Thursday, June 18, 2009

"The Dream of Reason" Part II: - Aristotle, Acquinas, and Justice Alito: Adding Sophist Sotomayor to U.S.Supreme Court - by Judy Joyce


Former Economist magazine Executive Editor Anthony Gottlieb's book, The Dream of Reason, reviews most of Western Civilization philosophical thought. Dream reminds the reader that by the time Rome conquered Greece, Greek philosophy had already begun assimilating into Middle Eastern Muslim and Far Eastern Asian thought.

However, the way in which the works of the Greeks were applied in those cultures was quite different from the Roman use. That difference is a topic for future exploration. The earlier Prose and Pale Ale article “The Dream of Reason: From Socrates to Sotomayor" establishes that Gottlieb's analysis of Greek Philosophy and Greco-Roman politics emphasizes that the Greek influence can not be underestimated. An analysis of legal thought or Jurisprudence, Gottlieb points out can be followed too.

Jurisprudence as a Theme

The same earlier review of Gottlieb's book, took note of the leading role of the Greek thinkers Socrates (Questioner), Plato (Creative Thinker), and Aristotle (Ultimate Academic). Each was a student of the one who went before. It was Plato who went to great lengths to distinguish Socrates from his philosophical “competition” at the time - Sophists.

In the conversation as between Socrates and Protagorus, a Sophist, it is possible to site Plato's Dialogues as definitive on the subject. Plato contrived a discussion between the two philosophers to indicate points of general disagreement. Using wind as an example Plato represents Socrates as an objective thinker stepping outside his own notions about things and being more like a scientist. Plato represents Sophists as those who alter definitions of things based on individual experience.

In this way, when Socrates and Protagoras discuss two men imagined to face the wind - the one man being cold and the other being comfortable - Socrates uses objective inquiry such as wind temperature and velocity perhaps to assess which man was experiencing that most in line with facts and evidence. Protagorus, relying on individual experience, would have to represent that the wind was both chillingly cold and comfortably moderate at the same time. This is the only explanation of the wind's effect that can honor each individuals experience.

In other words, for the Sophist, one can think and believe what he wants to think and believe and the other the opposite. Sort of "I'm okay - you're okay" expression a few decades ago.

Thus, the term Relativism arises in this day and age as a modern form of Sophistry. Every definition of all things is dependent on the personal experience of each. From this, Gottlieb asks whose experience will then be adjudged to be the measure of all things?

Pointing to William James as a American Sophist, the reader learns James was the psychologist most responsible for pointing out that Relativism is the Sophists way. James morphed Sophistry into Relativism.

Going further, the theory can be extended to include that an individual experience can be turned over to a group definition if it is pragmatic (useful) to do so. Thus, what is useful is good. (Prose and Pale Ale note: this is also called Utilitarianism.)

Socrates argues that the only good is that which is true. Truth is a higher value than usefulness in the Socratic\Platotonic way of looking at
life. Protagorus, the Sophist, argues that what is useful is the higher good for daily living.

Using a Jurisprudential Theme, the Prose and Pale Ale earlier review pointed out different quotes from O'Connor and Sotomayor about the Administration of Justice in this post-modern age.

So it is that Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor remarking that a wise old woman and a wise old man would likely come to the same legal conclusion in the proper Administration of Justice, she would be identified as a Socratic
thinker. O'Connor would be the one who believes the truth is the same for everybody.

Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, addressed the same issue as one in which she believes a Latino woman with her unique life experiences would be a better judge of what is legal than a white male would. Sotomayor, relying on personal experiences, would be identified as a Sophist.


Honorable Samuel Alito was U.S.Senate approved as the latest Supreme Court Justice since O'Connor retired and Sotomayor being considered. Alito, like Sotomayor, reportedly identified his own ethnicity as an Italian-American as part of the background he would bring to the bench. However, Alito did not allude to the effect such a background would have on his duties when undertaking the Administration of Justice.

There are some presumptive measures citizens might be able to glean about comparisons between Sotomaor's comments about background and Alito's eluding to background. These presumptions come from other elements of Alito's background and testimony before he was elevated to the bench. Is Alito more like O'Connor or Sotomayor, given her comments?

As an Italian-American, Alito comes from a culture that history and Dream recognize as having a Greco-Roman culture. The Greeks were influencing the Roman's even prior to the Battle of Carthage where the Roman's defeated them. Is it any wonder the influence of the writings of Aristotle, following in the footsteps of Socrates and Plato, had an enormous impact on Italy when the Roman's absorbed Greek learning?

