Upon First Reading Aristotle

by Carl Schmitt
1943

On reading Aristotle for the first time I am pleased by his logic and fairness in examining all sides of a problem and surprised at his lucidity. Especially is this latter quality and most evident in his details and delicacy of thought.

On the other hand I was first surprised at the lack of first principles underlying his philosophy. On further thought I realized that while Aristotle was in advance of the general thought of his time and place, at the same time his philosophy is pre-Christian—as indeed is the philosophy of most who publish and read him today.

True philosophy advances from a cosmos of familial (primitive) justice, through social justice, culminating in personal justice. While Aristotle hints by implication at personal justice, the fact remains his thought is still firmly embedded in the pre-Christian social concept as the highest thought.

Now the quality that distinguishes Greco-Jewish thought both in Aristotle’s day and our own is precisely this, wisdom is thought to reside basically in the many, and that the familial and personal wisdom is secondary.

We may here examine his view of aesthetics briefly. This activity of man is in his Politics, very fully considered in an empirical way, but one can truthfully say that Aristotle has but a hazy (if any) conception of the arts as fine arts. One must admit that he shares, with the over-socialized neo-Greco-Jewish civilization of today, the fallacy that painting, poetry, etc. are, no matter how sublime, merely crafts or images. That there is a system or hierarchy of seven fine arts [as] symbolic expressions of spiritual realities is of course beyond Greco-Jewish capacity. The idea that the fine arts are the metaphysic of the good life and consequently of the state, is uniquely European and Christian.

The above impressions are very faulty because they are an attempt to criticize a philosophy on a first and fragmentary reading, but are just drawn for future reference upon that reading. My mind in relation to Aristotle’s seems to be that I am more interested in the general relationships of man’s activities one to another, and to a central unifying principle which underlies them all in a demonstrable measure, but not necessarily [in a] logical way.

However, as I have said the reason Aristotle is thought unsatisfactory to us today is because he is Pre-Christian. Now why should Pre-Christian thought be unsatisfactory? This can be answered by saying that his thought is based upon the opposition and unity of two elements instead of the opposition and unity of three elements. He is basically dualistic as were all thinkers before Christ, and as are most thinkers since 1500. The revolution which Christ brought, philosophically, was a fulfillment to a primitive truth: dualism is a primitive truth and therefore relative. Absolute truth may only be postulated when the much more difficult and complex unity of three basic elements is postulated. Since it may not be fully comprehended, so absolute truth may only be approached.

Aristotle’s thought, as has been said, reposes absolutely and without question upon the dual opposition and balance. Throughout the whole fabric [of his writing] the fallacy of this part-truth is woven. Throughout his book this is everywhere implicit. For example in Book V, Chapter 8 of his Politics he says: “For opposites produce opposites, and destruction is the opposite of preservation.”

Now up until the time of Christ destruction was the opposite of preservation, because at that time the highest element was the conservative. But since Christ, conservative is the opposite of no single element but is rather a neutral element. In modern Christian thought creation is the opposite of destruction, thus making the triad: creation, conservation, destruction. There are, we may add, many considerations upon this subject which would require many days devoted to writing without exhausting its possibilities. Sufficient to note here that destruction in its proper sense is very closely bound up with creation (as I have mentioned in this book under the heading The Critic”)—that this affinity between the two elements of creation and destruction is so close as to make them the same thing in their aim: the Christian doctrine of Redemption being nothing more than a rebirth. For how else can a disproportionate body be brought into proportion except through pruning and negative violence upon a positive body which is out of proportion? The art of the chisel and hammer in essence and is as cataclysmic in principle as the lightening which in the natural order cleaves the air and renews it. Moreover, in the triune Christian fulfillment of the law of two elements, the second or conservative principle must take a subordinate position to the three elements, a surrender impossible to make by the thinker who cannot comprehend the necessity for triune thought.

This short exposition should be enough to indicate the immaturity of Pre-Christian thought. Anyone who is curious may find many other examples of the duality of thought in Aristotle’s writings, e.g. the basic resolution, in his Politics, of all governments into two types, oligarchy and democracy. (Type, by the way, is always the final resolution of all dual thinkers.)

The evil of dualism at the present day consists in the fact that it tends not to oppose and exclude, but to deny trinitarian thought. The advantage of Trinitarian thought consists in this that it is all inclusive, does not tend to destroy but fulfill dual concepts and is consequently universal. For the multiples one, two, and three (the components of three) are the multiples of all numbers especially of the basic octave of numbers. But the multiple two is exclusive and moreover stands alone with a unique character.

© Copyright 2011 Carl Schmitt Foundation