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If you were to ask people to name history’s greatest monster, most would pick their team’s favorite bogeyman from the last century. Recency bias is a real thing and as a culture we remained trapped in the last century, so most people would name Stalin or Mao or Hitler as history’s greatest monster. Some might offer up Genghis Khan or Torquemada as a more thoughtful option. No one, of course, would offer up Aristotle as history’s greatest monster, even though he is a good choice.
This may sound crazy, but there is a good argument in favor of Aristotle being the single most malevolent influence on humanity. As far as we know, he did not slaughter masses of people, but he did train one of history’s great slayers. According to our histories, he was tasked by Philip of Macedonia with the job of educating his son, Alexander, who would go on to conquer the world. It is possible that Alexander committed patricide, which is an extremely monstrous thing.
In fairness, you cannot blame the teacher for the sins of the student, unless the student is putting into practice the theory imparted by the teacher. We have nothing allegedly written by Aristotle which recommends conquering the world and subjugating the people in foreign lands. On the other hand, Western universalist claims begin with Aristotle, so maybe Alexander’s desire to impose his will on the world was the natural consequence of Aristotle’s teaching.
We can debate Aristotle’s role in Alexander’s crimes against humanity, but we do know that Aristotle got some important things wrong. For example, he dismissed the ideas of Democritus, who proposed that everything we see is composed of atoms that are the basic building blocks of matter. Democritus also argued that humans “evolved” from an earlier primitive state. Necessity is what drove large groups of humans into societies which offered protection from nature.
In other words, Democritus was an incredibly brilliant thinker, way ahead of his time, but Aristotle dismissed him out of hand. In fairness, Aristotle was a student of Plato, who hated Democritus. Allegedly, Plato hated Democritus so much that he wanted all of his books burned, which may be why none survived. It is possible that Aristotle was just an obsequious rumpswab who aped the feelings of Plato. Regardless, much was lost to us because of Aristotle’s dismissal of Democritus.
Aristotle’s scientific ignorance does not stop there. The Western world spent a thousand years believing the sun revolved around the earth, due entirely to Aristotle’s geocentric model of the universe. It was not as if everyone in his time believed that the sun revolved around the earth. Philolaus argued for heliocentrism. Aristarchus of Samos argued that the earth rotated around the sun, but Aristotle’s stature condemned the West to a thousand years of geocentric ignorance.
Now, one can dispute the damage done by the scientific ignorance spread by Aristotle and his followers. After all, how many people died because we had no idea why some things are heavier than others? Sure, thousands were probably killed for questioning geocentricism, but they were heretics and their astronomical apostacy was just one of many crimes they committed against the Church. You really cannot get a big number of bodies to blame on Aristotle from these errors.
What about medicine? For a thousand years Western medicine was closer to witchcraft because of the belief in the four humors. This is the claim that the body is composed of blood (warm and moist), phlegm (cold and moist), yellow bile (warm and dry), and black bile (cold and dry). These also correspond to the seasons. Illness was due to an imbalance of these humors, so medicine was concerned with rebalancing the humors, rather than producing an actual cure for what ailed the patient.
How many millions died due to this lunacy? The Aristotle defenders will claim that he did not invent this crackpot idea. It was Hippocrates. The counter here is that Hippocrates is the father of medicine because of Aristotle who promoted his ideas. Imagine if instead of this humor business, Aristotle had not dismissed Democritus and proposed that illness is due to small entities in the body. We may have deduced germ theory many centuries earlier. Millions would have been saved!
Again, we have no evidence that Aristotle killed anyone and we have no evidence that he was in favor of genocide. The perpetuation of his crackpot ideas about science and medicine was not his fault. After all, he did not force those monks and scribes to perpetuate his ignorance. It probably seems unfair to hang millions of dead on Aristotle, just because his nutty ideas about science and medicine came to dominate the Western world for a thousand years.
On the other hand, ideas have consequences. If you manage to convince the world of some bad idea, you do bear some responsibility for its application. Marx did not advocate the murder of millions, but he did lay the intellectual framework for those who would murder millions in his name. If we are going to blame Marx for the crimes of the Marxists, the same applies to the consequences of Aristotelianism. That puts Aristotle in the same club as Marx.
The thing is the influence of Marx has largely dissipated. There are some cranks kicking around calling themselves Marxist, but at this point no serious person believes in the surplus value of labor or historical materialism. On the other hand, lots of bad actors still rely on Aristotle. For example, the followers of Harry Jaffa are still causing trouble and Jaffa was a big fan of Aristotle. Here is an old essay of his arguing for one of his crackpot theories. He mentions Aristotle fourteen times.
How much damage has been done to America by the followers of Jaffa and his deranged ideas about the Framers? His universalist gobbledygook about the Declaration and the perfection of the founding has made opposition to lethal ideas like immigration and multiculturalism nearly unlawful. Even the mildest resistance to the ongoing invasion is treated as a crime, because after all, all men are created equal so the only reason to oppose open borders is racism and bigotry.
It is fun to imagine a monster like Harry Jaffa stepping in front of a bus before he had a chance to inject his venom into the neck of America but imagine if he was not able to sacralize his crackpottery with references to Aristotle. Not only would Jaffa have been denied an authority, so would Straus. Imagine a world free of this dangerous cult that has unleashed so much mayhem on American society. Take away Aristotle and a lot of modern horrors go away as well.
It is wrong to blame the son for the crimes of the father, so it is probably wrong to blame the father for the crimes of the son. The point here is that establishing any man as a moral or even an intellectual authority leads to trouble. When that man is beyond question, the trouble easily becomes horror. The establishment of Aristotle as the father of moral philosophy sent the West careening down a path toward the crisis we see unfolding today, a crisis from which it may not recover.
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