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Allah attacks Aristotle: The philosophical roots of September 11

By George F. Smith
web posted January 14, 2002

How do you get young Middle Eastern men to fly a jet full of Americans into the side of a skyscraper? You tell them their creator will love them for it and reward them beyond their wildest dreams. But they have to believe in such a creator first.

To instill this belief you educate them from a very young age. You tell them things like: in death, the true believer lives. In life, the true believer, when directed by god, kills unbelievers. In both death and life, a true believer's happiness is fulfilled by a grateful and all-powerful god. You keep these thoughts alive by training them to pray five times a day.

To make sure they don't stray you give them a book of Absolute Truth and provide interpretation along with it. Since all men by nature desire to know, as Aristotle claimed, a book with all the answers will be a lifelong treasure.

AristotleOf course, when Aristotle wrote those words in ancient Greece he had something a bit different in mind. He sought to understand the world we live in through reason -- the practice of non-contradictory identification. Reality, for Aristotle, was the here and now, not some otherworldly realm ruled by a moral dictator. Aristotle's corpus became a kind of unmoved mover in itself, setting in motion a chain of events that, in later centuries, freed men from intellectual prohibitions and eventually sparked the American Revolution.

But we narrowly missed disaster. His most important works were lost for centuries, and only rediscovered when, ironically, the followers of Mohammed came upon them during a military campaign in Syria.

The Lights Go Out

In the years following Aristotle's death in 322 B. C., the independent Greek city-states fell victim to Rome's imperium. By 146 B.C. Greece had become a Roman province and was eventually rolled up into the Empire.

When the small city-state was sovereign, men generally had the feeling of being able to work out their own fate. But "in a large-scale organization like the Empire," philosophy historian W. T. Jones notes, "it was obvious one did not control one's own destiny." People became passive and withdrawn. Over time, their focus shifted from this life to the one they believed would follow.

Mystery cults flourished in ancient Rome, one of them forming the seeds of Christianity. How different were Jesus and Aristotle? Aristotle's focus was man, his tool reason; Jesus' focus was god, his tool revelation. Aristotle saw man as a responsible adult, Jesus saw him as a child. The good life for Aristotle was realizing one's potential; for Jesus, it was pleasing god. Aristotle spoke of the importance of courage, a virtue about which Jesus had nothing to say. For Aristotle pride was the greatest virtue, while Jesus taught it was a grievous sin. (To be precise, Aristotle encouraged "proper pride," a mean between "empty vanity" and "undue humility.")

When the Empire collapsed in 410, only Aristotle's early works survived, and those in poor translation. Philosophers in the centuries that followed became little more than religious scholars who studied and debated fine points of scripture, always fearful of straying outside the bounds of orthodoxy under threat of eternal damnation.

Early Christians believed the end of the world was imminent and thus focused their efforts on their relationship with god. As the centuries passed and the sun still shined, and as men gradually rebuilt culture and civilization, an interest in the things of this world began to grow. The thinkers of this era asked: how do you resolve the conflicting claims of faith and reason? A fortuitous discovery provided a possible answer.

Aristotle's Return

During the 12th century Arabic armies swept into Syria and other parts of Asia Minor, a predominantly Greek culture emanating from the conquests of Alexander the Great. There they found the works of the Classical philosophers, which they translated from Syriac or Hebraic into Arabic and took with them as they continued their march into North Africa and Spain.

As the Christians arrived in Spain, especially in Toledo, the two cultures met, and Christian scholars began translating the Arabic works into Latin to make them accessible to the West. Included were Aristotle's Physics, Metaphysics, and De Anima -- three major treatises.

"Men began to feel the temper of Aristotle's mind," Jones writes. "Here was a method radically different from the authoritarian debates of earlier medieval scholarship. It was sensationally empirical compared with anything the West then knew."

Borrowing Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, generally regarded as the era's greatest intellect, attempted to reconcile faith and reason, dressing Christian dogma in the respectability of rational argument. Duns Scotus, in trying to improve Thomas, ended up achieving what he wanted to avoid: the further isolation of faith from reason. William of Occam, whose famous razor still guides scientific thought ("What can be explained on fewer principles is explained needlessly by more"), completed the separation of faith and reason and released Aristotle's thought unencumbered by religion into a world starving for knowledge.

Many commentators play down Aristotle's role in leading the West into the Renaissance, but in fact the assimilation of his thoughts was a watershed in mankind's history. In stark contrast to Christian doctrine of the Middle Ages, Aristotle did not believe in a personal god, he did not threaten man (in the name of love) with eternal torture for disagreeing with him, he did not see people as "crooked, sordid, bespotted, and ulcerous," as Augustine and his followers did. Though his philosophy was incomplete and not without flaws, Aristotle became man's liberator, showing him how to use reason to live the best possible life.

Both East and West held the "bomb" of Aristotle's philosophy, but only in the West did it detonate. While Arabic culture flourished in many fields, Greek learning never found a secure institutional home under Islam. For true believers, nothing is more important than salvation. Fundamentalists came to rule Islamic society and have never lost their grip.

In revolutionary America, when Aristotle's ethics were dominant politically, we had the moral courage to fight for our independence. As Christian ethics intervened in the years that followed, our freedom bowed out to the welfare state and a suicidal foreign policy.

Mix a repudiation of Western values on one side with a proud display of such on the other, and getting fundamentalists to fly planes into our heart is surprisingly easy.

If only the Arabs had embraced Aristotle as we did, what kind of world would we have today?


http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.2.ii.html - Nicomachean Ethics, Book II

W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy, Vol. I, (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., New York, 1952)

George Smith is full-time freelance writer with a special interest in liberty issues and screenwriting. His articles have appeared on Ether Zone, and in the Gwinnett Daily Post, Writer's Yearbook, Creative Loafing, and Goal Magazine. He has a web site for screenwriters and other writers at http://personal.atl.bellsouth.net/atl/g/f/gfs543/

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