Aristotle (from André Thevet)

Aristotle (from André Thevet)
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Aristotle was born in Stagira (modern Staviro),[1] a small town in Northern Greece. He was a pupil of Plato, and for three years was tutor to the fourteen year old Alexander the Great (though his influence on Alexander was apparently negligible).[2] Aristotle used Plato’s ideas as his starting point for his own theories,[3] but rejected many of his views, including his Theory of Ideas.[4] For the purposes of our present study two aspects of his work are relevant: his idea of God, and his biological research. Charles Hummel provides an excellent summary of Aristotle’s cosmology:

Aristotle believed that the universe is finite and spherical, with the stationary earth at its center. The simplest entities in nature are the four elements of which the world is composed, earth, water, air and fire, each of which is an eternal substance. At the center of the universe is a motionless sphere composed of earth, forming the dry land. Over this is layer of water, comprising the ocean; next comes the atmosphere of air; then comes an outer coating of fire extending as far as the moon. Objects in our world are composed of one or more of these elements.[5]

Aristotle had the greatest influence of all the Greek philosophers on the development of mediaeval Christian and Islamic[6] doctrine.[7] While Plato’s Timaeus influenced much of the thinking of the early Church[8] it was not until the 11th century that translations of Aristotle’s works became widely available,[9] and their influence began to dominate.

Aristotle’s treatises on physics, metaphysics, logic, cosmology, the elements, epistemology, and nature of change furnished the Middle Ages with its conception of the structure and operation of the physical world. They assumed this fundamental role because their introduction into Western Europe coincided with, and probably contributed toward, the establishment of that uniquely medieval institution, the university. For approximately 450 years, from 1200 to 1650, the universities of Western Europe emphasised a philosophical and scientific curriculum based on the works of Aristotle, whose logic and natural philosophy were studied by all who received the master of arts degree. Since the latter was usually a prerequisite for entry into the higher faculty of theology, most theologians were well aquainted with contemporary science.[10]

Indeed, during this period the writings of Aristotle attained a "preeminent, if not infallible, authority",[11] but as Grant shows, Aristotle’s concept of God as the Unmoved Mover; the earth as without beginning, and the soul not surviving the death of the body[12][13] all led to tensions between science and theology.[14] Hilary Armstrong points out that Aristotle’s concept of God as

...the Eternal Mind enclosed in a sterile self-sufficiency, everlastingly contemplating its own thinking, neither knowing nor willing the universe and only affecting it through the ceaseless motion which desire for its unattainable perfection inspires in the First Heaven, it is not at all like anything we mean by the word ‘God' .It is simply the logical culmination of the hierarchy of substances and the ultimate explanation of motion and change. But it is not a person or power exercising providence, ordering all things by its will. Still less is it a Creator or the inexpressible Absolute. Aristotle’s thought is not really God-centred, but Cosmos-centred. It is the everlasting universe which is for him the Whole, the sum of being, the ultimate Reality. The First Mover or God is a part of that whole, not Absolute Being but the Supreme Being.[15]

The following reasons have been put forward to explain why Aristotle rose to pre-eminence in theological studies, despite resistance from the ecclesiastical authorities.[16]

  • "...Aristotle was so ambiguous and provided such a flexible battery of concepts that he could be understood in many ways, and even the rejection of his position could be formulated in his own terminology."[17]
  • The ecclesiastical ban on Aristotle intensified the interest in his works.[18]
  • Mediaeval theologians could point to the favourable attitude of many of the church fathers who had made use of Aristotle, such as Leonidus of Byzantium (d.c.543), John of Damascus (650/675-749) and Gregory of Nazianxus (329-390).[19]

Many would consider that Aristotle’s biological studies left a more beneficial legacy. His studies in this area marked a watershed in the history of Greek science.[20] In contrast to Plato, he placed the value of personal observation above abstract argument.[21] He was an expert logician (the founder of formal logic) and this led naturally to him being the originator of systematic biological classification.[22] Most scholars agree that this was his greatest contribution to science.

In his works[23] he referred to about 520 species of animals, and his descriptions of some have only been confirmed in the last 150 years.[24] With the benefit of specimens collected during Alexander’s conquests Aristotle was able to write his History of Animals, The Generation of Animals and The Parts of Animals, reputedly the first scientific treatises of this kind produced in Europe and unsurpassed in their detail until the sixteenth century.[25]

Aristotle rightly rejected the idea that the reproductive ‘seed’ is drawn from the whole body (known as ‘pangenesis’), and so denied that acquired characteristics could be inherited[26] as Lamarck (1744-1829) later maintained. He has been called the first evolutionist by some.[27]. Such a claim is totally unjustified because Aristotole taught the fixity of species[28] and attributed the driving force behind evolution to a guiding intelligence[29] rather than to a purely natural random process. Aristotle rejected the idea that men were spontaneously generated by the earth, and that water-animals had developed on dry land.[30] However, he did teach that spiders, locusts, cicadas, roundworms,[31] eels[32] barnacles[33] and certain fish,[34] are all spontaneously generated from mud and putrefying material.

By the sixteenth century Aristotelian philosophy had been harmonised with biblical revelation and biblical revelation with Aristotelian philosophy to such a degree that it became all but impossible to separate the two. The result was that when objections began to be raised against Aristotelian physics many felt that the Bible too was being challenged.[35]

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[1] John Ferguson, Aristotle. (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972), 13.

