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Nothing More Demoralizing

by on October 21, 2016

By Ben Potter and Van Bryan

“Money…there’s nothing in the world so demoralizing as money.”

So says the 5th-century Greek playwright, Sophocles.

Now, dear reader, we’re a student of the classics. We believe that an understanding and appreciation for the literature and history of antiquity can lend us perspective. The classics teach us to think critically, ponder more thoughtfully the questions of our humanity.

That being said, we always wished that the ancient Athenian had elaborated on his claim of monetary demoralization.

What about money is demoralizing?

Is it a deficiency of money that demoralizes man?
Or perhaps an excess? Is money the root of all evil? Or is evil the root of all money?

We don’t know. We’re being Socratic and merely asking questions. We’ve only ever claimed to know nothing, and not once have we failed to live up to that standard.

Lucky for us, greater minds than ours have pondered questions of coinage. The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, of the 4th century BC, had one such mind.

Perhaps our ancient forefather can lend perspective on this subject, and answer for us an age-old question: what exactly is money?

What is money?

Ancient Greece was a time of firsts for the Western World.

First democratic government? Yep.

First masterpieces in literature? Check.

First academic university? Double check. Plato AND Aristotle founded schools in the classical age.

It’s unsurprising then that the ancient Greeks were also responsible for minting some of the first coins in the Western world.

Perhaps even more unsurprising is that this was almost immediately followed by the first embezzlement scandal and an ancient version of the military-industrial complex.

See…we really are influenced by the Greeks.

Ancient Greek Tetradrachm

Note: New subscribers to our monthly subscription can recieve their own classical gold tetradrachm for free. Learn more here.

The ancient Greek drachma enjoyed popular usage starting in the Archaic Age of Greece (around 600 BC) right up until the Roman Empire. Ancient coins were originally minted from electrum, a naturally occurring alloy, but over time gold and silver became the preferred metals.

The rising economic influence of the Greeks during the 5th century meant that the ancient drachma was widely accepted across the known world. Ancient coins have been found in Egypt, Rome, and Syria. They even reached as far as the western dwelling Celts.

But all of this so far is just nickel and dime stuff. Practice your best chin stroking, now we get philosophical.

Aristotle, a man who is often regarded as one of the most prolific and influential philosophers of the Western world, had a few ideas on money.

Unlike his predecessor and teacher, Plato, Aristotle felt no need to justify the existence of money. Being the practical guy that he was, Aristotle considered the necessity of money to be self-evident.

When the inhabitants of one country became more dependent on those of another, and they imported what they needed, and exported what they had too much of, money necessarily came into use.


And not to mention, Aristotle says somewhat patronizingly, …

The various necessaries of life are not easily carried about!


Importantly, Aristotle did not claim that money was wealth. Rather, money represented wealth.

How can that be wealth of which a man may have a great abundance and yet perish with hunger, like Midas in the fable, whose insatiable prayer turned everything that was set before him into gold?


Money, to Aristotle, represents olives in the orchard, vases from the potter, wine from the vineyard. Money wasn’t wealth, but it could measure wealth.

Fair enough, we’ve talked about what money is not. What, then, is money?

Well, Aristotle says that money should ideally be five things…

    1. Durable – it must survive the trials and tribulations of daily life, i.e. of being carried around in people’s pockets, purses, or even in the mouths of the newly deceased.


    1. Portable – a small item should be of a high value.


    1. Divisible – breaking a coin, either figuratively or literally, should not affect its relative value.


    1. Fungible – mutually exchangeable i.e. it doesn’t matter which particular coin you have as long as you have one.


  1. Intrinsically valuable – the coin’s material should be a worthwhile commodity (mint coins from gold not concrete).

Ignoring this 5th principle, history tells us, is what can be particularly disastrous.

The Crisis of the 3rd Century

At the outset of the Roman Empire, starting in 27 BC, the preferred Roman currency was the silver denarius. Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus, minted coins that were 95% silver.

Ah, but what good idea couldn’t be improved with a little monetary manipulation?

