Category Archives: philosophy
To modern educated people, it seems obvious that matters of fact are to be ascertained by observation, not by consulting ancient authorities. But this is an entirely modern conception, which hardly existed before the seventeenth century. Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths. He said also that children would be healthier if conceived when the wind is in the north. One gathers that the two Mrs. Aristotles both had to run out and look at the weathercock every evening before going to bed. He states that a man bitten by a mad dog will not go mad, but any other animal will (Hiss. Am., 704a); that the bite of the shrewmouse is dangerous to horses, especially if the mouse is pregnant (ibid., 604b); that elephants suffering from insomnia can be cured by rubbing their shoulders with salt, olive oil, and warm water (ibid., 605a); and so on and so on. Nevertheless, classical dons, who have never observed any animal except the cat and the dog, continue to praise Aristotle for his fidelity to observation.
–Bertrand Russell, The Impact of Science on Society (1951), p. 7
Previously, we looked at some possible ways that the universe could have been brought into being (if, indeed, it needed to be brought into being–but that’s for another post). Here I want to look at the two ways that are commonest in Western religious thought, that is, creation and emanation.
As I said last time, we humans never actually “create” anything–we take already existing material and shape it into other things. For example, I might use wood to build a picnic table, or silver to fashion a ring, or stone to build a building. ”Creation”, in the strict theological and philosophical sense, always means making something ex nihilo (“out of nothingness”). In short, when God is said to create the world, He literally conjures it up from nothing. As the Qur’an puts it, “When [God] decrees a thing, He need only say, “Be,” and it is.” (2:116, Dawood translation). Or, as in Genesis, He merely says, “Let there be…” and light, the sky, and so forth instantly are. The term that philosopher Mortimer Adler, in his book How to Think About God, uses for this is a word of his coinage (but a very felicitous one, at that), exnihilation. According to him, this is formed on the analogy of “annihilation”, which literally means to put into (ad-) nothingness (nihil). Of course, nothing is truly annihilated–even if I drop an atomic bomb on something, it is merely blown into its constituent atoms, not into nothingness. However, exnihilation–taking something out of (ex-) nothingness is, indeed, exactly what God does in His act of creation. As Adler also points out, this can be conceived of whether or not the universe is thought of as being temporally infinite (i.e. in terms of infinite linear time) or not.
It is important at this juncture to point out that something created–exnihilated–by God is separate from Him. That is, the thing or being created by God literally comes into being out of nothingness. It is not formed from, fashioned from, or derived from anything else. It is called into existence by God, but it is not part of Him. It is ontologically distinct. There are some nuances in this that we’ll return to later, but for now we’ll leave it at that and move on.
Emanation is the other mode which has been postulated as the means by which God brought the cosmos into being. ”Emanate” comes from Latin roots meaning “to flow out from”, and this is a good description of the theological concept of emanation. Just as water flows out of the mountains into a river, or light “flows out” of a fire, the cosmos is thought of as “flowing out” of God. That is to say, that God does not create the world (including sapient beings such as us) from pre-existing material, nor does he call it out of nothing. Rather, he “draws” them from His own substance; or to put it another way, we all “flow” out of God.
Aristotle, as a philosopher, is in many ways very different from all his predecessors. He is the first to write like a professor: his treatises are systematic, his discussions are divided into heads, he is a professional teacher, not an inspired prophet. His work is critical, careful, pedestrian, without any trace of Bacchic enthusiasm. The Orphic elements in Plato are watered down in Aristotle, and mixed with a strong dose of common sense; where he is Platonic, one feels that his natural temperament has been overpowered by the teaching to which he has been subjected. He is not passionate, or in any profound sense religious. The errors of his predecessors were the glorious errors of youth attempting the impossible; his errors are those of age which cannot free itself of habitual prejudices. He is best in detail and in criticism; he fails in large construction, for lack of fundamental clarity and Titanic fire.
I actually like Aristotle all right, and I think his virtue ethics are still relevant. However, I think many of his ideas, especially as filtered through Scholasticism had a bad effect on Western Christianity and society at large. There are still some that want to defend his philosophy, or the Thomism that comes from it, even in places where modern science has shown it to be manifestly wrong, and I’ve been in on a couple such discussions of late. Thus, while I’m not intending to dismiss his importance or influence, or trying to argue that he was always wrong, I think it’s good to post some critical quotes.
Coming to the fair land of Cecropia
he piously founded an altar of holy friendship
for a man whom the wicked may not properly even praise;
he, alone or the first of mortals, showed clearly
by his own life and by the courses of his arguments
that a man becomes good and happy at the same time:
but now none can grasp this any more.
–Aristotle, Altar Elegy, in which he speaks of his mentor and teacher, Plato
If we should classify one by one all those who hate others and injure others, should we find them to be universal in love or partial? Of course we should say they are partial. Now, since partiality against one another is the cause of the major calamities in the empire, then partiality is wrong.
If the rulers sincerely desire the empire to be wealthy and dislike to have it poor, desire to have it orderly and dislike to have it chaotic, they should bring about universal love and mutual aid. This is the way of the sage-kings and the way to order for the world, and it should not be neglected.
When feudal lords love one another there will be no more war; when heads of houses love one another there will be no more mutual usurpation; when individuals love one another there will be no more mutual injury. When ruler and ruled love each other they will be gracious and loyal; when father and son love each other they will be affectionate and filial; when older and younger brothers love each other they will be harmonious. When all the people in the world love one another, then the strong will not overpower the weak, the many will not oppress the few, the wealthy will not mock the poor, the honoured will not disdain the humble, and the cunning will not deceive the simple. And it is all due to mutual love that calamities, strife, complaints, and hatred are prevented from arising. Therefore the benevolent exalt it.
Book 4; Universal Love II
All states in the world, large or small, are cities of Heaven, and all people, young or old, honourable or humble, are its subjects; for they all graze oxen and sheep, feed dogs and pigs, and prepare clean wine and cakes to sacrifice to Heaven. Does this not mean that Heaven claims all and accepts offerings from all? Since Heaven does claim all and accepts offerings from all, what then can make us say that it does not desire men to love and benefit one another? Hence those who love and benefit others Heaven will bless. Those who hate and harm others Heaven will curse, for it is said that he who murders the innocent will be visited by misfortune. How else can we explain the fact that men, murdering each other, will be cursed by Heaven? Thus we are certain that Heaven desires to have men love and benefit one another and abominates to have them hate and harm one another