Aristotle, says Edith Hall, is "quite simply the most important intellectual who ever lived." Here the author and classicist selects five key texts to further your understanding of the great philosopher's life and work.
Edith Hall is a British classicist, specialising in ancient Greek literature and cultural history, and a professor in the Department of Classics and Centre for Hellenic Studies at King's College, London. Her latest book, Aristotle's Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life, was published in May 2018 in the UK and will be available in the US in January 2019.
Could you say a little bit about your recent book, Aristotle’s Way, and why you wrote it?
I’m a trained classicist and I came across Aristotle when I was studying Classics at Oxford. But, in fact, my own publications and research, previously, have been in literature and theatre and cultural history. It’s very difficult to talk about this without sounding like a sect that you’re initiated into—which it definitely is not—but I decided to practise Aristotelian ethics as an undergraduate and it’s worked for me. I’ve been frustrated by the way that Aristotle—amongst all ancient authors, not just philosophers—is regarded by most academics as a thinker who needs for some reason to be retained within the walls of the academy. People don’t ever tell you that Aristotle was himself keen on writing accessible treatises, called his ‘exoteric’ works, in dialogue form, for the public; nor that he personally lectured to general audiences. He was an enthusiast for public engagement himself. He believed that if everybody—cobblers, fishermen, and peasant farmers—became virtue ethicists then the world would genuinely become a better place. He thought that everyone was capable of learning moral reasoning and deliberation. It was what the Greeks called just another skill or area of knowledge, a technē, like sailing or poetry or medicine or gardening. You can actually learn it, and he would have preferred it if everyone did so.
I was scared off being a philosopher by the whole culture surrounding it at Oxford in the early 1980s, where classical philosophers were treated as if they were analytical philosophers. I’ve got a much more historicist approach. I was brought up in a strict Protestant family by an Anglican priest of the Calvinist end of the spectrum. I lost my religion completely at the age of 13 and this left a yawning gap. I nearly went off the rails because I could not see why there was any advantage in practising virtue. Without an interventionist or providential deity, I could see no point in trying to be a good person. Of course, I later discovered that it was a major discussion topic in moral philosophy. I had a disturbed teens, as many of us do: I tried all sorts of weird religions and spiritualism and narcotics. I was six years in the moral wilderness and miserable because I needed to have a goal in life, and a reasoned set of guideposts to what would make me happier and those around me happier and, by extension, the whole of society happier.
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The first bit of Aristotle I read was book three of the Nicomachean Ethics for an undergraduate essay on how characters deliberate and make decisions in tragedy. I was completely blown away by it. I realised that this was exactly what I had been looking for. Although I didn’t specialise in philosophy at doctoral level, I’ve been doing it personally for nearly four decades. A couple of years ago, after I finished Introducing the Ancient Greeks, my agent pointed out that I was always citing Aristotle as a guide to life, and that I should write about that for other people. I realised then, because I’m nearly sixty, have had many friendships, have been through work crises, divorce, bereavements, childbirth and raising young adults, that I had now got forty years’ life experience of practical ethics in political, professional and personal life, and many good examples of what makes people happy and unhappy, and of moral dilemmas. I could not have written this book as a 20-year-old.
That’s very interesting, because it ties in with this whole notion that many of the ancient Greek philosophers were really concerned with: how to live in a practical sense, not just in an abstract ‘philosophical’ sense. There’s a lot of interest now in stoicism but, in academia, Aristotelian virtue ethics is still quite a technical subject. It’s often about interpretation rather than action.
Exactly. I decided to take a deep breath and send a proposal off. Penguin, both in America and in Britain, leapt at it because they’ve obviously got their finger on the pulse that people want advanced self-help. Ultimately, it’s got to do with secularisation. There’s a huge void in many people’s moral lives. If you look at the statistics on even middling-ground belief in Britain—although not amongst the immigrant community, because Roman Catholicism and Islam are actually growing—both Judaism and Anglican Christianity, in terms of regular religious attendance and practice, are massively on the wane. Sociologists usually date the start of this decline from about 1969. There had been a dramatic fall-off with everything that happened socially in the 1960s, and people no longer have any internalised ‘rules’ for what to do or how to live.
