Call No Man Father: Figurative Speech in Early Christianity

A common objective of destructive cults is to get complete control over devotees by convincing them to break all ties with family and friends. The indoctrination process is often subtle, with victims not realising they’ve been manipulated till it’s too late. From the perspective of a twisted mind, establishing absolute control over others by eliminating opposing opinions is a logical requirement of initiation. Goodbye logic, hello darkness.

In the case of Christian cults, leaders often achieve isolation by quoting scriptures like Matthew 23:9. The phrasing as expressed in the New International Version is a typical translation of the original Hebrew:

And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.

On face value, it appears cult leaders may have grounds for encouraging the breaking family ties, at least those between children and fathers. However, if the passage is read in the context of the previous verse, it’s not so simple: But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.

Matthew 23:9-10
And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.
But you are But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 

Contextually, the two sentences are indicating that no one person should be considered spiritually superior to another, that is, there should be no “Father Rabbis” because everyone is a “brother”. Matthew’s application of figurative speech is relatively easy to recognise; it does not literally mean you cannot call your male parent “father”. I imagine ancient political correctness was the last thing on the scribes’ mind. (There is a trend being explored in contemporary midwifery which stipulates it is more politically correct to refer to a “mother” as “the lactating parent”.)

In ancient Jewish and Roman cultures it was normal to call Rabbis, or any older man, in particular one with a higher status, “Father”. It was both a title and a means of showing respect.

In 2 BCE Emperor Augustus was dubbed “Pater Patriae”, which means the “father of his country” (Pater = Father in Latin). Rome was not without adversaries, hence, it’s probable not everyone felt warm fuzzies towards Augustus as a father figure. For example, the Jews, in accordance with the prophecies outlined in the Torah, wanted and expected ruling rights over much of the land that their Roman father had won claim to. In turn, it seems plausible that some Jewish citizens (Early Christians were Jews) could relate to the sentiment no man should be called father. To take that figurative expression and apply it literally to biological parents defies logic, hence, I suspect that is the reason why the caveat is not mentioned in Matthew’s text. (Perhaps Augustus should have been called the “non-lactating parent of Rome”?)

Imagine if every time someone used figurative speech there was an expectation that they explained their symbolic referencing!? For example, a novel that describes a character as being a night owl (not a real night owl, just someone who stays up late at night, like an owl), or a newspaper article that reports of items falling off the back of the truck (the items didn’t literally fall of the back of a truck, they were stolen like they could have fallen off the back of a truck), or historical accounts of Euclid as the father of geometry (there was no mother geometry that Euclid impregnated, he just fathered ideas that were like babies, not real babies but things that grew into bigger things, like babies grow into bigger people). If all writers had to explain their similes, metaphors, or colloquial expressions there would be no point using expressive language in the first place; furthermore, communication would be pretty boring.

Humans have a flair for being creative with words and our cognitive abilities have developed in a manner that enables us to quickly and efficiently identify homophones and their meanings within given contexts. At least that is the case when interpreting contemporary language in cultural contexts that we are familiar with. But perhaps understanding figurative speech from 2000 years ago is different? Afterall, as an Australian I would never imagine calling our prime minister, Scott Morrison, the father of our country! I can’t envision Americans calling Joe Biden their Father either. Hence, perhaps it is due to the differing cultural standards of how and when the term “father” is used impacts Biblical interpretations? 

To add a bit of a different spin to the issue, when looking up Matthew’s verses, I was intrigued by the Aramaic Bible in Plain English version to Matthew’s sentences which hat reads:

But you shall not be called “Rabbi”, for One is your Rabbi, but you are all brothers.

And you should not call yourselves “Father”, in the earth, for one is your Father who is in Heaven.

The semantics of this phrasing changes the interpretation previously explored that was based on the New International Version (Bible semantics is thing and a half, as I discovered while researching the bow” of the white horseman). Instead of the directive being not to call others “father” (presumably with the caveat of there being an exception if you’re referring to your biological father), the instructions are now not to call oneself a “father” as opposed to calling anyone on earth a “father”. In other words, there are to be no Christian “Rabbis” which can be transferred to meaning Christianity initially condemned all leadership positions within the church. I think I could dig (figurative expression, I don’t literally mean I’d dig a hole in the earth) a Christian theology that genuinely supported no leaders and was based upon every individual having spiritual autonomy and a direct relationship with God, aka, the heavenly Father, the One who is the ultimate Rabbi. Alas, whilst that may have been the impulse of Early Christian communities (and there is evidence to suggest in some instances this was the case), Christianity on the whole did not develop in that direction. Ever since at least the second century there are reports of Christian deacons, priests, and bishops, or in other words, “Fathers” and “Rabbis”. Perhaps cult leaders who want to high-jack religions have always been around?

