Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 11 – A Return to Aristotle (Or Did We Ever Leave?)

When I began my research by pinning notes along my hallway, I did so with an open mind, therefore, it surprised me when I observed that so many of my paths of inquiry lead back to Aristotle. 

Volumes upon volumes could be written about influential men in religion, medicine, politics, and other positions of power being guided or repelled by Aristotle’s so-called wisdom. Like a child who does not want to part with their teddy bear at night, western cultures seem to have clung to that which they have known and is familiar to them for so long. 

The tides began to change when Aristotle’s ideas were disseminated beyond the few during the 1500s. In this era three broad categories of people emerged. One being those who continued to support Aristotle’s authority, others who rejected Aristotle’s authority, and then those who explored the potential for Aristotle’s truth without giving defiant allegiance. The first category includes countless academics who followed traditions they’d been taught in places like at the University of Paris (Side note: the first university that resembles today’s structure was established in Spain by an Islamic woman, Fatima Al-Fihri). The second category includes people like Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, and Isaac Newton. 

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is most well known for his mathematical skills and his improvements to telescope lenses that enabled him to discover new stars, three moons on Jupiter, the rings on Saturn, and phases that Venus went through. Galileo’s observations supported Copernicus’ theory that the earth rotated around the sun, thereby discrediting Aristotle’s cosmology that claimed the sun and the planets rotated around earth.

From a theological perspective, Aristotle’s cosmology was arguably never meant to be a model of the actual universe. Rather, it was an occult representation of the human being that fell in line with the classical elements. According to Aristotle’s cosmology the earth (the physical body) is the centre, followed by layers of water (life-force or ether), air (soul; can be divided into further layers), fire (spirit or intellect; can be divided into further layers), and celestial fire (aesther or spirit of God). The theology, in its more expanded form, references astrology symbols (see below).

Depiction of Aristotle’s Geocentric Model.

(It’s possible that looking at Aristotle’s model as a human being is what inspired Sömmerring to look for the twelve cranial nerves.)

Source: Achilies and Aritstotle

On many levels, the situation with Galileo is curious. Did he know and understand Aristotle’s model was a theology, not literal? Is that why he put it aside and worked on observing real outer space instead? Or did Galileo, ignorant of Aristotle’s symbolism, just look out into the sky and try to learn more about it because that’s what his passion was? Why did Church leaders insist Aristotle’s model was correct, even when scientific evidence said else wise? Why was maintaining Aristotle’s authority so important to them? Was the Church committed to maintaining Aristotle authority because of its long tradition of doing so through scholastism and works by people like Aquinas that it did not want to loose face? Who in the Church knew that Aristotle’s model was a theology of the human body and who did not? The questioning could go on longer than a Catholic inquisition. However, it was the Church who ran the inquisitions, not the other way around. The bottom line was that the Church disapproved of Galileo’s work and in 1633 he was brought before an inquisition charged with heresy; to spare his life Galileo claimed he didn’t believe his own findings.

René Descartes (1596-1650) demonstrated a sound knowledge of ancient theology in relation to the classical elements: 

… we consider, in particular, the nature of the earth, and of all the bodies that are most generally found upon it, as air, water, fire, the loadstone and other minerals.

Rene Descartes, The Principles of Philosophy, 1644, p.15

Hence, it was with a full understanding of Aristotle’s theories and that of the four elements, Descartes broke away from the commonly held assumptions of earth, water, air, and fire. In doing so he came up with apparently new theories of the body, mind, and soul. Then again, upon closer inspection Descartes theorises of different types of thinking, still resonate with some ancient ideas. Plato tells us that the nature of the soul was the most debated topic among philosophers, so perhaps Descartes was just siding with theologies that differed to the Church’s appropriation of Aristotle?

Descartes famously remarked: “[if] I’m thinking, so I exist”, which isn’t too far removed from Plato’s ideas of man’s nous being a conduit that can connect him to celestial forces.

