A QUESTION OF AUTHORITY The most read book of all time: the Bible. The most read teachers from within the Bible: Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul. The subject and reason behind all of the Apostle Paul's writings: Jesus Christ. The most influential teacher whose life most closely preceded Jesus' life: Aristotle. Both Jesus and Aristotle spent their efforts trying to teach one how to think, and consequently how one ought to live. Aristotle, Jesus, and Paul also have interesting opinions on where the control lies in ones' actions, and consequently where the control lies for the outcomes of these actions. How are the teachings of Aristotle, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul related? Do Jesus and Paul, since they follow Aristotle, support and expand on Aristotle's teachings? Or rather, do Jesus and Paul contradict, overrule if you will, Aristotle's teachings? First, let us examine how Aristotle, Paul, and Jesus advise us to live our lives, and how their philosophies differ.
Aristotle tells us, "Since, therefore, it is hard to hit the intermediate extremely accurately, the second-best tack, as they say, is to take the lesser of the evils. We shall succeed best in this by the method we describe" (1109a, 33-36). Aristotle is persuading us to "settle" merely because "it is hard to hit the intermediate extremely accurately." Well, let us look and see what Jesus teaches us about this: "But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). There is no settling for "the second-best tack" when striving for perfection. Jesus does not tell us to settle and "take the lesser of the evils," but by striving "to be perfect," it is implied that we are never to settle with any sort of evil, whether it be lesser or greater. After all, Aristotle concedes that things may become "hard," but he never admits that things may become impossible. And by taking this "second-best tack," we will "succeed best." According to Jesus, succeeding best is not what we should strive for, but we should rather strive to succeed in a perfect manner.
Aristotle tells us "Now death is most frightening of all, since it is a boundary, and when someone is dead nothing beyond it seems either good or bad for him anymore" (1115a, 27-29). Since "when someone is dead nothing beyond it seems either good or bad for him anymore," death is a "boundary," it is an "end," and we should be scared of this end state of being. The Apostle Paul could not more strongly contradict this when he says, "For to me, living is for Christ, and dying is even better" (Philippians 1:21). Paul does not see death as an end to all, but rather just an end to living. Paul sees death as a privilege and a reward. And for dying to be "even better," one must assume that things after death can still "seem" to be "good." Although Aristotle and the early Christian thought of Jesus and Paul may contradict in respect to personal goals and the after-life, it is shocking to lay them side-by-side and observe the many striking similarities. Aristotle tells us "It is not true, then, in the case of every virtue that its active exercise is pleasant; it is pleasant only insofar as we attain the end" (1117b, 16-18). If we refer to the previous paragraph, we will understand that Aristotle means that we will achieve this pleasant end during our lives, just simply after a sequence of actions that are not necessarily pleasant. Paul realizes that we often need to endure hardships and unpleasantries in order to achieve this pleasant end, the difference is that Paul sees the pleasant end most often occurring in our after-lives, through our salvation. Paul tells us that "You have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him" (Philippians 1:29). And that "What we suffer for now is nothing compared to the glory he will give us later" (Romans 8:18). Paul says that we need to endure trials and suffering with an optimistic and futuristic hope.
Aristotle tells us that, "The temperate personÃ¢ÂÂ¦finds no pleasure at all in the wrong things. He finds no intense pleasure in any [bodily pleasures], suffers no pain in their absence, and has no appetite for them, or only a moderate appetite, not to the wrong degree or at the wrong time or anything else at all of that sort" (1119a, 13-17). Although Aristotle never gives us a list of what are the right things to find pleasure in and what are the wrong things, we can draw from his above statement the right things in which we should find pleasure in are issues of the mind, and things that we shall not become, in a sense, "addicted" to. Jesus also tells us in what we should be seeking pleasure, and in where we should be investing. "Don't store up treasures here on earth, where they can be eaten by moths and get rusty, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where they will never become moth-eaten or rusty and where they will be safe from thieves. Wherever your treasure is, there your heart and thoughts will also be" (Matthew 6:19-21). Jesus puts worth in the intangible things; things that one will not exactly be able to throw over his or her shoulder or toss into a U-Haul on their way up to heaven. Like Aristotle, Jesus tells us to be more concerned with issues of the mind. I find that a lyric from the song "Seek Up," written by Dave Matthews, best summarizes this thought. I believe it is a lyric that both Aristotle and Jesus would strongly agree with. "Look at me in my fancy car, and my bank account, oh, how I wish I could take it all down into my grave, God knows I'd save and saveÃ¢ÂÂ¦but in the end, it all piles up to nothing, one big nothing at all." Aristotle and Paul also advise us similarly on generosity and giving. Aristotle tells us: "The generous personÃ¢ÂÂ¦will do this, [give], with pleasure" (1120a, 28). Paul instructs us to "not give reluctantly or in response to pressure. For God loves the person who gives with pleasure" (2 Corinthians 9:7).
