Aristotle Versus Religion - The Objective Standard

Careful observation of history reveals two dramatically different approaches to life on earth.

In one approach, we see Islamic jihadists perpetrating murderous terrorist assaults around the world, virtually daily. The attack on 9/11 is the worst Islamist atrocity to date, but many have followed, including a recent attack at a shopping mall in Nairobi, in which Islamists murdered scores of people and wounded hundreds more. Similarly, we see Christians, throughout a full millennium during which they held unchallenged cultural and political power, relentlessly hunting down and slaughtering untold thousands for the “crime” of disagreeing with religious orthodoxy. And we see Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs on the Indian subcontinent engaging in a seething inferno of violence in which millions have been slain.

In the other approach, we see something utterly different. We see Copernicus, Darwin, and Einstein advancing revolutionary theories in astronomy, biology, and physics. We see Edison, Bell, and the Wright brothers pioneering life-promoting inventions. We see writers from Homer to Ayn Rand dramatizing the heroism and greatness possible to individuals committed to man’s earthly existence.

Here, then, are two different visions of human life: one driven by faith, the other by reason—one religious, the other secular—one irrational, often violently so; the other, rational, often brilliantly so.

Most of Western history has been a struggle between these two contrasting philosophies. Religious mysticism—in this instance, proceeding from ancient Judaism—is a pernicious force in human life. Rational secularism—the creation and legacy of ancient Greek culture—is vital to proper human life.

By observing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam relative to the ideas of the ancient Greeks, we can see that the essentially secular approach of Greek culture—especially the rational method Aristotle developed—is responsible for golden ages and renaissances, both in the West and in the Middle East; and that the faith-based approach of religion, when intellectually dominant, is responsible for cultural stagnation and dark ages.

A clear understanding of the nature of these opposing forces—and of the struggle between them—is essential to the preservation of civilization. An essentialized survey should start at the beginning.

The Greeks Give Birth to Western Civilization

What did the Greeks contribute to human life? As the eminent historian Will Durant wrote, “there is hardly anything secular in our culture that does not come from Greece. Schools, gymnasiums, arithmetic, geometry, history . . . physics, biology . . . poetry, music, tragedy, comedy, philosophy . . . ethics, politics, idealism, philanthropy . . . democracy: these are all Greek words for cultural forms . . . in many cases first matured . . . by the abounding energy of the Greeks.”1

Philosophy is the fundamental value that men inherited from the Greeks, for it seeks to answer life’s most important questions: What is the nature of the universe? How do men gain knowledge? What is human nature? What is the good? What is a good society? Philosophy attempts to give rational rather than mythic or faith-based answers to such questions. . . .

Endnotes

1. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 2, “The Life of Greece” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1939), p. vii.

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2. Plato, “Theaetetus,” in Collected Dialogues of Plato, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 856, 152a–b.

3. W. T. Jones, “The Classical Mind,” in A History of Western Philosophy, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1969), pp. 67–68.

4. Jones, “Classical Mind,” p. 69; Wilhelm Windelband, History of Ancient Philosophy (New York: Dover Books, 1956), pp. 121–23.

5. W. K. C. Guthrie, The Greek Philosophers from Thales to Aristotle (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960), pp. 75–76.

6. Guthrie, Greek Philosophers, p. 77; Windelband, Ancient Philosophy, p. 129.

7. Plato, “Euthyphro,” in Collected Dialogues, pp. 178–79 and 10a–e.

8. Windelband, Ancient Philosophy, p. 134.

9. John Herman Randall, Aristotle (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 28.

10. Jones, “Classical Mind,” p. 233.

11. Jones, “Classical Mind,” p. 234.

12. Jones, “Classical Mind,” p. 235; Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 8–9; Sir David Ross, Aristotle, 6th ed., introduction by John Ackrill (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. xiv, 117–18.

13. David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 62–68; quote p. 68. See also, Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 87–90.

14. Aristotle, “Metaphysics,” in Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), p. 689, 980a.

15. Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethic,” in Basic Works of Aristotle, pp. 942–43, 1097b25–1098a15.

16. Barnes, Aristotle, p. 79.

17. For a brief discussion of this point in Aristotle’s political theory, see Ross, Aristotle, p. 246.

18. Durant, “Life of Greece,” pp. 326–27.

19. Durant, “Life of Greece,” p. viii.

20. Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York: Harper Perennial, 1987), p. 97.

