Aristotle Versus Religion.
In one approach, we see Islamic jihadists perpetrating murderous terrorist assaults around the world, virtually daily. The attack on 9/11 is the worst Islamist atrocity to date, but many have followed, including a recent attack at a shopping mall in Nairobi, in which Islamists murdered scores of people and wounded hundreds more. Similarly, we see Christians, throughout a full millennium during which they held unchallenged cultural and political power, relentlessly hunting down and slaughtering untold thousands for the "crime" of disagreeing with religious orthodoxy. And we see Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Sikhs on the Indian subcontinent engaging in a seething inferno of violence in which millions have been slain.
In the other approach, we see something utterly different. We see Copernicus, Darwin, and Einstein advancing revolutionary theories in astronomy, biology, and physics. We see Edison, Bell, and the Wright brothers pioneering life-promoting inventions. We see writers from Homer to Ayn Rand dramatizing the heroism and greatness possible to individuals committed to man's earthly existence.
Here, then, are two different visions of human life: one driven by faith, the other by reason--one religious, the other secular--one irrational, often violently so; the other, rational, often brilliantly so.
Most of Western history has been a struggle between these two contrasting philosophies. Religious mysticism--in this instance, proceeding from ancient Judaism--is a pernicious force in human life. Rational secularism--the creation and legacy of ancient Greek culture--is vital to proper human life.
By observing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam relative to the ideas of the ancient Greeks, we can see that the essentially secular approach of Greek culture--especially the rational method Aristotle developed--is responsible for golden ages and renaissances, both in the West and in the Middle East; and that the faith-based approach of religion, when intellectually dominant, is responsible for cultural stagnation and dark ages.
A clear understanding of the nature of these opposing forces--and of the struggle between them--is essential to the preservation of civilization. An essentialized survey should start at the beginning.
The Greeks Give Birth to Western Civilization
What did the Greeks contribute to human life? As the eminent historian Will Durant wrote, "there is hardly anything secular in our culture that does not come from Greece. Schools, gymnasiums, arithmetic, geometry, history... physics, biology... poetry, music, tragedy, comedy, philosophy... ethics, politics, idealism, philanthropy... democracy: these are all Greek words for cultural forms ... in many cases first matured... by the abounding energy of the Greeks." (1)
Philosophy is the fundamental value that men inherited from the Greeks, for it seeks to answer life's most important questions: What is the nature of the universe? How do men gain knowledge? What is human nature? What is the good? What is a good society? Philosophy attempts to give rational rather than mythic or faith-based answers to such questions.
Religion is a primitive form of philosophy. As such, it is important to note the difference between Greek religion and later monotheistic religion.
Greek "religion" was natural in that the Greek gods were physical, not exclusively "spiritual" beings; they occupied a physical mountain peak, not an immaterial heaven. They were powerful and occasionally wise--but not omnipotent or omniscient. They were more like comic book superheroes than anything resembling the otherworldly, mysterious, virtually inconceivable God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Homer and Hesiod, early in Greek development, appealed to these beings as explanations for natural occurrences.
In time, Greece's great thinkers repudiated the early fables of their culture. Democritus, the Sophists, Epicurus--and above all, Aristotle--developed essentially secular, non-mythical philosophic theories.
The Sophists mocked and rejected all religious beliefs. They adopted Protagoras's dictum that "Man is the measure of all things--alike of the being of things that are and of the not-being of things that are not." (2) Unfortunately, the Sophists jettisoned objectivity with religion, arguing that cognitive and moral principles were mere matters of opinion. Protagoras held that subjective desire was the standard of human morality--but, as a true conservative, he thought it expedient to generally follow whatever mores society accepted. (3) Thrasymachus, another Sophist, agreed that moral principles are mere social conventions--but, as a more radical subjectivist, he held that right and wrong are whatever an individual feels them to be, "and that the only real authority in the world is force." (4)
Socrates responded to the Sophists' relativism by seeking exact definitions of moral concepts. What is justice? he asked. What is virtue? What is piety? He sought neither mere examples of such terms nor mythic, religious explanations. If justice, for example, has a nature--if it is what it is, and nothing else--then it can be defined; more broadly, if moral terms and principles have a nature, then, these can be identified, and an objective standard for proper human conduct provided. Socrates observed that "men's talk was interlarded with... terms intended to be descriptive of ethical notions--justice, temperance, courage.... [But men] cannot talk about acting wisely, justly or well unless [they] know what wisdom, justice and goodness are." (5) Certainly, in a state of ignorance, they cannot talk meaningfully of such matters; hence, Socrates's relentless search for rigorous definitions. (6)
In his pursuit of factual grounding regarding moral matters, Socrates claimed that x is not good because the gods approve it, but rather that the gods approve x because it is good. (7) And, he said, the Sophists are wrong: The good is not based on subjective whim--neither of the gods nor of men. Socrates held that moral principles are absolute, not relative, and are discoverable by reason. His question-and-answer method, his fearless willingness to confront every issue and opponent, and his tireless discourse with inquiring minds (including that of the youthful Plato) were intended to discover exactly those principles. Wilhelm Windelband, a leading historian of philosophy, states the point succinctly: "Regarded on the whole, the activity of Socrates, in that he set up the ideal of reason as against relativism, was an attempt to reform the life morally by means of science." (8)
Moral philosophy began in Greece with Socrates. But the discipline reaches its classical zenith in Aristotle.
The Seminal Intellectual Achievements of Aristotle
Whereas Socrates taught mankind the germ of a method for determining values, Aristotle broadened and deepened that method as a means to pursue knowledge in any field. Aristotle is the fountainhead of the field of logic. Among other things, he formulated the rules for deductive reasoning; identified the primary errors of reasoning, the major fallacies; and emphasized that reasoning is grounded in observable facts. Reasoning, Aristotle understood, is not rooted in myths, personal desires, or any other nonobjective consideration. As John Herman Randall, a leading Aristotle scholar, states, "He was impressed by the fact that although facts alone do not give understanding.... facts are nevertheless far more certain than any theory" (9) As such, reasoned Aristotle, facts are the necessary starting point of any proper speculative theorizing.