With Emperor Constantine’s legalisation of Christianity came orders to impose structure upon the religion. The structure that was imposed just happened to be consistent with the standards of Roman culture. From the patriarchal hierarchy of bishops through to labelling priests as “father”, Christianity took on a very Roman military-like structure; i.e., it was normal for Roman soldiers to call the leader of their legion “father”.

The Aramaic version emphases the figurative concept of everyone being “brothers”. (I’m deliberately not entering into the whole patriarchal structure of the language and for the sake of simply I’m going with the flow of “brothers” in this context being a gender neutral term; according to Jewish symbology it is acceptable to do so.) The significance of unifying everyone as a brotherhood is as nuanced as the term “father”. 

When using figurative speech, a thing is not identical to the original thing in all contexts. For example, the “father” in Augustus’ Pater Patriae infers control and responsibility, whereas Euclid’s title of “father” implies he metaphorically birthed geometric offsprings, and priestly “fathers” can suggest a nurturing role. Not all associations of the term “father” can aptly be applied to all situations. Likewise, not all associations of “brothers” can be applied to all situations, e.g., loyalty, strong bond, sense of duty, kinsmanship, support, equality, etc., may not all be applicable to Matthew’s usage. (Some could argue that “brothers” implies rivalry, fighting for attention, and other negative traits; hence, the assumption that Matthew meant only positive associations is a cultural bias in itself.) The interpretation of a thing when used in figurative speech is dependent upon both the speakers/writers intentions and the audience’s comprehension; in turn, both are dependent upon cultural understandings of the symbolic significance of the thing. (Humans are a symbolic species, for a background discussion see: The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics).

What then did Matthew mean when he said “you are all brothers”? In the context of the statement being prefaced by “you shall not be called Rabbi”, I suggest the emphasis of “brothers” relates to status, in particular not having a hierarchy in which individuals are judged to be closer or further away from the “One”. (The number One as a reference to God has a long standing tradition within Greek philosophy).

Many Christians over the years have claimed that orthodox and Catholic traditions are flawed interpretations of Jesus’ readings, and the examples of the establishment of priesthood and fathers figures can legitimately be used as proof of this. Ironically, however, cult leaders who skew this scripture to isolate and control others, have a tendency to make themselves father figures, albeit they don’t call themselves by that title. Which is worse, to disobey a literal interpretation of the Bible and have church leaders called father, or to dispense with the title and fulfil the essence of the meaning of the terms. While cult leaders, claim to be “brothers” with their followers, their actions speak louder than words; they call themselves “Rabbi” in the sense that they are self proclaimed leaders, like father figures, to individuals whom they manipulate to break ties with their true families. 

Judaism has an abundance of figurative speech that relates to family terms that, in addition to the ones mentioned here, include husband, wife, daughter, son, etc. Likewise, Christianity, as an Abrahamic religion, continued to use many of these Jewish symbols, plus some were harmonised with Greek symbols (Jesus was for the Jews and Gentiles!), and slowly but surely, uniquely Christian symbols were developed.

Identifying authentic meanings of much of the symbolism used in the Bible is not difficult if one knows where to look for it. The problem is that too many well-intended and open hearted people fall for wolves in sheep’s clothing (figure of speech, not a real wolf in sheep’s clothing, but a person with wolf-like qualities who, on the inside wants to devour others, but on the outside appears like a sheep who is placid and willing to follow the crowd) who leads them to dangerous pastures due to their self serving interpretations of Bible verses. On that note, it is also worthwhile to consider that perhaps Matthew’s Gospel was intended to be a document that could be used to establish a cult that deconstructed families … 

Interpreting The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse In A Historical Context

The Book of Revelations in the Christian Bible is a controversial and influential book. It’s basic storyline, that of an apocalyptic end of the world, has persuaded men, women, children, and others into fearing God and believing unprecedented doom will occur if Christian beliefs aren’t followed. Ever since the first century, there have been individuals who proclaim the apocalypse is just around the corner; see below for a brief list. In today’s environment of Covid-19, natural disasters, nuclear weapon technology, and financial hardships, there is no shortage of doomsday leaders who believe the real time of the tribulation is now. But what if they are all wrong? What if the symbology used by John the Elder (the credited author of Revelations) has been taken literally when it should be metaphorical? In this blog I explore a possible interpretation that takes into account how the symbolism can be read in a historical context.

