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Friday, September 12, 2014

The School of Athens

Rafael's The School of Athens hangs in the Pope's private library in the Vatican.

In this famous painting, Aristotle points down, and Plato points up. Here we have the great philosophical tension between the natural and the supernatural. This creative tension has largely been lost in modern philosophy, especially in the West. Jacques Derrida believed that the overthrow of Plato in the West has brought the philosophical project to a dead end, and he urged a recovery of Plato and the tension between Plato and Aristotle.

Aristotle seeks answers to questions by studying the natural world. He wrote:

"Metaphysics involves intuitive knowledge of unprovable starting-points (concepts and truth) and demonstrative knowledge of what follows from them."

"The first philosophy (Metaphysics) is universal and is exclusively concerned with primary substance. ... And here we will have the science to study that which is just as that which is, both in its essence and in the properties which, just as a thing that is, it has."

Plato seeks answers to questions by pondering the innate knowledge of the eternal soul. Plato seeks answers by considering the things above or beyond the natural world, as did Thales of Miletus. Thales attempted to explain natural phenomena without reference to the gods.  His interest in astronomy was such that he reportedly fell into a ditch while contemplating the stars. Plato wrote of how he was similarly mocked by a servant. Just like Thales … while star gazing and looking up he fell in a well, and some gracefully witty Thracian servant girl is said to have made a jest at his expense—that in his eagerness to know the things in heaven he was unaware of the things in front of him and at his feet. The same jest suffices for all those who engage in philosophy. (Plato,Theaetetus 174a, Seth Benardete translation)

In reality, both philosophers were interested in the natural and the spiritual aspects of reality and to portray them more accurately, each should be pointing up and down.

Related reading: Plato's Debt to Ancient Egypt; Getting Acquainted with AristotleEthics of Ancient Greece

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