Rescuing Aristotle

image002by Robin Herbert

Perhaps you are familiar with the following passage from Bertrand Russell:

“Observation versus Authority: To modern educated people, it seems obvious that matters of fact are to be ascertained by observation, not by consulting ancient authorities. But this is an entirely modern conception, which hardly existed before the seventeenth century. Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.” [1]

This criticism of Aristotle is often repeated and unreflectively accepted due to the reputation of Bertrand Russell. Edward de Bono embroidered upon this theme:

“Finally there was Aristotle, with his word-based inclusion/exclusion logic. Aristotle believed that men had more teeth than did women. Although he was married twice, he never actually counted the teeth of either wife. He did not need to. With horses, the stallion had more teeth than the mare; so he “knew” that the male of the species has more teeth than the female. Aristotle derived his categories from the past and then argued whether something did or did not fit into a particular category.” [2]

It is useful to look at what Aristotle actually said:

”Males have more teeth than females in the case of men, sheep, goats, and swine; in the case of other animals observations have not yet been made.” [3]

Of course Aristotle is wrong, but he is wrong because he was misinformed about the observation, not — as Russell and de Bono suggest, because he did not believe that observations were important. Aristotle believed that observation was important and said so. He is claiming that his knowledge derives from observation and he is carefully listing only the species in which he believes that this observation has been made. His use of the word “yet” demonstrates that he believed more observations were necessary.

Much of Aristotle’s writings on animals uses first hand observation, but he could not possibly make personal observations of every animal on which he wrote and so had to rely on observations that were made by others whom he trusted. Any scientist working today does exactly the same, but has the luxury of multiple sources at his disposal, which Aristotle did not have.

Bertrand Russell was married three times but does not disclose whether or not he counted his wives’ teeth in order to ascertain that Aristotle was wrong. I imagine that, like Aristotle, his belief about this is formed by trusting an observation that has already been made, the difference being that his information, mid-twentieth century, is better than that available in the 4th century BCE.

Notwithstanding this advantage, Russell still manages to be wrong about Aristotle’s attitude toward observation. While Russell castigates Aristotle for not counting his wives’ teeth, it does not appear to have occurred to Russell to verify his own statement by going to the bookshelf and reading what Aristotle actually wrote.

Aristotle seems to be popular as a whipping boy these days, a sport often based upon myths like the one above. The more of these myths we hear repeated, the more people are inclined to believe that Aristotle held absurd opinions. The Wikipedia entry on the history of pain theory [4], for instance, says “Aristotle believed that pain was due to evil spirits that entered the body through an injury” and cites not a primary text by Aristotle, but “Models of Pain Perception” [5] by Steven Linton as the source. The author of that text says: “Aristotle, on the other hand, asserted that pain was due to evil spirits and the gods. These entered the body via an injury.”

Anyone who is even slightly familiar with Aristotle will be more than a little suspicious of that — it doesn’t sound like anything that Aristotle would say. Turns out that Linton uses as his source David Morris’ “Sociocultural and Religious Meanings of Pain” [6]. However, Linton appears to have misread Morris, who does not claim this, but rather mentions that some cultures believed evil spirits caused pain in a paragraph following one in which Aristotle is mentioned.

Thus by Chinese Whispers the claim gains spurious authority in Wikipedia, and the importance of citing primary texts is demonstrated once again.

Or take Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinov. In their book “The Grand Design” [7], they write:

“To explain the fact that objects clearly pick up speed as they fall, he [Aristotle] invented a new principle — that bodies proceed more jubilantly, and hence accelrate, when they come closer to their natural place of rest, a principle that today seems a more apt description of certain people than of inanimate objects.”

Again, to anyone who is even a little bit familiar with Aristotle, this claim seems suspect. It doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that Aristotle said, and the authors do not cite where this notion comes from. After a little digging I found that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has identified the source of this claim as the psychologist B F Skinner. The commentary is scathing:

“Indeed, it is evident that whatever the merits of the most penetrating of such criticisms, much of the contumely directed at Aristotle is stunningly illiterate. To take but one of any number of mind-numbing examples, the famous American psychologist B.F. Skinner reveals that ‘Aristotle argued that a falling body accelerated because it grew more jubilant as it found itself nearer its home.’ To anyone who has actually read Aristotle, it is unsurprising that this ascription comes without an accompanying textual citation. For Aristotle, as Skinner would portray him, rocks are conscious beings having end states which they so delight in procuring that they accelerate themselves in exaltation as they grow ever closer to attaining them. There is no excuse for this sort of intellectual slovenliness…” [8]

That was not difficult to find, but Mlodinov and Hawking, so careful with evidence when they are doing physics, seem to have uncritically believed this claim rather than checking it.

What I find astonishing is that, while a non academic like me with only a passing knowledge of Aristotle can read that and immediately spot that there is something wrong with the claim, the authors, not to mention the editors, sub-editors and proof-readers whose hands these books would also pass through, did not have even the sparse knowledge of Aristotle that I have. And yet this book and the authors’ reputations will likely stand as authority in the future on behalf of this false claim.

By far the most common example of Aristotle getting something wrong is that he believed that heavier bodies fall quicker than lighter bodies. It is quite difficult to track down where Aristotle said this as the claim is so familiar it is always uncited. It seems likely that for most people the source of this claim is Galileo’s “A Dialogue Concerning Two New Sciences” in which he attributes words to Aristotle which the philosopher seems never to have said. I could find two places where Aristotle has made a similar claim and one is in “On the Heavens”:

“Again, the suggestion of a certain ratio between the void and the solid in a body is no more equal to solving the problem before us. The manner of speaking will issue in a similar impossibility. For any two portions of fire, small or great, will exhibit the same ratio of solid to void, but the upward movement of the greater is quicker than that of the less, just as the downward movement of a mass of gold or lead, or of any other body endowed with weight, is quicker in proportion to its size. This, however, should not be the case if the ratio is the ground of distinction between heavy things and light.” [9]

Yes, Aristotle got it wrong. However, again, his failure is due to an incorrect observation rather than a faulty methodology. Aristotle is saying that a particular hypothesis is wrong because it is ruled out by an observation, so his approach was right on the principle, he was just wrong about the specific observation.

Perhaps the most fashionable criticism of Aristotle is that he believed that logic and not observation was the way to acquire knowledge about the world, as Lawrence Krauss puts it:

“But the point is, if we continue to rely on our understanding of the universe on Aristotelian logic, on classical logic, by what we think is sensible, we would still be living in a world where heavier objects, we think, fall faster than light objects, because they’re heavier, as Aristotle used to think, instead of doing the experiment to check it out.” [10]

The problem is that, as we have seen, Aristotle did not arrive to his conclusion through logic, but via faulty data. Moreover, Aristotle explicitly rejected the idea that logic can be used to gain knowledge about the world and insisted instead that we must start with an inductive process based on empirical data [11]. So the point that Krauss is making is exactly the same point that Aristotle made two thousand, three hundred years ago, and yet Krauss phrases it as a criticism of the Aristotelian approach!

I am not saying that Aristotle invented anything like the modern scientific method. He struggled to find the best mix of observation and deductive logic, and he did not employ the mathematical approach that Archimedes and Euclid would develop a few decades later. But we cannot read Aristotle as though he was writing yesterday, or a century ago or even five centuries ago. It does not diminish Aristotle’s stature that, in the fourth century BCE, one man in one lifetime did not complete what it would take the rest of humankind another 2,000 years to achieve.

