Saturday, February 6, 2010

Jesus and Aristotle

This is a section of a much larger article called The Philosophy of Success.

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.

Start at the beginning of the Philosophy of Success.


  1. Todd,

    Thank you for the comment.

    I really appreciate this post! Judgment can acts as a tool for even the most enlightened. I love when you said Aristotle called his judgments, First Principles!

    Betty Gunn

  2. Todd,
    I really enjoyed the "ride" through the different philosophical and historical eras and their teachings! Quite thought provoking use of words like 'Arete'- it sounds very Greek... :-)


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