Fortunes of Aristotle

The history of the reception of Aristotle is actually quite fascinating. Aristotle, the greatest of the Greek philosophers, lived from 384 – 322 BCE. While very famous and influential during his own lifetime, his work went into eclipse for a while, shortly after his death. According to Strabo (1st century CE), Aristotle collected the world’s first library of handwritten manuscripts, which eventually became the starter for the famous library of Alexandria in Egypt. In between, the library and Aristotle’s own original manuscripts were privately held by the family of Theophrastus, moved to what is now Turkey, and allowed to deteriorate. Theophrastus, Aristotle’s best known direct student, was mainly interested in his own research in natural science, and is known as the father of botany.

Meanwhile, for several centuries, philosophy came to be dominated by Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Citium (334 – 262 BCE) and codified by Chryssippus (279 – 206 BCE). Stoicism, with its unique combination of rough-and-ready materialism with ascetic spiritual teaching, achieved great popularity, and was the first broadly “philosophical” teaching to significantly influence society at large. Compared to Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics promoted a much simplified notion of philosophy, and turned it into a complete system of truths claimed as certain. Still, they were quite sophisticated, and developed many original ideas.

Aristotle’s surviving manuscripts were later edited by several hands, including Andronicus of Rhodes (1st century BCE), a Greek who taught in Rome. With the edition of Andronicus, the works of Aristotle began to be circulated in many copies.

The oldest surviving commentaries on Aristotle are those of Aspasius (2nd century CE). The greatest Aristotelian commentator of the ancient world, Alexander of Aphrodisias, flourished in the late 2nd to early 3rd centuries CE. Recent scholarship has shown that the works of Plotinus (3rd century CE), the founder of the so-called neoplatonic school, contain abundant traces of implicit dialogue with Aristotle and Alexander, even though Plotinus identified mainly as a Platonist. Although Plotinus significantly influenced Augustine, the Athenian branch of the later neoplatonic school became a center of non-Christian spirituality and culture in the later Roman empire, and for this reason was forcibly closed in 529. The Alexandrian branch under Ammonius (5th/6th centuries) escaped a similar fate, apparently in part by shifting teaching away from the now-suspect Plato to the apparently less controversial Aristotle. The largest bulk of surviving Greek commentaries on Aristotle come from the Alexandrian neoplatonic school, and reflect neoplatonizing tendencies.

Philosophy in the period of the initial rise of Islam is not well documented, but apparently the main centers of learning moved further east from Alexandria, and extended along the Silk Route. Most Greek works were translated to Arabic from intermediate versions in Syriac. By the time of the first self-described philosopher to write in Arabic, al-Kindi (9th century), Aristotle had become unequivocally recognized as the greatest of the ancient philosophers. By the 10th century, there was an amazing flourishing of interest in Arabic translations of ancient learning among a relatively broad layer of literate skilled artisans in the middle east, as well as important sponsorship from the caliphs. While retaining some neoplatonic perspectives, the great al-Farabi (roughly 870 – 950) made strides toward recovering a more historical reading of Aristotle (but see caveat in Belief). By painstaking textual study of multiple Arabic translations, the greatest of all commentators on Aristotle in Arabic, the Andalusian Ibn Rushd or Averrroes (1126 – 1198 ), or “the” Commentator as he was known to the Latins, in a truly amazing intellectual achievement went much further in this progressive recovery of Aristotle’s meaning.

There is, then, an intriguing progressive historical sequence in the larger societal uptake of philosophical ideas, which runs from Stoicism to neoplatonism to renewed Aristotelianism.

In the Latin West, only Aristotle’s Categories and On Interpretation were known in the early middle ages. As more of Aristotle’s works began to be available in Latin, Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142) initiated the development that later came to be known as scholasticism. Abelard emphasized the importance of reason in theology and ethics, and in a monument of intellectual honesty compiled many conflicting opinions of authorities on various questions in Sic et Non (“Yes and No”), with discussions on ambiguities and interpretation. Translation of the commentaries of Averroes to Latin in the 13th century then sparked a gigantic development with many famous names, including Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas.

In the 12th and early 13th centuries, Christians attempting to engage in theological debate with Moslems and Jews found themselves at an embarrassing disadvantage, because educated Moslems and Jews by this time often had a great deal of Aristotelian learning, and the Christians did not. During part of the 13th century, teaching of most of the newly translated works of Aristotle was still banned in Europe. But late in the century, the Church took bold and controversial steps to actively sponsor Aristotelian learning, and began to found universities all over Europe for its promotion. In spite of the fact that Averroes was considered to have a few positions that were strongly censured by theologians, the Church nonetheless sponsored the teaching of Aristotle — most often through the commentaries of Averroes — as the foundation of all higher education. During the 14th century controversy over nominalism, for instance, the prestigious University of Paris reaffirmed that Aristotle should be taught with the interpretations of the Commentator. (See also Errors of the Philosophers.)

Aristotelian teaching in Europe grew even stronger across the Renaissance. More commentaries on Aristotle are said to have been written in the 16th century than in all previous history combined, and this continued into the early 17th century. Common stereotypes about sterile and nonsensical scholasticism are extremely prejudiced, and mostly based on sheer ignorance. Especially in Italy, there came to be a very strong tradition of independent secular Aristotelianism. Across Europe, theologians too became tremendously sophisticated in their arguments, as a result of their mandatory preliminary seven years reading Aristotle.

With the rise of early modernity in the 17th century, huge additional discontinuities followed from the transition to modern languages and printed books. Aristotle came to be generally treated with ignorant hostility by people identifying with a modern point of view. Leibniz was an exception, but only with Hegel did the trend begin to reverse again. There has been a great deal of excellent scholarship on Aristotle since the late 19th century.