Aristotle’s advice for young protestors

In his Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle (384-322 bc) sets about identifying the various headings under which you can be persuasive about any topic. One of the topics is the nature of the young, and as today’s students pick up their loud hailers to make demands about events more than 2,000 miles away in alien cultures which despise most of them, there is much of interest in the similarities and differences. In general, Aristotle says, the young, not having lived long, are inevitably ignorant and lack experience. So they are inclined to do whatever they feel like doing, and are easily satisfied because their wants are not overwhelming. They also lack

Were the Greeks right about justice?

The Sentencing Council, consisting of various legal authorities, has told judges and magistrates to consider, when sentencing the young, their ‘difficult and/or deprived backgrounds or personal circumstances’. To what end? To induct the young into proper moral behaviour, Aristotle thought that family discipline should go hand in hand with the community’s laws, customs and education. But it was also possible for the young to receive bad training, on which Aristotle thundered: ‘It makes no small difference whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather, it makes all the difference.’ Aristotle took this view because he thought it

Are we finally beginning to understand gravity?

The question of why things fall has puzzled our species since we crawled out from the darkness of our primitive ignorance. Aristotle was the first to offer a serious theory. He proposed that each of the four elements (earth, air, fire, water) had a natural place to which it innately wanted to return. Fire and air rise because their place is in the heavens, whereas earth and water return to the Earth. Aristotelian philosophy had such a profound impact on human thought that this view prevailed for nearly 2,000 years. Only with the Renaissance and the ideas of Kepler and Galileo was it finally challenged; and only by standing on

All work and no play is dulling our senses

Free Time is an academic journey through two-and-half millennia of leisure options. The central question put by the historian Gary Cross, is: why do we not have more free time, and when we do, why do we waste it, like Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, on ‘fencing, dancing and bear-baiting’ or their modern equivalents? We start with ancient Greek philosophers, including Socrates and Aristotle, who reckoned that life was all about free time. We should work to fulfil our basic needs and then use our leisure for scholé (self-improvement): for culture and reflection. The vita contemplativa was superior to the vita activa (though Socrates was also fond of a

The balance of power between humans and machines

The twin poles of the modern imaginarium about technology and society can be represented by two masterpieces of popular culture. In James Cameron’s film The Terminator (1984) and its sequels, a global computer system called Skynet becomes sentient and proceeds to try to exterminate the human race by means of time-travelling Austrian bodybuilders. In Iain M. Banks’s ‘Culture’ novels, by contrast (beginning with Consider Phlebas, 1987), a space-faring humanlike species has created superintelligent machines, known as Minds, which automate all the labour of production, leaving people free to pursue artistic activities and extreme sports. As our tech-bro overlords race to create proper AI, then, the present question is whether engineered

Why I chose virtue over vice

Patmos A funny thing happened on my way to this beautiful place, an island without druggies, nightclub creeps, clip joints or hookers. I stopped in Athens for about five hours in order to look over old haunts and just walk around places I’d known as a youth, when I noticed something incredible: none of the youngsters I encountered were texting, nor were they glued to their mobiles and bumping into people. Sure, some were on their phones, but the majority of them were talking and gesticulating like normal humans used to do before the technology curse rained down on us. Well, as they say, nothing lasts for ever, and once

Who laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round?

In 2020, an American pilot and daredevil named ‘Mad Mike’ Hughes launched himself in a homemade steam-powered rocket, hoping to achieve enough altitude to prove to himself that the Earth was flat. Unfortunately, the rocket crashed and Mad Mike was no more. ‘I’m not going to take anyone else’s word for it, or Nasa, or especially Elon Musk with SpaceX,’ he had once explained in an interview. ‘I’m going to build my own rocket right here and I’m going to see it with my own eyes what shape this world we live on is.’ In this way he became a martyr to the modern conspiracy theorist’s mantra: ‘Do your own

Liz Truss and the art of rhetoric

Liz Truss was spot-on in arguing that the only way in which a state can flourish is by combining low taxes with economic growth. But she failed to persuade her audience that she knew how this could be achieved. If only Dr Kwarteng, a classicist, had drawn her attention to Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric (4th century bc), the first full analysis of the means of persuasion, the day and her career would have been saved. First, Aristotle defined two general types of persuasive proof. One he called ‘artistic’, because it depended upon human ingenuity, the other ‘non-artistic’, because it derived from pre-existing evidence, e.g. witness statements, written contracts, etc. Then

In search of the peripatetic philosopher Theophrastus

Publishers lately seem to have got the idea that otherwise uncommercial subjects might be rendered sexy if presented with a personal, often confessional, counterpoint. The ostensible subject of Laura Beatty’s book is the pioneering Greek botanist and philosopher Theophrastus. He was a friend of Aristotle’s, and was once thought his intellectual equal, but is now little known except to a few classicists and historians of science. But since no one wants to publish a straight book on Theophrastus, we get instead a book that is at least as much about Laura Beatty, her library researches, her travels in Greece and her kitchen garden. Her publishers describe the book as ‘genre-defying’.

Does Putin pass Aristotle’s tyrant test?

