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Thales of Miletus and the Birth of Western Philosophy

by May 2, 2013

Living sometime between the 8th and 6th century BCE, Thales of Miletus is often considered one of the very first of the Greek philosophers. It was Thales who initially attempted to decipher the world without reference to mythology, and he was impressively influential in this respect. Indeed, almost every pre-Socratic philosopher followed his thinking as they tried to unravel the universe. For this, many say ‘Greek philosophy begins with Thales’.

Around this time period, the people of the ancient Greek peninsulas began to settle into established city-states. They developed a structured system of counting, as well as created an alphabet. But it was Thales who revolutionized a way of reasoning and endeavored to explain the world around him.

Until this time, Greek men and women lived by the whim of the gods. All natural phenomenon such as rain, thunder and even earthquakes were believed to be the result of temperamental and powerful deities. Thales, however, being the bold individual that he was, concluded that the universe was logical, rational… and even predictable.

Solar Eclipse

Solar Eclipse

While the rest of Greece prayed to the gods for healthy crops and peaceful seas, Thales diligently studied geometry and astronomy. Subsequently, through the power of his own observations, he accurately predicted a total solar eclipse in 585 BCE.

As you can imagine, this foresight meant he was considered something of a demi-god or sorcerer. Never before had a man been capable of predicting the erratic nature of the universe! For Thales, however, the solar eclipse only cemented his belief that the universe behaved with predictable tendencies.

Thales’ conviction in order and reason had additional benefits, something that separated him from the rest.

You see, one of the most common criticisms of philosophers was that they provided no influence or solutions to everyday problems. It was said that these thinkers kicked up dust and then complained that they could not see. Indeed, it was noted that Thales, while walking one night with his head turned up to the stars, fell face-first into a ditch.

Aside from being embarrassing, this would appear to be evidence that philosophy distracts us from our earthly condition and that it holds no sway in practical matters. And yet, Thales is still a shining example of a man who used philosophy as a means to arrive at a very practical and profitable end.

Olive mill

An olive mill and an olive press dating from Roman times in Capernaum, Israel.

For instance, Thales deduced that good crops were due to favorable weather conditions, and not the result of the gods. Thales used this knowledge to predict a high yield of olives one harvest year. He bought out a large number of olive presses at a low price early in the season. Several months’ later farmers indeed were met with a bountiful supply of olives. Thales, being the owner of a majority of olive presses, was able to rent and sell the equipment at a considerable mark up. The man made a substantial profit and proved that philosophy, in fact, could lead to success in business.

While Thales had many intellectual successes, he also had a few ideas, while influential, that were eventually dismissed.

It had occurred to Thales that the state of the universe was due to natural causes. Consequently, he set about to try to understand the world… but first, he needed an original principle from which to work.

Thus the question he posed was this: ‘what is the basic material of the cosmos?’ He believed there must be a common denominator of sorts that could accurately compose all of matter. Surely there was some first substance from which came all other materials.

And to Thales, that substance was water.

This idea, that the entire universe is composed of one fundamental element, is known as “Monoism”. It is a branch of metaphysics that was very popular in ancient Greece, and indeed, many of Thales’ followers would build on his idea that the universe is composed of one essential substance.

It is not hard to imagine why Thales drew the conclusion that everything was made of water. He believed that the fundamental material of the universe would have to be something from which all life could be formed. It would be a material necessary for sustaining life. Additionally, it would have to be a substance that was capable of motion and change. Water satisfied all of these criteria.

Living in the Greek peninsulas, the world very much appeared to come from water. Men traveled upon boats in the rivers and the oceans, and in fact all land ended at water. Much of the food in ancient Greece was fished from the sea. The livelihood of the farmers was determined by the rainfall of that season. Water was life, and to Thales, it was also the universe.

But it is not because of his assertion that everything was made of water, that we remember Thales. His claim might seem far-fetched by the standards of modern science, but for the time period, it was a dramatic leap forward in the arena of critical thinking and scientific study.

