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Topic #E40

Aristotle, Invitation to Philosophy


7 January 2002
Scribe: Kathryn Scott


These minutes were spoken on 7 January; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes




             Professor Hutchinson began this lecture by providing some biographical information about Aristotle.  Instead of giving us a full biography he informed us only of the relevant details.  Aristotle was born into the family of a Doctor, a position fairly high on the social scale of Macedonia, the area north of Greece where Aristotle was born, but not at the top.  His father, however, had connections with the Macedonian royal family, elevating their social status.  This alliance with the Macedonian royalty was to last the course of Aristotle's life. It is said that Aristotle left Macedonia for Athens at the age of 17 after reading Plato's dialogue Phaedo where he was to become a legendary pupil of its author.  Aristotle is often considered an ingrate, as he absorbed Plato's teachings and then harshly refuted what he did not like.


              In the year 347 BC upon Plato's death Aristotle, along with many other Athenian scholars, left the academy suddenly and fled to Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey.  It is not clear exactly what happened in 347 BC and there was much speculation about it in ancient literature.  It is possible that there was a struggle for succession in the Academy after Plato's death.  It might also be the case that Plato willed the Academy to his nephews and the other scholars could not work with this arrangement.  While outside Greece Aristotle taught Philosophy.  He also did lots of marine biology and his writings on the subject can be traced back to this area of the Eastern Mediterranean.


              Eventually, however, Aristotle was sent for by Philip, the ruler of Macedonia, to serve as a private tutor for his son, the famous 'Alexander the Great' who conquered great portions of the western world spreading Greek culture and values.  The professor then drew a comparison to Seneca, who tutored the Roman Emperor Nero.  Both Alexander and Nero grew up to be conquerors and earned mixed reputations.  Aristotle did not accompany Alexander on his travels to the East and many would argue that Aristotle's teachings are not visible in this pupil.  He does not exemplify, for example, the doctrine of the mean. Professor Hutchinson though, pointed out that Aristotle's influence is apparent.  Alexander carried with him special luggage trains for the purpose of scientific investigations.  Under him knowledge of foreign lands and cultures was collected to be brought back to Greece and Aristotle.  Alexander also brought historians on his journeys as experts on how to wage, control, and win large scale wars; and he also had experts on how the history should be written, in other words experts at spinning the story.  (In a later century the Roman Emperor Nero, like Alexander also of disputable integrity,was also educated by a famous philosopher (Seneca), and also managed to enhance his political power by cunning media strategies.)


              At the age of 51 Aristotle returned to Athens, which he had to flee from, as he is reported to have said, “so that the Athenians wouldn’t sin twice against philosophy.”  In the course of anti-Macedonian disturbances in Athens following the death of Alexander the Great, he slipped away to one of his estates, on the island Euboea, where he was to die of an infection, prematurely and alone.  This was after spending the last dozen years of his life at Lyceum, the school of philosophy he had set up in rivalry to the academy.  It is said his actions were guided by his desire to prevent the city of Athens from sinning against philosophy a second time.


              The professor then stated that the above describes the external life of Aristotle.  Internally he described him as a man of ambition and perhaps even arrogance.  He was attentive to outward appearance.  He commanded and was given respect, and most importantly, he was an extremely learned person.   Aristotle not only collected new facts but also invented new subjects of study.  For example, although logic was already in existence it was formalized by Aristotle who saw the need for a coherent proof as critically important.  He can also be credited with the invention of comparative zoology.  Aristotle can be considered on of the worlds greatest biologists.  Contrary to common belief that holds that Darwin smashed all previous biology, Darwin in fact respected Aristotle's work tremendously.  He knew that it was crucial and served as the basis for biology.  Aristotle has simply made the wrong choice when he decided for the immutability of species.


