Monday, December 21, 2009
"Western civilization was the child and product of reason – via ancient Greece. In all other civilisations, reason has always been the menial servant – the handmaiden – of mysticism. You may observe the results. It is only Western culture that has ever been dominated – imperfectly, incompletely, precariously and at rare intervals – but still dominated by reason. You may observe the results of that.
The conflict of reason versus mysticism is the issue of life or death – of freedom or slavery – of progress or stagnant brutality. Or, to put it another way, it is the conflict of consciousness versus unconsciousness."
Not quite, I think, but fighting talk nevertheless. Without the battles at Marathon, Thermopylae and the Straits of Salamis, Western civilisation would not exist - at least not in its present form. Aristotle, born about 100 years after Thermopylae, would have been a Persian slave and, without him, we might very well not be having the reasoned and sober debate which has so captured the public imagination about the newest Satan, Global Warming. Twenty-five years ago, we were taught with equal seriousness that a new ice age was imminent and a nuclear winter was a distinct possibility. Both were derived from an imperfectly grasped Aristotelian response. It would seem that we are no nearer to globally workable policy after Copenhagen than before it, if indeed workable policy or 'doing something' is an appropriate method for dealing with a problem that we cannot even define accurately.
It has been alleged that everyone is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. Broad-brush, intellectuals are Platonists, everyone else is Aristotelian.
Plato supposed there to be two realities - a higher realm of timeless, abstract perfection and the degraded, illusory world we think we perceive with our senses. For Platonists, "higher truths" are revealed to an intellectual elite-presumably by the gods-and cannot be communicated or explained to the masses, who stubbornly cling to "common sense" - reason and logic.
Aristotle, the father of logic, held that there is only one reality, the world we perceive by our senses. For Aristotelians, all knowledge is derived from sensory observation by a process of abstraction and conceptualisation. Aristotle rejected Plato's mystical, elitist tendencies and held that by adherence to logic we can and must make rational sense of everything. This being so, and with our cultural history, why are we failing to make sense of what is manifestly happening around us? If the Earth is getting warmer, why can we not predict accurately exactly why, hence what can be done to maintain the status quo? Perhaps the answer lies outside of Aristotle's logic; instead it belongs to Plato's 'higher thought'. Perhaps the Earth itself is the mystic tyrant, bending us all to its will. One way or another.
The image is of the last stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae, refusing to submit to the slavery of King Xerxes of Persia.