Interlude: Alexander and Aristotle

So, last time I wrote about Alexander the Great and how he chased around the world conquering places.

But I feel like I ought to mention that he did study with Aristotle and kept up a correspondence with him while out on his adventures.

“It would appear that Alexander received from him not only his doctrines of morals and of politics, but also something of those more abstruse and profound theories which these philosophers, by the very names they give them, professed to reserve for oral communications to the initiated, and did not allow many to become acquainted with.”

Plutarch tells us that when Alexander heard that Aristotle had published some of his philosophy, he wrote to Aristotle to remonstrate him for doing so.

“For when he was in Asia, and heard Aristotle had published some treatises of that kind, he wrote to him, using very plain language to him in behalf of philosophy, the following letter. ‘Alexander to Aristotle, greeting. You have not done well to publish your books or oral doctrine; for what is there not that we excel others in, if those things which we have been particularly instructed in be laid open to all? For my part, I assure, I had rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and dominion. Farewell.’

“And Aristotle, soothing this passion of pre-eminence, spoke, in his excuse for himself, of these doctrines as in fact both published and not published: as indeed, to say the truth, his books on metaphysics are written in a style which makes them useless for ordinary teaching, and instructive only, int he way of memoranda, for those who have been already conversant in that sort of learning.”

This is educational to us beyond just the life of Alexander because it warns us to be careful when looking at Aristotle’s texts, particularly those on the metaphysics. If they are memoranda only, then we know that there may be crucial points left out, especially if the philosophers had a reputation of deliberately keeping some ideas restricted to those who heard their lectures. While this does raise the question of why Aristotle would then publish anything at all in written form, we cannot ignore the warning signs that it presents.

In reading these ancient texts, we need to remember that they have come down to us through many years, many copies, and many turns of fortune. Many ancient Greek texts were lost during the Dark Ages and returned to the west only after Crusaders brought back Arabic copies for the near east. Others were preserved through repeatedly copying by monks. Manuscript lineage is not an issue for this set, but it is one for anyone who tries to make an in-depth study of these works.

For use as readers, tackling this now, we must remember to read carefully, cross reference when necessary, and be prepaid to accept that there may be things we don’t understand. That could be because we have a corrupted copy, or because we can’t walk with the philosophers themselves.

 

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