published 2.19.2019

Simon Critchley’s Athens in Pieces: In Aristotle’s Garden in The New York Times

by Simon Critchley

ATHENS — Aristotle had slender calves. His eyes were small. And he spoke with a lisp, which — according to Plutarch — was imitated by some. He wore many rings and had a distinctive, rather exotic style of dress — a kind of ancient bling.

I tried to piece together a picture of him as I arrived with my partner at the site of the Lyceum, Aristotle’s answer to Plato’s Academy, where I had visited the week before.

It is said that Aristotle was a difficult character — somewhat arrogant, thinking he was cleverer than everyone else (quite possibly true) and even criticizing his master of many years, Plato. He was a perhaps a bit of a dyskolos, a grouch, cantankerous, a curmudgeon.

Aristotle was not much loved by the Athenians. This might have been because he was a tricky customer or because he was a metic: a resident alien, an ancient green card holder; Greek, but decidedly not an Athenian citizen. Given his close ties to the Macedonian aristocracy, which was extending and tightening its military and political control across Greece, perhaps the Athenians were right to be suspicious of Aristotle.

We do know that after having served as Lector in the Academy and being described as its “Mind” by Plato, Aristotle was not chosen as the latter’s successor. The job of scholarch, or head of the school, went to Speusippus, Plato’s nephew. Aristotle left Athens shortly after Plato’s death and stayed away for around 12 years. Was he angry or disappointed not to have been chosen as head of the Academy?

Famously, Aristotle was asked by Philip II of Macedon to be the tutor of his 13-year-old son, Alexander. Aristotle set up school in the Macedonian fortress of Mieza, and the young prince was taught together with his companions, who probably numbered around 30 students. A big class. This was a closed school, a boarding school of sorts. A sense of the seriousness with which Aristotle performed his duties can be gleaned from the fact that he composed two treatises in honor of Alexander, “On Kingship” and “On Colonies," as guidebooks for the prince, as well as editing a copy of Homer’s “Iliad” specifically for Alexander’s use — the so-called “casket copy” (presumably because it was kept in a casket).

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