Monday, January 18, 2010

The Philosophy of Success

Philosophy is the foundation of everything. Or to put it more accurately, philosophy--specifically that branch of philosophy called metaphysics--is the study of the foundation of everything. So I think it's important (See The Anatomy of Success elsewhere on this blog).

The term metaphysics probably comes from Aristotle. In the first collection of his lectures, the chapter on what he called the study of First Philosophy came right after the one on physics. In Greek, meta means "after," thus the field of First Philosophy is called Metaphysics today, so one theory goes.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,by Robert Persig, is one of my favorite books. And one of the biggest contributions that book makes is toward a better understanding of early philosophical thought for us normal folk.

Persig details the evolution of philosophy, in particular what would later become known as Metaphysics, from the ancient mind to the modern, and it goes a little something like this.
The ancient mind rallied around a concept called areté, which means an all pervasive excellence in every aspect of life. Put another way, it means quality, or "The Good." Areté, or "The Good," was the highest ideal for the ancient mind.

For the ancients and the pre-Socratic philosophers, Pirsig writes: "The Good was not a form of reality. It was reality itself, ever-changing, ultimately unknowable in any kind of fixed, rigid way."

The pre-Socratic concept of "The Good" looks a lot like most religious people's conception of The Good today, doesn't it? Except that they normally take out one of the Os and call it "God."

A large chasm persists these days between this and what one might call the modern intellectual mind, which sees the world as completely knowable if given enough time and not governed by The Good at all. It's governed, according to this "modern intellectual mind" by neutral principles--cause and effect, gravity, relativity and the like.

How did we get from there to here? How did the pervasive ancient mind evolve (or devolve depending on your perspective) to the modern intellectual mind? It was a double team by Plato and Aristotle that did it, according to Persig.

Plato came along and "fixed" the ancient misunderstanding by doing two things. First, he subordinated "The Good" to "The True." This is the first step toward neutrality. The True or The Truth is a neutral concept. The good is, basically, the opposite of neutral--no not basically; it is the opposite of neutral. Or at least qualifying things at all--as in good vs. bad--is the opposite of neutral.

The second thing Plato did was to turn "The Good" from "reality itself" into "a fixed and eternal and unmoving Idea." In the lines of thought that followed him, no longer would there be anything at all that could conceivably escape the understanding of the human mind. No longer would there be anything that was considered "unknowable in any kind of fixed, rigid way." Both The True and The Good could be understood. According to Plato, then, there is nothing that could not be understood by the human mind.

In other words, not only would areté no longer be top dog, it would no longer be considered unknowable either.

Try to see that this is an article of faith for Plato and those who followed, as surely as was the way the ancient mind saw the world. We'll return to this in a moment.

Having demoted The Good to a concept, at least Plato held this conception of The Good in high esteem. Persig writes: "He made areté, the Good, the highest form, the highest Idea of all. It was subordinate only to Truth itself."

But Persig continues, "Once the Good has been contained as a dialectical idea [subordinate to Truth] it is no trouble for another philosopher to come along and show by dialectical methods [argumentation] that areté, the Good, can be more advantageously demoted to a lower position within a "true" order of things, more compatible with the inner workings of dialectic. Such a philosopher was not long in coming. His name was Aristotle."

Just as Plato had his way of looking at the world, this is how Aristotle saw it. But these are simply belief systems. Nothing in the universe dictates that we look at it either of these ways.

As Persig puts it: "They are just ghosts, immortal gods of the modern mythos which appear to us to be real because we are in that mythos. But in reality they are just as much an artistic creation as the anthropomorphic Gods they replaced."

So the real villian here, if you are a person of faith, is Aristotle. For the modern anti-faith intellectual mind stems directly from him. Yet, what Aristotle devised is as much a faith as anything else. The study of metaphysics can be nothing other than a faith of one kind or another.

History of the Conflict

According to Persig, the ancient mindset based on areté held sway from time immemorial until Plato and Aristotle. Their new faith then persisted until the Dark Ages began, during which the pervasive Medieval mind was more like the ancients. Aristotelian thinking was rediscovered during the Renaissance and has been slowly infecting (sorry, I've tipped my hand as to how I view it with that one) the way we all think ever since.

