Liberalism vs the Aristotelian Universe

Liberalism vs the Aristotelian Universe

At the philosophical core of liberalism is a rejection of a certain vision of reality and its replacement with another, truer, vision. Liberalism rejected the broadly Aristotelian philosophy of nature which had dominated much of antiquity and the feudal era and replaced it with a mechanistic one based on the epistemology of modern science. This was initially fiercely resisted by defenders of the ancien regimes, with various scholastics and monarchists like Robert Filmer appealing to the “master of those who know” in ultimately vain efforts to hold the old order together. When it became clear that the eruption couldn’t be delayed any longer, many conservatives and reactionaries creatively responded by ditching various parts of Aristotle’s philosophy of nature. Modern conservatism emerged and thrived by appropriating and even inverting aspects of the new mechanistic universe to defend their preferred hierarchical orderings. But throughout the history of the political right there has always been a deep longing for the old vision of an orderly cosmos whose natural or even divinely ordained rankings map seamlessly onto the hierarchies of human society. 

This might seem a rather abstract height from which to begin describing a political program. But it is very important to understand this if we are to understand the deeper bases on which liberals and progressives argue for the importance of freedom and equality while many on the political right defend social stratification through appeals to “order” or “nature.”  It is also useful for understanding why conservative philosophy can have an extraordinary appeal to many in offering a vision of a meaningful cosmos in which everyone has their role to play. 

The Aristotelian universe 

For Aristotle, political inequality is ultimately justified by the natural inequality among men. The fact that some men are by nature rulers and others by nature ruled points in turn to the inequality which pervades nature as a whole: the whole as an ordered whole consists of beings of different rank.

Leo Strauss, The City and Man 

Some people may be surprised that my reference to the “Aristotelian Universe” doesn’t presuppose any particular account of what Aristotle himself argued. Aristotle developed a panoramic account of the world which, in its dignity and profundity, vindicate Dante’s famous description of him as the “Master of Those Who Know” (even if, as a pagan thinker, that wasn’t enough to earn him a ticket out of hell). Aristotle’s own positions on everything from metaphysics to politics remain subject to deserved analysis and revision, and have proven influential on everyone from ultra reactionary authors like John Finnis to radicals like Karl Marx and Michael Walzer. His virtue ethics remains a live and respectable tradition within moral philosophy and what I say has little immediate bearing on that. What I am referring to with reference to the Aristotelian universe is less the specific ontology elaborated upon in the Metaphysics and more the paradigmatic approach to nature he did so much to inspire in a variety of auspicious and inferior imitators. This paradigm proved so powerfully influential, both for intellectual and historical reasons, its modes of analysis and even grammars can seem commonsensical even in the present age. 

 The three key features of the Aristotelian universe which proved so influential and which liberalism reacted against were its metaphysical essentialism, its natural and social holism, and above all its teleological explanation of human flourishing and the good. The reason I describe them as constituting a vision of the universe is that none of these features can be understood in isolation from one another.  

Firstly, those influenced by Aristotle typically conceived of each individual entity as having an essence, as defined by those attributes it possessed which were essential to its being rather than merely accidental. Through the medieval era there were often highly sophisticated debates about what constituted the essence of a thing, particularly human beings: was it simply the soul, or was the body essential as well (Thomas Aquinas famously argued for a middle position). Whatever one’s thought, the attraction of essentialism lies in its ontological specificity and permanency, and the language still frequently turns up in our culture, for instance in debates about whether biological sex is an essential feature of an individual, or whether it can be changed. 

Secondly, Aristotelians held that nature can be conceived as an organic whole—the “genesis of growing things” as defined in the Metaphysicswhich each individual entity participated in. Aristotle saw the whole as something constituted by its parts, but also possessing characteristics over and above them. Within the whole each (or at least most) individual entities played an essential but by no means equally important role.  

