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

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, the first full book he published was the Bible. However, did not make a lot of money because most people still could not read, let a lone read Latin, the language of the Bible. Gutenberg died penniless but his invention prospered and revolutionised the world.

Some wealthy Italian families (they weren’t called Italians back then, rather, they were Venetians, Florentines, Romans, etc.,) already had an interest in old manuscripts, especially those of Greek Philosophers, and were in the process of making copies of old ancient text by hand. They saw the potential to speed up the process by printing, hence, Venice, Florence, Rome, and Germany, became the first major epicentres of book publishing. Unlike Gutenberg, who did not have a ready made literate customer base, families, like the Medici’s, had members within the Church, politics, and military who could read and were eager to maintain superiority over others through advanced knowledge.

Early Printing Press

Source: Wikipedia Commons

I sometimes wonder if the Europeans of the late 1400s who were involved in those early days of printing realised what a monumental role they were playing in facilitating social change? Did they realise that the mass production of literature would increase literacy levels that, in turn, spark revolution after revolution? What is known is that when it became apparent that books and learning were encouraging people to challenge authorities and the status quo, the Pope attempted to censor and control what books were and were not allowed to be published. It became canonised law that books, especially those of a religious nature, had to receive an imprimatur which in Latin means “let it be printed”. A person found to be illegally printing books without the Pope’s approval, or any person in possession of non-approved publications, could be fined, brought before a court, and/or integrated by inquisition panels.

As time went on, it also became apparent that brute force could not prevent people from learning non-Church approved literature, so the control tactics became more emotionally driven. That is, Christians were warned that certain reading material was heretical and if the devout wanted to be assured an eternity of bliss in heaven, then they needed to stay clear of some books, if not, they would burn in hell. Between 1560 and 1948, twenty editions of Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) were published by various Popes. Many people today would recognise some of the authors who had work on forbidden list: Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Simone de Beauvoir. Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Dante Alighieri had their works banned for a period of time and then later Pope’s removed them from the index.

The Church’s totalitarian approach lead to a kind of underbelly of education. It was probably obvious to many that the Church leaders were keeping secrets, but working out was true and what was false was difficult. Like a person who has been in a relationship with a narcissistic partner, it takes some time to realise the depths to which they have been gaslighted. l have no doubt that many secret societies were established; that is, people gathering in groups trying to put pieces together and/or groups led by people who claimed they knew all the answers. Hence the idea of cults and occultism developed alongside each other.

If the Catholic Church’s version of history is correct, then all groups of people who operated outside of mainstream Christianity were involved in cults. Further, if they did not abide by the Pope’s version of Bible interpretation, then they may be called occultists. Making cults and occultism derogatory, was just par and parcel with trying to maintain control. (See below for discussion on cults.)

The word “cult” comes from the Latin, cultus, which was a reference to the attentive agricultural practices of seeds being cultivated. Like almost all aspects of Ancient Roman life, farming involved an element of religious devotion with growing practices tied to the moon and seasonal cues. Hence, a grower didn’t just cultivate seeds, they had knowledge of the earth and its elements, thus, they cultivated themselves via the obtaining of wisdom about nature. Gradually, over time the symbolic gesture of seeds growing was applied to the concept of ideas growing, hence the term cults became known as a reference to groups of people devoted to an ideology, and culture became a reference to masses of people who shared common ideas, customs, beliefs, and attributes.

Initially, the Latin definition of a cultus did not carry any negativity, it simply referred to groups of people who practiced shared worship or homage to deity or doctrine. When the word transferred over to French, as culte, in the sixteenth century, it began to pick up negative connotations of groups of people who adhered to ideologies contrary to social norms, and this association has remained in the English usage of the term of cult.

In a metaphorical sense, a cult is like a seedling, whereas a culture is a crop that has developed from thereof. E.g., Early Christianity began as a cult then grew so big that it became a culture.

Whether or not a cult deserves to be perceived to be negative or benign can be a matter of opinion. If the cult is at odds with an alternative belief system (particularly if that cult has mainstream acceptance) then it may be judged poorly.

