Post Author: Bill Pratt
OK, those of you who have never thought about Aristotle and don’t even know what the word metaphysics means are probably already yawning, but hang on for a minute. Briefly, why should you care about Aristotle? Because the medieval Christian theologians (Thomas Aquinas being the most brilliant example) built their conceptions of God and humans with the help of Aristotle’s ideas. They combined what they learned from special revelation (the Bible) with Aristotle’s philosophical ideas to bequeath us the conceptions of God and humans that most orthodox Christians still hold today.
It was Aristotle’s metaphysics, in particular, which aided these learned men of the church. What is metaphysics? In simplest terms, the study of being. Metaphysics helps answer the ultimate questions. According to the great philosopher Jacques Maritain in his book The Degrees of Knowledge, metaphysics deals with “objects [in the mind] abstracted from, and purified of, all matter.”
These are objects of thought which not only can be conceived without matter, but which can even exist without it, whether they never exist in matter, as in the case of God and pure spirits, or whether they exist in material as well as in immaterial things, for example, substance, quality, act and potency, beauty, goodness, etc. This is the wide domain of [metaphysics], knowledge of that which is beyond sensible nature, or of being as being.
Questions of God, causality, goodness, existence – all of these are the domain of metaphysics. So hopefully now you have an idea of why Aristotle and metaphysics are important to Christians. And, of course, since Aristotle and metaphysics are important to us, they face constant attack from skeptics of Christianity. One of those attacks goes like this: “Aristotle’s ideas were all disproven by Descartes and other philosophers of the Renaissance 400 years ago.” If Aristotle’s metaphysics, and thus the metaphysics of Aquinas and other medieval Christian thinkers, have been refuted, then our conceptions of God and man are completely wrong-headed and need to be radically revised.
Has Aristotle’s metaphysics been refuted? Not at all. What the Renaissance thinkers did was refute some of Aristotle’s scientific ideas. Again we learn from Jacques Maritain:
Despite what certain popularizers may say . . . , these charges do not stand up in the case of the philosophy of Aristotle when carried back to its authentic principles. . . . It should be recognized that too great a confidence in the intelligibility of things and in the processes of reason . . . has played its part (and perhaps an overwhelming part) in the errors of ancient science. . . . [However] there is no necessary link between the mechanics, the physics and the astronomy of the ancients on the one hand, and the metaphysics or natural philosophy of the scholastic tradition on the other.
Maritain further explains:
The whole structure of the experimental science of the ancients has doubtless crumbled and its collapse may well appear to anxious minds to spell the ruin of everything the ancients had thought. But in reality, their metaphysics and their philosophy of nature, in their essential principles at least . . . , have no more been affected thereby than the soul is changed when the body disintegrates.
The fall of Aristotelian experimental science was not also the fall of Aristotelian metaphysics. The latter was not built on the former, and thereby was quite able to stand when the former collapsed. This means that the classical Christian conceptions of God and man remain intact and as strong as ever, and skeptics must still deal with them.