List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events

Predicted YearPerson/sDetails of Apocalypse
66–70Simon bar Giora, Jewish EssenesThe Jewish Essene sect of ascetics saw the Jewish uprising against the Romans in 66–70 in Judea as the final end-time battle which would bring about the arrival of the Messiah.
365Hilary of PoitiersThis early French bishop announced the end of the world would happen during this year.
375–400Martin of ToursThis French bishop stated that the world would end before 400 AD, writing, “There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power.”
847ThiotaThis Christian declared in 847 that the world would end that year, though later confessed the prediction was fraudulent and was publicly flogged.
1033Various ChristiansFollowing the failure of the prediction for 1 January 1000, some theorists proposed that the end would occur 1000 years after Jesus’ death, instead of his birth.
1346–1351Various EuropeansThe Black Death spreading across Europe was interpreted by many as the sign of the end of times.
1524London astrologersA group of astrologers in London predicted the world would end by a flood starting in London, based on calculations made the previous June. Twenty thousand Londoners left their homes and headed for higher ground in anticipation.
For more predictions see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dates_predicted_for_apocalyptic_events

The standard interpretation of the Four Horsemen is: 

“The first horseman, a conqueror with a bow and crown, rides a white horse, which scholars sometimes interpret to symbolize Christ or the Antichrist; the second horseman is given a great sword and rides a red horse, symbolizing war and bloodshed; the third carries a balance scale, rides a black horse, and symbolizes famine; and the fourth horseman rides a pale horse and is identified as Death.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica

To me, this explanation is too simple; the descriptions of white, red, black, and pale horses beacons more investigation than the literal presentation of a Christ/Antichrist, war, famine, and death. In Did the White Horseman have a bow, bow, and bow? I demonstrate how interpretations of homophones can significantly alter the interpretation of Bible passages, further, I highlight that common, contemporary interpretations are not necessarily correct if translations issues, like punctuation, are not accounted for. As a continuation, a major flaw I perceive in many Bible interpretations is that the meaning of symbols are not viewed in relation to their historical significance and cultural context. But before delving into alternative ways of viewing the Four Horsemen, I’d like to do a little thought experiment.

Imagine: You are John the Elder, a citizen of Ephesus in approximately 96 CE. You have a spiritual experience in which prophetic visions are placed in your mind. Now imagine what language the Holy Spirit would use to communicate with you. Would you expect it to use a symbolic language that you understood? Or a symbolic language that you did not understand but people in the future might? To put it more crudely, if you spoke English, would you expect a spiritual being to communicate with you in English or a language you don’t know? Would you write down your vision using icons you did not understand? Or would you record the vision according to your own comprehension level?

Speaking in tongues aside, the chances are you’d receive a message from the Holy Spirit in a language you could comprehend, and you’d pass on your message in a manner that others could also comprehend. But also remember that you may be persecuted by Roman authorities for your beliefs, hence, you may want to disguise what you are saying so as it looks like it is not “Christian”. If only there were a symbolic code you could use …

Contrary to some theorists (like psychoanalysts) language and symbolic communication is not consistent over time or cultures. Pictures and symbols are a form of language, and just like any type of communication, these evolve over time. Human communication is in a constant flux that develops due to standard meanings being reused and blended with creative impulses that alter previous meanings. When changes to symbolic language is done deliberately, it can effectively make an “in” and an “out” group, that is those who understand the communication and those who do not … I can’t help but wonder if Early Christians who were afraid of persecution may have deliberately manipulated language and pre-existing symbols to avoid having their beliefs scrutinised?

