Aristotle was primarily a man of science, looking at everything from Aristotle was primarily a man of science, looking at everything from a rational angle, but he was also a philosopher, even a metaphysician, and was deeply interested in all the humanities. It is highly typical of him that we must introduce his political and sociologic studies with ecologic considerations.

What is ecology? The word is Greek, of course, but is no part of the ancient Greek vocabulary. Its English form was first (more correctly) oecology, and the earliest example of “oecology” mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated as late as 1873 (Haeckel); the earliest example of “ecology” in the Supplement of the Dictionary is dated 1896.¹⁵¹⁸ The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the science of the economy of animals and plants; that branch of biology which deals with the relations of living organisms to their surroundings, their habits and modes of life, etc.”

The name “ecology” is very recent, but the science itself is ancient; as old as Aristotle himself. Every intelligent naturalist has dealt occasionally with ecologic problems, just as the bourgeois gentilhomme of Molière “faisait de la prose sans le savoir.” We may be sure that even before Aristotle’s time bright farmers, hunters, or fishermen had had opportunities of observing ecologic phenomena. Aristotle, however, was the first to write about them, and thus to introduce ecologic conceptions into scientific literature.

Let me adduce two examples. The first is that of the pinna.¹⁵¹⁹ The pinna ¹⁵²⁰ is a bivalve mollusk whose comfort is ensured by the presence of a small crab living in its mantle cavity and helping it to obtain its food. This little crab is called pinot r s or pinophylax(guardian of the pinna). Says Aristotle, “If the pinna be deprived of its guard it soon dies.” It is highly probable that fishermen had observed that strange case of commensalism long before Aristotle, and that the name pinot r s (or pinophylax) is a popular word rather than a scientific term. Popular knowledge on that subject is proved by the use of the word pinot r s to designate human parasites! We may be sure that the first people to give to a sycophant that ingenious nickname had found it not in the Historia animalium but in the living language.

The other example is even more curious. I quote the whole text, though the end of it is irrelevant; it is a good example of Aristotelian zoölogic description. The discussion following the quotation is restricted to the problem of population, which Aristotle was first to raise.

The phenomena of generation in regard to the mouse are the most astonishing both for the number of the young and for the rapidity of recurrence in the births. On one occasion a she–mouse in a state of pregnancy was shut up by accident in a jar containing millet–seed, and after a little while the lid of the jar was removed and upwards of one hundred and twenty mice were found inside it.

The rate of propagation of field mice in country places and the destruction that they cause, are beyond all telling. In many places their number is so incalculable that but very little of the corn–crop is left to the farmer; and so rapid is their mode of proceeding that sometimes a small farmer will one day observe that it is time for reaping, and on the following morning, when he takes his reapers afield, he finds his entire crop devoured. Their disappearance is unaccountable: in a few days not a mouse will there be to be seen. And yet in the time before these few days men fail to keep down their numbers by fumigating and unearthing them, or by regularly hunting them and turning in swine upon them; for pigs, by the way, turn up the mouse–holes by rooting with their snouts. Foxes also hunt them, and the wild ferrets in particular destroy them, but they make no way against the prolific qualities of the animal and the rapidity of its breeding. When they are superabundant, nothing succeeds in thinning them down except the rain; but after heavy rains they disappear rapidly.

In a certain district of Persia when a female mouse is dissected the female embryos appear to be pregnant. Some people assert, and positively assert, that a female mouse by licking salt can become pregnant without the intervention of the male.

Mice in Egypt are covered with bristles like the hedgehog. There is also a different breed of mice that walk on their two hind–legs; their front legs are small and their hind–legs long;¹⁵²¹ the breed is exceedingly numerous. There are many other breeds of mice than are here referred to.¹⁵²²

Aristotle has well noticed the sudden and quick increase in the population of an animal species, followed by its decrease or complete disappearance. A very recent writer on the subject remarked that:

Aristotle’s measured and balanced description of the rise and fall of a mouse population might be taken for a text for the present book. For it contains most components of the problem of natural fluctuations.¹⁵²³

We need not be surprised that Aristotle did not see the bottom of that riddle, for it is very deep indeed, and the essential part of it was not seen until our own day (1925–1935). Says Elton:

The general idea that animal communities simply by their structure and organization have the ability to generate fluctuations was not explicitly discussed by anyone at all (except Spencer ) until about 1925. In this year Lotka, an American mathematical expert on human population dynamics, published his remarkable analysis of the world as an ecosystem; and about the same time Volterra, a pure mathematician working in Italy, arrived at somewhat similar ideas about fluctuations.

The great difference between their theories and those of ecologists like myself was that I had thought of external disturbances such as climate as the primary generating force in causing populations to oscillate, the other factors such as epidemics and predator population changes being a secondary result. But Lotka and Volterra believed that they could prove by rigid mathematical arguments that groups of ecologically linked species must fluctuate, so that climate and other external influences would merely tend to interfere with the natural rhythms, producing very complex consequences. There is very little doubt that their conclusions are broadly true. It is remarkable that such an important concept should have originated independently in the minds of two mathematicians living four thousand miles apart, one officially studying human vital statistics and the other not directly connected with biology at all.¹⁵²⁴

This quotation has taken us far away from Aristotle; it serves to illustrate the incredible resonance of genuine scientific problems. Superstitions turn in circles and lead nowhere, but the rational questions that were asked twenty–three centuries ago by men of science such as Aristotle and Theophrastos are still exercising and fertilizing the minds of men today.


