb the depths of creation is unlimited.  The weapons of his faculties, properly honed and expertly wielded, can hew through any uncertainties, and capture Wisdom, the ultimate prize, regardless of the strength of the fortress in which it lies secure.

Wielding empiricism and logic like a sword and shield, one almost imagines him single-handedly taking on the dual enemies of superstition and ignorance in a battle for intellectual superiority, the sole purpose of which is the deliverance of mankind from the jaws of “barbarism” with all its hoary trappings into the civilized safety of Cosmopolitan culture.  His is the language of the conqueror.  There is no room for imperfection here.  Crooked bough and rugged cave  give way to sculpted cornice and chiseled stone.  It seems as if in his desire to pry forth the very secrets of  Nature herself, Aristotle has forgotten that she abhors straight edges. 

In his search for the initial cause of things, Aristotle vehemently rules out random circumstance.  As he states in book VI, “we must say regarding the accidental, that there can be no scientific treatment of it.  This is confirmed by the fact that no science practical, productive or theoretical troubles itself about it.”  One hears the echo of these words centuries later when, faced with the imminent onslaught of randomness and fuzzy logic of quantum physics, Albert Einstein issued forth the steadfast Newtonian war cry, “God doesn’t play dice with the world.”

Yet even as Einstein, near the end of his life began at the very least to look askance at some of the pillars upon which his wisdom was built, Aristotle himself tells us that the precision of mathematics falls short when attempting to define the nature of the cause of all things.  Instead, he tells us, we must turn to the metascience of theology for the answers to this riddle.

It is with this statement, I feel, that Aristotle finds himself inextricably caught within a trap of his own design.  Yet even as its perfectly measured and superbly constructed machinations close ever tighter about him, he apparently fails to recognize his predicament.  He calls forth the spiritual wrapped in the ill-fitting garb of logic, and donning the now slightly crooked mask of science.

What Aristotle fails to grasp, indeed, perhaps even chooses not to, is that there are some things within the realm of man’s experience which are permanently and immeasurably beyond the scope of scientific knowledge.  To admit this would be to admit that man himself is limited.  And if man is limited, so too must be his ability to measure, dissect and understand the universe.  It’s not that the Prime Mover isn’t able to be explained by science, it’s that the science capable of explaining the Prime Mover has yet to be found.

This is the idiom of a culture that has torn itself away from Nature and locked itself securely behind the walls of civility.  As layer upon layer of rhetoric, stone and theory are piled upon one another, not only are the “monsters” outside the walls prohibited from attacking the inhabitants within, but the inhabitants within find themselves capable of only the briefest glimpses of the now all but unascertainable ever deepening mysteries outside.  Where once they knew for certain the habits of the things beyond the walls, now secure within the confines of their own constructions, they must formulate their theories based upon nothing more than an occasional scratching sound on the other side of the fortifications.

 If  Nature is not the Enemy, it is, whether by force of arms or the piercing arrows of logic, a thing to be conquered.  Wild stretches of forest, once admired for their tangled and rugged beauty become nothing more than an impediment to commerce and the roads upon which it travels.  The smooth, undulating feminine curve of the land is hammered, gouged and blasted flat beneath the crushing, iron-shod masculinity of metropolitan civilization.

And so, rather than risk even the slightest appearance of accepting this, Aristotle seeks to hammer the round, organic, messy, unfathomable peg of creation into the razor edged, clinical, and pedantic square hole of logic.

One sees this behavior on every continent of the world where indigenous peoples are met, and invariably conquered by, an outside force wielding superior technology, and the might of a Masculine god.  The Earth is a thing to be studied, raped and pillaged for the apparent betterment of mankind.  Fields are torn up, animals and people displaced or slaughtered, and customs, beliefs, and even languages, pounded out of the indigenous peoples in the name of bringing them salvation. One wonders what exactly these peoples, often referring to their creator in terms such as “Great Mystery” required salvation from in the first place.

This is not to say that all science is bad.  Obviously one cannot brush aside the importance of scientific exploration and the myriad advances which have accompanied it.  Still, one must come to terms with the fact that even though science can provide the “how” to a great many things, it can never provide the “why”. To search for the fingerprints of God with a microscope is to engage in a fool’s venture initiated by the same erroneous anthropocentrism which led Aristotle to assume that a plant was deprived because it  had no eyes.

 The Medicine Wheel teaches us, quite rightly, I think, that the whole of creation is a four lobed process, comprised of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual energies.  Though each of these energies touches upon the other, the methods of understanding and experiencing one do not universally apply.  There is no seismograph by which one can measure the impact of a vision, nor scale by which one can determine the weight of anger.  

And so perhaps even though Aristotle may have been correct in his seeking to apply the appropriate scientific tool to the task at hand, I believe he was flawed in reaching only for the  implements of science; for among all the innumerable expressions of Creation, there is but only a select group which fall under the auspices of its empiricism. . .


4 Responses to “Aristotle’s Metaphysics. . .”

  1. Michael J. Melville Says:

    Well said. Aristotle missed the foundations of philosophy, i.e., the shamanism of Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Empedocles as Peter Kingsley has so aptly pointed out. Imagine, it took 2500 years to get back to the beginning. Well, at least we made!


  2. Better Nate than lever, as the old joke says. Reading Aristotle, one really gets a sense of where we took the wrong exit and just kept on going (thereby proving once and for all man’s reluctance to stop and ask directions!). In our eagerness to inch, meter and pound everything, we’ve lost sense of its true value.


  3. I often wonder what Aristotle would have made of quantum mechanics. Indeed, I wonder what to make of it. A now departed teacher used to say he thought we were all applying rules of the human heart and mind to the universe, and he wasn’t sure they applied. He seemed to believe our form of awareness is unique in all creation, a lens shared by none other, except perhaps dogs.

    I think we tend to forget that our understanding of the universe is inherently ideological. Or rather, the meaning we attach to the fruits of our investigations and thoughts become ideologies. It is useful to remember that there may be many interpretations of the same “facts”, something Aristotle did not understand.


  4. And, as the double slit experiment proves, since the observer influences the outcome, we are all in a sense, both observer AND outcome.

    Add the gooiness of thought and emotion into the pcture, and things get REALLY weird.


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