Imagine the recent Olympic Games had gone differently. In the 100-meter final, Usain Bolt notices a stranger at the starting blocks one lane over from his. He puzzles for a moment, shrugs it off, and takes position. The starting gun fires. Bolt runs superbly to a 9.81, but, to his astonishment, crosses the line behind the stranger. Not only that, but the stranger has managed to cross the finish line, complete a full lap around the track, and cross the finish line a second time, all in 9 seconds flat.
In the field of ideas, someone like Einstein is Usain Bolt — a stand-out superstar, someone whose achievements so far outstrip even elite competitors’ that there is hardly competition to be had at all. The stranger? He is someone like Aristotle.
Aristotle’s achievements are so outsized that he seems like a comic-book hero, oneÂ written by a teenager with no sense of proportion. To recount them plainly is to invite endless caviling. This is because no one such as Aristotle is allowed — in the contemporary mind, steeped in its characteristically egalitarian prejudices — to exist. (In my view, Aristotle has exactly two peers in the entire history of human genius: Homer (whose merits and accomplishments are beyond our scope here), and the genius-of-all geniuses, his or her name lost in pre-history, who invented language.)
If we refuse to get bogged down in academic trivialities, refuse to make much of distinctions that make no difference, and refuse to give in to the egalitarian prejudices of the day, an honest list of Aristotle’s more astounding accomplishments might go like this:
- He invented physics.
- He invented geology.
- He invented biology.
- He invented taxonomy.
- He invented psychology.
- He invented science itself.
- He invented ethics.
- He invented political philosophy.
- He invented rhetoric.
- He invented metaphysics.
- He invented epistemology.
- He invented logic.
Take a moment — take several, long moments — to let that sink in.
Of course it is true, for example, that the sophists were teaching rhetoric before Aristotle invented it, that Plato had grand, philosophical schemes for governing the polis before Aristotle invented political philosophy, and that Thales et al. were investigating the natural world before Aristotle invented science. But all of these observations — if they are offered to diminish Aristotle’s unique genius and unparalleled achievements — entirely miss their mark.
They miss because Aristotle’s innovations were, above all and in essence, innovations of method. While Aristotle does indeed seem to have been the first person to ask many important questions, it’s not as much what he asked, but the way he asked that distinguished his thought. With Aristotle, many important questions were asked, for the first time in the only right way: with implicit or explicit reference to an explicitly defined and validated method.
The keys to Aristotle’s uniquely valuable method are in his metaphysics, epistemology, and logic. For Plato, there had been two worlds: the higher world of ideas and the lower world of the senses. Reasoning was a quasi-mystical rite that allowed one’s consciousness to ascend from the dark cave of sensory illusion to the open, sunlight horizons of the abstract True Good. For Aristotle, in contrast, reasoning was rooted in sensory experience; that which we reason about is the world we encounter by means of our eyes, ears, and hands. For Aristotle, then, there was just one world, a world individuals discovered with their senses and could come to understand through rigorous, methodical, logical reasoning.
For reasons that are unknown to history (or perhaps just unknown to me), most of Aristotle’s writing did not survive the collapse of Classical civilization in Europe. The monks who kept the flame of learning alight through Europe’s Dark and Middle ages had earlier and more extensive access to Plato’s philosophy, and the philosophies of his followers, than they did to Aristotle’s. (This surely suited them, as Platonism might as well have been tailor-made to serve as the official Classical philosophy of Christendom.) But although the precipitous decline in commerce which characterized medieval Europe includedÂ a precipitous decline in intellectual commerce, just because Europe was no longer trading in Aristotle’s philosophy did not mean that it was lost.
After the fall of Rome and Classical civilization, as the new Western civilization struggled in its infancy, Islamic civilization was just catching its stride. And, as civilizations on the upswing tend to do, Islamic civilization found itself reading Aristotle. By the late 1100s C.E., the best Aristotle scholarship in the world, perhaps the only Aristotle scholarship in the world, was being done in Arabic by men like Ibn Rushd.
Centuries after Aristotle’s time, Western civilization was in the midst of what would later be called its Renaissance. The word “Renaissance” means “rebirth.” This period, which began in the 1300s C.E., was a period of furious cultural transformation in Europe. But what was being reborn, and what was driving this transformation? Generally, they were the values and philosophy of Classical civilization that were being reborn, but, above all, and in essence, the Renaissance was the second coming of Aristotle.
Consider this painting, Raphael’sÂ The School of Athens:
The central figures are Plato, on our left, and Aristotle, on our right. By 1509, when this painting was begun, the Renaissance was well underway. Raphael is recognizing and honoring the central figures of Classical civilization, giving them credit for what their thinking contributed to the rebirth and renewal that characterized Italy in the 1500s. By placing them as he does in this great painting, Rafael is saying: “Look around you at the wealth and power of our civilization. This wealth and power comes as a gift from these two men’s hands.”
And now look at those hands. Notice that Plato’s hand has one finger extended upward. This is Raphael recognizing that Plato found the root of reality in the otherworldly, in heaven above, in the “higher” realm of ideas. But where is Aristotle’s hand? It is spread out, open, taking in the world before him, and, not coincidentally, taking us in as well, as we stand in front of Aristotle, viewing the painting. Raphael knew it: Aristotle’s philosophy was a philosophy for living on earth, a philosophy of the senses, of the hands-on, the practical. (Raphael, who took ideas and realized themÂ through rigorous manual labor,Â likely found a kindred spirit in Aristotle.)
What Aristotle did by inventing formal logic was to take the essence of valid thought, logic, and capture it in a concrete method; he made logic a practical art. He took all the formerly mysterious things that successful minds didÂ whenever they succeeded in knowing reality, and distilled these down to aÂ recipe that anyone could follow. He made logic — which in its most developed forms had been an aristocratic skill, practiced with difficultyÂ by men like Plato, men with the wealth and leisure to refine their thinking through thousands of hours of impractical conversation — accessible to everyone.
If I were to pick just one picture to illustrate just how important Aristotle is to Western civilization, it would beÂ The School of Athens.Â But I am going to pick two pictures. The second is this chart:
Notice what happened to world population when the rebirth of Aristotle had had a few hundred years to settle in in the West. This is why I think a better name for Western civilization would be: Aristotelian civilization.