Aristotle: Genius Philosopher and Racist?

Aristotle: Genius Philosopher and Racist?

Did Aristotle begin the legacy of White supremacy in the western philosophical tradition?

Aristotle is known as the father of formal logic and wrote on several far reaching topics regarding philosophy from metaphysics to ethics and aesthetics. However a stain on Aristotle’s illustrious career was his belief in natural born slaves which was used centuries later to justify the enslavement of Africans. Regardless Aristotle’s On Interpretation further expounds on the functions and reasoning behind language previously explored in Categories. In On Interpretation he states that “But the mental affections themselves, of which these words are primarily signs, are the same for the whole of mankind, as are also the objects of which those affections are representations or likenesses, images, copies”. What might be meant by the term “mankind” here? Although mankind is read as a universal in Aristotle’s work he could have perceived mankind 1) as solely civilized peoples 2) as only men who are capable of walking 3) as only White men.

The Greeks were known for ethnocentric practices and the labeling of outsiders as barbarians since their speech was incomprehensible. Aristotle may have been no different. During Aristotle’s lifetime there was considerable violence and strife among the ethnic groups within Greece. This is shown in that Aristotle was persecuted and seen as an outsider among other Greeks because he was Macedonian. Therefore, unity and oneness among the civilized people of Greece against the barbarous outside forces would have personally benefited him. He holds that “Man is animal, biped, domesticated: these coalesce into one, whereas “white’, ‘man’ and ‘walking’ do not”.

By “domesticated” Aristotle may mean those that are within the Greek culture or ruled over by them. Furthermore, Aristotle notes that “As writing, so also is speech not the same for all races of men”. The unstated premise in this statement is that “all races of men” must have a written form of language. However, during this period of time on the Indian subcontinent the Bhagavad Gita and other sacred texts were passed down orally and most decentralized tribes in Africa recorded their history through word of mouth. Therefore, these particular groups don’t fit into Aristotle’s category of mankind.

Aristotle’s usage of man as a universal is very inclusive. Aristotle’s man must be able to stand upright and have two feet. Aristotle states that “But we can combine ‘animal’ and ‘biped’ and call man a two-footed animal; for these terms are not accidental”. By the phrase “these terms are not accidental” Aristotle means that all men automatically have two feet and walk on both legs. He believes these traits to be indivisible from man as a linguistic and metaphysical reality. Therefore, his universal is ableist in its lack of including those that may have been born with only one foot owing to physical deformity or lacking the ability to walk.

Aristotle’s correlates whiteness to the universal representation of mankind throughout the text. This may have been an early attempt to unify Europeans under the banner of Whiteness since Aristotle experienced ethnic discrimination within his lifetime. He even goes so far as to say that “So we cannot combine ‘white’ repeatedly with that which already contains it or call a man animal-man, for example, or two-footed man”). This implies that men are automatically White and that the term is already affixed to all men. He correlates it to “animal-man” and “two-footed man” which are two terms that Aristotle holds to be indivisible from man. Therefore, it logically holds that Aristotle’s universal mankind is White.

With these new assumptions exposed how are we to hold that Aristotle’s teachings on logic were universal? These interpretations show that Aristotle’s idea of mankind were implausible and unnecessarily restrictive. Furthermore, they shed a light on the lack of diversity in early philosophy. Aristotle’s views on man and possibly logic itself are relegated to ancient Greek men with working legs. His works make no mention of the female sex. In our modern day world it’s important not to have a limited scope in how we view mankind. As Judith Butler holds in her book Gender Troubles it’s important to see each body as an individual with it’s own drives. Therefore, the idea of a universal man with ingrained traits such as Aristotle’s may be ill received and socially irresponsible in today’s society.

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If God Is Good, Then God Must Not Be All-Powerful

This might be blasphemy, but it’s what I believe.

I believe in God. Let’s start there. I really like the idea that there is a greater power in the universe, beyond what we so far have been able to explain with science, and I believe that I have personally felt God’s presence in the world.

I’m a born-and-raised Jew, though my parents never demanded that I believe, only that I respect their traditions while I lived in their house. I decided, growing up, that I liked those traditions, and that I believed in God.