As previously mentioned, both Galileo’s and Descartes’ works were put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Isaac Newton (1643-1727) respected Descartes rejection of Aristotle and embraced Galileo’s focus on mathematics. In addition to the many scientific studies Newton did, he also had an interest in Biblical symbols. Newton took a scientific approach to the Bible and analysed scripture to identify language patterns, allegory systems, and symbols that he believed were known and applied by all prophets:

The Rule I have followed has been to compare the several mystical places of scripture where the same prophetic phrase or type is used, and to fix such a signification to that phrase as agrees best with all the places . . . and, when I had found the necessary significations, to reject all others as the offspring of luxuriant fancy, for no more significations are to be admitted for true ones than can be proved.

Isaac Newton, Royal Society, 2015, p. 524

Examples of the codes Newton worked out were: Sun = King; Moon = groups of common people referred to as wife; Darkening of celestial bodies = doom for political groups; and Dens and rocks in mountains = temples. Where Biblical texts referred to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Newton claimed it meant Spirit, Water, and Blood. Newton also theorised that somewhere early in Christianity, the writings of prophets had been forged. Specifically, he blamed Arianism and Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.

In his own lifetime, Newton did not make a grand public display of his learnings about biblical symbolism and his research into the early Church. He did, however, do his best to avoid taking priesthood vows, as was expected of men who completed a Masters degree. It could be conjectured that Newton was fortunate to have been witness to the beginnings of the unraveling of religious and educational entanglement.

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PART TWELVE: Renaissance Artists

Previous Posts

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 11 – A Return to Aristotle (Or Did We Ever Leave?)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 10 – Personal Declaration of Faith

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 9 – Christianity and Disease

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 8 – Dante Alighieri and the Virgin Mother

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 7 – Dominican Monks & Thomas Aquinas

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 6 – Social Considerations

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 5 – Christianity

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 4 – Gender and Education

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 3 – History of Education (Western Version)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 2 – Cults and the Occult

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 1 – Introduction

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 0 – Prologue

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 4 – Gender and Education

In the humble beginnings of education, people who engaged in active learning were called philosophers (a word that means lover of wisdom). All genders had access to education, albeit men outnumbered women and one usually had to come from a family of status and wealth in order to enjoy the perks of formal tuition from a philosophy master. 

Records indicate Pythagoras had at least seventeen women in his cult, and at Plato’s academy there were two. One does not have to be a master mathematician to see that the number of female learners decreased as time progressed. In turn, it is no surprise that a few decades later, there were no female students taught under Aristotle (see Is Aristotle Overrated?)

Ancient Greece was a mixed bag of philosophical beliefs, however, the dominant group (cult) of the Classical era were men who supported patriarchal values. As told by Aristotle, this was mostly based on the belief that men’s souls were more evolved than women’s (see below).

“… the male rules over the female, or the man over the child; although the parts of the soul are present in any of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature”

Aristotle, c.350, Politics, Book 1, part 8.
Neoplatonism 

Neoplatonist's (c.300BCE - c.400CE) follow a harmonisation of Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies. In regards to gender, this is presents as a belief that males have more intellectual spirit and females have more emotional soul. However, it was not an absolute distinction like it appears to be in Aristotle’s thought - but I'm also mindful that perhaps Aristotle did not strictly see all men as being superior and it is only via interpretations and translations (or mistranslations) that it appears he was blatantly sexist. 

When Neoplatonist, Iamblichus (c.245 - 325 CE), describes gender he states that some men are more like women and some women are more like men. From this, we can extrapolate two things, firstly, to be described as being like a women had a derogatory inference (i.e., overly emotional, inclined to hysteria, and weakness of mind), conversely, to be described as being like a man inferred positive cognitive traits (i.e., rational, intellectual, and strong). Secondly, the human population has never fit nearly into strict binary gender stereotypes, there has always been variations. 

An additional third consideration, is that patriarchal societies that degrade females’ value and treat them as though they are an inferior species is a form of trauma. Contemporary trauma-informed psychological research confirms that all genders are susceptible to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Historically, PTSD was called hysteria and considered to be solely a woman’s disease. It is therefore possible that the patriarchal traditional of viewing women as “hysterics” is proof of constant trauma. Further, it could be possible that all women today carry generational trauma dating back to the beginnings of patriarchal cults. If correct, then it will take several more generations of consciousness healing for the true qualities of “femininity” to be known. 

