Is Aristotle Overrated?: A look at one of the ways patriarchal systems have used Aristotle’s writings to justify male supremacy

Looking at the title of this blog some people may wonder what an Ancient Greek philosopher has to do with mental health? As it turns out, Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) has a lot to do with how westernised cultures have developed psychological theories, especially in relation to spiritually and gender. Long story short, in arguably Aristotle’s most contentious writing, Politics, he describes men’s souls as being more developed than that of women’s. He claims a man’s soul is closer to being god-like, therefore they are the more rational gender, whereas a woman’s soul is less evolved, more like the soul of an animal, therefore they are irrational beings. Hence, men dominating women has justification because this is supposedly the “natural” order of the universe. In Aristotles’ own words: 

‘Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind’

(Politics, Book 1, Part 5)

This above opinion of genders aptly sums up patriarchy. The belief of male supremacy is by no means universal across time and cultures, but it did have a stronghold in Classical Greece so it is fair to say a lot of men in antiquity assumed men were by nature superior. Conversely, many have used Aristotle’s sentiments as proof of man’s “rightful” status above women.

The name “Aristotle” has long provoked the notion that whatever was said by him is worthy of credence, especially in academic traditions. This has continued to be the case in spite of the fact it is now known Aristotle was wrong at least as often as he was right. Additionally, his obvious sexist biases, like claiming that females have less teeth than men, raise the question as to whether he has been chronically overrated? And if so why? Cynically, I wonder if, historically, patriarchal systems have overrated Aristotle simply because he doing so serves their own cause?

I’m going to skim over the finer details of systemic sexism and how it impacts the mental health of millions of people, every day. Suffice to say, Aristotle’s philosophies have been used to justify slavery and the oppression of women for a disgustingly long time. In order for the trauma culture to end, I suspect the roots of societal conditioning need to be exposed.

The Ancient Philosopher

Aristotle’s influence can not be overstated. He is praised for being an all round genius who wrote treatises on numerous subjects that cover areas of biology, physics, natural history, drama, poetry, ethics, rhetorics, politics, and metaphysics. Aristotle was one of the first “psychologists” to put his theories down in concise written format, as opposed to more traditional forms like poetry. That is if “psychology” is understood in its literal and traditional meaning of being the “study of the soul”, i.e. in Greek “psyche” is “soul” and “ology” means “study of”. It was only in the late nineteenth century that the definition of “psychology” evolved into “study of the mind” that inferred thinking, feeling, and behaviour. 

Aristotle’s psychological ideas are scattered throughout his writings, but most notably in topics dedicated to the soul, memories, the senses, and dreams (Freud was intimately familiar with Aristotle’s work, henceforth it’s no coincidence that parallels can be drawn between Freudian psychology and Aristotle, but that’s a topic best left for another time). In regards to explaining the differences between genders, Aristotle did not use empirical arguments like we know them today. In Ancient Greece, reference to soul qualities to explain phenomena was not only accepted, it was expected.

From Christian theologians through to Renaissance scholars and beyond, Aristotle’s writings have been a source of inspiration for many. In order to appreciate why this influence may be overrated it is useful to know how Aristotle’s work has been handed down through the ages. 

Background to the handing down of Aristotle’s work over the ages

Aristotle never intended for anyone to read his philosophies in the form of the manuscripts we currently have. In his lifetime, he wrote dialogues in a similar fashion to that of his teacher, Plato. There are records of these dialogues being in circulation up until the first few centuries, however, none of these have survived. 

Aristotle spent about twenty years studying under Plato at the Academy (which is credited as being the first university; that is a school which, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, taught “mathematics, dialectics, natural science, and preparation for statesmanship”). Upon Plato’s death, Aristotle left the Academy and went on to be the private tutor to Prince Alexander (later known as Alexander the Great), and from there he moved on to found his own school in Athens that was called the Lyceum. It is at the Lyceum that Aristotle left behind the copious amounts of writings that are credited to his name. These writings are presumed to be lecture notes and/or teaching resources.

Schools back in Aristotle’s day weren’t like that of today. For instance, there were no classrooms and Aristotle is known to have tirelessly walked around the outdoor campus while lecturing. There are reports of his students dutifully following his every step as well as his words of wisdom. Therefore, exactly how Aristotle used his lecture notes is not clear. 