When new words, phrases, or concepts get known and/or accepted by large groups of people they develop a cultural context. For example, if you were to tell someone in their eighties that you went to a party that was “totally sick”, they may give an empathetic response because they assumed that “totally sick” means the party was a disaster in which everyone became ill. In contrast, a younger person hearing about a “totally sick” party would understand that you had a great time (I touch upon the creativity of language more here.) Each generation alters or develops language usage in some way or another. Language has simple and complex interrelationships with the time, culture, and the audience in which it is spoken. 

Second thought experiment: If John the Elder had been given a literal vision of armageddon that was supposed to happen in our time then he would have had to describe cars, computers, electricity, and several other things that he would not have a point of reference to in his lifetime. Hence, it stands to reason that John’s recording of prophecies is embedded with symbolic communication appropriate to his language and his culture. Moreover, his vision is not literal, it is metaphorical; an allegory of concepts and feelings. I would even argue that it is not even about the end of the world, rather, it depicts a cosmic cycles; rebirths or some form of evolutionary stages. In comparison, consider real childbirth. If one were to metaphorically describe labour, especially a difficult labour, then it could be said to be a time of great pain and bloodshed in which the woman’s appetite is gone, her limbs and pelvis are torn in different directions, and there is a battle between internal forces and external forces. Birth is the death of life in the womb. So too the Book of Revelations may be describing great changes to humanity that are allegorical to war, famine, battle, and death. 

To decode the symbols of the Four Horseman further, we need to consider the Ephesus culture. Ephesus is located in modern day Turkey and it has a long history. In about the sixth century BCE it came under Greek influence and was a hub for cults that worshipped the Goddess Artemis. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great consolidated the Hellenisation of the region. By John the Elder’s time, Ephesus was a Roman province, however, Latin had not yet developed into a scholarly language, hence, Revelations was written in Greek (as was most of the New Testament). Pretty much all New Testament writers had an understanding of Greek and Jewish traditions, albeit, they may have favoured one over the other and their products were original to some degree. (See commentary on Justin Martyr.

Now to cut to the chase of the symbolism of the Four Horsemen; horses in Ancient times were a symbol of the intellect. To a contemporary mind this may not make sense; books, degrees, and computers may be considered better symbols of intelligence but in the eras we’re talking about, before the first century, books, formal qualifications, and computers weren’t invented yet. To a person of antiquity, horses were a valuable possession, they enabled travel and freedom, were needed on farms and to go into battle, they could be trained to do all sorts of tasks and tricks, and horses were loyal companions. Given all these considerations, it is understandable that horses became a symbol for intelligence. Homer’s depiction of the Trojan horse that enabled victory in the battle of Troy is a good example of how the concepts of intellect, strategy, resourcefulness, and success, were linked to horses in the pre-Christian era. 

Nowadays we think of the intellect in terms of cognitive brain functions that occur in the prefrontal cortex, in antiquity, the intellect was considered to be more of a spiritual principle. Spiritual forces were perceived to be everywhere and these could and would impact individuals. For instance, in Ancient Greece, it’s unlikely that a person would be described as a genius, rather, if a person displayed strong intellectual qualities then the external force of a “genii” may be given credit for working through them. A genii was like a guardian angel, higher self, or daimon that floated around trying to give people ideas; it was believed possible that if an idea from a genii was not accepted by one person, then the genii would move onto someone else. Basically, what we view as internalised higher order thinking, our Mediterranean ancestors perceived as external messages from spiritual realms.

Recognising the Four Horsemen as being aspects of an intelligent spiritual force is only the first step. The next is to understand that horses were also cosmological symbols. Hence, each horseman may be interpreted as representing a cosmic element. Helios riding his four-horsed chariot immediately comes to my mind.

Helios the Sun God riding is chariot with four horses. Image source: Theoi Project

In Ancient Greek theology, Helios’ four horses symbolise earth, water, air, and fire. Could it be that the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse are an appropriation or repurposing of the symbolism of Helios’ four horses? Maybe, however, the link may be broader. In Judaism Ezekiel’s chariot has four horses (Ezekiel 1:4-28), in the Greco-Roman era, Apollo had a four horse chariot, and some Early Christians depicted Saint Mark as the charioteer of four horses. The question, therefore, may be: Is there an ideological link between all these varied representations of horses with the classical elements?

