Anyone who has read this blog for some time knows I hold Aristotle in a very high degree. As such it is always great to see others also acknowledge his greatest work Nicomachean Ethics, which in my mind is the most important book every written in the history of the world. This speech at the American Enterprise Institute about the importance of Aristotle’s works I think is something we should all take the time (it’s worth the hour and a half).
Tag Archives: Aristotle
It’s always a little sad when a publication or web site you otherwise respect and trust starts publishing drivel. Regrettably such was the case over at the RealClear websites when they published (not just linked, but published) an article preposterously entitled, “Religion didn’t kill science in the Middle East” And while I tend to just ignore most historical revisionism as something utterly not worth my time, this article not only justifies the anti-intellectual attitudes that run through the “religion of peace” but it completely dismisses historical truth.
The article does correctly point out that at a certain point in history—the article conveniently says between the 9th and 13th centuries (I’ll come back to these dates)—the Islamic world was the height of civilization in terms of science and mathematics. This was the era that saw the invention of Algebra, and advances in chemistry, medicine, and astronomy. Okay so far. Then the author goes onto to point out why Islam began falling behind: like most historical revisionists he blames the Crusades in the 11th century and Columbus in the 15th century (easy punching bags for every lightweight pseudo-intellectual hack) as things that hurt the Islamic world, it’s ability to trade (and with it the prosperity to allow a culture to indulge in scientific research). Ridiculously, Genghis Khan and the fact that you can’t put Arabic into a printing press are also blamed.
The problem with all of this – the reasons given for the decline of scientific research were was in fact in decline before a Crusader ever set foot in the Middle East. In fact if we look at Charles Murray’s book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 we find that there is not a single major scientific advancement to come out of the Arabic world after 1025.* In fact we not only see scientific advancement disappear from the map but even art. Literature in the Islamic world goes from a massive output of quality work that still stands the test of time, to almost nothing past 1050**. As the First Crusade started in 1096 (and all the other points the author brought up occurred after that) I find it very hard to blame any of them for the death of intellectual output in the Muslim world which seemed to happen at least 50 years before that. It also seems to be very disingenuous of the author of the article to say the scientific achievements continued until the 13th century when really they died off in the 11th…it’s as if he picked a date that allowed him to blame the Crusades, to hell if it had no relation to facts.
Also if it was only the lack of prosperity and constant conflict that was the cause of the death of science in the Middle East…Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Qatar, are all rolling in cash and have been fairly stable (by standards of the region they’re incredibly stable) yet at best we’re seeing them use the resources of Western intellect instead of breaking new ground. Something seems to ring very false. And if the argument of the article is false, is Islam and it’s core teachings to blame?
So what really killed the science in the Islamic World? Well the answer to that can be found in one simple name: Aristotle. In the 750’s the Abbasid Caliphate took control of the Islamic Empire and with them came a branch of Sunni Islam called Mu’tazilism (don’t be too shocked you haven’t ever heard of them, they’re all dead). The Mu’tazilites were the branch of Islam that actually bothered to read the works of the Ancient Greeks when the Islamic armies conquered all the cities in their new Empire. And there they found Aristotle, a man who wrote about physics, psychology, politics, ethics, biology, metaphysics…who held reason and logic as the guiding light for all of human existence. Despite the fact that Islam was never too hot on reason*** the common sense nature of Aristotle won out with Mu’tazilites who decided that reason not blind unthinking faith needed to be the guiding light. And for a couple centuries they were guiding force of culture (or at least a force in the 10th and 11th century) that you saw the major output and advances in mathematics, science, literature, and art. However in 1063 (you know around the time when everything stopped), as stated in The Closing of the Muslim Mind by Robert R. Reilly,
“Nizam al-Mulk, the power vizier to Seljuk sultan Alp-Arslan, had the curses [against the Ash’arites] stopped. According to British Islam scholar W. Montgomery Watt, al-Muk also ‘began to implement a policy of supporting and strengthening the Ash’arites against the other theological and legal schools.’”
Who are the Ash’arites? They’re pretty much the archenemies of the Mu’tazilites (you may not know the name Ash’arite, but you’re more than familiar with their attitudes). They believe in faith as the only guide and reason as merely hubris.
They believed in following the Koran without interpretation, just following what it said. Their most famous scholar al-Ghazali published a book The Incoherence of Philosophy which among other things set out to destroy the usefulness of reason at anytime in any place for any purpose. Sharia Law is a direct outgrowth of Ash’arite belief. As the Ash’areites
came into power they not only challenged the Mu’tazilites, they had them killed and their works burned. And low and behold when this belief came into power, the intellectual output of Islam just dried up over night. Amazing how when you deny reason the fruits of reason disappear. All the advancement that apologist like to talk about for the Golden Age of Islam came from the time when the Mu’tazilites, who downplayed religion, were in power.