Of course we can’t be sure, but this initial step of challenging institutionalised ideas might have helped to blaze the way for the next controversial thinkers. By seeking rational explanations for observable phenomena, he laid the foundation for future philosophical and scientific thinking. For this reason, Thales of Miletus was one of the first pair of shoulders on which a long line of philosophers would stand…

“Thales of Miletus and the Birth of Western Philosophy” was written by Van Bryan

Diogenes of Sinope and the Modern Cynics

by April 24, 2013

Diogenes of Sinope is often considered one of the more eccentric, or at the very least untraditional, of the ancient Greek philosophers. He is credited as being one of the founders of cynicism and practiced these ideals through the eccentricities that filled his life.

Diogenes of Sinope

Diogenes of Sinope

It was his belief that all artificial growths of society, such as status and wealth, were unimportant, and could, in fact, be damaging to men’s souls. Diogenes held open contempt for abstract ideals such as reputation, property rights, or patriotism to any city-state.

He is often credited with the first use of the word “cosmopolitan” when he stated: “I am a citizen of the world (cosmopolites).”

While living in Athens, it is said that he resided in a large ceramic jar on the outskirts of the marketplace. He made a career out of begging and lying about; all while surviving on a steady diet of discarded onions. During the day, he wandered the streets with a lantern because he was “looking for an honest man”.

Diogenes was constantly dirty, disheveled, and often smelled of filth. He urinated and defecated in public, and it was not uncommon for him to literally spit in the faces of those who disagreed with him. For this reason, Diogenes was sometimes referred to as “Diogenes the dog”.

Rather than being offended, Diogenes reveled in the idea of being more like a dog. A dog, he believed, was more in touch with nature and therefore more closely in tune with true happiness. The dog does not care for social status or material possessions; the dog does not make himself a slave to the superficial desires that so plague the hearts of men. The dog lives life in the present and does not concern itself with abstract notions that might damage the soul.

Diogenes and Dogs

Diogenes and Dogs

The philosopher believed very firmly that man is not above nature. We are inescapably a part of it, and the further we retreat from this truth, hiding behind our lavish houses and material treasures, the further we withdraw from true virtue.

Whatever lessons you wish to learn about cynicism from Diogenes, you will have to do so indirectly. Although it is claimed he authored several books, letters and tragedies; none of them have survived.

So, it is left to us to learn through the anecdotes of his life.

Fortunately, there seem to be no shortage of interesting stories regarding Diogenes of Sinope. One rather intriguing tale that demonstrates Diogenes’ particular brand of philosophy regards an altercation with Plato and a disagreement on the definition of “man”.

As we’ve said, Diogenes disapproved of abstract philosophy, and thus was a harsh critic of Socrates and Plato. At this particular time in Athens, Plato had given Socrates’ definition of a man as a “featherless biped”. This description was highly praised and admired by Athenian intellectuals and commoners alike.

The only person who wasn’t impressed, it would seem, was Diogenes. It is accounted that upon hearing it; Diogenes promptly plucked a chicken of its feathers, visited Plato at his academy, and then threw the featherless bird at the man’s head.

Diogenes declared, “Behold! I give you Socrates’ man!”

It has been told that Plato was so shocked by this “counter argument” that he immediately added to his definition “…with broad, flat fingernails”. The event stuck with Plato and he would later describe Diogenes as ‘Socrates gone mad’.

While Diogenes did not care for Plato or his fascination with intangible philosophy, it appears he held even more contempt for ideas like material wealth and power. And he was not afraid to defy anybody who represented these ideas, even if that person was the most powerful man in the world.

Alexander the Great standing in Diogenes' light

Diogenes and Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great met with Diogenes one morning in Corinth. The conqueror had heard stories of ‘Diogenes the dog’ and wished to meet the filthy philosopher. The legend goes like this: while Diogenes was bathing in the morning sunlight, Alexander appeared before him. The King of Macedonia asked Diogenes if there was anything he (a man who seemingly had everything) could do for him.

The philosopher responded, “Yes, stand out of my light”.

Alexander was said to have been so impressed with the remark that he then stated “If I were not Alexander, I would wish to be Diogenes”.