Founder of logic, founder of many branches of the natural sciences, Aristotle was also a founder of ethics. The ethical treatises ascribed to him are indeed the earliest formal treatises of their kind.¹⁵²⁵

Four ethical treatises are included in the Aristotelian corpus.¹⁵²⁶ The first and largest, called Nicomachean ethics, is almost certainly genuine. The three others are (2) the Eudemian ethics, a briefer recasting of the same subject probably by another person;¹⁵²⁷ (3) Magna moralia, a later work partly derived from the two preceding; (4) a very brief treatise on Virtues and vices, which is later still, perhaps much later. The first treatise is larger than the three others put together.¹⁵²⁸ When one studies Aristotelian ethics, with the accent on Aristotle’s personal contribution to it, it is sufficient to consider the Nicomachean ethics. For a deeper study of Peripatetic morals, it would be necessary to examine as well the Eudemian ethics and the Magna moralia and to discuss the interrelations of these three treatises, something comparable to the interrelations of three synoptic Gospels.

The Nicomachean ethics is so called because Aristotle wrote it for one Nicomachos, probably his son by his second wife, Herpyllis of Stageira. It has been argued, however, that Aristotle wrote it not for his son but for his father; according to a third theory, the treatise was not dedicated to his son but edited by him. The first hypothesis is the one most commonly accepted today.

Aristotle’s aim was to discover what scheme of life is the most desirable and the best, or, to put it otherwise, to determine man’s highest good, which being determined it is his duty to pursue. The highest good is the fulfillment of one’s human mission, the development of the virtues of which the human soul is capable, and the attainment of happiness (true happiness, not the popular conception of it). The possession of external goods is helpful but not essential. Virtue is praiseworthy but happiness is above praise. There are two great classes of virtues — moral (such as courage, temperance, magnanimity, justice) and intellectual (wisdom, the contemplation of truth). The highest good is to be found in the life of contemplation (the ria).

The Nicomachean ethics is divided into ten books: 1. The good for man. 2–5. Moral virtues. 6. Intellectual virtue. 7. Continence and incontinence, Pleasure. 8–9. Friendship. 10. Pleasure and happiness.

Aristotle explained that virtue is neither innate, nor a result of knowledge (as Plato believed); it is a habit of the soul which can be acquired and perfected. The highest habit is the exercise of the divine part of our soul, our reason. The development of the divine in us brings us closer to God. The Nicomachean ethics is not only the earliest treatise on ethics; it is the earliest treatise on rational ethics, and on many questions it has not yet been improved. One cannot help envying the students and auditors of the Lyceum who were admitted to such a lofty discussion, a discussion that was conspicuous by its reasonableness and moderation, with a minimal appeal to emotions and enthusiasm.

The title of the Eudemian ethics is explained in the same way as that of the Nicomachean and has caused the same ambiguity. The treatise is called Eudemian either because Aristotle dedicated it to one Eudemos, or because Eudemos actually wrote or edited it. In both cases, the source would remain the same, Aristotle, and there can be no doubt about that on account of the many similarities between the Eudemian and the Nicomachean ethics.

As to Eudemos, one can think of only one, the mathematician Eudemos of Rhodes, who was one of Aristotle’s favorite disciples, and who might have succeeded him as master of the Lyceum. Theophrastos was finally chosen not because he was a more faithful disciple than Eudemos, but rather because of the greater suavity of his manners. Aristotle, who knew so many things, had already realized that a headmaster must have many qualities, and that the purely intellectual qualities are perhaps not the most important. How much did the master appreciate the value of “feelings”versus intelligence, of the heart versus the brain? ¹⁵²⁹ It is impossible to say, almost as impossible as to answer the query: Did the architect of the Parthenon have a good heart, was he a kindly and generous man?

If the Magna moralia could be definitely ascribed to Aristotle, we would be on safer ground. It has about the same length as the Eudemian ethics (66 columns to 72), and is a summary of both the Nicomachean and the Eudemian treatises, but with a startling novelty:

Speaking generally it is not the case, as the rest of the world think, that reason is the principle and guide to virtue, but rather the feelings. For there must first be produced in us (as indeed is the case) an irrational impulse to the right, and then later on reason must put the question to the vote and decide it.¹⁵³⁰

Another passage of the Magna moralia is equally significant.

We ought to speak about the soul in which [virtue] resides, not to say what the soul is (for to speak about that is another matter), but to divide it in outline. Now the soul is, as we say, divided into two parts, the rational and the irrational. In the rational part, then, there reside wisdom, readiness of wit, philosophy, aptitude to leam, memory, and so on; but in the irrational those which are called the virtues —temperance, justice, courage, and such other moral states as are held to be praiseworthy. For it is in respect of these that we are called praiseworthy; but no one is praised for the virtues of the rational part. For no one is praised for being philosophical nor for being wise, nor generally on the ground of anything of that sort. Nor indeed is the irrational part praised, except in so far as it is capable of subserving or actually subserves the rational part.¹⁵³¹

The author of the Magna moralia (was he Aristotle, or did he simply repeat the master’s sayings?) combined reason with emotivity and did so without losing his intellectual balance. Feelings can never be separated from intelligence in human nature; it is the essence of wisdom not to separate them in one’s philosophy.


The passage from ethics to politics is natural enough; both concern the same field, except that ethics is more personal. Politics is concerned with the well–being of the whole community, ethics with that of the individual, but the well–being of the community and that of the individuals who constitute it are so closely interrelated that it is almost impossible to abstract the one from the other. In many cases, the line is impossible to draw; it is ethics if you look from one side and politics if you look from the other.