This brings me to the third and arguably most important feature of the Aristotelian universe (from a political standpoint at least) which is its teleological conception of flourishing. For Aristotelians, the telos can be defined as the end set by nature and/or God to which something aspires. Put more technically the telos of an individual entity is to realize the potential intrinsic to its essence, and to the extent it does this well it may flourish independently and simultaneously enrich the whole. Those which do not do this well become corrupted and simultaneously corrupt the whole, which can compound and lead to irrevocable decay on a wide scale. Aristotle was the son of a doctor and was consequently fond of medical metaphors, and he consistently described the relations between the functioning organs and the body as an analog to that between individual things in nature and nature as a whole. Importantly Aristotle ascribed teleological ends to both natural entities and human beings, and much of his virtue ethics is concerned with humanity achieving its proper end of eudaimonia through living well. 

Just as important as these three features was what we would now characterize as the complete synthesis of facticity and normativity in the Aritotelian language, in many ways so foreign to our modern sensibility and in many others still an indelible feature of our culture. What I mean by this is that for Aristotle, nature was good and to fulfill our teleological role within it was also good. In the hands of many of his Christian and Islamic interpreters, this was given an even more sublime quality. Teleological modes of conceiving and evaluating human action became connected to a religious outlook that saw the fulfillment of our telos as not just contributing to natural flourishing but dutifully playing our part in God’s divine plan. In this way of understanding the universe, existence was saturated with meaning as each individual action had a part to play in contributing to good or evil by obeying or violating natural and divine law. The loss of this sense of extreme existential significance within liberal modernity is a continuing source of nostalgia and condemnation; as John Milbank expresses in his classic Theology and Social Theory:

For Aquinas, natural law had meant transcendental equity and therefore precisely that which conjoined the particular instance of justice to the divine and eternal in the surpassing of all mere regularity of convention. But now, for modernity, natural law transcribes the sealed-off totality of nature, where eternal justice consists in the most invariable rules. These are not derived (as for Aquinas) from the inner tendencies of the Aristotelian practical reason towards the telos of the good, but rather from the purely theoretical reflections on the necessity for every creature to ensure its own self-preservation.

In other words, we go from a universe where our individual actions contributed to the realization of a divine and eternal justice to one where to be just only meant obeying those rules required to protect ourselves and pursue our desires. And there is no doubt that those who pine for this Aristotelian universe have often powerfully captured a sense of loss, often with a religious overtone of apocalyptic despair. The sublime image of a universe in which everything has a place and meaning, especially one set by a loving God who promises immortality and bliss for those who have faith and live in a state of grace, is one which even certified skeptics can find affecting. These range from Dostoevksy’s well known assertion that if “someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth” to T.S. Eliot’s depiction of modern life as a dreary wasteland so radically fallen even acts of blasphemous rebellion no longer faze us. These are undeniably affecting lamentations, and liberals would be unwise to underestimate their ongoing power to inspire converts.

Why we should happily be rid of the Aristotelian universe

But it is worth noting that these, often conservative, interpretations of liberal modernity downplay the most unpleasant feature of the Aristotelian universe, which is its stratification of society and humanity according to rigid hierarchical forms.  Aristotle’s thought is easily mobilized to naturalize and justify distinctions of rank and status in society. It naturalized them by characterizing society as an organic whole, perhaps even ordained by God, wherein each individual served a vital but by no means equally important or equally rewarded role. More importantly, these roles were conceived as inevitable and largely fixed, with a healthy or just society being one where each fulfilled their telos effectively without selfishly upsetting the social order. It justified them by describing this stratified society as not just natural, but good.

An example of this can be see in the work of John Finnis, who draws extensively on St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle in his condemnation of homosexuality. In his paper “Law, Morality, and ‘Sexual Orientation” Finnis emphatically condemns homosexuality and gay marriage, even infamously comparing it to bestiality. He claims that homosexuality (and at some points implies even pre-marital sex acts between heterosexual couples) only ever engage one’s sexual capacities for gratification, rather than the higher “intrinsically good and reasonable”  ends to which conjugal relations in heterosexual marriages aspire. This reference to intrinsic goodness is reflective of the Aristotelian universe, which is explicitly reaffirmed and defended morally and metaphysically by Finnis in his lengthy Natural Law and Natural Rights. 