The concepts of fire, air, water, and earth were definitely popular amongst philosophers, however, to say they all meant the same thing in every context is probably an overgeneralisation. Suffice to say, it is not farfetched to assume John the Elder knew this symbolic code; I’d be more surprised if he didn’t know about it. So how do the four elements link to the Four Horseman? Let’s first look at the colours. (Readers may want to review The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts to get some background information about the framework.)

In Empedocles era, there is evidence to suggest that he and others associated black, white, yellow and red to water, fire, earth, and air. Coincidentally, the four horsemen described in the Book of Revelations have the same colours, albeit, yellow may be referred to as pale or green, depending on which translation of the Bible you look at. (Side note: the colours associated with each element and the differing of terminology to describe the pale or yellow element is consistent with The surprising pattern behind color names around the world.)

If we go through the associated symbolism of each horseman one at a time we can see more clues:

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

Revelation 6:1-2 (NIV)

Key symbolic words that I can identify in these lines are thunder, white, and crown. These conjure inferences of concepts that relate to fire. The association of the White Horseman with the element of fire is strengthened in Revelation 19:11-16 when the rider is described as having eyes like a flame of fire. In Ancient Greek theology, fire is the highest on the hierarchy of elements. (The White Horseman’s “bow” is still open to interpretation.)

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.

Revelation 6:3-4 (NIV)

If the sequence of the hierarchy is to be followed, then the red horse symbolises air. Air in classical philosophies is the emotional and passionate part of the soul. It is given reverence, however, it is also sometimes described as being an element that causes strife. Amongst air’s good points, is that it is a life-supporting element on earth; if one does not have air in their body they will be dead. Thus, there is some correlation between the traditional qualities of air and the Red Horseman’s characteristics of taking away peace and producing death.

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds a of wheat for day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”

Revelation 6:5-6 (NIV)

The black horse may be interpreted as water. While the literal symbols of scales, wheat, barley, and wages, appear to to be a reference to earthly concerns of money and finances, if they are viewed in the context of being said by a voice among the four living creatures, it can be inferred that the symbols of earthly existence (i.e., food and money) are supported or balanced (i.e., the scales) by the element of water. The final line is a warning that support of the physical elements must not damage the oil or the wine; wine is a symbol for spirit, aka fire, and oil is a symbol for soul, aka air. Hence, water is an intermediate or transitional element. 

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.


Revelation 6:7-8 (NIV)

The most significant indication that the fourth horseman represents the element of earth is the term “Hades”. As explicitly told by Empedocles, Hades represents the earth in Ancient Greek theology. In Bible’s such as the King James Version, the pagan term of Hades is replaced by “Hell”, hence, some of the alignment between the theology of the elements and the horsemen is obscured. Just like the Homeric hymn to Demeter, Hades in Revelations is connected to death. The terms sword, famine, plague, and beasts, are not necessarily literal, but metaphorical of earthly experiences. The Early Christian concept of Hades is not identical to the Ancient Greek Hades, but it is a significant link that deserves acknowledgment.

The embedding of Ancient Greek theology into Christian doctrines has a long history. From Justin Martyr, to Augustine, and Aquinas, Christianity has always borrowed theology from other sources. In Is Aristotle Overrated? I hone in on the Greek influence, however, influence also came from Judaism, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and others.

Overall, there are many indicators that the Book of Revelations is a metaphorical story that appropriates or repurposes Ancient Greek theology. Read as an allegory, the Four Horsemen are not going to appear one after the other and signal the end of the world. According to my interpretation, John the Elder’s vision was as much a reflection on the development of human beings from a cosmological perspective as it is a prediction for the future.

Decoding the symbolism of the remaining three seals introduces some more complex theology that I’ll leave for another day. And to be honest, I have not perfected my interpretation of Revelations, but I hope that the insights I can provide promotes critical thinking that prevents people from falling for doomsday predictors who will one day join the Wikipedia list of false prophets.

Of all philosophies and theologies, I resonate with the concept of creativity being the most important. From imaginative applications of symbols and communication that involves creative language, to every moment of every day, human beings are creators, or as I’ve said before, creat[e]-ures made in the image of a Creative force that some call God. Ultimately, we all have the gift of Free Will to create a future of our choosing without fear that our destinies were pre-written in Ephesus, c.96CE.