Aristotle applied his method to both philosophic and biologic questions. As philosophic historian W. T.Jones writes, "Much of his [biologic] work was based on close observation of actual animals." (10) Given that several Greek philosophers tended to theorize in the absence of observational data, Jones adds, "Aristotle's method was a healthy corrective to the over-rationalism of his philosophical predecessors, including Plato." (11) Aristotle characteristically gathered a plethora of specimens as a starting point for his inquiry. "Just as he laid the basis for his political theory by collecting and studying all available constitutions," explains Jones, "so in biology he began by recording everything he could discover about... reproduction, nutrition and growth, local movement, and so on." (12)
By use of such method, Aristotle made signal contributions to metaphysics, biology, ethics, esthetics, and other fields. Today, for example, he is considered along with Darwin one of the greatest biologists in history. Historian David Lindberg writes of Aristotle: "He contributed monumentally to developments in the biological sciences." (13)
In his work on metaphysics, Aristotle held that all things strive to actualize their nature, and he deployed this idea in the field of ethics. For man, he argued, the best life lies in eudaimonia, often translated as "happiness," but which actually means "flourishing." Eudaimonia refers to an activity, rather than an emotional state. How do men flourish or lead robust, successful lives? By achieving excellence in accordance with their rational nature--in other words, by the fullest development of the distinctively human faculty, the mind.
Aristotle held that a rational being finds fulfillment in a lifelong striving for intellectual excellence, and he claimed (somewhat optimistically), "All men by nature desire to know." (14) All things, he argued, have a nature or identity, and a proper function in accordance with that nature. For man, he asked, "What can this be? Life seems to be common even to plants, but we are seeking what is peculiar to man.... Next there would be a life of perception, but it also seems to be common even to the ox, the horse, and every animal. There remains then an active life of the element that has a rational principle...." (15) Jonathan Barnes, an eminent Aristotle scholar, makes the point concisely: "To flourish, to make a success of life, requires engagement in intellectual pursuits." (16)
Aristotle's approach is almost entirely secular, making only the most attenuated references to divinity. His extensive and profound work in moral philosophy demonstrates that this field flourishes independent of religion. Morality is a branch of philosophy and was born in Greece, four centuries before Christianity.
According to Aristotle, reality is nature and does not include a supernatural dimension. Knowledge is gained by observation-based reasoning. Man is the rational animal. Moral excellence is the fullest development of man's mind; the ideal political state is the one that best promotes this. (17)
Aristotle was Greece's towering philosopher and greatest all-around genius, but he was hardly its sole pioneering mind. Such great minds as Euclid, Archimedes, Hippocrates, Galen, and Ptolemy contributed in epic proportions to the development of one branch or another of science. Likewise, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes composed timeless literary masterpieces. And, as for Greek sculpture, Durant best sums up the Greeks' accomplishments as follows: Here was "strength reconciled with beauty, feeling with restraint, motion with repose, flesh and bone with mind and soul. Here... the passionate and turbulent Athenians, contemplating the figures of Pheidias, might see how nearly, if only in creative sculptury, men for a moment had been like gods." (18)
The Greeks colonized the far reaches of the Mediterranean, traded widely, and prospered fulsomely. In Periclean Athens, they developed democratic government; in war against overwhelming odds, they defended themselves against incursions of the mighty Persian Empire and retained their liberty from foreign domination. A century and a half later, Alexander, Aristotle's student, sought more than mere foundation of empire. In turning the tables and conquering Persia, he strove to wed the genius of Greek culture with the best elements of Eastern civilization--and, to a significant degree, succeeded.
Overall, Durant concludes, "Greece flower[ed] into the richest culture of history ... [providing] the spectacle of the human mind liberating itself from superstition, creating new sciences, rationalizing medicine, secularizing history, and reaching unprecedented peaks in poetry and drama, philosophy... history, and art." (19)
But not all of those who came in contact with Greece's blossoming secular genius were enamored.
The Birth of Monotheistic Religion
Alexander, writes historian Paul Johnson, "cracked the Persian Empire like a rotten egg." (20) Following Alexander's conquest of Persia, explains Durant, "Still enterprising and alert, the Greeks moved by hundreds of thousands into Asia and Egypt...." (21) They established cities, built gymnasiums and theaters, spread their language and culture, and attracted or repulsed diverse members of the local populations. Judea, in particular, was sorely conflicted about the impact of the Greeks.
Jews, if the Old Testament is taken as history, date their beginnings to the patriarch Abraham, around 2000 BC. (22) According to legend, they are the first people to repudiate polytheism and embrace monotheism, belief in one God. Abraham, a wanderer and man of indeterminate profession, rejected the idol worship of his father and venerated a single god. This approach morphed across centuries into worship of an all-powerful Being who created and governed the universe.
Somewhere in Mesopotamia, God (Jehovah or Yahweh) reputedly spoke to Abraham. God proposed a covenant to the seventy-five-year-old patriarch. If Abraham would obey God's commandments, then God would make Abraham's descendants His chosen people, place them under His protection, and bestow on them the land of Canaan, the Promised Land (roughly present-day Israel). Abraham agreed. (23) Thus began the tortured saga of history's most persecuted people, who, despite ceaseless travails, throughout thirty-five centuries, retained belief in the God of their fathers. States Johnson, "The Jews are the most tenacious people in history" (24)
And the Jewish religion is one of the most irrational.
