Aristotle’s Attraction in Turbulent Times

I begin every class, every semester, with a short section I call “Gymnasium in a Box.” Gymnasium in a Box introduces students who are not classically trained to the “canon”; or at least as much of the canon as students can handle in ninety minutes. Students get a taste of Homer, Thucydides, Socrates (Gorgias), Plato (Republic), and Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics and Politics), as well as St Thomas, Immanuel Kant, George WF Hegel, and K Marx.

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My theologically inclined friends are aghast: St Thomas? The Summa? Really? Why?

Aristotle is perhaps best known as Plato’s most gifted (or, in any case, most prolific) student. He was prevented by Athenian law from succeeding Plato at the Academy. Aristotle was foreign born — a Macedonian — and, worse still, was very close to the Macedonian court: his dad, Nicomachus, was Philip’s physician; and Aristotle was Alexander’s personal tutor. Onay ealday onyay ethay oolschay.

But then Philip defeated Athens and Alexander, Philip’s son, saw no good reason to prevent Aristotle from establishing the Lyceum.

I will admit some attraction to Aristotle and to Aristotle’s most devout Roman Catholic son, Thomas. The challenge for both was to begin from scratch. Times are changing, both in the fourth century BCE and in the thirteenth century CE. Appearances can be deceiving. So, if you have to build from the ground up, on what will you build?

To their credit, both Aristotle and Thomas erected their respective mansions not upon what cannot be seen — Plato and Occam — but upon what can be seen. That is to say, although each acknowledged that there existed broad swaths of reality that he did not understand, each left this mystery in God’s hands. For those of us with one foot or more on earth, we need to look at the evidence. We need to look to the natural order.

But, what is “natural”? This question was as relevant in the fourth century BCE as in the thirteenth century CE as it is today. What is “natural”?

If, as Christians, we build upon Romans 1-2 or Romans 13.1-7, then what is “natural” is as clear as day:

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse (Rom. 1.20).

Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, withstandeth the ordinance of God: and they that withstand shall receive to themselves judgment. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. And wouldest thou have no fear of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise from the same: for he is a minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’s sake. For this cause ye pay tribute also; for they are ministers of God’s service, attending continually upon this very thing. Render to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due ; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor (Rom. 13.1-7).

Not a believer? No problem. Here is a “natural” order that everyone can buy into. No Christ — no faith! — necessary.

I suspect that natural theology is attractive during turbulent times because we want something a little more rigorous than faith; something a little more self-evident than the dead and raised Palestinian Jew. Got it.

And so we build on a different foundation, confident that because we are building on God’s natural order — Creation — we won’t go too far off track. But here’s the rub. Creation is fallen. Indeed, Paul himself seemed to feel that Creation itself was waiting for the children of God to take the lead guiding all of Creation to redemption. But it gets worse.

In his first letter to the community at Corinth, Paul went out of his way to turn Stoic ontology on its head:

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are (1 Cor. 1.26-28).

Where Stoicism rests confident on the things that are, an ontology arising out of Christ rests on things that are not. Why? Paul explains:

Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor. 1.20-25).

And, yet, time and again, in turbulent times, Christians feel pulled to rest their case in “natural” theology.

This is unfortunate because in nature the weak do not prevail. In nature the foolish perish. In nature those who enjoy wealth, power, education, and culture dominate the poor, the powerless, the foolish and parochial. That’s how the real world works. That’s how nature works. That’s how Stoicism works. And, in fact, that is how Aristotle and St Thomas work. To this extent, Rom. 13.1-7 contains far more lucid advice than 1 Cor. 1.20-28. That’s just the truth.

But Christologically it is ill-informed. How ill-informed can be clearly seen from John Milbank’s Politics of Virtue, in which Professor Milbank seeks to broaden his left-leaning message of radical orthodoxy to include readers who are not explicitly (or even implicitly) Christian. Where else to stake one’s case than on the unnatural bent of those without virtue and the natural bent of those who are: virtue is natural; vice is unnatural.

Obviously, however, because this message bears no direct relationship to the gospel, Milbank is compelled by the logic of his own argument to pick and choose the “nature” that corresponds to virtue while casting as “unnatural” those things that do not. By inference “nature” corresponds to Christian; while “unnatural” corresponds to secular, humanist, human-centered, selfish.