Prior to this time, during the Greek Dark Ages (c.1100 – 750BCE), evidence suggests women had more influence and freedoms. How and why patriarchy flourished throughout the Mediterranean region, is a controversial topic I’ll skim over; suffice to say, a woman’s role became typecast to that of a mother, and records of female philosophers like Themistoclea (c.600s BCE), Theano (c.600s BCE), Myia (c.500s BCE), Aspasia (c.400s BCE), Diotima (c.400s BCE), Hipparchia (c.300s BCE), and Leontion (c.200s BCE) almost disappear completely for hundreds of years. Did female philosophers not exist? Or were records of them not kept by patriarchal historians? Perhaps we’ll never know.

From about the third century BCE through to the third century CE there are almost no accounts of women philosophers. Then, at this point, we have Hypatia of Alexandria who was killed by a mob of Christians in c.415. Evidence suggests Early Christians believed in gender equality but after Constantine this attitude changed. More about this shortly. 

The different schools of philosophy that operated in Classical Greece could be thought of as cults. Each one had its particular approach to learning that stemmed from a belief system. These included Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureans, Cynics, and many more. Further, each ideology can be traced back to an initiator, a charismatic leader who defined a belief system that followers demonstrated devotion to. By the way, each of those four examples went against mainstream cultural attitudes by believing, to some greater or lesser degree, that women and men were of equal standing in intelligence and/or soul qualities.

Vignette of women and Ancient Greek schools of philosophy

Hipparchia of Maroneia (c.350 - c.280bce) was a Cynic. Being a Cynic meant giving up possessions, wearing simple clothing, and self-sufficiency. They were concerned with ethics and living by virtue which was believed to be achievable by living naturally, adhering to reason, and being critical of conventions such as materialism, politicians, and temples that focused on money. One of the most famous anecdotes about Hipparchia is that of when she was antagonised by being asked why she was not partaking in the usual female activity of weaving, she confidently gave a reply that inferred she knew her own mind and did not submit to social expectations: ‘do you suppose that I have been ill advised about myself, if instead of wasting further time upon the loom I spent it in education?’

The Cynic’s were the forerunners to the Stoics who also believed in living naturally, although they were not as extreme. The founder of the Stoics, Zeno of Citium, advocated for equality of the sexes, which included coeducational public exercise and training.The Cynic’s historical precedence of equality and denouncing standard conventions for women has been used by feminists to demonstrated that patriarchy is not a ‘natural’ state that women have historically accepted.

According to standardised history lessons, under Hellenistic (c.323 – 32 BCE) and Roman (c.31 BCE – 476 CE) rulership women were almost entirely (often literally) confined to the kitchen and were expected to cook, look after children, and do needlework. Meanwhile, boys could be taught trades, agriculture, and statemenships skills of law, politics, and rhetoric. There is truth in this depiction of history, however, a history recorded solely by patriarchs cannot be viewed as accurate or complete.

For the most part, it was men who had the most access to education in the ancient worlds. Male academics were often also religious leaders and they congregated together in places like the Library of Alexandria to share wisdom (the ancient world’s Harvard or Oxford). This library was created by Alexander the Great (Aristotle’s student) and it was a hub of intellectual activity for Greeks, Jewish, Egyptians, and later, the Romans. Influential men like Euclid, Ptolemy, and Philo are affiliated with the library.

Cleopatra (c.69 – 30 BCE), the Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt, is reported to have frequented the Great Library as well. Further, she wrote several manuscripts that were housed there; sadly, these have not survived. 

The previously mentioned Hypatia was a much loved teacher at the library until her untimely murder. Through the example of Hypatia it can be inferred that it was not impossible for a woman to be educated. Hypatia had a lot of support from some males, like her father; however, to achieve such academic heights meant overcoming prejudices that her male counterparts did not encounter. In the end, Hypatia paid the ultimate price for making a stand against patriarchy. 

Depiction of Hypatia’s Death

Source: Smithsonian Magazine

PART FIVE: Christianity

Previous Posts

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 3 – History of Education (Western Version)

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 2 – Cults and the Occult

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 1 – Introduction

Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 0 – Prologue

Theology of Early Christianity as described by Justin Martyr: Was he deliberately harmonising Jewish and Ancient Greek philosophy?