Jews have survived unspeakable oppression at the hands of pagans, Muslims, Christians, and National Socialists (Nazis.) Under such harrowing circumstances, this survival is awe-inspiring and exalting. And yet, what the Jews have perversely chosen to keep alive is the worship of an alleged all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving deity who, despite His stated promise, exhibits not the slightest inclination to protect them from an endless procession of monstrous tormentors. Jewish history includes two key turning points. The first is their encounter with, and reaction to, the Greeks.
Johnson writes: "Alexander had created his empire as an ideal... he ordered all men to regard the world as their country... good men as their kin, bad men as foreigners." (25) The best of the Greeks were poets, sculptors, philosophers, scientists, mathematicians; their advanced culture was irresistible to the most rational Jews, chafing under the narrow fundamentalism of their religious society.
Durant states: "The basis of Judaism was religion: the idea of a surveillant and upholding deity entered into every phase and moment of Jewish life... Into this simple and puritan life the invading Greeks brought... a Hellenism devoted to science and philosophy, art and literature...," (26)
Writes Johnson: "Many of the better-educated Jews found Greek culture profoundly attractive. [Some were] torn between new foreign ideas and... inherited piety, between the critical spirit and conservatism." (27) Predictably, orthodox Jews railed against apostasy, against educated Jews adopting a rationally critical method and rejecting faith-based beliefs. The pious regarded the Greek philosophers "with more alarm" than they did the Greek's liberal sexuality. States Jewish historian Max Dimont: "The latter could corrupt only the body, while the former corrupted the mind." (28) Aristotle, the orthodox Jews understood, was vastly more dangerous to religion than was promiscuity.
At this time, Judea was part of the Seleucid Empire, a Hellenistic successor state to Alexander's realm. In 175 BC, the party of reforming Jews allied themselves with the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, in an attempt to speed up the Hellenizing process. In 167, the king enacted a pair of decrees that outraged orthodox Jews: He "abolished the Mosaic law... replacing it with secular law." (29) The orthodox Jews, known in this iteration as Hasideans or pietists, more than howled. They went to war.
In the town of Modin, writes Durant, a Greek official called upon the Jews "to repudiate the [Mosaic] Law and sacrifice to Zeus." Mattathias, a Jewish zealot, stepped forth. He was the father of five sons, Johannon Caddis, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, and Jonathan. He said: "Even should all the people in the kingdom obey the order to depart from the faith of their fathers, I and my sons will abide by the Covenant of our ancestors." When one of the Jews came forward to make the requisite sacrifice, Mattathias murdered him, and then slew the Greek official. (30) Mattathias, his sons, and their supporters, proceeded to wage guerrilla war against the secular rulers.
Mattathias, who was very old, soon died, leaving his son, Judas, known as the Maccabee, or Hammer, as head of his troops. In the years 166-164 BC, the Maccabees drove the Greeks from the area around Jerusalem and, in time, from Judea. The pro-Greek Jews were slaughtered or exiled. (31)
The victorious fundamentalists now controlled the culture. Where the Greeks, in power, had permitted open disagreement regarding religion and philosophy, the orthodox Jews, in power, severely limited such freedom. Johnson writes: "The secular spirit and intellectual freedom which flourished in the Greek gymnasia and academies was banished from Jewish centers of learning... the education provided in these schools was entirely religious, rejecting any form of knowledge outside the [Mosaic] Law." (32)
To understand this complex conflict, bear in mind that the king, Antiochus Epiphanes, although undoubtedly a tyrant, was significantly less tyrannical than were his zealous foes. One is reminded of the 20th-century struggle between the Shah of Iran--a foreign-backed brutal secular dictator--and the indigenous, fanatical supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, a dictator vastly more brutal and totalitarian. Perhaps more to the point, the Maccabees were the Taliban of their day--slaughtering their more secular coreligionists as apostates and tolerating nothing but a strict adherence to fundamentalist religion.
Both Jews and Greeks, in their own fashion, claimed to support freedom. The difference is eloquently stated by Johnson: "With the Greeks it [freedom] was an end in itself, realized in the free, self-governing community, choosing its own laws and gods, [but] for the Jews it was no more than a means, preventing interference with religious duties divinely ordained." In other words, freedom to the Jews meant that no foreign (or indigenous secular) power restricted religious authorities from imposing orthodoxy on the masses. "The only circumstances in which the Jews could have become reconciled to Greek culture was if they had been able to take it over...," (33)
Dimont analyzes the conflict like this: "Antiochus Epiphanes has been so entrenched in Jewish history as a villain that few Jews can see the war that ensued for what it really was--not an uprising against tyrannical Seleucids, but a revolt by Jewish anti-Hellenizers against Jewish Hellenizers." (34) A point that Johnson makes about Jewish rebels in another context is applicable to the Maccabees: They put into practice "the ancient doctrine that Jewish society was a theocracy, acknowledging rule by none but God." (35)
The fundamentalists reclaimed the Jewish Temple, purged it of pagan elements, and re-dedicated it to Jehovah "at a solemn service in December 164 BC." (36) To this day, Jews celebrate as Hanukkah this victory of orthodox over Hellenizing Jews. For roughly nineteen hundred years thereafter, the Jewish mind, with all of its latent genius (with several notable exceptions) voluntarily and overwhelmingly removed itself from philosophy, science, and the arts, and buried itself exclusively in study of religion.
To see the big picture: Religion--including and initially Judaism--is the second of the two philosophies that have dominated most of Western history.
Religion is necessarily faith-based. Faith is belief in something in the absence of--or even in contradiction to--factual evidence. Faith is required for any commitment to a transcendent world, which by definition allegedly exists above or beyond the world of observable nature.
According to Jewish legend, as Durant states: "Moses had ruled bloodlessly by inventing interviews with God." (37) The Jews also invented other, similar fables--of a bush that spoke, of a man who lived within a whale, of a woman turned to salt, and so on. Here lies a critical parting of the ways in human cognition: The leading Greek thinkers rejected the myths of their culture--for example, that Pallas Athena sprang fully developed from her father's head, without benefit of a mother; (38) whereas the leading Jewish thinkers upheld theirs. Aristotle's method of logical, noncontradictory thinking about facts was hereby rejected by the first culture to exert a deeply religious influence on Western civilization.
