Review: Feser – Part 3

Read Part One and Part Two first.

menosquareThe Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism: Plato & Aristotle

Cue wibbly-wobbly flashback effect as we go back in time to Ancient Athens!

Plato, great writer, great thinker, proto-fascist and inventor of Atlantis. In part 2 of this review we left Feser taking potshots at the four-horsemen of atheism (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris & Hitchens) and among the many complaints Feser throws at them is this:

Nor do they evince the slightest awareness of the historical centrality of ideas deriving from classical philosophy – the tradition of thought deriving from Plato and Aristotle and whose greatest representatives within Christianity are Augustine and Thomas Aquinas – to the content and self-understanding of the mainstream Western religious tradition.

This is the essence of Feser’s ‘refutation’ of popular atheist writers – they are ignorant of a whole stream of thought within Western civilisation and hence have never properly engaged with it and hence are blissfully unaware of how wrong they are.

From there Feser can take us to the real core of his argument:

The classical metaphysical picture of the world, which derives from Plato, was greatly modified first by Aristotle and later by Augustine, and was at last perfected by Aquinas and his followers, is, as I came to believe, essentially correct, and it effectively makes atheism and naturalism impossible.

This is the premise of Feser’s book. What he needs to demonstrate is:
The metaphysics of Aquinas (adapted from that of Plato and Aristotle) is essentially correct and…
…given that it is correct atheism and naturalism is impossible.
Put another way – if the Aristotle’s metaphysics is right then god exists. Which would be kind of cool if Feser could pull it off.

So what is it about Plato and Aristotle that Feser finds so attractive? Firstly this isn’t just Feser as he is the first to point out. The ideas of Plato and Aristotle became deeply ingrained in Christian/Catholic thought. Neoplatonism (Platonism modified to fit Christian theology) was a major current in early theology. Aristotle’s metaphysics took a more circuitous route into orthodoxy partly through non-Christian thinkers such as the Jewish Maimonides or the Islamic philosophers Averroes and Avicenna. The re-introduction of Aristotle into Western thought was finally given substantial legitimacy by Thomas Aquinas to the extent that both Plato and Aristotle were regarded as the nearest thing obvious heathens could get to being Catholic saints.

Sensibly Feser’s book takes a whistlestop tour back to ancient Athen’s to look at Plato and Aristotle’s pre-Christian beliefs. The conceptual framework of the two great thinkers is different but it is worth starting with Plato both because Plato was slightly earlier of the two contemporary philosophers and because Plato’s views had a specific impact on the philosophy of mathematics which I personally find interesting.

To make sense of Plato it helps to think about geometry and by ‘geometry’ I mean geometry as it was being developed in Ancient Greece, with a nominal start in the work of the mysterious Pythagoras and which would later (post-Plato et al) be codified in the work of Euclid. (Modern geometry is another beast altogether and I’ll get to that in later section of the review when we look at what I call Feser’s missing chapter.)

Geometry looks at shapes and the properties of shapes. We can recognise shapes and we can also define formal properties of shapes. From those properties we can deduce true propositions about shapes. Those propositions hold for the shapes we encounter in our everyday existence. If you want your building to stay up it makes sense to pay attention to geometry. If you tether a goat then the area of grass that will get munched down to nothing by the goat will fit a specific shape. Geometry works both logically and practically.

Yet there seems to be something amiss. When I draw a circle my drawing is not strictly a circle. My drawing has multiple flaws: the path deviates slightly as my pencil wobbles, the radius is not consistent as there is some give in my compass and rather than an circumference of no width the path I draw has a small but real width to it. My drawing of a circle is not actually a circle but rather an imperfect rendition of a circle. Worse, this is not just because of my crappy drawing skills. I can make my circle drawings better but I can never make them perfect. Every shape we encounter is deficient in some regard. If I draw a circle on the computer then it is really a chain of square pixels arranged in a roughly circular pattern – I can make those squares less visible by improving the resolution of my picture but the squares are still there. My computer circle is not a circle at all but some beastly polygon!

Yet it is notable that I can make BETTER circles and I can judge my improved (but not perfect) circles against an objective standard. Despite never seeing an actual true circle I can still rate approximate circles and find out true things about circles. Plato takes this notion a step further – it isn’t just circles or even just geometric shapes that are like this: EVERYTHING is like this. We live in a rough, shoddy, approximate, not quite right, imperfect world but the very fact that it is imperfect implies that there must be some sort of higher order and just generally BETTER world in which perfect things actually exist. In terms of geometry that means the true propositions we discover about circles are true about the really-real circles of the perfect world rather than the crappy circles of our actual world. Notably this all suggests that this other world is the real, actual reality and we are just living in a shitty remake.

Luckily our minds (or rather our souls) can access this better world (or so Plato would have use believe). Plato famously demonstrates this in one of his Socratic dialogues (Meno) by portraying his former teacher Socrates discussing a geometric proof with a slave boy. By taking the slave boy step by step via a series of leading questions the slave boy correctly deduces a fact about the area of an inscribed square. From this Plato (via his mouthpiece fictional Socrates) claims that the boy was actually remembering a true fact about squares. Our souls in Plato’s scheme are part of this more abstract world and it is in this way that our rational faculties can have contact with truth.

