Was Aristotle a mystic?

Aristotle is of particular interest to us. His intellectual genius dominated our civilization for two thousand years and influences our thought even today. His logic is still taught in the Universities. Many of his philosophical ideas, systematized and elaborated by St. Thomas Aquinas, still serve as the groundwork of the metaphysical beliefs of orthodox Roman Catholics. No mind could have wielded this influence if it had not in some measure tapped the deeper layer of truth and inspiration within and beyond the lower mind—that layer which the teachers of Yoga say can be drawn upon by each and everyone.

Was Aristotle a mystic? Opinions differ on the point. It is generally conceded that his teacher, Plato, practised mysticism of an impersonal type reflecting his deistic (as opposed to theistic) views, and an interesting fragment of one of Aristotle’s letters has come down to us; “The more I find myself by myself and alone, the more I have become a lover of myth”. By “myth” he means “mystic revelation” and elsewhere in his works it is clear that he believes in the possibility of “visions of God”. However his basic attitude to the world is very different from Plato’s. Plato taught that objects perceived in the external world were phenomenal, shadows or reflections of real objects in another world ‘above’. If Plato had known of the concept of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, he would undoubtedly have placed it in ‘the other world’. Aristotle on the other hand takes the view that this world perceived by our senses is a phase of Reality and, if properly understood, can be known as such. He is above all a scientist, and very much down to earth; in fact he is the real founder of scientific method and of many sciences such as zoology and biology. When Alexander was on campaign, he used to send back thousands of specimens to his old tutor for examination and analysis. Plato’s view may be summed up as ‘Negate the world and discover Reality’, and Aristotle’s as ‘Find Reality in the world’.

Both views have validity and are faint echoes of the distinction in Yoga between ‘Brahman Sattyam Jagan Mithya (God is real and the world is phenomenal)’ and ‘Sarvam Khalvidam

Brahman (All this is verily God)’. Plato’s approach has more in keeping with the well-known text of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad which defines Reality negatively by taking everything in the world that can be perceived or conceived and saying of it ‘Not this, not this’. Aristotle might look rather to Katha Upanishad V.2:” As the sun, He dwells in the heavens, as air pervading the sky, as fire on the altar, as the guest dwelling in a house. He is in man, in the gods, in sacrifice (rita), in ether. He is born of water, bom of earth, bom of sacrifice, born of mountains. He is the True of unchanging nature. He is the Great Being, the cause of all.”

The views of the Greek sages are no more than faint echoes and it cannot be pretended that the truth of Advaita, consciously realized and taught by the Rishis of the Upanishads, was revealed to either Plato or Aristotle. Their doctrines were basically dualistic but still, on a lower level, their giant intellects arrived at many of the Yogic ideas. Dr. Shastri has written in this connexion: “Yogic Wisdom has found expression through the purified and concentrated intellects of the Greek philosophers, but as many of the known ones were Guru-less, the expression is not absolutely correct.”

Aristotle was bom at Stageira (the modern Stavros) in 384 B.C.—his birth day is not known. Stageira is in the northwest Aegean on the coast of Chalcidice at the entrance to the Strymonic bay, and was an important seaport from the 6th to the 2nd century B.C. Aristotle’s father Nicomachus was a famous physician who traced his ancestry back to Aesculapius and who may have been a grandson of Hippocrates; he was doctor to Amyntas II of Macedon whose court was at Pella. His mother, Phaestis, was a lady of good family in Chalcis of Euboea. Little is known of Aristotle’s brother and sister, Arimnestus and Arimneste. He was given the name of Aristotle on his tenth (naming) day (unlike Plato, who was originally named Aristocles). He was short and slender with small eyes, a high nose, a benevolent mouth and a high voice with a lisp confounding L and R. Although most energetic, his physique was far from robust. He had a poor circulation and always felt the cold, and all his life suffered from an infirmity of the stomach.

At Pella, Aristotle became a schoolmate of Philip, who was three years his junior. He was indebted to his father for a lasting interest in natural history, anatomy and medicine, and would have followed a medical career if his father had not died when he was 15. (His mother had died when he was 12). His guardian was a family friend, Proxenus, a native of Atarna, a city of Mysia in Asia Minor opposite Lesbos. Aristotle later adopted Proxenus’ son Nicanor and gave him his daughter Pythias in marriage. This illustrates a conspicuous side of his nature; he was always a loyal friend and never forgot a kindness. In his will, for example, he remembered individually all his relations and dependants, including the slaves.

