For all of you moms and dads who are reading Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World with your kids, this is fabulous self-education bridge between SOTW 1 and SOTW 2. Richard E. Rubenstein’s book Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages is wonderful refresher to anyone who read Aristotle or Plato in college, but also a good introduction to ancient philosophy for those who did not.
There are a lot of books I have enjoyed reading sitting on the toilet (lid down!) while my kids take their bath each night. This book is not one of them. You really need to be able to concentrate on the text longer than in 60 second intervals. That doesn’t mean it is a difficult read, just one that you want to fully engage in without being distracted.
The way that Rubenstein compares and contrasts Plato and Aristotle is enlightening. Bear with me, and read this little excerpt slowly enough so that it sinks in:
“In Aristotelian epochs, economic growth, political expansion, and cultural optimism color the intellectual atmosphere. People feel connected to each other and to the natural world. Confident that they can direct their emotions instead of being dominated by them they are generally comfortable with their humanity. Proud of their ability to understand how things work, they believe that they can make use of nature and improve society. The natural world seems to them vast and harmonious, populated by highly individualized people and things, but integrated, purposeful and beautiful. Aristotelian thinkers know that they will die as all nature’s creatures do, but the environment that nurtures them seems immortal, and this gives meaning to their lives. Curiosity and sociability are their characteristic virtues, egoism and complacency their most common vices.
“Platonic eras, by contrast, are filled with discomfort and longing. The source of this discomfort is a sense of contradiction dramatized by personal and social conflicts that seem all but unresolvable. Society is fractured, its potential integrity disrupted by violent strife, and this brokenness is mirrored in the souls of individuals. People feel divided against themselves –not ruled by reason but driven by uncontrollable instincts and desires. The universe as a whole may not be evil, but it is far from what it should be–far, indeed, from what in some other dimension, it truly is. Latter-day Platonists are haunted by a sense that the world people call real is, at least in part, illusory…and this is also the source of their longing. They believe that a better and truer self, society, and universe await them on the other side of some necessary transformation. Earthly life is therefore a pilgrimage, a stern quest whose pursuit generates the virtues of selflessness, endurance, and imagination. The characteristic Neoplatonic vices (the dark side of its virtues) are self-hatred, intolerance, and fanaticism.” pp 49-50
I don’t know about you, but that gives me chills when I read it. It also gives an incredible amount of perspective when you look back through history and think about the thoughts and values that shaped action. Of course, how can you not read that and wonder to yourself what type of era we live in now, or on a more personal level, what is your own fundamental belief? Are you more of an Aristotelian thinker, or are you Platonic?
I started off this post referencing Story of the World, and you just have to trust me that if your child is reading SOTW, then Aristotle’s Children is really worth your time as a parent to read. It gives you depth, perspective, clarity… you name it. The section on the relationship between Aristotle and Alexander the Great for example, is truly fascinating. Now I might just have to go back and reread the primary sources…