Christianity's War against the Mind
Judaism exerted its influence not only by means of its own doctrines, but also by spawning Christianity, the worship of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus was a Jew who, according to later Christian belief, was the Son of God come to earth to die for the sins of man, thereby presenting to those who worshipped him a second chance at the paradise that Adam and Eve lost. Every aspect of Christian belief is faith-based: That there is a God, a super spirit that exists without bodily means; that He created the universe from nothing; that He had a son, Jesus, who was delivered by virgin birth; that the stories of Adam and Eve, paradise, and the gestation of human "sin" were actual historic events; that Jesus resurrected after death and ascended to heaven, the latter a spiritual, non-bodily place where reside non-bodily spirits; and so on.
Despite their differences--regarding the divinity of Jesus, for example, or the scriptural status of the New Testament--Judaism and Christianity had this in common against the Greeks: Both held that reality is sundered into natural and supernatural components (with the supernatural governing the natural); knowledge is gained not by observation-based reasoning, but by faith in a transcendent world; man is not a rational but an irrational being, dominated by sinful desires; the good is not man's use of his rational faculty, but his unquestioning obedience to God; political authority should ultimately be wielded by a priesthood that best comprehends God's will.
This shared fundamental philosophy of supernaturalism and faith drove both Jews and Christians, in differing forms, to war against the secular Greek philosophy that went on to dominate the Roman Empire. The Greeks, after all, having been conquered by the Romans militarily, had responded by conquering the Romans culturally. "The Greeks had faced the same problem [as the Jews] with Rome," explains Johnson. "They had solved it by submitting physically and taking the Romans over intellectually. Culturally, the Roman empire was Greek, especially in the East." (39)
The desperate Jewish revolts against Roman rule, notably in 66-70 AD and 132-135 AD, also reflected this cultural struggle between religion and the secularism of the Greeks. Johnson notes that the revolts "should be seen not just as risings by a colonized people, inspired by religious nationalism, but as a racial and cultural conflict between Jews and Greeks... xenophobia and anti-Hellenism... was... a characteristic of Jewish literature from the second century BC onwards...." (40)
But the Christians, unlike the Jews, did not wage military war against Rome; they waged philosophic war against the Greek foundations of the Roman Empire. The essence of the war regarded method: faith versus reason.
The Apostle Paul, for example wrote: "The more they [the Greeks] called themselves philosophers, the more stupid they grew... they made nonsense out of logic and their empty minds were darkened." (41) Tertullian, an influential theologian of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, succinctly stated: "Wretched Aristotle, who taught [the heretics and philosophers] logic... what is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem?" (42) Given the cognitive gulf between reason and faith, Tertullian correctly answered his question: "nothing"--but chose faith. One Christian monk argued that the ten categories of Aristotle's logic--"heresies," he called them--corresponded to the ten horns of the dragon in the Book of Revelation. Saint John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, preached: "Restrain our own reasoning, and empty our mind of secular learning, in order to provide a mind swept clear for the reception of divine words." (43)
When, in the 4th century AD, the new religion became dominant in the empire, Christians put such beliefs into practice.
In 529 AD, for example, the emperor Justinian I, ruling the eastern Roman Empire from Constantinople, declared that Greek philosophy was "inherently subversive of Christian belief" (44) and permanently closed the pagan schools of philosophy. This included Plato's Academy in Athens, which for nine hundred years had educated many of the leading Greco-Roman minds. To further enforce his ban, Justinian forbade pagans to teach. "Greek philosophy," Durant observes, "after eleven centuries of history, had come to an end." (45)
In Alexandria in 415 AD, the brilliant Greek mathematician, Hypatia, was savagely murdered and her body torn to pieces by a Christian mob, including monks led by a member of the local bishop's staff. (46) Wrote mathematics historian Morris Kline: "The fate of Hypatia symbolizes the end of the era of Greek mathematics." (47)
Centuries earlier the brilliant Greek writer Sappho, circa 630-570 BC (known as "The Poetess" in counterpart to Homer, called by educated Greeks "The Poet") had composed roughly twelve thousand lines of often exquisitely beautiful verse, generally themed around romantic love. Six hundred lines survive. What happened to the rest? Much of it was destroyed by Christians. "In the year 1073 of our era the poetry of Sappho... was publicly burned by ecclesiastical authorities in Constantinople and Rome." (48)
The Catholic Church required its adherents to accept a specific religious doctrine. Because this dogma was based on faith, not facts, reason was out as a means of adjudicating theological disputes. For example, the Church decreed that Jesus was God; but Arius (250-336 AD), presbyter of Alexandria, argued that Jesus was a creation of God--divine, but not identical to God the Father. How could one side or the other prove itself right? Given that each side started from the nonobservable claim that there exist spiritual beings independent of bodily means--ghosts--there were no facts to appeal to--merely competing arbitrary faith-based beliefs. American philosopher Ayn Rand states: "When men deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion [or] communication... are possible.... [M]ysticism reduces mankind [to] a state where, in case of disagreement, men have no recourse except to physical violence." (49) Inevitably, the Church condemned Arius and his supporters as heretics, and the dispute devolved into massive violence where "over three thousand Christians... died at the hands of fellow Christians." (50)
A Catholic thinker with sufficient temerity to question any tenet of the Church's orthodoxy ran the risk of being charged with heresy. For example, the Church condemned as heretical several conclusions of John Scotus Erigena (810-877 AD)--Europe's sole original philosopher for a full six hundred years--and burned one of his books so efficiently that not a single copy has survived. (51) Likewise, the Church hounded Peter Abelard (1079-1142), the most brilliant European mind since Aristotle, throughout his life. Church officials condemned several of his conclusions, burned some of his writings, and finally sentenced him to perpetual silence. Abelard, the premier teacher and lecturer of his age, was forbidden to communicate in any form. A consummate master of Aristotelian logic, Abelard had infuriated Church watchdogs by his refusal to leave critically unexamined any faith-based belief. Durant makes the point eloquently: "What disturbed the Church more than any specific heresy in Abelard was his assumption that there were no mysteries in the faith, that all dogmas should be capable of rational explanation." (52) Even Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), centuries later to be designated the Church's official philosopher, was in his era suppressed by Church censors. In 1277, the Bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, banned as heretical 219 propositions taught at the University of Paris, including several of Aquinas's. (53)
A heretic is a member of a religion who challenges some tenet of its orthodoxy. After Christianity came to power in the 4th century AD, the number of heretics it suppressed--in many cases murdered--is incalculable, as are the intellectual advances not reached by relatively rational heretics due to such repression and murder. Men of reason, as taught by their first teacher, Aristotle, demand observable facts in support of the ideas they accept. But religion is not based on facts; it is based on faith--and it cannot withstand rational inquiry. Therefore, when fervently religious men hold cultural and political authority, they conduct relentless war against the thinkers who challenge their dogmas.