“They dropped virtue ethics from the syllabus. They’ve left in epistemology and ontology but not the one thing that’s useful”
I make a lot of visits to schools because my other project is trying to get classical civilisation and ancient history out in to state-sector education. Our teenagers are thirsting for basic moral philosophy. If I say, “How would Aristotle have made a decision?” or discuss how to make a life plan or how to choose a partner, they get so excited because nobody has ever had that conversation with them before. Sadly, they’ve dropped virtue ethics almost completely from the A Level philosophy syllabus. They’ve left in epistemology and ontology but not the one thing that’s useful.
So, it may sound crazy but I quite seriously wanted to give Aristotle back to people outside the Academy, writing it dutifully as a middle-aged woman and a mother with ethical examples taken from my own life and experiences. I’m a bit of a secular missionary and think that this approach can make people happier.
Was Aristotle himself secular? I thought that like many of his contemporaries he believed in gods.
My last chapter of the book is all about this. He believed that there was some sort of deity out there. He called it the ‘unmoved mover.’ So, there’s some sort of motor of the universe—some energetic force—which means that we and the rest of the universe are all in constant change. He sometimes equated that quite boldly with the mind or ‘nous’, as if god is the cosmic mind. At times he sounded eerily like Stephen Hawking. If human beings get to the point when we completely understand the universe, said Hawking, then we would know the mind of God. Sometimes Aristotle implies that he believed the very distant celestial bodies might be God. He was fascinated by astronomy. We know from the things he tells us about that he had 20/20 vision. He was good at looking at things a very long way away. He describes the moon passing in front of Mars in 357 BCE, when he was still at Plato’s Academy, and is able to infer that the moon must be closer to Earth than Mars. This means that he must have had excellent eyesight.
And, at the risk of sounding flippant, my theory is that Plato invented the theory of the Forms because he was, in contrast, short-sighted. I am very myopic myself and have had to create an advanced set of images in my head of what things look like to help me move around when I can’t find my contact lenses. I think Plato was the brainy, geeky boy born into a military-minded family of statesmen with tyrannical or oligarchic leanings. He became a philosopher because he couldn’t be a general, whereas Aristotle came striding down from Northern Greece with his 20/20 vision. So, of course Aristotle was interested in empirical study of material, physical reality and what Plato would have thought of as the superficial appearance of things.
Let’s go on to the first book that you’ve chosen. This is Aristotle: His Life and School by Carlo Natali, a biography of Aristotle. Could you say why you chose this book?
Well, it’s more than just a biography. Not that a biography of Aristotle wouldn’t be a good thing, but it’s so much more than that. Carlo Natali is an eminent classicist as well as ancient philosopher. He really knows his Greek and Latin, and this is crucial when you’re dealing with the peculiar ancient biographical sources on Aristotle. Many of these sources are hostile. Aristotle had enemies, both in his own time and in later antiquity, as well as amongst early Christians and in the early Middle Ages. There’s a great deal of derogatory material in their writings which needs to be sifted carefully. The main source is a man called Diogenes Laertius, who wrote biographies of the ancient philosophers, but they are often more like comic caricatures. He has Aristotle engaging in daft sexual shenanigans and being vain. But this is obviously part of the propaganda and counter-propaganda going on between different philosophical schools. Piecing together Aristotle’s life also involves archaeological sites at Mieza in Macedonia and in Athens as well as inscriptions—epigraphic evidence—from near Assos, the city in Asia Minor where he lived for a while. And we have evidence contained in Aristotle’s own works: for example, when he writes about creatures he’s seen in Lesbos, we get a strong sense of his time on that island.
“The original book was ground-breaking because, before it, studies of Aristotle’s life had been highly speculative”
But this book is far more than a biography. Natali is at Venice University, and it was published in 1991 in Italian. D S Hutchinson—who is a superb Aristotelian at Toronto—has not only translated it but has made new English translations. He has gone back to all those ancient sources so that things don’t get lost in his interpretation of the Italian translation. Also some new sources have turned up since 1991. The current version is from 2013, so it’s quite up to date. The original book was ground-breaking because, before it, studies of Aristotle’s life had been highly speculative. The Germans, including Werner Jaeger constructed enormous hypothetical timelines, trying to put all the treatises (which I consider to be fundamentally undatable) in chronological order. They would say, look there’s an arc where we can see Aristotle’s disagreements with Plato becoming more and more marked, or his views on the possibility or impossibility of an afterlife changing, and other such alleged developments. It’s all speculative. Natali stripped all that back to empirically provable facts; Aristotle would have approved of that. It was a revolutionary book from that point of view.
