politics and science. Aristotelian ethics is a question of habit
. There is no external transcendental truth that mustcome to be known through reason because ethics is something undertaken as a community with theunderstanding that trial and error is a viable way to ascertain what works. Most importantly, he established theidea of causation that would come to dominate until the time of Einstein. In this linear model, all phenomenahave traceable causes and operate in isolation and while we do not hold to his theory of the four causes
, wethink of events as results of their efficient causes only. Hence, we can apply reason to the natural world toelucidate an understanding of its fundamental principles based on sense data.The same tension arises in the literature of ancient Greece. In an effort to keep the discussion focused, Iwill only make reference to Euripides’ Bacchae as I feel it is the best example of the Apollo/Dionysian tension.The conflict arises when Dionysus arrives in Thebes and drives all the women into a frenzy of dance andorgiastic rituals. When Pentheus, king of Thebes, arrives on the scene he immediately starts imprisoning theecstatic women, claiming that Dionysus is an upstart god. Eventually, he captures Dionysus who tricks him intodressing in women’s clothes and brings him to the grove where the dancers have congregated. There, in a wildfury, Pentheus’ mother Agave rips him to shreds and carries his head back to Thebes. Upon realizing what shehas done she is immensely grieved and must leave the city in exile.
While Aristotle remained within theconfines of a reason-oriented worldview, Dionysus fully expresses the unconscious and insatiable nature of thefemale side of the binary. Pentheus, on the other hand, is clearly the proponent of reason as he values control,the conservation of the norm and order. As a result, he is torn to pieces by the awesome power of the frenziedrituals. The play illustrates how either extreme is dangerous in that Agave, in her passion, brings about her owndestruction just as Pentheus’ need to control the power of the unconscious literally destroys him. The truly wisecharacter in the play is the blind seer Tiresias in that he accepts the rituals but is not carried so far as to lose hishead. The play then is a call for balance as both parties are ruined by their devotion to one side of the binary.St-Augustine and St-Thomas Aquinas will keep Plato and Aristotle at the fore of the philosophicalenterprise through to the seventeenth century. It is at this time that the tension reincarnates in the form of therationalist and empiricist schools as founded by Rene Descartes and John Locke respectively. Where Descartes posited the existence of innate ideas of the mind
, Locke countered with the notion that all knowledge wasderived from sense data and that we were in essence a blank slate to be written on from birth
. The rationalistsmaintained that reason alone could lead us to truth as we must disregard sense data on the basis that it isfluctuating and therefore subject to deception. They would also posit that objective certainty was the ultimateaim and available only to those who employed reason untainted by the sensory world. This led Descartes toconclude that animals were essentially objects
, God was responsible for placing the ideas of perfection withinhim
and that the “external” world’s existence was ultimately up for grabs as all knowledge is derived from theinnate ideas of the mind
. As with Plato, fellow mathematician Descartes split the world in two and chose toretreat into the shelter of his solipsistic intellectual world. The empiricist schools represents an attempt to voicethe opposite side of the binary though it remains on the male side in that reason is still esteemed as the greatestvirtue. However, with the advent of Thomas Hobbes, for example, an echo of the Aristotelian relative ethicalquest can be heard in that he believed that citizens should cede their wills to the sovereign in an effort to create a
Euripides; translated, with an introduction and notes, by Paul Woodruff,
(Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Pub. Co.,c1998)
Discourse on Method,
Transl. and ed. By Laurence J. Lafleur (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill,1956), 22.
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Vol I
(New York: Dover, 1959), 121-122.