References

Benson, J. L. (2000). Greek Color Theory and the Four Elements [full text, not including figures]. Scholarworks.umass.edu. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/art_jbgc/1

Biblical Ephesus. (2020). History of Ephesus – Biblical Ephesus. Biblical Ephesus. http://biblicalephesus.com/ephesus/history

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2019). Four horsemen of the Apocalypse | Christianity | Britannica. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/four-horsemen-of-the-Apocalypse

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2012). Genius | Roman religion. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/genius-Roman-religion

History.com Editors. (2018, August 21). Ephesus. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-greece/ephesus

New World Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Book of Revelation – New World Encyclopedia. http://Www.newworldencyclopedia.org. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Book_of_Revelation

Revelation 6 KJV. (n.d.). Biblehub.com. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://biblehub.com/kjv/revelation/6.htm

Revelation 6 NIV. (n.d.). Biblehub.com. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://biblehub.com/niv/revelation/6.htm

Russell, J. R. (1997). The Four Elements and the Cross in Armenian Spirituality, with an Excursus on the Descent in Merkavah Mysticism. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 4(4), 357–379. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753198

Theoi Project. (2017). Helius – Ancient Greek Vase Painting. http://Www.theoi.com. https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/T17.1.htmlUniversity of Michigan. (n.d.). Horse. Umich.edu. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from http://umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/H/horse.html

Spiritual bypassing and religious abuse: The Reason Why Everyone Needs to Be Trauma-Informed

“Since the beginning of time, spirituality and religion have been called to fill in the gaps that science did not understand.”

~ Dan Brown, Angels and Demons, pg.43

Alan John Miller, is the cult leader of a group called Divine Truth. He convinces his disciples that he is the reincarnation of Jesus; that’s right, this charismatic Australian believes he is the big Christ man himself. From the authoritative stance of being the Son of God, Miller gives advice to his followers that inevitably leads them into forsaking their family and friends. Coercive and controlling behaviour like this is common amongst cult leaders, but from watching the investigative documentary (see link below) it occurred to me that much of Miller’s manipulation would be ineffective if victims or potential victims understood the basic principles of trauma. 

About three minutes into the 7NEWS documentary, we see footage of Miller addressing a hall full of Christians who are searching for answers to some of life’s difficulties. Miller tells them that addictions are standing in the way of their relationship with God and that by speaking his truth he can heal their emotional wounds. A few seconds later we see a white board which illustrates his approach.

Source: 7NEWS Spotlight. (2121). The Messiah: meet the Australian man who says he’s Jesus and his followers | 7NEWS Spotlight. http://Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0-ustkfE9w

The journalist aptly points out that Miller, or Jesus as he prefers to be called, is speaking New Age pop-psychology. The notion that addictions have some spiritual cause, moreover, that one can overcome “sinful” or “evil” temptations through the mysteries of a “Holy Spirit” has little grounding in light of contemporary neuroscience. I am very open to the notion that there is a metaphysical world that our ordinary senses cannot identify. However, I am equally open to the notion that there are things in our physical world that once appeared to be supernatural can but now be scientifically explained, hence, “gurus” who could once get away with spreading misinformation cannot do so as easily. 

There is an expanding school of thought that addictions, and most mental health conditions, are caused by trauma. Gabor Maté (author of The Realm of Hungry Ghosts) and Bessel Van der Kolk (author of The Body Keeps the Score) are in my top five favourite researchers who actively work to educate society about the link between trauma, addictions and mental health issues. 

At the core of understanding trauma and how it affects thoughts, emotions, and behaviour is the vagus nerve. This all important nerve begins at the base of the brain and runs down the spine. It branches off throughout the body and is the major highway for sending signals to and from the brain and throughout the body. Burnt your finger on the stove? It is through nerves in your fingers that link to the vagus nerve that pain signals are sent to your brain. Commonly, the signal sent back will be to remove your finger from the heat source. All this can happen in an instant. You may also apply learned behaviour, like placing your finger in cool water to stop the burning process. Alternatively, you may scream, call for help, or become confused and not know what to do. Neurologically, the difference between a calm or heightened reaction is how much access to cognitive functions you have. When presented with threatening situations, the nervous system directs all its energy into survival, hence digestion stops, heart rate increases, and energy is pulled away from non-essential higher order cognitive processes, thus thinking is affected. 

