Funny You Should Say That! Aristotle, Syllogistically Speaking
By John Cadley
We all know Aristotle as the inventor of the syllogism, a deduction of new truths from established principles – i.e., Socrates is a man; all men are mortal. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
Now let’s try that kind of thinking on, oh, say, the economic crisis: Walter is a Wall Street banker; all Wall Street bankers are financial experts. Therefore, Walter just lost all your money.
Not quite the same thing, is it? It makes me wonder if history hasn’t gotten things mixed up. We’re told that Aristotle’s system of thought was briefly in contention with that of a Stoic named Chrysippus, and that Aristotle eventually won out. I’m not so sure. Chrysippus’s logic went like this – If it is day, it is light. But it is day, so it is light – which sounds a lot more like the kind of talk we hear today: great-sounding verbiage that circles back and bites its own behind without a new truth in sight. This is called propositional logic because it offers you a proposition. You know, like: If Socrates wants to buy a house, Socrates needs the money. But Socrates doesn’t have the money, so Socrates gets a subprime mortgage.
We are also told that Chrysippus argued about logic with such passion that he frequently became illogical, and that he actually died laughing from giving wine to his donkey and watching it try to eat a fig.
Let’s see: illogical logic from a man who partied with jackasses. Sounds like Wall Street material to me.
I’m not putting Aristotle down. This is the guy who influenced millions of minds over thousands of years, and I can’t even get my teenaged son to take out the garbage. I’m just wondering what would happen if Aristotle were around today. Let’s say I took him to Washington and said, “Hey folks, this is my friend, Aristotle, who believes that language and logic rely heavily on the copulative use of the word is. Aristotle, I’d like you to meet Bill Clinton.” Ouch.
Or if I took him to a cocktail party in Palm Beach. “Folks, let me introduce you to the author of the Law of Contradiction, which states that no assertion can be both true and false at the same time. Ari, say hello to my good friend Bernie Madoff, who made stock trades for his clients that he never made and earned them millions of dollars that they never earned.” Very ouch.
Or how about a trip to the State House in Illinois. “Honored members, how about a big Prairie State welcome for the author of Nicomachean Ethics, who wrote that politics is ethics on a grander scale and that legislators ought to stimulate people to virtue and urge them forward by the notion of the noble. Aristotle, shake hands with my man, Rod Blagojevich.” Yikes.
What would Aristotle do? I imagine him going back to his hotel room, ordering room service and trying to put it all in a syllogism. He starts with the premise upon which his entire philosophy rests:
Rational creatures behave rationally. People are rational creatures. Therefore, people behave rationally.
I see him drawing a big “X” mark through this and writing “ΣθΔΩ” in the margin, which is Greek for “not so much.”
I see him trying again. He writes: Rational creatures behave rationally. People do not behave rationally. Therefore, people are not rational creatures.
Aristotle blinks in amazement. This conclusion cracks the very foundations of thinking. It can’t be true. After all, he – Aristotle – is a person and he behaves rationally. Well... most of the time. There was that incident when Chrysippus heckled him at the Lyceum and he retaliated by nailing Chrysippus with a spitball. Not a particularly rational act from the greatest thinker of the Western world. But the guy had it coming.
Aristotle thinks of other people he considers rational. They don’t go around saying black is white and two plus two equals five. Yet the world is a complete mess precisely because of irrational thinking. What’s going on?
He writes again: Rational creatures behave rationally – except when they don’t. People are rational creatures, except when they’re irrational. Therefore, people are people, except when they’re not.
Things are going south. His syllogism has resulted in a blatant contradiction, which is impossible. But there it is. Finally, Aristotle has no choice but to write:
People are rational contradictions. A rational contradiction cancels itself out. Therefore, people are impossible.
Considering all the impossible people he knew, Aristotle can only agree.
John Cadley is an advertising copywriter in Syracuse, New York. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org