[2] G.E.R. Lloyd, Aristotle: The Growth And Structure of His Thought. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 6 .

[3] Lloyd, 41.

[4] Lloyd, 42.

[5] Charles E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts Between Science & the Bible. (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 1986), 27 .

[6] Ferguson, 167-169. Three stand out: Alkindi (d.873), Ibn Sina (980-1037), Ibn Roshd or Averroes (1126-1198) .

[7] Edward Grant, "Science and Theology in the Middle Ages," David C. Lindberg & Ronald L. Numbers, eds. God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science. (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), 52

[8] Jean Daniélou, Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), 130: "[Plato] was to keep this pre-eminence in Christian eyes throughout the patristic period. At the time Aristotle, who in the thirteenth century was to dethrone Plato, is no more than a poor relation, whom Tatian [2nd century], for example compares to Judas for betraying his master." Cf. Origen, Celsus, 2.1

[9] It was after the fall of Constantinople in 1204 that Latin versions of the Greek, without an Islamic intermediary became available in the West. Ferguson, 171

[10] Grant, 52

[11] Lloyd, 19

[12] Aristotle’s definition of soul is "the first actuality of a natural body potentially having life; that is organic": De Anima 412a27. Cited in Armstrong, 91

[13] Lloyd, 33, 38-39. Aristotle inherited this belief from the Pythagoreans and from Plato

[14] Grant, 52-53

[15] Armstrong, 90

[16] Rev. Anselm H. Amadio & Loren Minio-Paluello, "Aristotle & Aristotlianism," Encyclopedia Brtiannica Macrpoedia, Vol. 14, 15th edn. (London: Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., 1992), 66-67: "The introduction of the new Aristotle met with difficulties in Paris. The impact of non-Christian Aristotelian and Arabic philosophy engendered fears, doubts and suspicions. Although the masters at Paris were free to teach Aristotle’s logic, which was value free, and although no obstacle was placed in the way of lecturing on any of Aristotle’s works at Oxford and Toulouse, in the first part of the 13th century the ecclesiastical authorities at Paris imposed a ban on lectures relating to the physics, the metaphysics and the psychology of Aristotle and his commentators.

[17] Arthur Hyman, & James J. Walsh, Philosophy In The Middle Ages: The Christian, Islamic And Jewish Traditions. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1977), 412.

[18] Amadio, & Minio-Paluello, 67

[19] Lawrence P. Schrenk, "Aristotle," Everett Ferguson, ed. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. (New York & London: Garland, 1990), 9.

[20] Lloyd, 72

[21] Lloyd, 79

[22] Eric Nordenskiold, The History of Biology: A Survey, trans. Leonard Bucknall Eyre. (New York: Tudor, 1928), 12. Ernest L. Abel, Ancient Views on the Origins of Life. (Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1973), 38 .

[23] Nordenskiold, 37: "Of his purely biological works the following are extant: ten books On the History of Animals; five books On the Reproduction of Animals; and three books On the Soul.

[24] Lloyd, 79-81

[25] Charles E. Raven, "Natural Religion And Christian Theology," The Gifford Lectures 1951. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), 41.

[26] Aristotle, Generation 769a5-25; Lloyd, 82, 83: However his own explanation "was equally in error in that he believed… that the semen of the male contributes no material to the embryo, but merely supplies the form and the efficient cause of generation"

[27] Nordenskiold, 37. Abel laments that Aristotle failed the grasp the concept of Evolution! Abel, 63

[28] Lloyd, 92; W.K.C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 6. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 290: "It may seem surprising that with such science-based ideas he never entertained the possibility of temporal evolution instead of a static hierarchy, but it would have run counter to his deeply rooted, Platonically inspired conviction of the permanence of form and its priority to matter...

[29] Nordenskiold, 43

[30] Guthrie, Vol. 6, 290; Aristotle, De Resp. 477b5-7

[31] Aristotle, History 5.19 (550b30 - 551a10)

[32] Aristotle, History 6.16 (520a2-24); Generation 762b20-30

[33] Aristotle, Generation 763a25-35)

[34] Aristotle, History 6.15 (569b10-24)

[35] Hummel, 151.

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Book or monograph The Complete Works of Aristotle, Vol. 1Jonathan Barnes, editor, The Complete Works of Aristotle, revised. Vol. 1. Princeton University Press, 1998. Hbk. ISBN: 069101650X. pp.1264.
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Sign-up to Perlego and access book instantly Thomas Kiernan, Aristotle DictionaryThomas Kiernan, Aristotle Dictionary. New York: Philosophical Library/Open Road, 2018. ISBN: 9781504055048. pp.949. [Sign-up to Perlego and access book instantly]
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Sign-up to Perlego and access book instantly Carlo Natali, D. Hutchinson.ed., Aristotle: His Life and SchoolCarlo Natali, D. Hutchinson.ed., Aristotle: His Life and School. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013. ISBN: 9781400846009. pp.240. [Sign-up to Perlego and access book instantly]
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On-line Resource E.A. Park, "Life of Aristotle," Bibliotheca Sacra 1 No. 1 (1844): 39-84.View in PDF format pdf [This material is in the Public Domain]
On-line Resource E.A. Park, "Life of Aristotle, Part 2" Bibliotheca Sacra 1 No. 2 (1844): 280-309.View in PDF format pdf [This material is in the Public Domain]