Economics is in some respects a transition between ethics and politics, but the work bearing that title in the Aristotelian corpus¹⁵³² is certainly apocryphal. It is divided into two (or three) books. The first is derived from Aristotle and Xenophon, and may be a product of the end of their century; the second, dividing economics into four kinds (royal, satrapic, political, personal) and covering that curious field in an anecdotic and chaotic way, was probably written by a Greek of the Hellenistic age living in Egypt or Asia; the third (existing only in Latin), concerned only with a wife’s position and duties, is even more distant from the Aristotelian source.¹⁵³³

It would be going too far to claim that Aristotle’s Politics was entirely derived from biologic considerations, but there is no doubt that such considerations helped to guide his thought. When he discussed the many forms of government he made a comparison with the different species of animals. Each animal is a combination of organs; different organs or different combinations of them will naturally produce different species. In the same way, any society is constituted by the mutual subordination to one another of many kinds of men, who exercise various functions, such as husbandmen, mechanics, traders, laborers, soldiers, judges, councilors. Moreover, some are rich while the majority are poor. The final product may be one of many things.¹⁵³⁴ It is clear that in Aristotle the politician could not be separated from the physiologist and the biologist; the same is true of the philosopher in him; it is significant that his Metaphysics itself begins with zoölogic comparisons.

Not only was Aristotle the first to compare the state with an organism, the body politic with a single man’s body, but he pursued his political investigations in the same way as those dealing with natural history. Just as he compared different species of fish in order better to understand what a fish is, so he made a comparative study of some two hundred constitutions of Greek cities. Unfortunately, only one of these constitutional histories has come down to us, but it happens to be the most important.¹⁵³⁵ Aristotle was not satisfied to describe the constitution of Athens as it existed in his day; he introduced that description with an account of the development of the Athenian government down to that time; we must know the past evolution of an organism in order to appreciate clearly its present condition. He did in the second half of the fourth century B.C. what Herbert Spencer undertook in the second half of the nineteenth century, and Spencer’s Descriptive sociology, in spite of a more elaborate and systematic analysis, is not superior, as a synthesis, to Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens.

Aristotle fully realized the value of political history from the point of view of sociologic case studies, and Book II of his Politics was devoted to the description of the actual political communities as well as the ideal commonwealths invented by Plato, Phaleas of Chalcedon,¹⁵³⁶ and Hippodamos of Miletos.

The historical survey was preceded, however, by an examination of the basic facts of any government, an examination that could be safely accomplished without reference to the past. Therefore, Book 1 of Politics deals with the definition and structure of the state. “The state is a creation of nature and man is by nature a political animal.” ¹⁵³⁷ There are various stages of social organization, the family, the village, the city (the Greek city, h polis, corresponded somewhat to the modern state). The fundamental bonds thanks to which the body politic is kept together are the bonds between master and slave, man and wife, father and children.¹⁵³⁸ It is necessary to consider these bonds and their implications before trying to understand the organization of the whole state.

Inasmuch as we have indicated the contents of the first two books of Politics, we might complete this with a rapid analysis of the other books: Book III. The citizen, civic virtue, and the civic body; classification of constitutions, democracy and oligarchy, kingship; forms of monarchy. Book IV.¹⁵³⁹ Variations of the main types of constitutions; the best state in general and under special circumstances; how to proceed in framing a constitution (deliberative, executive, and judicial functions). Book v. Revolutions and their general causes; revolutions in particular states and how they may be avoided. Book VI. Organization of democracies and oligarchies. Book VII. Summum bonum for individuals and states; picture of the ideal state; educational system of the ideal state, its aim and early stages. Book VIII. The ideal education continued; music and gymnastic.

So many topics and problems are reviewed that the briefest enumeration of them would take too much space. Perhaps the best example of Aristotle’s political wisdom are given in Book v, which might be called a natural history of revolutions, Aristotle asked himself what were the causes, symptoms, and remedies of revolutions in the same spirit as a physician would consider the diagnosis and treatment of a disease. Why do revolutions happen? They are caused by social inequalities, by conflicts between political views, by passions; one must distinguish between the causes, which may be very deep and chronic, and the provocative accidents, which may start a revolution as in the drawing of a trigger. How is it possible to prevent the occurrence of such calamities? One should avoid illegality and frauds upon the unprivileged, maintain good feelings between the rulers and the people, keep a close watch on subversive agencies, alter property qualifications from time to time, let no individual or class become too powerful, prevent the corruption of magistracies, practice moderation in everything. Anyone who reads the whole book¹⁵⁴⁰ will realize once more the comprehensiveness of Aristotle’s thinking and its up–to–dateness. His Politics might still be used as a textbook in a school of government and administration.

The two final books, which remained unfinished, describe and discuss the ideal republic. They remind us of Plato, who is frequently referred to and criticized, but what a difference between the blind dogmatism of Plato and Aristotle’s sweet reasonableness! We would not say that Aristotle was never dogmatic, or that he lacked superstitions. Like every other great man, he had his blind spots, but we must bear in mind as always that those blind spots were largely of social origin; no man, however original and however great, can completely escape the limitations of his own time and space.

One of his limitations arose from the smallness of the Greek state; generally restricted to the city and its surroundings. A kind of democratic government was possible which at its best was like those of the New England town meetings or of the Swiss cantons. There was no need of delegation of power and Aristotle did not have to discuss the very difficult problems of representative government.

The worst blind spot concerned slavery, which he considered “natural.” Consider these sayings of his:

It is clear, then, that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right.¹⁵⁴¹

It must be admitted that some are slaves everywhere, others nowhere. The same principle applies to nobility. Hellenes regard themselves as noble everywhere, and not only in their own country, but they deem the barbarians noble only when at home, thereby implying that there are two sorts of nobility and freedom, the one absolute, the other relative.¹⁵⁴²

Aristotle was so convinced of this that he gave his blessing to the kind of war that our grandparents would have called a “colonial” war. He remarked:

Now if nature makes nothing incomplete, and nothing in vain, the inference must be that she has made all animals for the sake of man. And so, in one point of view, the art of war is a natural art of acquisition, for the art of acquisition includes hunting, an art which we ought to practice against wild beasts, and against men who, though intended by nature to be governed, will not submit; for war of such a kind is naturally just.¹⁵⁴³

Atrocious, is it not? But is our own thinking about war and peace so blameless that we can indulge in the denunciation of others?

