Aristotle in Hypertext

One of my favorite moments in teaching the history of science are the days when we discuss an assigned reading by Aristotle, and half the students are looking through the text on their phones. I love the juxtaposition of ancient text and modern technology.


This experience got me thinking about how students today, or maybe more specifically, the students I have in my classes who are, for the most part, science majors rather than history or history of science or philosophy majors, interact with Aristotle. As anyone who teaches Aristotle is surely aware, he’s not an easy read! Perhaps a problem particular to history of science is that Aristotle’s views of the cosmos have long since been replaced by modern scientific concepts like the periodic table of the elements, gravity, and Linnaean taxonomy. By contrast, many of Aristotle’s ideas on philosophy, politics, ethics and morality are still deemed relevant to the contemporary world. Aristotle’s “scientific work” (or less anachronistically, his natural philosophical work) can look hopelessly outdated and can be very difficult for students, especially science students, to see as rational and informed by observation and experience. My students are inclined to want to dismiss Aristotle as “superstitious” and irrational, and as basing his ideas on very limited data about the natural world. While I certainly believe in the periodic table and not in earth, air, fire and water, I need them to see Aristotle as both a rational and a quite sophisticated thinker. If they don’t, then his long influence on science is hard to explain as anything other than blind following of authority.   As a teacher, I try to help students understand Aristotle’s views of the natural world, and how they provided a very coherent and logical explanation of an extensive set of empirical data.

But I’d also like to recapture the dynamism and interactive nature of Aristotle’s own teaching. Many of the texts of Aristotle that we have today originated as teaching notes or aids for his students. Although students today often find reading Aristotle difficult – and tedious! – in his own day he was a popular teacher. He was famous for teaching outside while walking, earning him the sobriquet, “the Peripatetic.” Aristotle did not just recite his ideas to his students. He talked through his ideas with them. He paused for questions. He stopped and asked students questions to test their understanding. And with more advanced students who were beginning to develop their own ideas, he undoubtedly argued.  The dynamic and interactive character of Aristotle’s teaching is key to understanding his incredibly long influence. Aristotle’s readers in the Middle Ages and early modern period, in both Europe and the Islamic world, never saw his ideas as fixed and static. They interacted with these ideas – they clarified them, they applied them to new situations, they modified them, they expanded upon them, and sometimes they flat out contradicted them.

As an attempt to achieve both these goals (that is, to facilitate understanding of Aristotle’s natural philosophy as well as to promote an interactive engagement with his ideas), I decided to create an interactive, hypertext version of a portion of Aristotle’ book On the Heavens. I enlisted the aid of my colleague Peter Barker, who has far more expertise in ancient cosmology than I do. We used excerpts of Aristotle’s De caelo (On the Heavens) translated by J. L. Stocks. (We used portions of the text that Professor Barker has been using in his undergraduate courses on the history of science.) We used a program called Twine, which is “an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories” (according their website). Twine is designed to be VERY easy to use, and does not require any knowledge of coding. The Twine website has links to multiple tutorials, all of which can be completed in a matter of hours. Twine was really designed to create interactive fiction, a hypertext version of those old “choose your own adventure books” some of us may remember from childhood. It can also be used to create games, where players have to work their way through a particular quest, and can earn points and move up levels. (The Twine website has examples of stories and games built with Twine.) We decided to use this program to create an interactive, hypertext version of Aristotle for our students.

One difficulty our students frequently encounter with Aristotle is the order in which he presents his material. Rather than beginning with his own ideas, he starts with the opinions of his predecessors, and then proceeds to critique their ideas. Then he outlines his own ideas and explains why they are superior. Our Twine Aristotle can be read in this order, but if students prefer, they can read about Aristotle’s own ideas first and then go back to his criticisms of earlier work. Further, we have broken the text up into bite-size chunks, and added in some further explanation, and sometimes images, to help students grasp Aristotle’s ideas about the universe. As they read each passage, they can decide whether they need more explanation, or whether they want to move on through the text. If they want more explanation, they click on the question that begins, “Wait, please explain to us . . .” This takes them to a more extended discussion of Aristotle’s point. This explanatory text was written by us.  If they don’t need the added explanation, they just click on the question that begins, “Please continue.”

We have each tried this out in classes once, but have yet to do any kind of systematic analysis of how students use this (do they choose to read it in a different order? how many of the explanations do they read? do students who read the Twine understand Aristotle better than those who read the conventional text?). However, we’d like to make our Twine available to other users and would welcome thoughts and feedback.  You can find it here on Professor Barker’s course website for HSCI 1113.