Gottlieb sites an impact so great that as late as Dante (1265 -1321) and Descartes, 300 years later, both intellectuals would defer to Aristotle as the revered master of academia.

Aristotle and Scholasticism

Gottlieb reports that it is difficult to fathom all of Aristotles' accomplishments in that when setting up the research institute known as the Lyceum (335 BC):

his treatises included works on ethics, political theory, rhetoric, poetry constitutional history, theology, zoology, meteorology astronomy, physics, chemistry, scientific method, anatomy, foundations of mathematics, language, formal logic, techniques of reasoning, fallacies, sociology, comparative politics, psychology, and literary criticism. For the most part, no one had ever thought of such things before. Yet his most exceptional of all these disciplines were biology and formal logic.

Gottlieb acknowledges that by inventing the science of biology, Aristotle went unmatched in theory and findings until Darwin. Thus, Aristotle is given credit for the Academie later refined by St. Thomas Acquinas who is officially designated as a Scholastic. (Prose and Pale Ale note: modern revivals of Scholasticism are called neo-scholasticism or Thomism)

Bacon Attacks Aristotle's Scholasticism

It took until the Royal Society of Britain's Francis Bacon (1561-1626), to challenge with outright vicious attacks theories based on Scholasticism. Thus, Aristotle was placed under official challenge. Gottlieb contends that Bacon's own lack of scholarly understanding of some of Aristotle's assertions was partially responsible for false information perpetrated about Scholasticism.

In any case, Bacon did not appear to be totally familiar with Aristotle's positions within Scholasticism. Because of this, Bacon overlooked the well known mindset of Aristotle and so elicited his most effective criticism of Aristotle on the theory of physics. In so doing, Bacon failed to acknowledge that even were Bacon to have his facts straight, which he didn't, Aristotle was quoted as writing about his own errors centuries earlier:

We must survey what we have already said bringing it to the test of the facts of life, and if it harmonizes with the facts, we must accept it but if it clashes with them, we must suppose it to be mere theory.

Gottlieb reminds the reader that Roman culture assimilated Plato's notion of Republic and Aristotle's notions of Scholasticism into what readers still recognize as Italian to this day. It was Relativist William James (quoted previously) who stated words to the effect that all else in Western Civilization is but a footnote to Plato (See article Dream of Reason: From Socrates to Sotomayor by Judy Joyce).

Acquinas and Scholasticism

A rather peculiar approach to covering philosophical reasoning is taken up by Gottlieb as his historical timeline approaches the era he identifies as Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. Here he breaks into a presentation that is in the style of narrative as opposed to analysis. As such, Gottlieb generalizes philosophical trends associated primarily with the spread of Christianity rather than elaborate on them. He acknowledges the impact of St. Anselm and St. Augustine on the philosophers and academie's of the day, and does express his understanding on page 396 that: the middle of the twelfth century,(that) translations of Greek, Arabic, and Jewish works of ethics, logic, medicine, astrology, alchemy, mathematics, and natural science began to flood into northern Europe. This considerably
raised the standards of debate on many subjects. Although the Latin West was still some centuries away from the point where it could claim to have overtaken the achievements of the ancients, progress of a sort was at last being made.


The new influx of translations was prompted by many things. The Christian reconquest of Arab-occupied Spain was one of the most important: it allowed easier access to Moslem culture and to the Greek flame, which that culture still tried to guard. Many Christian scholars traveled to Spain to find books and to translate them into Latin. Some of these books were Arabic originals, others were Syriac versions of Greek works.

Thinkers such as St. Thomas Acquinas set about the daunting but necessary project of trying to combine Christianity with the latest developments -that is- with Aristotelianism the teachings of Acquinas were upheld by the important theological Council of Lyon in 1274. Thomism as Acquinas synthesis came to be
known, was clearly the crowning achievement of Christian philosophizing, and was somewhat belatedly recognized as such when this modified version of Aristotelianism became the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church by papal appointment in 1879.(This was the year of Einstein's birth. The church
does not act hastily in philosophical matters Pg 398 Dream) Summa Theologica by Acquinas

Justice Alito and Acquinas

When referring to one's background as a touchstone for life experience as it applies to the Administration of Justice, Justice Alito is not only from Italian heritage but from a Roman Catholic one. Taken together, it is not difficult to infer that Justice Alito would follow an Aristotelian heritage enriched by his fellow churchman, Thomas Acquinas. This would align Samuel Alito's philosophy on the Administration of Justice more with that of Sandra Day O'Connor than with Sonia Sotomayor, a Sophist.

To be continued.....

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