Edward de Bono complained that Aristotle sent us in the wrong direction and that we would have achieved more, sooner if Aristotle had not existed. But de Bono is basing this opinion on factually incorrect information about what Aristotle wrote. It is de Bono, not Aristotle, who is tailoring his evidence to his conclusion.

Aristotle said much that has turned out to be wrong. As far as some of his errors are concerned, it may seem to us absurd that an intelligent man could have made them in any historical time, and yet it is certainly difficult to know what might and might not have seemed reasonable 2,300 years ago. Even today most of what we believe we have not tested for ourselves, and we trust a number of sources instead, just like Aristotle did. We do not know much about his sources either; for example, he may have heard information on the care and feeding of elephants from mahouts and thought it reasonable to trust them.

If you are still inclined to judge him harshly, consider what nonsense Hawking, Mlodinov, de Bono, Skinner, and a long list of others believe about Aristotle without a shred of evidence, and how many people in turn believe these authors, even though our sources of evidence today are far more numerous, more reliable, and more easily accessible than anything Aristotle had. Even today highly intelligent people can believe nonsensical notions without evidence, and none of us can claim to be immune from the problem.

Moreover, there is much in Aristotle’s writings that demonstrates careful observation. Aristotle’s description of a bird at various stages of its development can only have come from Aristotle himself having done the dissections of eggs at various stages of development or at least having been present at such a dissection. It is impressive work even today. [12]

The knee-jerk reaction to dismiss Aristotle is, I think, due to the fact that he was so enthusiastically adopted by the Scholastics in the middle ages. This is, in itself, a misstatement of the actual history of ideas, but even if it were the case, we can of course hardly blame Aristotle for how people interpreted him, often on the basis of partial texts, so long after his death.

It is time we revive Aristotle and rescue him from common slanders and misinformation. His achievements were impressive, and include setting us on a course for the development of the modern scientific method — through his systemization of logic and by the demonstration that logic alone cannot provide us with scientific knowledge about the world (contra, for example, what Plato — Aristotle’s teacher — thought). He was, as Kant describes him, “the Bede of the Empiricists.”

Those who advocate a scientific world view should, in fact, cherish Aristotle, recognising him as a pioneer. Think of him not as “The Philosopher” of Aquinas’s Summa, but as a man who can justifiably be considered the first biologist.

At the very least, next time you read or hear something ludicrous that Aristotle is supposed to have said or believed, don’t trust it unless you can find a primary text in which Aristotle actually said it. Evidence before credence.

Robin Herbert is a software developer from Sydney, as well as an intermittent student of mathematics with a long time interest in the history and philosophy of science.

[1] Bertrand Russell, The Impact of Science on Society, p. 7. Simon & Schuster Inc, 1968.

[2] Edward de Bono, Guardian, 25 January 1997.

[3] Aristotle, On the Parts of Animals: Book III.

[4] Wikipedia on the history of pain.

[5] Steven Linton, Models of Pain Perception, Elsevier Health, 2005.

[6] David Morris, Sociocultural and Religious Meanings of Pain.

[7] Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinov, “The Grand Design,” Bantam, 2010.

[8] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Aristotle.

[9] Aristotle, On the Heavens, Book IV, part 2.

[10] Lawrence Krauss vs William Lane Craig debate, North Carolina State University, March 30 2011.

[11] Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, Book II, part 19.

[12] Aristotle, History of Animals, Book IV, part 3.


47 thoughts on “Rescuing Aristotle

  1. Unfortunately, this is a problem for a lot of philosophers – especially those that appear to have some kind of rationalistic bent, such as Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, and Kant. Hume arguably has the opposite problem: I’ve seen many scientifically-inclined people celebrate him as a champion of empiricism and naturalism (and deservedly so), but they aren’t aware of whether his *arguments* are any good, or how radical some of the implications of his philosophy might be.

    >>Hey, philosophers, stop picking on Aristotle!

    To be fair, I don’t think *philosophers* are the primary problem here (well, not so much anymore. Certainly during the 16-17th centuries.) If anything, Aristotle is somewhat fashionable again in philosophy (just search for “neo-Aristotelian metaphysics”.)


  2. Robin – This is wonderful! Made my day. Aristotle gets a very raw deal in much of the academic world and it’s great to see someone trying to change this. Now for all those other badly treated ancients. They are rarely as daft as they are regularly portrayed by those who like to tilt at windmills.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Robin. congratulations on your lucid article. See also Charles Murray’s findings, from his book, Human Accomplishment:

    Top Twenty Western Philosophers, on a normalized scale from 0 to 100:

    100 Aristotle
    87 Plato
    74 Kant
    51 Descartes
    46 Hegel
    39 Aquinas
    37 Locke
    36 Hume
    27 Spinoza
    27 Leibniz
    26 Socrates
    24 Schopenhauer
    21 Berkeley
    20 Nietszche
    19 Hobbes
    18 Russell
    17 Rousseau
    17 Plotinus
    17 Ficht
    It is clear that Aristotle and Plato stand head and shoulders above the rest.

    Sloppy research into quotations seem to be all the vogue these days. Our inestimable philosopher/scientist, Neil deGrasse Tyson has also made his mark with ‘sloppy’ quotations, see: ‘If We Can’t Trust Neil deGrasse Tyson, Who Can We Trust?‘(

    Why is this happening? Do they think celebrity status confers on them immunity from scrutiny and criticism? Or does celebrity status disable normal rational processes?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, I have never read either in the original, but I had always gotten the impression that Aristotle had to be considered more sensible and more empirically minded than Plato. I am surprised to read that there is apparently that much animus against him. If anybody should be seen to have sent Western thought into the wrong direction it would probably be the Neo-Platonists…


  5. Perhaps Russel was more eager to undo the residues of medieval Scholastic treatments of Aristotle than he was in careful exposition of the original. IIRC Russell makes the same blunders in A History of Western Philosophy. And don’t count Plato out as an observer of nature. He made some observations of the way denuding the hills around Athens of ground cover would ruin the local ecosystem. I await the scholar who can full parse the traces of Persian and Babylonian astronomy in Greek scientific, cosmological, and metaphysical thought.


  6. This was a great article. I have argued among my friends that the part of the painting “The School of Athens” where Plato points to the sky and Aristotle points to nature is a kind of illustration of the origins of rationalist and empiricist epistemology in Western philosophy. Perhaps Aristotle cannot be considered a fully formed empiricist, but he certainly laid the groundwork. His description of the form of a signet ring being impressed upon wax as a kind of metaphor for representation is just another way of talking about the tabula rasa, the blank sheet of paper (Locke), or today’s notion of transduction (of light arrays, for instance, into encoded neural impulses). I often run into serious opposition to the idea that Aristotle had anything to do with empiricism.


  7. Neal Stephenson briefly describes a thinly disguised version of Aristotle in his novel Anathem, which acknowledges Aristotle’s empiricism. But ge condemns Aristotle for his pedantry! There is no winning. Of course, Stephenson’s novel also presented a much more extensive and vastly more laudatory disguised version of Husserl, which by itself may tell you where he was coming from.