"Do not the philosophers turn every discourse on God? and do not questions continually arise to them about His unity and providence ? Is not this truly the duty of philosophy, to investigate the Deity?" 
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypo, P.5

Justin Martyr was born in Palestine, in about 100 CE. In his mid thirties he began wandering, preaching, and explaining Christianity to others. According to the encyclopaedia Britannica he was ‘one of the most important Greek philosophers-Apologists in the early Church’. 

Justin is described as being Greek (as opposed to Roman or Palestinian) because that is the language he used, moreover, he studied Plato and other Greek philosophers prior to converting from his old belief system to Christianity. Palestine, thanks to Alexander the Great, was Hellenised in 332 BCE, and despite the Roman takeover in 63 BCE, Greek was still a common language amongst academics.

Palestine was also home to many Jews and a variety of other religious groups. The interactions between these groups are suspected to have been a mixture of hostile and receptive occurrences. 

Justin’s evangelism took him to Rome where he was accused of being subversive and sentenced to death. He was killed by beheading in c.165, thus killed for his beliefs he was martyred by Christian followers. 

André Thévet – Saint Justin dans André Thevet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584. Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

Justin wrote several treatises explaining Christian theology; he was instrumental in defining beliefs in the days prior to the bible being compiled. In the following centuries, followers of Christ would become divided into two broad categories of “true” Christians and “false” Christians, the latter usually referred to as Heretics (for example, the gnostics). During a process of establishing consistent guidelines for the faithful – which mostly came about by Emperor Constantine calling council meetings (the Nicene council) – Justin’s version of theology was accepted in the “true” category, as opposed to some others, like Valentina and Origen. 

Given that Justin had a strong Greek background, it’s not surprising he incorporated references to ancient Greek philosophy into his writings, however, what I find even more interesting is his detailed understanding of Jewish theology. In a publication titled Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, Justin records an imaginative conversation between himself and a Jew called Trypho. The aim of the conversation is to explain to the Jew how Christianity fulfilled prophecies expressed in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. The fact that Justin wrote in a dialogue style (like Plato and other Philosophers), is a reflection of his scholarly Greek background. It is with this foundation that he describes Christian stories as being a continuation of Jewish symbology. Thus we have two streams of ideology merging into one river. 

Let’s have a look at some of what Justin says, first through a Jewish lens, then a Greek:

‘For, as I before said, certain dispensations of weighty mysteries were accomplished in each act of this sort. For in the marriages of Jacob I shall mention what dispensation and prophecy were accomplished, in order that you may thereby know that your teachers never looked at the divine motive which prompted each act, but only at the grovelling and corrupting passions. Attend therefore to what I say. The marriages of Jacob were types of that which Christ was about to accomplish. For it was not lawful for Jacob to marry two sisters at once. And he serves Laban for [one of] the daughters; and being deceived in [the obtaining of] the younger, he again served seven years. Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church. And for these, and for the servants in both, Christ even now serves.’ [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 104

Several themes can be taken from the above extract, some of which I’ve underlined or bolded:

  • mysteries – this implies that Justin is referring to things that happened [in the events of Jesus life] that are not obvious at a surface level.
  • marriages – term used in a symbolic sense; if you lived in the 2nd (or earlier) centuries you probably would have understood the term “marriages” differently to that of someone today. 
  • your teachers never looked at the divine motive – this is a dig (insult) to rabbis and other Jewish experts of the day 
  • The marriages of Jacob were types of that which Christ was about to accomplish – this comment punctuates the notion that the term “marriages” is symbolic, not literal. 
  • Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church – “Leah” is symbolic of Judaism [i.e. Justin is talking to a Jew] and “Rachel” is symbolic of Christianity [Justin is referring to his church of Christianity] … 

The last point, that of “Leah” being symbolic of Jews and “Rachel” being symbolic of Christians is arguably the most important thing Justin says. He is clearly stating that the Torah, which became known as the Old Testament to Christians, was NOT literal. Moreover, concepts were personified. To understand the use of symbolism in this context, it is useful to consider Charles Peirce’s threefold definition of symbols:

  1. Iconic = where a thing literally means what it is.
  2. Indexical = where a thing brings to mind other things.
  3. Symbolic = where a thing represents another thing, with referential connections to iconic and indexical levels.

The third level of symbolism is the most complex. The symbolic representation of something may or may not have an obvious connection to iconic or indexical references. I discuss this in my blog The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics.