But what about science?

The main argument in favor of Aristotelian thinking is that it has made possible the advance of scientific discovery.

Persig puts it this way:

"Phaedrus [the protagonist] remembered a line from Thoreau: 'You never gain something but that you lose something.' And now he began to see for the first time the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained power to understand and rule the world in terms of dialectic truths, had lost. He had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth—but for this he had exchanged an empire of understanding of equal magnitude: an understanding of what it is to be part of the world and not an enemy of it."

But perhaps not. Perhaps all the scientific trappings of Aristotle--the rules of logic, the dialectic, the scientific method and endless classification--would have worked just fine without his religious faith in a neutral universe getting in the way.

I'll go you one better. Maybe it would have progressed further if unshackled from Aristotle's unprecedented and perhaps unnecessary belief in a neutral universe. Let me give you an example that will demonstrate what I mean.

Let's say, for the sake of argument (very Aristotelean; am I hoisting the poor man with his own petard?), that Einstein thought in a different way from every other scientist, and that was the reason for his unparalleled success. Now imagine that all scientists think like Einstein did and you see that we could be further along the progress continuum than we actually are.

How We Know Stuff

This is an argument that goes to the very root of how we know anything at all. How do we come up with ideas?

Persig says: "The formation of hypotheses is the most mysterious of all the categories of scientific method. Where they come from, no one knows. A person is sitting somewhere, minding his own business, and suddenly . . . flash! . . . he understands something he didn’t understand before. Until it’s tested the hypothesis isn’t truth. For the tests aren’t its source. Its source is somewhere else. (p. 113)

And our good friend Eckhart Tolle says this in The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, naming Einstein, himself:
"The surprising result of a nationwide inquiry among America’s most imminent mathematicians, including Einstein, to find out their working methods, was that thinking “plays only a subordinate part in the brief, decisive phase of the creative act. So I would say that the simple reason why the majority of scientists are not creative is not because they don't know how to think but because they don't know how to stop thinking!" (Chapter 1)

The way these scientists are coming up with their ideas isn't Aristotelean at all! These are mysteries being described! The Philosopher (as Aristotle was known in the Renaissance) would not approve! So maybe the truth is that Aristotelian thinking (or the Aristotelian faith, you might say) has only survived by is reliance on other modes of thought.

Persig goes even further: "Through multiplication upon multiplication of facts, information, theories and hypotheses, it is science itself that is leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones. The major producer of the social chaos, the indeterminacy of thought and values that rational knowledge is supposed to eliminate, is none other than science itself." (p. 117)

He continues:

"The cause of our current social crises . . . is a genetic defect within the nature of reason itself. And until this genetic defect is cleared, the crises will continue. Our current modes of rationality are not moving society forward into a better world. They are taking it further and further from that better world. Since the Renaissance these modes have worked. As long as the need for food, clothing and shelter is dominant they will continue to work. But now that for huge masses of people these needs no longer overwhelm everything else, the whole structure of reason, handed down to us from ancient times, is no longer adequate. It begins to be seen for what it really is. . . emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless and spiritually empty." (p. 117)

None other than Einstein, himself, acknowledged that, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

Aristotelian thinking was where "we were at when we created them."

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a best-selling cultural phenomenon in the mid-seventies when it was published, is available free on line (it's part of The New Earth Economy). I couldn't recommend it more strongly.

Jesus and Aristotle

Aristotle lived about 300 years before Jesus, but Alexander the Great made sure they would meet by invading the area (called the Levant) in 332 B.C. He and his successors ruled until 63 B.C., when the Romans took over.

I've simplified the timeline a little. The Maccabean Revolt began around 167 B.C., ushering in a short quarter-decade of Jewish independence. The revolt was fought--and this is my point--contra deep and offensive Hellenization of Jewish religion and culture.

This included Aristotelian philosophy among the educated classes, which continued under the Romans, who became the torchbearers of Greek culture and philosophy.

Jesus was born into a thoroughly Hellenized Palestine, and nowhere was this more pervasive than in the priestly caste. This explains why Jesus' main antagonists in the Christian Gospels are the Pharisees and Sadducees. The earmarks of Aristotelian thought run throughout the Biblical accounts of Jesus' ministry.

