Sunday, 25 August 2013

Aristotle was a phony

On the matter of Aristotle, I am in a minority of one. Or at least very few. I am one of that small minority of people who is prepared to ask the unthinkable: are the works of Aristotle forgeries? In one respect, it is a question that hardly matters. No one denies the depth and profundity of the works of Aristotle. But were they really by Aristotle and was this Aristotle who we suppose he was? I am a sceptic. I am inclined to question some of the basic features of what I call the Aristotle myth. In particular, I question the supposition - and it is a supposition - that this Aristotle was a student of Plato and a member of Plato's Academy. And I doubt, furthermore, the story that Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander the Great. I detect a mythology in these stories rather than historical fact. Regarding the works of Aristotle, the whole story of how they were preserved and how they were subsequently found and published is inherently fishy. I smell a forgery. There have been scholars throughout history - notably in the Renaissance - who have raised such questions. I think they are good questions.

It is my view, in any case, that the extant works of Aristotle are the product of the first century BC and not much earlier when they were supposedly "found" in Athens and taken back to Rome by Sulla. Regarding the character known as "Aristotle" - I regard it as a myth, the purpose of which was to connect Alexander the Great to the Divine Plato. The Aristotle myth, that is, grew along with the mythology of Alexander. There was, I believe, an early poet named Aristotle. This character has been engrandized during the myth-making surrounding Alexander. A large body of work - sort of a counter-Plato - was composed/collected and attached to this name in the first century BC. I therefore see the works of Aristotle as Roman productions.

Here are some points:

*According to the traditional account the works of Aristotle, student of Plato, were "lost" after his death and "preserved" in a cellar until the first century BC. This story explains why we have no notices of Aristotle before this time. Aristotle goes missing for two hundred years. Then his works turn up intact having been preserved in a cellar. Is this likely? It is an inherently dubious tale. I invite readers to check it out. It's a very fishy story.

*The man credited with "discovering" the works of Aristotle, Apellicon of Teos, was a complete rogue. He was a book collector. It is said that he purchased the manuscripts of Aristotle from a Neleus of Scepsis. It is said they were hidden in a cellar to keep them away from the princes of Pergamon. Then we are told that because Aristotle's manuscripts were in poor shape, Apellicon made his own copies and filled up the gaps himself. So, in fact, our Aristotle - we are to believe - is Apellicon's free-and-easy rendering of the concealed manuscripts of Neleus. This entire story is suspect, frankly.

*Next we are told that Apellicon's library was carried back to Rome by Sulla. This is in 84BC. This is actually the first time Aristotle's works ever appear anywhere in public. They are part of the spoils of Sulla. This was a major Roman acquisition of Greek heritage. I argue that large amounts of this heritage was fabricated for Roman purposes.

*The circle who did the fabricating is identifiable: along with the library of Apellicon, the Romans also acquired such Greek scholars as the accomplished scribe and grammarian Tyrannoin of Amisus. He was employed by the Romans, we are told, to organise Apellicon's library. He then worked in the circle of Cicero. This is a circle of people, I maintain, who were more than capable of forging the works of Aristotle. These were deeply learned men and men of great literary power. We underestimate the philosophical and literary genius of that period. Moreover, it is Cicero who provides us with the list of heads of the Academy down to the Roman period. Cicero crafts this myth.

*The literary form of the works of Aristotle is strange and un-Hellenic. We are told that what has survived are his "notebooks". They do not resemble other works of Platonic philosophy or any other production of the Academy. I argue that their form is more distinctly Roman than Platonic Greek. The best way to explain the peculiar literary features of Aristotle's works is to see them as late productions.

*There are many, many strange and unaccountable misrepresentations of Plato in the works of Aristotle. Did he really know Plato? How close was he to Plato? The extant Aristotle does not seem like a close companion of Plato. He misunderstands basic points and misrepresents Plato on fundamental matters. Countless scholars have tried to reconcile the two philosophers on the assumption that they were close companions. But perhaps they weren't. Perhaps there is a good reason why our Aristotle seems so askew about Plato. There are too many clangers in Aristotle. I am not convinced that the person who wrote the works of Aristotle was a personal student of Plato of Athens.

Again: this does not change the intrinsic value of the Aristotelean corpus.  I am not proposing that they are worthless forgeries. But I doubt the standard story about the origins of the works of Aristotle. I especially doubt the proposal that our Aristotle was a student of Plato. His works say otherwise. I suspect they are forgeries of the first century BC, a direct product of the Roman acquisition of Greek learning under Sulla. This would explain much. My explanation: "Aristotle" is a mythic production that accompanied the growth of the Alexander myths. The character of Aristotle was necessary to graft Alexander - the "philosopher king" - onto the Academy.

The important thing, in any case, is not to read Plato through Aristotle.

- Harper McAlpine Black


  1. I wonder if you would elaborate more. As you indicated, your theory is not the conventional one. How do you account for the heritage of the Lyceum and Peripatetic school if Aristotle didn’t exist? My understanding is that Aristotle fell out of favour with Athenian nationalists following Alexander’s death and was driven into exile. This would account for the concealment of his works, but obviously you have considered this and still propound your theory, so I am curious.

    The etymology of “Aristotle” supports your theory in a strangely ambivalent manner.


  2. For that matter how can anybody really account for any of these so called ancients and their so called "writings? It could only be like mythology like was assembled the so called book the bible. Yes the Dead Sea Scrolls are tangible so we can more or less accept them. More word of mouth mere hand me down stories changed and "souped up" as different 'authors' "tweaked" them. Ok we all like a good tale. Nothing new under the sun simply more "Old Wine in new bottles" as it were. What Ever happened to the good ole days? They weren't not never were!