Politics and Pedagogy in Aristotle's Metaphysics
Utter, Christopher Benjamin
Most scholars of Aristotle see him as disagreeing fundamentally with Plato on the character of philosophy and what philosophy can and should achieve. Some see Plato as an idealist and Aristotle as a realist; others see philosophy for Plato as essentially knowledge of ignorance, whereas for Aristotle philosophy is a system whereby we achieve systematic knowledge of the world. Recently, however, many have suggested that Aristotle and Plato agree more than they disagree—in particular, they agree that philosophy is a continuous search rather than a systematic construction. Political philosophy, as the search for the best regime, is not programmatic, therefore, but critical insofar as it shows us the flaws in any regime. The existence of the Metaphysics threatens this interpretation of Aristotle, however, because it seems to be an account of being—it implies, therefore, that Aristotle thinks we can attain wisdom, and not merely seek it.I argue, on the contrary, that Aristotle primarily intends in the Metaphysics to provoke his audience to question their intentions in pursuing the knowledge of causes the work purports to demonstrate. In asking why philosophy is a worthwhile pursuit, his audience is led back to the questions that animate the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics: what is the best life for a human being? What is it we desire most of all? Is a life devoted to political action the best life, or one devoted to contemplation—or is there a kind of philosophic life that is active? I conclude that the Metaphysics is a work of zetetic philosophy, much like that illustrated by Plato’s Socrates, the end of which is self-examination and a search for knowledge of causes that necessarily begins with an attempt to know oneself. Aristotle characterizes the study of politics as the study of what human beings hold to be noble and just—and why they hold them to be so. Insofar as the Metaphysics forces us to ask why the pursuit of philosophy is noble and just it adds to our understanding of the core political questions.
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