In 367 B.C., when he was 17 or 18, Aristotle went to Athens to study under Plato and stayed there 20 years. Plato was over 60 and still busily teaching under the lime and sycamore avenues of the Academy or in the garden of his country villa on the road to Cephissia. Aristotle worked with tremendous zeal. At this time he used to go to sleep holding a brass ball in his hand stretched out over the side of the bed and immediately above a brass basin. When he dropped sound asleep and the muscles were fully relaxed, the ball dropped with a clang and woke him up. Then he would rise and resume his studies, judging that he had rested long enough. Plato admired the brain and diligence of his new pupil and called him ‘the intellect of the school’ and ‘the philosopher of truth’. “What a horse and what an ass I have got yoked together. Aristotle needs the curb, Xenocrates the spur”, exclaimed Plato on one occasion.

Aristotle always treated Plato with great reverence and affection, and on the latter’s death in 347 B.C. erected a commemorative altar with the inscription:

“To Plato’s fame an altar here I raise,

A man the wicked dare not even to praise.”

After Plato’s death Aristotle and Xenocrates went to Mysia and started a school. The local tyrant was Hermias, a eunuch who had started life as a banker’s clerk and had made his money through the purchase of mining property. Two old pupils of Plato had shared the fruits of their study with Hermias and in gratitude he had given them the town of Assus. Aristotle’s stay here was cut short when Hermias was murdered at the instance of Artaxerxes. Aristotle crossed to Lesbos with Pythias, a relative of Hermias, whom he married. She died after a year or two, leaving a daughter Pythias; on this occasion Aristotle commented: “Since we cannot accommodate events to our will, we surely must accommodate our will to events”.

In 342 B.C. he was summoned by Philip to act as tutor to Alexander, a boy of about 13. After a few years he withdrew to teach pupils at Mieze about 30 miles west of the capital, and in 334 B.C. he returned to Athens. Philip had by that time been assassinated and Alexander was about to set out on his Persian campaign. About this time Aristotle married Herpyllis, and they had a son Nicomachus, after whom the Ethics are named.

Aristotle did not return to the Academy, which was now under the direction of the dull Xenocrates. He acquired a deserted barrack and gymnasium of Pericles surrounded by plane trees, called the Lyceium, and organised a sort of college here. There was a regular teaching staff and a good library, and under the guidance of the polymath Aristotle, the range of studies was encyclopaedic. Teaching sessions were divided into exoteric (public afternoon lectures) and esoteric (lectures for pupils who had passed preliminary examinations). Aristotle taught here for 13 years and his school became known as the Peripatetics, probably from the name of the covered walk in the grounds (Peripatos).

After Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. Athens prepared for war against Macedon. Aristotle had to flee, and he died in the following year in Chalcis of a stomach disease. He had said he only repented of three things in his life—that he had entrusted a secret to a woman, that he had ever ridden when he could have gone on foot, and that he had lived a single day without having made his will.

Aristotle’s library and works were handed over to Theophrastus, his successor, who passed them on to his pupil Neleus. The latter took them to the Troad where he lived. His heirs were illiterate and to prevent the books falling into the hands of Attalus II of Pergamos who was collecting a magnificent library, they buried them. After lying a prey to worms and damp for 130 years, they were accidentally dug up in 90 B.C. and sold to Apellicon of Teos, a wealthy book-fancier. He restored some mutilated fragments and made copies of what had survived. After his death, Athens and the library fell into the hands of Sulla. Aristotle’s papers in this way passed to Rome in 84 B.C. where Tyrannio the grammarian, and later Adronicus of Rhodes, arranged, edited and published them after hard study. Aristotle’s early writings were intended for the general public and followed Plato fairly closely; they were widely known but only fragments now survive. The works we have are later systematic treatises, probably notes of lectures (or intended for lectures) at the Lyceium. His writings demonstrate a noble broadmindedness with a total absence of dogmatism or narrowness. His universal outlook is reflected in the incident when he was reproved for giving relief to a man well-known for his misdeeds; Aristotle replied: “I give not charity to the man, but to humanity”.

In his philosophy, Aristotle distinguishes between Form and Matter. For instance, wood (matter) arranged in a particular way is a chair (form). Form is more than shape; it is also function and essence. The shape of the chair is determined by its function i.e. something to be sat upon. To take another example, matter of a particular shape is called an ‘eye’, and because of this configuration it has the function of seeing, which is also the essence of the eye. Thus the ‘form’ of the eye is seeing. By analogy Aristotle argues that the raison d’etre of the human body, in other words its essence or ‘form,’ is the soul.

Whereas wood as matter can be moulded into the ‘form’ of a chair, wood is itself a ‘form’ of the basic elements of matter —in the same way, iron and stone would be other ‘forms’. If one pushes back far enough, one could expect to reach primal matter without form. Aristotle’s idea of the world seems to be of order and harmony gradually evolving out of chaos. At one end of the scale is original formless matter, at the other is God Who is pure Form. Matter is slowly being moulded into more and more perfect ‘forms’—in other words, it is becoming more like God and evolving towards Godhead. Man, too, must partake more and more in the divine nature as he evolves towards perfection.

