The strange effect on one's self-image of reading too much Aristotle.

An aesthetic aside: Aristotle believed that "the good life" consisted in physical as well as intellectual perfection, à l'Athène. Although he professed to be writing for all humankind, his criteria of human excellence were very local. Concepts of beauty, virtue, political life, and even the rules of play-writing were taken over from the Athenian society he had adopted as his own, which of course makes his eventual departure from the city all the more ironic, if not tragic.

The picture above is a bowdlerization of the famous Belvedere Apollo, a 7 ft. marble statue found in the Vatican Museum in Rome (it's actually a Roman copy of a Greek original from the fifth century B.C.). It's not Aristotle, but it portrays his concept of human nature in its highest, godlike dimensions, a splendid physical outside embodying a perfect soul within. At the right is a bust of Aristotle, of uncertain but supposedly classical origins.

As we all know, Aristotle was Plato's greatest student, which makes him the intellectual grandson of Socrates. Those interested in intellectual geneology will want to know that Aristotle went on to teach Alexander the Great, which makes Socrates a great-grandad -- assuming, of course, that one counts Alexander as an intellectual as well as the amazing conqueror of the (then-known) world.

Apparently Aristotle and Alexander stayed in touch during the latter's short but brilliant military career, but this affiliation caused Aristotle serious problems at the end of his own life. After Alexander, never a favorite of the Athenians, died in 323 B.C.E., the Athenians had a purge of those who were associated with Alexander (remember, Alexander came from the north, as did Aristotle himself). Predictably, Aristotle was indicted, but on the charge of impiety rather than treason. The charge resembled that leveled against Socrates, but Aristotle's response was much different. He simply fled Athens, which wasn't his native city anyway. You may draw your own conclusions about the reason he gave for doing so, which was that he fled "lest the Athenians sin twice against philosophy." Hmmm...

Alexander's global impact was short-lived, but not Aristotle's. He is called the Father of Biology because of his taxonomical studies; in fact, legend has it that when he died (in 322 B.C.E., a year after leaving Athens) it was because he drowned while doing biological research on marine life. (Is there a lesson here about which major you should choose?) Except for Plato, he is clearly the most influential philosopher who ever lived. In my comments on the previous chapter I pointed out the deep links between Plato and Christianity, but the links between Aristotle and Christianity are almost as deep even though it was the great Arab philosophers of the middle ages who rediscovered and imported most of Aristotle's long-lost ideas and even the physical texts into western Europe.

The story of this transmission is a fascinating one, involving library fires, bloodbaths, political maneuverings, linguistics, and lots of other cross-cultural commotion. But the short version is that Alexander was only the first of a whole litter of powerful personalities whose thought was, well, sired by Aristotle. Of these the medieval philosopher and Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas is surely the most famous. (Why do the names of everyone in this story start with "A"?) We'll learn about Aquinas in Ch. 4. But much of what we will learn will make sense only in terms of this chapter, so read it carefully.

The above portrait is Rembrandt's famous Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer (1653). It is of course more of a portrait of Rembrandt than of Aristotle (who surely didn't wear that silky Dutch burgher outfit), but if you let yourself fall into its spell you might get an idea of what Aristotle felt when he pondered the Greek tradition that he worked so hard to systematize. To really meditate on this grand picture, click on the image above and you will be transported to another site that enables you to blow it up and see such magnificent details as Aristotle's weatherbeaten face and even, if you have a good monitor, the artist's brush strokes.










Aristotle's Writings and Other Links

Unlike Plato, Aristotle was not a great stylist. Furthermore, most of the writings we have are really lecture notes assembled by his students, a fact that gives many philosophy professors pause when they see their students scribbling away during lectures.

Please visit these links. An asterisk indicates you should read it very closely. Otherwise, just take a quick look and come back later if you have time.

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