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Appropriation of Aristotle’s Ideas in Christian Philosophy

Introduction

Although the concepts of faith and reason seem to be antonymic philosophical judgment has significantly contributed to the development of Christian theology. The ideas of antique philosophers were revisited during two influential periods, which are early Christianity and the late Middle Ages before the Renaissance. It should be mentioned that the Christian faith first spread among the Greek elites who were educated in the thought of Aristotle, Plato, or Socrates. Thus, they were able to incorporate these teachings into early Christian theology. St. Augustine of Hippo was the most prominent figure of this period, having written many influential works on faith, society, law, and human nature. In his revelations, he closely follows several fundamental ideas presented by Plato and thus is believed to be a Neoplatonist. Augustine’s vision of government, and his understanding of humans as rational souls imprisoned in corrupt bodies that must seek salvation reiterate the Greek thought. Although the connection between early Christianity and Greek philosophy was natural, it was soon abandoned in later periods of the Roman Catholic Church until it was revisited once again almost a thousand years later.

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In the period preceding the Renaissance, Europe has experienced a significant transformation with the revival of science and education and the formation of universities. St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived during this epoch, brought philosophical reasoning into theological thought, referring to the works of Greek philosophers, mainly Aristotle. The impact of the latter is noticeable through different texts of Aquinas regarding the issues of society, law, and virtues of the human soul. They both developed their ideas based on the statement that a “man is by nature, a social and political animal, who lives in a community” (Aquinas, p. 6). From this presumption, both philosophers justified the needs of governance and law and elaborated on the regimes of human cohabitation within society. Aquinas, as well as Aristotle, agreed on the ideas of human nature as inherently good and developed the concept of natural law. These connections prove that antique philosophy can be compatible with Christian thoughts in many aspects concerning social issues and politics.

Aristotle’s Reasoning on Politics and Society

The scope of Aristotle’s works is exceptionally vast, including thoughts on art, ethics, morality, and society. Unlike Plato, who was rational, Aristotle believed in the empirical perception of the world and developed his theory of physical objects based on it. In his works, Aristotle has formed a foundation of many areas of science, including metaphysics, political theory, or rhetorics, that allowed him to go beyond philosophy. Thus, the core feature of his works is their practical applicability in various areas of life. In his Politics, Aristotle investigates the question of the best regime for people to live a good life and elaborates on the ideas of a good citizen and a good man. His theory of human virtues as golden means between the extremes of the character was later incorporated in many philosophies, including Christian thought.

Aristotle on Government

Aristotle’s political theory justifies the need for the government over groups of people that would rule them to make living in the community better. He believes that humans are different from other animals, as language allows them to communicate and engage in complex relationships, and thus making them social and political beings (Aristotle, p. 43). That is why people require laws and governments that would regulate them and organize their relationships to the maximum benefit of society. In his judgment, Aristotle provides the example of a household ruled by a father of the family. He explains that this rule grants unity in the pursuit of a common goal, which is the happiness of each member of the family (p. 42). Thus, he advocates for the necessity of the government, claiming that “ruling and being ruled belong among not only necessary but also advantageous things” (Aristotle, p. 46). However, power over others can lead to tyranny and the suffering of people. Therefore, only a good regime and a virtuous ruler are capable of improving life citizens in a community.

The classification of the ruling regimes, offered in Aristotle’s politics has become fundamental in the political theory for thousands of years. He divides the existing government types based on who and how well rules. According to Aristotle, a state or a city can be governed by one person, a group of elite, or by many people representing the majority of the population. Interestingly, all these types of government can be either good or bad, based on the interests of the rulers. The philosopher believes that the best regime is the one that allows people to live following their virtue, choosing willingly either to rule or to be ruled (Aristotle, p. 115). Monarchy, the oldest form of government, is contrasted to the tyranny, which implies a king who rules in his interest, rather than for the benefit of the citizens.

The government by the elites can also be performed in two different types. When the elite serves the needs of people, then such rule is beneficial and is called aristocracy, but when the elite share the resources between them, it takes the form of oligarchy. Lastly, the regimes where many people rule can be realized as democracy or polity. Surprisingly for the followers of modern western thought, democracy is believed to be a dysfunctional regime, as masses here tend to act to their interest, depriving the elites of their power and limiting their freedom. Polity, on the contrary, is believed to be beneficial as it is the rule by many for the sake of the community. Although Aristotle leaves the question open, he assumes that monarchy can be the best regime for society (p. 29). A good monarch can gather multiple helpers, who become his eyes and his ears and rule people with harmony and unity.