Although several centuries separate Plato from the establishment of Christianity as the religion of Rome, the connection between his ideas and Christian theology is a deep one. The connection is so deep that it is difficult to read Plato and know whether you aren’t reading into him later Christian theological notions that have become infused into Western culture. The attraction of Plato to Christian thought is, I think, fairly obvious. In Plato’s scheme it is not just that we are all imperfect sinners but our whole universe is, in effect, a ‘fallen’ one. It is rather like the Catholic notion of original sin is applied not just to individuals but to the whole of reality. Conversely Plato’s scheme offers a notion of perfection and a notion of the soul all within a metaphysical scheme whose model is not some mythic fantasy about snakes or gardens but rather geometry and mathematics. As philosophy of mathematics Platonism has survived into the present day (although it took a substantial and significant bashing in the 19th and 20th centuries). God in Plato’s scheme is at the pinnacle of his hierarchy of abstraction. If there is such a thing as goodness then there has to be a Platonic ideal of goodness, if there is such a thing as perfection then there has to be a Platonic ideal of perfection etc. Slap the label “god” on these abstractions and you get the abstract theological god of Christianity which, by a rhetorical slight of hand, is then identified with the substantially less abstract and more obviously flawed god of the Bible. Even that move is anticipated by Plato who follows earlier Greek philosophers in abstracting Zeus into less of a physical character and more into a underlying principal whose thoughts or words (‘logos’) underlie Plato’s cosmic metaphysics.

This marrying of Greek philosophical abstraction even gets an early appearance at the start of the Gospel of St John which offers the only metaphysically interesting account of creation:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

In the Greco-Roman world that Christianity was seeking to establish itself Plato was perfect for intellectual legitimacy. The Platonic framework could be bolted onto Christianity seamlessly and even the mystery cult aspects of Christianity did not sit amiss with the Platonic tradition that had its own mystery cult roots in the Pythagorean tradition (I don’t know if Feser was thinking of that but surprisingly ‘Pythagoras’ or his eponymous theorem are mentioned several times in his book).

Feser provides a reasonable account of both Plato and the so-called ‘pre-Socratic’ philosophers of Ancient Greece but the main event is not Plato but his student and later rival, Aristotle.

Aristotle is both a very different kettle of fish to Plato and a natural extension of Plato. Fewer says this about Aristotle:

Plato has always had an easier time speaking to moderns than Aristotle has. Aristotle is down-to-earth, a champion of common sense and moderation. His writing, or at least the ones we still have, are dry and dull reading, being, its seems, mainly lecture notes. He lacks Plato’s literary flair, and eschews his extreme positions.

I think this is an excellent description by Feser. Translations of Plato can be read for pleasure but even the best translations of Aristotle are work. Partly this is due to the subject matter as Fser suggests. Aristotle is concerned with details and practicalities whereas Plato is concerned with broad brush accounts and imaginative flights of fancy (for example Atlantis was Plato’s invention).

Feser introduces the reader to Aristotle’s metaphysics by way of an older conundrum that posed by pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides who found that change and motion are impossible. At the heart of Parmenides’s problem was that he concluded something cannot come from nothing and yet necessarily at some point nothing is the only things that something could possibly have come from. In other words the source of being must be non-being but non-being necessarily cannot be being and hence argue my brain hurts sort of thing. Aristotle concluded that if we regard objects as having a potential to become a thing motion and change can arise from that potential.

This notion of potential that exists within things ties in with a more general notion of the essence of things that while more concrete than Plato’s scheme still taps into a similar idea. All chair’s are cases of chairyness and all chairs have the potential to support your bottom.

Now as Aristotle was trying to square Platonic notions about forms and resolve classic conundrums about change and was concerning himself with potentiality, inevitably a central aspect of Aristotle’s thinking (at least for the purpose of Feser journey to Aquinas) was causality.

Now I’ll skip away from Feser for a moment and quote instead the marvellous online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

In Physics II 3 and Metaphysics V 2, Aristotle offers his general account of the four causes. This account is general in the sense that it applies to everything that requires an explanation, including artistic production and human action. Here Aristotle recognizes four types of things that can be given in answer to a why-question:

  • The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
  • The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
  • The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
  • The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.

You need to cautious when discussing Aristotle’s causes because the word ‘cause’ is a loaded one and to some extent central to the conceptual shift that worries Feser. Aristotle causes are ‘reasons-why’ and of those the efficient cause is the one closest to the modern sense of the term ‘cause’ and of course, there is a lot more to Aristotle’s metaphysics than these four points. However, Aristotle’s four causes are central to the next step in Feser’s approach. Jumping further into the future Feser next takes us to Thomas Aquinas, who rejuvenated interest in Aristotle in the West and rebuilt Catholic theology with Aristotle and his four causes as a cornerstone.


8 thoughts on “Review: Feser – Part 3”

  1. There is, of course, also a whole strand of modern “radical” theology which is explicitly about exploring how this melding of Greek philosophy with Jewish religious thought (combined with the continual internecine warfare of the early church) led directly to the straitjacket of Aquinas – and why that’s generally been a bad thing. I’ll be interested to know if Feser touches on this (or is even aware of it.)


    1. Feser might in other books but not in this one. When I’ve finished the longer account of the book I’m going to do a shorter review touching on why it fails as a thing in itself. I think it is a very lazy book – there are deep ideas obviously but they aren’t Feser’s (not that he is claiming they are his).


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