Friday, December 12, 2008

What Aristotle Looked Like

In every department of civilized existence, the influence of Aristotle must be taken into account, and his judgment of women’s position in society—a view sincerely held and on the whole most temperately expressed—has had far more effect on the world than have the idealist theories of Plato. . . . in [Aristotle’s] time the position of women could hardly have been altered for the worse, but by his blind followers in later ages [his view hardly budges since] his slightest word [is] regarded almost as inspired truth . . . . If he had been a little more of a poet and idealist—in other words, if he had not been Aristotle—he might have taken another view [on the need for women to be submissive to men] . . . . Aristotle’s influence in this matter has been an enormous hindrance to human progress.

--F. A. Wright 

Aristotle wore his hair short and had male pattern balding, I think.  This was his ideal hairstyle, and he railed on the Spartan men who in fact let their hair grow long and their women go wild.  Aristotle probably looked a little like Seinfeld’s George Costanza but with his glasses off. 

His ideal age for a man to marry a young girl?  Aristotle’s real, actual age.  The peak time of a man’s body and a man’s mind?  Yep, you guessed again: Aristotle’s real, actual age. The ideal system for a male-dominant household and for ownership of natural-born slaves?  Right again.  Aristotle’s system.

   Aristotle would have loved those lines from Alexander Pope (if he didn’t so hate poetry and barbarian mother tongues such as Pope’s English): 

“Whatever is [for Aristotle], is right [for nature].” -- which is a translation of Pope's "Whatever is, is right."

Here’s some evidence from Aristotle’s writings and his life:

“The front part of the head goes bald because the brain is there and man is the only animal to go bald, because his brain is much the largest and moistest. Women do not go bald."

--Aristotle, DE GENERATIONE, 784a (translated by A. L. Peck, 1943)

When he was around 37 years old, Aristotle married a girl named Pythias who likely was around 18 years of age; at that time, he wrote his treatise on Politics in which “he specified as the optimal nuptial ages thirty-seven for the man and eighteen for the woman” (Abraham Edel, Aristotle and His Philosophy,  page 14).  The implications are not missed by F. A. Wright, who declares, “The whole arrangement is obviously wrong” (213); and Wright explains:

The gap between husband and wife is far too great for any real physical or moral companionship.  The husband, moreover, remaining unmarried until the age of thirty-seven, can hardly be supposed to have escaped from the illicit connections which were allowed and encouraged. . . [and] to say that such an one is in his prime is surely to mis-state the case (213). 

In the Rhetoric (1390b), Aristotle did in fact say that the prime age for a man’s body is thirty-five but for his mind forty-nine.  At the time he wrote this, Aristotle was forty-nine and had already outlived Pythias, who would have been thirty.  They had a daughter named Pythias who would have been, at age twelve, approaching the baby-bearing age if still a few years from the optimal marrying age.

            Wright notes related personal issues:

The art of being a grandfather also under this system [of Aristotle’s] tends to disappear, for a man could hardly hope to see grandchildren of his own, if neither he nor his sons married till they were thirty-seven:  his daughters, of course, . . . on marriage passed altogether out of their father’s life (213). 

By Aristotle’s arrangement, then, his daughter Pythias and any grandchild she might bear would be under another man’s authority.  And it does not take much imagination to picture, through the years, the various problematic issues for a wife, a mother, a concubine, and a grandmother, who experience different translations and distanced relationships with respect to men.  It is important to consider the other women, children, and slaves in Aristotle’s life and their problems.  History does record that Aristotle fathered another child, a son named Nichomachus by a wife or concubine or slave named Herpyllis although the details are sketchy (Edel 14). 

And we do know that “[un]questionably,  Aristotle owned numerous slaves. . . [which he logically rationalized by] a kind of structural racism” (Neel, Aristotle’s Voice, page 19).  These are not unimportant facts when one is translating Aristotle’s Rhetoric rhetorically and feministically.  Jasper Neel, goes on to observe that “[i]n Aristotle’s system, soul is privileged over body, intelligence over emotion, humans over animals, men over women, and freemen over slaves” (26).  However, Neel claims “Aristotle did not need to spend much time on slavery in the Rhetoric because he had justified it in detail in the Politics, the master art in which his rhetoric is a subsidiary” (16).  For Aristotle, “rhetoric” does not have the status of other “arts.”  Neel adds, “And by now, of course, it is clear why we read the Rhetoric alone, pretending that it can be extracted from the political and social theories in which Aristotle embedded it. . . .  [T]hrough his eyes, things ‘make sense’ in a terrifying way” (18).   Our readerly pretense is that “rhetoric” does not need to fit in the context of Aristotle’s terrible, terrifying map of knowledge.  Neel specifies that Aristotle’s terrifying map of knowledge includes “[s]lavery, sexism, and racism [which together as a system] made perfect sense to Aristotle, even though he clearly knew persuasive and cogent arguments against them all” (25).

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