Now there are a few interpretations to this story. Maybe Diogenes was sun bathing and did not appreciate the unwarranted shadow that Alexander cast. Or perhaps it means that Alexander, the man who exemplified the ideas of status and material wealth, was standing in the way of Diogenes finding his truth, his light.

Despite the historical setting, the teachings of Diogenes have not been lost to the ages. While the man has long been dead and buried, his spirit is very much alive today.

It is not unreasonable to draw a parallel between the ideas of Diogenes and modern cynics today. Diogenes’ rejection of modern values and material wealth is not unlike the hippy revolution of the late 1960’s.

At the time the social experiment known as “The summer of love” rocked the social and political climate of the United States. It was fueled by a defiant generation that made it a mission to rebel against the conformist values of the Cold War era. And while these modern-day Diogenes’ took strides to find happiness in ‘free love’ and returning to nature, the rest of the world looked on in disbelief.

Charles Bukowski, a modern Diogenes

Charles Bukowski

The ideals of Diogenes can be found in modern writers who have fueled what is sometimes referred to as “The hipster movement”. One of these authors is Charles Bukowski; a man who lived his life trapped in back alleys and seedy bars. Through his writings he seamlessly sews the spirit of Diogenes within the pages of books about degenerates and losers who refuse to care about modern expectations and find their solace in a modern-day ceramic jar and a steady diet of whiskey.

Jack Kerouac and his hipster anthem On the Road could also be considered a modern take on the life of Diogenes. Kerouac writes of young people who sought a life of free exploration, unfettered by the modern aspirations of status and wealth. It is not hard to see the essence of Diogenes reborn when Kerouac states, “Man lowers his head and lunges into civilization, forgetting the days of his infancy when he sought truth in a snowflake or a stick. Man forgets the wisdom of the child”.

The children of Diogenes are the modern nomads and poetic beggars that wander Greenwich Village. They are the aging hippies found on the corner of Haight and Ashbury. They seem content enough to sit all day playing guitar and writing poetry on the terrible state of humanity.

And while some homeless individuals have found their status in life through unfortunate circumstances, there are others who live the way they do very purposefully. They sleep when they want, and eat when they can afford it. They are not concerned with living in an upscale area or finding a job with good benefits.

They wish only for their peace and ask that we stay out of their light.


“Diogenes of Sinope and the Modern Cynics” was written by Van Bryan

Herodotus: Father of History or Father of Lies?

by April 12, 2013

Insatiably curious, prone to whimsy, a talented writer, a slave to gossip, an innovator, a barbarian apologist, a cosmopolitan, a partisan egoist; Herodotus has been praised for and accused of much since the publication of his Histories.

He was both denigrated and venerated in his own time…and has remained so ever since.

However, it is almost as difficult to understand his legacy as it is to chronicle his life. Because, for the latter, in the words of George Rawlinson: “the data are so few…that to compile them into a biography is like building a house of cards”.

mausoleum of Halicarnassus

mausoleum of Halicarnassus

It was circa 484BC that Herodotus was born into a sophisticated family in the Persian-loyal city-state of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, Turkey). However, from hereon in, there is little solid evidence of the precise movements of his extraordinary life.

We know he was exiled at least once. It is possible that, with his family, he fled to the island of Samos due to conflicts with the tyrant Lygdamis. Indeed, some fancifully think Herodotus may later have returned to lead an uprising against his oppressor.

It is likely that Herodotus experienced an unusually multicultural upbringing. Halicarnassus, originally a Greek colony, was also a key trading post with Egypt and would thus have been awash with a diversity of peoples.

Having grown up with a privileged background, a good education and a window to the outside world, it should not be surprising that Herodotus became the traveller and chronicler he did.

Visits to Egypt, Greece, Tyre, Babylon and Italy are reported with enough veracity to suggest that they really occurred – e.g. he considered Egypt an ‘opposite land’ as the Nile flooded in the summer.

bust of HerodotusAdditionally, the fact that his work was known in his lifetime and was thought (by Lucian) to have been performed at the Olympic Games, indicates his contemporaries did not doubt, as some later did, that these journeys really happened.