After this, it is not necessary to investigate Aristotle’s views on war and peace any longer; warring being assimilated to hunting, those views were vitiated at the very source. For once, a biologic analogy had led him completely astray. Remember, however, how many centuries had to pass, how many horrors and crimes had to be perpetrated, before men became able to face the injustice and inhumanity of war and to condemn it. Remember again that in the seventeenth century, almost two thousand years after Aristotle, a fine gentleman like Descartes considered it right to enlist in the Dutch army and to take part in a war that did not concern him in the remotest way: it was good exercise, good sport, and naught else.

There remains in us, however, a legitimate cause of anxiety. How could a philosopher, a man as wise and great as Aristotle, ever say such things about other men — slaves? Slavery had existed from time immemorial, and it was so well organized in Athens that it was considered a part of the order of nature. From that point of view, one may say that Athens was never a popular democracy, but an oligarchy dominating and exploiting a large mass of inarticulate slaves. Remember that the great Catholic philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas (XIII–2), who flourished more than sixteen centuries after Aristotle, still considered slavery justified. Non–Catholics will hasten to object that St. Thomas was a product of the Middle Ages, the “Dark Ages” — what would you expect? Well, let us forget St. Thomas, and the Middle Ages. These were followed by the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the American and the French Revolutions, and after all that, there were still Christian gentlemen, less than a century ago, who believed that the slavery of black people was justified and natural. Less than a century ago) Can you blame Aristotle for his inability to realize the inhumanity of deeds, the guilt of which is still weighing on our own consciences?

Aristotle’s views on commerce seem equally primitive, but again we do not have to go very far into the past to come across fine gentlemen who considered taking part in business a kind of misdemeanor and disgrace and who looked down upon “tradesmen” as people of an inferior breed.

Enough has been said about the theory of wealth–getting; we will now proceed to the practical part. The discussion of such matters is not unworthy of philosophy but to be engaged in them practically is illiberal and irksome.¹⁵⁴⁴

We have already quoted above (p. 173) the story of Thales’ financial speculation. Aristotle told another story of the same kind in the same context:

There was a man of Sicily, who, having money deposited with him, bought up all the iron from the iron mines; afterwards, when the merchants from their various markets came to buy, he was the only seller, and without much increasing the price he gained 200 percent. Which when Dionysios¹⁵⁴⁵ heard, he told him that he might take away his money, but that he must not remain at Syracuse, for he thought that the man had discovered a way of making money which was injurious to his own interests. He made the same discovery as Thales; they both contrived to create a monopoly for themselves. And statesmen as well ought to know these things; for a state is often as much in want of money and of such devices for obtaining it as a household, or even more so; hence some public men devote themselves entirely to finance.¹⁵⁴⁶

It is curious that the loaning of money is hardly referred to, though there were plenty of moneylenders, bankers, and financiers in Aristotle’s time. Usury is mentioned without any explanation as one of the means of wealth–getting.¹⁵⁴⁷ The prejudice against the taking of interest on loans was increased and nourished by the Jewish and Christian religions and as a consequence we find it condemned by St. Thomas. It took many more centuries to establish a distinction between the taking of moderate and of excessive interest, between legitimate business and usury proper.¹⁵⁴⁸ It is clear that Aristotle was not an economist, and that it was not as natural to him to understand economic questions as it was to realize the existence of political or sociologic problems. This raises a curious puzzle: economic facts are as old as society itself; how is it that it took so long to integrate them in science and philosophy?

It is clear that Aristotle’s politics were not right, but they were not fundamentally wrong like Plato’s. They were redeemed by the master’s willingness to compromise; they were far from perfect, but they were perfectible. Aristotle had examined all the kinds of government that had been tried in or before his time, and had concluded that democracy was full of risks. The solution that appealed most to his mind was a compromise between Platonic aristocracy, balanced feudalism, and some democratic ideas. All the citizens should have a chance to participate in the government. The working classes should not rule; the ruling classes should not work, nor should they earn money. Rulers would have to be educated in the proper way, like gentlemen. Philosophers should not be rulers, but teachers; philosophy is an essential part of a gentleman’s education. The Aristotelian city was not to be a kind of military monastery like the Platonic, but a moderate republic, the virtues of which would be derived from the virtues of the individual families. Aristotle recognized the fact that no form of government is absolutely good; each form may be good relatively to certain kinds of people or to certain conditions.

His good sense appears in his discussion of communism;¹⁵⁴⁹ communism could hardly be enforced upon the people, but they would progress toward it naturally as their dispositions became more benevolent. Aristotle’s conclusion on that subject is still valid today. The community of material goods is a magnificent ideal, but we are not yet worthy of it, and therefore it is better not to realize it, except gradually in proportion as we are prepared for it and deserve it.

The publication of the Politics before the end of the fourth century is as astounding as the very greatest achievements of the artists, mathematicians, and men of science of that golden age. To measure its greatness it will suffice to realize that there was nothing comparable to it until modern times. There was nothing remotely comparable to it in antiquity or the Middle Ages. Even after the Flemish Dominican Willem of Moerbeke (XIII–2) had translated the Politics from Greek into Latin at St. Thomas’s request in 1260, it did not make the impression that one might have expected and did not change the political atmosphere of the age. St. Thomas used it for the development of his own ideas, and while he preserved, some of Aristotle’s prejudices, he definitely improved the master’s teaching in the democratic sense.¹⁵⁵⁰ Practical politics remained as little influenced by St. Thomas as by Aristotle. The rational politics that Aristotle had so brilliantly begun in the fourth century B.C. is still in an embryonic stage today. The problems that Aristotle and St. Thomas discussed are still worrying us, and very few people have yet understood the need of approaching them without any other passion than the love of truth and of justice.


