There is a good piece hidden in philosopher Agnes Callard’s recent article for the New York Times about cancel culture. Unfortunately, that piece is lost in the framing device. Professor Callard makes a very good point that there is a distinction between “messaging” speech that brings with it political context and motivation and “literal” speech that allows for genuine inquiry and debate. It’s a distinction too often blurred by people of ill-will. Yet the framing device she uses concerns the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. In using that device, she does Aristotle, and her audience, a disservice.
Professor Callard relates her distinction between the forms of speech to the question, “Should we cancel Aristotle?” because of his views on slavery. She opines, rightly, that Aristotle’s views should be taken as literal speech, something that we can debate without the baggage of the 19th-century struggles to abolish the institution and the use that slavers made of Aristotle’s and other ancient defenders of slavery. Therefore, she suggests, there is no need to remove Aristotle from his position of prominence in academia and dealing with his ideas is an example of what we really mean by free speech — the practice of free inquiry.
Yet I suspect even this argument concedes too much. Professor Callard concentrates on Aristotle as a political and ethical philosopher. Yet he was so much more than that. Here is a list of his works, broken down into four categories (and excluding the works that are generally agreed to be “Pseudo-Aristotle,” works by another mistakenly attributed to him over the centuries.)
On logic and metaphysics: Categories, De Interpretatione, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics, Sophistici Elenchi, Metaphysics.
On Nature, Life, and Mind: Physics, De Caelo, De Generatione et Corruptione, Meteorlogica (unless that’s now been moved entirely into the pseudo-file), Historia Animalium (and all the other animalia works), De Anima, Parva Naturalia (itself a collection of separate works).
On Art: Rhetoric, Poetics.
Only then, finally, on Ethics and Politics: Eudemian Ethics, Nicomachean Ethics, probably the Magna Moralia, Athenaion Politeia (although likely not him, sadly), and the Politics.
Aristotle was far more than just a political and ethical philosopher. His work on logic and metaphysics was foundational to philosophical thought. Even the word “metaphysics” itself originally meant the works of Aristotle to be studied after his Physics. The Prior Analytics was the basis of logic until the early 20th century. His work on scientific understanding and animal biology are at the root of the scientific method and the life sciences. His works on art fundamentally influenced the development of theater, novels, and even the cinema (and we can only speculate on what influence the lost work on comedy would have had).
If all of Aristotle’s works on politics and ethics had been lost, this contribution would still have been enough for him to be regarded as a giant in the fields of logical philosophy, metaphysics, natural science, and aesthetics.
So why, then, would we even contemplate canceling Aristotle? Cancelation, after all, is total. There’d be no exception for the Poetics if cancelation occurred. Cancel culture, I argue, is part of a current American attack on what the Chinese revolutionaries called the Four Olds — old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas (I talk more about the terrible Chinese experience in my new book, The Socialist Temptation, released next Tuesday by Regnery.) Given his importance to Western civilization, Aristotle should be a prime target for the cultural revolutionaries.
In essence, Professor Callard has given what we might term a “vertical” argument for allowing Aristotle his place: His ethical arguments can be divorced from current ethical debates and therefore allow him his place in ethics. Yet we can see from, for instance, the attacks on the statue of medieval French king St. Louis IX in the city named after him that this argument is irrelevant. St. Louis devoted much of his life to social justice, yet also inspired the Nazis to persecute Jews, just as Aristotle inspired defenses of slavery. The purported argument against St. Louis is a “horizontal” argument — Louis’s awful treatment of Semitic peoples invalidates his work for the poor that led to his canonization and the city being named after him.
A horizontal argument requires a horizontal defense. Aristotle’s discussion of slavery, however unenlightened it may have been (and there are actually scholarly debates about that), should in no way affect our view of his logic or metaphysics or aesthetics or even his other political views. Aristotle must not be canceled because he enlightened all of us. St. Louis must not be canceled because he worked hard against the standards of the time to aid the poor, humiliating himself in so doing.
Yet, I fear, the arguments for cancelation are only purported arguments. America is a land of equality, liberty, and tradition. Cancel culture is taking aim fair and square at America’s liberal tradition in the name of, as I say in my book, a radical equality that is no equality at all. Anyone whose work underpins America’s liberal tradition is up for cancelation. That’s why we must defend Aristotle not because he was a man of his time whom we can view as an alien, but precisely because of his continuing contributions to our way of thought.