My relationship with God is, in a word, complicated. Sometimes I’m more reverent than others. I praise God some days and on others I mutter snarky comments to God that would make Tevye the Milkman proud. I go through phases where I write G-d instead of God, out of respect for the holy name. Other times – like now – I think, “God’s name isn’t actually ‘God,’ so what does it matter how I spell it in English? It’s not like he/she/they/whatever minds.”

This complicated relationship with God is pretty typical for Jews. Our patriarch Jacob is known for literally wrestling with God. Rabbis have been debating God’s laws, intentions, and even God’s very existence for over five thousand years. There are atheist Jews.

There’s an old joke about three rabbis debating a point, two trying to convince the third to change his mind. Eventually God shouts down from the heavens to say that the third rabbi is, in fact, correct. To that the two rabbis say, “Eh, it’s still just two on two.”

Recently I spent several days working at an event with a lot of motivational speakers. A recurring theme of these speakers’ presentations was that God had a plan for everyone. Some of them hedged their comments by saying that they weren’t trying to force their beliefs on anyone, and that we could call God whatever we wanted, but they maintained that God had a plan for everyone.

But that isn’t a general God concept. This is a specifically Christian concept. For Jews, God has an intent, but not necessarily a plan. God began creation, but now he’s pretty hands-off about it; it’s our job to continue the creation process and heal the world. The closest Jews get to the concept of God having a plan is the stuff we say on Yom Kippur about God inscribing people into the book of life for a new year. According to Judaism, if God has a plan – and that’s a big “if” – it’s re-written at least yearly, and we can ask for it to be altered.

A lot of Christians I’ve met in my life take comfort in the idea that God has everything planned out for them. They respond to their failures with the line, “God must have something else planned for me,” and with tragedies with the line, “God must be trying to teach me something.” Which is all well and good in my opinion for a lot of the smaller bad things that happen in the world.

But some bad things are just too big for me to understand as a part of a plan. Children get incurable cancers. Tornadoes wipe away entire communities in a single night. All over the world, all throughout history, people in power label a group as the source of all their problems and use that as reason to murder millions, and no miracle stops them.

The question of why bad things happen to good people is a question that people have been asking forever. My personal conclusion is this: God is not all-powerful.

If God is all-powerful, if God has a plan for all of us and controls everything that happens to us, and those things involve child cancer and genocide, then how could God be good?

Perhaps my brain is just too mortal and fallible to comprehend the logic of God. I certainly don’t have enough hubris to claim that I understand God’s will. But with the mind and the morals that I do have, I cannot see a completely all-powerful God who controlled everything and yet caused or allowed such things to happen as good.

I very much prefer to believe that God is good. I don’t want to believe in a cruel God. Therefore, God must not be all-powerful. God must not control everything. And I’m fine with that.

We say that humans were made in the image of God. Humans are imperfect, so God too may be imperfect. I can believe in an imperfect God. I am very happy with the idea that when bad things happen, God is watching with as much horror as we are.

That isn’t to say that God never does anything for us. As I said, I believe I have felt God’s presence. We call it b’shert – when things just work out so well there’s no way someone wasn’t pulling the strings. B’shert is leaving the house, realizing you left your cell phone, and going back in to find that you left the stove on. B’shert is the little voice in your head telling you to take a different route to work, and later you learn that there was a big accident on your normal route. B’shert is the tornado missing your house.

B’shert is God exerting influence on the world. It is not God controlling everything. It is not God following a plan. It is not God making bad things happen to good people. I do not believe that God does any of those things.

Perhaps one day, after I die, I will come face-to-face with God.

Perhaps God will say to me, “You’re wrong. I’m all-powerful, and I controlled everything, and you’re going to hell for believing incorrectly.”

To that I would reply, “Send me to hell, then. I’ll be in good company there, with the Jews, atheists, homosexuals, and everyone else you’ve arbitrarily damned. We know how to suffer together.”

Or perhaps God will say to me, “You’re wrong. I’m all-powerful, and I controlled everything. But I forgive you for not believing. Come with me to heaven.”

To that I would reply, “No. I will not go with you. You may have forgiven me, but I have not forgiven you.”

Cover Image Credit: Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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