to whom do the ancient Greeks belong?

There has been some valuable debate about the diversity of the authors on the syllabus of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies. A participant noted, in particular, that Aristotle is mentioned over and over again in the readings. Is that a sign that the scope of the authors is too narrow for the 21st century world?

It could be. My own views on that question are complex and unsettled. But I think it is worth thinking seriously about the identity of a person like Aristotle.

On one hand, he was (to use our terms) a white man. He spoke an Indo-European language and lived in a country that currently belongs to the EU; in fact, his countrymen invented the idea of “Europe” as distinct from “Asia.” He was the tutor of another white man, Alexander, who conquered Egypt, Mesopotamia, and northern India. Aristotle’s thought deeply influenced Greco-Roman civilization and then was grafted onto Western Christian thought (especially after 1100) so that he now provides core ideas for Catholicism and some of its Protestant offshoots. So he is quintessentially Western.

On the other hand, Aristotle lived in a culture strikingly remote from our own. If we are individualistic, materialistic, technocratic, and used to mass societies, he came from a world of tightly integrated, deeply pious, zealously communitarian city-states. He lived in the eastern Mediterranean, influencing and studying cultures in countries that we now call the “Middle East.” The idea of whiteness had yet to be invented in his era. His thought arrived in the Christian world via Islamic authors who had made heavy use of him while hardly anyone in what we now call “the West” knew anything about him. The main entry point for his thought into the Catholic world was the Spain of the “tres culturas” (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism). Today, he is more likely to be studied deeply in Shiite Iran or in a Catholic seminary in Bolivia than in the United States.

I do not dismiss the argument that a syllabus in which most of the authors refer to Aristotle is too narrow. But I do dispute the idea that Aristotle is somehow “ours” (where “we” are Westerners) and doesn’t also belong to the rest of the world.

See also Jesus was a person of coloravoiding the labels of East and Westwhen East and West were oneon modernity and the distinction between East and West.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.