  8. I’d just like to mention that I fixed the error in Wikipedia’s “History of pain theory” article that is explained here, so if you look for it and don’t find it, that’s why.

    Best regards, Bill Skaggs (User:Looie496 on Wikipedia)


  9. First, the anatomy reference is overly generous to Aristotle, who had no problem making other unjustified pronouncements, such as that the brain’s primary function was for cooling blood.

    That said, lots of ancient philosophers made pronouncements without investigation.

    That said, per Labnut’s piece several days ago on virtue ethics, I’m heading straight into the world of presentism.

    Without connecting Aristotle’s thoughts on slavery to virtue ethics (folks, Hume made some racist statements himself), can we condemn him in general for supporting slavery? And, for racism that Likewise, can we condemn him for sexism? His views on women (which also have more unsubstantiated claims about human anatomy and physiology) are here at Wiki:'s_views_on_women

    I say, yes, we can. (And Hume, too, sadly.) And, I reject, at least in its most extreme form, presentism. (And, I don’t understand how a virtue ethicist can support it.)

    To me, a full-on embrace of presentism is in part an argument for humanity’s lack of ability for cultural evolution. The claim seems to be that an Aristotle couldn’t rise to see above the vast acceptance of slavery around him, and therefore, we should accept this blot on his character. Well, if that’s true, then how could any reformer actually rise above such background? Slavery was commonly accepted in the British Empire when Wilberforce spoke, and certainly in the U.S. when Garrison did.

    Ditto on sexism. After all, Aristotle’s mischaracterization of Sparta, and modern myths about it, aside, at least a few societies were more enlightened at his time, on women, including Sparta.

    Could we accept, if grudgingly, that Aristotle had some degree of sexism and racism, but a lesser degree than he actually did? Arguably yes.

    And, we need not just look at modern times.

    Stoicism talked about the brotherhood of man, although, with its goal of ataxaria, it did little to make that brotherhood a de facto reality.

    Presentism, in at least its hardest forms, also appears to give a hat tip to is = ought fusion via ev psych. As I see it, the argument is, essentially, on racism, that humans are tribalist by nature, and coming into regular contact with out-groups normally leads to racism. Slavery, whether in actual war, or just general raiding, then gets justified on race/ethnic grounds. And, via Pop Ev Psych, especially, man the hunter (rather than the reality of man the scavenger) bringing fresh meat for sex and power, etc. is a natural basis of sexism that wasn’t easily overcome.

    Add in Aristotle’s alleged comparison of sex with women for reproductive necessity (vs. pederasty for pleasure) to riding a horse for transportation, and the picture’s complete.


    As for “the first scientist”? No. I might call Aristotle a proto-scientist, but not a scientist. I’ll call Archimedes the first scientist. His work with the adulteration of Hiero’s crown has the basic ideas of formulating, then testing, a hypothesis.


  10. It is always refreshing to have some portion of the facade of modern science–or its history–crumble so as to expose the truth behind it. From the authoritative (yet sometimes “slovenly”) examples chosen here it becomes evident just how willing scientists can sometimes be to “follow the leader” instead of checking the facts.

    Another example is found in Galileo’s Dialogue. Through careful observation Galileo uncovered the truth that falling bodies released at the same time over Earth’s surface collide with the ground at the same time. But he proposed another simple gravity experiment whose result remains unknown because the observation has never been made.

    Galileo wondered what would happen:

    “. . . if the terrestrial globe were pierced by a hole which passed through its center [and] a cannon ball [were] dropped through [it].”

    With modern technology this experiment could easily be done with smaller bodies in an orbiting satellite or an Earth-based laboratory. In either case, the apparatus may be called a Small Low-Energy Non-Collider. Instead of finding out by observation, introductory physics courses routinely tell us what supposedly happens: simple harmonic motion. Why not also provide empirical evidence to support the prediction?

    Everybody just accepts the word (equations) of Newton and Einstein. For this case of one body falling through the center of a larger body, the equations have never been checked. Their validity is routinely accepted on the basis of what we may evidently refer to as PSEUDO-Aristotilean logic.

    Out of respect for the spirit of the real Aristotle and the real Galileo (and since gravity is a well known source of headaches) isn’t it time we “rescued” modern physics by conducting Galileo’s simple experiment? If the authorities of physics are correct, then why not confirm it by letting Nature speak on the matter?

    Further arguments to this effect can be found here:


  11. Very good reminder!
    But I’d say more:
    Last night I heard a master skeptic say something like that: ‘the man is not a scientific animal; he just looks for patterns’. He tried to explain this way why people tend to stick to conspiracy theories or why they create them.
    For someone totally unaware of what science could mean this might look as if science deals with everything else, except patterns: patterns would be unscientific…
    I’m very tired of those quick, ‘intelligent’ insights hastily baked during TV shows.
    The man is essentially a scientific animal (and I can’t say that of other animals because I don’t have the means to check it, though I think that no animal can escape the fate of knowing, of being aware of the world surrounding him)!
    What could differentiate one science from another is that some are more effective: some of us, researchers by nature, are quickly satisfied with the first hypothesis at disposal as if with a conclusion. Daily routine and history show that this is almost often the case, though we can witness some progress.
    It’s hard to believe that some of us believe that the Greeks, even long before Aristotle, could be unscientific or still precursors of science in spite of their architecture, medicine, astronomy, naval engineering etc. I even admit we do more impressive things, though this does not make us better scientists, perhaps just more presumptuous.
    I’m perhaps overusing Kuhn’s ‘paradigm’, and a little too ’emotionally’, but what if this concept can still pacify our presumption and open our minds to what science is able to and not to what we think it should or must be?
    As far as I know, philosophy – in Greek, at least – started as a byproduct of empirical research, probably with Tales, but soon has become in itself an area of interest, yet never being able to turn its back to the world (didn’t several of the Presocratics named their treatises ‘On manifestation’ – ‘Peri Physeos’?). Where did some of us get the idea that the world can be modeled by logic only, I mean, without experimenting it? From the idealism? I’m sorry, this isn’t what any serious idealism was meant for.
    Some say that what we actually have from Aristotle is a fraction of what he produced: his dialogues, all lost, are said to be more brilliant than Plato’s! I believe that his acquaintance with Plato made him aware of his own true mission: put an order in that beautiful mess Plato did with philosophy by disproving concepts in one dialogue that seemed established in another (takes down his own ‘Idea’ in the Parmenides), and by his taste for inconclusiveness (Hipias Minor, Thaetetus, Protagoras, Euthyphro etc.) Aristotle understood that we need some certainties, even if passing ones: and so he parsed almost every word from Tales till himself and made the first solid view of knowledge as one, unified thing.


  12. “Bertrand Russell was married three times but does not disclose whether or not he counted his wives’ teeth in order to ascertain that Aristotle was wrong.” LOL 🙂

    Aristotle got many things wrong but given the state of knowledge (the term here understood not in the sense of justified true belief…) he had to start from, I find his achievements very impressive.


  13. I don’t have any problem with Aristotle despite his errors, it seems to me there is a lot of presentism casting a shadow over his marvelous work. Aristotle is a crucial author that enabled Kant standing a skeptic position regarding the empiricist school. He disagreed with the radical empiricism issued by Hume and returned to the Aristotelian categories to offer us a heroic attempt aiming to explain how knowledge works.