His fame seems to have been largely to his benefit, though not quite enough to win him a citizenship vote in Athens. However, even to be considered for this was a great honor in itself.

His literary clout was respected by the tragedian Sophocles; there are echoes of The Histories in Antigone. Herodotus also received the ultimate back-handed compliment of being important and well-known enough for comic playwright Aristophanes to lampoon him in The Acharnians.

The final resting place for a famous writer of no fixed abode is almost inevitably open to dispute. The main contenders are Thurii in Southern Italy, Thurium in Macedonia or, of course, Athens. However, the notion that he was buried alongside Thucydides is fantastic in the extreme.

So why does this debate about his reputation constantly flare up? How could he manage to be of differing credibility to men like Plutarch, Strabo, Aristotle and Cicero (not to mention a host of modern scholars)?

The Histories was never fully taken on face value and never will be, but as more and more evidence builds up to vindicate Herodotus (e.g. he described Gelonus, a gigantic Scythian city which was only discovered in 1975) it becomes harder to dismiss him entirely as a fantasist, a defamer, or a fraud.

In fact, there is no logical reason to presume he was anything other than what he claimed to be, a publisher of inquiries.

So, was he the father of history or the father of lies? Well, he could simultaneously be considered both and neither.

herodotus histories fragment

Herodotus histories fragment

Most problems with Herodotus arise when inspecting him from a ‘modern’ point of view. Modern in the sense that we view history as a series of hypotheses and probabilities which must be investigated, debated and, ideally, resolved. Herodotus is far detached from this, content merely to play the role of reporter. Consequently, we cast over him a patronizing and judgmental eye, an eye that isn’t compatible with his method.

Thucydides used a different ‘modern’ eye to belittle his contemporary.

Herodotus was interested in a range of human and natural characteristics as well as customs (together with their backgrounds). In contrast, Thucydides was primarily concerned with tangible facts that were directly relevant to him (i.e. politics and warfare). He considered his work historically definitive in a way Herodotus never did.

Indeed the very problem arises because of our obsession with viewing Herodotus as an historian, something he himself never claimed to be for the simple reason that the word didn’t exist! ‘History’ comes from the Latinized version of the Greek historia – ‘inquiry’.

As John P.A. Gould succinctly put it: “He nowhere claims to have been an eye witness or participant in any of the major events or battles that he describes”.

So, if not an historian, then what?

One could argue he was more of a travel writer, a chronicler of a general encyclopedia, or a journalist. Though actually calling him a novelist is perhaps a stretch too far.

Herodotus made it perfectly clear that he was not reporting truth or fact, but making a record of what others had told him: “I owe it to tell what is being told, but I by no means owe it to believe it”. [7.153-2]

If he were an historian, then he could only be said to have been a war, or anti-war historian. This is made clear from the preface to his work in which he states his wish to record how Greeks and non-Greeks came to strife. Thus, everything else (topography, local customs etc) becomes entertaining garnish.

And it is precisely the garnish, the tall-tales, the meandering yarns, the detailed landscapes, the curious dress and peculiar fauna, that have brought him in for such weight of attack.

However, as one man travelling in an unknown world, desperate to learn and share all it had to teach him, he is no more worthy of censure then the authors of obsolete entries in the Lonely Planet.

Modern assumptions and misinterpretation wound Herodotus. It is not up to him to justify himself to us, but up to us to read him as he wrote, without certainty, without authority, but with keen interest, enthusiasm, a willingness to think and an thirst to learn.

And, naturally, a pinch of salty skepticism.