The first chapter is about Aristotle’s life and the second chapter is about the Lyceum. We know quite a lot about the Lyceum, the university he set up in Athens, and its legal status. The third chapter is about the radically new forms of activity that had not happened at the Academy, which included book-collecting. Aristotle’s library at the Lyceum was legendary and its organisation later became the model of the Library of Alexandria. There were also new pedagogical methods, including those public lectures. So, it’s much more than a biography. It’s about the whole foundation of peripatetic philosophy. And it’s so readable.
Let’s move on to your second choice, Aristotle’s Children by Richard E Rubenstein. This is a book about some of the ways in which Aristotle’s thought impacted on later generations. It’s almost a cliché that he was known as ‘the philosopher’ throughout much of the medieval period as if there had never been another one.
Exactly. He’s sitting there in charge of all of the other great thinkers in Dante; he’s the “maestro di color che sanno” [the master of those who know]. I’ve chosen this book because I really enjoyed it, I learnt a huge amount from it, and I found it fun to read, but also because its author has an agenda which goes beyond telling the story of Aristotle in the 12th century CE. The agenda is that he wants the book to help us resolve conflicts between religions, and to prevent people being persuaded by our contemporary theocrats that God has any role in the state. Rubenstein was originally a lawyer. Three of the authors I’ve chosen here are not orthodox specialist academic writers on Aristotle. As a young man, Rubenstein was involved in the most radical of causes: the Black Panther movement, campaigns for racial equality, and protests against the Vietnam War. He now writes an important blog on conflict resolution, and he’s actually professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at George Mason University.
“Rubenstein sees this as a model for interfaith dialogue that puts philosophy at the centre”
In the 12th century, the way Aristotle was received radically affected how not only Christians but also Jews and Muslims saw the relationship between faith and reason—i.e. bringing Aristotle into discussions of that relationship ramped up the role of reason hugely. Rubenstein sees this as a model for interfaith dialogue. It puts philosophy at the centre, and allows people to get away from petty inter-doctrinal conflicts and into mutual discussion and cooperation. So, I see this as a truly important book in terms of providing ways forward in the 21st century. And that’s how he intended it.
Is that an explicit aim? The way the book is described online makes it sound as if it’s a historical study.
He says that the relation between Aristotelian thought and Christianity in the Middle Ages was a stage of creative tension in which the great scholastics didn’t see faith and reason as an either/or choice. He says that the Aristotelian project which seemed irrelevant in the age of political and religious fragmentation (Aristotle went out of fashion in the Enlightenment) could however serve in the next phase of human history as an inspirer of creative integrative thought. He writes: “one does not have to be nostalgic for the Middle Ages to recognise that obliterating this part of our past makes the present seem eternal, and obliterates alternative futures.” He thinks we should look at the extraordinary meeting in Spain of Arabic philosophy and Christian, Boethian thoughts about the role of philosophy in education. This book offers a study of another time and another place where Aristotle proved extraordinarily positive. His secular thinking, and interest in reason and logic, were the reasons why the scholastics originally loved him so much. It’s only later that people like Aquinas took Aristotle for their own, and tried to turn him into a Christian.
One of the things that, personally, put me off Aristotle’s ethics was the way his ideas have been used in Catholicism to repress behaviour. Aristotle became the philosophical underwriter for all kinds of moral conservatism.
Absolutely. This is something which would have absolutely appalled him. And I’m not alone in thinking this. There are many who see Aristotle as providing a promise of balance in the sorts of debates we conduct in the secular age of the 21st century. Among the first to start doing trying to making him conform to dogmatic Christianity was Tertullian, one of the early Christian Fathers. They said that Aristotle had, in fact, accepted faith and that he committed suicide—which he never would have done: he disapproved strongly of suicide. They said he committed suicide because he could not understand the tides of the Euripus.
