Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A worthy opponent

I'm giving this book four stars, not because I agree with it, but because it was so hard to understand that I gave up reading it after a few chapters (and I gave it two tries, with the very same chapters)! Being a nut too hard to crack for The Ashtar is, in my opinion, worth four stars by itself. Besides, I do think Lloyd P Gerson is trying to tell us something important…

Philosophically speaking, Aristotle is usually seen as an opponent of Plato. Curiously, however, Platonists in antiquity didn't always see him that way. Thus, the Neo-Platonists (often depicted as muddle-headed mystics with their pies firmly anchored in the skies) included Aristotle in their curriculum and expected students to grasp his writings before moving on to the Platonic corpus proper! The Neo-Platonists believed that Aristotle was, in some non-trivial sense of that term, a “Platonist”. His philosophy could therefore be harmonized with that of Plato. The issue of harmonization is connected to the perennial debate on Plato's “unwritten doctrines”. Modern minds, who always know better, have decided that harmonization, esoteric doctrines and indeed Neo-Platonism is so much hocus pocus, preferring to mine Aristotelian wisdom uncontaminated by any Platonist dross. But what if the ancients were right, after all?

Gerson sets himself two distinct tasks in “Aristotle and Other Platonists”. First, Gerson wants to understand what the Neo-Platonists could possibly have meant with “harmonization”. Second, he wants to argue that they were right, and that Aristotle really was another “Platonist”. Gerson constantly conflates the two tasks, in effect writing an extended apologia for the Neo-Platonist position (as he understands it). This doesn't make the book less intriguing, though. Quite the contrary – if you are an advanced philosophy student (think “metaphysics”) you may find this to your liking!

It should be noted that the Neo-Platonist sages (who, per Gerson, would much rather have preferred the designation Paleo-Platonists or simply Platonists) didn't claim that Aristotle's philosophy was “identical” with that of Plato. Harmonization was necessary precisely because it wasn't. At the same time, the Neo-Platonists didn't bother harmonizing Stoicism, Skepticism or Epicureanism with their system. They must have seen *something* congenial in Aristotle. As the Neo-Platonists saw it, Aristotle believed in an “intelligible” (spiritual) world, the immortality of at least part of the soul, and some kind of real metaphysical substances. He believed in some kind of god. Plato and Aristotle also saw eye to eye, or so Plotinus and his successors held, that the contemplative life is the highest and that the goal of man is to lift himself up to the divine.

Often, Neo-Platonists insisted that the exoteric dialogues of Aristotle (which are widely seen as more “Platonist”) conveyed the same message as his “esoteric” philosophical writings. They were baffled by Aristotle's constant attacks on Forms, since the Neo-Platonists didn't believe Plato had held the particular version of the theory of Forms which the Stagirite was attacking. In general, the Neos seems to have regarded Aristotle as a philosopher who interpreted Spirit “according to nature”, perhaps in order to reach instinctive Aristotelians, while Plato interpreted nature according to Spirit. In so doing, Aristotle had given a correct interpretation of the sensible world, but he erred (or expressed himself unclearly) on the ultimate principles, something remedied by the Neo-Platonist perspective.

Gerson points out that Platonists (both Paleo, Meso and Neo) frequently disagreed with each other, so the fact that Aristotle didn't always sound “Platonist” wasn't necessarily bothersome – certainly not to a school which attempted to harmonize everything from the Chaldean Oracles to the Isis cult with The Divine Plato. Gerson even claims that no coherent anti-Platonist Aristotelianism seems to have existed in ancient times, and remarks that when Thomas Aquinas attempted to use a de-Platonized Aristotle to bolster the Church's teachings, he was really harmonizing the founder of the Peripatetic school with a Platonizing Christianity!

As for the details, she's all yours, lieutenant…

As I said, “Aristotle and Other Platonists” is above my head.

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