In many respects, Aristotle’s work follows on from Plato’s and other Ancient Greek philosophers, however, the legacy of Alexander the Great is also very much intertwined with Aristotle. It is often portrayed that Alexander spread Greek thought throughout the ancient worlds, and seeing as Aristotle was his primary tutor, it’s reasonable to assume that it was Aristotle’s version of Greek thought that was circulated. However, it was not a one-way streak. Alexander also absorbed influence from the lands he conquered (Egypt through to India). In fact, Alexander’s best friend criticised him for being too influenced by the Persians, as was notable by him wearing Persian attire instead of Greek clothing. (Alexander’s response to this offence was to kill him, which apparently he had more remorse for than killing his own father, but anyway that’s not the focus of this blog.) The influence of other lands flowed through to Aristotle too, who, in particular, had access to biology specimens of plants and animals that other lovers of wisdom in Greece did not. In light of these circumstances, I can see why Aristotle was considered highly knowledgable.

To add a layer of complexity, technically, neither Aristotle or Alexander were Greeks, they were Macedonians. Calling Macedonian’s Greek is a bit like calling Austrian’s German; in both instances there is a shared language but each have different dialects, customs, politics, culture, and so forth. Referring to Aristotle or Alexander as Greek is a bit like calling Hitler German when, as any German will tell you, Hitler was Austrian.

Basically, the way history panned out, despite the Macedonian monarchy being the ones to take control over Greece, Macedonia inevitably became part of Greece, not vice versa. 

Macedonian’s takeover of Greece during Aristotle’s lifetime was a period of great tension. Ill feelings towards Macedonians resulted in Aristotle being exiled from Athens a few years prior to his death. Aristotle’s colleague, Theophrastus, succeeded him as headmaster of the Lyceum. Theophrastus kept Aristotle’s writings as part of his personal library and is credited for extending Aristotelian logic into an even more refined systematic order. Upon Theophrastus’ death Aristotle’s manuscripts were passed onto another philosopher, and so on. Aristotle’s works were preserved – sometimes in dingy, damp locations where they were exposed to moisture and mould – by a small group of philosophers for a few hundred years. During those years, Plato’s writings had a lot more public attention. By the way, Plato appears to have supported the opinion that all genders had equal soul qualities (albeit, Plato also suggested that “male” soul qualities are superior to “female” soul qualities).

In about 30 BCE, a Greek philosopher by the name of Andronicus of Rhodes published an edited version of Aristotle’s manuscripts that are the basis of what we have today. Sections that were too weather damaged were guessed to ensure no gaps in the pose. Thus, the story of Aristotle’s writings from being lecture notes through to editions that were made available to an audience beyond his school illustrates that Aristotle never intended anyone who was not a student at Lyceum to read his work. There is not even any evidence to conclude that Aristotle intended for his students or colleagues to see his writings; it may simply have been lack of foresight that he left them behind when he fled Athens.

Over the next few hundred years, versions of Aristotle’s work began being circulated in Latin and Arabic, however, Aristotle’s rise to fame was not instant. In the fourth century, Emperor Julian wrote a Hymn to the Mother of the Gods in which he records an interesting comment by the philosopher Xenarchus who said that Aristotle was absurd when he spoke about metaphysical principles, in particular, the nature of the human soul. Emperor Julian’s personal critique of Aristotle was not as harsh. He believed that if Aristotle’s work was brought into alignment with Plato’s then it had value. It is unclear from this brief reference whether Emperor Julian was referring to Aristotle’s dialogues that may have still been available or if he is referring to the published lecture notes.

Moving on into the next few hundred centuries, while most of Europe was plunged into an era commonly referred to as the “dark ages” and/or the Medieval period, Aristotle’s writings were mostly preserved by Islamic (and some Jewish) scholars. Early Christian scholars typically had more exposure to Plato, although individuals such as Saint Augustine (354 – 430), are noted for having Aristotelian influence. Augustine spent time in Persia and he studied Neoplatonism before converting to Christianity so to note Aristotle’s influence in this instance is not surprising. 

Exactly how and when more Aristotelian ideas were incorporated into Christianity is a bit fuzzy, suffice to say, that as the Medieval period evolved, Aristotle’s influence on the Church was crystallised through the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274). Aquinas, who was originally from Italy, studied in France, and was ordained in Germany, wrote a summary of Christian theology (if you can call a 4000+ page document – modern typeface, PDF format – a summary!) Aquinas’ Summa Theologica quotes Aristotle directly around 400 times. In comparison, Plato only gets mentioned about 150. 

Aquinas’ life marks a point in time when education was becoming more formalised through the establishment of universities like those that we know of today, for example the University of Paris that Aquinas attended was established 1160-1250. More crucially, another point to note is that Aquinas and the emerging universities began to have access to Aristotle’s work that had been passed down through Greco-Roman lines and works that had been preserved by Islamic scholars. Thus, rather than a broad range of subjects being covered by numerous philosophers, Aristotelian texts offered the bulk of what was considered a complete education, especially in regards to the liberal arts.