My personal view is that if a cult prescribes any form of abusive, controlling, or trauma-inducing practices (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually), then it can rightly be defined as a destructive cult. Alternatively, if a group of people who prescribe to a shared belief system encourage positive behaviours like love, non-judgment, kindness, inclusiveness, and trauma-formed healing practices, then it is a positive cult. Within this definition is the capacity for varying degrees of negative and positive traits within cults.

Over the years, I’ve read many conspiracy theories about secret brotherhoods (good and bad). The name of some groups pop up more frequently than others, like the Knights Templars, the Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and the alike. (It is my understanding that Judaism and Islam have their equivalent in Kabbalah and Sufism respectively, however, I am not as well versed in their histories.) What I have generally noted is that these theories are not grounded in a deep and sincere appreciation of historical considerations, social constraints, and above all humanness. Suggestions that some groups are associated with supernatural beliefs and practices that extend back to ancient cultures like the Egyptians, don’t capture a very basic life principle: nothing is permanent except change. To modify, reinvent, and appropriate are standard behaviours when the paradigm of humans as creative beings is taken into account.

Movies like The Da Vinci Code romanticise a Holy Grail notion of Christian mysticism (comically, the friend I mentioned in the epilogue recently remarked that they didn’t want to watch The Da Vinci Code with me because they knew I’d constantly be critiquing the misrepresentations of history). Certainly, I would agree there are connections between past and present beliefs, and religious practices, but the weaving of influences and events is a lot more complex and nuanced by various factors than some conspiracy theorists acknowledge.

Personally, I like to take a pragmatic approach that incorporates an understanding of the history religions, blended with contemporary understandings of trauma-formed psychology. Above all, issues relating to cults and the occult are about education.

PART THREE: History of education (westernised version)

Previous Posts

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 1 – Introduction

As an Art teacher and Art therapist understanding visual symbolism is mandatory. Art is a communication form, a visual language; however, unlike written and spoken languages it does not have a concise Webster dictionary that can be used to look up meanings. If, for example, I want to interpret the symbols in Durer’s Melancholia, then I’m faced with the task of contemplating what he’s communicating based on my existing knowledge or I need to do some research.

Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia I (1514)

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The interpretation process begins with identifying symbols on an observation level; there is an angel, cherub, sphere, polyhedron, hourglass, ladder, nails, woodworking plan, saw, numbers in a grid, bell, scales, etc. But what is Durer trying to communicate by bringing all these symbols together? The title of the work gives us a clue: Melancholia = a state of deep contemplation accompanied by a feeling of depression. The theme is reflected in expressions of the heavenly characters. Any number of reasons could be given for Durer’s portrayal of this subject matter, however, in order to fit with the theme of this blog, I am going to suggest that the angel and cherub are depressed because they do not understand the symbolic meanings of all the objects surrounding them.

Did Durer know the significance of all these symbols? Maybe, maybe not. It is relatively safe to infer he had some familiarity with sacred geometry through the presentation of the polyhedron. Likewise, one could assume the ladder is a reference to the Biblical story of Jacob’s ladder, keeping in mind that if I didn’t know Durer was Christian and I was not familiar with biblical stories then I may not make this assumption. One can go on playing the guessing game of identifying individual symbols and marvelling at the refined technical skills Durer applied to create the composition, but doing so does not provide all the answers.

Durer’s personal relationship to these symbols is another matter. Whilst objective, educated guesses of what the symbols meanings can be made, these are not necessarily reflective of how Durer related to them. The interrelationship between symbols and their maker is vitally important in Art therapy contexts. A story one of my lecturers told explains this relationship well. She described a time when a client drew themselves as a small figure on a gigantic piece of paper. Initially, in the role of therapist, the lecturer was concerned their client had a low self esteem, as indicated by how they small they’d drawn themselves. However, the client explained that the reason for doing so was because they desired to have more space around themselves. The client expressed feeling confined by their life experiences and imagining themselves in an open space in the artwork enabled them to envision the freedom to move that they wanted in real life. To extend this train of thought to Durer, perhaps he felt his life was overcrowded with symbols and not knowing what they meant was very overwhelming and depressing?

