NB: This post contains factual errors regarding Julian Barnes – as readers, below, have kindly pointed out. At the time of his quoted text, Barnes was not, as reported, ‘Master’ of Baliol, but a ‘Fellow’ of that place; Baliol, meanwhile, is of course in Oxford, not Cambridge. I have left these errors uncorrected so that I wouldn’t also have to delete the replies. A longer, error-free version of this article will soon appear in ‘Fitzroy’s Crap Theories’. My apologies to Mr Barnes, if he ever accidentally finds himself reading this.
Aristotle, top philosopher and, it would seem, a man with only one name. (This was a wise move: ‘Boutros Boutros Aristotle’ doesn’t have the same ring). Opinions vary as to whether Aristotle was actually very good at anything.
Aristotle was a polymath: his researches ranged from abstract logic and metaphysics to highly detailed studies in biology and anatomy; with the possible exception of the mathematical sciences, no branch of knowledge was left untouched by him. His contributions were both innovatory and systematic: no one man has achieved more, no one man has had greater influence, and Aristotle remains, in Dante’s phrase, ‘the master of those who know’.
No small praise, there, from the Master of Balliol College, Cambridge, Jonathan Barnes. But compare and contrast the following:
Aristotle – who tutored Alexander the Great – was probably the single greatest scientific disaster of all time. Other than some decent work in the principles of logic, he seems to have carefully avoided writing anything factual throughout his career. And yet it was his works on natural history, anatomy and physics which became the absolute truth of ‘science’ for the next fifteen centuries, or thereabouts. Aristotle is the swine who brought us the flat earth in the Centre of the Universe model. He is also the twat who insisted that heavy objects fall faster than light ones. And that all the universe is composed of four elements – fire, earth, air and water – a notion which is still propping up bullshit new-age spirituality to this day. [My emphases].
This second critical evaluation is from antipodean humorist John Birmingham. While one would be reluctant to dismiss the first author, a distinguished Cambridge scholar, in favour of a man who is probably descended from felons, Birmingham’s observations should set off alarm bells. It may be unfair to laugh at the flat earth doctrine given that, in the fourth century BC, answers to cosmological questions were anyone’s guess. (Aristotle also assigned the wrong sex to the boss insect of a beehive, calling the queen a ‘king’). But, if the necessary information is unavailable or inaccessible, people can resort only to ‘best guesses’. We wouldn’t come down too hard on an ordinary Greek citizen of Aristotle’s era who had not as yet compared the rates of descent of heavy and light objects; perhaps it had not occurred to them to even ask the question. But Aristotle presumed to know and teach the answer to that question, yet never carried out the simple primary school experiment that would tell him for certain. Where is the ‘systematic’ or ‘highly detailed’ approach that Barnes claims on Aristotle’s behalf? In this instance the error could not have arisen through an absence of data or lack of appropriate method for acquiring that data. Whatever his value to the philosophers, Aristotle appears – on this evidence alone – a dodgy candidate for ‘master of those who know’. But, then, I am not Master of those who know the stuff they know at Balliol College.