Ancient Roman Denarius depicting Titus

The coinage was debased over the centuries; so much so that by 268 AD, there was just under .5% silver in the denarius.When questioned about the devaluation of the currency, Emperor Caracalla (who ruled from 198 to 217 AD) held up his sword and declared…

Not to worry. So long as we have these (gesturing to the sword), we shall not run short of money.


How do you like that for a monetary policy?!

Even non-economists can probably guess what happened next. Hyperinflation ran rampant in the Empire. Prices during this period rose as much as 1000%. This is often referred to as “the crisis of the 3rd century”.

Over the next fifty years, 26 different men would claim the seat of power, often through military force. As for Emperor Carcalla-in 217 AD his own soldiers stabbed him to death when the Emperor stopped to take a leak.

History really is fascinating…

Perhaps the madness is best summed up by the 18th century historian Edward Gibbon, when he commented that the great wonder of the Roman Empire was not that it fell, but rather that it lasted as long as it did!

Nothing More Demoralizing?

Aristotle’s ideas have been used throughout the ages in order to justify or denigrate various economic policies and innovations; from fiat printing to the most recent phenomenon of crypto-currencies.

By now we’re feeling Socratic again. Are Aristotle’s ideas on money outdated or, perhaps worse, standing in the way of progress? Or are we, like the Romans, teeing off for our own crisis of the third century?

Over the centuries the great teacher has been proven wrong (he contended that flies had four legs and that women had fewer teeth than men). So, at times, society was only able to progress once it had rejected Aristotle’s assertions. Do his ideas on sound money fall into this category of outdated philosophical fodder?

Again, we have no answers… Perhaps that’s the most demoralizing thought of all.

Ego is Your Enemy

by on October 14, 2016

This month we have been occupied with politics- discussing politics, reading The Politics, mourning the state of politics, writing about aforementioned lamentation of politics.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

No answers for certain.

Maybe your editor is a masochist. If you’re a long-time sufferer of our scribblings, then that also makes us a sadist.

This week, we continued the self-flagellation of our soul and listened to the vice presidential debate here in the States.

“So… this won’t be like the last one, right?” our girlfriend inquires with us. “These guys are like…normal people…right?”

We hate to be the one to break it to her, but figure she’s got to learn sooner or later.

“No, honey. They’re not normal people. They’re politicians.”

The Big ‘So What?’

This week, we turn away from politics, cross our fingers, and hope that the demos (people) don’t ruin the polis (State) while our back is turned.

But that isn’t to say that we aren’t talking about important stuff. Far from it!

Before putting any ink to parchment (digital ink on digital parchment, mind you) your editor always considers what we have affectionately dubbed “the big ‘so what?’”

Why should you care? Will reading this week’s newsletter make our subscribers better, smarter, more introspective people?

Or will their eyes glaze over as soon as the edition hits the inbox?

I once had a fellow university student ask me if he could contribute to our weekly mailings. He wanted to submit part of his term paper that focused on the plausibility of the Aristotelian understanding of sense organs.

“Needs more applicability,” we told him.

“Applicability? Never heard of that philosopher.”

You get the point…

The biggest hurdle your editor faces, since our beat is the ancient classics, is contending with the big ‘so what?’ Most people assume that the wisdom of classical antiquity is just that…antiquated.

The classics, most assume, might be right at home in a smoking parlor where Reginald and Irving sew elbow patches on their tweed jackets and pontificate through billowing clouds of pipe smoke.

(Click here to read our previous writings on the fictional Reginald and Irving)

But what of the hearts and minds of those of us here in the real world? The mortgage payer? The soccer mom? The entrepreneur with the scrappy young startup?

Is there room in their lives for the classics?

We think so… and we’re not the only ones.

Ego Is The Enemy

Your editor keeps busy most days, but we put aside some time this week to crack open Ego Is the Enemy, a new book from the New York Time’s bestselling author, and occasional Classical Wisdom contributor, Ryan Holiday.

…ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors. It is Scylla and Charybdis.

-Ryan Holiday (Ego Is The Enemy)


If you caught that classical reference at the end, there’s a reason for it. As Ryan puts it, “Like my other books, this one is deeply influenced by Stoic philosophy and indeed all the great classical thinkers.”