In sum, symbols can have subjective significance and objective meanings. Objective meanings are not universal, they are informed by the culture in which they are created. For example, a six pointed star in Judaism represents God’s seal of protection, but in Ancient Egypt, Babylon, Zoroastrianism, or more contemporary cults like Wiccan, a six pointed star may be used in ceremonies to conjure spirits that Jews would vehemently object to worshiping. Regardless of context, the common element is a belief that the six pointed star has magical power, unless, of course, you are an atheist, in which case the symbol is just two triangles placed on top of one another.

A Swastika is another classic example of a symbol that has multiple meanings that are dependent upon the time and place in which it is used. Many cultures (mostly eastern) have positive associations with the Swastika but due to the Nazi party’s appropriation of the symbol to represent their group and associated values, most people (in western cultures) have negative associations with the Swastika.

In consideration of the above examples, theories that propose there are universal symbols hard wired in human brains can be easily challenged, if not outrightly falsified. Nonetheless, theories like psychoanalysis are still popular amongst laypeople and academics. There is also no shortage of wannabe gurus, now and in the past, who claim the meanings they give symbols are truer than anybody else’s. 

Psychologist, Carl Jung (1875-1961), infamously proposed the idea of a collective consciousness in which so-called universal symbols “lived” in an unseen world that all humans unconsciously tapped into. Jung came to this conclusion by studying ancient religions and noticing similarities between the symbols used across faiths; he called these archetypes (see definition below).

archetype (n.)

"model, first form, original pattern from which copies are made," 1540s [Barnhart] or c. 1600 [OED], from Latin archetypum, from Greek arkhetypon "pattern, model, figure on a seal," neuter of adjective arkhetypos "first-moulded," from arkhē "beginning, origin, first place" (verbal noun of arkhein "to be the first;" see archon) + typos "model, type, blow, mark of a blow" (see type).

The Jungian psychology sense of "pervasive idea or image from the collective unconscious" is from 1919. Jung defined archetypal images as "forms or images of a collective nature which occur practically all over the earth as constituents of myths and at the same time as autochthonous individual products of unconscious origin." ["Psychology and Religion" 1937]

Source: Etymology online

Jung was especially fascinated with the idea of “hidden” meanings within symbols which lead him to exploring occultism. But what does occult mean? Let’s have a look …

The word “occult” can conjure up many associations that can vary from person to person. Frequently, it is viewed as an ominous reference to supernatural beliefs and practices that fall outside of mainstream religions. It has a darkness to it, as though the word “cult” within its lettering is a synonym. Whilst in some instances there is an overlap between cults and occultism, the two concepts are not the same.

The most literal meaning of occult is something that is hidden, for example, occult symbols are symbols that have a hidden meaning. The word evolved from the Latin occultus (past participle of occulere “to hide from view, cover up”) and it began being used during the late Renaissance era of 1520–30. It’s no coincidence that the word emerged at this point in time, a period when scholars were enthralled by ancient writings that had been re-discovered and made available through book publishing. Up until that point, the Catholic Church had held a monopoly on information flow so when alternative explanations to the questions of life, the universe, and everything, became available, there was some backlash. Basically, any meaning given to a symbol that the Church did not approve of was degraded, hence, “occult symbols” were viewed as unholy, and the term occult took on a derogatory inference. This did not deter everyone and the pursuit of uncovering the meaning of symbols can be seen in the emergence of practices like alchemy. On a physical level, alchemists believed that base metals like lead could be turned into gold (forerunner to chemistry), and on a conceptual level, the symbology of ancient astrology was believed to hold formulas that could transform human ills into human vitality.

PART TWO: Cults and the Occult

Previous Post

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

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.


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.


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