Interested in reading the Histories by Herodotus? You can access it here for Free:

“Herodotus: Father of History or Father of Lies?” was written by Ben Potter

Euripides Greek Tragedy’s Unsung Hero

by March 20, 2013

Euripides Greek TragedyA lone figure, swaddled in rags sits secluded in a dank cave bent over his papyrus. The whittled reed in his hand dips rhythmically into the pot of octopus ink before adding a couple of urgent scratches to the thick page. His bushy, white beard is stained off-centre at the lower-lip, evidence of his habitual pen-chewing; but it is his mind, his mind that is stained far more indelibly. There are images of gods, war, warriors, adultery, incest, exile, blasphemy, damnation, infanticide, patricide, matricide, human-sacrifice, and worst of all, foreigners. These are the ideas, the dark and evil components of Greek tragedy, that this man, this Euripides believes are too… too… stock, too trite, too bedtime-story for the citizens of Athens. He knows that beauty is terror. “Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.” (Donna Tartt)

Well… No. I’m afraid not. At least, we’ve no reason to believe that the man who produced, directed and wrote The Bacchae, Hippolytus, Medea, and Electra really was the tortured recluse, the artistic oddball, the Salinger or Kubrick of his day. We like to think this because, instead of merely putting a new spin on traditional Greek myths, he always managed to find an even more shocking way to deliver a tried and trusted tale. He could make heroes devils and devils heroes and all without forcing the audience to break their mental stride.

Yes, he may well have lived in a cave on the island of Salamis, but what better place for a writer to escape the distracting hustle and bustle of Athenian city existence?

Likewise, late in life, Euripides left Athens for Macedon in self-imposed exile. Was he frustrated at a theatre-going public who didn’t appreciate him? Or was it, more likely, a lucrative retirement where his talents were rewarded not only with money, but also with praise and status?

After all it was these, praise and status, that seem to have alluded Euripides during his lifetime. Despite being considered by many today as the finest of the three great Athenian playwrights (besting Aeschylus for style and Sophocles for substance), he only won the first prize at the city’s premier dramatic contest, the Great Dionysia, four times during his lifetime and once posthumously.

You may be thinking ‘that’s not so bad – nobody ever won more than four Academy Awards for best director’, but if you compare his record to that of Aeschylus (13 wins) and Sophocles (20+), it seems a paltry return for a man of such insight, intensity and timeless genius.

Aristophanes - bust

Bust of Aristophanes

Don’t think however, that this modest return of gongs equated to a shortage of fame. A contemporary playwright, the comedian Aristophanes, made sure everyone in Athens, even those uninterested in tragedy, knew all about Euripides.

Aristophanes, along with other exponents of Old Comedy, used rumours about Euripides as material to create a comic alter-ego who was not merely joked about, but lampooned directly whilst appearing as a character in several plays.

Common jokes were:

  • That Euripides’ wife was having an affair with his lodger, who also happened to collaborate with Euripides in writing some of his plays.
  • That this cuckolding created in him such bitterness that many of his plays ended up propounding a theme of misogyny.
  • That he was an atheist and blasphemous towards the Greek gods.
  • That he was responsible for making tragedy less lofty e.g. whilst Aeschylus uses kings, gods and heroes as characters, Euripides uses beggars, cripples and the working-classes. And even when portraying kings they are clad in rags and slovenly.
  • That his mother sold cabbages in the agora – an early example of a “yo momma” joke i.e. “yo momma so poor, she sells cabbages in the agora”.
  • That he, like his contemporary Socrates, subverted the moral order of the day.

It is worth remembering that Aristophanes, like all comedians, was more concerned with laughs than with truth. Indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine that Euripides was from anything other than a high-class family and enjoyed a fine education.

Whether or not his wife was playing away, we do not know for sure, but anybody who closely studies his plays would find it hard to conclude he was a misogynist. In fact, even more than his great rivals, Euripides treats his female characters with great sensitivity and sympathy, as well as portraying them as independent and intelligent.

Moreover, it is quite likely that Euripides would have actually been in the audience when some of these zingers landed, making the impact of the joke two-fold. First, as the audience appreciated what the actor said, then second, as the audience turned as one to the embarrassed, angry, or perhaps, laughing Euripides – much like President Obama’s roast of Donald Trump at the Whitehouse in 2011.

One area where Aristophanes did not poke fun at Euripides was that of peace and war. The 5th century BC was a time of relentless fighting for Athens and both men used their art as a medium to criticise either politicians or the very nature of war itself. Indeed, it’s possible one reason Euripides was not a man appreciated in his own time was because of his unwillingness to slap a ‘support our troops’ sticker on the front of his programmes.