Given the ease of using Twine, I also intend in subsequent classes to have groups of students work to create their own Twines of primary sources, complete with explanatory material like what we have created for Aristotle, and then to have other students in the class use and critique these Twine texts. I am hoping this will encourage the very close reading and discussion of primary texts that is a hallmark of historical analysis.

Faces of Aristotle

In my introduction to the course, I discussed Raphael’s painting “The School of Athens,” in which Aristotle is one of the two central figures. We will be spending a considerable amount of time in this course discussing the works of Aristotle, in the subject areas of astronomy, meteorology, physics and biology. In fact, we will spend more time examining Aristotle and his influence than any other figure in this course. However, the Aristotle that you will encounter in this history of science course is not the Aristotle you would encounter in a philosophy course or a political science course. We will focus on a few selected works by Aristotle on a relatively narrow range of topics given Aristotle’s total output. Further, there is a huge gap between the actual flesh and blood man named Aristotle who lived in Athens over two thousand years ago – a person we can only know in a fragmentary way through his extant writings and some archaeological evidence – and historical reconstructions of Aristotle. I say “historical reconstructionS” (plural), because there are and have been many many different historical reconstructions of Aristotle. In different times and places people have imagined who Aristotle was and why he was important in very different ways.

Last week we explored some of these different ways of imaging Aristotle. We began by looking at one of the most common images of Aristotle in the modern Western world. A Google image search on “Aristotle” pulls up dozens of versions of this image:

"Aristotle Altemps Inv8575" by Copy of Lysippus - Jastrow (2006). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Wikimedia Commons.

This bust is a Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippus, ca. 330 BCE. I think the fact that this is the first and most common image of Aristotle that pops up on a Google search suggests that we in modern America tend to see Aristotle as a venerable, ancient, historical figure. We see him as very far removed in time from us – the marble bust is not nearly as lifelike as the richly imagined, colorful figure in Raphael’s painting. Further, we tend to associate Aristotle with a number of fields that have been (and to a large extend continue to be) predominantly white and male: science, philosophy, and politics. (I judge this in part by the types of websites that use this particular image of Aristotle.) And yet, this is not, historically the only way of imagining Aristotle or the only way of assessing his importance. I asked students to explore different ways of imaging Aristotle by finding images of Aristotle from a range of periods and contexts.  Each of the five discussion groups selected a different image of Aristotle and discussed possible meaning of this image. Each group selected a different image – and to my relief, no two groups picked the same image! The five groups picked widely varying images in different media, by different artists and from different time periods.  I’ve arranged them here in chronological order, along with some of the information and links each group found.

1) This image was contributed by Zachary Connor, Sofia Buscarini, Lindsey Hamilton, Bryce Corlee, Nicole Palmeter, Benjamin Kraft and Cameron Owens.

British Library MS Or.2784, folio 96r.

British Library MS Or.2784, folio 96r.

This is an illumination from an Arabic manuscript produced in Baghdad in the first half of the thirteenth century. It depicts Aristotle (on the right) instructing Alexander the Great (on the left).  The manuscript itself is a compilation of Aristotle’s works on animals together with works by the Syrian physician ‘Ubayd Allah ibn Bakhtishu. It is titled The Description and Uses of Animals, and it is currently held by the British Library in London (MS Or.2784, folio 96r). The artist is unknown. The group noted that this depiction of Aristotle in a medieval Arabic manuscript indicates his and his fellow Greeks’ influence on the approach to science in Islamic culture. They further noted the interesting detail that Aristotle is positioned slightly higher than Alexander the Great, perhaps indicating the very high esteem philosophy and Aristotle were held in the Islamic world.






2) These images were contributed by Conrad Young, Taylor Greene, Brandon Curd, Jason Troy, Kiley Poppino, Matt Banks, Michael Rath, John Stacy and Addie Bickerstaff.


Hans Baldung Grien, "Phyllis and Aristotle"(1503), held in Louvre.  Wikimedia Commons.

Hans Baldung Grien, “Phyllis and Aristotle”(1503), held in Louvre. Wikimedia Commons.

Hans Baldung Grien, "Phyllis and Aristotle" (1513). Wikimedia Commons.

Hans Baldung Grien, “Phyllis and Aristotle” (1513). Wikimedia Commons.


Aquamanile in the Form of Aristotle and Phyllis, Southern Netherlands, late 14th or early 15th century. Metropolitan Museum Of Art.


