Thursday, 6 December 2012

Fifty Shades of Greying Philosopher

[Aristotle and Phyllis, c.1490]

What did Aristotle look like, when he was alive? Before today, I thought it was something a bit like this:

[Aristotle - Roman copy after a lost bust by Lysippos c.300BC]

Right? Lightly furrowed brow, big curly beard and a forehead struggling to contain that throbbing brain. Well, today I decided my vague intuitions probably weren't going to stretch to a whole post, so I did some digging, gentle reader, on your behalf. And you know what I found? Zilch. No contemporary sculptures survive, just copies, and the only description we have comes third-hand from Diogenes LaĆ«rtius, 600 years after he died: "His calves were slender, his eyes small, and he was conspicuous by his attire".

Like I said, zilch. But I thought it might be interesting, at least, to show you what some artists thought he looked like. A few google image searches later ("aristotle art", "aristotle medieval", "aristotle woodcut") I noticed something odd. In the early 1500s, when the Renaissance was in its infancy, they thought Aristotle looked like this:


And this:


And this:


Now, if like me, you saw those and thought "What the hell, 16th Century?", I can offer you an explanation, but be warned - it's just as kinky as you were thinking.


The woman in these pictures is called Phyllis, and according to medieval legend she was the mistress of Alexander the Great, picked up in India. Aristotle, who was by now an old man in Alexander's court, advised that perhaps he ought to pay a little less attention to his new mistress, and a little more to running his empire (just sayin').


Except, Aristotle didn't care about that much at all. He wanted to free up Phyllis's time so she might pay more attention to, um, I don't know, the WORLD FAMOUS PHILOSOPHER here, I mean c'mon, guys.

[Tapestry, 1480]

Being pretty put out at losing Alexander's attention, Phyllis decided to teach Aristotle a lesson. As he made his advances (what they were, history does not relate, but you can use your imagination) she allowed herself to look just interested enough that he was willing to do anything to seal the deal.


So she asked him to prove his love by letting her ride around on his back, in the garden, with a bit in his mouth... while she whipped him with a cat o' nine tails. Also, she asked Alexander to watch, y'know, to punish him more or something.


Now, I'm not one to judge, but this story has no foundation in any Greek text we know of, and I think Aristotle could have been taught a pretty valuable lesson with, maybe, just a little bit less whipping and lot less nakedness (I'm looking at you, medieval moralizers). But haven't we learned a great deal more about whoever did come up with this story, and about the artists who chose to place, so lovingly, hand on bottom and mouth on bit? As for my original question, what did Aristotle look like? Well, I'm certainly not getting this image out of my head any time soon.

[Aquamanile, late 14th Century]

Want to know more about this? Really? (Arched eyebrow)

Here's a version of the story and a note on the origin
A really great collection of images of Phyllis and Aristotle
And another copy of the same Lysippos bronze bust
Diogenes's biography of Aristotle at Perseus
And other accounts of Aristotle's life