Justin’s use of culturally informed gendered metaphors continues:

‘Jacob served Laban for speckled and many-spotted sheep; and Christ served, even to the slavery of the cross, for the various and many-formed races of mankind, acquiring them by the blood and mystery of the cross. Leah was weakeyed; for the eyes of your souls are excessively weak. Rachel stole the gods of Laban, and has hid them to this day; and we have lost our paternal and material gods. Jacob was hated for all time by his brother; and we now, and our Lord Himself, are hated by you and by all men, though we are brothers by nature. Jacob was called Israel; and Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ, who is, and is called, Jesus.’ [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 104

Justin’s language is as colourful as a poet. Nearly every phrase is doused in pre-Shakespearean ambiguity: “Leah was weakeyed” and “Rachael stole the gods of Laban”. Moreover, Justin explicitly says: “Jacob was called Israel”, and “Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ”. To take these phrases literally is to believe that Leah was a real person who needed reading glasses, Rachel was a thief, and Jacob is a double agent who goes by the names of Israel and Christ. However, interpreted figuratively, neither Leah, Rachel, or Jacob are real characters. This symbolism becomes even more apparent in the following: 

Moreover, that the word of God speaks to those who believe in Him as being one soul, and one synagogue, and one church, as to a daughter; that it thus addresses the church which has sprung from His name and partakes of His name (for we are all called Christians), is distinctly proclaimed in like manner in the following words, which teach us also to forget[our] old ancestral customs, when they speak thus: ‘Hearken, O daughter, and behold, and incline thine ear; forget thy people and the house of thy father, and the King shall desire thy beauty: because He is thy Lord, and thou shalt worship Him.'” [Emphasis by Renee]

Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and
Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, pg. 53

The term daughter in the above quote is also by no means literal.

‘Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church. And for these, and for the servants in both, Christ even now serves.’

Justin, throughout his discussion with the Jewish Trypho is referring to male and female personifications in a hierarchical manner that follows a patriarchal pattern of father (Jacob) at the top, followed by the mother (Leah and Rachel), however, if one is to continue down the ladder, we have another female symbol, that of daughters (the synagogue and church) before sons (individual members of congregation) who are the lowest rung. 

To give a visual of what he’s saying, let’s look at it like a family tree:

Justin is candidly stating that characters from the Torah (Old Testament) were not literal people, rather they are symbolic of groups of people. The use of a familia constructs follows the cultural conventions of the era, albeit, daughter is above son. 

The symbolic use of “son” as a reference to “man” can easily be understood in the figurative concept of “mankind” being children of God. “Man/mankind” is traditional patriarchal language that refers to all of humankind. (In sexist ideologies women were literally believed to be less than human, but that’s another story.) 

The logic behind using the family structure described above to present metaphysical ideology may not be obvious to us today but, presumably, it did to whomever developed it in the second millennium BCE (or earlier). 

In regards to women/daughters being used as symbolic of groups of people, while the reasons may not be clear, there are multiple examples in the Torah (Old Testament). 

Isaiah 47:1 (ISV)
Come down and sit in the dust, Virgin Daughter of Babylon. Sit on the ground without a chair, Daughter of the Chaldeans! For no longer will they call you tender and attractive”

Psalm 137: 8-9 (KJV)
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

Others
“The daughter of Zion” as a symbol of Israel, likewise, “the daughter of Jerusalem” and “daughter of Edom”. For more references of “daughter” as symbolising groups see Laminations 4:21; Zephaniah 3:14; Zachariah 9:9; Isaiah 3:16-17;  John 12:15; Matthew 21:5. (“Bible Hub” 2019; Schwartzmann 2000)

What I appreciate the most about Justin’s work is that it explicitly defines symbolism that, in my humble opinion, gets overlooked in modern Christianity. While growing up in a Catholic household, I have a clear recollection of my father once explaining to my older brother: “the daughter of Zion is metaphorical of the state of Israel”. So it is, I suspect the meaning of some symbolism has passed down through the ages, but it is not necessarily recognised by all laypeople. 