This is a strait between mainland Greece and the island called Euboea. Aristotle did die there. He fled Athens because he was accused, just like Socrates, of impiety. But unlike Socrates (who wanted to be a martyr and could have left but didn’t), Aristotle sensibly removed himself back to safe exile in his maternal ancestral home. He died, probably of stomach cancer, not long after getting there, a disappointed man, at the age of sixty-two. But the early Christians had said that he had in fact thrown himself into the Euripus, which has these tides that no scientist has fully explained even today. They’re violent—I’ve been to see them. The Church Fathers said he had accepted as he died that there must be a deity and that the human mind could not explain everything, as he had previously maintained. They claimed his last words were, “If Aristotle cannot intellectually grasp the Euripus then let the Euripus take Aristotle”. But this was a Christian fiction. They desperately needed him to renounce his attitude to God. People realised that it posed a problem to religion that this great brain had lived and died, but had been absolutely clear all along that: a) there was no interventionist deity; and b) there was no afterlife. It was just too much.
Your third book choice is Ethics with Aristotle by Sarah Broadie. This is a more conventional commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, isn’t it?
I wouldn’t call it a commentary, because I tend to see commentaries as consisting of lemmatised text with sequences of references to line numbers. That’s what I call a commentary. This is a long, highly engaged critical reading. Of the Nicomachean Ethics, it only misses out friendship/partnership, which is a big one, and some passages when Aristotle goes into real detail on the separate virtues.
Could you give us a flavour of this book? Is it quite an academic book?
It is. I think it would be much better to read through some of the historical background to Aristotle first. But it is exceptionally lucid. It is very solid—over four hundred pages long. It’s highly argumentative and it also disagrees with many mainstream Aristotelians on one important point. She quarrels with Aristotle every inch of the way, which means that, by the end of it, whether you agree with her or with Aristotle, you have been on an Aristotelian journey. It’s such a challenge.
“She quarrels with Aristotle every inch of the way; whether you agree with her or with Aristotle, by the end you have been on an Aristotelian journey”
She’s very Scottish and sensible. Relative to other philosophers, Broadie writes beautifully short sentences (which Aristotle recommends in his Rhetoric). This makes it much easier to follow the arguments, although you’ll probably have to read it two or three times to grasp her full line of reasoning. In my view it’s the very best accompaniment to the Ethics in the English language.
The Nicomachean Ethics is hugely influential, even though it wasn’t Aristotle’s final written version. Wasn’t it his lecture notes?
Well, we don’t know. The recension of his texts from antiquity is another whole story. It’s such a mess because they all got lost and were stuck in a ditch for two hundred years in western Turkey before being saved by book merchants and then by the Roman general Sulla. He realised how important they were. He managed to get them back to Rome. We are told this by several authors including an ancient geographer called Strabo who much loved Aristotle. Strabo tells us the terrible story of how they were subsequently badly copied out by booksellers who were desperate to make a fast buck and didn’t use systematic redaction of different manuscripts. With even the surviving books–Aristotle wrote between one and two hundred, and we’ve only got an eighth of the total—we have to be far more careful about assuming that every single word is correctly transmitted, in a way we don’t with Plato. Plato was carefully copied out from day one and was preserved beautifully in the manuscript tradition of Byzantium.
Do you think this is because of the different styles of their writing? Plato is incredibly literary and a beautiful writer, but Aristotle doesn’t come across that way in what survives.
Exactly, in what survives. But I would like to insist that we know from the way that people talk about his exoteric works—the short, accessible treatises he wrote to circulate amongst the public—that they were dramatic dialogues like Plato’s, and they were famed for their beauty. It is so sad that they have not survived for us to read.
So, he did learn from Plato as a writer as well as a thinker?
Yes. Cicero talks about the “golden river” of Aristotle’s prose in the popular works. This does not apply to what has survived, which is mostly advanced writing for trainee philosophers. If you look at my texts for when I’m training my postgraduates, then I absolutely don’t bother to make them easy. If I need to use a neologism or new language or shorthand or specialist, technical terminology, then I will. It is part of learning the technē of being a classicist. But I would never dream of publishing prose like that for the general public. You as a public philosopher will completely get what I mean. So, yes, Aristotle’s work is dense and difficult and that’s why I wanted to write a book that put across Aristotelian ideas through some real practical case studies and moral dilemmas that I and my friends have faced.
One of the criticisms often raised against virtue ethics as it appears in philosophy departments is that it doesn’t really tell you how to live. It will say choose the middle way or do what a virtuous person would do. But you’re stumped, because you don’t know what the extremes are that you choose between, and you don’t know what a virtuous person would do because, if you did, then you would be doing it.