So is religion to blame? Yes, yes it is. Because the fact is that while my sympathies will always be for the Mu’tazilites I can also admit they were terrible Muslims. A good portion of Mu’tazilite writing is trying to explain away the contradictions between reason and Koran. The Bible starts with a statement that God gave man dominion over Earth (thus it might be intelligent to know what goes on here), praises intellect, and implies that the reason and free will of God exists in the human soul. All of this matches up very well with Aristotle…which is why St. Thomas Aquinas found it so easy to graft Aristotle onto Christianity in the 1300’s (you know right before the time that science and research were coming back into style in Europe). The Mu’tazilites had to do everything but outright deny the Koran to prop up the common sense reason of Aristotle. The Koran dismisses reason, allows for no room for free will or even the laws of physics as everything occurs by the will of Allah (you roll your pen off the table, it falls, according to Ash’arties it fell not because of gravity because there is no such thing…it fell because Allah willed it to fall, the god of Ash’arism is the micro-manager to an infinite degree…things seem to fall at a constant rate of 32 feet per second per second not because of laws of physics, but because God is a creature of habit)… please go read The Closing of the Muslim Mind if you think this is just my interpretation. Right, wrong, or indifferent, religious liberty aside, Islam is a religion that at its core is dead set against the mind/reason/logic. Other religions are more ambivalent, you can find evidence supporting faith and evidence supporting reason, but no sides come out a winner, but in Islam, and especially the Ash’arite interpretation which is still in fashion, reason always loses to faith…in fact there isn’t even a contest.
And it should be noted that while other religions don’t make it as hard to work with it is the Aristotelean spirit that drives culture and science to thrive. Now it may be as the author argues in The Cave and the Light that it is the battle between Aristotle and Plato that drives civilization and that even when you have too much Aristotle things get a little stagnant…be in The Closing of the Muslim Mind, Human Accomplishment, The Cave and the Light or the recently released The History of the Renaissance World: From the rediscovery of Aristotle to the conquest of Constantinople if you are going to judge what drives civilization to improve it is Aristotle. And the RealClear article which tries to free Islam of blame by ignoring what caused the growth of the Islamic world and how it was religion that got rid of the works of Aristotle, is intellectually baseless, trying only to relieve the only religion liberalism actually likes of it’s participation in hurting the advancement of civilization.
*There is one major figure in the field of medicine from the 1200’s but I think it’s safe to say his work in medicine was due to the Crusades more than hurt by them.
**It should also be noted that until the modern era the vast majority of literature that came from the Islamic world came from Sufi writers. The charges I make against Islam later in the article almost never apply the Sufism which philosophically does little more than pay lip service to the core tenets of Islam.
***The problem is this. In Islam there is no story that God made man in his own image, in fact the Koran states that nothing can be compared to Allah (112:1-4) and if we lack in the image (usually interpreted to be will and intellect) in common what good are those things in us, and unlike the Bible which in the old Testament praises Solomon for his intellect and the Gospel of John states “In the beginning was Reason, and Reason was with God and Reason was God.” (yes, that’s a more correct translation than what you’re used to reading)…there are no such lines praising reason and logic in the Koran, only faith. Blind, unthinking, unquestioning faith.
“We ought not to listen to those who exhort us, because we are human, to think of human things.…We ought rather to take on immortality as much as possible, and do all that we can to live in accordance with the highest element within us; for even if its bulk is small, in its power and value it far exceeds everything.” — Aristotle
Knowledge of Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do. – St. Thomas Aquinas, Two Precepts of Charity.
So I have been looking for the core of conservative belief lately. What is conservative, what isn’t.
Why is this even an important question? Well because the conservative movement is overly obsessed with the idea of what a true conservative is (it doesn’t help when your main opposition is a bunch of blind followers in the Democrat party who will kneel before anyone who promises them more shit, and libertarians* who will promise them pot). Paeloconservatives. Neoconservatives. Fiscal conservatives. Social Conservatives. Compassionate Conservatives. (Hint I consider only two of these terms not be contradictions). It’s a wide range.
And there is no big help when looking to intellectuals. Sure there is Russell Kirk’s famous list of highly dense academic speak, I even used it in Republicans and Reincarnation, but over the course of his career he kept changing the last few points, making it more and more isolationist, and it’s so complicated as to be useless.
