Aristotelian Interpretations
by Fran O’Rourke.
Irish Academic Press, 2016.
Hardcover, 376 pages, $75.


“The power of symbolic signification is possible only because the human mind has an unlimited openness to the entirety of reality, and can thus create a connection between any two entities. Aristotle expresses this openness in the De Anima when he states: ‘The soul is, in a sense, all things.’ The mind has the ability to intentionally receive any reality in mental form and intentionally fabricate countless modalities of meaning. The mind, he states, can become everything and make everything.”[1]

“To accept that we have a genetic propensity to behave morally does not yet explain why we are obliged to act morally. Applying Aquinas’ comment on the individual nature of knowledge (hic homo intelligit), we may affirm: hic homo deliberat et agit. Moral action is a matter of personal motivation, resolve, action, responsibility, and consequence. It requires a sense of personal identity and continued moral commitment over time. The center of moral behavior is the individual person, consciously aware of herself or himself as motivated for individual reasons, and aware of the responsibilities and consequences attending on one’s actions.”[2]

—Fran O’Rourke, Aristotelian interpretations

Liberal education means insight into what things are, into the truth of things, and into how they fit together, how and why they act. The word “liberal” in “liberal education” means freedom from ignorance, coercion, and vice in order to discover the whole of reality. It never properly means doing or thinking as we please with no relation to reality, including our own nature. The best way to acquire a “liberal education” today might well be simply to imitate James Joyce’s early 1900s sojourns in Paris. There, as Fran O’Rourke recounts, Joyce set himself down in the Bibliothèque de Sainte-Geneviève to read a French translation of most of the works of Aristotle. He had already begun reading Aristotle in his earlier academic life in Ireland.

Of course, today nothing more countercultural could be imagined than a “liberal education” consisting of a careful reading and rereading of Aristotle to understand both present and past times and minds. And yet, when we come across a writer like Fran O’Rourke, who does know his Aristotle, we begin to suspect that, just maybe, we best begin here with Aristotle, whose ostentatious rejection is often held to be the foundation of the modern world. But as Henry Veatch wrote in his incisive 1974 book on Aristotle, when this same modern world has exhausted itself in following the consequences of what happens when we reject Aristotle, it may be best to return to the sanity that always prevails when reading Aristotle.[3] This view was also that of Leo Strauss, who understood that the recovery of our souls involved recovering the sanities that we find in Aristotle.[4]

But doesn’t the main problem in Paris today revolve around Muslim terror, not the condition of European philosophy? Yet, if we recall Avicenna, Averroes, al Ghazali, and other Muslim philosophers, we will soon see that Aristotle was very much pertinent to most of the issues that we have with Islam today. I recall hearing the famous Lebanese philosopher and politician, Charles Malik, once remarking in conversation that the main intellectual link between Islam and the West was precisely Aristotle. To understand why Islam did not, in the end, follow Aristotle is to understand why terror can be and is claimed to be a good.[5] The main problem with Islam does not concern its terror, but its ideas about truth and terror.

To read Aristotle is to begin to know how things are. And to know how and why things are is to be educated liberally.

Aristotle is himself a liberal education. He is the one who best explains to us why we seek to know things “for their own sake,” why we need to know the order of things. No one, even to this day, works his way as carefully though the whole range of reality as carefully and clearly as does Aristotle. And when other thinkers come close, it is usually because they are themselves first readers of Aristotle. To read Aristotle is to begin to know how things are. And to know how and why things are is to be educated liberally.

We cannot deal with Muslim voluntarism, itself a rejection of Aristotle, if the root of our own philosophy—as it has mostly been since the fifteenth century—is basically but another form of the same voluntarism. The initial problem with Islam is, in fact, the rejection of the central teaching of Aristotle that man is a rational animal in which will follows intellect. The will cannot create its own contents. It must first receive then from reason open to what already is. Man cannot define what is real or good apart from his knowledge of what is. Aristotle and Islam do not come up in O’Rourke’s book as Aristotle and Ireland/Europe do.[6] But still, we would not be wrong to suspect that the present problem of the soul both of Europe and of Islam is linked to each other by the rejection of what is central in Aristotle, who, more than anyone, stood at the origin of the mind of our civilization.

Fran O’Rourke is a man of many parts, even a singer of Irish folk music. He retired in 2014, after thirty-five years teaching in the philosophy department of University College, Dublin. He studied in Cologne and Vienna. His doctorate is from Leuven in Belgium. He has written on Pseudo-Dionysius, Aquinas, and James Joyce. This book, in fact, ends with a chapter on the influence of Aristotle on Joyce. The chapter serves as a summary of the work of both men. “True genius discerns both the singularity of the grand unity and the minutiae of multiplicity; for that reason it is exceedingly rare,” O’Rourke writes.