Whilst accusations he was a pacifist were perhaps a little wide of the mark, both he, and Aristophanes, stood out as men who used their talents to campaign against the involvement of Athens in expensive, devastating and pointless military campaigns.

Much as Euripides’ attempts to win favour with the public were to no avail, his efforts to influence popular opinion on foreign policy matters were equally fruitless. Two years after his death, Athens fell to the Spartans.

The cradle of democracy never recovered its status as the leading light of Western civilization.

Euripides’ legacy is a theatrical, not a political one. He changed theatre from a vehicle for education and moralizing to one of doubt and introspection. Whilst it is his complexities, his ambiguities and his lack of conformity that brought him up against such resistance in his own time, it is perhaps those same qualities that keep him relevant and endear him to so many today.

“Euripides Greek Tragedy’s Unsung Hero” was written by Ben Potter

The Mysterious Mr. Homer

by February 27, 2013

No one knows exactly when the Greek poet Homer lived. Herodotus, the father of history, guessed around 850 BC. Other ancient sources proposed that he was conjuring up transcendent imagery as early as the 12th century BC. Modern researchers, however, appear to place Homer in the 7th or 8th centuries BC.

The dates, as you can see, vary wildly. All we do know is that his compositions are considered the oldest works of western literature and have had an enormous and incalculable influence throughout the history of the written word.

Bust of Homer

Homer as imagined in the Hellenistic period

But the “Homeric Question” goes deeper than just dates… Historians aren’t even sure he existed at all. His works may be the culmination of generations of storytelling, all grouped under a fictitious name and nothing else. Could one man have written both The Iliad and The Odyssey?

At the same time, the stylistic similarities between the two mammoth stories are overwhelming, suggesting that, yes, it was the result of single author. But to throw another wrench into the mix, most scholars agree that the books underwent a process of standardisation and refinement in the beginning of the 8th century BC. Any wonder then that the styles were so similar…

We also can’t be certain that Homer was even a man, presuming he or she once lived. Samuel Butler, an important 19th century translator, argued that based on literary observations, it was a young Sicilian woman who wrote The Odyssey… but interestingly enough, not The Iliad.

So what do we know about Homer? How are we to learn anything about this ancient poet, if he or she did indeed walk this earth? Where do the clues lie to this ancient puzzle?

The answer may be obvious: We have to look at the poetry itself and piece together what we can. Unfortunately most of us do not have the time, nor the ancient greek skills to delve into the mystery ourselves…

For this reason, Classical Wisdom Weekly spoke with Ancient Greek expert A.P. David for insights into who Homer was and how we can better understand the monumental works of The Iliad and The Odyssey. A scholar and a gentleman, A.P. David also presents some alternative views on the subject… ones that might make you question everything you thought you knew about the epic poet and his (or her) writings.

Click on the play button to watch the video:

Aristotle The Philosopher who Knew it All

by January 18, 2013

It has been said that he was a man who knew everything. In fact, he was considered the last man who did know everything. Was he born with a supernatural Rainman-like memory? Did the Gods imbue him with the divine gift of wisdom? Maybe, but probably not.

Bust of AristotleIn all likelihood, he did know everything of his own time because, frankly, most of what was known, was written by him anyway. You could not have found a more prolific, in depth and innovative thinker than Aristotle. He inscribed over 200 works (though only 31 remain), founded numerous fields of study and observation, as well as a prominent school to propel those new areas of interest.

Really, no one short column can do anything even in the remote vicinity of justice to the man’s life, contributions and influence. That doesn’t mean we won’t try, however.

For instance, if we wished to briefly review the major mental tasked achieved by Aristotle, we would be stuck with a drab list; a copy and paste of accomplishments.

It’s, unfortunately, a mistake we can’t avoid. Our suggestion would be to not actually read the whole thing (unless in a Rodgers and Hammerstein-like tune), but rather see it for the mountain that it is and skip to the next paragraph.

So, without further adieu:

In physical science, Aristotle studied: anatomy, astronomy, embryology, geography, geology, meteorology, physics and zoology.
In philosophy, he wrote on: aesthetics, ethics, government, metaphysics, politics, economics, psychology, rhetoric and theology.
He also studied: education, foreign customs, literature and poetry.