Is Putin a tyrant? Aristotle (384-322 bc) might well have thought so. Seeing the turannos as a deviant type of king, Aristotle tested the distinction under four headings. Was he subject to the law? Did he rule for a set term, or for ever? Was he elected? And did he rule over willing subjects? We may judge Aristotle’s answer from the image he drew of the tyrant as a master of slaves who, knowing that his subjects hated him, did everything in his power to ensure they were incapable of moving against him. First, therefore, the tyrant stamped on anyone exhibiting the slightest independence of mind, since ‘the man who

America is a nation divided

New York Imagine a European country today in which a newspaper in its most populous city launches a mendacious project reinterpreting its past. The practice was perfected under the old communist system that ruled Romania, Hungary, Poland and the rest of the Soviet satellites. But it is no longer possible in that part of the world now that the old continent has rediscovered freedom. It is taking place elsewhere, though, right here in New York, marinated by the Bagel Times which has invented a nation predicated on racism and enforced racial inequality. The 1619 Project is based on delusion and is a sweeping assault on the American way of life

After a lifetime in nightclubs, now I party at home

New York   It’s party time in the Bagel, and it’s about time, too. Good restaurants and elegant nightclubs are now a thing of the past, at least here in New York, so it’s home sweet home for the poor little Greek boy, for dinner, drinks and even some dancing at times. Here in my Bagel house my proudest possessions are my three Oswald Birley pictures. One is enormous and covers the whole wall of the entrance hall. The other two are a self-portrait and one of a rather grand lady. They are masterfully executed portraits, with aesthetic as well as psychological realism, an extremely difficult goal for an artist

The great disrupter: how William of Occam overturned medieval thought

Astonishing where an idea can lead you. You start with something that 800 years hence will sound like it’s being taught at kindergarten: fathers are fathers, not because they are filled with some ‘essence of fatherhood’, but because they have children. Fast-forward a few years, and the Pope is trying to have you killed. Not only have you run roughshod over his beloved eucharist (justified, till then, by some very dodgy Aristotelian logic-chopping); you’re also saying there’s no ‘essence of kinghood’, either. If kings are only kings because they have subjects, then, said William of Occam, ‘power should not be entrusted to anyone without the consent of all’. Heady stuff

The myth of American freedom

Gstaad Imagine a beautiful, sexy woman, an Ava Gardner or a Lily James, with a wart on the end of her nose. It stands out, whereas on an ugly mien it would go almost unnoticed. Noise in stunning and peaceful surroundings disturbs more than it would in grating, jarring cities. Last week, on a gorgeous sunny afternoon, after yet another record snowfall, I was cross-country skiing and stopped for a picnic lunch with Lara and Patricia, two married friends of mine who had left me miles behind. They were using the new skating method of cross-country skiing (I remain traditional, gliding on the double track). A cloudless and very blue

Aristotle would have seen Trump’s behaviour as entirely normal

Donald Trump may be a narcissist, but since he is not mentally ill in the technical sense, he is not a pathological one. Aristotle would have seen him as entirely normal — a man driven by rage that the world does not see things his way. For Aristotle, a man becomes angry because of what has been, or will be, done to him. According to Aristotle, Trump’s current feelings would be that he has been belittled and humiliated in an election in which he was by far Joe Biden’s superior. The consequence of that, as Aristotle says, is anger: anger that Biden — whom Trump sees as e.g. ‘inferior, of

The internet is taking the joy out of quotations

‘Quotation (n.) — The act of repeating erroneously the words of another.’ Ambrose Bierce said that, or at least wrote it in the Devil’s Dictionary. That was in 1906, and those are words for the ages. In his Rhetoric, centuries before the birth of Christ, Aristotle identified one of the most common and effective ways of making an argument seem stronger. In his section on ‘proofs’ he talked about what he called ‘ancient witnesses’. By this he meant not only the testimony of witnesses such as you might call in court — but the witness borne by proverbs and quotations. Any speaker or writer can get an extra fillip of

How to deal with Brexit anger, according to the ancients

Sir Philip Pullman, tweeting that thoughts of hanging the PM came to mind after the decision to prorogue parliament, later drew back: ‘I don’t apologise for the anger I feel; only for its intemperate expression.’ The ancients were well aware that rage usually removed a man’s judgment and made him look an idiot. In his lengthy treatise on anger, defined as ‘a desire to avenge a wrong’, the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca argued against it on three grounds: it was unnecessary, learned behaviour; it did not lead to desirable conduct; and it made a man prone to violence. Take, for example, one’s reaction to wrongdoing. It needed to be dealt

Inside the animal mind

Whatever the government decides about post-EU regulations on animal sentience, the Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch (died c. ad 120) was fascinated by the comparisons between man and beast and, almost uniquely, argued for the ethical treatment of animals. Some earlier thinkers contended there was a ‘kinship’ between men and animals because animals had flesh, passions and (being alive) souls. Therefore man should neither eat nor sacrifice them. But then Aristotle (d. 322 bc), who invented the discipline of biology, stepped in. He agreed that animals had desires which caused them to behave in certain ways that looked human, but denied that this was evidence of the ability to reason.

The post-truth is out there

In a political ‘post-truth’ world, currently the subject of a slew of books, emotions and personal belief are said to shape opinion more than ‘objective’ fact. But as Aristotle pointed out in his Art of Rhetoric (4th century bc), there are facts only about the present and past; about the future, politics’ main concern, there are only interests and aspirations. Anyone who addressed the Assembly, he said, must know the facts about revenues — sources of income and expenditure, and where to spend and cut; about present and potential military strengths, and in what areas (and the same about other states, so as to know whom to attack and whom

Power and the middle class

The Labour party’s tagline for the forthcoming general election is: ‘For the many, not the few.’ Aristotle, who understood this as ‘For the poor, not the rich’, thought this a recipe for conflict and proposed a solution of which Mrs May would approve. Suspicious of monarchy, Aristotle favoured two styles of constitution: oligarchy and democracy. The problem was that both systems ran the risk of creating an inherently unstable state. In a democracy, the poor would be in control by sheer weight of numbers; in an oligarchy, the rich would gain control (presumably) by sheer weight of influence. In either case, the two, at opposite ends of the spectrum, would