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Topic #E41

Aristotle, Physics II.1-3

 

9 January 2002
Scribe: Stephen Chabot

 

These minutes were spoken on 14 January; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes

 

            While most of the class expected a discussion of Aristotle’s Physics at the beginning of last day’s lecture, the professor commented that a student had found some similarities between an Islamic poet and philosopher and the ideas found in Aristotle’s Invitation to Philosophy.  After fifty minutes, we realized that we had not even discussed the Physics at all, but had continued Monday’s discussion of the Invitation.

 

            The professor remarked on the connection between Islamic and Ancient Philosophy, in reference to the library of Alexandria.  As the most important and largest library in late Antiquity, Arab philosophers focused on Plato and Aristotle’s works there in the fourth and fifth century AD.  During the eighth to eleventh centuries AD, Arabic scholars were translating Aristotelian works into Arabic.  These works had a profound impact on Islamic philosophy, as philosophers had to deal with the confrontation between Greek ideas and those of the Koran.

 

            It was from these Arabic translations that knowledge of many ancient works were known to scholars in the Middle Ages, when they were further translated into Latin.  Here the professor noted that the study of Aristotelian works has not always been fashionable.  While Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics might be the most widely read work of philosophy in the English speaking world, from the seventeenth to nineteenth century the study of Aristotle was very unfashionable.

 

            Turning back to the Islamic poetic sage Ali ibn Abi Talib, the class heard some lines about the relation between knowledge and wealth. 

 

Remember, Kumayl, knowledge is better than wealth because knowledge protects you while you have to guard wealth.  Wealth decreases if you spend it, but the more you spend knowledge the more it increases.  What you get through wealth disappears as soon as the wealth disappears, but what you achieve through knowledge will remain even after you.

 

O Kumayl!  Knowledge is power and it can command obedience.  A man of knowledge during his lifetime can make people obey and follow him and he is praised and venerated after his death.  Remember that knowledge is a ruler and wealth is its subject.

 

O Kumayl!  Those who amass wealth, though alive, are dead to realities of life, and those who achieve knowledge, will remain alive through their knowledge and wisdom even after their death, though their faces may disappear from the community of living beings, yet their ideas, the knowledge which they had left behind and their memory, will remain in the minds of people.

 

Ali ibn Abi Talib,  The Peak of Eloquence, aphorism #146, tr. anon.

 

Some contrasts were made, such as: knowledge protects, while you must protect your wealth; knowledge increases with use, while wealth decreases with use; wealth can disappear, while knowledge always remains; and knowledge is power.  Lastly, the poet noted that those who amass wealth are dead to the realities of life.

 

            Here, the professor noted the class’ difficulty in citing his work in progress, and gave an example of a the proper way to do so.  (For an example, see the passage quoted from Aristotle’s Invitation to Philosophy at the end of the previous lecture: Aristotle, Invitation to Philosophy, ap. Iamblichus, Protrepticus 82-83, ed. des Places.)

 

Then he further noted on the similarity of the above remark out death and Plato’s Phaedo, where Plato notes that the philosopher is the one closest and ready for death.  On page 18 of our copy of the Invitation, however, Aristotle notes the exact opposite.  While at 64b of his work Plato notes that the majority of men think that philosophers are dead to the world; Aristotle notes that they are the most alive of all people.  He notes that some people enjoy not the drinking itself, but enjoy themselves while drinking.  In other words, not all who happen to enjoy life are living pleasantly, only those to whom living is itself pleasant and enjoy the pleasure that comes from life.   The exercise of the soul is the true way to live, and since the best action of the soul is contemplation, this is the actions by which we live best.

 

            Here the professor noted that this point, that only philosophers truly are alive, was a major point of contention in this week’s position papers.  He left space for further critique, when a student commented that isn’t creation  -- namely artistic creation -- just as noble and good as study and contemplation.  The professor remarked that to the ancients, philosophy did not just mean the narrow definition that the Department of Philosophy would give it, but the study of all knowledge, including science, history and truly, all topics.  As well, it is a modern belief that art is a pure expression of truth, and today’s world sees art as a form of philosophy.  However, for Aristotle, artisans, not intellectuals, create art.  While today we place artists among the nobility of the intellectuals, this notion is only a few hundred or so years old

 

            In Book 10 of Aristotle’s Ethics, he notes that the life of theoria or contemplation is the highest life and those who know truth have a higher pleasure then those who are searching for truth.  In contrast, today we have more interest in producing facts then enjoying the knowledge itself.  The pure benefit of knowing seems unimportant, except for producing more knowledge.

 

            Here a question was asked about research, and if it too was enjoyable.  Of course, nobody would conduct research if there were no pleasure in the discovery of the knowledge itself.  However, the professor noted that Aristotle was making the point that it is easier and more pleasurable to have the knowledge then to discover it.  On page five of our copy of the text, Aristotle notes that philosophy is easy, because one can tell you the truth, as opposed to finding it yourself, and then contemplating this truth.

 

            Another question was asked: why does Aristotle write in such a general way, as if all people were able to study philosophy?  In the Ethics, he specifically says that only the best of the best can obtain the blessed life of study.  The professor reminded the class of some facts from Monday’s lecture: that the Invitation is a response to the Antidosis by Isocrates, and the existence of Aristotle’s  ‘filing cabinet’  works.  Because he is defending philosophy to the public, as this was a published work, he had to put forth that all people could study.  However, the Ethics was unpublished, and therefore could stress the privileged nature to the audience and not upset the public.  It is not smart to insult people in a published work.

 

            Finally, the professor moved to the Physics.  Aristotle’s argument in this passage deals with causes in nature.  Today, Physics is thought of in the context of a mathematical science.  However, even Newton held a chair of Natural Philosophy. 

 

The definition of physics in this context deals with the broad content of this natural science, dealing with beings in nature.  To understand nature, argues Aristotle, we must study the causes of things.  Like in Plato’s Timaeus, Aristotle believes the world is created of the four elements, and fills a receptacle of space.  At 195a15-26 of Aristotle’s Physics, Aristotle notes that all causes fall into four divisions, and one or more of these types can cause each effect.  Aristotle, however, favours explaining things not events.

 

At this point, the professor repeated a question his child had once asked him:  Why is that a dog?   Note that there is more than one cause: because it was born,  or: because it had parents .  In another example he asked:  Why is that a statue of Pericles?  noting that it could be because of its form or for its purpose.

 

            Another important point Aristotle stressed was that every thing in nature has a purpose, relevant to that thing, or is local to the organism.  While Plato believes in a more human-centred teleology, the professor gave some examples, such as a spider web is for the spider and an eyelid is for protecting the eyes. This idea that every thing had a purpose, and was not caused by luck or chance, would be the first step towards the study of biology.