Did Romans Kill Jesus Twice?: The Beardless Versus the Bearded Jesus

Most Christians think of Jesus as being a bearded man. This is not surprising given all the paintings, movies, and other forms of Christian iconography that present him in this manner. Therefore, it often comes as a surprise for people to learn Early Christians had a different image of their saviour, one of a clean shaven youth. To appreciate how Jesus aged and grew a beard, it’s helpful to go back to the basics.

Early Christianity, c.30-313 CE 

According to biblical accounts, Christianity began with a person known as Jesus of Nazareth wandering around Galilee talking to crowds. He spoke in metaphors then later explained the symbolic meaning of the parables to twelve devoted followers (Matthew 13:34). Jesus also established some traditions (like blessing bread and wine) and passed on doctrines relating to life on earth and in the afterlife.

After dying on a cross, Jesus rose from the dead, and his disciples were blessed with the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). The disciples then became apostles (Greek for messengers) and wandered the Roman Empire and beyond spreading what was called the Good News.

In some instances, the apostles spoke to crowds, however, this was dangerous because the messages they conveyed were considered to be a threat by some authorities. Further, while some level of religious tolerance existed, failure to honour Roman deities was unlawful. The Jewish community had an exemption from this law and some Early Christians attempted to argue that because Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism they should have the same privilege. However, many were unsuccessful and died as martyrs for refusing to hail Jove, Zeus, Aphrodite, etc.

As an alternative to preaching and practicing the religion in open spaces, Early Christians gathered in private houses. Exactly what took place in these gatherings is unclear. It is generally assumed there was some sort of shared meal (or Eucharist), alongside sharing Jesus’ parables, having theological discussions, and communal prayer sessions.

Churches founded by the apostles and/or affiliates of the apostles were based in Athens, Antioch, Ethiopia, Constantine, Armenia, Milan, and other locations around Europe, Africa, and Asia Minor. Particularly influential Churches were established in Corinth (by Paul), Alexandria (by Mark), and Rome (by Peter). Each Church had an overseer, which in Ancient Greek was called a bishop. The apostles were the first bishops, and they passed on the responsibility of overseeing Churches to others.

One of the original roles of Church overseers was to ensure each developing Christian community maintained a level of unity with others. There was no formal Bible in these humble beginnings, information was mostly passed on through word of mouth, with, of course, supplementary letters that later became part of the New Testament (i.e., the epistles or written communications from overseers to emerging Christian communities, many of which are credited to the apostle, Paul).

The Christian Bible does not contain any detailed account of Jesus’ physical appearance, therefore when Christians started painting his image, they did so in accordance with verbal information or out of their imagination. Potentially the oldest example is in a house Church in Dura-Europos, c.232, modern day Syria. 

A fresco painted on the wall of this dwelling depicts the Biblical scene of Jesus healing a paralysed man. The screenshot below taken from a short documentary video shows Jesus as a beardless man. 

Fresco of Jesus Healing a Paralysed Man, Dura Europos, screenshot 6:08 

Other examples of Jesus depicted in this manner are rare but not entirely uncommon. The beardless Jesus was also often portrayed with a wand that he waved around to conduct miracles (Also see: Biblical Archaeology Society: Jesus Holding a Magic Wand?)

Early Christains sometimes faced persecution, although this wasn’t necessarily as rampant as some accounts like to give. I imagine the situation was a bit like the number of QAnon believers who get arrested isn’t as high as the actual number of people who follow QAnon theories; similarly, the Early Christians who got persecuted didn’t necessarily experience this because of their beliefs per se, but because they were causing civil unrest. (Please note, I’m not using this example to try to imply any truth or falsity about QAnon or Christianity, it’s just a way of conceptualizing it was rebellious behaviours and stirring up troubles on the streets which led to people like Emperor Nero giving orders for Christian executions.)

On a theological level, some philosophers disagreed with Christianity, like Porphyry of Tyre (c.234–305 CE), wrote treatises Against the Christians. Therefore, considering Early Christians did get a bit of a bad rap, it’s not surprising many tried to stay under the radar.