(I am aware that some, perhaps most Jewish scholars take issue with the Gospels' depiction of the Pharisees and Sadducees. It's nevertheless clear that Jewish theology and philosophy remains staunchly Aristotelian today, so for our purposes the point is moot. Moreover, Christian philosophy and thought became infected with Aristotelianism too, as we will see in a moment.)

Nowhere is the contrast more stark between him and the Pharisees, nowhere is it more clear that Jesus' main battle is against Aristotelianism, than in his teaching, "Judge not, lest you be judged."

Aristotle is all about judgment. He's all about truth and logic and coming to conclusions--which are judgments--about literally everything under the sun and including the sun. He's about making judgments in endless classifications of all of those things. He's even about making judgments on subjects for which there is no basis for judgment and for which there are no conclusions--he called these First Principles, Metaphysics--and pretending that those judgments hold water, because if they don't his whole system kind of falls apart.

Before Hellenization, this was not the Jewish way. The book of Job, probably the oldest book in the Jewish canon, demonstrates the unknowable nature of an Almighty and benevolent God. This sounds a lot like Areté, doesn't it? A lot like The Good, and Persig's Quality.

According to Thomas Cahill, author of The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (Hinges of History), the ancient Jewish religion of Abraham added to this mix a deeply personal relationship with the monotheistic God of creation. This fed into both Christianity and Islam today.
Mimicking Aristotle, the Pharisees' emphasis had shifted from this personal, heartfelt relationship with God to one of strict judgments based on an expanded legalistic theology, teased out to the n-th degree, just as Aristotle would have done it, and did do in the scientific realm. The theology of the Pharisees was Aristotelian principles and methods applied to religion and spirituality.

What matters, Jesus preached on the contrary, was the condition of one's heart, not blind adherence to a code of laws--that wasn't even the actual Jewish law, but a sort of "hedge" around the law to make sure you didn't actually break the real Jewish law. Aristotle would have loved this hedge; it was utterly, painstakingly, excruciatingly logical.

This process gave us a word we still use today, pharisaical, defined by Merriam-Webster as "marked by hypocritical censorious self-righteousness." In other words, judging. It's Aristotle applied to morality.

Aristotle and Christianity

So Jesus had his say and then he was crucified--most of us know the story--and then another religion developed in his name. This is where the story really gets good.

So what do you think that religion did? Do you think they kept up the fight with Aristotelianism that Jesus had started? Far from it.

Christianity plugged along for several hundred years under the auspices of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, a neo-Plantonist (i.e. pre-Aristotelian thinking; for more information see Radical Academy); along with the inspirational handbook, The Consolation of Philosophy: Revised Edition (Penguin Classics), by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, also a Platonist.

The Consolation of Philosophy is also available free on line (as part of The New Earth Economy). A more eloquent book of philosophy has yet to be written.

Then in the 13th century, a fellow named Thomas Aquinas came along and what did he do but apply the philosophy of Aristotle as the foundation of all church teachings. Unbelievable, but true. At the time, this was quite a controversy, along the same lines as above. In fact, the teachings of Thomas were not officially adopted by the Catholic Church until 1879, though this was merely a recognition of Aristotle's fait accompli.

And in fact, it appears that Thomas, himself, may have had a change of heart late in life, failing to finish the main work on which his advancement of Aristotelian Christianity is based, the Summa Theologica. (See Wikipedia.)

It is this underpinning that has given us the Catholic Church as we know it today, with its endless (Aristotelian) classification and categorization of various types and levels of sin--very Aristotle--its emphasis on propriety of worship at the expense of the condition of one's heart (very un-Jesus-like).

This system is so comparable to that of the Pharisees, we might just as well use the term "catholic-aical" alongside pharisaical. It would have just about the same connotation. It is a natural byproduct of the application of Aristotelian philosophy to spirituality.

Aristotle, Protestantism and Islam

Protestantism fares no better. Aristotle has infected that too. Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant movement, was a product of the scholastic branch of Catholicism, as that which was spawned by the writings of Thomas Aquinas is called.

