Saturday, 23 February 2019

Would Aristotle's make an Impact as Public Intellectual?


One reason I wrote Aristotle’s Way is that Aristotle’s wonderfully sensible advice on happiness has not been publicised sufficiently beyond academia. This would have horrified him. He was the first philosopher we know of to circulate his ideas in accessible and inexpensive form in order to reach a general public as well as his official students at the courts of kings or the Athenian Lyceum.


He called these his ‘exoteric’ works. This means ‘outward-facing’, the opposite of ‘esoteric’ or ‘inward-facing’ (which so happens to be an anagram of COTERIES). They are the ancient equivalent of blogposts or articles on free online magazines. We have titles and a few fragments, although reconstruction is in my view sadly less possible than some scholars would like.

The ancient discussions of the exoteric works show that they were short, elegantly written, in dialogue form, used vivid imagery, and were lighter on dense passages of reasoning than the scholarly treatises which have survived. They featured fun things like philosophical satyrs and references to the myths of the Argonauts.

They were studied by shoemakers, travelling businessmen and peasant farmers. The papyrus rolls in which they were inscribed were portable and could be read while you waited for your sandals to be mended. They featured even shorter summaries on their cover so that anyone could get a quick digest of Aristotle’s views on Plato’s theory of forms (he was not a fan), on the importance of private partnerships to the community, or on the differences between humans and other animals.

Since I have this week published a 3,000-word exoteric essay on what we know about Aristotle’s works for the public, this blog is the equivalent of that summary on the outside of an exoteric papyrus. You can read it on the Aeon website if you are interested, thanks to its Philosophy editor Nigel Warburton.

I argue there that learning about Aristotle’s exoterica is not just an interesting exercise: it gives us a dazzling example of how academics can circulate their ideas in an accessible way. This will also help diminish the prejudice against specialist scholarship that the anti-intellectuals of our day (who are themselves professional obscurantists) like to whip up. It sets an example not just to philosophers, but scholars in any discipline whatsoever.


If his Lyceum was submitted to the UK's Research Excellence Framework 2021, Aristotle would surely get Full Marks for his Impact Case Study (I am wrestling with writing one for my Advocacy of Classical Subjects in State Schools). I do hope he would also get the top mark (four star) for being ‘world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour’ for Research Outputs such as Nicomachean Ethics and Politics.  But you never know. Even Peer Review can be fallible!




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