Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Physics of Aristotle


Our book today is the so-called Physics of Aristotle, written in the 4th century b.c. and perhaps intended by its author as a kind of overview introduction not only to his gazillion (Greek for 200) other books but also to his way of writing ('perhaps' is repeated silently throughout that synopsis and everything that follows, since we don't know what Aristotle's intentions were - the Physics and all his other works were published by others, and it's as likely as not that Aristotle himself never lifted a finger to revise them).

The Physics (that's not it's real title - Aristotle would probably have called it 'On Natural Things,' which wouldn't have been helpful, since that's basically what he called all his gazillion books) is a systematic inquiry into the basic concepts, the underpinning shapes and natures of reality itself. That sounds absurdly over-reaching, but it's only after Aristotle that philosophers cropped up like toadstools to muddy the waters of such thought and make them undrinkable. Aristotle wouldn't have considered himself a philosopher at all in the sense of the breed with which we're now inflicted. He spent too much time watching bugs crawl over parchment to measure their strides, or carefully nursing marmoset babies with tissues soaked in goat's milk.

He's traditionally called the greatest philosopher of all time (Dante was particularly avid in his admiration), but his gazillion works are entirely free from any hint of caring about such distinctions - instead, they're full of the most muscular, free-wheeling, and utterly engaging intellectual investigations readers will find anywhere (the closest equivalent in many ways is Saint Augustine's City of God, but it falls short in the blinding rigor of its faith).

The accretions of centuries of admiration, even veneration, have conspired to make Aristotle one of the most intimidating figures in the Western canon, and that's a real shame, for the simple reason that he's one of the most enjoyable authors of any era. His style is simple and often conversational (understandable, when you consider that most of his gazillion works are probably elaborate lecture-transcripts) - the Robin Waterfield translation, currently put out by Oxford University Press, is the recommended version to demonstrate this - and the debates he carries on with himself and his subjects are endlessly fascinating.

The Physics takes as its subject matter the most elemental basics of the physical world, and before you start rolling your eyes, stop to consider how much more you knew by age 15 than Aristotle knew in his entire life. The natural world was his obsession, and he enlisted the steady stream of intellectually curious young men who constantly filled his life (the most famous of which, of course, was Alexander the Great) in acquiring specimens and oddities for his examination. But the natural world is only as yielding of its secrets as your tools are sharp to unearth them, and the tools of scientific investigation are incalculably sharper now than they were when Aristotle sought to know everything that was knowable.

You know that the Earth is a planet in a solar system, that it revolves around its mid-range sun along with a host of other planets, moons, and asteroids. You know that all living species on Earth are more or less related, that life forms descend into families and species, that cosmology currently indicates a very, very old universe of matter and energy streaming outward from a single explosive instant. Even if you paid no attention whatsoever in any biology class you ever sat through, you know more about that bug crawling across the parchment than Aristotle in all his efforts could know.

And it bears remembering that nobody had ever tried it before. Heraclitus, Empedocles, and the like had blazed the various trails of Aristotle's inquiries, but the depth and scope of those inquiries are like nothing anybody had ever done before. He searched everywhere, asked questions about everything, and wrote it all down in a prose that's direct, unpretentious, and sometimes playfully cat-tailing:

'Place' may refer either to the shared place that contains all bodies or to the particular place which immediately contains a body. For instance, you are now in the world, because you are in the air and the air is in the world; and you are in the air because you are on the earth; and by the same token you are on the earth because you are in this particular place, which contains nothing more than you. So if place is what immediately contains a body, it must be a kind of limit, and the upshot is that a thing's place would seem to be its form and shape, by which the thing's magnitude is defined and the matter of its magnitude is determined. For the form of anything is its limit.

