Adopt a philosopher

There are bestselling authors and there are popular intellectuals, household names, influencers and other voguish individuals. Names that everyone talks about, faces that everybody knows. Even those who don’t know wouldn’t admit not to know. Names that might come and go, but as they come, and stay for a while, they shape the conversation, and, if they stay long enough, have the potential to shape the culture at large.

Culturally popular individuals tend to become popular pretty quickly. Every culture needs a meteor shower, figures that cut across like shooting stars, illuminating the scene. In the history of the West, no name was ever more meteoric than Aristotle, and no rise in fame was so sudden, so vigorous, so widespread and so influential than Aristotle’s was in the Middle Ages.

It’s a well-rehearsed story, but let’s rehearse it again. With the fall of imperial Rome and its cultural, economic and educational structures, many works of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers ceased to circulate, slowly falling into oblivion. By the early medieval period (6-10th centuries AD), most of Aristotle’s works were simply absent from the Western market. The litterati of the age knew who Aristotle was, could even find a few of his works in manuscript, but they didn’t care much about it. The Greek philosopher’s traction in European scholarship and science was at a historic low. Then contact with the Muslim world, in Spain and in the Holy Land, changed everything. Unlike the West, the Byzantine and especially Muslim East had preserved Aristotle’s works, many in Arabic translation. And by the 12th century, many Latin scholars began translating them into Latin, bringing Aristotle back into the West.

Aristotle was rediscovered, and, like someone finding a bottle of strong bourbon in a dry county, everyone got really drunk on his ideas. By the 13th century and with the advent of scholasticism, no name was more popular in European schools and universities than Aristotle’s. Most school curricula were updated to include the latest translations of Aristotle’s works, and the philosopher was simply referred to as The Philosopher, philosophus, a name whose plainness concealed Aristotle’s unchallenged domination.

By the mid 13th century, the ecclesiastical authorities were already gauging Aristotle’s disruptive potential and tried to condemn some of his works. But it was too late, the viral philosophus had become too viral to stem. And for several centuries afterwards, no statement in science, philosophy and scholarship could ever avoid a reference to his name.

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