Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Evolution of Heaven and Hell (3): Aristotle and the Contemplative Life

For Augustine and other early Christian philosophers, Plato's teaching about the immortality of the soul and the supreme happiness of the contemplative life was fulfilled in the Christian understanding of the beatific vision in Heaven as the eternal happiness that all human beings long for (City of God, VIII, 4; XXII, 25-29). Nietzsche pointed to this when he said that Christianity was Platonism for the common people.

But for Plato, immortality was attained only by disembodied spirits, which seemed to deny the orthodox Christian teaching that at the Last Judgment all human bodies would be resurrected to eternal salvation or eternal damnation. In the gap between death and the Last Judgment, human souls would exist in some disembodied existence, as Plato believed, but eventually those souls would be reunited with their resurrected bodies, which Plato seemed to deny.

By contrast to Plato, Aristotle defended a biological understanding of the soul as the vital activity of the body, so that mind and body were bound together in an organic unity. So Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas looked to Aristotle as the philosopher who could provide the philosophical psychology to justify the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of bodies to eternal life.

In his commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Aquinas explains: "Some philosophers [Plato] held that the intellect is something imperishable and separate; and in their system the intellect would be a divine thing, for we call those beings divine that are imperishable and separate. Others, like Aristotle, considered the intellect a part of the soul; and in this view the intellect is not something divine by itself but the most divine of all the things in us. This is so because of its greater agreement with the separate substances, inasmuch as its activity exists without a bodily organ" (sec. 2084).

This comment leads into Aquinas's reading of Book 10 (chapters 7-8) where Aristotle argues for the superiority of the contemplative life as the best and happiest life. Aquinas can then interpret this as Aristotle's opening to the Christian doctrine of heavenly beatitude as the fulfillment of all human desires.

Straussians interpret this part of the Nicomachean Ethics as showing Aristotle's agreement with Plato on the philosophic life as the best life for human beings, in contrast to the merely moral life of the multitude of human beings. So while most of the Ethics presents the moral virtues and practical reasoning as necessary for human happiness and excellence, the Straussians suggest, Aristotle shows in Book 10 that the only truly happy life is not a moral life but a purely theoretical life of philosophic contemplation. Although most of the Straussians are atheists, they agree with Aquinas's Christian interpretation of Aristotle's Ethics as pointing to contemplation as the highest human good.

But the difficulties with this interpretation become clear as soon as one looks carefully at Aristotle's arguments in X.7-8 of the Ethics. He presents six arguments for why a life of theoretical contemplation is superior to a life of moral or political activity. Each of those arguments is remarkably weak, particularly when considered in the context of the whole of the Ethics. One must wonder, then, whether Aristotle is being ironical in stating arguments that assume an implausible Platonism.

The best survey of these six arguments in X.7-8 that shows how dubious they really are is Germaine Paulo Walsh's book chapter "The Problematic Relation between Practical and Theoretical Virtue in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics," in A Moral Enterprise: Politics, Reason, and the Human Good, edited by Kenneth Grasso and Robert Hunt (ISI Books, 2002), pp. 59-81, 354-60.

Consider, for example, the second and third arguments for why theoretical contemplation provides the only true happiness for human beings. Aristotle says that contemplation is the "most continuous" activity of a human being, and that this activity brings pleasures "which are wonderful in purity as well as in permanence" (1177a21-28). This resembles the Platonic Idea of the Good that Aristotle criticizes in Book 1 of the Ethics, and there he criticizes the Platonic identification of goodness with permanence. "If indeed a white thing that exists for a long time is not necessarily whiter than a white thing that exists for a day, neither will the Idea of the Good by being eternal be more good than a particular good" (1096b4-5). And even if "we are able to contemplate continuously more easily than to perform any kind of action" (1177a21-23), it is still true that human beings cannot engage in any activity continuously because of their compound nature. As Aristotle says elsewhere in the Ethics, "the same thing is not continuously pleasurable to us because our nature is not simple" (1154b21-23). A life of continuous pleasure without pain is not possible for human beings.

The fourth argument for the supreme happiness of contemplation is that it is the most self-sufficient of the activities available to human beings (1177a28-34). "A wise person is able to theorize even if he is alone, and the wiser he is, the more he can do so by himself." And although it might be better for him to have "co-workers," the wise person is never said here to have friends. But this conception of self-sufficiency as solitariness contradicts what Aristotle says elsewhere about true self-sufficiency as encompassing all those social relationships--children, parents, friends, and fellow-citizens--necessary for human beings as social and political animals (1097b8-12, 1134a26-27). Moreover, the longest section of the Ethics is the two books devoted to all the various kinds of friendship.

After laying out his six arguments, Aristotle suggests that they are not sufficient. "We should examine the statements which we have already made by referring them to the deeds and the lives of men, and we should accept them as true if they harmonize with the deeds or facts [ta erga] but should regard them merely as arguments if they clash with those facts" (1179a20-22).

So what are the relevant "facts"? Aristotle explains:

"Now he who proceeds in his activities according to his intellect and cultivates his intellect seems to be best disposed and most dear to the gods; for if the gods had any care for human matters, as they are thought to have, it would be also reasonable that they should take joy in what is best and most akin to themselves (this would be man's intellect) and should reward those who love and honor this most, as if they cared for their friends and were acting rightly and nobly. Clearly, all these attributes belong to the wise man most of all; so it is he who would be most dear to the gods, and it is also reasonable that he would be the most happy of men. Thus if we view the matter in this manner, it is again the wise man who would be the most happy of men" (1179a23-34)."

But notice how conditional or hypothetical this argument is, as indicated by the repetition of "if." In Aquinas's commentary on this passage, he removes the conditional mode of expression: "For, supposing--as is really true--that God exercises solicitude and providence over human affairs, it is reasonable for him to delight in that which is best in men and most akin or similar to himself" (sec. 2133).

Of course, Aquinas is confident of God's providential care of and love for human beings. But Aristotle is not. Shortly before this passage suggesting that the gods love philosophers, Aristotle ridicules the idea that the gods have any moral concerns at all (1178b8-18). The purest divine activity is completely self-contained because it is "thought thinking itself" (nous noesis) (Metaphysics, 1074b15-1075a11). If the happiness of the gods comes from purely self-contained contemplative activity, then why would they care for human beings or love philosophers?

The weakness and strangeness of Aristotle's arguments for the supremacy of the philosophic life at the end of the Ethics suggest that Aristotle's true teaching is that conveyed in the rest of the Ethics--that the human good is attained not just in one dominant good--philosophy--but in the whole range of moral and intellectual goods. Moreover, the intellectual life of the philosopher cannot be a continuous, self-contained activity, because the philosopher, like all human beings, needs the right material, bodily, and social conditions for a good human life. Human self-sufficiency must include living with family, friends, and fellow-citizens. And even when human beings are fortunate enough to secure all of these conditions for a good life, their life must come to an end, because (as Aristotle says explicitly) immortality is impossible for human beings, and death is the end of life (1111b19-23, 1115a25-29).

To the careful reader of the Ethics, Aristotle indicates by his presentation of theoretical contemplation in X.7-8 the appeal of Platonic philosophy as catering to the desires for a self-contained, continuous, and invulnerable human pleasure that is free from the contingency and mortality of ordinary human life. But even as he does this, Aristotle reminds us of the fragility and impermanence of all human happiness--the real but fleeting happiness that we can know as embodied animal minds that must decay and die.

We learn from Aristotle to enjoy the life we have, without the fear of Hell or the hope for Heaven.

A couple of related posts can be found here and here.

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