On Thursday, March 7, 2019, I reached a personal milestone: I finished reading the works of Aristotle.
I read them mostly from the 2 volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World that contain his works: volumes 8 and 9. Together they contain 29 books on 1,425 densely printed pages. It’s been quite a journey, one that has taken me at least 10 years.
Now I’m not sure which of his books I read first. I think it was the Poetics, a short work about poetry; I bought the Penguin Classics paperback in June 2007 and probably started reading it right away. The reason was that this book is mostly about dramaturgy, for the kind of poetry that Aristotle discusses in the most depth is tragedy: drama. He regards this as the highest form of poetry, and this book explores why that is. As a screenwriter and storyteller, I was eager to learn what this ancient thinker had to say on one of my favorite topics. And I was electrified: Aristotle’s work, short as it is—62 pages including end notes—remains the single best textbook for the dramatist and storyteller, in my opinion.
So let’s say that’s where it started. Where it ended, on March 7, was with the closing words of Book V of On the Generation of Animals, one of 5 “biological treatises” with which volume 9 of the Great Books opens. Aristotle was a significant naturalist who made a great many detailed observations of a wide array of animals. From these he tries to draw conclusions and principles–scientific theories–based on these observations.
Over the 12 years that passed between reading these 2 books, I read all the others, not continuously, but off and on. They’re not all equally good or equally well organized, but the best of Aristotle represents the best thinking ever done in the history of Western thought. And although he is an astute observer of the world and its myriad phenomena, he is at his best when he is managing the most abstract ideas. This is where he really comes into his own.
The most difficult book? For me, and I think for any normal person, it was the Prior Analytics, the work in which he sets out his theory of deductive logic. It is a detailed analysis of the structure, classification, and valid operation of syllogisms. Take it from me, it makes for some mighty dense reading.
Indeed I didn’t make it through the book; I searched for a guidebook to help me, and found an excellent one: Aristotle: Prior Analytics by Robin Smith, published in 1989. Smith (and I don’t know Smith’s gender–there’s no clue to it in the book!) provides a detailed guide to the content. I set up a binder and worked my way through the book by making detailed notes and diagrams; the notes run to 53 longhand pages.
The Prior Analytics is actually the third of 6 books in the set called the Organon or “instrument,” which set out Aristotle’s formal method of thinking and arguing. The intent is to provide the “instrument” that allows a citizen to order his thoughts and succeed at debating with his fellow citizens–a central activity of political life in a democracy. The Organon forms the core curriculum of a liberal education, that is, an education in the 3 liberal arts of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. Inspired by the vision of liberal education, I was eager to acquire one for myself–or anyway the nearest thing I could get to it–and so I was highly motivated to read these books carefully.
And so I did, filling a 3-ring binder with notes along the way. To be sure, only about a third of the binder is devoted to notes on Aristotle’s Organon; the rest is devoted to notes on Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward P. J. Corbett, a textbook for college students published in 1965; and to The Trivium by Sister Miriam Joseph, an even deeper textbook, published in 1937. Indeed, I have come to regard this latter work as the best overall text on liberal education; I see even Aristotle’s books as supplements to it.
Having now read all of Aristotle, I can say that I hold him in high regard. In this respect I’m like Mortimer J. Adler, the American philosopher who was editor of the Britannica Great Books series. He was emphatic that many of the thorny problems of philosophy were in fact solved by Aristotle; it’s just that subsequent philosophers, especially modern ones, never bothered to familiarize themselves with his work.
I can’t say that I’ve familiarized myself with Aristotle. I feel that I have been introduced to him. But, like any people who have been introduced, we are now free to get to know each other better. It’s too late for Aristotle to get to know me, but I can get to know him by referring back to his works, which I fully intend to do. Having read them, I now have a rough idea what’s in them, and can pull out the relevant volume when I want to refresh my memory.
What is the most striking, interesting, or provocative idea that I have taken away from reading Aristotle? There are several candidates, but I find that the one that keeps haunting me is his observation that the concept of equality is applicable only to quantities, and not to anything else. I think he’s right, and this thought has big implications for modern ideas about equality as it applies to people and their political and economic conditions. I have done some thinking about this and will share my thoughts in due course.
For now I want to bask in a sense of achievement, as I did after finishing reading the Greek dramatists and the works of Shakespeare. In this case, I think you’ll agree that the achievement is bigger. He exercises the mind in a way that few other writers do. But we all know that exercise is good for us.