The Physics takes just this kind of thorough, analytical approach to its attempts to bring clear, repeatable definitions to all the vague terms that had been floating around the world of discourse since long before Hesiod started writing verse about them all. Assuming we all know what we mean by form, or time, or even the workings of chance was simply not acceptable to Aristotle; he probes everything, always, in the manner of Plato's Academy, inspired by the legendary Socrates. Aristotle never rests in his probing, and although some of his gazillion books plow so deeply into their territories that they make for heavy going, the Physics is at once simple and thrillingly complex, tackling everything from the elements to the infinite to the mechanics of change:

Change is not only opposed by change: rest seems to be the opposite of change too. So here is another issue we had better settle. A change is opposed in an unqualified sense by a change, but rest is also opposed to it in that it is the privation of change, and there is a sense in which we describe the privation of anything as its opposite. Now the opposite of change of a particular kind is rest of the same kind; for instance, the opposite of change of place is staying in one place. But that statement needs some qualifying. What's the opposite of staying in a given place? Is it movement to that place or movement from that place?

Aristotle wrote 2000 years ago, and there's nothing that promises a deathly dullness these days than anything that smacks of the Greek and Roman classics. We here at Stevereads have seen what happens when nominally intelligent young men (young women, in our experience, are more adventurous) are presented with such classics: their eyes glaze over, their mouths dip open just a bit, and they instantly, adamantly stop caring. They shouldn't: in life, Aristotle gloried in connecting with the curiosities of such young men (along with the horror any civilized person would feel, there was a definite thread of pride running through his reactions to Alexander's conquest of the known world - and what naturalist wouldn't love receiving live ostriches in the mail?), and even now, ages later, his writings - starting with the Physics - have abundant power to thrill and provoke.

So find yourself a copy of the Physics and dig in - we're sure you'll enjoy yourselves.

11 comments:

JEaton said...

Aristotle was a beacon of scientific prowess for his time, but that's still pretty piss poor. It's hard to add "by our standards" to the end of that sentence when some of his boners were so gigantically illogical.

Aristotle, for example, maintained that women had fewer teeth than men. But could the inventor of Western science be bothered to ask, say, 10 men and 10 women to open their mouths so he could count them? No. I expect Steve will point out that ancient times were hard on teeth, making it difficult to find 20 full sets, but the fact remains that men and women have the same number of teeth, and the larger point is that Aristotle's method of early science did not include the step where you're supposed to check your hypothesis.

Sam said...

Pathetically, I've only read the Poetics, which is great, very feeling and deeply felt, and Rhetoric, which is well-nigh unreadable for its extraordinary pedantry,

Is the famous Nichomachean Ethics worth delving into?

Sam said...

I have all four wisdom teeth, plus an extra bicuspid that broke through the gums about three years ago. That's more teeth than any chick I know! Eat that, Eaton!

Sam said...

And this seems like just enough pretense to link to this.

steve said...

But that's just it! The IDEA of physically, visually CHECKING the assertions of the past was something that hadn't occurred to anybody yet, and it only partially occurred to Aristotle. 'By our standards' DEFINITELY applies to him, as you-all should hope it's applied to you in twenty centuries!

So Aristotle didn't think to open his washer-woman's mouth and count her teeth - you're really going to condemn him for that, when humans have, to take one example from the countless, been choking the planet itself with tissue-thin plastic bags for two decades now? Which is more self-evident? Which has the wider consequence?

Aristotle did alright. In fact, considering what he would have surmised about suitcase nukes and carbon depletion and the long-term effects of Ritalin, I'd guess he'd do better than 'piss poor.'

Kevin said...

Hmm.

That argument's a bit flimsy.

I'm gonna have to call it Jeffy 1, Steve/Aristotle 0.

Sam gets -1 for having too many goddamn teeth.

steve said...

Art thou MAD??? My examples were FLAWLESS! I win, and your precious 'Jeffy' LOSES! Or it's YOU KNOW WHAT for ALLLLLLL of you!

Sam said...

Someday, Kevin, you might find yourself in need of a tooth donor, and when that day comes, don't look in my direction. Those of us with all our wisdom teeth have long memories.

Kevin said...

Ah, but there you're wrong, Sam - I too have all of my wisdom teeth - impacted and over-crowded though they may be, because being an outta-work, detroit-livin' comic book artist does not cover extractions...

I'll let Jeff speak to the benefits of a mouth less crowded with over-rated natural born teeth.

And Steve - please! I'm far to charming to panish. Jeffy 1, Kevin 1, Steve/Aristotle -1, Sam -2 wisdom teeth.

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