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Descartes and Aristotle on Community
David Gilbert

Imagine Rene Descartes sitting in his chair by the fire, a handy candle there for illustrations, fathering modern philosophy. He employs his method of doubt to find indubitable truths from which to act as a foundation to all his knowledge, and in the process, rejects the yieldings of history, tradition, mathematical reasoning, the testimony of others, and his senses. He’s alone, and indeed, his method requires him to be alone.

I once heard a critique of Descartes. Descartes’ method ignores a fundamental human impulse to community, and so, must not be the best way to knowledge. Why did Descartes presume to seek knowledge in isolation? Why did he suppose that divorced from others his method would be the most reliable foundation for knowledge?

Now, critiques of Descartes have been ubiquitous since the days of his meditations by the fire. Virtually every major philosopher has taken a shot at Descartes. I happen to like Descartes, in spite of the critiques and their ubiquity. But there’s something about this critique that’s got something to it. Community is noticeably absent. And what better way is there to depict modernity than the rise of individualism?

To many ancient authors, the value of community is placed at the center of life, almost put forward without argument. In Genesis, before evil is introduced through the fall, God says of man, that it is not good for man to be alone. That is, some not-good state of affairs—namely isolation, loneliness, etc.—is recognized before sin has entered the world. The corollary is that there is some intrinsic good to life and time together.

And in their own ways, Plato and Aristotle share this view of the world. For Plato, the very genre of philosophical writing is dialogue. I cherish the observation made by Dr. Reynolds that the Republic is a story of moving from “I” to “we.” And indeed, we find that after Book II, Socrates never takes the discussion any place if his discussion partners aren’t with him. With him in interest. With him in intellectual assent. With him in spirit.

At the beginning of Nicomachean Ethics, when Aristotle argues for the supreme good for humans, he includes community as a necessary ingredient. He says, “for while it is satisfactory to acquire and preserve the good even for an individual, it is finer and more divine to acquire and preserve it for a people and for cities” (1094b9-11).

Aristotle’s move from individual good to communal good is not mere assertion, but includes appeal to what it is to be human. In his language, it has to do with understanding the “function of man.” We are rational, so whatever the good of man is, it must include full exercise of our rational facilities. But we’re also social and political, and none of us, even the most contemplative, is entirely self-sufficient (1177a30-1177b2). So our full exercise of our rational facilities must include others, or we will fail everywhere we seek happiness, which is everywhere.

Descartes hopes that in the absence of other people—both living and dead— he can find an untainted path to knowledge. And yet, by removing himself from others, he has found an incomplete foundation. We must do our philosophy together. We must be in community and dialogue with others. Because, if we don’t, then we find ourselves in the not-good state of affairs that precedes the existence of sin. Aristotle and Plato, therefore, echo what God says in the Garden: it is not good for man to be alone.