The Duel Between Good and Evil: Aristotle Versus Plato; Ayn Rand Versus Kant
The following is an application of Objectivism to a specialized field, history. I am offering this conclusion as a further indication of the power of
ideas in man’s life.
Philosophy determines essentials, not details. If men act on certain principles (and choose not to rethink them), the actors will reach the end result logically inherent in those principles. Philosophy does not, however, determine all the concrete forms a principle can take, or the oscillations within a progression, or the time intervals among its steps. Philosophy determines only the basic direction–and outcome.
In order to grasp the role of philosophy in history, one must be able to think philosophically, i.e., see the forest. Whoever sees it knows that history is not the domain of accident.
For two millenia, Western history has been the expression of a philosophic duel. The duelists are Plato and Aristotle.
Plato is the first thinker to systematize other-wordliness. His metaphysics, identified in Objectivist terms, upholds the primacy of consciousness; his epistemology, intrinsicism and its corollary, mysticism; his ethics, the code of sacrifice. Aristotle, Plato’s devoted student for twenty years, is the first thinker to systematize worldliness. His metaphysics upholds the primacy of existence; his epistemology, the validity of reason; his ethics, the ideal of personal happiness.
The above requires qualifications. Plato himself, thanks to the influence of paganism, was more wordly than his followers in Christendom–or in Königsberg. Aristotle, thanks to the influence of Plato, never became completely Aristotelian; although his discoveries made possible all future intellectual progress, his system in every branch retained a sizable remnant of intrinsicism. Plato’s followers included philosophers of genius, who finally stripped from his ideas every form of inconsistency and cover-up. Aristotle’s followers–aside from Thomas Aquinas, who wrote as a faithful son of the Church–were lesser men, unable to purify or even fully grasp the master’s legacy.
The first battle in the historical duel was won decisively by Plato, through the work of such disciples as Plotinus and Augustine.
The Dark Ages were dark on principle. As the barbarians were sacking the body of Rome, the Church was struggling to annul the last vestiges of its spirit, wrenching the west away from nature, astronomy, philosophy, nudity, pleasure, instilling in men’s souls the adoration of Eternity, with all its temporal consequences.
“The early Church fathers,” writes one historian,
delighted in such simple self-tortures as hairshirts, and failing to wash. Others proceeded to more desperate extremes, such as Ammonius who tortured his body with a red-hot iron until it was covered with burns… It would not be necessary to dwell on these depressing details if it were not for the fact that the Church erected these appallin practices into a virtue, often canonizing those who practiced them… [St. Margaret Marie Alacoque] sought out rotten fruit and dusty bread to eat. Like many mystics she suffered from a lifelong thirst, but decided to allow herself no drink from Thursday to Sunday, and when she did drink, preferred water in which laundtry had been washed… She cut the name of Jesus on her chest wih a knife, and because the scars did not last long enough, burnt the in with a candle… She was canonized in 1920… St. Rose ate nothing but a mixture of sheep’s gall, bitter herbs and ashes. The Pazzi, like the Alacoque, vowed herslf to chastity at an incredibly early age (four it is said).
Neither serf nor lord emulated these eloquent expressions of the medieval soul. But both admired them from afar–as pious, profound, moral. No amount of “practical” considerations can explain this admiration. Nothing can explain it, or the culture, politics, and starvation to which it led, except a single fact: men took religion seriously. This is a state of mind most moderns can no longer imagine, even when they see it on the rise again.
For centuries, Aristotle’s works were lost to the West. Then Thomas Aquinas turned Aristotle loose in that desert of crosses and gallows. Reason, Aquinas taught, is not a hand-maiden of faith, but an autonomous faculty, which men must use and obey; the physical world is not an insubstantial emanation, but solid, knowable, real; life is not to be cursed, but to be lived. Within a century, the West was on the threshold of the Renaissance.
The period from Aquinas through Locke and Newton was a transition, at once gingerly and accelerating. The rediscovery of pagan civilization, the outpouring of explorations and inventions, the rise of man-glorifying art and of earthly philosophy, the affirmation of man’s individual rights, the integration of earlier leads into the first system of modern science–all of it represents a prodigious effort to throw off the medieval shackles and reorient the Western mind. It was the prologue to a climax, the first unbashedly secular culture since antiquity: the Enlightenment. once again, thinkers accepted reason as uncontroversial.
The God of the Scriptures became a passive observer mentioned by deism; the miracle-mongers could not compete any longer with the spokesmen of nature, who were sweeping the world with their discovery of causality, in the form of temporal laws that are “eternal and immutable.” Revelation became an embarrasment; the educated had discovered “the only oracle of man”: observation and the unaided intellect. Salvation as men’s goal gave way to the pursuit of happiness on earth. Humility gave way to an all-but-forgotten emotion, pride: men’s pride in the unlimited knowledge they expected to achieve and the unlimited virtue (human “perfectibility” this last was called).
In regard to every philosophic essential, the ruling spirit was the opposite of intrinsicism–and of subjectivism. The spirit was wordliness without skepticism. This means that, despite the period’s many contradictions, the spirit was Aristotle’s.
The combination of reason and freedom is potent. In the nineteenth century, it led to the Industrial Revolution, to Romantic art, and to an authentic good will among men; it led to an unprecedented burst of wealth, beauty, happiness. Wherever they looked, people saw a smiling present and a radiant future. The idea of continuous improvement came to be taken for granted, as though it were an axiom. Progress, people thought, is now automatic and inevitable.
The whole magnificent development–including science, America, and industrialization–was an anomaly. The ideas on which the development rested were on their way out even as they were giving birth to all these epochal achievements.
