As we have heard countless times in the current attempt to make sense of verbal diarrhea emanating from the White House, WORDS MATTER.
As part of the Distinguished Visiting Lecture series at the University of Texas Humanities Institute, Dr. Emily Greenwood gave an address where she “looked at the granular level of words” in the works of Aristotle.
Greenwood, chair of the Dept. of Classics at Yale, explained that “philology is not merely instrumental in understanding human history: it is a study of how language makes the human.” The crux of her talk was to explain “a willful anti-human error in Aristotle,” namely his description of slaves as an “animate piece of property.”
She said that “Aristotle justifies this with his notorious story of human slavery. In the view of many scholars, Aristotle’s views on slavery are an embarrassment.” In the Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle wrote “a slave is as it were a member or tool of his master, a tool is a sort of inanimate slave.”
This is an example, she says, showing how Aristotle uses similes and metaphors interchangeably. Here, Greenwood notes, “Aristotle is relying on powerful fictions to do the work of argument. Metaphor is used to smuggle in the error of the slave as a living tool.”
If it were just a philosophical argument from 2,500 years ago , it would hold interest only for those who study classical Greece, but Greenwood reminded her audience that “his theory of slave holding was applied by the Spaniards in early America.”
A member of the audience at the University of Texas asked Greenwood “what does it mean to call this an embarrassment in Aristotle’s thought?” Greenwood responded with a personal story, saying “I started learning classics in Malawi.” In 1981, President Hastings Banda of that African country “founded the Kamuzu Academy based on the idea of Plato, and he appropriated three-fifths of the education budget of the country for it. Banda was so enslaved by the Colonial mentality that he only hired Europeans to teach there, including my father.”
By terming the Academy an “embarrassing educational project”, Greenwood expressed what in German is known as fremdschaemen: displaced embarrassment. Banda told the students “I want you to have the best education,” but Greenwood views it “as an embarrassment engendered by Classical ideology.”
The Academy, which still functions as a private school, now has only a fraction of its faculty from the United Kingdom. Most are from Malawi itself. As a microcosm of ancient thought and the Colonial legacy, it is a fine test-bed for deciding whether or not you find Aristotle an embarrassment.
Photo by Dr. C. Cunningham