Several factors contribute to how a person reacts to trauma, namely, how, when and why the trauma occurred. Reactions are also heavily dependant upon prior life experiences. If one has had experiences of nurture and support then their reactions are more likely to be calm and measured. Alternatively, if one has been raised in an environment where crying in pain from being burnt is not acceptable (sadly, this happens), emotions like fear can overwrite other reactions. A person’s survival instincts generally fall into the categories of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. 

Now imagine you’ve been hurt emotionally. If one knows strategies that will elevate the pain through healthy behaviours (like going for a walk, meditating, or seeking therapy) then cognitive functions may prevail. But what if these things aren’t known? What if crying for help does not work? Unfortunately, many people, especially young children, find themselves in this position. When emotional pain is unaddressed, the person’s vagus nerve still sends signals that there is a problem, however, when the desire for relief is not addressed, it gets stored in the body. That is where addictions emerged. 

Maté defines an addiction as any behaviour that provides temporary relief but causes harm in the long run. Aside from the obvious harmful addictions of drugs, smoking, alcohol, and some sexual activities, a person could develop an addiction to seemingly less harmful activities like shopping or excessive exercise. From Van der Kolk’s work, the message is clear; trauma stays in the body till issues are addressed. Breaking the cycle of trauma responses is hard, especially if the nervous system’s pattern of adverse responses was set in childhood. Essentially, children who grow up in abusive environments can become accustomed to anxiety states being normalised, therefore, it can feel strange when their body is learning how to relax without the use of addictions. Adopting one addiction for another can be an endless cycle till healing takes place at a nervous system level.

Ultimately, healing requires soothing the nervous system which, in turn, means working with the vagus nerve because it’s a major component of our anatomy that links the brain with all other parts of the body. There are many approaches that can be used to achieve this; no one size that suits all. Breathing exercises, trauma-informed yoga, art therapy, psychotherapy, journal writing, are a few examples of what some people find useful. Miller does not use any of these. 

In the spirit of new aged psycho babble, the documentary shows Miller encouraging people to enter into a state of anxiety, that is, a state in which their nervous system is activated. He achieves this by requesting they find trauma in their family history (not a difficult request). At the 4:30 min mark there is a difficult to watch scene in which Miller asks a person to “connect” with their childhood rage of being oppressed by their mother. We see the man shaking and trembling as he recalls his past. Miller stands by, almost excited by the emotional pain he’s elicited. He offers no emotional support, comfort, or suggestions for how the man can emotionally or cognitively process the event. Due to the absence of addressing trauma at the nervous system level, the exercise can be perceived as re-traumatising and, in turn, it places Miller in a position of power over his followers. One could even suggest that they shift their addictive behaviours from drugs, shopping, or whatever, onto being addicted to his approval. 

To add complexity to the situation, there is almost value in Miller’s approach to childhood trauma, that is, when the man trembles while recalling a time in his childhood where he felt unsupported, it is reminiscent of Peter Levine’s work (another of my fave psychologists). Levine has done extensive research on the role of the nervous system and anxiety, and he reports that shaking is an effective means of releasing stored energy from past trauma. However, Levine’s work is an evidence-based psychotherapeutic practice that incorporates psychoeducation. Moreover, Levine is not a cult leader who tries to get people to commit to his total control. In contrast, when Miller evokes activation of the nervous system he is not doing so in a therapeutic manner. Miller does not explain the body-mind connection through autonomical functions, rather, he explains things in terms of his interpretation of the Christian Bible. After all, he is the messiah, Jesus, right!?! 

Given that Miller may by successfully activating the vagus nerve through his techniques, it is understandable that some people find relief and therefore attribute this to Miller having some divine qualities. However, Miller’s full process of deliverance from addictions stops short of being effective therapy. There is no directed resolve of stored emotions, just the instruction of feeling them, which is not enough. Triggered but unresolved trauma energy can do more harm than good. Essentially, I see the situation as being one in which a lack of understanding of how the brain and body functions in response to trauma is being used to manipulate people into giving up money, dreams, and relationships, moreover, doing so fulfils Miller’s self-declared grandiosity. Given Miller’s narcissistic tendencies, I am highly sceptical of his overall approaches being in line with evidence-based therapy. Research about people who have been in cults, suggests they are more traumatised by the leaders’ control and manipulation than anything they experienced prior to joining. 