In a nutshell, education of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods was a Latinised version of Aristotelian theories treated as gospel. From Aquinas’ integrating of Aristotle’s metaphysics into Christian doctrine through to biological treaties on plants, animals, and humans, Aristotle was considered to be a genius of all time. Moreover, Aristotle’s focus on logical, rational thinking, and empirical observations were the rhetorics of justifying why his views should be accepted. From the royal palace in Spain to the clergy in Rome, and throughout the Byzantine Empire, Aristotle’s works were a stable curriculum. Having said that, only about 5% of the European population were educated (the statistics are slightly higher in Italian regions where closer to 10% of the population were educated; these places maintained more of the Roman education system than elsewhere. It was also more likely for Italian women to receive a formal education in Italy than elsewhere around Europe, that is until the witch hunts began). 

The educated were predominantly men of privilege. They were priests and anyone of noble birth who were in an elitist position. There are a few references to nuns and women in royal households studying Aristotle but they are few and far between.

As previously mentioned, in Politics Aristotle claims that men are naturally superior to women, and men who can engage with philosophical topics are naturally superior to men who have labouring occupations. Therefore, given that these concepts were standard teachings given to educated men, the system itself was maintained by insisting that women of all classes and men who worked in labouring jobs (i.e., farming, blacksmithing, and other crafts) were unsuited to education. Of course Aristotle taught these discriminating theories based on empirical observations; he observed that slaves had more muscle mass than philosophers, who supposedly had more intelligence, therefore he concluded it was only natural that the former should work on tools while the latter tell them how to do the work. 

The level of influence Aristotle had on European culture was quaintly captured by writer and poet, Dante, who echoed the sentiment that practical skills were inferior to thinking, moreover, men who used their intellect were considered to be closer to God (God = the Primal Goodness who brought mankind into existence):

‘I am referring to actions, which are regulated by political judgment, and to products, which are shaped by practical skill; all of these are subordinate to thinking as the best activity of which the Primal Goodness brought mankind into existence. This sheds light on that statement in the Politics that “men of vigorous intellect naturally rule over others”‘

(Monarchy, Book 1, part 3)

It may be deduced that, for multiple centuries, the average person had no idea who Aristotle was but nonetheless they lived within religious, political, and cultural environments that were formed around his ideas. In other words, Aristotle’s philosophies set the tone for social values, laws, and other expectation. One can only wonder how different things may have been if another philosopher or a broader range of theories were circulated. I’ve said it once, but its worth saying again, Aristotle’s influence cannot be understated and Aristotle was wrong about a lot of things. His cosmology and physics were not only accepted without question, in some cases disagreeing with Aristotelian thought could result in retributions from the Church (e.g., Galileo and Copernicus).

In some circumstances, it must have taken a lot of effort to believe Aristotle’s “wisdom” when evidence that could so easily be demonstrated as false, like both men and women have the same cranial sutures, was as easy as examining the a few skulls. With cultish belief in Aristotle being the norm, it’s not that surprising even more outlandish claims were also believed. My personal favourite in the category Aristotle’s most outlandish claims is the one about how menstruating woman could tarnish a mirror by looking simply looking at it. When I mention this one to people in conversation they usually burst out laughing. However, this was no laughing matter to devout scholars like Aquinas. Not only did he believe Aristotle was completely correct about the menstruating women and mirror theory, he followed it up by saying it proved that old ladies could damage the souls of young children simply by looking at them. Hmm, kind of reminds me of the concept of the evil eye that fuelled witch hunts … I’d like to say more about this but it’s better left for a blog of its own (see here). 

Interestingly, it was not until Aristotle’s theories were rejected that significant developments took place in science, religion, and, in turn, culture. Some people believe Aristotle held up scientific development for 2000 years, and while this may be an exaggeration, there may also be some truth in it. 

A major game changer was Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) who, in 1517 pinned his thesis to the door of a small church in Germany, thus sparking the reformation. Luther’s criticism of the Church were inevitably rejections of Aristotle’s philosophies pertaining to the nature of a human soul. Further, Luther was deeply concerned about Aristotle being taught at universities. Specifically, as reported by Robert Stan in The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Luther spoke against the decision made by the faculty of liberal arts at the University of Paris, to include all of Aristotle’s known writings in their curriculum. Whilst the Catholic Church appalled Aquinas for Christianising Aristotle and the Islamic worlds praised Averroes for Islamicising Aristotle, to Luther, Aristotle was quite simply, a pagan. Luther fell short of calling out Aristotle’s sexist attitudes, but nonetheless he was a key player in getting the ball rolling. 

Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546) is one of the first recorded academics to directly oppose Aristotle’s gender assumptions, which he eloquently did in a book titled Defence of Good Women. 