The persistence of these views in a steadfastly homophobic Christian Aristotelianism is no accident. Central to the old Aristotelian mindset was the belief that to lead a life of flourishing was to fulfill a telos set by our essential nature. In his more undemocratic moments Aristotle ruminated that many or most people would either be incapable of doing so effectively, or were fit to pursue only less auspicious roles. This was foregrounded by many of his followers, who saw the stratification of society as reflecting a division of the better and worse into positions of authority and affluence worthy of their intrinsic merits. Deviations from this hierarchical chain were presented as violations of natural laws, as when Robert Filmer described the aspiration for democracy as a breach of the “divine right” of kings parallel to a patricidal rebellion against the authority of the father. As Charles Taylor put it in his excellent book Modern Social Imaginaries:

What is peculiar to our modern understanding of order stands out most clearly if we focus on how the idealizations of natural law theory differ from those that were dominant before. Premodern social imaginaries, especially those of the hierarchical type, were structured by various modes of hierarchical complementarity. These needed and complemented each other, but this didn’t mean that their relations were truly mutual, because they didn’t exist on the same level. Rather, they formed a hierarchy in which some had greater dignity and value than others…It was clear that each needed the others, but there is no doubt that we have here a descending scale of dignity; some functions were in their essence higher than others.

One of the reasons conservative and far right thinkers seek a resublimation of the universe is to provide support for forms of authority which seek to restore or replace these “modes of hierarchical complementarity.” Right wing thinkers from Edmund Burke and Thomas Carlyle through Eliot to Roger Scruton and Aleksandr Dugin often turn to aesthetic theories that promise the restoration of something like the old cosmology and sense of order and meaning provided by stable authorities. Sometimes this takes the form of a directly nostalgic appeal to the Aristotelian universe—a common trope amongst the various post-liberal movements emerging today. These projects are often quite intellectually sophisticated, though as I’ve mentioned before they fall into the same trap as Finnis through being unable and even disinterested in defending the bombastic metaphysical viewpoint on which their doctrines depend. Instead they largely rest easy in recycling moral condemnations of liberalism while leaving the materialist scientific paradigm on which its rests largely untouched.

Other reactionaries try to update the idea of a society defined by modes of hierarchical complementarity by drawing on more modern theories and languages while rejecting the egalitarian thrust of liberal modernity. A good example of this would be the social Darwinism of the 19th century, which followed antiquity in mapping the affairs of the natural world onto human society and ascribing a kind of bastardized teleological significance to the competition for survival.  The phrase “survival of the fittest” didn’t originate in the work of Darwin, but the hyper-capitalist Herbert Spencer, who saw the competitive market as a kind of sorting mechanism which allowed humankind to improve by allowing the best to rise. This of course is in fact the opposite of what Darwin had in mind when he argued that evolution concerned success at adapting to one’s environment rather than superiority, and reflects how enduring is the wish to endow nature or the market with transcendent meaning by conceiving of it as a mechanism to sort the worthy from the unworthy. In these models we see far right thinkers rejecting the teleological and holistic trappings of the old Aristotelian universe, while trying to update its defense of hierarchical complementarity and condemnation of “unnatural” lifestyles using various kinds of pseudo-scientific jargon. 