Note: this is precisely the (Stoic) message we read in Paul’s letter to the Romans. But it gets worse. Because Milbank is eager to critique capitalism, he is compelled to criticize it because it is unnatural. This then places him in the awkward position of defending pre-capitalist social forms as natural; awkward because Milbank is quite far from defending the misogynist and fixed, i.e., “natural,” social stratification Christendom inherited from late Rome. He therefore ends of repeating a fairly pedestrian variety of nineteenth century Roman Catholic criticism of modernism, including capitalism, including liberalism. Indeed, he even unblushingly invokes Carl Schmitt, Adolf Hitler’s judicial expert, as an authority (199). This is far less unusual than might be thought. Professor Schmitt was a lapsed Roman Catholic who, like many of those attracted to National Socialism, found liberalism’s weak foundations untenable. National Socialism provided these lapsed Romans with a foundation grounded in nature, yet without the added unnecessary weight of the gospel. Liberalism could be criticized from the unassailable vantage point of nature itself: the Aryan race as embodied in National Socialism.

This reliance upon natural theology is doubly unfortunate for Milbank since it is also unnecessary. Milbank, after all, would like to make peace with the critical wing of Marxian and post-Marxian scholarship. It is doubly unfortunate because he picks up a strand in the tangled web of post-Marxian scholarship that is most sympathetic to Thomist natural theology. And this leads him further astray.

The strand Milbank picks up is the F Braudel, K Polanyi, R Brenner strand — which holds that capitalism is unique not on account of its reliance upon free markets, but on account of its reliance upon state intervention. Markets have always been with us. What is unique is the role that the state came to play during the early modern period. To this Braudelian line, Milbank adds K Polanyi’s distinction between fictitious and non-fictitious commodities. Land, labor, and money, since they are not produced for exchange on the market, are deemed “fictitious”; which, of course, means that other commodities are “natural.” Nature, then, becomes the ground on which a specific strand of ex-Trot ideology will rest its case. Capitalism is not natural. It relies upon state intervention. It relies upon fictitious — unnatural — commodities: land, labor, and money.

Had Milbank chanced to pick up a different strand of post-Marxism, he might have abandoned this reliance upon natural theology and “natural” post-Marxism. He might, in this case, have been curious over the correspondence within capitalism between abstract value and its peculiar cultural forms; and he might have been curious to explore the increasing tension between the commodity’s abstract value form and its material form of appearance: the production of mountains of things holding the same value socially as earlier generation’s smaller mountains.

This other critique does not lend itself to a naturalist rendering. Society — all society — is unnatural; even emancipated society is unnatural (see 1 Cor. 1-2). Nature does not lead us to the good. That is because “nature” is not an ethical category — except for those willing to inflect “nature” as “power.”

What this other post-Marxist critique has going for it is that it is not forced to flee from the capitalist social formation into a fictitious “nature” that on biblical as much as anthropological grounds has never existed. This alternative post-Marxist critique wants us to historically and socially ground and limit capitalism — identify its point of departure in the fourteenth century and, perhaps, its transition to something new, better or worse. That is as far as it can go, because it is not an ideology.

But, this other post-Marxist critique lends itself far better to a Gospel that also finds in “nature” little guidance. That guidance it seeks from the Palestinian Jew Jesus. Its ontology is not positive, but negative.

For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body (Rom. 8.19-23).

Here creation is not the guide. It waits for the community of faith to lead the way to redemption, bodily redemption, physical redemption: the redemption of creation.

For, what is most problematic about capitalism is this disconnect between bodies and value. Milbank wants to ascribe this breach to nominalism, to the isolation of value from bodies. But he is only partially correct. If it is capitalism that gives rise to this breach, then the wound will be healed not by absolutizing some historically and socially limited experience of bodies, i.e., bodies in the late Middle Ages. The wound is healed by the Cross because it raises those who are at the bottom. It reverses the Stoic ontology. Christ is already there at the bottom, among the rejected, among those who Stoic natural theology counts as nothing.

This is not to suggest that this alternative post-Marxist strain is more Christian. It is, however, to suggest that it does not require that we fall into theological contradiction. We can, in other words, articulate this alternative critique without falling back upon a putatively fixed “nature” qua Creation. Do you want the New Creation? There it is on the Cross.

So, why do we always run back to Aristotle (or Thomas) during turbulent times? I suspect it is because we want a more firm foundation than the Cross. I understand the attraction. I reject it.

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