It was Aristotelian thinking that brought about Martin Luther's call for schism in the first place. Judgment, classification, reduction of what were once heartfelt relationships to the sterility of theological ideas. Argumentation, dialectic.

"I believe this; you believe that. I should be in this category and you should be in that one."

"I classify myself as a Baptist. You should call yourself--wait! I've got it--a Pres-by-ter-i-an."

This is all imminently, painfully logical. Aristotle would approve!

Moslems have the same problem. In fact, it was a Muslim, called Averroes, who is credited by many as the "founding father of secular thought in western Europe" for just this application of Aristotle to his religion.

None of the foregoing is even controversial today. Most priests, rabbis, mullahs and Protestant clergy would agree and defend the application of Aristotelianism to all western religions.

Where is The Good Today?

But there are off-shoots in each of these religions that carry the torch for areté, for The Good. They are generally and often derisively categorized (in that way of Aristotle) as mystical.

Just called "mystics" in Catholicism (all Christians were mystics before Aquinas); Kabbalah in Judaism; Sufism in Islam; the Pentecostal movement in Protestantism, mysticism is generally eviscerated by participation in the major western religions. Institutionalization of spirituality into religious structures is in and of itself an Aristotelian practice, after all.

Mysticism is generally part and parcel of Eastern religions, though institutionalization of spirituality has the same impact there.

Mysticism thrives outside the established religions in what is--again often derisively--called the New Age movement. Not that we need another Aristotelian categorization, but just for ease of reference, there it is.

And that's precisely what Aristotelianism is good for: as a tool box, easy reference being one. It is not knowledge or wisdom or understanding in and of itself. That comes from elsewhere.

How Should We Then Live?

On the one hand we have a long-standing (ancient) mentality based on The Good or tending toward The Good. It inspires a sense of benevolence in the universe. On the other hand, we have with Aristotle the first vestiges of a system of faith based upon The Truth, which is utterly neutral in tone, tending toward nothing (and perhaps nothingness).

Given these two choices, which makes more sense to espouse? One that doesn't care what you do? That's Aristotle. Or one that might just respond when we align ourselves with it? There seems to me no point in holding to the former, and every reason to hold to the latter.

This argument is a corollary to Voltaire's famous aphorism: "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him."

Boethius puts it this way: "O happy race of mortals, if your hearts are ruled as is the universe, by Love!"

And this is precisely the point.

Next stop: The Visualization of Success or The Anatomy of Success

Where have I gone off the rails? Let me know. Your comments are appreciated and will be helpful to other readers.


  1. Sorry, just stumbled onto your site.

    In my view, "Truth" appeals to the intellect while "the Good" appeals to the Will. (Did I just quote Aquinas?) Both are necessary to us as creatures to find God because these two faculties are what allow us to "know and love the Lord"...(the First Commandment). No reason to subordinate one to the other in God himself though. In God, they are the same.

    Don't be so quick to slam Aquinas. He actually quotes Pseudo-Dyonisus (the author of Mystical Theology) 1,700 times. Pseudo-Dyonisus actually states that the highest name one can call God is "the Good" or "Too Good" in his book the Divine Names.

  2. Great comment. Thanks! I don't mean to slam Aquinas. It's the Aristotelian framework he ushered in that seems problematic. It seems to me he came to an understanding of this late in life.

    1. so do you think that Aquinas was write in he's teachings?

    2. No, I don't. He mistakenly tried to mash together two incompatible philosophies. I try to explain this problem in my book The Self-Improvement Book Club Murder. It's also in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Rationality has a very limited scope. It is the tail end of the knowing process. Materialism treats it as the beginning of it, and in fact the end all be all of knowing. Knowing begins in the body and makes its way to the mind, where it is interpreted and turned into words if communication is necessary. Everything starts as a feeling, which is an emanation from Universal Intelligence, if you will. But don't listen to me. Look inside yourself and see how it actually works.

  3. I don't think labels such as this are useful.


From the Archives

What's Your Drama?

Ok, I'll go first. My drama has been to allow my pain-body to take over my thinking in the context of a love relationship. No...

Popular Posts