Abuse tendencies that are promoted through religious ideologies is being recognised as such a significant issue that the term spiritual bypassing has been coined. This refers to spiritual explanations that dismiss or belittle real trauma. For example, “it was the will of God” or “what doesn’t kill you makes us stronger” or to just “let things go”. Such directives are more likely to encourage dissociation than healing. Dissociation (distancing oneself from reality) can feel euphoric, therefore, spiritual practices that encourage it may appear (at surface level) to be “real”, however, dissociation is actually a serious mental health concern.

"To many people, spirituality becomes a sort of crutch used as a way of standing back up again in the face of life’s turmoil – and sometimes this is necessary. We all need support at some time or another in our lives. But the problem comes when spirituality is used as a drug for which we become dependent on in order to bypass the darker elements of our lives."

~ Aletheia Luna, What Is Spiritual Bypassing? (Beware of These 10 Types)

Miller’s approach to Christianity blends half truths about psychology with his personal narrative of Jesus. It is a classic example of partial-truths being more dangerous than outright lies. 

"In any given psychiatric hospital at any given time, there are probably several Jesus Christs. A colleague once told me of a group psychotherapy situation at a state hospital in which there were three Jesus' in the same group."

~ Alan Gettis, The Jesus Delusion: A Theoretical and Phenomenological Look

Contrary to stereotypes of destructive cult leaders, they do not necessarily have adverse mental health conditions like schizophrenia or bipolar. In the case of Miller, it appears he has some sort of basic delusion disorder (I cannot give an official diagnosis). The narrative he’s created is not very original; believing oneself to a Messiah is common. Mental health clinics around the world do not have a shortage of people who believe they are Jesus. Unsurprisingly, western countries are more likely to see people who believe they are Christ, while in other locations, individuals with delusional disorders may believe they are another grandiose personality like the Buddha, or a Scandinavian God, or whatever is a significant religious influence in their culture. 

Besides the potential for narcissism and delusional disorder, Miller demonstrates sound cognitive functions. Thus, there is some need to re-evaluate stereotypes of cult leaders. Further, in line with the school of thought that suggests that most mental health issues have a basis in trauma, one may ask what is Miller’s trauma? Perhaps if he received adequate support for whatever this was he would not be in the current situation of re-traumatising others? 

In conclusion, any religious ideology that makes claims about healing trauma warrants scrutiny. Within Australia, the issue of cult leaders, spiritual advisors, and some personal coaches, presenting misleading psychological advice often goes unrecognised. While Freedom of Religion is important, it is equally important to recognise when self-proclaimed leaders are using pseudoscience psychology that leads to spiritual bypassing and religious abuse. Continued education of trauma may save a lot of people from becoming victims of “Messiah’s” who do more harm than good.

References

7NEWS Spotlight. (2121). The Messiah: meet the Australian man who says he’s Jesus and his followers | 7NEWS Spotlight. http://Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0-ustkfE9w

Aletheia Luna. (2021, February 2). What Is Spiritual Bypassing? (Beware of These 10 Types) ⋆ LonerWolf. LonerWolf. https://lonerwolf.com/what-is-spiritual-bypassing/

Brown, J. (2019). Grounded Spirituality. Enrealment Press.

Cox, C. (2019, February 25). Types of Delusions. WebMD; WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/delusions-types

Dan Brown Quote: “Since the beginning of time, spirituality and religion have been called to fill in the gaps that science did not underst…” (n.d.). Quotefancy.com. Retrieved July 2, 2021, from https://quotefancy.com/quote/1018478/Dan-Brown-Since-the-beginning-of-time-spirituality-and-religion-have-been-called-to-fill

Gabor Maté. (2018). In the realm of hungry ghosts close encounters with addiction. London Vermilion.

Gettis, A. (1987). The Jesus Delusion: A Theoretical and Phenomenological Look. Journal of Religion and Health, 26(2), 131–136. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27505915

Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the tiger – healing trauma : the innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. North Atlantic Books.

Rosen, S. (2014). Cults: A natural disaster — Looking at cult involvement through a trauma lens. International Journal of Cultic Studies, 5, 12–29.

van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score : brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

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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Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). Politics. In B. Jowett (Trans.), Mit.edu. The Internet Classics Archive | Politics by Aristotle. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.1.one.html

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