Writings of Khurram Ali Shafique
would be erroneous to call anyone the father of all knowledge, but
if such a title were to be given to a single person, it would have
to be Aristotle.
This great old man of Greece lived more
than 23 centuries ago, but his stamp can still be seen on every
domain of our lives. He influenced the Christian civilization more
than anyone else, save Jesus Christ himself, and his influence on
Muslim philosophy was greater than any other single thinker. This
goes a long way to prove Aristotle's basic principle: humans are
rational creatures and whatever is supported by logic will always
win in the end.
Little is known of the life of the
man who wrote over 170 books, out of which at least 47 are preserved
for all times to come. It is ironic that most Aristotle scholars
mention his biography only in the passing, all too much in a hurry
to move on to his works. Surely we deserve to know a little more
about the man who contributed something to almost every known culture
of the world as it exists today.
Aristotle was the man who gave us such famous postulates as "the
whole is more than the sum of its parts." His life may or may
not help us understand his works better, but the life of such a
man must be studied for its own beauty. Aristotle's childhood was
spent in Stagira, a small town on the outskirts of Greece, where
he was born in 384 BC. His father was Nichomacus, a physician of
high repute. It is almost certain that he would have initiated Aristotle
into the knowledge of plants and herbs at a very young age.
In the absence of sound information, our picture of Aristotle's
childhood is entirely speculative: a young boy getting down on all
fours to take a closer look at insects and plants in the hilly tracts
of Macedonia. If he actually did that, he must have been very young
at that time, and his father would have chided him accordingly.
Aristotle was supposed to take interest in biology but it was a
slave's work to collect specimen for his master, or to conduct experiments.
Aristotle belonged to the nobility and he was supposed to behave
accordingly. He picked up the lesson early, and developed the habits
befitting his social status.
However, there was an even stronger lesson Aristotle must have learnt
from his natural surroundings: "Things grow!" The principle
of growth he observed in plants and birds remained at the heart
of his philosophy. A seed carries all the ingredients that determine
its potential as well as its limits. The seed of a pine tree will
become a pine tree, that's its potential. But it won't become an
oak tree, that's its limitation. And as Aristotle grew up, he started
expanding the radius of this principle. What are human beings supposed
to become? What are their potentials and limitations? What are the
potentials and limitations of nations? Of art? Of universe?
Sometime in Aristotle's early childhood, his father became the royal
physician of Amyntas, the King of Macedonia. It isn't certain whether
Aristotle accompanied his father to Pella, the capital, and in any
case, when Aristotle was ten, his father suddenly died. The family
secrets of medicine went to the grave with him. Aristotle's mother,
Phaestis, who came from an affluent background, was already dead,
and the young boy was entrusted to a guardian who was either his
uncle or a family friend. Proxenus by name, he taught Aristotle
rhetoric and poetry. Hence, it was as a student of these subjects
that Aristotle moved to Athens at the age of 17 and joined Plato's
Academy. He remained there for the next 20 years.
It is said that Aristotle at first
accepted the master's answers to his basic question: things do not
grow. They seem to grow in this world, but then this world is an
illusion. Everything that we see here is a reflection of an original
form in the world of ideals. In the world of ideals, everything
is present in its accomplished shape. The duty of the philosopher
is to get out of the cave, which is this world, and look at the
horizon of reality, which is the world of ideals.
But Aristotle couldn't stay with this
belief for long. As he matured he became a staunch opponent of his
teacher Plato. There is no such thing as the world of ideals. The
reality is what you see and the world of ideals is the illusion.
Logic must be bound to what can be seen or proven otherwise with
the experience of this world. With this started the second phase
in Aristotle's career, and it was a period when most of his energies
were focused on disproving Plato!
Plato died in 347 BC. Aristotle, 37 years old by that time, had
long been accepted as the most clever philosopher at the Academy,
but due to his views he was superceded by Plato's nephew who became
the new head of that most prestigious institution of learning in
the ancient world. Aristotle left Athens. The next few years were
a period of wandering. And it was during this time that Aristotle
grew out of his antagonism towards Plato's philosophy and channelled
his attention towards developing his own philosophical system. The
basis of this system was quite simple. Things come into existence,
not as reflections of something in an unknown world, but through
four principle causes: there is someone who makes them, there is
a substance to make them, there is a form that they adapt, and lastly...
they have a purpose. This last cause is the most important one.
A chair is a chair as long as it can serve its purpose: you can
sit on it. A chair would cease to be a chair if you can't sit on
it even if its made by a carpenter, is made of wood and looks like
something of a chair.
This last principle has received much
criticism by the thinkers of our age, who prefer to see the world
as a series of random and chaotic incidents. "Rain doesn't
fall because plants need it, rather the plants grow because rain
falls." But maybe the modern thinkers are misunderstanding
Aristotle. He didn't mean that rain wouldn't have fallen if the
plants didn't need it. Perhaps he meant that if rain stops doing
its purpose, you would have to give it some other name. And we have
more reason to believe him in our own age than his contemporaries
had in those days. Today we know that when rain turns into acid
we call it acid rain!
The fact that everything has a purpose in life, and it is moved
primarily by that purpose, was the central notion in Aristotle's
philosophy. It was finally an answer to the question the little
boy had been asking himself all these years. The rest was clear
and easy. The difference between a horse and a man was that man
could think, while the horse couldn't! Therefore, man was a rational
creature, and its purpose was to lead a life based on sound judgement,
and conscious decisions. The best tool a man could have was logic,
or his ability to make the correct decisions. The purpose of all
human institutions was to aid the development of this decision-making
ability in the human being. This is the central argument behind
his numerous books on politics, poetics, ethics, rhetoric, current
affairs, biology, physics and metaphysics. The purpose of an ideal
state is to enable its citizens develop their decision-making ability.