Yes, absolutely. Aristotle does present some radical views, though, that do have clear practical implications. For example, the omission/commission one. Long before the Roman Catholics invented sins of omission, Aristotle—in book three of the Nicomachean Ethics—has an extraordinary set of sentences where he says that if you are accountable and responsible for something that you did which had bad results, then if you chose not to do something and the omission had bad results, then you’re equally accountable. In Britain we have a legal system that is far worse than almost any in the world in terms of not calling people to account for failures to act, and this notion of wrongdoing by omission radically changed my life. I stopped saying to myself, ‘Have I kept out of trouble today?’ and started saying to myself: ‘If I’ve got three score years and ten, how do I want to make the world a better place?’ I don’t think we use that anywhere near enough in our assessments of politicians and celebrities and rich people and leaders. We only ask that they keep their noses clean and manage not to say anything racist or sexist, rather than what they have done, or failed to do, with their power, wealth, status and influence.
It’s interesting that it’s come through more from utilitarianism than it has from Aristotelianism.
I know, but he invented it. What’s clear is that the higher up the social scale you are, and the more security you’ve got, the more obliged you are to use that status and safety for the good. Aristotle was very hard on the rich who didn’t do something of a constructive kind with their money. This is a man who’d had to live in Philip of Macedon’s court. He watched some of the worst behaviour in the Greek world. And in the Nicomachean Ethics, when he’s talking about financial meanness, he uses some of his most bitter language.
There’s that interesting passage there about who should get the best flute. If you have a wonderful instrument, who should end up with it? Should it be the person with the most money or the person who’s most able to play it? Actually, our society says it’s the person who has the legal rights over it—probably the person who bought it—who should get it. If they’re charitable enough to lend it to a great performer, they can deign to do that, but they’re not obliged to do it. Aristotle comes across as having a much stronger meritocratic tendency, that the people who make the best use of something should get it, not the people who necessarily have the most money.
Exactly. And that’s like his other extraordinary idea of dynamis, of potential. Everything has potential. Even bits of wood and stone have the potential to become statues or parts of a temple. But in the case of the human being, fulfilling your full physical, intellectual, and creative potential and doing that as an activity all the time, not just getting to that state and stopping, is inseparable from eudaimonia. That’s exactly what it is. In a sense, you and I are in a state of eudaimonia right now because we are doing what we enjoy most and have therefore become reasonably good at—talking about ideas.
But there is a downside to that. There are many other things that you could have done. How do you choose between the various things you could pursue, since you can’t do everything?
I talk about this in the book; I’ve been very lucky. I had a socialist-Aristotelian mentor, an admirable woman called Margot Heinemann, a professor of English. I was really at a loss in my mid-twenties. I hadn’t decided to do a doctorate; I did it quite late. She had me in for an hour, and told me: ‘Write down everything you can do and then tell me what you’re doing to do it with.’ She was an old Marxist, so she just said ‘okay, you can’t go into politics. You’re far too emotional for the political plane. You’re not properly working class, so you can’t work on the economic plane. So, go and work on the ideological plane’. I said: well, how do I do that?’ She said: ‘You’ve got a brain. You’ve got a first-class degree. For heaven’s sake, isn’t it obvious that you need to go and be an academic?’ Isn’t that brilliant? I was lucky because I had someone who was capable of good mentoring and cared. How many kids don’t have an adult like that in their lives? She did that for me and I think we should be doing that for all our young.
My second chapter is all about dynamis. The term is where Alfred Nobel got the name for his original blasting powder, which I hate because it’s such a constructive word. I wanted to call my book Aristotelian Dynamite and the publisher wouldn’t let me. But the real dynamite is in every human on the planet.
Let’s move on to your fourth choice. This is the Aristotle: Political Philosophy by Richard Kraut. We’ve gone from how we should live as individuals to what that means for society.
Yes, here we move seamlessly from the Ethics to the Politics. Richard Kraut has written several books about Aristotle and Plato. He’s a wonderful man. He’s the only one of these that I know personally. He’s at Northwestern University and warmly encouraged me to write my book about six years ago when I had a visiting position over there. He told me to stop worrying about not being a recognised philosopher yet and just do it. I was terrified about the backlash from academic peers. The terror, judging from the reviews by academics, was completely justified. Ordinary people and non-academic reviewers like it, but academics—senior male ones, at any rate—mostly don’t.