    Another remarkable aspect of Aristotle’s philosophy is teleology. Contra Democritus claimed… “It is absurd to suppose that ends are not present in nature because we do not see an agent deliberating.”

    Teleology was explored by Kant in his Critique of Judgement, by Hegel and various neo-Hegelian schools — proposing a history of our species some consider to be at variance with Darwin, as well as with the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels.


  14. Socratic;
    First, the anatomy reference is overly generous to Aristotle, who had no problem making other unjustified pronouncements, such as that the brain’s primary function was for cooling blood.

    That said, per Labnut’s piece several days ago on virtue ethics, I’m heading straight into the world of presentism.

    I’m glad you did because you have rather nicely illustrated the dangers of presentism. You couldn’t have given me a better example 🙂

    Until a mere 30 years ago it was widely believed that most of the body’s heat was lost through the head, even with the modern science at our disposal. So how could you possibly have expected Aristotle to have known better 2,300 years ago? Today, though, most authorities claim about 10% of body heat is lost through the head.

    But it is more complicated than that. This study claims most heat is lost through the trunk and head:
    Hayward JS, Collis M, Eckerson JD. Thermographic evaluation of relative heat loss areas of man during cold water immersion. Aerosp Med. 1973;44:708–711.

    But then it gets even more complicated. That study was done while the body was immersed and therefore was not overheating. Now any endurance runner in a hot climate will tell you that he loses copious amounts of sweat from his head. I can tell you from personal experience that it is like watching a dripping faucet as the sweat rolls off my forehead. What is happening is that the body preferentially protects the brain from overheating because that is the worst possible outcome. But that only happens during endurance running in a hot climate, something that immersion testing will not detect.

    The Greece of Aristotle’s time was obsessed with exercise (where do you think the marathon came from?) so he would have been familiar with copious sweating from the head, hence his conclusion. But he didn’t have our labs and testing equipment. Even with our labs and testing equipment we still thought, until 30 years ago, that the head dissipated the most heat. And in any case, under conditions of severe exercise under very hot conditions, that is probably true anyway, in order to protect the brain from overheating.

    This is further complicated by the fact at that time there was no agreement in Greek medicine about the function of the brain. This was largely because the body was considered sacred and therefore dissection was not practised. See

    Given all these facts it is hardly surprising Aristotle reached that conclusion. You have fallen into the trap of presentism and illustrated why it is so important that we understand context before we make judgements.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Society’s Aristotle Problem
    It does not require much digging to find out that the Executor of Aristotle’s Will was his student Antipater, who was also the Executor of Alexander’s Will, and overall regent of his empire after his sudden death… At the time, it was widely believed that Antipater, officially suspected by Alexander, killed him first. The theory could not be developed further, as Antipater established plutocracy all over, including Athens (to be a citizen, one had to be rich enough).

    The real scandal is this: how come, in the last 23 centuries of philosophy, Aristotle was not suspected previously to be the master mind of the destruction of democracy?

    Were thinkers distracted by Aristotle’s outrageous sexism, or his extravagant, long winded defense of slavery?

    These conceptions were condemned at the time: the Germans were much less sexist; they hated slavery, and authority. The Romans were struck that armed German women would engage in combat, just as the Greeks had been struck by the Amazons, north of the Black Sea.
    Aristotle helped to found what Lamarck would call later biology. He sent students to observe, and report upon the living species. (Much confusion had been caused by fossils.)
    However, in his delirious sexism, Aristotle did not count the teeth in women’ s mouths. And asserted females in general had fewer teeth.

    Another famous error of observation: Aristotle neglected air resistance in the matter of force. So he believed that inertia did not exist, and one had to keep on exerting a force for a body to keep on going. Buridan corrected the mistake in 1320 CE, nearly seventeen centuries later.

    Thus, that Aristotle made ridiculous mistakes ought to have been observed, long ago.

    The reason why the glaring errors in Aristotle were overlooked is that plutocrats, for the next 23 centuries, saw in him the highest, mock-intellectual, pseudo-sophisticated justification for what they were doing, stealing power from most of We The People.
    Plutocracy was Aristotle’s baby.

    This was highly successful. Bertrand Russell claimed that: “Observation versus Authority: To modern educated people, it seems obvious that matters of fact are to be ascertained by observation, not by consulting ancient authorities. But this is an entirely modern conception, which hardly existed before the seventeenth century.”
    Russell, by birth, was one of Britain’s highest Lords. The lie that Russell imposes above is that authority always ruled. (Thus his personal rule at the House of Lords was justified!) Better: Russell claims that observation was a recent invention!

    These are, on Russell’s part, counterfactual statements: even baboons determine facts by observation. By saying something so absurd, Russell, and his ilk, want us to forget that, before Aristotle’s Executor of His Will took power, imposing plutocracy, the ancient world knew direct democracy… And science.

    Propaganda by those who profited from Aristotle has corrupted the philosophical discourse. In particular by instituting a habit to consult Aristotle and his ilk, in the matter of facts, rather than by learning history, archeology, and the facts of what really happened.


  16. Presentism is always a danger – either to disparage old ideas or to praise them. It is easy to find both – Aristotle was not a scientist – he used observation, but that is not enough to be science. Haven’t we argued this long enough in the debates about scientism?

    The one issue I would be interested in more on is teleology – how did the notion of a single or primary function of a person, an organ, a tool get started and was it ever as rigid as some people now champion.

    For instance, some would claim that the only purpose of sex is procreation, on the face of it this is wrong, but we get those who argue that any other use of sex other than procreation is wrong. Is this what Aristotle thought (not necessarily about sex) or is this a bastardization of his thinking?


  17. There seems to be a deep need in science, and elsewhere in society, to demonstrate that the old guys didn’t get it but we do. And not just Aristotle — try a deeper reading of the despised Scholastics! A parallel: one still hears how “primitive” people with their foolish beliefs are so far from any idea of scientific method. After three years in the Sahara desert, I can attest that those poor farmers do science constantly, watching every input and result to change practice and try to ensure enough food to feed their families. Per Twain, hunger has a wonderful way of focusing the mind.


  18. Excellent article; the only article thus far is not loaded with ideology.

    Yet, if Aristotle did not put the principle (rationale) before the observation, then he was wrong. All observations are fallible, limited by the available technology while the principle could be infallible (correct eternally).

    The heavier object of course falls faster than the lighter one for most items while the air resistance was not excluded. A coin will definitely falls much faster than a feather. In fact, 99% the objects falling observations at Aristotle’s time support his statement, and this fact is not changed even today. A coin and a feather fall at the same rate only (only,…, only,…) in vacuum tube. Of course, a rubble ball and a solid gold ball of the ‘same size’ will fall at the same rate. ‘The same size’ is a big ‘caveat’ which accounts the 1% exception. Why is this caveat more correct than the coin/feather ‘observation’?

    The ‘principle’ must overrule the observations. I have showed a ‘4-lock-litmus test (a principle)’; anything which is not ‘key(s)’ for these 4-locks cannot be the correct theory for the nature-physics. Can Higgs mechanism be a key? If not, it will be a total trash regardless of the hype for giving the newly discovered (on July 4, 2012) boson a name as “Higgs boson”.


  19. Roo Bookaroo,
    There is no “Western thought”. It exists nowhere, and nobody has claimed to be its advocate. This is an abstraction created in your brain and supported by a phrase to give it the appearance of substantiality.