Ryan’s a man after our own heart- a writer who uses the wisdom of antiquity to inspire and cultivate the life of the modern citizen.

Most good ideas are old ideas, and the idea that our ego is the enemy is not just old…it’s ancient!

Hate Those Who Flatter

Ego Is The Enemy opens the first chapter by mentioning the ancient essayist and philosopher, Isocrates.

“Sometime around the year 374 B.C., Isocrates, one of the most well-known teachers and rhetoricians in Athens, wrote a letter to a young man named Demonicus. Isocrates had been a friend of the boy’s recently deceased father and wanted to pass on to him some advice on how to follow his father’s example.”

-Ryan Holiday (Ego Is The Enemy)


Thanks, Ryan. We’ll take it from here.

Letter to Demonicus, as the piece is known, is brief by ancient standards. You could read the whole shebang in a few minutes. All the same, the letter is filled with practical advice intended to arm the young man for the years ahead.

Isocrates warns Demonicus to “Hate those who flatter as much as those who deceive, for both, if trusted, injure those who trust them.” And that a young man of noble stock should, “Consider that propriety, a sense of shame, justice, and self-control, especially become you; for by all these a young man’s character seems to be adorned.”

Isocrates, in essence, is urging Demonicus to follow the precepts of goodness that would be later propounded by the likes of Socrates and Plato.

Plato believed that the soul was like a chariot, pulled along by two wild horses. The horses represented our desires, both noble and ignoble, and it is only through the skill of a veteran charioteer (wisdom) that we are able to control the direction of the chariot and avoid catastrophe by letting our desires run rampant.


An ego, left unchecked, has the tendency to lead to disaster and ruin. It is only through the skilled hand of virtue, wisdom, and modesty, that we are able to properly engage our soul in the necessary duties of life.

Ego, as Holiday puts it, is indeed the enemy.

The Internet Has Made You Ignoble

We usually propose that lessons from antiquity are just as important now as they were thousands of years ago. Today’s particular missive is unique in that it’s not just as important, it’s more important now than it’s ever been.

“Isocrates warns Demonicus to ‘Hate those who flatter as much as those who deceive, for both, if trusted, injure those who trust them.'”

It has never been easier than it is today to indulge in self-aggrandizement. As Holiday puts it, “Now, more than ever, our culture fans the flames of ego.”

We stick out our chest; share our perspective on social media outlets with the assumption that our opinions innately matter. Young people are taught that they, by their mere existence, are special. We are told to follow our dreams and that success is all but guaranteed.

Your editor, anecdotally, has observed old friends sink into depression or mania when the realities of the world come crashing down. They are not rock gods or movie stars by the age of 27 and are therefore cheated out of the future they were promised.

The ego has run amok. The horses have slipped the reins. The charioteer is asleep at the wheel.

If ego is the enemy, then wisdom and modesty are your allies. Our classical forbearers knew this lesson well. Socrates said…

It would be better for me… that multitudes of men should disagree with me rather than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself.


Cultivate virtue and wisdom. Learn to, as Isocrates says, “hate flatterers”, and that includes the flatterer within all of us.

How important is the health of a ruler?

by on September 23, 2016

The classical age was rife with plague and disease. After all, the ancient world very often chalked up illnesses to the whims of capricious gods; and when you consider that there were open sewer systems, deplorable hygiene practices, not to mention a severe lack of penicillin, getting sick and dying weak and infirmed was par for the course.

Rulers, while able to afford a better quality of living, were not immune from disease.

From the Greek world: the statesmen Pericles was claimed by the Plague of Athens in the late 5th century BC.

It has long been believed that Julius Caesar was epileptic. Caesar’s abilities were greatly deteriorated by his sickness. It is said he collapsed while on campaign in Cordoba, Spain in 46 BC. Enfeebled by his sickness, Caesar also caused a public scandal when he refused to stand when the Senate was honoring him.

N.B. a new hypothesis states that Caesar actually suffered from mini-strokes, not seizures.

However, Rome’s first dictator perpetuo was not the only imperial ruler to succumb to illness.

It has long been suspected that Nero (37-68 AD), the supposed fiddle player, was mentally unfit for to hold the seat of power. It’s been suggested that he suffered from Histrionic personality disorder, a sickness characterized by excessive attention-seeking behavior.