Richard Kraut has written several excellent books. I could have chosen his Aristotle on the Human Good (1989) but my favourite of all his books is Aristotle: Political Philosophy (2002). Kraut is personally committed to public engagement, so he writes with unusual clarity. He says that he wants to write for newcomers to Aristotle. But there’s plenty that’s original and new for political theorists and philosophers as well. It’s a brilliant balance, because while everywhere you can sense that Kraut’s completely engaged with all the most up-to-date scholarship, he wears it lightly. It doesn’t submerge his narrator’s voice at all.
If Aristotle’s Ethics is focussed on eudaimonia, which is often translated as ‘flourishing’ rather than ‘happiness”, what is the focus of his political philosophy?
Doing that ‘living well’ together as political animals that advance the living city state, and how to do it together. It’s a sort of maximisation and magnification of those virtues on a collective level.
Was he pro-democracy? Plato was clearly anti-democratic.
Aristotle was more pro-democracy. This is where Kraut comes in. Most Aristotelians are clear that he believed that democracy, if it’s working well, is the best constitution. It’s interesting in his own life how, whenever he could, he returned to Athens. He lived far more of his adult life in Athens, in the democracy, than anywhere else, even though he was only a resident alien. He could never even have the full citizen rights.
But he had been a tutor to Alexander the Great.
I don’t think he had much choice. People talk about this as though he had a range or alternatives. People who did not do what they were told by Philip of Macedon—the dreadful one-eyed tyrant and autocrat—were killed. Poisonings and feuds were the stuff of everyday life in Pella. It’s actually rather surprising that Aristotle stayed alive. Philip after all besieged Aristotle’s hometown of Stagira in north-eastern Greece and killed or enslaved its inhabitants. People talk as though you could get letters of summons from Philip of Macedon, and be able to say ‘well, no, actually’…
“Poisonings and feuds were the stuff of everyday life in Pella. It’s actually rather surprising that Aristotle stayed alive”
But what I like about Kraut’s book, and it’s similar to what I said about Rubenstein, is that he’s clear that we need to use Aristotle’s political ideas to help us live together today. He is very relevant right now. There’s a continuing thread here in what I’m saying. He says, “there are riches in Aristotle’s political thought that are unrecognised or undervalued, and that his perspective deserves to be included in contemporary debates about social and political issues.” Aristotle himself was addressing the future political leaders studying with him in the fourth century BCE, and modern public policy makers can still benefit from his ideas about a good society, justice, citizenship, equality, democracy, community, property, family, class conflict, and the corrosive results of extreme poverty and wealth.
That’s a very strong recommendation for that book.
It’s a superb book. It’s inspiring, beautifully-written, and from the very best Aristotelian mind around.
Let’s move on to the final book. This is The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science by Armand Marie Leroi.
I just love this book. Leroi’s not a classicist; he’s professor of evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College London. He discovered early on in his career, as anyone who studies zoology must, that Aristotle is the founding father of zoology. His two great treatises On the Reproduction of Animals and the History of Animals are a great place to start reading Aristotle because they are written in easy, flowing prose. They’ve got plenty of colour in them because they’re all about horses and giraffes and molluscs and other animals. I often recommend them as a good way in to Aristotle for young people.
Leroi decided to examine these works of Aristotle in detail. Aristotle often mentions specific places where he has seen creatures—in particular, the island of Lesbos. We know that he spent about 18 months there at a crucial point in his career when he was about 40, with Theophrastus, who was his successor as head of the Lyceum. Theophrastus was 17 years younger, but Aristotle’s most trusted friend, and a Lesbian in that he was from the island of Lesbos. Leroi visited Lesbos. Aristotle drew beautiful pictures of the animals, but these haven’t survived, sadly: Leroi’s book provides reconstructions. Leroi’s book is a panegyric on Aristotle the natural scientist. Aristotle was remarkable: he seems even to have invented the spreadsheet, to be able to compile dozens and dozens of parallel cases, collate them, and then infer the general scientific principles from them. So, this book is a love song to Aristotle by a scientist who writes far better prose than most humanities scholars. Leroi also shows, often, how those ideas cannot be separated from the ethics. Aristotle has the belief that our virtue is grounded in nature, and that if don’t live according to our biologically determined animalness, then we can’t achieve happiness. The physical pleasures that all animals enjoy are not goals in themselves for us. They are not intrinsic goods, but they are guides to the good.
