Academic journal article Acta Classica

Reading between the Lines: Aristotle's Views on Religion

Academic journal article Acta Classica

Reading between the Lines: Aristotle's Views on Religion

Article excerpt


In Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics you will find detailed discussion of various virtues that Plato was interested in: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. There is, however, a curious omission. You will not find Aristotle's opinion on an important question, the key issue of Plato's dialogue Euthyphro (Jowett 1970:41), namely, what is piety? From this one of two conclusions follows: either that Aristotle didn't believe in piety, or that for some reason he did not see fit to include his views on piety in his major philosophic work on the virtues.

If we lay aside the evidence of Aristotle's pious action on the death of Hermias, holders of the first view must work out why, if Aristotle disagreed with Plato on piety, no discussion of this appears in his extant philosophical writings. What seems arguable, whatever view we take, is that the religious views of Aristotle cannot be simply and straightforwardly read out of his surviving works. He has remained silent about them to some degree. To find out about them, we need to read between the lines. What did Aristotle believe in?

We might use Plato's views as a point of departure. Since Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, he may be presumed to have similar views, except where there is evidence of dissimilarity. This is based on parsimony. Where there is no evidence of the similarity or dissimilarity of Plato's views to Aristotle's, we take the simplest hypothesis, that is, concord rather than controversy. Parsimony, however, does not mean being too simplistic about available data (Burnam 1975:201). It goes without saying that there is evidence of difference between Plato and his pupil on many subjects. Yet, when we interpret Aristotle, are we perhaps inclined to overstress distinctions in areas of ambiguity? Did Aristotle believe, for example, in the immortality of the soul? Bolton (1978:266) proposes an interpretation of Aristotle compatible with the idea. Yet, the interpretation of Aristotle as a denier of immortality is centuries old (Whittaker 1982:49). As will be seen, my approach is to assume minimum deviation from Plato. I argue that Aristotle did, in fact, believe in immortality. The presumption of concord rather than controversy, moreover, does not only apply to issues on which Aristotle has not spoken. It also applies to areas where he has spoken, but a more pro-Platonic or more anti-Platonic reading of what he has said is possible.

In this article I will indicate what I think Aristotle's views were on religion. Yet, before discussing such ideas in detail, it is well to ask about the meaning of Aristotle's areas of silence. This will influence how we interpret what is left behind. Let us consider this from seven major points of view.

1. Aristotle's silence on religion

Our information on Aristotle's views on religion is in the first place incomplete because, unfortunately, we have lost his dialogues. Like Plato, Aristotle wrote philosophical dialogues, which were once much read, but of which only fragments remain (Jaeger 1948:31-32). From the way others responded to them, we may infer that their viewpoint had similarities to Platonism. The Neo-Platonists accepted them as uncontaminated Platonism, while others distinguished between the exoteric and esoteric side of Aristotelianism. Alexander of Aphrodisias viewed Aristotle's treatises as containing his true views, while his dialogues were viewed as containing the false views of others.

The writings of Aristotle which survive are the philosophical treatises. Barnes (1995:13, 15) rejects the idea that they were lecture notes. He proposes instead that we should interpret them as we interpret notes which a philosopher writes for his own use. Aristotle's treatises thus contain mostly notes about philosophical teaching. They would naturally have been drier than his dialogues. A dialogue offers more room for literary display and mythological allusion than a philosophical treatise of the kind Aristotle has left behind. …

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