One of the defining features of modernity is a rejection of this outlook. This flowed from the scientific outlook of modernity, which increasingly proved that the model of an Aristotelian universe had major flaws to it. Far from an organic whole where each thing had an essence which it had to fulfill for the sake of all, scientific phenomena seemed to obey mechanical laws which were predictable and understandable to reason, but which served no higher purpose, or indeed any purpose at all. This created a gap between facts and values so emblematic of modern thought, as it became increasingly obvious to philosophers that any notion of justice or purpose that could motivate human action had to come from human beings themselves. It couldn’t be ascertained simply by looking at nature and trying to derive natural laws from it. As this outlook spread it began to impact our conception of society. Political society was not conceived as natural in the sense of being set by laws of nature it was our duty to fulfill. Instead political society was the free creation of contingent human wills to be administered to the advantage of all of its members. Hobbes, the first truly great modern thinker, was on the money when he described political society as entirely artificial and imposed by human beings on themselves to improve upon a natural world where life was “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” Unsurprisingly, he directly took aim at the old Aristotelian perspective from a modernist standpoint. In Leviathan he not only criticizes but ridicules those who think it is possible to sustain such a view of the universe in light of the new sciences emerging:

And I believe that scarce anything can be more absurdly said in natural philosophy than that which now is called Aristotle’s Metaphysics; nor more repugnant to government than much of that he hath said in his Politics, nor more ignorantly, than a great part of his Ethics.

Moreover, Hobbes and other proto and early liberal thinkers also recognized that this modern outlook had both emancipatory and egalitarian implications. If it turned out that there was no teleological orientation to life intrinsic to the world—at least that we could ascertain—this meant that the purposes of existence were determined by each individual for themselves. This obviously left individuals freer to decide what ends they wanted to commit themselves to, while dramatically undermining the claims of religious and political authorities to not only know but be entitled to impose their vision of the good life across society. Later liberal philosophers like Kant gave this a more eloquent expression in terms of mankind coming into the maturity of thinking for itself, and rejecting the authority of heteronomous sources of tyranny and oppression who exercised power in the name of the divine or natural law.

Of course with the advent of the quantum revolution in the 20th century we’ve seen a profound shift in the scientific basis on which early liberalism rested. The paradigm of scientific certainty on which Hobbes and Locke rested has been deeply undermined by the enduring paradoxes posed by contemporary physical theory; a fact not lost on authors like Karl Popper or Richard Rorty, who have eloquently worked to refound liberalism on an even more modest metaphysical basis in light of these problems. Whether these efforts will be successful is an important question for liberals going forward. Whatever the case, these challenges should be of little consolation to those still pining for the Aristotelian universe, as the indeterminacy and subject-engagement of something like quantum theory even further delegitimates whatever is left of its vision of nature. 


Liberalism’s rejection of the meaning-saturated, hierarchical and authoritarian Aristotelian universe came at a significant price. By rejecting the idea of an orderly cosmos where each person knew their place, liberalism opened the door to a sense of loss and even nihilism which it has never been entirely able to banish. The continual resurgence of conservative and far right movements yearning for a return to something like the old paradigm—however stamped with features of the modern—reflects this dissatisfaction. But reactionaries like Patrick Deneen are wrong in supposing that liberalism’s triumph was simply the temporary triumph of one world view over an older and better one. Liberalism’s scientific vision of the world triumphed over the teleological Aristotelian universe because the latter simply ceased to be an intellectually viable framework. Indeed its foundations have been so decimated that even its most sophisticated defenders, like Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue, have had to largely junk its metaphysics in favor of a traditionalism which is very much of this world. Almost all the attempts to restore something like the Aristotelian universe in its original purity invariably end up making what are ultimately metaphysical claims about existence turn on moral or aesthetic assertions about the human need for meaning. Alternatively, they wind up engaging in speculative apologetics unlikely to convince any but the zealots.

Moreover I think it is a mistake to assume that a rejection of the Aristotelian universe presupposes a kind of collapse of meaning that can only be restored through a return to political authoritarianism and inequality. Liberalism has never been nihilistic; it takes the quest to understand our purpose in this world with surpassing seriousness. Indeed I would argue it takes that quest far more seriously than any of its major rivals, since liberals don’t suppose that there are any readily available answers which can be found by merely ascribing to nature or religion a source of transcendent meaning. Instead the answers need to be puzzled through carefully and rationally, whether in science, philosophy or politics. The riddles of human existence cannot be arbitrarily resolved by fiat or power. 

Featured Image is Aristotle