Between What Is and What Isn't

Greek philosophy may be understood as a sort of running conversation among men attempting to rationally explain the world as a whole. To begin with Plato is to enter into the middle of a conversation that has already been taking place for quite some time, and in order to understand the importance of Aristotle we must briefly digress into the philosophies of two other men: Parmenides and Heraclitus. Stated succinctly, Parmenides (515-450 B.C.) and Heraclitus (535-475 B.C.) represent two competing and opposing views of the world that cannot be reconciled.

Parmenides’ argues that change, or motion, to use the traditional language, is impossible. Being can only be changed by something other than itself. But what is there besides Being? Non-being. Non-being, though, is not anything at all. Therefore, it cannot affect change of any kind. Being is, non-being is not; you will never get beyond this thought. What we then have is an image of the world where there is no multiplicity or diversity of things, there is just Being. This Being is absolute and eternally itself. Because of this, all of our apparent experiences of the world as subject to change are merely that, apparent. The world of change is an illusion.

Contrast this with Heraclitus’ philosophy of an ever-changing reality. For Heraclitus, everything is constantly in a state of change and nothing is ever actually static. All things are in a state of “becoming,” nothing can be said to “be” in a definitive sense. Accordingly, the world of permanence, like the world of change for Parmenides, is utter illusion. What is merely apparent to us is the world of things that have continual existence; the reality is that all is in flux.

Plato took these two adversarial ways of thinking very seriously, and, for him, the Forms were an attempt to answer the question of how the world can be both changing and unchanging, for both are given to common sense experience. Plato, however, set for himself yet another serious problem, one that he even addressed in the dialogue Parmenides. Forms exist, material things exist, but the interaction between the two is seemingly elusive. The attempt to account for a world of both change and permanence, then, still appears to be unsuccessful. That is, until Aristotle.


How Certain Are You?

Descartes: The most primary, certain, and indubitable thing I know is this: I think; I exist.

Aquinas: And how is this so?

Descartes: Because I cannot know with certainty that anything else exists. If there are no heavens, no bodies, no minds, and I am being deceived by something more powerful than myself, it is still true that I think; and there must be an "I" which is thinking. Even if I were being deceived, it is still "I" which is the object of deception, and it can never be brought about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. I think, I exist.

Aquinas: If you are being deceived, though, why is it that you cannot be deceived into thinking that you exist when you really do not?

Descartes: Because I am still thinking, and it cannot be that I think but I do not exist.

Aquinas: Because if you are thinking then there must be a "you" which is doing the thinking?

Descartes: Exactly!

Aquinas: So it is implicit within the statement "I think," that you must exist.

Descartes: I must say, you are much more intelligent than I ever thought. You have caught on so quickly. You understand my first, most primary, most certain, and indubitable principle so well.

Aquinas: Thank you, Rene. But, if I may, I have one more question to ask you.

Descartes: By all means, ask.

Aquinas: Why is it that you are not being deceived right now into thinking that your principle is true? Why is it that you know that you must exist because your thinking presupposes your existence?

Descartes: What do you mean? Are you saying that it is possible that I do and do not exist right now? That is absolutely ridiculous!

Aquinas: Why?

Descartes: Because nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same manner.

Aquinas: So you know you exist now because you knew before that it must either be one or the other. You knew that you either existed or you did not, and you never thought that it might be both.

Descartes: Yes.

Aquinas: So there is something that you claim to know before you know whether or not you exist, namely, that nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same way?

Descartes: Well, yes.

Aquinas: So it seems that we have an even more certain, more primary, and more indubitable premise than your original one.

Descartes: It appears so. Well, what kind of philosophy do we get if we begin with this more known premise instead of my less known one?

Aquinas: Mine.


Unnatural Relations I

Modern political theory, beginning popularly with men like Lock, Hobbes, and Rousseau, understands the origin of political associations as a thoroughly unnatural process that must be artificially constructed by man in order to ensure his well-being, however defined. The story runs as thus:

Individuals who have no prior relations with each other must form political bonds because they cannot sustain themselves otherwise. For Locke, men can more easily secure their property and their rights if they enter into contractual governance. For Hobbes, men must place their security in the hands of the absolute sovereign.

Since this time, we have had a myriad of ideologies seeking to enforce upon us a particular structure which emphasizes either the state at the expense of the individual (socialism, communism, collectivism, modern liberalism) or the individual at the expense of the state (capitalism, anarchism, classical liberalism, modern conservatism). Politics is seen as a sort of balancing act between the two exclusive actors of the state and the individual. Which side do you fall on?

Well, the answer that a normal human being should give is "Who says that individuals have no prior relations with one another?! Of course we do!" All modern political philosophy, to use an inappropriate analogy, thinks that Humpty Dumpty has fallen and broken into a million pieces, and each political/economic ideology wants to put him back together again according to their own crazy set of blueprints. The truth, of course, is that there will never be a time when people truly consider themselves as free and utterly separate "individuals" with no prior spheres of obligations to family, friends, and broader clans (racial or cultural). All men are either fathers, brothers, or sons, and all women are either mothers, sisters, or daughters; and this relational set only covers the nuclear family!

To be continued...