Emperor Constantine (Reign: 306-37)

Everything changed In 313 CE when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. His personal conversion was recorded as being due to having a vision of a cross in the sky and being told “In this sign conquer”. Subsequently, the Roman army’s standard incorporated the Christian Chi Rho, ⳩. (The Chi Rho comprises of the first two letters of the Greek spelling of Christ, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, superimposed upon one another. X + P = ⳩.)

Constantine’s labarum, with a wreathed Chi Rho from an antique silver medal

(Source: Wikimedia Commons).

With Christianity’s rise to prominence, house Churches gave way to buildings that were funded by the Roman government. Hence, a relationship between Church and State developed.

Constantine ordering a council meeting (the Council of Nicea) to clarify doctrines and unify Christianity. The religion had become fractured with different groups having opposing opinions regarding issues like celibacy (and self castration), the Virgin birth (not everyone believed this was real), and the nature of the trinity (some believed God created Jesus, others believed Jesus always co-existed with God). Once matters were decided, opinions became canonised law. (The underlying assumption was along the lines of, when groups of wise men debated topics their final conclusions are the result of God speaking through them, therefore, must be honoured.) Once Christian canons were formed, anyone who disagreed could be labeled a heretic and sent into exile.

Under Emperor Constantine’s influence, leadership roles within Christianity became more formalised and a ranking system, like that of Roman military, began to develop. Apostle Peter’s leadership, as the overseer of the Church in Rome, was especially honoured. The Bible verse in which Jesus says “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18) justified the successive line of bishops in Rome being distinguished above others. Peter’s lineage was the overseers of overseers, bishops of bishops, in other words, Papal rulership.

The first reference to Roman bishop-hood was Bishop/Pope Siricius (c.334-399), although the title and power wasn’t fully inaugurated till a few centuries later.

Romanised Christianity 

Emperor Constantine was the ruler of Rome, and his endorsement of Christianity Romanised beliefs and customs.

Constantine’s cousin and successor, Emperor Julian, tried to revert Rome back to the traditional Gods and Goddesses, for example, by putting funds into restoring pagan temples. However, his efforts were unsuccessful, partly due to having a short reign (361-63). He died due to a spear wound obtained in the interlude of a battle with Persians. It is rumoured the fatal blow was not the enemies (Persians), but a Christian, moreover, a Roman Christian.

Julian was succeeded by Emperor Jovian (363-4), a Christian who detested paganism, thus funds went back into Christian Churches and away from pagan temples.

Emperor Valentinian I (364-75) was the next in line and he too supported Christianity. Valentinian reinstated many Christians into positions of power, like Constantine had done before him. Valentinian also handed the Eastern half of Rome over to his brother, Valens, to rule as co-Emperor while he focused on the West. 

Moving on a bit, Eastern Rome became known as the Byzantine Empire and it maintained Imperial authority until 1453 when the Ottoman Empire took control of the capital city, Constantinople. In the West, Rome went through a series of challenges before completely falling in 476. However, this may be viewed as only a political collapse; the role of Bishop in Rome had increased in power by this point, albeit, Papal rulership was not recognised throughout all of Christendom. Many viewed the Byzantine Emperor as head of the Church, and they had a significant say (to say the least) about who sat on Peter’s throne in Rome. Thus, at this point in history it is painstakingly clear that the grass roots of Christianity had subsided and Church leadership positions were held by affiliates of families who were powerful, wealthy, and of nobel status.

Now back to Jesus’ and his beard … 

One of the first appearances of Jesus with a beard comes from a Roman catacomb, late fourth century (after Constantine had Christianised Rome). He is depicted with the iconic halo and the Alpha and Omega letters which symbolise his eternal nature from the beginning to end.

Bust of Christ. c. Late 300s. Mural painting from the catacomb of Commodilla.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Another example of an early bearded Jesus, also from Rome, is the Apsis Mosaic, c.410-17CE. Not only is Jesus a mature man, his grand status is emphasised by gold paint and his stature is larger than those around him. This is a far cry from Early Christian depictions of a modestly cloaked young Jesus who blended in with his peers (see images below for comparison).