    Please do some research before making such a strong claim. I’ve done a little research on your behalf and the evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of the thesis that there is such a thing as Western thought.

    For example:

    1. 482,000 references to ‘Western thought’ in Google;
    2. Western thought – Wikipedia article (

    The term Western thought is usually associated with the cultural tradition that traces its origins to Greek thought and the Abrahamic religions. (See also Western culture)

    Cornerstones in this tradition are:

    Deductive reasoning
    Rule of law
    Western society may be thought of as following an evolution that began with the philosophers of Athens such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It continued through the Roman Empire and, with the addition of Christianity (which had its origins in the East), spread throughout Europe. During the colonial era, it became implanted in the Americas and in Australasia.

    3. 382,000 references to ‘Western thought’ in printed books – Google Books (;
    4. 51,137 books in English about Western thought – (;
    5. MIT course – History of Western Thought, 500-1300 (;
    6. Selected books(there are lots more)
    – A Short History of Western Thought (;
    – A History of Western Thought: From Ancient Greece to the Twentieth Century (;
    – Classics of Western Thought, volumes 1,2 &3 (;
    – A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell (;

    I am afraid your claim (‘There is no “Western thought”. It exists nowhere, and nobody has claimed to be its advocate‘) is plainly wrong, on all three counts.


  20. Patrice Ayme,

    Your comment is biased and starts with a “petitio principii”, that means that you link his philosophy with plutocracy, which is presentism and it’s wrong. He didn’t destroy the Athenian democracy, firstly he had the foreigner status with no civil rights, he couldn’t vote. Secondly you ignore, or wish to ignore, that that democracy had two poles, the wright and left wings of that democracy. That democracy was corrupted, Aristotle had nothing to do with this asymmetry, he was busy with his philosophical work, so that democracy imploded in behalf of its own contradictions. The greatest expert in political systems of the ancient age was Aristotle. Your comment is a falacia ad hominem, and, once more, presentist.


  21. As a brief article on an interesting – and important – topic, I think it well written and thoughtfully argued. Certainly, whatever our responses to the past, one must return to the original texts, difficult as they may be.

    I agree with John Garrett, but would take the matter much further. Modernity begins, in the 16th Century. with a deep suspicion of the history of knowledge – even, in the cases of Luther in one respect and Descartes in another, with an outright rejection of the that history. Then in the 18th Century, when the study we have come to call “history” took off, that study was used in an adversarial manner, not to validate the past but to criticize it (Gibbon, Voltaire, Hume). In short, Modernity is recognizable as such because it claims to have ‘put the past behind us,’ and opened it to ridicule.

    But this was tossing out the baby with the bathwater. The reason why post-modernity is the inheritor of Modernity, and not a reaction against it, is because it celebrates our presumed complete release from the demands of understanding the history that has got us here. One can talk about the cloudy generation of incoherent narratives one finds among certain academics, but one must also note the young men and women who know nothing of history, and are proud of it. (“Abraham Lincoln? He was a general during the 2nd World War?” as one undergraduate said to me once).

    Defending Aristotle is a good thing, but it is really easy to do – the texts are there, if one wants to learn, they should struggle with them. (And what ever his problems with what we know as science or what we know of society, Aristotle still remains the first major Western systematizer of what we know of logic).

    But the deeper, broader problem, the rejection of history, will be a bone to be gnawed on for some time, until we can both diagnose it properly, and find a cure. (Without which, the cultural prognosis is not good….)


  22. Hi All,

    Thanks for the comments so far. I have been out of range of any internet access for a few days and haven’t had a chance to comment so far, but I will try to get in a couple of comments before the 5 day cut off.


  23. Adding to EJ Winner: the stereotypes re ISIS and Muslims are another example of forgetting history: in this case, many centuries of awful violence between Shias and Sunnis, the horrors for Muslims of the Iraq and Syrian wars, and the hatreds and resentment that came from them. It ain’t about ideology, folks, it’s about history.


  24. Hi ejwinner,

    You wrote: “Defending Aristotle is a good thing, but it is really easy to do”.

    Well, the point here isn’t defending Aristotle but describing his work according to an objective, non-presentist way. Some Western philosophers didn’t attack nor defend him, they just ignored him. This is pretty clear regarding his theory of knowledge.

    You also wrote: “Modernity begins, in the 16th Century, with a deep suspicion of the history of knowledge – even, in the cases of Luther in one respect and Descartes in another, with an outright rejection of that history”.

    This is a bit confusing. Whatever Modernity means, we see features of modernism in Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Euclid, Archimedes, Epicurus, etc. Regarding Luther, it should be noted that he considered Copernicus insane and heretic. The first humanists didn’t reject history, on the contrary they turned back on classics.


  25. Why throw a perfectly good life preserver to Aristotle as we busy ourselves rearranging philosophical deck chairs on the Titanic earth? This wastes chair arranging energy and may also contribute to climate change.

    “But the deeper, broader problem, the rejection of history, will be a bone to be gnawed on for some time, until we can both diagnose it properly, and find a cure. (Without which, the cultural prognosis is not good….)”

    Questions: Why is there a problem? Why is history rejected? Why be a doctor? Why find a cure? Why bother rehabilitating this biological human infestation on prison earth when a large can of insecticide would mercifully end the nuisance of their overly dramatic self-inflicted suffering?

    Answer: We (I use “we” presumptuously and without permission) bother ourselves with these thoughts because we have no choice. We have an innate need to think, know, care and participate in the mystery. That which is inexplicable must be explained.

    What is the source of this need?

    “Another remarkable aspect of Aristotle’s philosophy is teleology. Contra Democritus claimed… “It is absurd to suppose that ends are not present in nature because we do not see an agent deliberating.”

    Aha! The source is the mischievous Trickster Nature with its notorious anonymous invisible agents. And if morals are only social constructions, and nature brought forth humanity, then morality is nature’s social construction project.

    Nature is uncreated and preexistent and has no cause, so He says. Therefore Nature scratches its androgynous head every day wondering where it came from while giving birth to and exploding stars. Nature is still experimenting and learning this whole life and music of the spheres gig.

    If Aristotle rescue initiative is successful as pilot test, perhaps additional capital funding can be unlocked for humanity lifeboat fleet expansion. Future VE program development note: Desire to know is mandatory.

    Final note: I recently enrolled in Socratic/Platonic midwifery training program

    Coincidentally the program requires my wife and I to compare teeth count.


  26. An excellent article! I think the tendency to judge historical figures by modern standards is one we always have to be cautious of. Aristotle was amazing for his times. Criticizing him for not understanding the world as well as we do, without understanding the intervening 2300 years, is facile.

    I think criticizing Aristotle is a tradition that has roots in the struggle against many medieval scholars who turned him into a source of dogma, but that wasn’t Aristotle’s fault. It would be similar to scholars 1000 years from now turning Stephen Hawking into a source of dogma.


  27. Hi wtquinn,

    You wrote: “Answer: We (I use “we” presumptuously and without permission) bother ourselves with these thoughts because we have no choice. We have an innate need to think, know, care and participate in the mystery. That which is inexplicable must be explained”.