21. Durant, “Life of Greece,” p. 557.

22. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 11; Max Dimont, Jews, God and History (New York: Signet Classics, 2004), p. 18; Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 1, “Our Oriental Heritage” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954), pp. 300–301.

23. Dimont, Jews, God and History, p. 19.

24. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 3.

25. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 101; Durant, “Life of Greece,” p. 542.

26. Durant, “Life of Greece,” pp. 580–81.

27. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 99.

28. Dimont, Jews, God and History, p. 76.

29. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 103.

30. Durant, “Life of Greece,” p. 583.

31. Durant, “Life of Greece,” p. 584. Dimon, A History of the Jews, p. 79.

32. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 106.

33. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 120.

34. Dimont, Jews, God and History, p. 78.

35. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 122.

36. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 104.

37. Durant, “Our Oriental Heritage,” p. 302.

38. Edith Hamilton, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (New York: New American Library, 1969), p. 29.

39. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 119.

40. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 133.

41. Quoted in Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), p. 120.

42. Quoted in Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, p. 273.

43. Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, pp. 315–16.

44. Richard Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages (New York: Harcourt, 2003), p. 59.

45. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 4, “The Age of Faith” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950), p. 123.

46. Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 15 and 171, n. 47; Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, p. 268; Durant, “Age of Faith,” pp. 122–23; Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children, pp. 68–72.

47. Morris Kline, Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times, vol. 1 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 181; quoted in Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, pp. 268 and 391, n. 34.

48. Durant, “Life of Greece,” p. 155.

49. Ayn Rand, “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: New American Library, 1982), pp. 95–96.

50. William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age (New York: Little, Brown, 1993), pp. 7–8.

51. W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 2, “The Medieval Mind” (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1969), p. 173.

52. Durant, “Age of Faith,” p. 945; Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children, pp. 88–126.

53. Durant, “Age of Faith,” p. 958. See also this entire chapter, tellingly titled, “The Adventure of Reason,” pp. 949–83.

54. Jones, “Medieval Mind,” p. 141.

55. Jones, “Medieval Mind,” pp. 169–70.

56. Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, p. 340.

57. Andrew Coulson, Market Education: The Unknown History (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999), p. 59.

58. Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, pp. 236–37.

59. Durant, “Life of Greece,” p. 211.

60. Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, pp. 238–39.

61. Jones, “Medieval Mind,” p. 146.

62. Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, p. 250.

63. Jones, “Medieval Mind,” pp. 141–42; Coulson, Market Education, pp. 58–60.

64. Angus Maddison, Phases of Capitalist Development (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 4–7.

65. Samuel Preston, “Human Mortality Throughout History and Prehistory,” in Julian Simon, ed., The State of Humanity (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1995), pp. 30–31.

66. Jones, “Medieval Mind,” pp. 140, 142.

67. Durant, “Age of Faith,” pp. 9, 27, 40, and 91; Jones, “Medieval Mind,” p. 142; Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, pp. 192, 195, 197, and 382, n. 55; Manchester, World Lit Only by Fire, p. 4.

68. Jones, “Medieval Mind,” pp. 239–41.

69. Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Greco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 2, 29–33; Durant, “Age of Faith,” pp. 239–40.

70. Durant, “Age of Faith,” pp. 206–344; Robert Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2011), pp. 11–58 and 119–26; Andrew Bernstein, “Great Islamic Thinkers Versus Islam,” The Objective Standard, Winter 2012–13, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 50–67.

71. Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children, pp. 12–23.

72. Durant, “Age of Faith,” p. 954.

73. William Wallace, “Foreword,” Albertus Magnus on Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica, 2 vols., translated and annotated by K. F. Kritchell and I. M. Resnick (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), vol. 1, pp. xvi–xx.

74. Chaim Potok’s outstanding novel, The Chosen, provides a brilliant fictitious depiction of this 20th century struggle between Jewish traditionalism and the Greek spirit of rationalism. Potok, The Chosen (New York: Fawcett Books, 1987).

75. Durant, “The Age of Faith,” pp. 954–55.

76. Barnes, Aristotle, p. 1.

77. Durant, “The Age of Faith,” p. 982.

78. The Enlightenment philosophes held a similarly dualistic view of history. See, for example: Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume 1, “The Rise of Modern Paganism” (New York: Knopf, 1966), pp. 33–37.

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