Apsis Mosaic, c.410-17CE, Santa Pudenziana, Rome

(Source: Wikimedia Commons

Christ Teacher, c.300s, Catacombe di Domitilla, Rome

(Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s speculated that the grand new Jesus look was part of a broader propaganda campaign run by Roman leadership to sway pagans towards Christianity. Like todays internet memes, the craze needed time to build some traction before it really took off. The young looking Jesus still featured in some pieces like Baptism of Christ, all the way up to the late 400s/early 500s.

Baptism of Christ. c.late 400s/early 500s, Mosaic in Arian Baptistry. Ravenna, Italy,

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the Italian mosaic above, Jesus is the young man in the center of the image with a halo around his head; he is submerged in water (the River Jordan), while John the Baptist, on the right, gives him blessings. The dove above represents the Holy Spirit coming down. The figure on the left is usually interpreted as being the personification of the river – in the ancient world it was normal to view bodies of water as gods.

I wonder if the inclusion of a Roman God in a Christian scene was a means of appeasing old laws in the event the government decided to revert back to paganism and insisted Roman Gods were honoured? Alternatively, it’s plausible Christians continued to believe bodies of water had spiritual properties that warranted recognition; the fusion of pagan beliefs with Christianity has many nuances.

As an alternative theory to Early Christians depictions of Jesus being based upon eyewitness accounts, his youthfulness as the main icon of the religion, can be interpreted as symbolic of Christianity being a young religion.

Those in the camp who believe Jesus was always a symbolic character can also note his early appearance was similar to the Greco-Roman God, Apollo:

Apollo of the Belvedere, c. 120–140 CE, Vatican Muesum, Vatican City. (Apollo was associated with healing, medicine, light, truth, music, and much more. Apollo was the son of the Sun God, Helios.)

(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was not so young. It had become a major religion, and the leadership of Rome who were promoting the faith were trying to convert citizens on a grand scale. You could say, the youthful Jesus did not pass marketing promotion standards. Jesus needed to be seen as all powerful, a true rival to his opponents, like Jupiter or Neptune (Zeus and Poseidon in Greek).

Below is an example of one of Jesus’ competitor deities, Neptune. Neptune is the central figure, his divine status emphasized by a halo around his head (halos were standard symbol to differentiate the divine from the earthly). Neptune’s left hand holds a trident pointing upwards to the heavens, while his right holds a fish pointing to the sea. He is riding a water chariot with four houses, to the left is a centaur and to the right a goddess. Surrounding the central image are references to the four seasons, as symbolized by women in various states of dress, and in between are farming duties being carried out by male figures.

Triumph of Neptune, c.200s, Roman mosaic Bardo Museum Tunis

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The grand status of Neptune being promoted by sporting a beard may be missed on contemporary audiences, but not so to people of the past. To Greco-Roman citizens, a beard indicated superiority and intellect, hence, Zeus, the supreme God of Olympus, also had a beard. (Zeus was known as Jupiter or Jove to Romans.)


Laurel-wreathed head of Zeus on a gold stater, Lampsacus, c. 360–340 BC

(Source: Public Domain)

Zeus was ether, earth, sky, and everything, so if he had a beard then surely there was truth in the beauty of a beard? Greek philosophers certainly thought so. This line of thinking prevailed all the way up to the 1700s when universities funded studies to ascertain empirical proof of facial hair being a physical indicator of superiority and intellect. Their hypothesis was not supported, but the fact that it was an academic discussion goes to show how far the impression went.

When Christian artists began portraying Jesus with a beard, it can be presumed they were doing so with the knowledge that the facial hair would be associated with superiority, as opposed to showing a beardless Jesus.

Jesus’ beard raised his image from that of a vibrant young person who mingled with commoners to that of an authoritative, wise man.

Christ Pantocrator, c.500s. Jesus as a saviour with a beard, Saint Catherine’s Monastery,Sinai.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the above example of an early Christ Pantocrator (i.e., pantocrator means “Almighty” or “all-powerful”) it is interesting to note Jesus is holding a book rather than holding a weapon, like Neptune’s trident or Zeus’ thunder bolt. Conversely, the Book could be viewed as a tool which Jesus metaphorically defeats his enemies (i.e., pagans? Jewish? Muslims?)

