Reacting, Judging, Criticizing

Allow me to add a postscript to “Caught in the Middle” (see September 12). As I suggested but perhaps did not sufficiently emphasize, one of Hadot’s most important points in his book is that the ancient schools were united more by their commitment to a common intellectual and spiritual discipline than by any doctrinal unanimity. The author provides abundant documentation in support of this thesis, but in a sense all one really needs is the example of Aristotle, who hung about the Academy for nearly twenty years, after all, first as a student and later as a teacher, even though—as Coleridge rightly observed—he “never did understand what Plato meant by an idea”!

Or did he, and just not acknowledge it publicly? Hadot’s reading of ancient philosophy provokes some rethinking of Coleridge’s other memorable claim, namely, that “all men are born either Platonists or Aristotelians, and while an Aristotelian may become a Platonist, no Platonist would ever become an Aristotelian”. When I once mentioned this dictum to Peter Kreeft, he quickly retorted: “Coleridge was wrong. Two Platonists did become Aristotelians. Aristotle and me!” Well, Professor Kreeft will have to speak for himself, but I can’t help but wonder now about “the Philosopher”, especially in view of the following, again from Hadot:

“When Aristotle taught a course, it was not, as Bodés has pointed out, ‘a “course” in the modern sense of the term, with students intent on writing down the master’s thoughts in view of God-knows-what kind of subsequent study’. The goal was not to ‘inform’, or to transplant specific theoretical contents into the auditors’ minds; rather it was to ‘form’ them…. Aristotle expected discussion, reaction, judgment, and criticism from his listeners; teaching was still, fundamentally, a dialogue” (What Is Ancient Philosophy?, p. 87).

It is a great deal of fun imagining the Divine Plato and his number one pupil staging a series of public disagreements precisely in order to provoke reactions, confronting the less advanced of their students with ever more seemingly inescapable, and thus ever more fruitful, sets of aporiai. Did the Master of Those Who Know (Inferno, 4:131) know that “dialectic is the science that proceeds by demolishing its own hypotheses” (Republic, 533d), and was he thus merely aiding and abetting his own Master? I wouldn’t dream of guessing. What I can say is that I wish you and other students would do a little less “writing down” and a lot more “reacting, judging, and criticizing”.

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