Aristotle and the Ends of the Ages

St. Paul says in 1 Cor. 10:11, “These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.” It is possible of course to interpret the “ends of the ages” and the Second Coming in another way, but St. Paul’s contemporaries probably read this text as saying that the world would end during the lifetimes of many of them. Many Christians throughout history have held a similar view, except applying it to their own time.

Aristotle believed that the world was eternal. He believed that it had existed forever, and would continue to exist forever, in much the condition it exists now, with mountains, lakes, rivers, plants, animals, and human beings. He takes note of the consequences of this position, as for example in this text from the Meteorology:

The same parts of the earth are not always moist or dry, but they change according as rivers come into existence and dry up. And so the relation of land to sea changes too and a place does not always remain land or sea throughout all time, but where there was dry land there comes to be sea, and where there is now sea, there one day comes to be dry land. But we must suppose these changes to follow some order and cycle. The principle and cause of these changes is that the interior of the earth grows an decays, like the bodies of plants and animals. Only in the case of these latter the process does not go on by parts, but each of them necessarily grows or decays as a whole, whereas it does go on by parts in the case of the earth. Here the causes are cold and heat, which increase and diminish on account of the sun and its course. It is owing to them that the parts of the earth come to have a different character, that some parts remain moist for a certain time, and then dry up and grow old, while other parts in their turn are filled with life and moisture. Now when places become drier the springs necessarily give out, and when this happens the rivers first decrease in size and then finally become dry; and when rivers change and disappear in one part and come into existence correspondingly in another, the sea must needs be affected.

Likewise, in the same book he notes that “the same opinions appear in cycles among men not once nor twice, but infinitely often.” If humanity has always existed, they must have cycled through every possible opinion, and the arts and the sciences must have existed in every conceivable state, coming to be through discovery and passing away through forgetfulness or disaster an infinite number of times.

Consequently it is impossible for Aristotle to believe that his age is the last in any special way, and yet it seems that he does so anyway, in an implicit manner. Given his opinion about the eternity of the world, he should hold that the arts and sciences of his day exist in a random incomplete state; on average each of the sciences should be about 50% of the way through its development. Instead of holding this opinion, however, in various places he seems to suggest that the arts and the sciences have basically been perfected in his day. For example, he seems to show this opinion in his history of thought in the Metaphysics. It is easier to see this by reading the whole of Book I, but there is a hint of it in statements like these:

At first he who invented any art whatever that went beyond the common perceptions of man was naturally admired by men, not only because there was something useful in the inventions, but because he was thought wise and superior to the rest. But as more arts were invented, and some were directed to the necessities of life, others to recreation, the inventors of the latter were naturally always regarded as wiser than the inventors of the former, because their branches of knowledge did not aim at utility. Hence when all such inventions were already established, the sciences which do not aim at giving pleasure or at the necessities of life were discovered, and first in the places where men first began to have leisure. This is why the mathematical arts were founded in Egypt; for there the priestly caste was allowed to be at leisure.

It is evident, then, even from what we have said before, that all men seem to seek the causes named in the Physics, and that we cannot name any beyond these; but they seek these vaguely; and though in a sense they have all been described before, in a sense they have not been described at all. For the earliest philosophy is, on all subjects, like one who lisps, since it is young and in its beginnings.

Such statements are not intrinsically inconsistent with the view that the arts and sciences have made some progress but a good deal still remains to be discovered. Nonetheless, as a whole he gives the impression that everything has been tending toward the present state of the arts and sciences as though toward completion, and it is rare to find a place where he says that some problem simply remains unsolved.

Thus one could view Aristotle’s position as suggesting implicitly that he and those of his time are the ones upon whom “the ends of the ages have come.”

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