When should one become angry? Aristotle instructs us that "The person who is angry at the right things and toward the right people, and also in the right way, at the right time, and for the right length of time, is praised" (1125b, 32-34). Christian doctrine believes that Jesus Christ was a perfect being, flawless and without sin in every matter, and thus he was never wrong. Therefore, we can assume that Jesus would be right in everything, including all of the thoughts and actions listed by Aristotle above. In the Bible, we have one concrete and descriptive occurrence of an angry Jesus. Jesus enters Jerusalem, and he is appalled at what is taking place in the Temple, the utmost sacred place of worship. Rather than a place of sacred worship, the Temple had become a place of greedy business. "Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the merchants and their customers. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the stalls of those selling doves. He said, 'The Scriptures declare, 'My Temple will be called a place of prayer,' but you have turned it into a den of thieves!'" (Matthew 21:12-13). Jesus gives us a wonderful example of being "angry at the right things and toward the right people, and also in the right way, at the right time, and for the right length of time." Having examined the similarities and differences in how Aristotle, Jesus, and Paul teach us to live our lives, let us examine who they believe ought to have the control of our actions and their outcomes. Aristotle says, "For we are in control of actions from the beginning to the end, when we know the particulars" (1114b, 31-32). Paul urges us to live our lives in a different manner; "Let the Holy Spirit fill and control you" (Ephesians 5:18). Aristotle says, "And so acting, when is fine, is not up to us, not acting, when it is shameful, is also up to us; and if not acting, when it is fine, is up to us, then acting, when it is shameful, is also up to us" (1113b, 9-11). Paul offers a different spin on decision-making and deliberation; "I don't understand myself at all, for I really want to do what is right, but I don't do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate. I know perfectly well that what I am doing is wrong, and my bad conscience shows that I agree that the law is good. But I can't help myself, because it is sin inside me that makes me do these evil things" (Romans 7:15-17). This passage from Romans is particularly difficult to understand, and remarkably easy to relate to. It doesn't refute what Aristotle says; Paul never says that it is not ultimately one who makes decisions for one's self, he is just explaining and acknowledging that there are strong outside forces influencing our actions. In the same way, he is encouraging one to allow a spiritual force to take over one's self and one's actions, mind you it is quite a different spiritual force. In Ephesians 5:18, Paul refers to this positively influencing force as the Holy Spirit, who, by Christian doctrine, is the third person of God.
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is adamant in proving that one can achieve the greatest good of happiness for one's self. "The things achievable by action have some end that we wish for because of itselfÃ¢ÂÂ¦clearly, this end will be the good, that is to say, the best good" (1094a, 18-19, 22-23) From a Biblical approach, due to the Original Sin that Adam and Eve brought into this world, no one can achieve happiness independently from God. Paul explains that, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), and Jesus tells us that "Only God is good" (Matthew 17:19). Aristotle believes that one can be happy by one's own efforts, but the Bible seems to disagree. Then how can we experience this goodness of God? Of all of the major religions of the world today, most have a type of leader who at one point lived as a human in this world. Of all of these leaders, Jesus Christ is the only one to have ever claimed to be God. "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking to see him? Don't you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?Ã¢ÂÂ¦Just believe that I am in the Father and that the Father is in me" (John 14:9-11). Jesus also makes the claim, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). By saying these things, Jesus is doing two important things: first, he is claiming his authority by saying that he in fact is God and that he is also "the truth," second, he is claiming that he is "the way" to salvation. Jesus is the way to happiness; a happiness so much greater, wider, and deeper than the happiness achievable by self. Jesus is claiming authority over all that have lived before him, including Aristotle. Although many of Aristotle's teachings undoubtedly foreshadow the teaching of Jesus and the teachings of the Apostle Paul (as he echoed the teachings of Jesus), at many times Jesus expands on them, and at many times he completely overrules them. When studying Aristotle and Jesus, two of the greatest thinkers and teachers of all time, one must first decide for one's self the authority one will put in each figure. If one puts them on an equal level, reading each of their teachings with equal skepticism, that person will walk away confused, and with many unsettled thoughts. However, if one accepts what Jesus claims in John 14:9-11 and John 14:6, the answers will come through quite clearly.