Gratus proclaims Claudius emperor
by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Emperor Claudius (10 BC- 54 AD) had remarkably poor health that lead to unsightly behavior and paranoia. Polio has been suggested as a possible diagnosis. The historian Suetonius writes how…

…his laughter was unseemly and his anger still more disgusting, for he would foam at the mouth and trickle at the nose; he stammered besides and his head was very shaky at all times, but especially when he made the least exertion.

-Suetonius (Lives of the Twelve Caesars)


And then there’s Caligula.

Worst-Case Scenario


When considering the possible impacts of poor health of a ruler, Caligula certainly takes the cake as a worst-case scenario.

Seneca the Younger claimed Caligula (12-41 AD) possessed “monstrous cruelty”. It is reported that he killed on a whim; detaching heads from bodies of anybody who had ever crossed or disagreed with him.

“How is it that a young emperor, who was initially beloved by all, turned into one of histories most infamous loons?”

During a gladiator games, they ran out of criminals to throw into the arena. So Caligula ordered his guards to haul spectators into the ring to be eaten by lions.

A citizen once insulted Caligula. As punishment, the emperor ordered the man to be beaten with chains every day. The punishment was carried out for three months before the man was eventually beheaded.

In addition to his penchant for needless murder, Caligula is accused of other odd conduct.

It is said he publically had sex with his three sisters at banquets, sometimes on the table while the food was being served. He turned the imperial palace into a brothel. He also appointed his favorite horse, Incitatus, as a priest.

Caligula didn’t just take a page from the crazy book, he might have written the entire corpus.

What was the source of his madness? How is it that a young emperor, who was initially beloved by all, turned into one of histories most infamous loons?

For the first seven months of his reign, all adored him. Then, in 37 AD, the emperor became exceedingly ill. While Caligula made a full recovery, ancient writers report that he was never the same. His dire sickness seems to have either caused, or was at least preceded, by his monstrous killings and bizarre behaviors.

…it was not long before Gaius-who was now looked upon as a saviour and benefactor, and who was expected to shower down some fresh and everlasting springs of benefits upon all Asia and Europe, so as to endow the inhabitants with inalienable happiness and prosperity, both separately to each individual and generally to the whole state-began, as the proverb has it, at home, and changed into a ferocity of disposition.

-Philo of Alexandria (On the Embassy to Gaius)

So…. how important is the health of a ruler?

Well, maybe more than you think.

The (ancient) Building Boom

by on September 16, 2016

We haven’t lived in the city long enough to become nostalgic for the town that it once was.

We can’t mourn for the destruction of the original Astor Hotel (demolished in the early 20th century) or lament the fate of the original Pen Station- a beautiful, classically inspired, architectural jewel that was leveled in the 60s and replaced with a dumpy concourse deep under Madison Square Garden.

pen station
Penn Station main waiting room, 1911
Source: Wikimedia Commons

That being said, we do tend to notice that the city has an uncanny ability to demolish and replace buildings seemingly overnight. After a quick survey, we notice that there are four construction sites within a one-block radius of our apartment.

Properties that were once home to ramen stands, parking lots, lamp retailers, and student housing, are now becoming condominium towers and luxury hotels.

The city has undergone several building booms over the years. Post war New York saw the destruction of buildings that had been considered first-of-their-kind technical achievements only a few years before. They were swiftly replaced with new skyscrapers boasting modern necessities like air conditioning, elevators, and open-floor office plans.

A new building boom is going on today, but rather than accommodating more office space, the skyscrapers of tomorrow are built almost exclusively to house the ultra rich, the “oligarchs” that our curious friend mentioned.

NPR reports…

“One developer called these apartments safe deposit boxes with views because they’re expected to hold their value. Apartments start around $10 million and go up from there to almost a hundred million. This is pretty much what former Mayor Michael Bloomberg had in mind when his administration changed zoning rules to make it easier to build super tall towers.

Original article here.


For our part, we’re indifferent to the whole ordeal. We try maintaining our Stoic demeanor at all times.

