Aristotle… and very few beside, seem to have had an universal genius, an extraordinary capacity to excel in whatever they took in hand.
John Wesley, Thoughts on Genius, November 8, 1787
Aristotle was born around 384 BC in Stagira, ancient Greece. At the age of 18, he moved to Athens to study under Plato. He remained there for the next 20 years before returning to King Philip's palace in Macedonia, where he became the tutor of Philip's 13-year old son Alexander, known today as Alexander the Great.
Aristotelian philosophy has its roots in Plato's ideas, as expected, but Aristotle's development gradually took him on a philosophical path of his own. He was a polymath whose work traverses the field of physics, metaphysics, logic, rhetoric, psychology, ethics, biology, zoology, politics, meteorology, etcetera. However, the originality of his thought lies not in his deep knowledge or expertise over a broad array of topics but in how he approached them. It is less about what claims Aristotle made and the conclusions he reached, most of which are timebound, and more about how he approached the subject matter of his study that set him apart from his predecessor.
If Plato was an idealist who believed that ideas precede reality. In that case, Aristotle is widely considered the founder of empiricism, believing that all knowledge of reality comes from experience and sense perception (de Anima). Perhaps the difference between these two is best depicted in a famous painting by Raphael called School of Athens. Plato's gestures toward the sky indicate his Theory of Forms, meaning that the real world is above, of which this material world here below is a copy. Conversely, Aristotle's hand is a visual representation of his belief that knowledge comes from experience and that you always start with the physical world under your nose.
The idea that all our knowledge comes from perception is at the foundation of Aristotle's project. For sure, we acquire knowledge in many ways. We learn from our parents, teachers, colleagues, and friends. But all these forms of learning, Aristotle thinks, rest on some sort of prior knowledge. The knowledge of our teachers, say, or knowledge of our culture.
Moreover, this prior knowledge will itself depend on further prior knowledge. One would question, where does the chain of regression end? Aristotle will say that perceptual knowledge is the only sort of knowledge that is not itself derived from anything prior. For Aristotle, sense perception should be the bedrock of our learning. It supplies us with knowledge in a way that does not depend on our already having some prior knowledge at our disposal. In this sense, knowledge becomes a first-hand experience rather than second-hand information.
Three primary insights drive this view. Firstly, perception triggers behaviour. We do not just passively perceive some state of affairs but rather perceive things as things to be prevented, pursued, or reacted to. Secondly, perception can be trained. We can expand the range of things we recognize perceptually, and the range of actions perception provokes in us. Thirdly, perception provides the basis for advancing our knowledge, especially in scientific discourse, and developing a more formal understanding of the world.
The Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume, John Locke and George Berkley fully actualized the basic tenets of Aristotle's ideas. They are credited for starting a philosophical movement known as British Empiricism. These thinkers created the intellectual climate, of which John Wesley was a product. Trained in the liberal, classical tradition of his age and well aware of the commonly accepted principles of Lockean empiricism, Wesley endeavoured in his writings to show that revealed religion and the age of reason were complementary and reconcilable. He agreed with some of Locke's assertions, but Wesley largely remained committed to the Aristotelian schema. In his Compendium of Natural Philosophy, Wesley relied on the language of Thomas Aquinas, another Aristotelian, to explain that there is a revealed cause in God's creation, which leads to a First Cause, setting everything in motion. Wesley worked in the Aristotelian tradition, insisting on the capacity of human knowledge of God through spiritual senses. He went so far as to insist that the preachers read Dutch scholar and theologian Gerard Vossius' introduction to Aristotelian philosophy to equip themselves better for the task of preaching.
Aristotle has undoubtedly influenced a host of Christian theologians who have long argued that God's truth is revealed in creation all around us. Observations and perception play a crucial role in grasping this truth. The knowledge of God is delivered to us by experience, not doctrine alone. In all this, we notice that philosophy and theology have much in common. They are both interested in the questions of truth and what being "human" means. On these questions, the two worlds collide. While there is competition and conflict, there is also undeniable cooperation and confluence.
*First Published in Touchstone April 2023