The question of who is being ruled, according to Aristotle, is not less important than the subject of the ruler. That is why he explores the qualities that make a good citizen as equally vital for the community. Naturally, the question arises, “whether it is the same to be a good man and a good citizen” (Aristotle, p. 89). In his works, the philosopher claims that the primary aim of political governance is developing the citizens’ virtue and creating the community in which they will live a virtuous life. Thus, education performs an essential function in Aristotle’s perfect city. Unlike in the western tradition, education is not seen as a competitive advantage, but as the source of welfare for the state.

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Aristotle on the City

Alongside the issues of government, Aristotle explored the question of the perfect city for people to live a good life. Here he explained the connection between the physical parameters of the city, such as its size, location, or climate, and social wellbeing of its inhabitants. His theory was developed on the examples of existing cities, as is typical for the empirical judgment. Aristotle stated that the city should be the proper size – large enough to be self-sufficient, but not too crowded to avoid chaos (p. 216). Moreover, the population of the city should be appropriate to give enough freedom but not too much distancing. Interestingly, he developed the theory about the impact of climate on character formation, claiming that harsh climate conditions hinder the development of virtues.

Aristotle on Law

Aristotle, as other Greek philosophers, saw government and organization of the society as the means to attaining the happiness of individuals and the state. This condition of peace and fulfillment is impossible without justice among individuals. The question is, however, how this justice is achieved in practice, whether it should be led by the ruler or by the law. First, Aristotle concludes that people must follow and obey those who are superior in virtue and power, having the capability to achieve the best for the city (p. 214). That is why the just ruler can lead justly being a man of virtue. At this point, Aristotle approaches the conception of human nature as inherently good and being able to discern natural laws by virtue. However, human character, even the virtuous one, can be influenced by emotion, which is opposite to reason. According to Aristotle, “one who asks law to rule, therefore, seems to be asking God and intellect alone to rule, while one who asks man adds the beast” (p. 122). That is why rule by law is preferred as a more secure one, independent from human desires.

The role of law is to promote justice through reasoning and intelligence instead of the wishes of people. Nevertheless, there are several issues with the rule of law that are to be investigated. During the rule of such dysfunctional regimes as oligarchy or tyranny, the law might be changed or violated so that it does not protect the interests of the citizens. Thus, it is disputable whether this law should be supreme. The second issue is the formality of law that cannot cover all the possible situations in verbal format and requires interpretation. To protect human law, Aristotle suggests the establishment of law-guarding offices that control the fulfillment of the law and prevent wrong changes in it (p. 122). Although this is a rule by a person and not by law, such a solution excludes government by one individual. From this idea, it can be concluded that Aristotle sees people as bearers of some natural law who can rule based on their virtue but should do so in groups to avoid being motivated by passions.

Aristotle on Virtue

Virtue, according to Aristotle, is a disposition of one’s character to do good acts. Moreover, there cannot be a noble deed that is done without virtue and prudence (Aristotle, p. 209). Thus, virtues make a man good to other people and useful for society. As Aristotle classifies them, virtues can be either moral, enabling a person to act ethically right, and intellectual, providing reason and wisdom. What is more, every individual is capable of being virtuous but requires instruction and training. Ignorance and emotion are the two factors that prevent people from exercising their virtues. Thus people need to be governed by law to be educated to avoid the latter and instructed to confront the former. This belief about inherently good human nature that understands natural law proves that under the good governance people can live virtuously.

St. Thomas Aquinas from the Perspective of Aristotle

St. Thomas Aquinas is remembered as the most significant theologian who incorporated philosophical reasoning into Christian thought. He explored the writings of Greek philosophers who had an immense impact on the evolution of his ideas. Aquinas revisited the works of Aristotle, who was the key figure for him and whom he called The Philosopher. Although Aquinas’ texts bear mentions of Plato or Augustine, he takes from them only those ideas that are compatible with Aristotle’s. Aquinas agrees with his ‘teacher’ on the ideas about the physical world, politics, and human nature. Aquinas also believed that evil was contrary to human character and thus, further developed the concept of Aristotle’s natural law.