But these new revelations have gotten us curious. The ancient world, you see, also had building booms. In many respects, they were similar to the booms of our modern age- they were undertaken to accommodate the expanding economy of a city or city-state.

In other respects… they were different.

If it walks like an empire…and talks like an empire…


Let’s start with different.

In the 5th century BC, classical Athens had acquired herself a sizeable empire. As the de facto leader of the Delian League (the coalition of Greek city-states assembled for the purpose of defending the ancient Greeks from the invading Persian Empire) Athens was in a position of power and influence.

By force or fraud, the Athenians bullied smaller cities into joining their military coalition and paying member dues (which went straight to the treasury located on the Athenian Acropolis).

It is estimated that Athens received, in contemporary terms, hundreds of millions of dollars every year from subject states. With an adult, male population of about 45, 00, this meant unrivaled prosperity.

Athenian Empire in 5th century BC
Source: Wikimedia Commons

By about 465 BC, the Delian League was a coalition only in name. It had transformed into an Athenian Empire. While Athens had evolved into a formidable, imperial power, the city itself did not look the part.

Many of the Athenian temples had been destroyed during the razing of Athens at the hands of King Xerxes of Persia during the Greco-Persian wars several decades previously. Most of the Athenian assembly meetings were still being held out in the open fields of the Athenian agora.

Such a state of affairs would not do for the most powerful city in the classical Greek world. That was the thinking of a new statesman who consolidated power over Athens in 461 BC. He was a man with bold ideas and foresight for the future- Pericles.

And here’s the part you’ve been waiting for… the Athenian building boom.

The (ancient) building boom


Athens, under the rule of Pericles, embarked on an aggressive series of building projects that cost, in contemporary terms, roughly three billion dollars. It is the buildings constructed during this time that are often associated with the “Golden Age” of classical Greece. That includes the Hephaisteion (Temple of Hephaestus) and, of course, the Parthenon.

The building plans were initiated in 447 and were completed within fifteen years. The building projects were popular among the demos as they supplied a steady flow of work for the citizens. Notably, one such citizen was a young Socrates, who likely helped hew and shape the stones that went into the temples.


A photo from your editor’s trip to Greece.
Hephaisteion in the foreground, Parthenon in the background.

The only true opposition to the Periclean building plans came from the wealthy Athenian aristocrats who did not appreciate funds from the treasury being funneled to the working class. Even still, they could not muster enough political power to stop Pericles or his building proposals.

N.B. an interesting note from history is that the funds used in the construction of these building projects came from the Delian League treasury, a fund that was originally intended solely for the defense of the Greek lands against invaders. As a result, some historians point to the building of the Parthenon as one of the first embezzlement scandals in the Western world.

A source of everlasting fame

Perhaps the most interesting element of the ancient Athenian building boom was the motivation of Pericles. The Athenian building projects were not, unlike modern New York, undertaken to accommodate more office space or to create housing for wealthy foreigners.

Pericles’ motivation was to glorify the city, construct monuments that could weather the ravages of time and emblazon the glory days of Athens on the consciousness of Western history.

And in that regard, he succeeded.

All kinds of enterprises should be created which will provide an inspiration for every art, find employment for every hand… we must devote ourselves to acquiring things that will be the source of everlasting fame.

–Pericles (Plutarch’s Life of Pericles)


So what conclusions to draw, dear reader?

Are we the proverbial Athenians, building monuments to commemorate and glorify our achievements as a society?

Two thousand years from now, will tourists roam the ruins Empire State Building and learn how the ancient New Yorkers used to live?

No answers for certain…but it’s fun to imagine.

The 10 Craziest Persons from the Ancient World

by on September 5, 2016

1. Socrates

While the great philosopher is often remembered for his method of questioning and devotion to the laws and justice, he is also a famous example of one who ‘hears voices’. In his trial he admits to having a ‘daemon’, a heavenly voice that occasionally speaks to him and guides him along his path of inquisition and philosophical exploration.

The daemon never explicitly tells Socrates what to do, but it whispers to him and deters him away from certain paths. It was the daemon, Socrates says, that warned him that he should not become a politician.

“You may have heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, which my accuser Melitus ridicules and sets out in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of being a politician”.

