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[1925] More, Ross, Hicks - Symposium; Platonic Philosophy and Aristotelian

Apr 15, 2016



  • Symposium: Platonic Philosophy and Aristotelian MetaphysicsAuthor(s): Paul E. More, W. D. Ross, G. Dawes HicksSource: Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, Vol. 5, Philosophyand Metaphysics (1925), pp. 135-172Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Aristotelian SocietyStable URL: 02/01/2010 01:23

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  • 135


    FIFTH SESSION: July 26th, at 2.30 p.m. Chairman: Miss BI. D. OAKELEY.


    By Mr. PAUL E. MORE, Professor W. D. Ross and Professor G. DAWES HICKS.

    I.-By PAUL E. MORE. MY thesis would be that there is a radical difference between the Platonic and the Aristotelian methods of dealing with the ultimate problems of philosophy, and that the prevalence of the Aristo- telian method, since the fifth century A.D., has been detrimental to sound thinking. This difference of method I would denote by restricting the word "philosophy," so far as possible, to the Platonic procedure, and applying the word "metaphysics" to the Aristotelian, in so far as Aristotle goes beyond and differs from Plato in what he calls his first philosophy. I am aware, of course, of the somewhat arbitrary character of this verbal distinction, and in particular of the ambiguous meaning of the term " metaphysics."

    To go back to early times, I have been struck by the fact that Gregory Nyssenus in his great treatise Contra Eunomium, written to defend the orthodox creed against the extreme and logical outcome of Arianism, repeatedly charges his adversary with perverting the faith by the application to religion of the Aristo- telian

    DrevoXoyla or, as he once calls it, j iatle a 1 'Aptarro-

    TrXovW KaKcoExvla (ed. Jaeger I, 38), whereas this and his other works are permeated with reminiscences of Plato. Nor is this attitude towards the two leaders of Hellenic thought peculiar to Gregory. You will find it in other protagonists of the Church through the fourth century, in whom Plato quite commonly stands as a forerunner of the orthodox faith, while Aristotle,

  • 136 PAUL E. MORE.

    so far as he is remembered at all, is condemned as the prime heresiarch.

    By the side of this fairly consistent attitude of the Greek Fathers may be set the curiously inconsistent position of Plotinus, whose work, like that of the Christians, is replete with echoes of and allusions to Plato, whom he evidently esteems as his master, whereas Aristotle is seldom named, and then chiefly as an author to be refuted. Yet at the same time-and in this Plotinus differs from the Christians-his system in the last analysis must be judged to have more affinity with the Aristotelian metaphysics than with Platonic philosophy.

    Now presumably this contrast of attitude towards Plato and Aristotle respectively-though often it may have been more instinctive than reasoned out-signifies a radical difference in their manner of treating the important facts of our mental and spiritual life, and the clarification of that difference may throw some light on the later course of thought, secular as well as religious.

    From a survey of the Greek Fathers I should say that what drew them to the philosophy of Plato was, in the first place, his clear perception of the Ideal world as a sphere of reality existing separately and independently, yet also, in some way inexplicable to reason, imposed upon, or involved in, the world of phenomena, and, in the second place, his belief in God as " the father and maker of the universe," of whose existence and will we have assured knowledge, yet whose nature transcends the scope of human intelligence. In other words, it was the combination in his philosophy of Idealism and super-rationalism, or, if you chose, irrationalism.

    On the other hand, it was precisely the contrary position of Aristotle on these two points that repelled the orthodox theo- logians from him as either essentially irreligious or, if religious, The fountain of heresy. This divergence runs through the various


    works of Aristotle, but, naturally, comes to a head in the Meta- physics. Mr. Ross in his recent exposition of Aristotle sums up the matter admirably (pp. 155 ff.). " Two main questions," he says, " occupy Aristotle's mind." One of these questions is "whether there are non-sensible as well as sensible substances, and if so, what they are. Are universals, as Plato claimed in his ideal theory, self-subsistent substantial entities . . . The polemic against the Platonic Forms, i.e., against the substantiality of universals, is one of the leading notes of the Metaphysics, to which Aristotle returns again and again."

    That of course is a commonplace of criticism; but Mr. Ross, I think, following in the steps of his author, does not present the position of Plato quite adequately. He fails to discriminate the implicit but genuine and important difference in Plato's treatment of ethical principles and of intellectual generalia. And it might be added that what drove Aristotle to his repudia- tion of Ideas was apparently not the difficulty in itself of accepting the existence of an independent spiritual world, but the difficulty of finding any rational solution of the coincidence of such a realm with the realm of phenomena--a difficulty which Plato fully recognized at the end but, as it were, deliberately passed over.

    The other main question that occupied Aristotle's mind is stated by Mr. Ross thus: " Is a single supreme science of meta- physics possible-a synoptic science which shall study the nature not of this or that reality but of the real as such, and deduce the detailed nature of the universe from some central principle ? .

    . .

    All that is, has a certain nature that belongs to it simply as being, and this can be known. . . In studying the primary kind of being, metaphysics studies being as such."

    Now it is easy to see how the divergence of Plato and Aristotle towards generalia, or more specifically towards ethical Ideas, attached the Churchmen to the former as to a half-inspired

  • 138 PAUL E. MORE.

    herald of the faith, and caused them to reject the latter as an insidious enemy of the very basis of all religion. It was to them simply the question whether there was such a thing as an immaterial world of reality, a spiritual realm wherein the emanci- pated soul could prolong its personal existence after death in communion with God. Plato left the door open to faith; Aristotle, with his doctrine of individual things composed of form and matter as the only substantial realities, definitely precluded such a hope. Perhaps those who have not read widely in the Greek Fathers are unaware of the thoroughness with which Plato's conception of the realm of voYqr was assimilated by the more enlightened of the churchmen with their belief in the aaoLXEla Zrv ovpav^v. I have said something about this in my Christ of the New Testament, but the matter is worthy of expansion. Here I can only allude to the testimony of such a passage as vi, 74 (Jaeger II, 200), in Gregory's Contra Eunomium.

    The other point-in which Aristotle stood rather as the father of heresy than as the antagonist of religion, so far as such a distinction would be recognized by the orthodox theologian- needs perhaps some elucidation. It might seem at first blush as though the Aristotelian belief in the cognizability of ultimate being would be grasped by the Christian as a confirmation of theism, but it is in fact against this very thesis that Gregory directs the main lines of his argument. The universe for him is divided primarily into two realms, the alarO~T~r and the vo?6rov (I, 100), and of these the voqr-,v, though known to us by spiritual perception and forming the field of our faith and hope, cannot be expressed in terms of time and space, which belong to the realm of

    aiar'lrd, and cannot be comprehended

    by I KaaXq7rtI0ci 70r voi Svauz; any attempt so to com-

    prehend spiritual realities must result in reducing them to the grade of the sensible world. Going a step further, he insists on the fact that God as ultimate being, if such a phrase has any


    meaning, which he questions, is utterly unknowable. To the taunt of Eunomius (II, 35) that, if this be so, then the Christian is constrained to worship that of which he is ignorant, Gregory replies that