Aquinas on Government

In his political writings, Aquinas restates Aristotle’s idea about a human as a social creature that lives in organized communities. Thus he argues in favor of the necessity of rulers over the population, claiming that “man … needs something to guide him towards his end” (p. 5). Having agreed on the need and benefits of the rule, he investigates the issue of the perfect regime for governing people using the classification offered by Aristotle. Aquinas provides a more substantial justification of monarchy as the best regime, claiming that the rule by one grants peace and government and unity of the purpose (p. 5). However, he proclaims tyranny to be the worst type of government and ad warns that monarchy can turn into tyranny when the king is not a virtuous man. That is why the best government is the rule of a god-like king who renders God’s purpose on Earth and cares for the wellbeing of all individuals.

Although the ideas offered by Aristotle are applied in Aquinas’ works, the latter is Christian, and thus, several ideas are conflicting. Although Aquinas recognizes the necessity of the earthly goods that enable people to live happily and perform God’s will, he is against such rewards as worldly honor and glory, which are not virtuous in Christianity (p. 25). Striving for such benefits, a king may act improperly, caring only about the deeds that bring fame, but not those that improve the lives of people. That is why blessedness is the only reward for the king for their just and virtuous rule.

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Aquinas on the City

The cities, as the most common form of communities, take a special place in Aquinas’ political theory. He states that founding or converting new cities is the greatest deed that the ruler can do (Aquinas, p. 45). Moreover, the philosopher elaborates on the physical properties of the region and the area similarly to Aristotle’s reasoning. Aquinas claims that temperate climate and wholesome air are essential for the wellbeing of the citizens. Moreover, he proclaims self-sufficiency as the core requirement to the functioning of the city desiring to restrict trade and interaction with the foreigners who corrupt people with their different behavior (Aquinas, p. 50). Thus, parallel to Aristotle, Aquinas argues that the positive environment makes people happier and thus promotes their virtue.

Aquinas on Law

Aquinas has significantly developed and broadened Aristotle’s vision of law based on the concept of eternal law. The latter is believed to be God’s will imposed on each individual and adherence to which is the ultimate purpose in life. As humans are created by God, they are inherently the bearers of this law as a predisposition to perform this will. Thus, Aquinas concludes that “every operation of both reason and will in us is derived from that which is according to nature” (Aquinas, p. 86). Both Aristotle and Aquinas state that people are ruled by natural law, but Aquinas adds that God is the source of this law.

As far as the formal or human law is concerned, Aquinas agrees with Aristotle on its necessity in the community despite the existence of natural law. Some people live in ignorance and are not predisposed to virtue. Therefore, they should be coerced to act lawfully because the fulfillment of law enables happiness in the community. Well-disposed men, on the contrary, do not need laws, as “they are a law unto themselves” (Aquinas, p. 146). Moreover, human laws protect communities from tyranny as they restrict the will of the rulers.

Aquinas on Virtue

Similarly to Aristotle, Aquinas discusses the importance of human virtue as the natural ability to do good deeds. Both philosophers agree that people have their function and purpose in life, and virtue helps to achieve it. According to Aquinas, people are inherently good, as “there is present in mankind a kind of natural aptitude for virtue” (p. 127). However, they do not agree on the subject of the source of human virtues. While Aristotle claims that morality is an intrinsic quality of human nature, Aquinas states that it is given to people by God in the process of creation. Nevertheless, the philosophers see the role of the virtue, either intrinsic or godly, as similar.

St. Augustine from the Perspective of Aristotle

Views on Political Life

St. Augustine is one of the earliest philosophers who started the tradition of Christian thought and wrote fundamental texts that were basic for Christianity for centuries. In his theories, he incorporated the ideas of Greek philosophers, applying them to the new framework. Although he had some similar ideas with Aristotle, they mostly expressed different evaluations. Firstly, St. Augustine rejected empiricism and preferred rational thought, claiming that human perception can be false. The most striking difference is observed in their opinions about political life. Augustine, similarly to Aristotle, believed that “government, which, from heaven to this lowest earth, is just and perfect” (Augustine, “The Confessions”, p. 56). Additionally, Augustine stated the supremacy of any rule “agreed upon, and confirmed, by custom or law” (Augustine, “The Confessions”, p. 37). However, the role of the rulers was assessed differently by the two thinkers. While Aristotle believed that politics is an essential good, aimed at improving human life and promote virtue, Augustine also stated that it is a burden purposed to restrict sin. This belief derives from the understanding of human nature as corrupt, enslaved in a sinful body.

