Thursday, July 23, 2009

Plato, Aristotle, and Cosmic Teleology

In Raphael's famous painting "The School of Athens," the center of the picture is dominated by Plato and Aristotle. Plato's right arm is raised with his index finger pointing to the sky. In his left hand, he carries a copy of his Timaeus. Aristotle's right arm is extended forward with the open palm of his hand gesturing down to the ground. In his left hand, he carries a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics. Plato's gesture suggests, "It's up there." Aristotle's gesture suggests, "No, it's down here amongst us."

The Timaeus is perhaps the single most influential book of philosophy in history, because it shaped the prevalent cosmological model of the Western world for 2,000 years. It presented an intelligent-design cosmology in which a divine craftsman creates the world according to eternal forms of perfection, and human life is judged by how well it imitates this cosmic model. Aristotle's Ethics almost never invokes any cosmic standards in laying out his view of ethics as directed to human happiness as the flourishing of human nature. In contrast to Plato's preoccupation with mathematical patterns as exemplifying the the eternal and unchanging perfection of true knowledge of Being, Aristotle studied biology as the realm of mortal life and flux that lends itself only to probable knowledge. His Ethics uses biological reasoning in studying the conditions for human well-being.

Platonism often seems to belong to a tradition of transcendental ethics that depends on a cosmic teleology by which human life imitates the perfect order of the intelligent designer. Aristotelianism belongs, by contrast, to a tradition of empirical ethics rooted in the immanent teleology of the human species. Obviously, my argument for Darwinian natural right is on the side of the Aristotelian tradition.

But the situation might seem more complicated than this. At the beginning of Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss insists that the classic idea of natural right as understood by Aristotle depended on a teleological conception of the universe--and particularly the heavenly bodies--so that the natural ends for human beings could be seen as sanctioned by a cosmic teleology. But, Strauss observes, this cosmic teleology has been refuted by modern natural science, which creates an intellectual crisis that threatens to lead us to historicism and nihilism, with no natural standards for human life. And yet, Strauss and his students are not completely clear on this point. Some previous posts on this can be found here, here, and here.

There are some passages in his ethical writings, where Aristotle does seem to be a Platonic transcendentalist. For example, at the end of his Eudemian Ethics, he declares that all human goods are to be judged by how well they promote the "contemplation of God" as the final end. And at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics, his arguments for the supremacy of the contemplative life seem very Platonic. But his arguments here are all remarkably strange in that they contradict what he says elsewhere. So, for instance, he declares that philosophers are loved by the gods, but this contradicts what he has said about the self-sufficiency of the gods in not caring for human matters (1154b25-27, 1179a23-33). It almost seems as if Aristotle is here writing an ironical caricature of the Platonic arguments for divine contemplation.

There is only one place in the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle refers to the cosmic system. "It is absurd for anyone to believe that politics or prudence is the most serious kind of knowledge, if a human being is not the highest thing in the cosmos. . . . And if it is the case that a human being is the best in comparison to the other animals, that makes no difference, for there are other things that are much more divine in their nature than a human being, such as most visibly the things out of which the cosmos is composed" (1141a21-41b2). But no where else in this book does he refer to these cosmic divinities.

Clearly, he is referring to the heavenly bodies--the Sun, the planets, and the stars. In his On the Heavens, Aristotle lays out his theological astronomy. But even though he takes this astronomy seriously, he repeatedly reminds the reader that astronomical phenomena are too far away to be directly studied, and so most of the fundamental ideas in astronomy are "hypotheses" that must be "trusted" as having been passed down as ancestral myths (270b1-25, 279a5-32, 284a1-25, 291b24-92a20, 298b7-99a2; Metaphysics, 1074a31-b14).

In justifying his biological studies, Aristotle argues that while studying the eternally unchanging phenomena in the heavens might be honorable and divine, such study is hard to carry out because there is so little observational evidence. By contrast, the perishable phenomena of plants and animals are easier to study because "we live among them." There is intense pleasure in studying biological phenomena because "they are nearer to us and more akin to our nature" (Parts of Animals, 644b22-45a5). This goes against the disposition of Plato and the Platonists because believing with Heraclitus that "all sensible things are always in a state of flux and that no science of them exists," they turned to the abstract realm of Ideas and Forms in the search for perfect intelligibility (Metaphysics, 987a30-b15).

That Platonic search for perfect intelligibility seems to be most fully manifested in the Timaeus. But the strangeness of this book--surely the strangest of all of the Platonic dialogues--creates serious problems of interpretation.