It’s at this point that Socrates remarks, humorously, that this was probably a good idea. For if the citizens of Athens want to execute him as a philosopher, how much sooner would they have executed him if he were a politician?

2. Caligula

Normally when folks think of madness in the ancient world, it is Caligula, Rome’s third emperor, that they conjure in their minds. After all, we’re talking about the man who, if ancient scholars are to be believed, was planning to name his beloved horse the highest and most coveted position on the Roman Senate, consul.

Adding to the list of excesses, Caligula elevated himself to godhood, allegedly cut open his wife’s stomach to see the sex of the baby, carried on a love-affair with his own sister, brazenly, in front of her husband, and made the battle-hardened Roman Legion pick up seashells on the coast of the English Channel after attacking the sea.

And one time, when there were no criminals to throw to the beasts at the Colosseum, he had his guard force an entire section of the crowd in instead.

Clearly, Caligula wasn’t all there.

3. Nero

While Nero may look positively levelheaded compared to Caligula, he did enough horrible things to make one question his sanity. Not only rumored to have started an immense fire in Rome in order to clear space for his new palace, he also had his mother and brother in law murdered. His first attempt at his mother’s life involved creating a special boat that could be sunk on command, but she when she survived, he was forced to resort to more standard methods.

But he gets much darker than that… An early persecutor of Christians, Nero famously burned them alive in order to light his garden. He kicked his pregnant wife to death and was so reviled that it’s thought the Book of Revelations’ Antichrist is a veiled reference to his cruel and torturous ways.

4. Oracle of Delphi


As mentioned in the previous newsletter, the Pythia, also known as the Oracle of Delphi, was the most prestigious and authoritative oracle among the Greeks, but were thought by many, including Plutarch, to be mad.

One theory is that her oracular powers derived from vapors, hallucinogenic gases, from the Kerna spring waters that flowed under the temple. Another hypothesis is that her prophecies were the result of the poisonous plant, Oleander.

Either way, she wielded great influence through her advice and suggestions over the rich and powerful in the ancient world… even if her words were not always sensical.

5. Caracalla

Caracalla, ruler of Rome from 198 to 217 AD, was a big fan of ordering murder and violence, and the only people who didn’t hate him were the soldiers he paid off.

He also had no problem killing on scale. For instance, cities that displeased him, like Alexandria, suddenly had much smaller populations after he visited, as all the people that came to greet him were killed.

Once around 20,000 were slaughtered in days of looting and violence. Another time, Caracalla tricked an enemy nation into thinking he had accepted a treaty and marriage proposal from them, and then slaughtered the girl and all the guests.

6. Commodus

You may remember him from the Gladiator movie (played by Joaquin Phoenix), but Commodus was essentially bred by his father to be a nasty piece of something or other. He is best known for his love of the coliseum where he would fight and kill gladiators… who were armed with toy swords and usually heavily wounded before they even stepped into the ring. Commodus bragged that he killed 100 bears… all of which were immobile and tied up. And he bankrupted the people of Rome, having charged them an insane “appearance fee” for these acts.

Moreover, he kept a harem of kidnapping victims for orgies and auctioned off state positions and anyone who stood against him was murdered. Eventually he was killed… strangled by a gladiator.

7. Elagabalus

Emperor from 218 to 222, Elagabalus was obviously deeply mentally disturbed. Having ascended the throne at a young age, he replaced the pantheon with a new Sun god… and then proclaimed himself its avatar.

He scandalized even the sexual libertines, due to his multiple marriages and affairs, especially when he married and deflowered a vestal virgin, causing her to break her sacred vow and be buried alive.

He also supposedly dressed as woman and prostituted himself out on palace grounds. Desperately wanting female genitalia, Elagabalus suggested giving himself a vagina by slicing open his stomach. He had a favorite slave who he called husband and who called him wife. Rumours include having his men hunt for well-hung men around the country, and forcing them to be castrated, and encouraging his “husband” to beat him for straying.

His was assassinated after only four years as emperor.

