Question: "What is Aristotelianism?"
Answer: Aristotelianism is the name given to philosophy derived from the works of Aristotle, one of the most important ancient Greek philosophers. Aristotle’s era blurred the line between the modern concepts of “philosophy” and “science.” As a result, Aristotelian ethics takes the same general approach as Aristotelian biology, physics, politics, and aesthetics. This intermingling is important to understand when looking at the legacy of Aristotelianism and a biblical interpretation of Aristotle’s work.
Aristotle was the most famous student of Plato. Plato’s approach to philosophy included the concept of “forms” and the idea that a single entity—the Demiurge—was responsible for the creation of everything else. Aristotle’s approach assumed that “motion,” which for him meant any and all forms of change, was the result of some purely intellectual, abstract reality. He also believed that purpose, or some kind of end-goal, was inherent in the changes experienced by all things. Eventually, Aristotle concluded that there must be a single, itself-uncaused cause, or an “unmoved mover.” While this bears some similarities to the God of Christianity, the two are not nearly identical.
Aristotelianism, as practiced by Aristotle and his immediate students—known as the Peripatetics—focused on an inductive approach to knowledge. While Plato attempted to argue from universal logical truths toward specific applications, Aristotle emphasized the use of observations to build knowledge of universal truths. This is consistent with Aristotelianism’s intense focus on practical matters rather than abstractions.
Aristotle’s approach drew heavily on the idea of purpose, especially via the analogy of a living organism. His approach to philosophy presumed that certain faculties are inherent in the soul, just as much as certain attributes are inherent in various kinds of animals. These characteristics were assumed to be more than inherent; they were presumed to be intentional. That is, they were part of that entity’s designed purpose. This sense of teleology is a crucial aspect of Aristotelianism, and it undergirds virtually all of Aristotle’s thinking.
Aristotle also suggested that the chain of causality, from the prime mover on, was in a “downwards” direction, more or less. The further down the line of cause-and-effect something is, the less “perfect” it is, and the less changed, or moved, it is. This philosophy included a belief that the earth, a drastically imperfect and stationary thing, was the unmoving center of the universe.
It’s important to note that the “philosophy” of ancients such as Aristotle included more than just logic, morality, and ethics. It also covered attempts to understand the natural world. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Aristotle’s approach became the basis for Western understanding of biology and physics. In particular, Aristotelian assumptions about perfection, forms, change, and movement were fundamental to science in the developing West.
While its conclusions about the natural world were not, themselves, taken from the Bible, Aristotelianism lent itself to a clear, rational, robust Christian theology. Scholastics such as Thomas Aquinas applied Aristotle’s general approach to demonstrate the truth and rationality of the Christian worldview. Thus prevailing spiritual views were linked to prevailing philosophical and scientific views.
By the late middle ages, Aristotelianism—in particular as it applied to nature—was deeply ingrained in scientific thinking. Its success in explaining natural observations was buttressed by its remarkable compatibility with scriptural truths. Resistance to discoveries that overturned Aristotelianism, then, came from both secular and religious sources. Interestingly, the secular sources were the most vocal.
For example, while Galileo’s encounter with the Catholic Church is often painted as a battle of reason versus religion, the biggest hurdle Galileo faced was scientific. More to the point, it was a battle of Aristotelian science versus new discoveries. Galileo’s theories contradicted the prevailing Aristotelianism, resulting in resistance from secular and religious figures alike, but on scientific grounds! Galileo spent years debating his ideas with scholars and was only charged with heresy after foolishly mocking the Pope in his writings. Galileo’s work was the equivalent of a modern discovery seriously challenging Darwinian evolution or the Big Bang Theory; challenging Aristotelianism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was no minor task.
Aristotelianism’s most meaningful impact on Christianity was indirect, but enormous. Scholastic philosophers used the general outline of Aristotle’s worldview as a way to explain, defend, and explore Christianity. Their work laid the foundations for the development of modern Christian philosophy. Of course, Christian doctrine is not dependent, in any sense, on Aristotle or his philosophy. Aristotelianism was simply the language through which early rational theologians spoke, but it was not the origin of their ideas or the source of their faith.