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Aristotle and the Science of the Church

by ranfuchs (writer), CT, USA, September 05, 2010

Credit: Muli Koppel
Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), in the School of Athens: a fresco by Raphae

For nearly twelve hundred years Aristotle, against his own teachings, dominated the permitted view of the world.

(Continues from: Church and Science: the battle begins)

Once the Church assumed political power, its interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures was the only science permitted. Whenever a new philosophy was adopted, it became an inseparable part of the Holy Teachings, impossible to question or challenge.

No philosopher dominated the Holy Teachings more than the Greek philosopher Aristotle (BC 384–322): the most renowned student of Plato and the teacher of Alexander the Great. His collection of lectures, covering the entire field of knowledge known in the Mediterranean world of his day, spanned over 150 volumes. He developed the art of reasoning and logic, and his biological observations and classification of animals were far ahead of his time. For example, he classified dolphins as mammals, a classification that only in the 19th century was confirmed.

Although at first the Church forbade his teachings whether public or private (Council of Paris in 1210) in 1366 he received the Church’s full recognition, and his views became regarded as possessing an almost divine authority. This was ironic as Aristotle himself had used logic and observation to draw his conclusions, and as an advocate of debate and freethinking, he did not believe in blind obedience to authority, but rather that science grew out of curiosity and wonder, to which religious myth gave only provisional satisfaction.

Aristotle supported the geocentric model in which the earth was the center of a finite spherical universe, and all celestial bodies: the sun, moon, planets and stars circled around it in an eternal, perfectly circular motion, driven by the force of a Prime Mover. According to Aristotle, there were two distinct sets of laws, one for the earth, and the other for heaven. He dismissed Democritus idea of the atom as worthless, and instead believed that everything was made of a combination of four elements: earth, water, air and fire. The combination of these elements in each object determined how fast it would strive to reach the center of the earth – the heavier an object was, the faster it would fall. Aristotle also postulated a fifth element, ether, which he believed to be the main constituent of all heavenly bodies.

On earth, Aristotle suggested a hierarchical model he called The Great Chain of Being. It was not only a systematic method of classification, but also a scale of value – the higher an item was in the hierarchy the more it was worth. It gave organic items higher value than inorganic matter; living organisms were placed higher than planets; and within living organisms worms were at the bottom and men at the top. In Aristotle's view, the universe was ultimately perfect, which meant that the Great Chain was also perfect with no waste or duplication – each link contained exactly one species. This left no room for change or development and led to the doctrine of fixed species: if every link is occupied and none is occupied twice, no species can ever move from its original position. To do so would leave one level empty and put two species on another level.

It is easy to see why the Church adapted to Aristotle so willingly and why it eradicated any potential challenge. Aristotle’s philosophy separated the transient, corrupt earth from the perfection of the eternal heavens, and left room for the Divine and the angels beyond the outer spheres. (Some, for instance, speculated that the angels were pushing celestial bodies in their orbits.)

The Great Chain of Being was treated not only as a description of nature, but also as philosophical justification for social immobility; that is the futility of people attempting to change their status and position in society. Man, at the very center of the universe, was the crown of the creation. Christians were superior to every other man, and the Church was assigned to rule. This was a law of nature. This was the way the Church wanted it to remain.



About the Writer

ranfuchs is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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2 comments on Aristotle and the Science of the Church

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By TonyBerkman on September 06, 2010 at 01:52 am

I am not sure man has changed very much since then aside from realizing that we may not be around forever; and that we aren't the "center of the universe." Perhaps it was Aristotle's brilliance, and value of knowledge and rationale thinking that enabled him to become part of the establishment while remaining a free thinker.

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By ranfuchs on September 06, 2010 at 06:55 am

@Tony, I agree that we have not changed much. Today, just like then, when we someone says something we want to believe in, rather than dealing with the concept, we make the person an idol. Then we distort everything he or she said that we don't like.

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