Democracy is not an ideal form of government because it uses numbers
instead of arguments to decide what must be done. The ideal form
of government according to Aristotle was the democracy of the few
able people, or Aristocracy. In terms of poetics, the best drama
was that which had a logical plot rather than a story based on coincidences.
So on, and so forth.
Aristotle took up virtually every branch of human knowledge existing
in his days and redefined it. This alone is something no one else
has done in the entire history of the human race. But Aristotle
didn't stop at redefining each branch, he drew complete outlines
and filled them in by writing comprehensive books on each subject.
It was such a daunting task that the later generations suspected
he had an army of several thousand slaves to work for him. There
is little truth in that story, but we must agree that what Aristotle
accomplished single-handedly was, indeed, a job of a thousand people.
Meanwhile, Aristotle had been wandering all over Greece and Asia
Minor. It must have been during this brief encounter with the non-Greek
world that he developed his contempt for the "barbarians".
The Greek civilization was based on rational thinking, while the
others merely sprung up like unwanted growth, or so it appeared
to the discerning Aristotle. To him the Greek manner of living seemed
to be the purpose of the world itself!
Those were the days when such ideas could be valuable. The mighty
Greek states such as Athens and Sparta were on their decline, and
it was the heyday of smaller states, whose rulers had lived like
robber chiefs for several generations and now wanted a ticket to
nobility by developing art and culture in their domains. Aristotle
must have found these clans more exciting than the accomplished
state of Athens, because obviously there was more room for growth
in an unfinished work!
Aristotle's longest stay was at Assos, whose ruler Hermias was a
supporter of Philip of Macedon, the ambitious ruler who had waged
wars on several Greek states, and had also destroyed Stagira, Aristotle's
home town, a few years back. Hermias was killed in a brush with
the Persians in 341 BC, and Aristotle had to move on. But before
leaving Assos, he married Pythias, the niece and adopted daughter
Aristotle's views about women were not very uplifting. Women were
some kind of deformed men, he believed. They didn't have the potential
for rational thinking and, therefore, their purpose in life was
to serve men. We do not know the origins of his cynicism about women,
but it was so deep-rooted that he based his views on a predetermined
bias against women, rather than studying the facts first and then
developing his opinion in this matter.
We know very little about his private life to understand what incident
motivated these views, for they were almost certainly rooted in
some personal bias rather than observation and the rational thinking
which he accused women to lack. Sadly, the Muslim and Christian
civilizations also borrowed Aristotle's views about women when they
adapted his method of thinking.
Aristotle was soon called by Philip.
The tyrant was anxious for the education of his only legitimate
son, Alexander. Aristotle agreed to take up the job if Philip paid
him the highest tuitiuon fee in recorded history: he must rebuild
the entire town of Stagira, trace each of its inhabitants who had
been sold into slavery, buy them their freedom, and bring them back.
And Philip agreed!
We don't know if Aristotle realized the true potential of Alexander
when he first looked at the 13-year-old boy. Also, we don't know
what subjects he taught the young prince. But when the philosopher
left him merely three years later, the 16-year-old prince was in
a position to command the armies of his father and set out to conquer
the world at the age of 20. Aristotle returned to Athens when Alexander
conquered it. Finally, he was able to set up his own school, the
It is said that Alexander sent Aristotle
specimen of minerals, plants and animals from the far off regions
he visited during his conquests. That may be true, but the conqueror
disappointed his teacher at the peak of his glory: after conquering
Persia, he didn't impose the superior Greek culture on the "barbarians".
Instead, he gave them equal status and adopted many of the Persian
etiquette. Aristotle must have felt as if the dreams of his life
were shattered to pieces. His nephew, whom he had sent to accompany
Alexander, must have shared those feelings, because he would make
fun of Alexander's Persianized mannerism in the open and later participated
in a plot of assassination. He was duly executed, and it is said
that Alexander also began to look at his old teacher with some suspicion.
Alexander died in 323 BC, and there was an anti-Macedonian upheaval
in Athens. Ironically, the Athenians had executed Socrates three
generations ago for corrupting the minds of the young. And now they
wanted to put Aristotle on trial for opposing the philosophy of
Aristotle, whose ethics revolved around
the principle of "golden mean," or "the middle path,"
had always believed that while too little courage was cowardice,
too much of it was foolhardiness. "I will not allow Athens
to sin against philosophy for a second time," he declared.
Taking with him the woman he had married after the death of his
first wife, his son, and his servants, he left Athens and settled
down in Chalcis, the state of his mother's origin. He died of dysentery
a few months later. The year was 322 BC.
Aristotle's writing were mostly lost in the chaos that dominated
Greece in the following centuries. One of his successors had the
wisdom to hide them in a secret vault, from where they were discovered
in better times, and re-edited. Sadly, they didn't include any of
his complete books. All that was saved were his lecture notes. That
is all that could be passed down to the subsequent generations,
and that is all we have of his writings today. And it is, as it
was, more than enough to establish him as the major organizer, if
not the founder, of almost every subject of classical knowledge.
Source: DAWN The Review,
August 10-16, 2000. Karachi, Pakistan
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