This is the moment when everyone asks, with burning jealousy in their eyes, how did he have the time in one short life? Where did he get the inexhaustible energy or the German-like discipline? We don’t know, of course. A brief overview of the ebbs and flows of his life might shed some light… we can only hope.

From the very beginning Aristotle was not like the other Athenian philosophers, for he wasn’t even Athenian. This small detail, one in which he had no choice, resulted in innumerable favorable and unfortunate occurrences in his life. It meant he was often a ‘foreigner’ because he was born in Northern Greece (more precisely, in Stageira, Chalcidice, in 384 BC, about 34 miles east of modern-day Thessaloniki). Essentially… Macedonia, the land of Alexander the Great.

Aristotle’s father, Nicomachus, was the personal physician to Alexander’s grandfather, King Amyntas of Macedon. This would have been young Aristotle’s first influence in the realm of scientific thinking. It also contributed to his vast understanding of the anatomy. In addition, it was his initial connection to the Macedonian court.

Once Aristotle’s papa passed away, his new guardian shipped him off to Athens so he could get a real education. There in the big city, he studied under Plato himself in his renowned Academy. No one would doubt that this period was extremely influential for Aristotle. After 20 odd years, in 348/47 BC, he quit the Acropolis, though no one knows for sure why he left town. One theory is that the philosopher’s ego was hurt when Plato died. He did not pass the baton to Aristotle, but named another successor instead. The other order of events is that Aristotle feared anti-Macedonian sentiments and in fact, left before Plato gave up the ghost.

Either way, Aristotle then traveled with a fellow thinker, Xenocrates, to the court of his friend Hermias of Atarneus in Asia Minor. There he jotted around, had inspired thoughts about octopus, married Hermias’ daughter and had a baby. His excursions around Lebos were instrumental in his observations on marine life, with a description of the cephalopods’ phallus that was about two thousand years ahead of its time. Indeed it was widely disbelieved until its rediscovery in the 19th century.

Aristotle Teaching AlexanderWhen his father-in-law died, Aristotle was called back to his homeland in order to teach the king’s son. The one and only Alexander the Great, albeit at a rowdy 13 years of age. Aristotle didn’t drop everything, however, and come running to his highness. He agreed to the position only if his hometown was restored after the king had razed it. Not only that, but the city had to be repopulated, which meant its former ex-citizens were freed from slavery or pardoned from exile.

Much myth making has been done over Alexander and Aristotle’s relationship during those three years of study. The latter encouraged expansion in the east, unabashedly advising despotism to subdue barbarians. Maybe, though, the former also influenced his older mentor? Was it a reminder of age, energy and the role in history, perhaps? We, of course, have no idea.

All we do know, is that Aristotle returned to Athens, but this time to set up his own academy, the Lyceum. There he wrote the vast majority of his works, taught the next generation, and remarried after his wife’s death. It was during this 12 year stretch that his most important treatises were created, including Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, De Anima (On the Soul) and Poetics.

Then Alexander died and Athens and Greece changed forever. Aristotle’s profound thoughts and benefits for the scholars could not save him from the flare up of anti-Macedonian sentiments. It took the form of ‘impiety’ accusations. Rather than face a sham trial, Aristotle fled to Chalcis, where his mother had an estate, explaining, “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy.” This was a shout-out to his former teacher’s teacher, Socrates. Eventually Aristotle died of natural causes in 322 BC.

His legacy, however, lived on. His works were actually lost to the west for many centuries, preserved in Arabia and only rediscovered in Europe during the middle Ages. In that time period, Aristotle’s’ writings carried an authority second only to the bible. Many of his works were not improved upon until the nineteenth century.

But most importantly Aristotle proposed a new way of thinking; a method for arriving at a conclusion. We are talking about his contributions to logic. This is how he knew everything. He didn’t know anything! What he comprehended was how to look at the world rationally and learn something.


“Aristotle The Philosopher who Knew it All” was written by Anya Leonard