Re: Platonic materialism

Eric Watt Forste (
Thu, 13 Feb 1997 14:57:03 -0800

Damien Sullivan writes:
>Can anyone summarize where Aristotle falls between the Platonic
>and Democritan poles? I hope my choice of extremes at least makes

The two extremes are not very parallel to one another, because we
have tons of Platos's writings and none of Democritus's writings,
so it is difficult to compare the two. But Aristotle is something
like a reformed and corrected Plato compared to Democritus, a Plato
with the raging excesses of abstraction cut back. Based on the
little we know of Democritus, he was a good deal more radical than
either Plato or Aristotle. But they say that Democritus was the
first to claim that the Milky Way is composed of stars too dim to
resolve with the naked eye, so he was probably a pretty good
observer, and Aristotle did stress observation more than Plato did.

It's really mostly a matter of accident that Aristotle is so famous
at all. He was reputed to be a good writer, but we will never know,
because *everything* he published has been lost. The horribly dry
"books" that we have from Aristotle are all just lecture notes...
they survived because they spent several centuries in someone's
basement, instead of getting torched with all the rest of the great
classical libraries. After the Crusaders sacked Constantinople
(centuries before the Turks came and took over the charred remnants),
what was left of Greek literature was essentially a small random
sample. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the best stuff got lost,
and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Democritus turned out to be
among the best stuff. But now all we can do is ponder the fragments
(quotations in books written by lesser minds, who quoted Democritus
only to refute him by citing conventional wisdom) and wonder.

Actually, I shouldn't be too hard on old Ari. There are some parts
of the Nicomachean Ethics that I like a great deal.

Eric Watt Forste ++ ++