Depending upon the ancient sources we prefer, Aristotle emerges to the modern era as a man with one or the other of two remarkably dissimilar profiles.1
According to one tradition, presumably inaugurated and circulated primarily by his enemies, Aristotle was, if intellectually capable, a ghastly sort of man: obnoxious and disagreeable, conceited and overbearing. According to an equally well-attested and completely opposing tradition, Aristotle was, on the contrary, not only a genius beyond all measure, but a considerate soul, fervently devoted to his friends and passionately interested in the enhancement of human knowledge in all its forms. Armed with either one or the other of these assessments, it is possible to find corroborating evidence when combing through Aristotle's extant writings.2
Although neither approach is likely to yield an accurate portrait of Aristotle, there is a methodological moral in surveying the excesses of each.
According to the first, scurrilous tradition — which does come down to us with an ancient pedigree — Aristotle arrived on the intellectual scene of Athens displaying the haughty character of genius: self-smitten, he was ever jealous of his reputation for intellectual pre-eminence and given to preening self-promotion.3
Also an ingrate, he was, as an ancient biographer tells us, the ‘foal who kicked his mother’.4
The mother in question was Aristotle's teacher, Plato.
The derogatory approach paints an unflattering picture of Aristotle's relationship to Plato. Having been taken as a young man into the bosom of Plato's Academy, once educated and acculturated, Aristotle turned upon his master and mocked him in the manner of a cocksure schoolboy too vain to appreciate that his very ability to ridicule had been gifted him by the teacher he now disdained. At his caustic worst, Aristotle ridicules and dismisses the towering achievement of Plato's philosophy, his theory of Forms: ‘Farewell to the Forms: they are but ding-a-lings and even if they do exist they are wholly irrelevant’ (APo
83a32–34). Ever arch, Aristotle denigrates the thinkers who came before him as crude and intellectually infantile, even though he regularly fails, or refuses, to represent their views fairly and adequately. He credits them in a patronizing way only when he thinks he can see them groping inadequately towards his own theories and convictions. Otherwise, his predecessors come in for harsh treatment:
Even the more recent among the older thinkers found themselves befuddled lest it turn out that according to them the same thing should be at the same time both one and many.
These thinkers, implies Aristotle, fell into a dither about parts and wholes, ‘as if it were not possible for the same thing to be one and many’ (Phys. 186a1–2). Here Aristotle contends that those who came before him somehow could not see that a single confection might be one cake and also eight slices of cake, each ready to be eaten individually. How could they be so obtuse?
They could be so obtuse, our first tradition tells us, only because Aristotle used them sorely in an effort to prop up his own self-image by comparing travesties of their views disadvantageously to his own, the virtues of whose innovations he was keen to trumpet with immodest self-aggrandizement. Aristotle was ever alive to his
own intellectual advances, and where he understood himself to have succeeded, he expected the credit he thought his due. Thus, for example, at the end of the work he had written on styles of argumentation, Aristotle proclaims:
Once you have surveyed our work, if it seems to you that our system has developed adequately in comparison with other treatments arising from the tradition to date — bearing in mind how things were at the beginning of our inquiry — it falls to you, our students, to be indulgent with respect to any omissions in our system, and to feel a great debt of gratitude for the discoveries it contains.
(Soph. Ref. 184b2–8)
What he had accomplished in this work, Aristotle's critics contend, was little more than a fragment of elementary logic, as might be taught today in the first weeks of an introductory course, followed by a series of recommendations for gaining the upper hand in contests of eristic.
In fact, still according to our first ancient tradition, when we think of Aristotle's self-conception, it is difficult not to suppose that he understands himself to be an instance of the sort of figure he idolizes as ‘great-souled’ (megalopsuchos) in his discussion of virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics (1123a34–1125a35). The virtue of being great-souled, if it is a virtue, requires having the sort of character trait Aristotle admires in the megalopsuchos — sometimes translated into English via its Latinate counterpart as ‘the magnanimous man’. This is at best a misleading translation, since the megalopsuchos is someone manifesting not greatness of soul, conceived in altruistic or other-regarding terms. The megalopsuchos has rather the conceit to understand himself as possessing a soul greater than all others, and thus as someone whose own superiority leads him to condescend to those he regards as inferior, even to the point of despising them when they endeavour to honour him:
The great-souled man will be concerned most of all with honours and dishonours; and he will be moderately pleased with great honours given by good men, because he will think that he is being given his due — or perhaps less than his due, since there can be no honour worthy of perfect excellence. Nonetheless, he will accept them since they have nothing greater to bestow upon him; but he will be completely contemptuous of honour offered by just anyone or given on trifling grounds.
