Thoughts on Metaphysics Λ

Yesterday I taught book Λ of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, where he makes his famous argument in favor of the Unmoved Mover. It was apparently added to the Shimer curriculum this year, so I get to do the test run — and I’m pretty sure that trying to do it in isolation, in one class period was sub-optimal. Next time, I will add in some other materials for a preparatory session, probably mostly centered on book Θ (on potentiality).

Nonetheless, in both classes, we managed to work through the entire argument, through sheer force of will. One thing that struck me during this process was the extent to which Aristotle’s argument depends on our agreement that those moments when we really grasp something intellectually are the moments when we are most fully alive — the best moments of our lives. Needless to say, the students were skeptical and had in mind some alternatives that would make Plato and Aristotle roll over in their graves.

Another notable fact: the students largely seemed to come in with the assumption that the Unmoved Mover was closely analogous to the Christian God who actively creates and interacts with the world, etc. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Once we worked through Aristotle’s notion of beautiful or desirable objects as moving us while remaining unmoved themselves, students seemed to have an “aha moment.” Yet that argument, while intellectually satisfying, also points directly toward what is unappealling about Aristotle’s vision. Basically, you have a completely autistic God enjoying being itself in blissful ignorance of the material universe, which is endlessly trying and failing to become as awesome as the Unmoved Mover.

It’s a vision of a universe founded completely on desire, on aspiration, or, if you’re feeling less generous, on envy, and an envy that’s all the more acute once you realize not only that you can literally never, ever reach your goal but also that the person you envy does not and cannot ever know you even exist. I find the idea that intellectual satisfaction is what is best and most pleasant appealling — but not if this is where it ends up.

And it now occurs to me to wonder what difference it would make if you substituted in the orgasm as the best and most pleasant experience, as today’s cultural common sense would dictate. One student was very turned off by Aristotle’s argument and wondered how it could possibly apply to oppression and injustice, and I think she got her answer — it’s totally compatible with oppression and injustice (from our modern perspective) and even requires it insofar as he thinks that certain creatures can only reach so high. Yet privileging mind-blowing sex over intellectual highs would seem to wind up in a very similar place.

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