W. T. Jones writes: "Because of the indifference and downright hostility of the Christians... almost the whole body of ancient literature and learning was lost." (54) Aristotle's writings--and more, his method--were largely lost in the West of the early Middle Ages. Worse, their loss went largely unlamented. To medieval Christians, "ascertaining the facts was of less concern [than to Aristotle and to modern science]. It was overwhelmingly more important to them to know what was required for salvation. About things that did not touch one's faith--about... the cure for leprosy, for instance--it did not matter a great deal whether or not one went wrong." (55)
As the classical scholar Charles Freeman points out, "The Greek intellectual tradition was suppressed rather than... faded away" (56) Fundamentally, Christians rejected Aristotle's method of observation-based rationality. Consequently, they rejected rational philosophy, the arts, science, mathematics, and education. The Dark Ages ensued.
Christianity was the first cause and prime mover of the European Dark Age. Educational researcher Andrew Coulson explains:
Greece's greatest thinkers studied and taught every subject imaginable.... Aristotle spent years making observations and writing essays in such fields as anatomy, biology, physics, and meteorology. Christianity replaced this search for worldly knowledge with a search to know God, and as a tool in that effort observation of the world was thought vastly inferior to the study of scripture.... With the... loss of interest in the physical world, there began a long decline in scientific knowledge.... [As one example:] What limited medical wisdom had been accumulated by Greek and Roman physicians was supplanted by utter mysticism. [Saint] Augustine... believed that diseases were caused by demons, a great step backward from the work of the Greek physician Hippocrates....(57)
A related claim advanced by Edward Gibbon and other historians, that Christianity bears significant responsibility for Rome's fall, is largely true. The Christians egregiously devalued existence in the here and now for existence in the hereafter. By the time Rome fell in the 5th century AD, Christian rejection of this life in the form of asceticism had proliferated throughout the empire. Worldly success cannot and does not proceed from an otherworldly philosophy.
Saint Jerome (340s-420 AD) is representative of the age. Although a scholar and prolific writer, he was "wracked by guilt and desire," and ventured into the desert to seek spiritual cleansing through self-mortification. This was standard for ascetics, who believed that salvation could be gained in part by tormenting the flesh. Jerome, seeking escape from carnal desires, allowed his skin to be scorched by the burning sun, and foreswore food and drink until he shook from malnutrition and dehydration. (58) Contrast the Christian attitude of loathing the body with the Greek glorification of it. Durant makes the point vividly. Discussing their love of sports, he states: "Here under the rubric of athletics we find the real religion of the Greeks--the worship of health, beauty, and strength." (59)
Nor was Jerome alone. Such irrational, self-destructive behavior was common among Christians of the time. Anthony, an Egyptian Christian, did not bother to learn to read or write because, according to Christianity, academic achievements, by a man of God, should be despised. He gave away all of his possessions, committed his unmarried sister to a convent, and, over a period of decades, ventured ever deeper into the desert, seeking solitary communion with God. Freeman explains that the custom for Syrian ascetics was to mount pillars "in the hope of coming to heaven. Some would stay up there for decades, with their lower limbs festering through inactivity." Texts were written to glorify the lives of such "holy men." The popularity of these manuals led many to follow in the footsteps of the ascetics: "Eventually so many took to the desert that it was said to be as busy as a city." In the actual cities, "women refused to marry"--and "some married couples stayed together but gave up sex. Others renounced their property and built monasteries for others or even ran their own." (60)
The monastic movement, explains Jones, began in the 5th century AD as a "determined effort to return to the original otherworldliness of the Church." (61) In the monastery, withdrawal from the world and from self-seeking required men to obey their superiors unquestioningly. Sin, the monks believed, was based in freely choosing what was forbidden by God. But if a man simply obeyed one who was of superior rank in God's Church, then the possibility of wrongful choice was obviated, and moral security thereby attained. As Freeman observes: "Here the abdication of the power to think for oneself is complete." (62)
The unifying themes of these phenomena are devaluation of earthly goods, renunciation of bodily pleasure, and withdrawal from worldly life. A flourishing worldly civilization requires a philosophy that upholds the value of worldly life. During the centuries of Greek intellectual domination, such philosophy was operative. Christianity replaced it with its antipode, and doomed the empire to collapse from within.