All of them depict the apocryphal story of Aristotle and Phyllis, a popular tale in the late Middle Ages and early modern period. There are some different variations of this story, but the basic gist is that Phyllis is the wife or mistress of Aristotle’s student Alexander the Great. In one version, Aristotle tells Alexander to refrain from sexual intercourse, and in retaliation, Phyllis seduces Aristotle, telling him that she will have sex with him if he will get down on all fours like a beast and let her ride him. The group thought that these images humanized Aristotle, commonly regarded as the father of Western philosophy. These images – which portray a woman using her powers of seduction to overcome the male intellect – may also reflect changing ideas about women and gender in this period.  For more images of this story, click here.  For a nice thought piece on this story, see Justin Smith’s blog.

3) This image was contributed by Zachary Smith, Eric Lopez, Austin Dickerson, Sam Black, Drew Bonham, Michael McQuaid, Justin Thrash, Sage Ranallo and Justin Mullins.

Jusepe de Ribera, "Aristotle" (1637).  Wikimedia Commons.

Jusepe de Ribera, “Aristotle” (1637). Wikimedia Commons.

This is a painting of Aristotle produced in 1637 by the Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera.  It is currently in the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  It was one of six in a series commissioned for the Prince of Lichtenstein, all of which were ancient philosophers. The group pointed out that Ribera has depicted Aristotle in contemporary dress, rather than historical garb. Also, he holds a book and paper (two inventions that came long after Aristotle’s lifetime!). Ribera’s perception of Aristotle is that of an impoverished philosopher (note the torn sleeve), something that in the time period was becoming more prominent – very much akin to the “starving artist image” now. Perhaps his implication was that philosophers are not motivated by money. If you zoom in on the image, you can see that the top paper under Aristotle’s hand contains the artist’s signature. The paper below this appears to contain geometrical diagrams.




4) This image was contributed by Wamika Kumar, Vanessa Maynard, Kim Brooks, Courtlan Roland, Tanner Linn, Nathan McGuffey, Jessica Caballero and Morgan Blodgett.

Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer" (1653).  Wikimedia Commons.

Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer” (1653). Wikimedia Commons.


This is a painting titled “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.” It was painted by the Dutch artist Rembrandt Van Rijn in 1653 for a Sicilian nobleman and art collector named Don Antonio Ruffo. The painting is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The group states that the image has been interpreted in different ways by scholars. Some argue that the image depicts Aristotle looking at the bust of Homer, envying his work. Another argument is that since Aristotle’s right hand (the dominant hand) is on top of the bust of Homer’s head, and his left hand is in the dark holding a golden chain, Rembrandt implies that knowledge (hand on brain) is more important than wealth (the hand with the golden chain in the dark). There are some interesting similarities with the Ribera image painted just a few years earlier. Rembrandt’s Aristotle, like Ribera’s, is dressed in contemporary fashion, and the theme of the superiority of knowledge to wealth may be present in both. However, note how splendidly Rembrandt’s Aristotle is dressed, with the enormous puffy silky sleeves and the heavy gold chain.  This is a far cry from the tattered robes on Ribera’s Aristotle!  For a great spoof of this image, see “Arisfroggle Contemplating the Bust of a Twerp.”

5) This image was contributed by Daniel Chamberlain, Jacob Moore, Ryan Fransen, Jacob Curtis, Laine Abernathy, Jessica Robertson, Carlos Ybarra, James Johnson and Collin Wade.

Francesco Hayez, "Aristotle" (1811).  Wikimedia Commons.

Francesco Hayez, “Aristotle” (1811). Wikimedia Commons.

This is a painting of Aristotle from 1811 by the Italian artist Francesco Hayez. He painted this while in Rome (1809-1814). It is currently in the Galleria dell’ Academia in Venice, Italy. Venice was Hayez’s hometown. In the painting, Hayez shows Aristotle deep in contemplation. Unlike the other four images of Aristotle, where he is shown in contemporary dress, Hayez portrays Aristotle in classical garb. The group suggests that by painting Aristotle in an ancient costume, Hayez depicts him more of a person from the past (rather like our picture of Aristotle today, as represented by the bust at the beginning of this post.) He’s someone in the pages of a history book, not a person whose work is still relevant. This could show the progression of modern thinking in Italy and Rome around the beginning of the nineteenth century.


If anyone has further information or thoughts on any of these images, or has more images of Aristotle to contribute, please comment!