I don’t use a straight razor, by the way. I don’t want to slit my own throat accidentally, after all! I do use mug soap and a brush, though. In any case, this post is a departure from my usual topics; but then again, variety is the spice of life.
As is the case with most young men, I found the advent of facial hair an exciting time. My parents had bought me a shaving kit, without comment, around Christmas my freshman year of high school, or maybe for my birthday that year (which would have been the summer between freshman and sophomore year); I don’t remember clearly. I allowed it to sit for a few months. After all, I didn’t know what the threshold was for starting to shave (how fuzzy does the peach fuzz have to be?), and this was one of many things that Dad seemed to feel no need to discuss. I was a first child, and Mom and Dad had me relatively late (for those days); and in retrospect, I think they often assumed that kids would “just naturally” do the various developmental things at the appropriate age. Thus, shaving did not need to be discussed.
Be that as it may, I eventually caved in some time during my sophomore year, and shaved the fuzz off. It was rather anticlimactic, really–not much effort at all. I did leave the “mustache”–scare quotes intentional–intact, though, and kept it there for the rest of the year. Alas, every young man has to go through his “pencil-thin mustache” stage, I guess.
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
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
There’s a pop-culture game you see now and then, the name of which I’m unsure, but which you could call “this or that”. You name a certain pop-cultural category in which there are (or are perceived to be) two different major choices, and the players pick which one. For example: “Coke or Pepsi”; “Chevy or Ford”; “PC or Mac”; “Marvel or DC”. You get the idea. If one played this game with ancient philosophy, one might say, “Plato or Aristotle”.
The two giants of Classical Greek philosophy are an appropriate “this or that” for various reasons. Theirs are the last two major schools of Classical Greek philosophy–after Aristotle comes the Hellenistic age. Hellenistic philosophy (some characteristic examples of which are Cynicism, Skepticism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism) is generally thought to be less ambitious, more inwardly directed, and more pessimistic than Classical philosophy. On the other hand, the towering genius of Plato has had the result that we have only fragments of the pre-Socratics. Many of them probably weren’t systematists; but even of those, such as Pythagoras, who probably were, we have little that remains. Thus, for Greek philosophy at its height, the choices are Plato and Aristotle.