My last post cautioned about drawing conclusions through our interpretation of an author and then imposing those conclusions as ones that the author him/herself would “obviously” have drawn. Since I want to keep the Principles for Patristics post short, I decided not to give any specific examples. Today I ran across one that was perfect enough to deserve a post in its own right. It comes from Frederick Copleston’s A History of Philosophy: Volume I: Greece and Rome – From the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus (which is a wonderful introductory text on the history of philosophy and I highly recommend it). The quote concerns Aristotle’s remark in the Metaphysics that Plato “separated” the Ideas/Forms from sensible things.
In regard to the statements of Aristotle in the Metaphysics it is as well to point out at once that Aristotle must have known perfectly well what Plato taught in the Academy and that Aristotle was no imbecile. It is absurd to speak as though Aristotle’s insufficient knowledge of contemporary mathematical developments would necessarily lead to his essentially perverting Plato’s doctrine of the Forms, at least in its non-mathematical aspects. He may or may not have fully understood Plato’s mathematical theories: it does not follow from this alone that he made an egregious blunder in his interpretation of the Platonic ontology. If Aristotle declares that Plato “separated” the Forms, we cannot pass over this statement as mere ignorant criticism. All the same, we have to be careful not to assume a priori what Aristotle meant by “separation,” and in the second place we have to inquire whether Aristotle’s criticism of the Platonic theory necessarily implies that Plato himself drew the conclusions that Aristotle attacks. It might be that some of the conclusions attacked by Aristotle were conclusions that he (Aristotle) considered to be logical consequences of the Platonic theory, although Plato may not have drawn those conclusions himself. If this were the case, then we should have to inquire whether the conclusions really did flow from Plato’s premisses.
Frederick Copleston, S. J. A History of Philosophy: Volume I: Greece and Rome – From the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus (New York: Image Books, 1993), 169-170.
Copleston here seems to have the same caution that I tried to get across in that other post. In interpreting Aristotle’s understanding of Plato, one must be careful not to assume that Plato necessarily drew the same conclusions as Aristotle did. Questions of necessity belong to philosophy; what actually happened, to history. Analogously, when trying to understand what specific Patristic authors thought, our logical conclusions of what they should have thought (based on their other statements) doesn’t necessarily mean they actually did. Any such statement otherwise should be qualified.