Two Different Aims

I’m in situations these days in which Aristotle is beloved and Plato rather more puzzled at than studied or beloved. Robert George in a talk in the fall suggested, most misleadingly, the stark alternatives of Gnosticism or Aristotelianism. He had a purpose to achieve, but it was a limiting approach. I asked a teacher whether in her mind the more Aristotelian the theologian the clearer the theology, and she assented. It came about when I asked about something imprecise in Anselm’s writing. Her explanation was that it was imprecise because of his Platonism, dismissively. Another teacher, explaining Boethius, ran into an obscurity of thought in him, and this was dismissed as probably due to his Platonism. The idea I get from all this is that Platonism is not well understood but sensed to be an inferior precursor to the superior Aristotelianism, a purveyor of anomalies. All these people I think would identify as Thomists.

There are several reasons for the confusion.

One could be chronological snobbery. Seems odd to call an Aristotelian such, but I think there is some of that when Plato remains unexamined. Aristotle improved on what Plato began, and no doubt there is some truth in that. For me, obviously, not enough.

A more charitable reason one could posit is that like Thomas, these offenders may not have read very much in Plato. The modern academy is so specialized that I think well-trained people can speak unintelligently about a great many things unnoticed, and I’m convinced they (we) routinely do. If in scholarly circles the general, unexamined sense about Plato is that he is not important, then that is how most scholars will proceed. Specialization is a kind of incubator for prejudice, though it is conceived with opposite aims. If you are not an expert on the subject, you assume other experts on the subject are accurate experts, accepting without examination what in fact may not be accurate, even eccentric.

Another reason is that reading Plato is less congenial to busy scholars. Scholarship can be successfully and productively accomplished by tediously organized, meticulously obvious, and aesthetically disastrous writing. I would not be surprised if, by and large, books that are read from cover to cover tend to be those that are being read for review. There is nothing wrong with consultation, with being deft at exploiting tables of contents and indices. There is also a feeling that knowing the conversation of the secondary literature is enough, and in fact there is often an eclipse of the primary in the secondary. What happens sometimes is that the importance of a figure is exaggerated, perspective is lost, ephemera and minutiae are over-examined. What is the result of concentrating on ephemera? You become ephemeral, like a wraith. If you narrow down to minutiae that is reality insignificant, you will be trivial. I believe this describes some of what goes on in higher education. I have been in classes where the secondary questions eclipse the primary concerns and have felt that if the bright, shining author of the ancient text in question were to walk in, he would only baffle us all with a hearty laugh.

Yet another reason is that Platonism really is counterintuitive. There is a confidence in reasoning in Plato that moderns do not share, and a devout willingness to proceed on conclusions that common sense does not readily endorse. We live in an age where the nominalist prejudice known as Ockham’s razor reigns.

Another reason I suggested to the one teacher, and I think it is the chief reason. She is married to a Platonist and so has some considerations for the view she does not prefer. I asked if she thought some of it was temperamental, and she agreed. Raphael’s school of Athens pictures the situation. Plato points up and Aristotle points down. I think he should have Aristotle crouching down, looking at a crack in the floor in an effort to discern bugs. But Raphael nevertheless managed to capture the point. The point is that there are two different aims, and therefore two different approaches. Aristotelians are looking for precision, and therefore to limit things for the sake of clarity. I believe Platonists are looking for more, for maximizing meaning, which requires gesture, suggestion, more free and less precisely reduced expression. That, I believe, is principally what is going on.

I think each has its place. I wonder if my teacher is not right, and that there comes a point where in the interests of precise expression Aristotelian aims yield a superior approach. What ought to be corrected, however, is the reflexive dismissal that Plato receives, as if his aims were at all times unnecessary. I am convinced his are, on the whole, the more important concerns.


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