Because of Christianity's advocacy of faith and its hostility to reason, by the 8th century "literacy was a rarity even among the ruling classes." (63) Economist Angus Maddison points out that the Church's war against the mind had dire practical consequences. He argues that Europe registered zero economic growth for the full millennium between 500 and 1500 AD--and that, in 1500, on the cusp of the early modern world, Europe's average annual per capita income held steady at a miserable $215.(M) Abysmal, grinding poverty was the hallmark of an age that rejected reason and science, as was a tragically low life expectancy that failed to rise out of the twenties. (65) Jones sadly observes: "This destruction was so great and the rate of recovery was so slow that even by the ninth century Europe was still immeasurably behind the classical world in every department of life.... This, then, was truly a 'dark' age." (66)
Alaric and the Visigoths--who sacked Rome in 410 AD--were Christians, as was Gaiseric, King of the Vandals, who plundered the Eternal City in 455. Pagan barbarians who devastated other portions of the empire quickly converted to Christianity; for example, the Frankish king Clovis and his troops did so in the 490s. Those who precipitated and presided over the long European Dark Age were Christians, with their attendant philosophic hostility toward Greek rationalism. (67)
Regarding employment of reason, the best religion can offer is theology. Theology is formal, deductive thinking about God and other faith-based beliefs. Theologians start with a faith-based definition of God or angels or demons or the like, then tease out or rigorously deduce from that definition the things such beings can or cannot do. An element of noncontradictory thinking is present, but facts are utterly absent. Theology is rigorous thinking about fantasy premises--and as such is, at best, a tragic waste of human brainpower. Thomas Aquinas, for example, a great Aristotle scholar and philosopher--and a (relative) supporter of science--nevertheless devoted enormous time and energy to theology, and was by all accounts history's foremost expert regarding angels; nobody ever matched his "knowledge" of "angelology." (68) In effect, for medieval Christians, it did not much matter if one went wrong regarding the cure for leprosy--but knowledge of angels was important.
The most difficult matter to calculate regarding any irrational endeavor are the foregone benefits, the creative advances not brought into existence because of it. Men can directly perceive what exists, but cannot perceive what has never been created. We have examined both the advances wrought by the Greeks in numerous cognitive fields and the centuries-long Dark Age collapse wrought by Christianity's suppression of that rationalism. But, given that perspective, men can only wonder in heartbroken despair about the great minds murdered or intimidated into silent inactivity, and the advances therefore not made in literature, the arts, philosophy, science, and medicine. Consider how much more advanced mankind might be today, were it not for virtually a full millennium of religious oppression. What would be the state of the world if the effort that went into understanding what does not exist had instead gone toward understanding what does?
Further highlighting this tragic story is the religion of Islam.
Muslims Embrace and Then Repudiate Aristotle
In the 7th century, Islamic armies swept the world. In conquering parts of the Byzantine Empire, Arabs encountered Greek thought. To their everlasting credit, Muslim scholars studied and were fascinated by the writings of Aristotle and translated them into Arabic. In Baghdad, during the 9th and 10th centuries, a serious and systematic Greco-Arabic translation movement persisted, generally with the full cooperation of enlightened caliphs. (69) Aristotle was the favored Greek philosopher of several major Muslim thinkers. Avicenna (980--1037) and Averroes (1126-1198) were superlative Aristotle scholars, as well as two of the outstanding physicians and medical researchers of the Middle Ages. The influential philosopher Al-Farabi (870-950 AD) was dubbed the "Second Teacher"--successor to Aristotle, the "First Teacher."
The Arabs learned the method of observation-based rationality and, in a true golden age, made superb contributions to medicine, astronomy, mathematics, literature, and other fields. But it did not last. Due to the monumental influence of Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) and other reason-rejecting theologians, as well as a fundamentalism firmly entrenched in Islamic culture from its outset, faith ultimately crushed freedom of thought. Under orthodox Islam, the books of Avicenna, Averroes, and other great thinkers were burned in the 12th century. By 1200, Muslims' love affair with Greece--and, correspondingly, Islam's golden age--was largely over. (70) The devastating 13th-century Mongolian invasions merely delivered a deathblow to a once glorious civilization already far advanced in a suicidal process. For eight hundred years since, the Islamic world has wallowed in a dark age. (For details about the rise and fall of the Islamic golden age, see my article, "Great Islamic Thinkers versus Islam," TOS, Winter, 2012-13.)
The Western "Medieval Renaissance"
As Islamic civilization writhed, Christians reconquered from the Muslims large areas of Spain. They had access to the great Islamic centers of learning in southern Spain. In the 12th century, Archbishop Raymund I of Toledo supported Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim scholars in another great translation movement, mirroring that of Baghdad three centuries earlier, but this time translating Greek masterpieces from Arabic into Latin, the language of European scholars. (71) Predictably, as it had done centuries before, the Church resisted study of Greek philosophy. Durant points out: "In 1210 a Church council at Paris... forbade the reading of Aristotle's 'metaphysics and natural philosophy;'" a "prohibition... repeated by a papal legate in 1215." (72)
But this time the Church failed.
After centuries of Christians rejecting a rational study of nature, Europeans witnessed the superior culture and living standards of Islamic Spain--for example, the startling street lights of Cordoba. Leading European minds, although still Catholic, were determined to gain a greater understanding of the natural world--and nobody, at that point in history, had attained a knowledge of nature equal to Aristotle's. Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), his brilliant student Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), and other great minds of the period risked their lives to carefully study, teach, and write on Aristotle. These scholars revived in Christian Europe the long-dormant fields of rational philosophy and natural science.
Contemporary scholar William Wallace writes of the great accomplishments of Albertus Magnus:
Albert both helped to introduce Aristotle's philosophy of science to the medieval world and challenged prevailing conceptions of nature. In response to the older Augustinian tradition, Albert criticized the notion that ideas in the mind of God... exist independently and provide the formal natures of sensible objects.... As a result, we are not compelled to rely upon knowledge of God for a knowledge of things.... Nature itself can reveal this order to us. With Albert, nature, which had been too often rendered mute by medieval intellectuals, would find its own voice. Once discovered and suddenly made articulate, its voice would gradually liberate science (and the arts) from theology.(73)
The Enduring Positive Legacy of Aristotle
In one of history's great and tragic ironies, in the late Middle Ages Aristotle became the patron Greek philosopher of the Catholic Church. Many of that era's thinkers, the Scholastics, were Christian Aristotelians. But a critical and often overlooked point is that, in the centuries following Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, they too often rejected Aristotle's method and clung to his specific conclusions as dogmatically as they did Biblical myths. In effect, they often treated Aristotle as one of the Church fathers, as an infallibly authoritative guide regarding all cognitive matters. Often, they were opponents of observation-based science--and, by repudiating Aristotle's method, led many to believe that he, too, opposed it.