Views on Human Nature

Although Aristotle’s and Augustine’s opinions on human nature seem to contradict, there is more in common than it seems at first. Both philosophers build their judgment on the premise introduced by Plato that the human soul and body are different entities that have different needs. Moreover, Augustine also believed that the awareness of the right deed is inherent in humans, claiming that law is “written in the hearts of men” (Augustine, “The Confessions”, p. 23). However, philosophers evaluate this ‘natural law’ from different perspectives. While Aristotle believes that humans tend to follow this law when they live happily, Augustine claims that bodily sins prevent people from doing good, and virtue is impossible when the soul is trapped in the body.

According to this conception, worldly pleasure is sinful and true happiness is possible only in the afterlife. According to Augustine, however, the fate of an individual is predestined by God either for salvation or for damnation based on the knowledge of deeds that this person is going to do. As the philosopher claims, “God knows all things before they come to pass” (Augustine, “The City of God”, p. 213). This approach is opposed to Aristotle, who thought that each person could become virtuous through education and training. Although the two philosophers share similar beliefs on human nature, their evaluation of it differs because of the different purposes they see for people.

Critical Analysis of the Appropriation of Ideas

What should be questioned is the applicability of these ideas from the perspective of Greek philosophy, not Christianity. The question remains, what Aristotle would think about the appropriation of his ideas in such manner and whether he would not find them taken out of context. To find the answers, it should be discussed why such an interpretation of ideas became possible. The first reason is that antique philosophy offers vast knowledge on practical aspects of life that do not contradict Christian beliefs. Secondly, the historical environment in which early Christianity was developing was influenced by Greek philosophy. Thus, it was incorporated into the New Testament from the very beginning. And lastly, Aristotle’s reasoning implies the presence of a divine entity, an unmoved mover of everything, who bears more resemblance to Christian God than to polytheistic Greek gods. Thus, Aristotle might have found Christianity suitable to his beliefs as his reasoning on the eternal entity is similar to Aquinas’ judgment on God’s existence.

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From early Christianity, different theologians, such as St. Augustine, incorporated rationalized judgment in their works. They viewed faith and reason as two sources of knowledge necessary for humans to attain. Appropriation of Aristotle’s ideas by Christian thinkers, especially in the case of Aquinas, demonstrates that Greek philosophy can be compatible with Christianity. Aquinas shared Aristotle’s theories on government, cities, law, and virtues, which he developed and incorporated into Christianity. The differences were that Aristotle saw the final purpose of a man as fulfillment while Aquinas spoke of salvation. Additionally, Aquinas saw two main sources of knowledge – faith, and development of virtues, but Aristotle focused only on the latter. Nevertheless, these differences did not prevent the practical applicability of Aristotle’s ideas. Thus, Christianity demonstrates that theory from philosophy can be used in theology when it does not contradict the main framework.

Conclusion

Both Aquinas and Augustine significantly contributed to Christian thought, building their reasoning on the teaching of Greek philosophers. Although God is not to be perceived and understood rationally, they proved the possibility of philosophical argument and faith as two separate sources of knowledge that do not contradict. The use of philosophy proved to be particularly compatible in the case of Aristotle’s empirical judgment when it concerns society, politics, and human nature. St. Thomas Aquinas largely paralleled the teaching of Aristotle, framing them to fit the Christian context. Although Greek philosophers were unaware of the concept of Christian God, their perception of a divine force that causes everything into existence was similar to Christianity. Thus, Aristotle’s ideas do not seem as foreign in the works of Aquinas.

Works Cited

  1. Aquinas, Thomas. Political Writings. Translated by R. W. Dyson, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  2. Aristotle. Aristotle’s Politics. Translated by Carnes Lord, 2nd ed., University of Chicago Press, 2013.
  3. Augustine. The City of God. Translated by Marcus Dods. Amazon CreateSpace, 2018.
  4. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Translated by Edward B. Pusey, Studium Publishing, 2018.

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