Reading the Five Ways 5

Reading the Five Ways
5. Using Aristotle

AristotleAquinas is able to see his world as an intelligible one because he looks through a lens polished by certain concepts. Those concepts help him articulate the world’s intelligibility.

That is, Aquinas has learnt a set of concepts that allow him to see how one link can be connected to another link, and which therefore help him to see what was previously a pile of unconnected and heaped rings as a collection of coiled chains. He has learnt those concepts in large part from Aristotle – though they have since Aristotle’s time been through a long process of transmission that has refined and rearranged them, and Aquinas himself is by no means uncritical of his inheritance. Those refined Aristotelian concepts provide, in Aquinas’ thirteenth century, an astonishingly powerful way of asking and answering questions about the world.

Aquinas in his Five Ways uses this set of concepts to give content to his basic intuition about the intelligibility of the world. Each Way in its different idiom says: Look, here are the kinds of ways in which the world is linked together into an intelligible whole; here are some of the basic ways in which unruly facts are joined together into chains that we can grasp and tug; what happens when we follow those chains upwards?

Now, Aquinas’ context is not ours, and we no longer habitually use Aristotelian scalpels to conduct our vivisection of the world. That’s not simply a matter of ‘science’ having moved on: a lot of the concepts that we’re talking about are not, in our terms, ‘scientific’ at all: they’re metaphysical, and the ways in which metaphysics has moved on are much less obvious than the ways in which ‘science’ has moved on. Nevertheless, things have moved on, and any attempt to make contemporary sense of Aquinas’ Five Ways is bound to involve some kind of translation. That is, it is bound to involve trying to understand how his arguments worked in terms of the concepts and intellectual practices of his own day, and then see whether we can reconstruct some kind of similar argument using the concepts and intellectual practices of our own.

That’s not because Aquinas was backward, and we are not; it is because he, like us, lived in history. Anyone reading my words, or Richard Dawkins’, in 750 years time (now there’s a thought) will have to perform some similar form of translation if they want to follow and judge our arguments, and there is no way we can predict the ways in which our lines of thought will lie at a tangent to their patterns of common sense and intellectual discourse.

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