In the dramatic setting of the Timaeus, the dialogue occurs the day after the dialogue of the Republic. Socrates begins this new dialogue by summarizing some of the main ideas from the Republic. Just as Socrates had constructed the best city in speech, Timaeus will construct the best cosmos in speech. The best political order, it seems, needs to be set within the best cosmic order. (Here Timaeus's speech seems to serve the same function as the Athenian Stranger's theological cosmology of intelligent design in Book 10 of the Laws.) In Timaeus's cosmos as created by a providential God acting by intelligent purpose, we see that we really do live in "the best of possible worlds," in the famous phrase of Leibniz (the "German Plato").

But then any careful reader has to wonder about the odd features of this dialogue. First of all, it's hardly much of a dialogue, because two-thirds of it is one long speech by Timaeus. And it's not much of a Socratic dialogue because Socrates does not speak once Timaeus takes off in his speech. Timaeus tells Socrates: "it is fitting for us to receive the likely story about these things and not to search further for anything beyond it." Socrates responds: "Excellent, Timaeus! And it must be received entirely as you urge" (29d-e). So although Socrates seems to give advance approval to whatever Timaeus wants to say, Socrates never speaks again. With the suspension of all Socratic inquiry, Timaeus is free to construct his "likely story" or myth just as he pleases.

Timaeus's mythic stories are so fanciful and unsupported by evidence or logic as to be ridiculous. For example, all the nonhuman animals are created by the divine artisan by reshaping human beings who deserve punishment for their stupidity. "The tribe of birds was the result of remodeling: sprouting feathers instead of hair, it comes from men harmless but light-minded, and studious of the heavenly bodies yet believing, in their naivete, that the firmest demonstrations about such things come through sight" (91d-e). This scorn for empirical astronomy based on visual evidence contradicts what Timaeus had earlier said about human vision as a god-given gift so that we can see the order of nature and become philosophers (47a-c). There is good reason, however, for Timaeus to reject visual evidence, because we know (at least from Pliny's Natural History) that some ancient astronomers observed novas--new stars--being born, which would refute Timaeus's mythic claim that the stars are unchanging.

The dubious character of Timaeus's mythic cosmology and the absence of any Socratic questioning of his claims has led some scholars--including Straussians like Joseph Cropsey and Catherine Zuckert--to conclude that Timaeus doesn't speak for Plato or Plato's Socrates. But if Plato did not intend to endorse Timaeus's cosmological myth, we must wonder why he wrote it in such a way that it would be taken seriously by many, if not most, readers; and even become the most influential of all of Plato's writings for over two millenia.

One might also wonder about whether Timaeus's myth satisfies a Socratic yearning for moral cosmology. In the Phaedo (97c-100b), Socrates describes his youthful excitement in reading Anaxagoras's claim that Mind rules over the whole order of the cosmos and thus designs everything for the best. Socrates was disappointed, however, when he discovered that Anaxagoras was ultimately a materialist in explaining things as governed by purely material causes rather than intelligent causes. This disappointment with natural philosophy set Socrates off on a "second sailing" where he decided to look for the truth of Being in speeches or accounts (logoi) of things, by examining how people talk about their experience and particularly their moral experience. If this was a turn away from natural philosophy towards moral philosophy, with the understanding that moral life is disconnected from cosmic nature, then Timaeus's moral cosmology would be contrary to this Socratic turn. But then one might say that Timaeus had done what Anaxagoras had failed to do successfully--construct a moral cosmology in which the cosmos is intelligently designed as the best of possible worlds--and therefore Timaeus gave Socrates what he had always wanted: an intelligent-design cosmology that would explain why it is best for things to be as they are.

Cropsey and Zuckert reject this reading of the dialogues, because they argue, instead, that Socrates really teaches that the cosmos is morally neutral, because morality depends upon an anthropology of human care for themselves that has no ground in cosmic nature. If so, this would conform to what I have argued for as the immanent teleology of morality as rooted in evolved human nature.


Anonymous said...

Self-sufficiency does not contradict love. If taken literally, one can argue that erotic love has no place among the gods (although several myths can be interpreted to contradict that), but it does not necessarily prevent agapic love.

Also, what is the meaning of immanent teleology in the absence of a divine teleology? You have to, at least provisionally, accept something as the irreducible purpose of man, or a man.

Larry Arnhart said...

Aristotle's account of divine self-sufficiency (and philosophic self-sufficiency as approximating the divine) is confusing. On the one hand, divine self-sufficiency requires that the gods or god be utterly self-contained, and thus there can be no divine providence that would care for human beings. On the other hand, self-sufficiency is said to embrace others to whom one might be attached.

There can be an immanent human teleology if the human species shows species-specific ends. By virtue of our nature as human animals, we strive for certain ends. For example, as social mammals, parental care is natural for us. This immanent teleology exists even without any divine teleology.