              In his time Aristotle was a fine writer whose books sold quite well.   Now, however, much of his work seems quite dry.  His Invitation to Philosophy is the one exception and is the only of Aristotle's published works that remains.   When he died Aristotle's works stayed at the Lyceum but in the early 1st century BC these works were shipped off and re-circulated.  These new works of Aristotle were not his finished, published pieces but what the professor labelled 'filing cabinet' works.  They had been his personal notes and were not meant for publication.  Over time these works became more and more studied and were preferred by later ancient scholars to his published writings.  This 'secret' stuff was seen to have more authority than the published works that anybody could acquire.  As a result of this the Invitation to Philosophy  fell out of circulation and most of his published works were lost.  The fragments that remain, however, illustrate that these 'filing cabinet' works cohere with what he published; the unpublished notes do indeed tell us what Aristotle thought.  This explains why much of the works of Aristotle we are now familiar with are not well written.  We cannot blame him for not perfecting the writing style of what he did not intend to publish.


              The Invitation to Philosophy can be viewed as an advertisement for philosophy. It   serves many of the same functions, the professor pointed out, as Plato's Alcibiades dialogue.  Though it is addressed to a local tyrant urging him to study philosophy, it is an open letter and is directed towards the public as a whole.  The first surviving fragment we have of this work appears on page 1 of our text.  Professor Hutchinson quoted the last paragraph which literally breaks off mid sentence to illustrate that it is indeed a mere fragment.  The other, larger,  part of this work that remains is quoted by Iamblichus who quotes various Pythagoreans, Plato and Aristotle.


              At this point in the lecture Professor Hutchinson informed us that Aristotle was his own main topic of study.  He mentioned an experiment that he would like our participation in.  It would consist of copying into our own handwriting a portion of text in order to see the patterns of mistakes that emerge.  The professor stated that he believes we can reconstruct earlier and lost versions of important works if we have an idea of the shape of their descent.


              Turning back to the Invitation to Philosophy it was noted that this work was a particular reply to a speech made by Isocrates, who ran a competing school of philosophy.  Isocrates was defending himself on a charge and gives a speech in defence of his whole life that in many ways parallels Plato's Apology.  The professor quoted from sections 178 and 240 of this speech to illustrate the similarities to the Apology and the use of standard rhetoric and devices.


              At a certain point in the speech Isocrates then turns from defending his education to distinguishing himself from other sorts of philosophers he does not want to be associated with.  The professor quoted from section 261 to illustrate how he focuses his argument against the Platonists.  Hutchinson then compared this to an argument we often hear today.  One should not study philosophy unless headed for a job in the field and there are no jobs today for philosophers. 


Here he brought up a remark made by Premier Mike Harris, who stated that philosophy is useless, as there are no rich philosophers.  To this there are two possible replies:  Yes, there are rich philosophers; and there are other merits to philosophy besides being a means to wealth.  Aristotle replies to such arguments in Invitation to Philosophy as we see in the middle paragraph of page 14 which was quoted:


To seek from all knowledge a result other than itself and to require that it must be useful is the demand of someone completely ignorant of how wide the gap is that, from the start, separates good things from necessary things; indeed they differ completely.  For the things that are loved for the sake of something else and without wich life is impossible should be called necessitiies and joint causes, while those that are loved for themselves, even if nothing else follows from them, should be called goods in the strict sense; for this is not desirable for the sake of that, and that for the sake of something else, and so on ad infinitum --  this comes to a stop somewhere.  It is absolutely ridiculous, then to demand from everything some benefit besides the thing itself, and to ask [83] ‘what’s the payoff for us?’ and ‘what’s the use?’  For, in truth, as we say, such a man doesn’t seem to know what’s right and proper, nor to know the difference between a thing being a casue and it being a joint cause.


(Aristotle, Invitation to Philosophy, ap. Iamblichus, Protrepticus 82-83, ed. des Places)


This passage argues that you cannot continually ask about the use of things.  There must be an end to this chain somewhere with things being done for their own sake.  Seeking knowledge is one such thing. What really matters in life are our activities and we should focus on the ultimate ends.  Aristotle believed that there were only three kinds of things that were self justifying.  Firstly, things that are done for pure enjoyment, secondly, things done for virtue's sake, and finally and most importantly an awareness of truth.  To Aristotle Truth is so fantastic that awareness of it is blissful.  Thus, for Aristotle, the best thing in life is philosophy, as it is a special case of perceptual awareness.