Nevertheless, despite a jaw-dropping subsequent conflation of Scholasticism with Aristotelianism--including among outstanding scientists and philosophers of the modern period--the reintroduction of Aristotle's method by Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and others resuscitated science and philosophy. It also vitiated religion's grip on Western civilization, wrought the Medieval Renaissance, spelled doom for the Middle Ages, and catalyzed the ensuing Italian Renaissance and Enlightenment.
It is instructive to note the converse ways in which Islam and Christianity confronted Aristotle's ideas. Muslims first embraced them and soared into a golden age; then rejected them and plunged into a dark age. Christians initially warred against Aristotle's ideas--and the Greeks generally--and plunged into a dark age; then embraced them and soared into a renaissance.
Meanwhile, centuries of crushing persecution in Christian Europe had oppressed the Jews. At the same time, with such notable exceptions as Maimonides (1135-1204), the Jews' rejection of Greek rationalism since the 2nd century BC had kept the Jewish community overwhelmingly religious and backward. In 18th-century Germany, however, this started to change: Philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and other Jewish heroes embraced the Enlightenment and ventured successfully out of the ghetto. In 19th-century Germany, Jewish orthodoxy was shattered with the inception of Reform Judaism--the idea that Jewish traditions should be adapted to current culture--which was soon transported to America by Jewish emigrants. Combined with a birth of religious freedom in the 18th century, this led to an extraordinary outpouring of Jewish intellectual achievement, first in Germany and then elsewhere, especially America.
The German Jews' embrace of the Enlightenment was the second major turning point in Jewish history, this time a glorious one. Most contemporary Jews emphasize the importance of reason, intellectual development, and secular education; consequently, they are far more Greek than they are Jewish. Modern Jews have effectively established a template of how religious fundamentalism can give way to Aristotelian rationalism. (74)
All three major religions have had to confront the ideas of the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Averroes tried to integrate Aristotle with Islam. Maimonides tried to integrate Aristotle with Judaism. Aquinas tried to integrate Aristotle with Christianity. All necessarily failed.
Rationality cannot be integrated with faith; nor reason with anti-reason; nor, in philosophy, fact with fantasy.
Durant refers to Aristotle as "this amazing Greek who... upset three religions." (75) Barnes writes, "He bestrode antiquity like an intellectual colossus." (76) Aristotle continues to upset the religions, and he now bestrides the modern Western world. His philosophy provides a proper understanding of the method of reason--and from that comes all that is good in modern secular culture: rational philosophy, the arts, the sciences, medicine, technology, prosperity.
Durant, speaking of the medieval renaissance, writes, "Aristotle's philosophy was a Greek gift to Latin Christendom, a Trojan horse concealing a thousand hostile elements. These seeds of the Renaissance and Enlightenment were... 'the revenge of paganism' over Christianity." (77) To put it more accurately: the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were the triumph--not the "revenge"--of Greek rationalism over Christianity. More precisely still, these monumental events were the triumph of Aristotle over religion.
Reason Versus Anti-Reason
Throughout most of Western (and Middle Eastern) history, reason versus anti-reason is Aristotle versus religion. (78) The 2nd-century BC Judaic rejection of Greek rationalism represents one of history's most tragic turning points. If Hellenizing Jews had triumphed over the fundamentalists, religion might have quietly expired, and mankind possibly spared the horrors of Christianity and Islam. But the fundamentalists triumphed, and history bears grim witness to the consequences.
History reveals a two-thousand-year death struggle of faith versus reason; and though it is true that religion is not the only form of irrationalism plaguing the modern world, it remains one central form of it--most obviously in the case of Islam, the least-reformed of the three Middle-Eastern religions. The religious "method" of faith is irredeemably irrational and, as such, antithetical to human life. Conversely, Aristotle's method of observation-based rationality is essential to human life. For any individuals genuinely concerned to promote man's earthly life, the takeaway lesson from this monumental struggle is that they must support reason over faith--which means: Aristotle over religion.
The death struggle of reason versus anti-reason continues. Everyone must choose a side.
(1.) Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 2, "The Life of Greece" (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1939), p. vii.
(2.) Plato, "Theaetetus," in Collected Dialogues of Plato, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 856, 152a--b.
(3.) W. T. Jones, "The Classical Mind," in A History of Western Philosophy, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1969), pp. 67--68.
(4.) Jones, "Classical Mind," p. 69; Wilhelm Windelband, History of Ancient Philosophy (New York: Dover Books, 1956), pp. 121-23.
(5.) W K. C. Guthrie, The Greek Philosophers from Thales to Aristotle (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960), pp. 75-76.
(6.) Guthrie, Greek Philosophers, p. 77; Windelband, Ancient Philosophy, p. 129.
(7.) Plato, "Euthyphro," in Collected Dialogues, pp. 178-79 and 10a--e.
(8.) Windelband, Ancient Philosophy, p. 134.
(9.) John Herman Randall, Aristotle (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 28.
(10.) Jones, "Classical Mind," p. 233.
(11.) Jones, "Classical Mind," p. 234.
(12.) Jones, "Classical Mind," p. 235; Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 8--9; Sir David Ross, Aristotle, 6th ed., introduction by John Ackrill (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. xiv, 117-18.
(13.) David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 62--68; quote p. 68. See also, Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 87-90.
