Heine on ‘Plato’ and ‘Aristotle’

Heinrich Heine, On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1835):1

Plato and Aristotle! These are not merely two systems, they are types of two distinct human natures, which from time immemorial, under every sort of disguise, stand more or less inimically opposed. The whole medieval world in particular was riven by this conflict, which persists down to the present day, and which forms the most essential content of the history of the Christian Church. Although under other names, it is always of Plato and Aristotle that we speak. Visionary, mystical, Platonic natures disclose Christian ideas and the corresponding symbols from the fathomless depths of their souls. Practical, orderly, Aristotelian natures build out of these ideas and symbols a fixed system, a dogma and a cult. Finally the Church embraces both natures, one of them entrenched in the clergy and the other in monasticism, but both keeping up a constant feud. 

In his 1934 M.A. thesis McLuhan noted Coleridge’s remark in his table talk “that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians”2 and, shortly thereafter, he referred to ‘the’ contrast between them in discussing religion in letters to his family from Cambridge.3

But this sort of typology is useless for purposes of rigorous investigation and this for many reasons:

  • Figures like Plato and Aristotle, or Goethe and Schiller — or Shakespeare by himself — are no singulars. Like everybody — but more consciously than us mortals — they are massive conglomerates of types, whole worlds. What cannot be said to be ‘Shakespearean’?  Styling something according to such types is similar to saying of physical materials that they are ‘air’ or ‘water’ or ‘earth’ or ‘fire’. The great need is to break through such congeries to the underlying elements.
  • Further, such great figures were well aware of the type problem and considered it in various ways. While they of course exemplified psychological types like every human being at every moment, they were also the greatest theoreticians of it. It is upside down when we attempt to use them as types. Instead, they use us.
  • Since we cannot function aside from psychological type, what we take to be ‘Plato’ or ‘Aristotle’ (or ‘the whole medieval world’ or ‘the Christian Church’ or ‘the clergy’ or ‘monasticism’) remains arbitrary so long as the elements of psychological being (verbal) remain undefined and uninvestigated. It was exactly such arbitrary groundlessness that Nietzsche exposed as our ‘longest error’ that would necessarily terminate in nihilism. For the cogency of anything decided by fiat depends upon the prior authority of the fiat. Can the truth and reality of the fiat of arbitrary will be certified by — the fiat of arbitrary will?
  • As has been exposed by centuries of consideration of the ‘interior landscape’, it is not less complicated than the exterior one. No human activity exemplifies a single type over time (or even at any moment?) any more than a sample of physical material ever exemplifies a single element.  Here, too, it may be expected that compound complexes are the invariable rule and that these are as subject to dynamic change as any weather system or the body of any plant or animal. Even if ‘Plato’ and ‘Aristotle’ were in fact “two distinct human natures” (which of course they are not), the question of the dynamics of these types would remain. As can be seen in chemistry (or any science), elements by themselves explain little or nothing: it is equally important to understand the valence of their relations.4 
  1.  Jung used this passage from Heine as the epigraph for Psychological Types.
  2. See On the “necessary conjoint” of Platonists and Aristotelians.
  3. See McLuhan’s realism 5: Cambridge 1934-1935.
  4. The elements of any language might be taken as the always limited number of phonemes used by it in the construction of its meaningful sounds (like words, but not only words). Grammar is the consideration of how those sounds are compounded into complexes (like conjugations or sentences) carrying meaning. Comparative grammar is, of course, much more revealing than comparative phonetics.