Many things come to my mind when I process the significance of Justin’s explanations of the Christian faith, as expressed by someone who converted in the second century. For instance, when in Luke 12:53 is says:

The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

King James Bible

Destructive cult leaders love to use this quote as a means of manipulating people into breaking all ties with their loved ones and, in turn, gaining more control over them. But what if Jesus is only speaking metaphorically of the “House of God”? Rather than referring to the divide of biological father and son, biological mother and daughter, and biological mother in law against daughter in law, I believe he’s talking about Synagogues, Churches, spiritual leaders, and followers being divided against one another. To me, it makes a lot more sense that the “man of peace” would be referring to the symbolic destruction of institutional “families” than real nuclear families. 

I also wonder about references to Jesus explaining scriptures to Rabbis and crowds … was he explaining symbolism, like that of Leah and Rachel? … were Jesus’ sermons all about explaining figurative expressions that had been forgotten by the masses? Additionally, to add a little complexity, Jesus was renown for speaking in riddles, and understanding the symbolism was virtually an initiation process:

And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.

Matthew 13:10-17

Note: the word “sin” in Ancient times was an archery term that mean missing the mark; if you did not shoot your arrow straight and get the target then you had “sinned”. Hence, Jesus is not saying that people who do not understand the parables are evil, rather, he is just saying they have misinterpreted symbolic language.

To me, understanding the Jewish background and how Judaism used familia terms within the symbolism of scripture is very insightful, however, as I stated at the beginning of this blog, Justin had a Greek/pagan background and his understanding of Christianity involved harmonising Jewish traditions with ancient Greek philosophy, namely, those compatible with Plato.  

As it so happens, Ancient Greek philosophy also used a symbolic familia system to describe elements of their faith. As discussed in The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts,  they had a hierarchy in which Zeus was at the top, followed by Demeter, then Persephone, and then Hades. The Greek system of Father (Zeus), mother (Demeter), daughter (Persephone), and son (Hades) has a correlation to the Jewish system of Father (Jacob), mother (Leah and Rachel), daughter (synagogue and church), and son (man/humankind). However due to different inferences, the characters of respective belief systems are not the same. Nonetheless, one could argue there are enough similarities to warrant the potential harmonising. 

So why did both Jewish and Greek philosophers use the symbolism of a family to present theological ideas? A simple answer could be it is because the family structure is something relatable to just about everyone. 

The links between Judaism and Ancient Greek philosophy and how they emerged in Christianity goes deeper than this blog can demonstrate. All the same, I hope I have illustrated that Justin Martyr is a prime example (there are others) of someone who explicitly spells out some of the symbolism of Christianity and how it is tied to both Jewish and Greek traditions. 

Also note, Justin references Plato at least twelve times in his dialogue with Typho. However, he never mentions Aristotle because his philosophies were not widely known in Palatine or the Roman Empire at this time. (Aristotle’s influence on Christianity came later as described Is Aristotle Overrated?: A look at one of the ways patriarchal systems have used Aristotle’s writings to justify male supremacy.)

I am not one to blindly follow conspiracy theories, and what I have presented here is not intended to nullify Christianity and the spiritual impulse that it inspires. Likewise, I do not wish to suggest that Christianity emerged as some conscious attempt to create a religion to control people (as some conspiracy theories suggest). Rather, my intention is to deepen the understanding of Abrahamic religions by examining the historical and cultural contexts in which they emerged. Moreover, I hope that by what I have written, individuals may be inspired to research for themselves the history of the Christian Church and question what some gurus (destructive cult leaders) have to say about how the scriptures are to be interpreted.

Final Thoughts

I’m not saying all Hebrew and Christian Bible stories are symbolic; it may be a case of some are, some art. What I am saying is that some Bible stories are symbolic. Justin’s writings support this premise. 

Was Justin deliberately trying to harmonise Jewish and Greek belief systems? Maybe. Or maybe he was just exploring spirituality in accordance with his culture. I’d love to hear what readers think, please write let me know in a comment below. 

As a final consideration, I’d like to mention Philo of Alexandria (c.25 BCE – 50 CE) whom it is known consciously tried to harmonise Jewish and Greek philosophy some hundred years prior to Justin Martyr. Philo was a Jewish philosopher that was fluent in Greek. Alexandria, his home town, was a Hellenisted province of Egypt (it was called “Alexandria” after Alexander the Great. It was also the location of the Great Library which housed scrolls gathered from all the Hellenised lands). 