Arguably, no Early Christian associated Jesus with an authoritative text because none existed. Jesus was the living Word (John 1:1,14). The Christian Bible was a Roman invention.

The Roman Bible, the Vulgate …

In the later part of the fourth century, Pope Damasus hired a leading scholar of the era, Jerome, to get the job done. Jerome worked tirelessly for years translating Hebrew and Greek writings to produce the first full Old and New Testament in Latin. The Bible was completed in about 400 CE and became known as the Vulgate. It was the only legal version of the Bible for several hundred years.

Jerome’s work involved sorting through a multitude of documents and different versions of the Jesus narrative. Some accounts were completely thrown out and labeled heresy, while what remained became canonized. Jerome’s job description included placing the writings in an appropriate order, however, chapters didn’t have names like today’s Christians are familiar with, that came much later.

Much could be said about Jerome’s work, and he’s certainly received a lot of criticisms over the years. To put it briefly, given the Romanisation of Christianity changed the traditional appearance of Jesus from a young, freshly shaved youth with a wand, to an old man with a beard and book, I don’t hold much faith in the authenticity or authority of said book (although the Vulgate’s description of Moses with horns is pretty cool!)

I am by no means the first person to find it oddly ironic that Jesus nominated Peter, the bishop of Rome, to be the head of the Church. This was more than convenient to Constantine (and his predecessors) who wanted make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, despite a multitude of issues, Jerome’s work is still the backbone of contemporary Christianity.

By the end of the sixth century, depictions of Jesus with a beard were commonplace throughout Eastern and Western Churches. Specifically, the iconography of Jesus holding the Bible in his left hand and giving a blessing with his right was particularly enduring. 

Medallion with Christ from an Icon Frame. c. 1100, Byzantine Empire

(Source: The Met Museum

The transformation of the Early Christian Jesus into the Roman version was more than skin deep. The first believers focused on the Good News of imminent peace on earth. Consequently, they favoured a representation of the Christ as a Good Shepherd who looked after his flock. 

The Good Shepherd, c. 300–350, at the Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome

(Source: Wikwand)

The Good Shepherd, c.425, Ravenna, Italy

(Source: Wikwand)

The further one moves into Romanised Christianity, the images become more about suffering than prosperity, as notable in depictions of the crucifixion. No Early Christians depicted the crucifixion, this type of imagery did not come into vogue until appropriately 1000 CE. 

A crowded Gothic narrative treatment, workshop of Giotto, c. 1330

(source: Wikimedia Commons)

Conclusion

As a final twist in the beardless versus bearded Jesus saga, in Christ’s lifetime Jewish tradition required men to have beards, however, the Roman fashion was to be beardless. Therefore, as a Jew, you’d expect Jesus had a beard, and it may have been this assumption that lead to facial hair being depicted (or it was a way to appeal to Jews?). But if that is the case, why did Early Christians depict a shaved face? Is this yet another example of Jesus transgressing against Jewish laws?

Symbolic representations have a way of adhering to the cultural values of their creators, and conversely they shape the values of developing cultures. The young beardless version of Jesus says something about the Early Christians that is not present in the Romanised version of a middle-aged, bearded man. It is as though the Romans killed Jesus twice, firstly in the flesh, and secondly in symbolic iconography.

References

Jeremy Norman’s History of Information. (n.d.). The Earliest Christian House Church, With the Most Ancient Christian Paintings : History of Information. http://Www.historyofinformation.com. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.historyofinformation.com/detail.php?entryid=3499

Rattini, K. B. (n.d.). Constantine—facts and information. http://Www.nationalgeographic.com. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://api.nationalgeographic.com/distribution/public/amp/culture/article/constantine

Stewart, A. C. (2011). The Earliest History of the Christian Gathering: Origin, Development and Content of the Christian Gathering in the First to Third Centuries. By VALERIY A. ALIKIN. The Journal of Theological Studies, 62(2), 732–734. https://doi.org/10.1093/jts/flr062

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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