The brilliance of [Joyce’s] Ulysses is that of a universal panorama woven from the torn threads and broken shards of multifarious living; its success derives from the writer’s mastery of creative analogy. Joyce is himself proof of Aristotle’s conviction that analogy is a sign of unique genius, a natural gift that cannot be acquired. Joyce effected in art a fundamental insight gained from his study of Aristotle. (238)

Analogy and metaphor can bind all things together, even the most disparate ones. This capacity is due in large part to the mind’s ability to abstract the forms of concrete, individual things

One of the most remarkable themes in this book is how analogy and metaphor can bind all things together, even the most disparate ones. This capacity is due in large part to the mind’s ability to abstract the forms of concrete, individual things and in that spiritual form to see the relations that exist between even the most remote or unsuspected things.

For an academic book, it begins unexpectedly with a nostalgic account of the author’s family experience on the farms and lands of Ireland. At first, this introduction seems out of place. Yet it is a very poetic chapter. “I loved the wonderful landscapes of the west of Ireland, especially the mutual proximity of land and sea,” O’Rourke writes.

Coming from the flat Irish midlands, I was immediately attracted to the mountains of Connemara. Martin Heidegger once remarked that the philosopher should also be a good mountain climber. This is true not only in a vague metaphorical sense; there is a keen affinity between mountaineering and philosophy, a parallel between the physical activity of one and the spiritual activity of the other. (10)

In this passage, we already glimpse at work that analogous relation of things that enables us to understand one thing by its similarity to another.

We may be tempted to think we are pure spirits, but we are not—and it is best that we are not.

When we come to the end of this introduction to O’Rourke’s childhood memories of what he saw and did in Ireland, we begin to realize that what he is really doing is to introduce us to the world that Aristotle saw, not in Ireland, of course, but in Macedonia or any place where nature, human and otherwise, presents itself for us to observe it, to behold it, to think about it, what it is. All the way through this book, we are conscious of the fact that to understand what is we cannot bypass our own individual seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching things with the faculties that are given to us by the mere and wondrous fact that we exist and exist as human beings, body and soul, our own body and our own soul. And yet, we constitute one being, one substance, one person. We may be tempted to think we are pure spirits, but we are not—and it is best that we are not.O’Rourke wisely repeats the passage in Aristotle’s Ethics that reminds us that, given a choice, no one would want to be someone else.

Aristotle covers so much. O’Rourke systematically goes through how Aristotle looks on being, the causes, our final destiny, how we know, what mind means, what soul means, why there is a “First Mover” who moves by thought thinking itself. “Existence is naturally desirable; to be happy is to actualize human existence in the best possible manner” (86). We “actualize” our existence by living it. But as human beings existence is not just brought to its perfection automatically or by some outside agent, however much we depend on the cosmos and its origins for what we are initially. I was particularly struck by O’Rourke’s awareness that the drama of existence itself is what is played out in each of our human lives. The existence of millions and billions of human beings on this planet is not actualized in some collective form or ideal. It is actualized in each existing human being.

Though we exist as individual persons, because of our knowledge and our power to act on account of it, we are not deprived of the rest of the world.

“We do not have simply a vague desire for the fact of being,” O’Rourke writes. “Our happiness derives from the awareness of our own life as good; each man’s existence is desirable for himself.… Self-awareness is a certainty; it is concomitant self-awareness of ourselves in our knowing the world and as agents within the world” (86). Though we exist as individual persons, because of our knowledge and our power to act on account of it, we are not deprived of the rest of the world.Through knowing, we can become what is not ourselves without changing what is not ourselves. This fact is basically why it is all right to be a single, relatively insignificant human being. We desire our own existence, but this existence opens out onto all that is wherein we self-actualize ourselves in terms of our chosen relation to the good that is there and that we come to know, to accept or reject.

The chapters on the ethics and politics of Aristotle are very good. But in reading them, we are conscious of the fact that without that to which Aristotle has argued in his metaphysics, physics, De Anima, and logic, we will not catch just how ethics and politics fit into the whole—why man is such a unique being in the universe. Aristotle says that “If man were the highest being, politics would be the highest science.” But since he is not the highest being, his own highest practical science is politics. But this politics, at its best, is itself ordered to what is higher than man. He is ordered to what is higher through his own soul as it exists in his own personal being.

This ordering is the ultimate source of his dignity and why politics is ultimately limited, by the good, by the Socratic principle that it is never right, for anyone, including the statesman, to do wrong. “The city came into being that man might be able to live, but continues to exist that he may live well” (124). The living well includes all the practical and theoretical things that can manifest what it means to be mortal in this world. The common good means the effort to activation of all the goods man in his variety can bring forth in this world.

When politics has come to be what it ought to be, it turns us finally not to the practical life of this world but indirectly to the contemplative life, to our wonder about what it is all about and how to articulate what we can know about the highest things, even if, as Aristotle also said in the last book of the Ethics, it is small in comparison to other, more visible practical things. “There is ambivalence at the heart of wonder. It is not simply the absence of knowledge, but a knowledge that there is something beyond its reach. This finds its explanation in Aristotle’s distinction between what is intelligible in itself and what is evident to us” (32). We realize that we are limited beings with a power of mind that is capax omnium, capable of knowing all that is. Thus we must grant that “the intelligibility of the real far exceeds our understanding.” It is this realization that is no doubt the primary natural reason why something like a divine revelation might just be both possible and even actual.[7] It also explains the “restless hearts” that we so readily associate with Augustine.

