Saturday, September 26, 2009

Gauthier on Aristotelian contemplation

“the contemplation of God interests Aristotle in the Ethics, if at all, only because it is the perfection of man, and it is hardly at all that he envisages it, except as perfection of man. What he seeks, is this not, as he says repeatedly (Nicomachean ethics I, 2, 1095 a 16; 4, 1096 b 34-35; 5, 1097 a 15; X, 2, 1172 b 35), a good that man can achieve by action [(un bien que l’homme puisse faire)]? This good, he showed that it consists for man in accomplishing his task as man, [a] task that is nothing other than the highest activity of man, and it is as this highest activity of man that contemplation appears (X, 7, 1177 a 12-13). Contemplation is the perfection of man because it is the activity of the intellect, which is what there is in man of the highest (1177 a 12-17), and which is man himself (1178 a 2-3). If, therefore, gazing upon [(regarder)] God makes for human happiness, this does not appear to be because what one gazes upon is God, but rather because what gazes is man, who, in this gaze [(regard)], is fulfilled [(s’achève)]. God comes into the picture [(intervient)], so to say, only indirectly, because it is necessary to the gaze that there be an object, and an object proportioned to his nature, which is divine (1177 a 15-16; b 28, 30). In this sense, Aristotelian contemplation can be only, strictly speaking, intellectual; its ambition is to realize [(achiever)] the subject that is [human] intellect, not to go beyond it in order to arrive at, beyond it, a transcendent object.
“However, even in the Nicomachean ethics itself, there appears, however incidentally, the idea that what makes contemplation the highest of [human] activities is not only the perfection of its subject, the intellect, but also the perfection of its object, God (X, 7, 1177 a 20-21). The Ethics does not insist on this aspect, which remains outside of its perspectives. But Aristotle did insist on it in the introduction to his third course on biology, a little posterior to the Nicomachean ethics. According to this celebrated text (On the parts of animals I, 5, 644 b 22-645 a 4), it is no longer from the perfection of its subject that contemplation draws its superiority. No, envisaged subjectively, the contemplation of divine realities is, qua knowledge, inferior to the knowledge that we have of the realities of our world, just as a glance that grasps by chance one whole little part of its object is inferior to a view that takes all of its aspects in at leisure. The superiority of the contemplation of divine realities it gets entirely from its object, from that object which, however, it knows so little [(mal)]. But [simply] making contact with this object is of more value than knowing exhaustively the things of this world [(d’ici-bas)]. Must we not recognize in this the affirmation of a contemplation which is no longer purely intellectual, of a kind of mystical contact (éphaptométha, 644 b 32) infinitely impoverished in the order of knowledge, but infinitely rich thanks to the object to which it unites us? It isn’t even as though there is lacking here the evocation of what, more than the flourishing of the intellect left unsatisfied, makes, in such a contemplation, for our joy: [desire,] the lancinating and amorous desire that it satisfies.
“And yet, missing from Aristotle is what is essential to what makes of Platonic contemplation a mystical contemplation: the affirmation of something beyond essence (Republic VI, 509 b 9) which, not being an intelligible, cannot be grasped by an intellectual knowledge, but only by a mystical touch (éphaptesthai, Symposium 212 a). God, for Aristotle, is not something beyond essence; he is the supreme Intelligible., and it is as supreme intelligible that contemplation makes contact with [(attaint)] him (Protreptic, fr. 14, p. 50, 20-21; Nicomachean ethics X, 7, 1177 a 20-21; cf. Metaphysics Λ, 7, 1072 a 26-27), and if even Aristotle speaks at this point of a ‘touch’, this touch remains completely intellectual: it is simply, by opposition to the judgment in which the knowledge of complex realities is handed down, the intuition of a simple reality: by calling it [a] ‘touch’, as by calling it [a] ‘gaze’, one gives expression to the simplicity of this knowledge, but does not deny that it is strictly intellectual in character (cf. Metaphysics Θ, 10, 1051 b 23-25; Λ, 7, 1072 b 21). If our intelligence knows God only this little [(mal)], this is not because it is intelligence, but on the contrary because it is not an adequate intelligence [(assez intelligence)]: the supreme Intelligible is too exalted for for lesser intelligences [(trop haut pour la moindre des intelligences)]. One could not in the final analysis, therefore, speak in Aristotle of a ‘mystical’ contemplation. Perhaps, however, one can still speak in his case of a sort of religion, [a] religion entirely intellectualistic, but yet full of fervor. For it is impossible to deny that Aristotle, when he speaks of the contemplation of God, speaks of it with a fervor that isn’t just the fervor of a savant burning for [(épris de)] knowledge, but the fervor of a religious mind burning for God.”

René-A. Gauthier, OP, La morale d’Aristote, Initiation philosophique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963), 102-104.

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