They are guides to the good and presumably elements of a good life?
Yes, but only because they’re instrumental. Sexual desire will help you make a better relationship, but it’s the better psychological relationship that you’re after.
Because, unlike pigs or deer or molluscs, or whatever, we have the capacity to have a reflective interaction with somebody we respect beyond the physical interaction?
Exactly. It’s the same with eating. He says that delicious food is important because delicious food is usually healthier and better for you and will result in your body being in better condition which is conducive to thinking better and more seriously. So, the science is crucial for Aristotle. There’s an excellent philosopher at Birkbeck College, London, called Sophia Connell, who really gets this. She has already produced wonderful articles explaining why we can’t do the ethics without the biology and Aristotle on Female Animals: A Study of the Generation of Animalscame out with CUP in 2016. She is also in the process of editing The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle’s Biology.
That’s very interesting. These aspects of Aristotle’s surviving works are usually studied independently, it must be said, particularly by philosophers who just pay lip service to Aristotle as a scientist without actually looking very deeply into what kind of scientist he was.
Absolutely. I would suggest that the complete beginner just goes and reads the History of Animals. It’s full of delightful anecdotes and conveys a strong sense of Aristotle the animal-lover. He’s insightful on horses, as my sister, an equestrian expert, has confirmed to me.
How did he fit so much into such a short life?
I don’t know. Plato called him ‘The Brain.’ They said it was awfully quiet in the Academy when he wasn’t there. But he read and read and read everything: he read physical sciences, which Socrates and Plato didn’t; he respected the study of rhetoric if used for morally correct purposes; he wanted to conduct research in every discipline and was the first to theorise how we argue logically in all of them. He collected a vast library, but he also collaborated with other thinkers. The fact that several of his works are labelled ‘spurious’ is simply because they’re by the equivalent of his PhD students.
So, he really was a team player as well as an independent genius?
Yes. At the Lyceum they rotated leadership roles, as proper colleges and universities once used to: the intellectuals when I began my academic career still rotated the deanship rather than importing business managers and accountants to come in and tell us how to do our job.
It’s clear that you deeply admire Aristotle. What would you say is his continuing importance?
The best answer to that lies in the last chapter of my book. I actually couldn’t write that chapter for a long time: I was delayed for a whole year because my mother was dying. I came and went from her bedside, and I found a way to use Aristotelian ideas to help me. His theory of conscious recollection, which only humans can perform, was a support to me. Animals have memory, he argues, but they cannot deliberately recollect. Aristotle says that this is a uniquely human skill. That idea has also influenced me as an academic: I think I’m a custodian of deliberate recollection because I write history books and consciously retrieve memories of our human past, activate our historical consciousness. But the same notion became invaluable to me, personally, as I went through my memory bank and shared with my mother all my happiest memories of childhood with her. I think that helped my mother as well.
“Aristotle is quite simply the most important intellectual who ever lived”
We know that Aristotle used all sorts of aides-memoires. He had a painting of his mother of whom he had been very fond. He never forgot his wife, who died young. He had a bust of Socrates and a picture of a much-loved former student in the Lyceum too. He wrote a poem in memory of the ruler of Assos who had been a close friend. He used deliberate recollections to keep links with the past, even though he didn’t believe in any life after death. I think that is moving. The man who faced death full in the face, one of the very few people in Antiquity who did that, had this brave awareness that life is not only not a dress rehearsal, but it’s the sole performance and premiere rolled into one. I found him extraordinarily helpful in one of life’s most difficult situations.
I think Aristotle is quite simply the most important intellectual who ever lived. He has foundational status in so many academic disciplines, as well as having invented a revolutionary human-centred ethics. Everybody deserves to get access to this marvellous thinker.
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Edith Hall is a British classicist, specialising in ancient Greek literature and cultural history, and a professor in the Department of Classics and Centre for Hellenic Studies at King's College, London. Her latest book, Aristotle's Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life, was published in May 2018 in the UK and will be available in the US in January 2019.
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