Wednesday, March 10, 2010

FLG Better Never Hear Of His Readers Making This Mistake

I was thinking more about what bothered me so much about Jason's post.

It's this:
Balance them all, so that you always love, but never love immoderately. Isn’t that obviously the more flourishing life?

This and the argument about marginal utility --everything in moderation -- is Aristotelian, not Platonic. A quick note on Plato and Aristotle is in order. I believe that I've mentioned this before, but it never hurts to mention it again.

Many people think of Plato and Aristotle as having rather indistinguishable or replaceable philosophies. Personally, I blame Pico della Mirandola for this. Anyway, here's the cliff's notes of the Western Intellectual tradition.

Plato was concerned about the Good. The Good is universal, eternal, and represented by Forms. So, to re-use the well-worn explanation, there is a Form of a Chair that is Good. Every chair you've ever sat upon was an inferior version of that Form in matter. Plato believed that you could apprehend these Forms through the gift of reason and observation.

Aristotle's view, while in many ways similar, differs in an important respect. Aristotle basically says, "Listen, we can use reason and observation to comprehend of a type of thing, but we can't really apprehend the Good. Best just to focus on the Nature of things, and in particular Human Nature." In a certain way, whether or not a universal Good existed is irrelevant to Aristotle. There's a telos at the end of each natural teleology that we can comprehend and aspire to or appreciate. Therefore, everything in moderation, where moderation is not precisely defined, but determined by what does or doesn't adversely impact our ability to flourish to the highest ability of our Nature.

The key point here is that Plato was concerned with the Good and Aristotle with Nature. If pressed, then I'd bet Plato would say that immoderation in the pursuit of the Good would be acceptable. (I'll have to look to see if I can find something on that.) Although, a person who truly apprehended the good probably wouldn't act immoderately in any case. Or perhaps pursuing the Good is never immoderate. I dunno and don't care right now.

What you end up with is a more theoretical, top-down, and deonontological Platonic approach contrasted against a more empirical, bottom-up, and consequentialist Aristotelian view. The dispute between these competing philosophies is the central argument, at least in my mind, of the Western tradition.

For Plato the Good was the alpha and the omega. Therefore, it is not terribly surprising that Augustine was easily able to replace the Good with God. Well, more precisely, the Holy Trinity, but you get the idea. Then, a millennium or so later, you get Aquinas trying to prove the existence of God with from the ground up using formal logic and he looks to "The Philosopher" -- Aristotle. The inclusion of Platonism and Aristotelian within Christian theology blurred the distinction between the two thinkers for some people, I think. But then again Pico della Mirandola explicitly tried to reconcile Plato and Aristotle in the 15th century, so people were aware of the distinction at that time. So, I still blame him.

You can take most of this post or leave it, but if there is one point to take away it's this -- Plato was concerned about the Good and Aristotle with Nature. If your theory about what either one meant in some passage can't be tied back to their primary preoccupation in some fundamental way, then you're flat out wrong.


william randolph brafford said...

In the Augustinian conception, we are supposed to love what is good, but in proportion to its goodness. So if we love something that participates in the Good (or is a divine gift), but we love it too much or too little, we are sinning. So something like moderation appears, but it's not in the Aristotelian way, where virtue is a mean between two vices. Insofar as something is worth loving, it should be loved wholeheartedly.

FLG said...

I think we're on the same page here.

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