    Who is talking about mystery? I don’t do it, in any case. You wonder what the source of this need is and link my statement in a biased way: “Another remarkable aspect of Aristotle’s philosophy is teleology. Contra Democritus claimed… It is absurd to suppose that ends are not present in nature because we do not see an agent deliberating.” So what? What is the problem?

    This is a philosophical and cultural debate whether mystery has little or none room. The sole need I see in this topic leads to show how some philosophers have explored teleology as a plausible discourse that applies to philosophy and science and that’s all. For me is perfect that you consider nature a mystery, but this is off topic.


  28. EJ,
    But the deeper, broader problem, the rejection of history, will be a bone to be gnawed on for some time, until we can both diagnose it properly

    It is indeed a problem when we have people from the 21st century sniping at a figure from 2,300 years ago, with no understanding of the cultural milieu then. It is presentism personified, or, as SelfAwarePatterns said, it is facile.

    It is the problem of late modernity(not post-modernism) that Anthony Giddens has written so much about. Briefly paraphrased, we used to derive knowledge and identity from tradition and authority. But today, late modernity, in its heady quest for total freedom, has cut itself adrift from authority and tradition. It recognises no authority except its own authority to assemble its own beliefs at will from its own chosen sources. The result is the so-called pastiche man who fluidly assembles his identity and beliefs from many sources, changing them as his needs demand. He has no anchors either in history or culture. He has no authority except his own to pick, choose and assemble beliefs as he desires. Late modernity man(pastiche man) lives in the now, attending to his desires. He has no need of history because he rejects authority and tradition. His mode of rejection is contempt and contumely. Here are a couple of references, and to get you started.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Hear, hear to getting rid of tradition and authority – good riddance, I say. This was exactly Aristotle’s problem with the teeth – taking someone else’s word for it. We must examine everything we can for ourselves and come to conclusions that fit today not yesterday and certainly not 2000 years ago. If we relied on tradition and authority we would make no progress (like still using sexist language.)


  30. Let me just add that wasn’t questioning authority the whole point of the essay? Why take someone else’s word for what Aristotle said when you can go and read Aristotle for yourself? You will learn so much more by studying primary sources whether it be an author or nature.


  31. @Patrice Ayme I was looking at Aristotle’s science and did not touch on everything about which he wrote. Since it has come up in comments I would like to deal briefly with a couple of issues.

    Firstly there is the issue of Aristotle’s supposed posthumous authority. This is largely a myth, or at least I can find no evidentiary backing for it. People were disagreeing with him and correcting him right from the start. He did not have any special status except with some of the scholars of the Islamic golden age and with certain of the schoolmen, notably Aquinas. As for his being used as a backing for Plutocracy, I am afraid I would need to see some evidence, I know of none.

    As I said in the article, Aristotle cannot be judged as though we were writing after his time. In terms of attitudes to women he was a man of his time and society. Even today there are glass ceilings and pay inequality in the most advanced countries. For his time Aristotle’s attitudes were unremarkable. The knowledge we have of the somewhat more egalitarian laws of some Germanic and Gallic tribes comes to us from Tacitus, Suetonius and Caesar, who were later than Aristotle. I am not aware of him knowing about them.

    Similarly his attitudes to slavery were a product of the time. Slavery was abolished in the United States in the 19th century and even today I doubt that any of us can really know that we don’t use a product which has been produced, at least in part, by slave labour. Two thousand, three hundred years ago his views were unremarkable. There were few voices raised against slavery at the time and his views do him no credit but they do him no particular discredit in his context.

    As for glaring errors, they are only glaring to people with knowledge that developed since Aristotle’s time. Aristotle did not, as you say, neglect the matter of air resistance in the matter of motion. He mentions explicitly that the motion of a body is impeded by the medium through which it travelled, including air, and mentioned how this would be affected by the movement of the medium itself. In some ways he understood the situation better than his critics, such as Buridan and Philoponus. Indeed his premise, which was commonplace at the time, that empty space was something perhaps eluded physicists until the early twentieth century.

    And, no, Aristotle did not assert the females in general have fewer teeth than males, as I point out in my essay.


  32. @ejwinner Thanks for the comments. I have to disagree that defending Aristotle is easy, it is not. The myths are being propagated by people who are more intelligent than me and who have made important contributions in other fields, people like Bertrand Russell, B F Skinner, Stephen Hawking, Leonard Mlodinov, Lawrence Krauss. All the time I come up against the “so you think you are smarter than Stephen Hawking” type attitude. Referring people to primary texts rarely does any good.

    It doesn’t help when sometimes professors of Ancient History will assert that the ancient Greeks found the idea of testing illogical and believed that all knowledge could be found through logic. As though the ancient Greeks were univocal on anything. The professor in question was writing in support of the “Genesis created science” thesis, the idea that modern science was almost entirely a product of Judeo-Christian thought and that the ancient Greeks and Romans only held it back.

    In a debate about that I was not even able to tread water because any reference to primary material was met with a blanket ‘Thank you for your opinion, but I will take the word of a professor of Ancient History in this matter’ type of attitude.

    @SocraticGadfly Did you take my advice and look at what Aristotle actually said? I just looked at it now and I am puzzled at your reference to “no investigation”. Yes, Aristotle’s conclusions are based on investigations, as is clear from the text. He got it wrong and Herophilus, just a little later, put us on the right track, but Aristotle got it wrong through imperfect investigations and imperfect reasoning, It is not true that he had no problem making unjustified pronouncements, the entire direction of his work was to give us the tools in order that we can make justified pronouncements.

    You see the need to have someone as the “first scientist”. But science is something that developed over time and with contributions from many people from all parts of the world. Archimedes was, indeed, a key player in the development of the scientific method with his explicit use of mathematical models and rigorous testing. But let us not assume he operated in a vacuum.

    @labnut Thanks for the comments. I also think that the trend of celebrity science is something of which we need to be careful, although it was probably always somewhat in evidence. But if we let “science and reason” become just mantras or incantations and allow the number of twitter followers to become the measure of whether someone is right or wrong then we are in trouble.


  33. I was only concerned with Presentism with respect to scientific judgment, and its application to moral judgement is only tangential to my subject.

    Applying Presentism to moral judgement is a slightly different matter. We are all the products of our own present. I wonder how many here would bite the bullet and assert that it is an objective fact that slavery is wrong. Or to say, as an objective fact, that people should not be regarded as property?

    I would say that these things are objectively true but admit freely that I can prove no such thing. I would gather from previous conversations here that the consensus is that these are not objective truths.

    What, then, is your criticism of Aristotle’s attitude to slavery?


  34. Aristotle may not have been misinformed about women’s teeth. Maybe he counted his wife’s teeth, and came up short because she had impacted wisdom teeth or had lost a couple of teeth or some other reason.

    Here is a defense of Aristotle’s physics.

    Add Thomas S. Kuhn to the long list of philosophers with silly straw man attacks on Aristotle, with little indication that they actually read his works. Kuhn repeats some of those same stupid myths about falling objects, and uses them to support his paradigm shift theory.


  35. Since I didn’t make it clear before, I will now, Robin, to start: I believe that Aristotle made statements about women and races/ethnic groups that were not only NOT based on adequate observation, but could have been refuted by further adequate observation by Aristotle himself, or others of his day/age. (The race/ethnic misstatements may have been cultural more than biological; no matter to my thesis.)