“Truth is the affirmation of reality as it is; in so far as something is, it necessarily is; in so far as a judgment is true, it is necessarily true. Truth has an absolute and necessary quality deriving from the unconditional character of existence itself. Once being is, it cannot not be: in so far as an assertion is true, it is true for all time” (91). The contemplative order—beyond politics but not bypassing it—and its relation to the virtues is the proper locus of the truth to which the mind is open. Truth is concerned with the things that are, with their affirmation. The practical world is filled with things made, spoken, sung, tasted, with the things that result from our capacity to imitate things, to find out how they work, what they are. The things that are and the things made need not be antagonistic to each other, though they can be when used by men out of their proper order.

O’Rourke, again, is fascinated with the relation of things to each other. He even catches Aristotle’s oft-quoted remark about the relation of humor to intelligence:

Most witty sayings, according to Aristotle, derive from metaphor and beguile the listener in advance: expecting something else, his surprise is all the greater. His mind seems to say, according to Aristotle, “How true, but I missed it.” Such discovery provides the pleasure of easy and rapid learning. (116)

Laughter is a sign, a hint that the universe reveals ultimately a joy that is both expected and unexpected.

We learn by distinguishing one thing from another, by recognizing that this thing is not that thing. We name things; sometimes very different things have the same name. There are many languages that name the same thing differently. Laughter is a sign, a hint that the universe reveals ultimately a joy that is both expected and unexpected. This truth was the marvelous point on which Chesterton ended his Orthodoxy. The possibility of wit, of humor, relates to the fact that we can hold in our spiritual souls at the same time words with different meanings, experiences with different understandings about what they are. The simultaneous seeing of all these possibilities makes us laugh.

The subject of wit and laughter again brings up a refrain in O’Rourke’s understanding of Aristotle that gets to the core of things. Aristotle’s view of the cosmos is that ultimately it is coherent. “Nature is inherently coherent; it is not, as he expresses it, a ‘series of episodes’ like a badly constructed tragedy. The perception of the world as an interrelated wickerwork of substances and causes gives foundation to the conviction that the cosmos is essentially and integrally united.” When we read these words, we are not reading the words of an astronaut or an astronomer. What we are reading are the words that flow out of Aristotle, who already sensed and understood how and why things fit together. What follows in line of our true knowledge is not something that Aristotle would not have recognized, but something that he argued to be the case all along.

In conclusion, let me return to the two initial citations that are found at the beginning of these reflections. The first concerns the mind that is found in each member our kind. It is because we have minds that we can worry about, wonder about, what is out there, what is not ourselves. And we can not only pay attention to it, but we can see its diversity and its unities. But we know with our mind not only what is not ourselves, but also the possibility that we can change, reshape many things. We even suspect that we can and should use things that are just there through no contribution of our own. Indeed, it suggests that the uninhabited world was in fact meant to be inhabited. It was meant to provide a place for a being that knew and acted. In so doing, it revealed his soul.

It is not the species man that thinks and acts, but its individual members, Socrates, Mary, and Henry.

The second citation concerns the fact that it is not the species man that thinks and acts, but its individual members, Socrates, Mary, and Henry. Human life exists in the form of lives of individual persons in given times and places, threescore years and ten. All such beings have talents and capacities that might differ somewhat. At bottom they know that what they do with their given span of time defines what they shall be. O’Rourke is consistent in his insistence that for Aristotle man has a soul but he is not just a soul. His senses and his mind work together to provide him with knowledge of what is not himself. “Responsibilities and consequences” do follow on our actions. These actions in turn are based on knowledge that we initially acquire from our beholding what is out there, what is not ourselves, whether it be in the Ireland of Joyce or the Macedonia of Aristotle.

When we reread Aristotle in the light of Fran O’Rourke’s “interpretations,” we quickly become aware that the most secure path we can find to a “liberal education” still begins with Plato and leads through the works of Aristotle, whether we read him in French, Greek, or Irish. Most of the reasons given about why Aristotle is out-of-date are either themselves now also “out-of-date” or were never understood with the clarity that Fran O’Rourke saw in the natural things in Ireland that led him to the wondrous things seen and recorded by Aristotle. Finally, this is where we need to begin re-evaluating what we mean by a “liberal education.”  

  1. Fran O’Rourke, Aristotelian Interpretations (Dublin: Irish Academic Press 2016), 206.
  2. Ibid, 195.
  3. Henry Veatch, Aristotle: A Contemporary Appreciation (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press 1974). See also Robert Sokolowski, The Phenomenology of the Human Person (New York: Cambridge University Press 2007).
  4.  Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1964).
  5.  See Robert Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind (Wilmington: ISI Books 2010).
  6.  See Joshua Mitchell, Tocqueville in Arabia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
  7.  See James V. Schall, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading(Washington: The Catholic University of America Press 2014).