At the very beginning of the “historical library” that Diodoros of Sicily (I–2 B.C) completed in Rome c. 30 B.C., he remarks:

It is fitting that all men should ever accord great gratitude to those writers who have composed universal histories,¹⁵⁵¹ since they have aspired to help by their individual labors human society as a whole . . . For just as Providence, having brought the orderly arrangement of the visible stars and the natures of men together into one common relationship, continually directs their courses through all eternity, apportioning to each that which falls to it by the direction of fate, so likewise the historians, in recording the common affairs of the inhabited world as though they were those of a single state, have made of their treatises a single reckoning of past events and a common clearinghouse of knowledge concerning them . . . For this reason one may hold that the acquisition of a knowledge of history is of the greatest utility for every conceivable circumstance of life. For it endows the young with the wisdom of the aged, while for the old it multiplies the experience which they already possess; citizens in private station it qualifies for leadership, and the leaders it incities, through the immortality of the glory which it confers, to undertake the noblest deeds.

Of whom was Diodoros thinking? He was acquainted with Hecataios, Herodotos, Thucydides, Xenophon, and others, but the accent he put on “universal histories” suggests that he was thinking first of all of the ambitious historical efforts that began in this very age, the age of Aristotle, and culminated with those of Polybios (II–1 B.C.). It is true that Herodotos was, in his own naive and charming way, a “universal” historian, but many things had happened since his time, and the days of innocence were definitely over. Histories in Herodotos’ manner had become impossible, and so, for different reasons, had monographs like that of Thucydides. The Greek world that those two giants had known was gone forever. When the Greeks were united, they had been able to defeat the Persian empire; weakened by internecine jealousies, they were at the mercy of their northern neighbor. Greece, or, we may say, Athens, was defeated and superseded by Macedonia. On the spiritual level the fight was led on the one side by Isocrates, on the other by Demosthenes. Isocrates had finally won because Philip had won. His triumph was not only political but literary. Indeed, Isocrates the Athenian (436–338) was above all a great man of letters who helped to bring the Greek language to its formal perfection; he was also a politician, a publicist, an orator ( one of the “ten Attic orators”) ; in spite of his being the chief of “collaborators,” one cannot say that he lacked patriotism. He saw the need of internal peace for the salvation of Hellas, and he realized that internal peace was impossible without outside ( Macedonian ) pressure. His influence upon Greek letters (and even, through Cicero, upon Latin letters) was enormous. It was a literary influence, not a philosophic one, and was thus on a much lower level than Aristotle’s; it lasted a shorter time, but while it lasted, it dominated the ancient humanities. Aristotle’s teaching was restricted to advanced students of philosophy or science; Isocrates could influence all the young men who loved their language and were ambitious to handle it as elegantly as possible. When freedom is lost, education becomes rhetorical, and Isocrates was the supreme rhetorician.

His orations were often historical, for it was natural to praise the glory of Greece, and especially that of Athens, and such praise dealt with the past, not with the present. Two of his disciples, Ephoros and Theopompos, were historians, the most distinguished ones of this age. These two men had many qualities in common, but they were very different in temperament. According to Suidas, Isocrates used to say that Theopompos needed the curb and Ephoros the spur. Time dealt harshly with them, for their works are lost. As far as we can judge from the fragments, they were very inferior to the giants of the preceding century, Herodotos and Thucydides; yet we should make an effort to win their acquaintance. In a time of national disillusion, they set a new emphasis on international history, and also on the geographic background of human events.

Ephoros of Cyme.¹⁵⁵² Cyme, where Ephoros was born (c. 405), was the largest of the Aiolian cities of Asia Minor, a city of old Hellenic traditions.¹⁵⁵³ He left it to obtain a better education in Athens and became one of Isocrates’ favorite pupils. We do not know exactly when he died; it was probably during Alexander’s lifetime, say c. 330. He wrote a universal history from the return of the Heracleidai and the Dorian settlements in the Peloponnesos at the end of the eleventh century (which he thought were the earliest tangible deeds) down to 341. It was divided into thirty books, the last of which was completed by his son, Demophilos. His purpose is revealed by the title Historia coin n praxe n,¹⁵⁵⁴ which might be translated “History of (or Inquiry into) the common affairs of men”; it would be expressed in modern language by “comparative history”; the idea was to investigate what happens to men placed in various geographic and political circumstances. Some eighty–six fragments of his work have come to us and some glimpses of him are given in the writings of later historians such as Polybios, Diodoros, Strabon, Plutarchos. Polybios said of him that he was “the first and only man to write a universal history.”¹⁵⁵⁵ We should not take this too literally. Ephoros’ universalism was certainly focused on Greece; how else could it be? Even the universal historians of our own time, who have access to a great variety of sources, can never overcome completely their national prepossessions. Ephoros tried to avoid myths and to give rational explanations, for example, to account for the deeds of nations by geographic necessities.