Rene Decartes (1596 – 1650) is another important character who successfully questioned Aristotle’s authority. Descartes is considered by many to be the father of modern science. An examination of his work quickly reveals why. He successfully defined the difference between philosophy and science, and in doing so turned cultural acceptance of Aristotle’s works on its head. From Descartes’ foundational work many other scholars followed, such as Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and François Poulain (1648–1723). 

However, despite the work of many dedicated scholars in search of truth, in the nineteen century, Friedrich Tiedemann (1781-1861) was still questioning why Aristotle’s biology lessons were still being taught even though it was well and truly known he was often wrong. Likewise, from a psychology and mental health perspective I wonder why Aristotle’s philosophies about the human mind, sensations, and emotions are still given credence? 

In many instances it is not a case of Aristotle’s psychology theories being taught “we believe human beings behave/think/feel in such-a-such manner because Aristotle said so” (although I have come across one university lecturer who presented a lesson in that way). Rather, once one is aware of Aristotle’s work it is clear to see the chain of influence. For instance, Freud’s psychology lecturer at the University of Vienna was a Catholic Priest called Franz Brentano; Brentano was a devout fan of Aristotle and introduced Freud to his philosophies. Is it just a coincidence that Freud divided the human mind up into two categories (the id and superego) and Aristotle referred to the soul as being divided up into two categories (the passionate soul and the rational soul)? Likewise, is it just a coincidence that Freud claimed men had more “superego” compared to women and Aristotle claimed men had more “rational soul” compared to women? I think not. And so the Aristotelian influence on psychological sciences continues in subtle ways through the credence given to individuals like Freud who come from an Aristotelian background. (I’ve written a peer-reviewed paper that can be found here that goes into more detail about negative consequences of following flawed interpretations of Ancient Greek philosophy.)

It is my humble view that the situation is nuanced by Aristotelian influence being so deeply embedded into cultures (namely those with Christian, Islamic, and Jewish heritages) that it is not recognised where certain attitudes and assumptions first came from. In order to rectify the situation, critically revisiting Aristotle’s theories and comparing them to contemporary research is a prudent step to take. Aristotle’s philosophies are a belief system and the fundamental ideology that underpins his writing needs to be recognised in order to see its potential value and harm. 

Big Picture Questions

To conclude, I firmly believe Aristotle was a great man and I find much of his work utterly fascinating. His works provide a precious insight into a particular type of thinking that existed over 2000 years ago, however, there were many other philosophies from antiquity that are also worthy of admiration and attention. For starters, the Pythagoraean and Epicurean philosophers had some great things to say about mathematics, ethics, and equality of the genders … hmm, I wonder why the 5% of the educated people in the Medieval period neglected their ideas when formalising religious doctrines and education curriculums? 

I can’t help but wonder if there is a link between systemic sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice embedded in contemporary culture that can be traced back to historical support for Aristotle’s psychology? There is probably no simple answer to such a question, but I believe there is sufficient historic evidence to support the need to consider the possibility that Aristotle has been overrated.

Closing Thoughts

While it is tempting to shame Aristotle and berate him for being an arrogant, sexist man who who used illogical premises to justify misogyny and racial discrimination, I don’t believe it is fair to do so. Ultimately, Aristotle never intended his work to be published and we have no copy of the works that he did intentionally publish. As a teacher, I feel a certain sympathy for this man who is one of the founders of my craft. I shudder at the thought that my teaching notes may be published after I’m dead and that I will be judged according to what is written on them. Never in my life have I written down word for word everything I intend to say in a class. There are always additional points, information I know so well I don’t need to make notes about in my lesson plans, and above all, I always intend to have discussions with my students to flesh out the topics further. I suspect Aristotle may have been similar, moreover, it is my understanding that he, and many other ancient philosophers, were also members of mysteria, that is mystery cults (e.g., Eleusinian Mystery School). Membership into such groups was dependent upon keeping secrets and to reveal knowledge that was considered sacred was punishable under Ancient Greek laws. Therefore, it is not far-fetched to speculate that Aristotle held beliefs that were not recorded in his lecture notes, or if they were then they were written in code. Hence, if Aristotle’s works are lecture notes, they do not give us a full picture about Aristotelian thought. In turn, subsequent ideologies and curriculums based on Aristotle’s works can be considered as products of biased interpretations, as opposed to proof that Aristotle was a genius who deserves to be given a higher rating than other ancient philosophers. 

As for the question: Is Aristotle’s work overrated? I’d say a firm yes! Ancient Greek philosophy was about debating ideas, not placing one man’s (misogynistic) opinions above all others. 

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