8. King Herod


King of Judea from 37 BC to 4 BC, Herod was famous for wanting to kill Jesus and for the “Massacre of the Innocents”, where he ordered every boy at the age of 2 or younger in Bethlehem to be killed. Responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, Herod killed the high priest, his rivals, grandfather-in law, mother-in law, brother-in law, uncle, wife, 3 sons (one of which was murdered only a few days before Herod’s death)… and just about anyone else who he distrusted and thought was a threat to him.

9. Pythagoras

A more loveable ‘crazy’, Pythagoras is best known for his mathematical genius and eponymous theorem we all learned in school. However, he had a few strange quirks, including a strange religion he created.

The main tenets of his cult were that souls are reincarnated… and beans are evil. No, not figuratively… actual beans.

Commandments include oddities such as: Do not eat beans (obviously), do not step over a crossbar, sit on a quart or walk on highways. Do not leave the pot’s impression in the ashes after removing it from the fire, or stir a fire without iron, or let swallows nest under the roof.

His sect had a few more ‘sane’ rules like vegetarianism and pacifism, but he broke those when he slaughtered an ox. He ironically died in a fight.

10. Empedocles

A Greek Scientist & Philosopher, 490-430 B.C., Empedocles is equal measures genius and insane. While he discovered that light travels at a speed, the Earth is a sphere, centrifugal force, and an very crude theory of evolution…. He also thought he was a God, with a capital G.

To prove his immortality, Empedocles announced that he would jump into a volcano–Mt Etna–and come back out unscathed. He didn’t.

Do dogs have souls?

by on August 29, 2016

There are a few possible sources we could peruse for the purposes of uncovering the nature of canine souls. We have chosen to look at Aristotle and his treatment of the soul within De Anima.

Artie defines a soul as…

… the first actuality of an organic body that is potentially alive


Let that swirl around your mind for a bit; taste it as if it were a fine wine. Once you’ve done that, feel free to say to yourself…

‘um… what?’

What does Aristotle even mean by that? Perhaps what we should go over first is what he doesn’t mean.

Aristotle, although undeniably influenced by his mentor, departs rather dramatically from Plato’s conception of the soul. Plato believed that the soul was an object of sorts, trapped within the body. It is a very real thing that resides within in us, until the day of our death when the soul escapes back into the world of the forms where it regains infinite knowledge and wisdom.

Aristotle believed that such a notion was unnecessary. Despite how difficult it may sound, the soul can be explained through logical, empirical means.

Matter and Form

Aristotle believed that any object insofar as it is an object can be explained by two criterion.

  1. Matter: the material the thing is made of
  2. Form: the meaningful arrangement of said matter

If we were to examine a bronze statue of an ancient hero, we would very simply say that its substance, the stuff it is made out of, is bronze. The form of the statue is the meaningful arrangements of its parts. The statue has purposeful shape and structure. This shape and structure happens to resemble a Greek hero. If you were to combine these two (matter and form) then you would have a complete picture of the object in question.

Aristotle believed that substance was potentiality. Bronze insofar as it is bronze, has the potential to be a statue of a hero. It is only when the substance takes on a meaningful form (a Greek hero) that the object is actualized. Simply put…

Matter is potentiality, and form is actuality…” -Aristotle (De Anima)


Similarly the human body is composed of matter. In this way it has potentiality. It would follow then that the soul is the actuality of the body. The soul gives meaningful purpose and shape to life. the combination of matter and form create a recognizable human life. And so we see that the soul is the first actuality of a body that is potentially alive.

All make sense so far?

Don’t bother answering that, we’ve still got much to cover.

The three types of souls

It is important to keep in mind that the soul according to Aristotle is not an object in the way that Plato imagined. Rather, it is a grounding principle of sorts. It is the realization of life. The soul is the one thing that enables a body to engage in the necessary activities of life. And interestingly enough, there are several parts of the soul. They are the nutritive soul, the sensible soul, and the rational soul.

1. The Nutritive Soul

The soul is that by virtue of which things have life. The first part of the soul is known as the nutritive part. This is the first and most widely shared among all living things. For it can be said that anything that takes in nutrition, grows from this nutrition, and eventually decays over time has a soul.


This part of the soul can be found in humans, animals, and plants. It was believed by Aristotle that the nutritive part of the soul aims at the continuation of life. It is impossible for any one thing to exist eternally and without decay.