Theopompos of Chios. Theopompos came from the same part of the Greek world as Ephoros, for it did not take very long to sail from the island of Chios to the bay of Cyme. He was born c. 380 and a few years later his father Damasistratos was banished from the island for political reasons, perhaps for Laconism. The boy was educated in Athens; he became one of Isocrates’ pupils, and eventually, like the latter, a famous orator. His first great success was the award of a prize by Queen Artemisia for his panegyric on her late brother and husband Mausolos; as Mausolos died in 353, that must have happened soon afterward.¹⁵⁵⁶ He traveled considerably throughout Greece, delivering lectures, teaching, and obtaining the favor of rulers such as the kings of Macedonia. Alexander the Great brought him back to Chios, but, after the conqueror’s death, Theopompos was exiled for the second time from his native island. He took refuge in Ephesos and later in Egypt, where he was received by the first Ptolemy (king from 323 to 285) and where he probably died.

Among his voluminous writings were a continuation of Thucydides’ history from 410 to 398, and the Philippica in fifty–eight books, a history of Greece from the battle of Mantinaia in 362 (where Xenophon’s Hellenica ended) to the death of Philip in 336. The works of Theopompos are lost, but we have some 383 fragments, chiefly taken from the Philippica; a longish text (about 30 pages) found in an Oxyrhynchos papyrus in 1911 is ascribed to him. Some of his qualities were the same as those of Ephoros, and that is natural enough, for they were schoolmates in the school of Isocrates, and they were fruits of their age, an age of disillusion. Both appreciated the value of geographic factors and the need of an international outlook. After the victories of Philip, and even more so after those of Alexander, Greek parochialism had become impossible; the intellectual leaders could not lead any more unless they were able to look far beyond the prostrate body of Greece.

The unique quality of Theopompos’ writing lies in his psychologic tendencies. Events may be accounted for in geographic and political terms, but the main motives are to be found in the minds of great men. He was very learned and critical, incredibly conceited, a keen politician, and an outstanding psychologist, a forerunner of Sallustius (I–2 B.C.)¹⁵⁵⁷ and even of Tacitus (I–2). He wrote fearlessly and made many enemies. He did not spare the very ruler whom he admired most and his description of Philip’s behavior was as black as could be. Was he malicious or truthful, evil–minded or simply clear–sighted? He was certainly bitter, sarcastic, cynical. He has been accused of being pro–Spartan, like his father; that is possible; he found more to criticize in Athens than in Sparta, but he did not spare the latter. He was a satirist, always ready to denounce evil wherever he saw it, or believed he saw it; it was not a matter of courage but rather an irrepressible instinct. It is highly probable that his maliciousness was increased by his rhetorical habits and his literary skill; men of his kidney often say biting things, because they cannot resist the lure of an incisive sentence or of striking and cruel image.

Gilbert Murray has thrown much light on Theopompos’ character. As to his conceit, he wittily said:

Critics speak severely of his lapses in this respect. But we must remember that a modern writer need never praise himself. He simply arranges with his publisher that such–and–such a sum is to be paid for advertisement, and thus having secured the blowing of a large and expensive bugle, can afford in his own preface to be modest as .a violet. Theopompos had not these advantages.¹⁵⁵⁸

Ephoros tried to avoid myths; Theopompos, on the contrary, seems to have liked them. He looked at them with the eyes not of a mediocre rationalist but rather of a philosopher, just as Plato did. Virtue was disappearing, truth was evasive. Perhaps one would discover it among the myths, the “things which never happened but always are.”¹⁵⁵⁹ Theopompos was a cynic, not only in the common meaning of that word (we would expect an intelligent man living in a cockeyed world, his own nation utterly defeated, to assume a cynical attitude) but also in the technical sense. The only philosopher whom he praised was Antisthenes, founder of the Cynic school. The cynical reaction was natural and to some extent healthy; it was a revolt of the free spirit against overpowering circumstances. The world was going to pieces, everything was vanity except a man’s soul. Theopompos was probably not as thoroughgoing a cynic as Antisthenes or Diogenes, but he understood and appreciated their message.

In times as dark as they were for the Greeks who had been permitted to live under the Macedonian yoke, there were two extreme kinds of reaction, the cynical and skeptical, as exemplified by Theopompos, and the superstitious, which was perhaps more common among the uneducated people yet by no means exclusive to them. We may be sure that the magicians, the soothsayers, the wonderworkers, and the priests in charge of temples, grottoes, holy springs, and oracles did a thriving business. Men and women can stand misfortune up to a certain point; when that point is reached, they must defend themselves with sarcasms and other forms of rebellion, or else they will prostrate themselves before the unavoidable, humiliate their intelligence, and outrage reason.


These two kinds of reaction were extreme forms to the left and right; we must assume that the wisest men did not lose their balance in those ways but continued their work with as much equanimity as they were able to achieve. They suffered as deeply as the other people, perhaps more, but they tried and managed not to show it. This was the case not only for a great master like Aristotle but also for smaller men, who might lack creative ability, but had enough prudence and forbearance.

Among those quieter people, I would like to give a place of honor to the men who were our own spiritual ancestors, the first historians of science. We have already met three of them, all of whom lived in Aristotle’s age — Eudemos of Rhodes and Theophrastos of Eresos, who wrote histories of arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, and, on a much lower level, Menon, who described the vicissitudes of medicine.

The labor of these men is encouraging for two reasons. First, it proves that science had already become so rich and complex that historical surveys and philosophic cogitations had become necessary. By the end of the fourth century, men of science and physicians had gone so far beyond primitive experiments and naive adumbrations, that it was exciting to ask oneself: “Where did we come from? Where have we been roaming? How did we reach the present situation?”, and even more exciting to ask another question: “Whither are we going?”

This is perhaps easier to understand now than it would have been in a quieter period, say in the middle of the Victorian age. As to political and economic matters, we are as disillusioned as the Athenians of twenty–three centuries ago, and at the same time we are even more flabbergasted than they could be by the prodigious advance in knowledge and technology.

In the second place, these early historians of science were like ourselves, defenders of reason against irrationalism and of freedom against superstitions and spiritual thralldom.