Since the Renaissance, the anti-Aristotelian forces had been regrouping. In the seventeenth century, Descartes planted Platonism once again at the base of philosophy. Thanks to their intrinsicist element, the Aristotelians had always been vulnerable to attack; above all, they were vulnerable in two crucial areas: the theory of concepts and the validation of ethics. (Ethics, Aristotle taught, is not a field suceptible to objective demonstration.) these were the historic openings, the double invitation that the better intellectuals unknowingly handed to the Cartesian trend. In the penultimate decade of the eighteenth century, just when America was being born, that trend, unopposted, bore its fruit.
The fruit was the end of the West’s philosophical commitment to reason, the conscious changeover in the ivory tower from the remnants of Aristotle to his antithesis. The thinker who ended the Enlightenment and laid the foundation for the twentieth century was Kant.
In order to solve the problem of concepts, Kant held, a new metaphysics and epistemology are required. The metaphysics, identified in Objectivist terms, is the primacy of consciousness in its social variant; the epistemology is social subjectivism and its corollary, skepticism. This approach left Kant free to declare as beyond challenge the essence of intrinsicist ethics: duty, i.e., imperatives issued by (noumenal) reality itself. When Kant’s new approach took over Western philosophy fully, as it did within decades, duty to the noumenal world became duty to the group or the state.
Kant’s Copernican Revolution reaffirmed the fundamental ideas of Plato. This time, however, the ideas were not moderated by any pagan influence. They were undiluted and thus incomparably more virulent.
Plato and the medievals denied Existence in the name of a fantasy, a glowing super-reality with which, they believed, they were in direct, inspiring contact. This mystic realm, they said (or at least its lower levels) can be approached by the use of the mind, even though the latter is tainted by its union with the body. Man, they said, should sacrifice his desires, but he should do it to gain a reward. His proper goal, even the saints agreed, is happiness, his own happiness, to be attained in the next life.
Kant is a different case. He denies Existence not in the name of a fantasy, but of nothing; he denies it in the name of a dimension that is, by his own insistent statement, unknowable to man and inconceivable. The mind, he says, is cut off not merely from some aspects of “things in themselves,” but from everything real; any cognitive faculty is cut off because it has a nature, any nature. Man’s proper goal, says Kant, is not happiness, whether in this life or the next. The “radically evil” creature (Kant’s words) should sacrifice his desires from duty, as an end in itself.
Occasional fig leaves aside, Kant offers humanity no alternative to the realm of that which is, and no reward of renouncing it. He is the first philosopher in history to reject reality, thought, and values, not for the sake of some “higher” version of them, but for the sake of the rejection. The power in behalf of which his genius speaks is not “pure reason,” but pure destruction.
The result of Plato’s approach was a form of adoration. The result of Kant was “hatred of the good for being the good.” The hatred took shape in the culture of nihilism.
Modern intellectuals are comparable to a psychopath who murders for kicks. They seek the thrill of the new; and the new, to them, is the negative. The new is obliteraion, obliteration of the essential in every field; they have no interest in anything to take its place. Thus the uniqueness of the century behind us: philosophy gleefully rid of system-building, education based on the theory that cognition is harmful, science boastful of its inability to understand, art which expelled beauty, literature which flaunted antiheroes, language “liberated” from syntax, verse “free” of meter. nonrepresentational painting, atonal music, unconscious psychology, deconstruction in literary criticism, indeterminancy as the new depth in physics, incompleteness as the revelation in mathematics–a void everywhere that was acclaimed by the avante-garde with the metaphysical chuckle. It was the sound of triumph, the triumph of the new anti-ideal: of the unknowable, the unreachable, the unendurable.
In a Kantian reality, nothing else was possible.
Ayn Rand is to Aristotle what Kant is to Plato. Both sides of the perennial duel, in their pure form, have finally been made explicit. Kant’s philosophy is Platonism without paganism. Ayn Rand’s philosophy is Aristotelianism without Platonism.
At this moment in hstory, the west is mutating again. The reason is that Kant as a cultural power is dead.
Kant is dead in academic philosophy; the subject has effectively expired under his tutelage. He is dead among the intellectuals, whose world view is disillusionment (they call it the “end of ideology”). He is dead in the realm of art, where nihilism, with little left to defy, is turning into its inevitable product: nihil (this is now being called “minimalism” and “postmodernism”).
Kant is dead even in Berlin and Moscow. As of this writing, although it is too early to know, communism seems to be disintegrating.
The collapse of a negative, however, is not a positive. The atrophy of a vicious version of unreason is not the adoption of reason. If men fail to discover living ideas, they will keep moving by the guidance of dead onel they will keep following, by inertia, the principles they have already institutionalized. For the nations of East and West alike today, no matter what their faddish lipservice to a “free market,” the culmination of these principles is some variant of dictatorship, new or revised–if not communist, then fascist and/or religious and/or tribal. Force and faith on such a scale would mean the fate of the ancients all over again.
The only man who can stave off another Dark Ages is the Father of Enlightenment.
It is true that Aristotle has flaws, which always gave his enemies an opening. But now the opening has been closed.
The solution to the crisis of our age is love, as everyone says. But the love we need is not love of God or the neighbor. It is a love of the good for being the good. The good, in this context, includes reality, man the hero, and man’s tool of survival.
- Dr. Leonard Peikoff, the intellectual heir of philosopher Ayn Rand, is the author of two great books, The Ominous Parallels and Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Dr. Peikoff is an American Objectivist philosopher. He is a former professor of philosophy and a former radio talk show host. He is the founder of the Ayn Rand Institute and the legal heir to Ayn Rand‘s estate.