Meanwhile, while I love Goodkind’s eleven wizard’s rules, and think them an excellent companion to Aristotelian philosophy, they’re not all that specific.
Then of course you could name certain policies…but that doesn’t work because what is conservative today isn’t conservative tomorrow. Facts of reality change, priorities get shifted…for instance every conservative needs to be a fiscal conservative, however one can still be a conservative and willing to make a deal to that would raise deficit spending when a more important goal is present, say, toppling an evil empire. And real conservatives, love the nature of America to take pieces of every culture and incorporate them into the melting pot of this nation…but right now reality and sanity dictate we need to concentrate on border control and being a little more picky about who gets in.
So the problem I’ve had for nearly a year is to find something that is accessible, adaptable, and always accurate in describing the core beliefs of conservatism. And I just realized it was so bluntly obvious that I didn’t see it (but then again I haven’t seen anyone else talk about it all this time either)..I’ve even stated it, it’s just always been implied.
What are the core values of conservatism that remain the core values at any time any place any situation? The thing that binds Aristotle to Cicero to Aquinas to Locke to Burke to Smith to Adams to Goldwater to Reagan?
The Four Cardinal Virtues and the Three Theological Virtues.
The first four come from Aristotle, the last three from Paul (although I would argue they are implicit in Aristotle if you read all of his works) and they are the basis for the most perfect system of ethics ever created.
Think about it. Liberals only care about results, damn what rights or means you have to violate to create your Utopia (and that’s even before you consider they lack the follow through to do anything); the crazier members of the Libertarian party only care about means and an absolutist idea of right, to hell if you need some minor infringement to make a society properly function or to secure the vast majority of your rights. Only the virtue based ethics of Aristotle deal in the reality of needing to consider ends and means. And this refusal to look at only ends or means is one of the first reasons why the virtue ethics are inherently conservative—conservatives by nature see the whole.
Now let’s look at the virtues themselves.
Yes, Aristotle listed a lot of other virtues,
Sense of Shame
But all of these are natural extensions of the other seven. So let’s go over them and show why they are at the heart of conservatism.
In the order which most highlights the political aspects.
Justice. Conservatives believe in the concept of Justice, that people should be rewarded and/or punished by what they deserve. Merit. Earning. The basis of meritocracy of free market capitalism. This is of course opposed to the liberal obsession with fair. It’s not fair. Things should be fair. Life’s not fair. And of course whereas Justice requires the equality of opportunity and equality before the law, liberals want the equality of fairness where everyone has equal results.
Prudence. While a highly complex concept that the word prudence doesn’t quite convey the complexity for the classical concept, it might be best defined as the knowledge of what should be valued. With Prudence comes the understanding that the only truly valuable thing is Happiness (again I’m using the classical definition of a life lived well) and to value all the subordinate good that are required for Happiness. This includes liberty, because Happiness cannot be achieved without free will, actual achievement. Liberalism values material things and sees no higher point to life other than living, social conservatives only value society and some perverted view of God and not the individual or their happiness
Temperance. Often mistaken for moderation, Temperance is taking the knowledge of what to value from Prudence, and deciding how much you should value it, at what time, in what place and in what manner. In very simple terms this is the pragmatism of what works so clearly Keynesian economic and the libertarian desire to wipe everything out in one fell swoop without letting society adjust are right out.
Fortitude. Again often misunderstood to just be courage, it is more tied into the previous three virtues as the will to do what you know to be right. This throws out RINOs who stand for nothing, and worst of all the politically apathetic who seem to feel that there is no value in anything and nothing worth fighting for.
For purposes here, I am going to take Faith and Hope together because this is the primary difference between paleo and neoconservatives. Paleoconservatives with their isolationist ways at their core are only looking out for themselves (clearly also lacking in that last virtue) but this is also because they do not have any faith in humanity or hope in the inevitability that republicanism and capitalism will spread to everyone.
Love, the last of the theological virtues and what must be required for all stable society. It is the belief that other humans have value and worth, and must be respected and helped when possible. This is actually the basis for capitalism, democratic-republics, friendship and all progress. The belief that human beings are worth it (it’s a belief you don’t find in many political beliefs).
I have no doubt that I will come back to this theme over and over…but it has become clear to me that one or all of these virtues is missing in every political philosophy other than true conservatism.
(This will be the first post in an ongoing series on these virtues.)
*Not that all libertarians are this bad, but you have to admit there is a disturbing high number of single issue voters in your party…and their single issue is one that is really dumb. Of course Republicans have social conservatives who are just as stupid.
**I’m just going to gloss over these for now, don’t worry I’ll eventually have numerous blogs dedicated to this now that I’ve figured this out.