Sunday, August 15, 2010

Greek philosophy, Aristotle and The Universal

I personally find it tough to do any sort of a review on the classics, as just about everything that can be said about a 2400 year old treatise has probably been said. However, like scripture, everyone has their own interpretation of these kinds of documents from antiquity. The interpretations, like any reading, have to do with the culture and time in which one was raised, the society and government around them, as well as one’s age and any previous influential readings and/or life experience. These previous influences allow a “horizontal” approach to interpretation, where one incorporates many different impressions into the present document.

Aristotle's Politics is a link in the evolutionary process of social and political development. Like Plato’s Republic, Aristotle considers the concept of justice (as well as "goodness") in this collection. First, we must define these terms, and then we must figure out the best way to enact them. It is important to remember when dealing with the classics that we are looking at an attempt to tie down a “universal” (itself a tricky word) into a specific place and time. Everyone generally agrees that “justice” or "goodness" is what is “right”. However, conditioning of various types will influence HOW this looks to a particular individual.

The area in which I believe Aristotle to have the greatest wisdom is in his descriptions of human nature (and how to approach the "right" or "good" WITH this human nature in mind). “Men who don’t have control of their own passions will fail to serve their own interests.” “We always prefer what we come across first.” “Men are always wanting something more and are never content until they get to infinity.” “Ambition and avarice are exactly the motives which lead men to commit nearly all intentional crimes.”

Through my recent dialogue with those residing in the East, it is apparent to me that much of Western philosophy is late in its realization of some universal truths. The conflict of opposites is a universal concept. Moderation as a necessity for “goodness” is a universal concept. This would coincide with the idea of “Non-dualism” that has never been embraced in the West as it has in the Far East. Aristotle attempts to broach these topics through more of an exterior view. For example, he uses the analogy of the “perfection of the nose”. A nose that is “extremely” straight, or “extremely” symmetrical in all areas would eventually become so “extreme” as to not even appear to be a nose. It would morph into something else, if you will. That is an example of dualistic thinking. Extremes in anything produce the opposite of what one is trying to achieve. Moderation, looking at all sides of an issue, eradicating dogmatic thinking, are all ways to avoid these extremes.

Modern Capitalistic thought has grasped onto Aristotle’s ideas of distributive justice, aristocracy, and his negation or downplaying of apparent class conflicts to justify certain actions. What Aristotle has not and could not consider is all the complexities of modern times. Race, a global economy, and our current belief in the equality of ALL do not mix with Aristotelian thought. Plato had a much better grasp on class conflict with the idea of the state being TWO states…that of the rich and that of the poor. Although Aristotle DID acknowledge that: “Poverty is the cause of the defects of democracy.” He adds: “That is why measures should be taken to ensure a permanent level of prosperity.”

The eloquence of describing the life of the interior is perhaps the part of Politics which struck me the greatest. "Thought is an activity as much as action itself, and it may even be more of an activity than action is. The self-contained individual...may be busily active: the activity of God and the universe is that of a self-contained life." This statement coincided well with one that Aristotle had mentioned in Rhetoric, where he states that: “The more I am by myself and alone, the fonder I have become of myths.” This seems to indicate that Aristotle may have had an idea, even if he couldn’t name it, of the inherent need for a “god-image” in the nature of humanity.

Philosophy as defined by the ancient Greeks IS wisdom. Therefore it is in itself a universal as wisdom is all-encompassing. Our attempt to make sense of universals containing many expressions is one of the great challenges of living. For me, it has also brought about the realization that we are all looking for the same thing in the end. Approaching others WITH that knowledge is more conducive to dialogue and to greater understanding…which creates a better life for all of us.

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