    In line with this, the Stoics pronounced “the brotherhood of man” at the end of Aristotle’s life; the Spartans, legends aside, obviously had different views on women. Therefore, both on personal observation and culture, Aristotle stands comdemnable, and condemned, within his own age. No “presentism” needed.

    That said, since I brought it up, I’ll tackle it head on.

    Is presentism the idea that the ancients must be judged solely by today’s mores? or …

    Is presentism the idea that the ancients must NOT be judged solely by their own mores?

    I say it’s the latter and use it that way. Of course, as noted, Aristotle’s views were arguably condemned by others of his own age.

    But, the first view, a “hard” presentism, seems to me to have the underlying thesis that cultural mores never change except by some unidentifiable cultural leap of faith which, were we all like Coel, we might chalk up to a sociological group version of determinism. I reject that.

    The second view, while making allowances for the cultural milieu of a person, also notes that individuals can always transcend that. On slavery and related issues, since that’s a crux here, note the voices of Garrison in the US or Wilberforce in Britain.

    In other words, a “hard” presentism says the dead hand of cultural conservativism and stagnation outweighs all. My “soft” presentism says that culture, like personal psychology, may be a “constraint” but is not the final word.

    Personally, as I have become more committed to a (skeptical-minded) liberalism, I have more and more rejected a hard presentism. Indeed, I find it ironic at least that cultural and social conservatives who often attack ideas of multiculturalism in particular and relativism in general, often use a hard presentism to defend the intellectual heavyweights of antiquity from any critique or condemnation at all. Living in the American South, of course, attacking any form of presentism is used to defend the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, and all sorts of Southern icons in between, precisely on the issue of slavery, and on the racial basis of slavery and their beliefs about that, beneath slavery itself.

    This does not mean we go a step beyond into po-mo academic liberalism and kill the dead white males. No. We can celebrate their learning, while at the same time cutting the undue height of their pedestals down to size.

    So, again, we can make allowances for Aristotle’s past, but still find him wanting on race and sex, both in terms of today, and at least a bit, in terms of his own day.

    Finally, an aside. Peter has made reference in small part to his conversion experience.

    I note a touch of mine above; moving from conservative Lutheranism, to speak more broadly, I had to overcome a fervent Platonism more than any love for Aristotle.

    Here’s the “conversion,” to secularism, of myself, in the first of six parts. (Parts 2-6 are linked at the bottom.)


  36. Mario Roy,
    Modernity began when thinkers – in many different fields, and for many different reasons – began to reject the authority of the Catholic Church and the body of scholarly knowledge that it had accumulated and held to be true. The occasional revival of classical literature, rather than delaying that, was actually used to further it: classical literature could be used as authority alternative to the church. Modernity just as such is not about humanism, it is about the dismantling of the European civilization that peaked in the 14th century, and the development of a new idea (indeed, many new ideas) of what civilization might become.

    Thank you for the links; the difference between the “late Modernity” viewpoint and that of “post Modernity” may have to do with the polarities – Late Modernists tend to criticize, Post Moderns tend to celebrate. There’s no doubt that the trends unraveling today was embedded in Modernity long ago.

    Robin Herbert,
    ” I have to disagree that defending Aristotle is easy, it is not.” I realized that remark needed clarification after posting, but couldn’t get back to the matter before now. What I meant was that, the texts are there, if inquiring minds wish to understand them, they should be directed to read them. Once this is accomplished, Aristotle is able to defend himself.
    However, of course that’s the problem, getting people to read them, and that is a difficulty. And the bulk of my remark concerned what makes this so difficult. It is not simply the refusal on the part of publicly recognized intellectuals or professors in certain colleges. It’s the gestalt of the era, and an inheritance of the modern development of our own culture, to the point that we no longer recognize what inheriting a culture might mean.


  37. Socratic,
    I am afraid neither of your definitions of presentism are correct. Did you do your research?

    Presentism is a mode of literary or historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past. Some modern historians seek to avoid presentism in their work because they believe it creates a distorted understanding of their subject matter.[1] The practice of Presentism is a common fallacy in historical writings. ( and (

    You say: “ Aristotle stands comdemnable, and condemned“. But why would you want to condemn him? Condemning somebody from 2,300 years ago seems to be an exercise in abject futility, a form of emotional flatulence. What on earth do you hope to achieve by this? Aristotle and his peers certainly couldn’t care less about your judgement. His standing as the greatest philosopher of all time is secure and your criticisms will have no effect. So what is your point?

    There were a great multitude of moral monsters in ancient times(Genghis Kahn comes to mind, 40 mio slaughtered) who are truly deserving of condemnation. So why single out Aristotle with his entirely unexceptional moral life?

    You should read this article by the president of the American Historical Association – ‘Against Presentism’ (

    Presentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior; the Greeks had slavery, even David Hume was a racist, and European women endorsed imperial ventures.

    Foundries are wonderful, Dickensian places. Picture a vast gloomy industrial hall of cupolas, stacked with metal, ingots, ladles, moulds and sand. It is a dark, dirty, disordered place. And then someone plunges magnesium into molten cast iron. In an instant that great, gloomy hall is filled with dazzling, piercing, intense white light that throws every detail into clear, startling contrast. The magnesium burns out, leaving a cloud of fine white powder, but for a while the details are burnt into your retina and the afterglow is indelibly part of your memory. This was Aristotle, a light that burned so brightly in his time that even today, after 2,300 years, the afterglow is part of our memory. But back to the foundry. The foundry foreman sidled up to me and whispered ‘did you know he is having an affair with his neighbour’s wife?’. ‘And?’ I retorted. ‘Just saying…’, he sneered. Still dazzled by the immensity of the vision I had witnessed and bemused by the pointless nature of his remark, I dismiss the foreman by telling him to attend to the repair of Cupola #3.

    And then his words niggle at me. What was he getting at? What was his agenda? You see, there always is an agenda. In today’s world of faux liberalism it is becoming commonplace to target the character of a man as a short cut to discrediting his ideas. Contumely has become the way we conduct conversation, a disordered substitute for discourse.

    Liked by 1 person

  38. EJ Winner:
    Thanks for the comments. I agree that your initial essay talked about something else… Except in its grand title. I do not feel like rescuing Aristotle. I feel it’s my philosophical duty to dunk him. I think his popularity is tied to his lethality. Through plutocracy, a regime his tool, “Executor”, and student, the Macedonian tyrant Antipater instituted.

    Most American people believe slavery and sexism were rampant in the ancient world. Thank Aristotle for this lie. It is of course very convenient for Americans to believe the lie that slavery existed until Lincoln. In truth, slavery became unlawful in Frankish Europe in 655 CE. Without a fuss: the monarch, Bathilde, whose statue as a queen of France is the Luxembourg garden, Paris, was an ex-British slave.

    The sexism of the Athenians and Romans was well known at the time, and a matter of heated debate. Ancient Crete was not very sexist: it had women toreadors exerting nearly in the nude. The Greeks knew very well about the Amazons: Greek colonies of the Black Sea and Crimea got in contact with them.
    Spartan culture, next door to Athens, had very strong anti-sexist components, some of them still too advanced for today’s society. Women were viewed as equal to men, and death in childbirth was viewed as equal to death in combat.

    Aristotle condemned Spartan women, viewed them as living in “intemperance and wealth” (because they paid no dowry and inherited). He said states where women were not subjugated, should be viewed as having no laws for half of the population.