This man, who comes equipped with a suitably deep baritone voice and who affects a measured gait, is Aristotle's very ideal (EN 1125a12). The crowning trait manifested by this great-souled man, claims Aristotle, is a ‘sort of gilding of the virtues’ (EN 1124a1–2). Already perfectly virtuous in all other respects, Aristotle's ideal man does not refrain from making his superior self-conception known. The man of pre-eminent human virtue, as Aristotle conceives him, is evidently jealous of his social standing and haughty to the point of contemptuousness.
Who could tolerate such a man, let alone esteem him so openly and unapologetically as Aristotle? As the greatest Aristotelian of the twentieth century, Sir David Ross, observed, the arrogance on display in this passage ‘betrays somewhat nakedly the self-absorption which is the bad side of Aristotle's ethics’.5
It is unsurprising, then, that Aristotle's ancient biographers are replete with stories capturing his self-aggrandizing tendencies of character.6
Before we close the book on Aristotle, however, we should give a fair hearing to an equally well-attested and yet completely opposing biographical tradition. According to this second tradition — which again comes down to us with an ancient pedigree — Aristotle was, uncommonly for an indisputable genius, a fine and generous man, who despite his prodigious intellect evinced a natural humility and generous devotion to his friends. Although it is true that he could
be critical of his teacher where he differed with him, Aristotle regarded Plato warmly and with deep and grateful affection. He characterized Plato as ‘a man whom the wicked have no place to praise: he alone, unsurpassed among mortals, has shown clearly by his own life and by the pursuits of his writings that a man becomes happy and good simultaneously’.7
Aristotle saw something fine in Plato, whom he honours not only for his intellectual ability, but also, and more tellingly, for his unmatched concord of mind and life. Plato is a paragon and a model to us all, contends Aristotle, because he demonstrates, in a way never surpassed if ever equalled, that human happiness resides in the attainment of high intellectual achievement.
This is why, when he comes to differ with him — as every truly great teacher hopes his best students will do, when it is warranted — Aristotle exhibits an affectionate restraint and a touching hesitance. For instance, when he expresses his difference with Plato about the nature of goodness, as he does in an important chapter of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says:
We had perhaps better consider the universal good and run through the puzzles concerning what is meant by it — even though this sort of investigation is unwelcome to us, because those who introduced the Forms are friends of ours. Yet presumably it would be the better course to destroy even what is close to us, as something necessary for preserving the truth — and all the more so, given that we are philosophers. For though we love them both, piety bids us to honour the truth before our friends.
The philosophical difference between these two towering thinkers is both central and structural: Plato thinks that goodness is univocal
— that all good things are ultimately good in precisely the same way, by instantiating the single Form Goodness — whereas Aristotle
doubts that this is so. On the contrary, he assails Plato's univocity assumption, because he thinks that different things are good in irreducibly different ways: the goodness of Kathleen Ferrier's singing Ombra mai fu
is not at all the same thing as the goodness of a crisp apple in the autumn.
It is noteworthy that despite this deep philosophical disagreement, Aristotle does not ridicule Plato's opposing view. Instead, he pays Plato the respect which is his due by arguing carefully against him, and proceeds, as he intimates, only against his natural disinclination and because piety bids that we place our service to the truth before our warm feelings to our dearest friends. Here, according to the champions of this second approach, we observe the true Aristotle: intellectually honest, yet affectionate, grateful, and pious as well.
We can further appreciate, according to the positive biographical tradition, how Aristotle's respect for Plato is equally reflected in his heartfelt, almost reverential attitude towards friendship in general. It is plain that Aristotle values friendship exceedingly, even to the point where he is prepared to regard a friend as a 'second self (allos or heteros autos; EN 1166a32; EE 1245a3). Your true friend, maintains Aristotle, is someone whose well-being matters to you no less than your own. In a revealing passage of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observes:
It is said that one ought to love most the friend who is most a friend; and he is most a friend who most of all wishes good things for a friend for his own sake, even if no-one will know about it. Yet these are attitudes which belong most of all to someone in reference to himself, as indeed do the remaining defining features by which a friend is defined. For we have said that features of friendship extend from oneself and to all others. Indeed, all the proverbs agree, in mentioning, for example, ‘a single soul’, or ‘what is common to friends’, or ‘friendship as equality’, or ‘the knee is closer than the shin’. For
all these are things which one bears in the first instance to oneself, since one ...