Aristotle was not only a master of science and philosophy, but also a master of the humanities. He composed one or two treatises on rhetoric, and one on poetry.

Who wants to study rhetoric today, except simpletons? The reader may even ask: “What is rhetoric?” Such a question would have been unnecessary some fifty years ago, but at present the subject is almost completely neglected in our colleges (except theological schools), or it is taught only by implication. Rhetoric is the art of expressive and persuasive speech. Aristotle’s main treatise on the subject is divided into three books. There is no point in analyzing them, for the subject — being a part of the humanities — is extremely complex, but we shall offer a few general remarks.

The first book is largely devoted to definitions of rhetoric in general and of its varieties. The rhetorician, or let us call him the orator, must try to explain his message and persuade his audience that that message is true and worth while. There are three kinds of rhetoric (or oratory) which may be called political, forensic, and academic. Political orators must learn to debate political questions in the popular assemblies; forensic orators are like lawyers pleading before a court; academic orators are like professors discussing life and letters, philosophy, or art before an audience of colleagues or students. These three kinds of oratory are obviously different and require different techniques, which Aristotle describes. It was not necessary to give detailed explanations, for every student at the Lyceum, every educated Athenian, had already a practical acquaintance with those matters and all that was needed was to clarify the essential points. In fact, Athenians were so familiar with every form of oratory, almost from the time of their boyhood, that one cannot help wondering why Aristotle included the art of rhetoric in his teaching. He did so, perhaps, because, however familiar, it was extremely important; things may become so familiar that it is the more necessary to reconsider them from a new, unfamiliar point of view.

Oratory implies passions, the speaker’s passions and those of his audience. It is a conflict of passions, and the orator’s art consist in shaping and orienting the passions of the people who listen to him in the manner that he considers to be proper and fair. Therefore, Book II analyzes many passions, such as calmness and anger, friendship and enmity, fear and confidence, shame and shamelessness, kindness and unkindness, pity, indignation, envy, emulation, the passions that are characteristic of various age levels, those that accompany the use (or the lack) of wealth and power. This might be called a little treatise on practical psychology. The orator must be a keen psychologist; it is not enough for him to know his own mind, he must know the mind, the qualities, and the weaknesses of the people whom it is his business to convince and to convert. This part of Rhetoric exerted a very strong influence on medieval thought, as is witnessed by innumerable books discussing human passions, either from the rhetorical point of view, or from the point of view of morality and religious salvation. One of the many digressions of that second book is devoted to the use of maxims (or proverbs); the popular sayings are an epitome of the people’s experience and of their ancestral wisdom. The orator must learn to use maxims as vehicles of his own arguments; the better the people already know these maxims, the better will they help him to inculcate what he wishes to be understood and remembered.

Book III, which may have been a separate work, but is as genuine as the two others, deals more particularly with style and language. Much of this hardly concerns the modern reader, unless he wishes to know more deeply the Greek language; for example, ancient orators (Roman as well as Greek) attached much importance to the musical characteristics of their speeches, such as prose rhythm and periodic style. The discussion of good language, fully appropriate to the aim that it must serve, implies problems that we would call grammatical.

It is hard to realize that in Aristotle’s time, when most of the masterpieces of Greek literature had already been composed, formal grammar (such as we find in schoolbooks) hardly existed. Few of the grammatical categories that we learn painfully in our childhood were recognized as such. The first formal Greek grammar was composed only much later, by Crates of Mallos (II–1 B.C.), but that grammar is lost; the earliest Greek grammar extant is that of Dionysios Thrax (II–2 B.C.); Apollonios Dyscolos (II–1), who flourished in Alexandria, much later, has been called the founder of scientific grammar, the inventor of syntax. Apollonios’ date is difficult to fix, but assuming that he flourished about the middle of Hadrian’s rule (c. A.D. 127), that was four and a half centuries after Aristotle’s death!¹⁵⁶⁰

The authors most often quoted in the Rhetoric are, in order of decreasing number of references: Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, Isocrates, Plato, Gorgias, Socrates, Theodectes.¹⁵⁶¹ Demosthenes is hardly mentioned, Thucydides not at all.

The three books of the Rhetoric are not as sharply divided as my all too brief analysis would suggest; the order is a little capricious and some topics are discussed many times. For example, the use of maxims is taken up again in Book III.

Endless remarks might be made about separate statements. Let me restrict myself to a single quotation:

Now the style of oratory addressed to public assemblies is really just like scene–painting. The bigger the throng the more distant is the point of view: so that, in the one and the other, high finish in detail is superfluous and seems better away. The forensic style is more highly finished; still more so is the style of language addressed to a single judge, with whom there is very little room for rhetorical artifices, since he can take the whole thing in better, and judge of what is to the point and what is not; the struggle is less intense and so the judgement is undisturbed. This is why the same speakers do not distinguish themselves in all these branches at once; high finish is wanted least where dramatic delivery is wanted most, and here the speaker must have a good voice, and above all, a strong one. It is ceremonial oratory that is most literary, for it is meant to be read; and next to it forensic oratory.¹⁵⁶²

Note the first comparison, that of public speaking before a large audience with scene painting. Aristotle wrote that before 322 B.C., and many public speakers have not yet understood it in 1952, twenty–two centuries later. Pedantic speakers persist in painting miniatures when they should paint large frescoes, and they bore their audiences to death. Boring them does not matter so much, perhaps, but what is worse, they fail to convey whatever message they intended to convey. Why do they speak at all? Aristotle knew better.