    Aristotle wrote: “The slave is wholly lacking the deliberative element; the female has it but it lacks authority; the child has it but it is incomplete.” (Politics, chap 12)

    Sexist Roman laws were progressively repelled, especially after much more liberated Etruscan wives asked their husbands to forget Aristotle (this happened in particular with Augustus).

    Finally, under the Late Greco-Roman Empire, under Germanic influence, Rome saw women officially in position of ultimate authority (“Augusta”).

    The Germans, or more exactly the Franks, outlawed slave trading in 655 CE, in their vast empire. After they arrived in Britain in 1066 CE, they outlawed it there too.

    Americans re-introduced slavery in the 1620s, in what would become the USA, under a particularly vicious form, based on the color of the skin. It is natural that Americans believe it existed all along. But it did not.
    A cause of Rome’s collapse is that not enough slaves could be found for the mines. But then mining technology had not improved, because of the slaves, and the enslaving, anti-technological mood slavery brought.

    Mario Roy: I suggest you go to my site and read my long essay on how Aristotle destroyed democracy. It’s full, not of “presentism”, but of history.

    Aristotle’s student and Executor of His Will, Antipater, imposed plutocracy on Athens.

    Methinks that many of those who brandish “presentism” too much just reveal they know all too little history for comfort.


  39. I am really curious when the world was a better place? Was it 10 years ago?, 20?, 50?, 100?, perhaps 1000?, or 2000? Please tell me when the world went to hell and why it is a hell today, but wasn’t a hell in the past. The world could always be better, but that doesn’t imply that it is now somehow worse. To claim that attacking character is a recent change is to ignore all of history – presentism in its reverse – putting on rose-colored glasses to praise the past over the present.

    I teach. Are the students different than they were 10 years ago? Are they worse? in some ways. Are they better? again in some ways. You have to change with the students – you have to revel in the new and different and quit worrying about the past – a thing you cannot change. The past was never better – and was most likely worse all things considered.


  40. Hi Robin,

    Great article and topic. I had similar experience in college where I would start to realize that many of the things I was being told were not true and even when they were from reputable sources. After that experience, I made it a point to try to hunt down all the references but over the years, I’ve realized that is almost impossible outside of the areas that directly relate to my own work or research that I have read outside of personal interest.

    I also find this to be generally true of many people across fields and I think is a larger problem than simply people misrepresenting Aristotle. For example, just recently there was controversy on the fact that Giordano Bruno was misrepresented by Neil in cosmos, despite the fact that historians have tried to correct this false portrayal of Bruno multiple times. Perhaps more ironically, B.F. Skinner himself has a great case history of people misrepresenting him, with some even claiming his daughter killed herself due to his treatment of her, which was false but I still come across that in some intro psychology classes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like being misrepresented yourself provides a cure against misrepresenting others. I think at the end of the day, it’s just too cognitively exhausting of a task for any individual to do. The best solution I have come up with is to always add the caveat after a statement “But so I read, I can’t be sure” whenever I’m talking about something outside of my area of research.

    With that said, I have been guilty of misrepresenting Aristotle so I really appreciate this article and will try to correct any false information I have furthered in my classes.

    I’ll leave with a quote from Tolstoy that seems to capture this issue well 🙂

    “I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabrics of their life” Tolstoy, 1894


  41. All: Back at Scientia Salon, Massimo had a post about favorite and overrated philosophers. I blogged my own lists. The classical Greek triumvirate took win, place and show in my overrateds:

    Per my second comment, about my “conversion,” I overcame Plato. Per my pre-conversion background, I imbibed Lutheran Founders’ thoughts about Aristotle, primarily re scholasticism.


    @Labnut: On “presentism”? I deliberately presented my understanding, and definitions, of both an ”ameliorated,” and a full-on, definition of presentism to show two things.

    One is that an ameliorated version of presentism, in the middle between blanket defenders of, and blanket attackers of, dead white males, etc., is not only possible, but often desirable.

    The other reason I used my approach was, as I said previously, about the “irony,” or now, bluntly, the hypocrisy of many social conservatives attacking cultural relativism in general, except when anti-“presentism” cultural relativism serves their own ends, was precisely to point out that “presentism” is often used as a brickbat or cudgel.

    Your AHA quote illustrates this. A blanket anti-presentism can be used as a cudgel, often a moral one, about the decline of modern society.

    So, sorry, but I’ve fallen into “trap.”

    Besides, I already pointed out that Aristotle stands judged, on ethics, by standards of his own day as well as ours. I now do so further.

    Several versions of either the Golden Rule or the Silver Rule were around at roughly his time. The question then becomes, “Who is my neighbor?”

    Well, you know that Jesus answered that, and much more liberally than Aristotle, in The Good Samaritan. I’ll let you have Aristotle and Jesus duke it out.

    I add that Rome, vs. Greece, generally based its slavery on the simple capture of war — as did other ancient societies — and did not attempt to make an additional racial justification.

    Back to Aristotle on that. I have, and did so in my previous comment, focused on the seeming racism, not slavery. I have done so precisely because, even in light of his own times, that is an “extra mile.”

    As for the fact that Aristotle and peers couldn’t care about my judgment? Of course they can’t care, physically; they’re dead. More seriously, that’s arguably a fallacious appeal to authority mixed with circular reasoning.

    Speaking of:

    I do appreciate Aristotle for laying the foundations for logic, and also the first attempt to systematize knowledge. That’s not to be scoffed at, and I never have. Even there, though, I can look at Aristotle without giving blanket praise. The idea of a “final cause” was an unwarranted leap. Again, that’s not only in terms of our own times; we need only look at Democritus and Leucippus.

    And, while Patrice may have overstated a bit, it’s at least arguable that in political science, Aristotle stood in the same antidemocratic elitist tradition as his predecessors Socrates and Plato.


    @Robin: Not totally true on appeal the authority of Aristotle. Note the Scholastics referenced above. Note Galen. Note, at least in part, Islamic scholarship.


  42. ejwinner,

    Briefly; your description about modernism is western-centered and religious-centered. The turning back on classics is older, we see the Aristotle´s attempt in order to rescue the naturalistic view of pre-Socratics, it was the way to balance the idealistic Academy´s view. We see this return on classics in Averroes and Avicena, two personages that have nothing to do with the Catholic church.

    Was Luther a modernist? If it is so, how do we understand his claim about Copernicus, he called him insane and heretic.


  43. Mario Roy,
    The collapse, or overthrow, of Christendom – the civilization of the Middle Ages, as dominated by the Roman Church – just is the beginning of Modernity, as most cultural historians understand the term. Luther is, if not a modern, certainly a necessary precursor, as is Copernicus. Modernity is a historical trend that has sanctioned many (frequently conflicting) movements and trends. Recourse to the classics prior to the collapse of Christendom only contributed to that collapse distantly.
    The theory of modernity most historians accept is almost per definition Western-centered, since the phenomenon first occured in Europe; but it has global repercussions because of the expansion of Western influence world-wide over the past few centuries.
    And it is religion-centered, concerning the Roman Church, because in the Middle Ages, the Church was the only game in town; and its consequent delegitimization as source of authority, and loss of explanatory power, has allowed for the development of a whole host of differing religious and non-religious beliefs, new political possibilities, and new explanations.


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