(14.) Aristotle, "Metaphysics," in Basic Works of Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), p. 689, 980a.
(15.) Aristotle, "Nicomachean Ethic," in Basic Works of Aristotle, pp. 942-43, 1097b25-1098al5.
(16.) Barnes, Aristotle, p. 79.
(17.) For a brief discussion of this point in Aristotle's political theory, see Ross, Aristotle, p. 246.
(18.) Durant, "Life of Greece," pp. 326-27.
(19.) Durant, "Life of Greece," p. viii.
(20.) Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York: Harper Perennial, 1987), p. 97.
(21.) Durant, "Life of Greece," p. 557.
(22.) Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 11; Max Dimont, Jews, God and History (New York: Signet Classics, 2004), p. 18; Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 1, "Our Oriental Heritage" (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954), pp. 300-301.
(23.) Dimont, Jews, God and History, p. 19.
(24.) Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 3.
(25.) Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 101; Durant, "Life of Greece," p. 542.
(26.) Durant, "Life of Greece," pp. 580-81.
(27.) Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 99.
(28.) Dimont, Jews, God and History, p. 76.
(29.) Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 103.
(30.) Durant, "Life of Greece," p. 583.
(31.) Durant, "Life of Greece," p. 584. Dimon, A History of the Jews, p. 79.
(32.) Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 106.
(33.) Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 120.
(34.) Dimont, Jews, God and History, p. 78.
(35.) Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 122.
(36.) Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 104.
(37.) Durant, "Our Oriental Heritage," p. 302.
(38.) Edith Hamilton, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (New York: New American Library, 1969), p. 29.
(39.) Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 119.
(40.) Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 133.
(41.) Quoted in Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), p. 120.
(42.) Quoted in Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, p. 273.
(43.) Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, pp. 315--16.
(44.) Richard Rubenstein, Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages (New York: Harcourt, 2003), p. 59.
(45.) Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 4, "Lhe Age of Faith" (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950), p. 123.
(46.) Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 15 and 171, n. 47; Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, p. 268; Durant, "Age of Faith," pp. 122--23; Rubenstein, Aristotle's Children, pp. 68--72.
(47.) Morris Kline, Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times, vol. 1 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 181; quoted in Freeman, Closing ofthe Western Mind, pp. 268 and 391, n. 34.
(48.) Durant, "Life of Greece," p. 155.
(49.) Ayn Rand, "Faith and Force: Lhe Destroyers of the Modern World," in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: New American Library, 1982), pp. 95-96.
(50.) William Manchester,A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age (New York: Little, Brown, 1993), pp. 7-8.
(51.) W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, vol. 2, "The Medieval Mind" (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1969), p. 173.
(52.) Durant, "Age of Faith," p. 945; Rubenstein, Aristotle's Children, pp. 88-126.
(53.) Durant, "Age of Faith," p. 958. See also this entire chapter, tellingly titled, "The Adventure of Reason," pp. 949-83.
(54.) Jones, "Medieval Mind," p. 141.
(55.) Jones, "Medieval Mind," pp. 169-70.
(56.) Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, p. 340.
(57.) Andrew Coulson, Market Education: The Unknown History (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999), p. 59.
(58.) Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, pp. 236-37.
(59.) Durant, "Life of Greece," p. 211.
(60.) Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, pp. 238-39.
(61.) Jones, "Medieval Mind," p. 146.
(62.) Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, p. 250.
(63.) Jones, "Medieval Mind," pp. 141-42; Coulson, Market Education, pp. 58-60.
(64.) Angus Maddison, Phases of Capitalist Development (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1982), pp. 4-7.
(65.) Samuel Preston, "Human Mortality Throughout History and Prehistory," in Julian Simon, ed., The State of Humanity (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1995), pp. 30-31.
(66.) Jones, "Medieval Mind," pp. 140, 142.
(67.) Durant, "Age of Faith," pp. 9, 27, 40, and 91; Jones, "Medieval Mind," p. 142; Freeman, Closing of the Western Mind, pp. 192, 195, 197, and 382, n. 55; Manchester, World Lit Only by Fire, p. 4.
(68.) Jones, "Medieval Mind," pp. 239-41.
(69.) Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Greco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 2, 29-33; Durant, "Age of Faith," pp. 239-40.
(70.) Durant, "Age of Faith," pp. 206-344; Robert Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2011), pp. 11-58 and 119-26; Andrew Bernstein, "Great Islamic Thinkers Versus Islam," The Objective Standard, Winter 2012-13, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 50-67.
(71.) Rubenstein, Aristotle's Children, pp. 12-23.
(72.) Durant, "Age of Faith," p. 954.
(73.) William Wallace, "Foreword," Albertus Magnus on Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica, 2 vols., translated and annotated by K. F Kritchell and I. M. Resnick (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), vol. 1, pp. xvi-xx.
(74.) Chaim Potok's outstanding novel, The Chosen, provides a brilliant fictitious depiction of this 20th century struggle between Jewish traditionalism and the Greek spirit of rationalism. Potok, The Chosen (New York: Fawcett Books, 1987).
(75.) Durant, "The Age of Faith," pp. 954-55.
(76.) Barnes, Aristotle, p. 1.
(77.) Durant, "The Age of Faith," p. 982.
(78.) The Enlightenment philosophes held a similarly dualistic view of history. See, for example: Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume 1, "The Rise of Modern Paganism" (New York: Knopf, 1966), pp. 33-37.
Andrew Bernstein holds a PhD in philosophy from the Graduate School of the City University of New York and taught philosophy for many years at SUNY Purchase. He is the author of The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic, and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire (2005); Objectivism in One Lesson: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (2008); Capitalism Unbound: The Incontestable Moral Case for Individual Rights (2010); and Capitalist Solutions (2011). Dr. Bernstein is currently writing a book, Heroes and Hero Worship, at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, and is a contributing editor of The Objective Standard.
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|Publication:||The Objective Standard|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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