One implication of Aristotle’s view is that life is purposive. Everything in the Universe is moving towards self-fulfilment which involves the actualization of the potential within it. The purpose of every acorn is to become an oak. The purpose of man is to become like God, and so long as he is moving towards God, he is fulfilling the purpose of his existence. In the Nico- machean Ethics Aristotle writes: “We must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and being mortal, of mortal things, but must so far as we can make ourselves immortal and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything”. The idea of the ‘final cause’ of the world, or the goal of life to which everything is tending, is found also in the Katha Upanishad: “The goal of which all the Vedas speak … that goal, I tell you briefly, is Om (God).”

Aristotle holds that man has an animal part of his nature which is irrational, and a divine part which is rational. The so- called ‘rational’ part (nous) is in fact much more than intellect and includes the higher intuitional faculties. The highest function of nous, according to Aristotle, is one-pointed contemplation of God. Nous corresponds more or less to the higher mind (buddhi) in Vedanta while the irrational animal part of man approximates to manas used in the sense of the lower mind. Aristotle associates the sense of individuality (ahankara), accentuated by irrational likes and dislikes (raga and dvesha), with the lower mind. To quote Bertrand Russell: “Individuality —what distinguishes one man from another—is connected with the body and the irrational soul, while the rational soul or mind is divine and impersonal. One man likes oysters, and another likes pineapples; this distinguishes between them. But when they think about the multiplication table, provided they think correctly, there is no difference between them. The irrational separates us, the rational unites us. Thus the immortality of mind or reason is not a personal immortality of separate men, but a share in God’s immortality. It does not appear that Aristotle believed in personal immortality in the sense in which it was taught by Plato and afterwards by Christianity. He believed only that, in so far as men are rational, they partake of the divine, which is immortal. It is open to man to increase the element of the divine in his nature, and to do so is the highest virtue. But if he succeeded completely, he would have ceased to exist as a separate person”. Because his doctrine has its root in duality, Aristotle stops short of the ideal of jivanmukti (liberation in life) which is its logical climax. He appears to believe that the soul can partake only so far in the divine nature and can never fully realize identity with the Supreme Being. This is in contrast to the Advaita position that the real essence of the soul is God and that this identity can be discovered when the separative existence (Jiva) is realized to be illusory.

Aristotle describes God as eternal, without parts, immovable, ceaselessly active, without any unrealized purposes to fulfil, and the highest good. The paradox of simultaneous activity and motionlessness is found also in the Is ha Upanishad and other Upanishads: “It is immovable. It appears to move … It is motionless. One, swifter than the mind. The senses cannot grasp It which outstrips them. It goes beyond the fast-running senses, though remaining motionless.” In fact Aristotle distinguishes between ‘movement’, which is a spatial change from one point to another, and ‘activity’ (e.g. seeing or thinking) which is not a spatial or temporal process but is complete at any moment and is a display of power (shakti). The ceaseless activity of God is Self-contemplation. In the Metaphysics Aristotle shows that “God must be engaged in Self-contemplation”. His line of argument is that the highest bliss is pure contemplation. Furthermore, no object of contemplation could in any way match or be as perfect as God Himself. So, as it is inconceivable that God would choose to contemplate anything other than the most perfect, He must be engaged in contemplation on Self. We are reminded of the verse in the Chandogya Upanishad: “He who loves the Self, delights in the Self, revels in the Self, rejoices in the Self—he becomes a Self-ruler; he is Lord and Master of all the worlds”.

A profound statement in the Metaphysics is: “God produces motion as being loved, but all other things move by being moved”. God causes all the movement in the Universe through being loved. The One, unmoved, is the source of all motion, drawing them as lovers are drawn by the Beloved. The implications are immense and important. Firstly, everything which attracts us and causes us to go towards it is in reality God, disguised in the object or person as it were; there is a Hindi saying “The attraction in every object is Krishna”. Secondly, it is God Who should be recognized as the source of attraction in objects and persons. In this context, “Love thy neighbour as thy Self” takes on a fresh meaning consistent with the Isha Upanishad verse: “He who sees all beings within his Self, and his Self in all beings, does not despise any creature”. Thirdly, all movement in the world is expressive of an experience, of varying degrees of imperfection, of love of God. These partial experiences are all steps which should lead ultimately to the transcendent state of pure Self-contemplation which is Love Absolute. Some schools of Yoga, especially among the Sufis, speak in the same idiom; the soul in life is engaged in a game of love with the Beloved, but even this relationship of lover- loving-Beloved turns out in the end to be a veil which has to be rent to disclose the non-dual Love Absolute.


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