Aristotle, Nature, & Original Sin

Those who know me (in a theological or intellectual context) know that I have never been overly drawn to discussions of topics that typically excite ardent Calvinist types. Examples of such topics: predestination, “total depravity,” original sin.

The reason for my reticence: I have long suspected, ever since my time at a prominent Reformed seminary in the late 1990’s) that most folks who have straightforward and forceful views on such matters are, quite simply, full of shit. This is especially true for “evangelical types,” and I can say that my experience over the last two decades has borne this out.

One reason it is so difficult not to be full of shit on these issues is the extent to which they are historically conditioned. They are the result of centuries of intellectual development, mainly in the “Latin speaking West.”

And so it is that I have never lost much sleep getting dragged into heated debates about Original Sin. My preferred mode of engagement is simply to agree with my Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic auctores and to assume that they were right, for example, to oppose and condemn Pelagianism.

But, now, enter Aristotle. In his introduction to the Nicomachean Ethics Joe Sachs helpfully points out a basic point in the ethical system of the Stagirite. Pace those who equate virtue with habit (thanks, Hippocrates Apostle), Sachs rightly emphasizes that the point about habit (Gk. hexis) for Aristotle is that, once we acquire them through the process of habituation, their purpose is to allow us to see reality truly for what it is.

This is because, for Aristotle, the universal experience of mankind is that, initially, our vision of reality is blocked or distorted when we exit the womb. The purpose of the newly acquired habits, then, is to counteract the already existing habits of selfishness and impulsive indulgence with which every one of us is born.

Think about Edmund at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when he is trapped by the irresistible allure of Turkish Delight. His vision of reality is distorted. He cannot think straight. He is in bondage to his desire. Aristotle agrees with the mainstream Christian tradition in the West that, simply put, we are all like Edmund (at least initially).

Once this gnarled vision of reality is cleared up for us, the distortion having been corrected, we are free to engage our faculties to develop right desire and right reason in our quest to attain true and abiding virtue and character.

But notice what has happened. The way Aristotle thinks about the initial state of the postnatal human being is strikingly close to the description of traditional Western Christianity, as for example enshrined in Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles:

IX. Of Original or Birth-Sin.
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek, φρονημα σαρκος, (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh), is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

Another point on which the Stagirite and the Christian tradition agree: the natal is not identical with the natural. In other words, this “default setting” of selfishness and impulsiveness with which a baby is born, for Aristotle as for the Bible, is not truly natural. For Aristotle “the natural” is precisely that vision alluded to above, the attainment of which is the negation of the vicious habits hardwired into us at birth. The truly natural for Aristotle, is the full flourishing, the full, active, fulfillment of what it means to be human.

A selfish person (be she Donald Trump at a political debate or a screaming two-year old, grabbing its favorite toy away from its infantile colleagues in the playgound) is not natural. A natural person–one living in accord with nature (or for Christianity, creation)–is someone who has achieved the enduring “higher pleasure” known as eudaimonia, or happiness. This is the purpose of human nature, this is the “functional concept” (Alasdair MacIntyre) of the human being. (A pox on both your houses, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.)

This is why Aristotle suggests that the achievement of virtue or character is “a second nature.” It is just as “natural” as the “first nature.” Much more so, in fact.

It is here, finally, that Christianity “one ups” Aristotle, for the Christian realizes that the “second nature” of Aristotle is really the “third nature,” and that this third instantiation is really a return to the first. Virtue and character restore us to the original nature, the original righteousness which God wove into his original, creational design.

 

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Tears & Laughter, Plato & Christ

At the end of Plato’s _Symposium_,

… the faithful Aristodemus … falls off into a drunken sleep, but awakens to find Agathon, Socrates, and Aristophanes having a discussion, with only Socrates fresh and in full possession of his powers (223B-D). Socrates is forcing the two poets to agree that it would be possible for a man to be both tragedian and comedian, which each resists because Agathon regards tears as highest and Aristophanes regards laughter as highest, and they are opposites. For them there is no mean between the two that is as high as the two extremes. Socrates says that philosophy is such a mean and that a mixture of laughter and tears is the way to define man. Practically, Socrates is telling them that their two arts must be combined in order to depict him. This is the formula for the Platonic dialogues and perhaps for Shakespeare’s plays. The other two nod away, and one is never sure whether Socrates could not persuade them. It is with this doubt that the dialogue ends. (Allan Bloom, “The Ladder of Love,” in Plato, _Symposium_, ed. Seth Bernardete, 170.)

Socrates defines man in terms of “a mixture of laughter and tears.” Chesterton, who said that the wise man has comedy in his head and tragedy in his heart, would surely agree.

When it comes to classical Greek philosophy, my firm conviction is that the best way to view it is as a “propaeduetic of the Gospel,” as Clement of Alexandria held. When one reads the ancients’ texts for themselves, one is struck over and over by the ways in which the themes and teachings foreshadow themes in the New Testament.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this more clear, however, than in the above quotation about tears and laughter, tragedy and comedy. Socrates says not only that they go together, but that they go together in the life of man. This is a suggestive pointer to, an intriguing foreshadowing of, the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ.

The Paschal Mystery is Good Friday (with all its pain and blackness) plus the Easter Feast (with all its luminosity and joy). It is the death of Christ, and his surprise resurrection on the third day after. It is tragedy plus comedy.

What’s more, in places like Rom 5:12-21 and I Cor 15:45-47 St. Paul argues that Christ is the “second _anthropos_ and the last _adam_.” He is the New Man, the Renewed Humanity. Socrates, then, is vindicated, for it is in the life of this most true human that we behold the Paschal Mystery. Death and life, sadness and joy, tragedy and comedy.

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Conversion & Time in Plato & Aristotle
What are main differences between Plato & Aristotle? Too many to name. Certainly, if you held a gun to my head and made me answer, the difference in literary genre would be near the top of my list.
However, I’m struck by the issue of conversion. In Plato we are presented with no less that four conversions on the part of Socrates: one in the _Parmenides_, one in the _Symposium_, one in the _Apology_, and one in the _Phaedo_.
One would be hard pressed to find an emphasis on the issue of conversion in the work of Aristotle.
Perhaps this is related to another deep difference between the two: Socrates’ approach to reality is diachronic, taking place in and through time, giving rise to epiphanies, retractions, and insights. For the Stagirite, however, one can approach reality only within the frame of the system; his stance, therefore, is intractably synchronic.
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Diotima, Participation, & the Forms

One surprise which I have encountered over the past four years at my current institution is fairly widespread resistance, among the philosophy faculty, to regarding Plato’s forms as ontological or metaphysical realities which exist independently from the mind, to which we (or to which lovers of wisdom) have access by way not simply of knowledge by way of participation.

This has been a source of consternation to me because so many of my leading intellectual lights, among them members of a theological / philosophical movement known as Radical Orthodoxy, regard the forms in precisely this way.

I think that Diotima’s speech in the _Symposium_ is the clearest and best “prooftext” (other than perhaps the “Seventh Letter”) in Plato’s corpus for arguing that the Forms are independent metaphysical realities in which the lover of wisdom is to participate erotically and contemplatively.

Further, partly due to the non-diological character of the Symposium, it is hard (I think) to argue that Plato’s Socrates (who recites the speech) is being ironic or anything other than straightforward in this context.

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