On Ancient and Modern Philosophy

Previously your correspondent discussed three pairs of semi-modern philosophers—Spinoza and Locke, Hegel and Kant, and Tocqueville and J.S. Mill—with the fundamental tension between the two groups being the natural and social environments.This theme suggests two more philosopher pairs, one ancient and one modern. The ancient one is the classic pair between Aristotle and Plato, while the more modern pairing is between Leo Strauss and John Rawls.

For the ancient philosophers, Aristotle was a natural scientist of his day. Viewed from the modern perspective, many of his observations and conclusions are, to say the least specious, but then again, much has been learned over the last 2000 years. What persists though is his framing of fundamental questions, his philosophical perspective that recognizes the role of natural phenomenon and that humanity gains wisdom by attempting to understand the natural world.

Plato was Aristotle’s teacher and, in contrast, primarily a social theorist. His Republic is a philosophical classic—crisp, clear, and classic. But as Plato matured, he recognized that the world is more complex, more nuanced, and less clear and crisp. Comparing the Republic to the Laws illustrates this increasing recognition of complexity and its impact on readability and philosophical satisfaction.

Leo Strauss provides a modern equivalent to Aristotle by providing a methodology to address the complexity of reality. Staussians are often described as “close reading,” which means they take the text seriously. This entails engaging in both “exegesis”—reading the text in the historical context in which it was written—and “hermeneutics”—applying that text to the modern day context. Gordon Fee describes and applies this same close reading methodology of exegesis and hermeneutics to the Holy Bible,  which mirrors the fundamental human experience of taking lessons from the past, applying them to decisions in the present, and trying to improve the future, what your correspondent calls the policy problématique.

John Rawls follows in the tradition of Plato and Bentham by offering a more crisp and clean fundamental axiom—the original position—which states that when considering a political order, one must evaluate it without knowing which position in the order one would inhabit. That is, one could theoretically support any political order so long as one was in charge, but Rawls’ original position forces one to consider inhabiting the position of a mere citizen rather than a leader. Rawls’ axiom is comparatively social, spare, and abstract compared to the complexity of the social and natural environments, but it captures something fundamental about the human experience and provides a defensible perspective for philosophical inquiry.

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