The other Rhetoric is much shorter than the first (54 columns in Bekker against 134). It is generally designated by the title De rhetorica ad Alexandrum. It begins with the words “Aristotle to Alexander. Salutation ...” which are followed by a dedication covering more than three columns, wherein the author explains why a king should know rhetoric. Erasmus considered that dedication to be a forgery, but I am not convinced. It sounds Aristotelian; it is a bit tedious, but very dignified, in great contrast with the obsequious and sycophantic prefaces that Renaissance authors did not blush to address to their patrons, and which were actually printed, to the perpetual shame of patron and author. Not only the preface but the whole work has been suspected of being apocryphal. Some scholars would ascribe it to Anaximenes of Lampsacos (c. 380–320), who was Aristotle’s contemporary and like him a tutor to Alexander; others regard it as a later work, though not much later. Many fragments of it have been identified in a papyrus found by Grenfell and Hunt¹⁵⁶³ at Hibeh and published by them in 1906. The assumptions that the treatise was written for Alexander the Great and by Aristotle seem plausible to me but are not susceptible of proof. If it was not written by Aristotle, it was very probably written not long after his death, before the end of the century. The student of Aristotle’s longer Rhetoric will find few novelties in the smaller one.


The treatise on poetics that has come down to us is fairly short, less than 30 columns, and it is incomplete; we have only one book out of two or more. Did Aristotle fail to complete it? Or was part of his work a victim of time? The first alternative seems more credible, because one would think that the manuscript copies of such a work would have been treasured with especial care, and because Aristotle’s Poetics (as well as his Rhetoric) was composed toward the end of his life. A man’s last work is more likely than the others to remain unfinished.

Poetics, as Aristotle understood it, is something much broader than our modern conception of it. It is the literature of imagination, as against scientific (or objective) literature. Aristotle begins thus:

Our subject being Poetry, I propose to speak not only of the art in general but also of its species and their respective capacities; of the structure of plot required for a good poem; of the number and nature of the constituent parts of a poem; and likewise of any other matters in the same line of inquiry. Let us follow the natural order and begin with the primary facts. Epic poetry and Tragedy, as also Comedy, Dithyrambic poetry, and most flute–playing and lyre–playing, are all, viewed as a whole, modes of imitation. But at the same time they differ from one another in three ways, either by a difference of kind in their means, or by differences in the objects, or in the manner of their imitations.¹⁵⁶⁴

(The text as we have it deals only with tragedy; the part dealing with comedy and music is lost or remained unwritten.)

Aristotle’s definition of poetry is very well put in his chapter 9:

From what we have said it will be seen that the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e. what is possible as being probable or necessary. The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse — you might put the work of Herodotus into verse, and it would still be a species of history; it consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singular.¹⁵⁶⁵

The comparison with history is highly significant. It is curious that Aristotle referred many times to Herodotos but never to Thucydides. This is the more astonishing because in the Politics he discussed the Peloponnesian War. How could Thucydides be unknown in Athens? How could Aristotle not know of him? And if he read his History, how is it that he never referred to it? This puzzles me deeply; the very man who was best able to appreciate Thucydides’ objectivity ignored him, it would seem, deliberately. Such happenings are sad but not uncommon; the history of science gives many examples of them. The men of science who seem to be closer to one another than other men fail to come together; their paths come so near that one would expect them to cross, but they do not.

The part of the Poetics with which most people are familiar is the one wherein tragedy is likened to a purgation (catharsis). This occurs in Aristotle’s definition of tragedy:

A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions. Here by “language with pleasurable accessories” I mean that with rhythm and harmony or song superadded; and by “the kinds separately” I mean that some portions are worked out with verse only, and others in turn with song.¹⁵⁶⁶

The definition refers also to what we might call the unity of action: the tragedy must be “complete in itself”; and a little further on he speaks more definitely of the “unity of plot.”¹⁵⁶⁷ There is a brief reference to the “unity of time,”¹⁵⁶⁸ but none to the unity of place. The theory of the three unities, which the writers of the classical age in France (Corneille, Racine, Boileau) accepted as a kind of literary dogma, was not an ancient dogma but a new one, not clearly formulated until 1636 (Le Cid).¹⁵⁶⁹

It would be easy enough to object that Aristotle’s Poetics does not really deal with the magical art of poetry. No poet will ever wish to read it, or if he did read it, he would find no inspiration in it. The Poetics was not written for poets but for critics and philosophers; it was not written for seers but for men of science. We may criticize it, but we should not criticize it on false grounds.


Some of my readers may say that I should not have spoken, except in the briefest fashion, of the Rhetoric and Poetics, because they are outside my field, the history of science. The reason why I spoke of them, and had to speak of them, is to illustrate the comprehensive scope of Aristotelianism. We are dealing in this book with ancient science, not with modern science; we have to discuss Aristotelian science in the light of his own conception of it and not of our own. His idea was to analyze the whole of knowledge in scientific terms; rhetoric and poetry were not parts of science even in his own eyes, but they came very close to it, and the man of science must be acquainted with them. If so, his acquaintance must be a scientific acquaintance.

The man of science must be a humanist. Aristotle did almost the opposite of what Plato had done. Plato had reduced science, philosophy, sociology to fantastic metaphysical conceptions; he had driven the poets and artists out of the city. Aristotle tried to embrace in his philosophy the whole of knowledge and the whole of life. He accepted art, but he tried to explain it and mixed science with it. He was in that sense the forerunner of the historians of art and the historians of poetry of our own day. Artists and poets often object to the scientific analysis of their achievements, but they are wrong in that as long as such study is removed from pedantry, does not try to regulate those achievements, but is willing to accept them in the same spirit as it accepts the creations of nature.

Nevertheless, one understands how Aristotle can easily become (and did become) the bête noire of the men who dislike and distrust science, of the would–be poets and artists, and how he became on the other hand the patron saint of the men of science and of the lovers of objective truth.

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