Philo re-wrote Genesis, emphasising the allegorical significance of characters; it was Philos’ version of creation, the story of Adam and Eve, that most early Christians followed. Speculatively, it may be assumed that Church fathers, like Justin, were acquainted with scholarly ideas that were not shared amongst broader society.

References

Lévy, C. (2018). Philo of Alexandria (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philo/

Martyr, J. (150 C.E.). Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew. https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Justin%20Martyr-Dialogue%20with%20Trypho.pdf

Schwartzmann, J. (2000). Gender Concepts of Medieval Jewish Thinkers and The Book of Proverbs. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 7(3), 183–202. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753264

The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2020). Saint Justin Martyr | Biography, Writings, Legacy, & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Justin-Martyr

White, S. (2004). Romans, Greeks, and Jews: The World of Jesus and the Disciples Romans, Greeks, and Jews: The World of Jesus and the Disciples. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=classicsfacpub

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Fairest Gender of Them All?

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest gender of them all? If one were to go back in time and ask Aristotle this question, it’s a fair bet he would say: “Men are the fairest of them all!” In a previous blog I go through an overview of why I believe Aristotle’s high status in academia is overrated. In this blog I want to specifically discuss what Aristotle had to say about women and mirrors. 

Aristotle wrote:

‘If a woman chances during her menstrual period to look into a highly polished mirror, the surface of it will grow cloudy with a blood-coloured haze.’

(On Dreams, part 2)

He explains the reasoning for this phenomenon as follows: 

‘… Because it is natural to the eye to be filled with blood-vessels, a woman’s eyes, during the period of menstrual flux and inflammation, will undergo a change, although her husband will not note this since his seed is of the same nature as that of his wife. The surrounding atmosphere, through which operates the action of sight, and which surrounds the mirror also, will undergo a change of the same sort that occurred shortly before in the woman’s eyes, and hence the surface of the mirror is likewise affected.’

(On Dreams, part 2)

From a contemporary point of view the idea that women can tarnish a mirror by simply looking at it is absurd. Nonetheless, we are talking about ancient Greeks here and they also believed that hysteria was caused by a woman’s uterus wandering around her body. Further, it was believed that to cure hysteria, a woman needed sexual intercourse. The logic being that the sad uterus was made happy by a penis so, therefore, would return to its rightful place at the end of the virginia, as opposed to her elbow, or upper thigh, or wherever it was the physicians thought a uterus wandered to. Men, of course, could not have hysteria because they didn’t have uteruses, moreover, the superiority of a male’s rational soul worked far too logically to ever allow emotions to get the better of them. Clearly, believing a uterus can wander about the body is a fine example of rational male thinking, and putting it back in its place through sex has nothing to do with men’s irrational, passionate soul.

Anyway, getting back to Aristotle’s mirror. The association between a dirty mirror and a woman’s gaze is an obvious indicator of misogynistic values. So too is the idea that a man can become blind to the effect of a woman’s ability to make things dirty with her gaze. 

To the best of my knowledge, no scientific study has been conducted to confirm or dismiss the dirty mirror and menstruating woman phenomenon. If any readers are aware of one, please forward the article to me. Nonetheless, Aristotle’s authoritative tone, and skills in the art of rhetorics, have led many men to believe that a woman can indeed tarnish a mirror by simply looking at it. For example, the Doctor of Catholic theology, Thomas Aquinas.

In the late Medieval period, Aquinas was praised and given the honour of sainthood. His legacy extends from his writing of Summa Theologica which is an extensive document summarising Christian beliefs. Admittedly, I haven’t read all 4000+ pages, but from what I have, it’s a fascinating insight into Medieval Church beliefs that covers topics such as “Is virginity lawful?” and “Did Jesus have a soul?” While reading through these sorts of topics, I was struck by how often Aquinas quotes Aristotle. For instance, in a section devoted to “Whether man by the power of his soul can change corporeal matter?” Aquinas directly refers to Aristotle’s theory of menstruating women and mirrors:

‘ … the eyes infect the air which is in contact with them to a certain distance: in the same way as a new and clear mirror contracts a tarnish from the look of a “menstruata,” as Aristotle says (De Somn. et Vigil.; [*De Insomniis ii]).’

