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Aristotle and the Splintering of the Modern Mind

2 weeks ago · By J.D. King · 1 Min Read

Ancient Christians, entrenched in mysticism and wonder, were basically Platonists. But on the eve of modernity, Protestants shifted toward the rationalism of Aristotle.

With this, the underlying perception of the cosmos shifted.

These differences are superbly illustrated in a Raphael fresco, The School of Athens (1510-1511). In the painting, Plato points up to the heavens, but Aristotle extends his hand outward to the world.

Plato (428-348 BC) observed an interplay between the seen and unseen. He asserted that “the supernatural was very involved in human life.”

In opposition, Aristotle (384-322 BC) concluded that natural and spiritual realms were rigidly divided. With so many enigmas, one should focus what’s discernable to the natural mind.

This Aristotelian shift, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, facilitated the acceleration of science, technology, and other integral analyses. It enabled numerous advantages, but also contributed to the disenchantment of the world.

Within the changing order, Christianity was being “desacralized.” The aesthetic, sacramental, and mystical traditions were being supplanted with a Bible-based rationalism.

Centuries later, ancient mysticism is an aberration. Communion is merely a symbol, and there are no more sacred spheres. Christians no longer look for the inexplicable within the natural order.

Theologian Peter Leithart reflects on this travesty, noting,

“By his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus began to restore the creation, a process that will be consummated with the final coming of the Kingdom. The Eucharist [communion], the Church’s memorial of the death and resurrection of Jesus, celebrates the restored creation and points to its fulfillment in the Kingdom of God.”*

Leithart continues,

“Once symbol and reality are opposed, once the sacrament is disconnected from the doctrine of creation, the unity of the world, the Church, and the Kingdom dissolves. The sacrament of the Church comes to be thought of as a miraculous intervention into an alien world, a supernatural event in a world that is governed according to mechanistic natural laws, an intrusion of the sacred in a profane world.”*

There is now a chasm between heaven and earth and no material means to cross it. From the vantage point of the ancients, the Aristotelian shift contributed to the “splintering of the modern mind.”*

*Peter J. Leithhart, “Marburg and Modernity,” First Things 19 (January 1992), 8-9.


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