However, it is possible for life, through virtue of the nutritive soul, to regenerate in the form of offspring. The continuation of life is the final aim for nature. Any creature with a nutritive soul will therefore be inclined to strive towards this end.

It is interesting to note that plants have only the nutritive soul. Plants have no higher aim other than the continuation of life. The nutritive soul allows plants to take in nourishment, grow, and spread life. However, their role in nature stops there.

2. The Sensible Soul

The sensible soul, or the soul of perception, is the part of the soul that by virtue of which we are able to perceive. In addition to sensation, the sensible soul endows us with the ability to retain memories, perceive pain and pleasure, and have appetites and desires.

While plants do not possess the sensible soul, animals and humans most certainly do. Aristotle makes a point to clarify that not all animals have the same abilities of perception. While some creatures have all five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste touch,) some creatures are only endowed with the sense of touch. Animals that do not possess the proper sense organs (some insects for instance) will not have the proper potentiality for perception and therefore can not be actualized by the sensible soul.

Ancient mosaic of a classical dog

All animals have touch. Aristotle classifies this as a default of sorts. Any animals insofar as it is an animal will be able to have the sensation of touch and therefore can be said to possess the sensible soul.

Aristotle also takes the time to mention that any animal that possesses the sensible soul must also possess the capacity for pleasure and pain. The implication to this is that any creature with the sensible soul will therefor also have desires or appetites. Appetite can be said to be the the desire for that which is pleasurable to our senses while simultaneously avoiding that which is painful. It can be said then that animals have passions. They are subsequently driven by these passions toward an end.

Hunger and thirst are forms of desire, hunger a desire for what is dry and hot, thirst a desire for what is cold and moist; flavour is a sort of seasoning added to both. We must later clear up these points, but at present it may be enough to say that all animals that possess the sense of touch have also appetition.

-Aristotle (De Anima)


Aristotle believed that animals and humans both possess the sensible soul. However, he asks the question if animals have the capacity for belief. Belief would seem to imply conviction. Conviction would seem to imply that a creature was persuaded, because one can not be convinced of something without being persuaded in some way. Finally, persuasion would seem to imply a rational function of measuring possibilities and drawing conclusions, a function that Aristotle believed animals did not possess.

3. The Rational Soul

While it can be said that plants possess the nutritive soul and that animals possess the nutritive and the sensible soul, the rational soul belongs to man alone. The rational soul is that by virtue of which we possess the capacity for rational thought. A rather daunting notion, Aristotle divides rational thought into two groups.

The first is known as the passive intellect. It is the part of our mind that collects information and stores it for later use. This is almost an extension of the sensible soul in that it allows us to take Aristotle philosopherin that which we perceive, create a belief towards it, and store it for later use.

The active intellect is the part that allows us to engage in the actual process of thinking. We manage to call forth knowledge stored in our passive intellect and shape it into meaningful ideas using the reasoning power of our active intellect. Aristotle also believed that the active intellect was responsible for our ability to consider abstract concepts that we have never perceived. Intellectual abstracts become manageable with the power of our active intellect, philosophy becomes possible.

Actual knowledge is the same as its object; potential knowledge is temporally prior in an individual, but in general it is not even temporally prior. But active intellect does not understand at one time and not at another. Only when it has been separated is it precisely what it is, all by itself. This alone is immortal and everlasting.

I know what you are probably thinking at this point.

Modern science has disproven much of Aristotle’s ideas on the soul. There is no nutritive, sensible, or rational soul. All three levels of the Aristotelian soul can be explained by nutritive and perception organs. And the rational soul is merely the rapid firing of neurons in our brain.


Perhaps not…

Old Artie didn’t have the modern conveniences that we enjoy today. He did not have thousands of years of medical scientific progress to explain the various functions of life. He was, in a very real way, the guy who was kicking off said medical scientific progress.

The fact that he relied on observable, empirical phenomenon was an enormous step forward. No longer were thinkers restrained to believing in ethereal forms or mysticism to account for the inexplicable occurrence of life.

So…do dogs have souls?

No answers for certain, but we like to think so.