Aristotle Research Report #14: The Faults of Aristotle

2020-09-05

Although I think Aristotle was the greatest mind who ever lived, he did have his faults. In modern times, he is especially criticized for supposedly being anti-science, anti-democracy, pro-slavery, and anti-women. Let us briefly consider these charges.

Naturally, some of his attitudes can be traced to the culture in which he lived (the classical Greece of 2400 years ago), his social class (aristocratic), and the like. However, in general I think that what we consider his errors would been self-correcting because of his inductive approach to knowledge. Life is very different today than it was back then, and at his best Aristotle would have adjusted his views and theories to match the human experience.

As to science, Aristotle it's difficult to say that he was anti-science given that he was the founder of zoology, of biology, and perhaps even of science itself (cf. Leroi, The Lagoon). However, it's true that he did not have the concept of an experiment, missed some basic facts, speculated needlessly (e.g., about self-generated animals), and was overly attached to some of his theories.

As to democracy, Aristotle thought that a constitutional republic was better than pure populism and advocated the rule of law over the rule of men. Indeed, many of his insights form the foundation of modern constitutionalism. However, I still need to read a number of books about Aristotle's Politics to determine the extent of Aristotle’s aristocratic leanings.

As to so-called "natural slavery", the jury is out on exactly what Aristotle meant. Some scholars have argued that the criteria Aristotle defined - a person must by nature lack basic human capacities like foresight in order to be considered naturally servile - actually form a critique of ancient serfdom. Such a judgment should be a question of innate capacities, not their realization (which could be thwarted by lack of opportunity); however, much depends on enculturation: Aristotle might have argued that by nature all barbarians are slavish, yet when fully assimilated to Greek culture a non-Greek could be prepared for freedom.

As to women, Debra Modrak argues persuasively in her article "Aristotle: Women, Deliberation and Nature" that he did not hate women (as should be clear to anyone who has read his will, where he exercises great care over his wife and daughter). However, Aristotle seems to have had an unjustifiably low opinion of the deliberative powers and emotional constitution of women, and thus seems to have been unable to break free from opinions prevalent among the men of his time and place.

These are all complex issues and require greater study than I have given them so far, but I wanted to make clear for the record that I am not unaware of them.

(By the way, although at the end of 2019 I thought I was done with the first phase of research on this project, I keep finding more books and articles of interest, which I hope to finish reading sometime next year.)

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