Marc points out how Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle’s views about men and women influenced later Christian and Islamic thinkers.
Aristotle was born in the Macedonian city of Stagira, Chalkidice ca. 384 BCE; his father Nicomachus was the personal physician to King Amyntas of Macedon. Although there is little information on Aristotle’s childhood, he probably spent some time within the Macedonian palace, making his first connections with the Macedonian monarchy. His father died when Aristotle was a child. At eighteen, Aristotle joined Plato’s Academy in Athens and remained there until the age of thirty-seven.
Plato and Aristotle in the ‘School of Athens’
His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics and government – and constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy. He wrote an estimated 200 works, most in the form of notes and manuscript drafts.
In 343 BCE Aristotle was invited by Philip II of Macedon to become the tutor to his son Alexander and was appointed as the head of the royal academy of Macedon. He gave lessons not only to Alexander the Great, but also to two other future kings: Ptolemy and Cassander.
By 335 BCE, Artistotle had returned to Athens, establishing his own school there known as the Lyceum and conducted courses for (male) students at the school for the next twelve years. While in Athens, his wife Pythias, who had born him a daughter, died and Aristotle became involved with Phyllis of Stagira, who bore him a son.
Phyllis riding Aristotle (14th century – Metropolitan Museum, New York)
The picture shows the much venerated ancient philosopher, Aristotle, having succumbed to his lust for the beautiful Phyllis, usually said to be Alexander the Great’s wife or mistress. According to a common version of the legend, Aristotle had earlier warned Alexander, his pupil, that the young man was paying too much attention to this woman. When the philosopher approached Phyllis with his own desires, she insisted, before she agreed to gratify them, that Aristotle put on a bridle and let her ride on his back around the garden. The basic moral of the story is quite clear: even so rational and learned a man as Aristotle can allow his desire for a woman to overcome his reason; he is thus reduced to behaving as beasts do.
Aristotle believed that nature ordained not only physical differences between male and female but mental differences as well. By comparison to man, he argued that “women are more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive… more compassionate, more easily moved to tears… more jealous, more querulous, more apt to scold and to strike… more prone to despondency and less hopeful… more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, of more retentive memory… also more wakeful, more shrinking, more difficult to rouse to action.” Moreover, in accord with his society’s custom of allowing girls and women to eat only half as much as boys and men, he added that the woman “requires a smaller quantity of nutriment.”
Early Islamic portrayal of Aristotle (right) teaching astronomy to scholars.
(Topkapi Museum, Istanbul)
Aristotle saw women as subjects to men, but as higher than slaves. His views on women influenced later Christian and Islamic thinkers, who quoted him as an authority.
He died in 322 BCE in Chalcis after having fled Athens to escape prosecution under charges of impiety.
In metaphysics, Aristotle profoundly influenced Judeo-Islamic philosophical and theological thought during the Middle Ages and he was well known among medieval Muslim intellectuals and revered as ‘The First Teacher’. He continues to influence Christian theology, especially the scholastic tradition of the Catholic Church.
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