Summa Theologica, pg.914

And Aquinas then takes it further: 

‘Hence then when a soul is vehemently moved to wickedness, as occurs mostly in little old women, according to the above explanation [of menstruating women tarnishing mirrors], the countenance becomes venomous and hurtful, especially to children, who have a tender and most impressionable body. It is also possible that by God’s permission, or from some hidden deed, the spiteful demons co-operate in this, as the witches may have some compact with them.’

Summa Theologica, pg.914

If you’re beginning to see a connection between  Aquinas’ summary of theology and witch hunts, then you’d be on a very sustainable train of thought …

Aquinas was a Dominican Monk. The Dominican order was developed upon the influence of Aristotle’s philosophies. Aquinas’ public lectures and writings extended Aristotle’s influence within the Church. Heinrich Kramer (c.1430 –1505) was also a clergyman of the Dominican order and he wrote a book called Malleus Maleficarum (1487) which became the authority on recognising witches and was used to justify burning countless women at the stake.

It is obvious yet subtle that Aristotle’s philosophising on metaphysical differences between genders directly, and via Aquinas’ interpretations, underpinned the justification that women have inferior souls to men which, in turn, was a contributing factor to witch hunts, i.e. the perception of females having weaker, ignoble souls made women more susceptible to the devil’s influence than men who supposedly had stronger, more noble souls. For instance, in cases where babies died in stillbirths and midwives were accused of being witches could be perceived as “logical” because a woman supposedly had the ability to impact physical objects or people with her eyes. If the midwife was a little old women, the odds of her being perceived as a conjugate for evil increased. Although men could be accused of witchcraft, this did not happen nearly as much as it did to women.

Putting it simply, women were the main focus of witch hunts because paranoid, and dare I say it, hysterical men, believed a woman could cause harm by simply looking at an object or other being. Aristotle did not invent sexism but his works fuelled the imagination of men who had a distrust towards women; he gave misogyny a “scientific” flavour. Moreover, I would argue that as a culture we are still yet to completely recovery from the collective trauma that thousands of years of sexism and false scientific claims have caused.

Assuming a mirror experiment could disprove menstruating women have the ability to tarnish a copper mirror by simply looking at it, perhaps sharing the results on mass media could help undo centuries of false assumptions and prevent future witch hunts?

Bronze mirror with a support in the form of a draped woman, Ancient Greece, mid-5th century B.C. Source: The Met Museum

Closing Thoughts

While finalising this blog, I came across an article titled “Aristotle, Witchcraft and Witch Hunts” that is published on a United Kingdom History website. The author, Claudia Elphick, shares a similar view of the connections between Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kramer to what I have expressed, however, Elphick goes a little deeper into the demonology aspect. The article can be found here and is well worth a read.

References

Ancient Greece. (2021). Bronze mirror with a support in the form of a draped woman. In Metmuseum.org. The Met Museum. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/256949mid-5th century B.C.E

Aquinas, T. (1947). Summa Theologica (Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Trans.; Benziger Bros. Edition). https://d2y1pz2y630308.cloudfront.net/15471/documents/2016/10/St.%20Thomas%20Aquinas-Summa%20Theologica.pdf

Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). On Dreams. Classics.mit.edu; The Internet Classics Archive | On Dreams by Aristotle. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/dreams.htmlTranslated by J. I. Beare

Hans Peter Broedel. (2003). The Malleus Maleficarum and the construction of witchcraft : theology and popular belief. Manchester University Press ; New York. https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/35002/341393.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Tasca, C. (2012). Women And Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health. Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health, 8(1), 110–119. https://doi.org/10.2174/1745017901208010110

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 doing so serves their 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 believe 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 a “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 influenced too much 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 about 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 was originally from Italy, studied in France, and was ordained in Germany. He 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. 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 areas of life. 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 there was concrete evidence available to easily be demonstrated as false, like both men and women have the same cranial sutures, was as easy as examining the a few skulls. However, there was also a period in time when the Church forbid autopsies, hence, reliance upon Aristotle’s descriptions of anatomy was all people (in particular, physicians) had to go on.

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 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, the Islamic world 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 also 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 is 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 a 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, 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.

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.

References

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