Cleopatra VII: Alchemist, Scientist and Philosopher

New texts may reveal another story behind the legend of the beautiful seductress Cleopatra. Has history done her a terrible injustice?  Copyright image by Decoded Past, all rights reserved.

New texts may reveal another story behind the legend of the beautiful seductress Cleopatra. Has history done her a terrible injustice? Copyright image by Decoded Past, all rights reserved.

When we think of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, (69 BC – 30 BC) a mental image of a smouldering seductress comes to mind, a seductress with blue-black curtains of hair fringing her face, and vivid kohl-lined eyes.

It is possible this is all just a fallacy cooked up by her enemies. “All our current knowledge comes from enemy sources,” says Okasha El Daly, author of a book claiming that the entire Cleopatra hype has its roots based in Roman propaganda. “The Romans were scornful of her and wanted to portray her as this sexy little thing.”

However, another classics expert, Professor Mary Lefkowitz, speaking to News Discovery, insisted that, on the contrary, the Romans actually admired Cleopatra, although they were afraid of her power. Clearly, the experts are divided in this matter.

“Besides being a scientist, Cleopatra was also ‘a brilliant early mathematician, chemist and philosopher who wrote science books and met weekly with a team of scientific experts,'” says the website News Discovery. El Daly’s book also claims the amazing Cleopatra studied gynaecology.

The Other Cleopatras

Research indicates that many princesses of the Ptomelaic dynasty bore the name Cleopatra, so it is not certain that the texts we use to define her refer exclusively to the same person.

I am not sure of the accuracy of the following information about the other Cleopatras, as sources conflict in their findings, or are incomplete. At best this may serve as a useful overview. In between the “Cleopatras,” there are differently named queens.

These are the birth/death dates of the queens, not the dates of their reign.

Cleopatra I lived from 204 BC – 176 BC.

Cleopatra II lived from 185 BC – 116 BC.

Cleopatra III lived from 161 BC- 101 BC.

Cleopatra IV was born in 132 BC and Cleopatra V in 95 BC. Some experts claims that Cleopatra V and VI were one and the same. It appears that Cleopatra VI may have been the older sister of Cleopatra VII.

The famous Cleopatra VII who loved two great soldiers, Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, was the daughter of Ptolomy XII and became co-regent with her 10-year-old brother Ptolomy XIII when their father died.

Cleopatra committed suicide rather than allow Octavius to parade her in chains through Rome, a shameful and humiliating fate for a proud Queen. The traditional story is that she committed suicide through a live snake’s venom, but it would be virtually impossible to kill three people – herself and two handmaidens – with a single snake. Some historians believe it is more likely she took drugs or poison.

The Real Cleopatra VII

So who and what was Cleopatra VII, the real woman who actually lived and breathed somewhere behind the myth? Impressions, which a mainly victors-written history foists on us, are changing with the new evidence. This evidence indicates that the most famous Cleopatra of all was no seductress, but a gifted scientist and a wise philosopher. If this is so, then the reality is truly even more fascinating than the myth.

Okasha El Daly wrote Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arab Writings, which University College, London, published in January 2013. El Daly himself translated and analysed the Arab texts. News Discovery quotes:

“El Daly attributes the first Arab account of Cleopatra as a scientist to Al-Masudi, who died in 956 AD. In his book Muruj, Al-Masudi wrote of Cleopatra, ‘She was a sage, a philosopher who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company. She also wrote books on medicine, charms and cosmetics, in addition to many other books ascribed to her which are known to those who practice medicine.'”

Her political achievement as Queen of Egypt was considerable, since the country was in a bad way when her father died in 51 BC. Bold Cleopatra took the reins of power over a bankrupt country already engaged in civil war, and she proved herself to be an “astute politician,” says the BBC article “Cleopatra, 60 BC – 30 BC.”


Historians believe the coins of the time, like this one photographed at the British Museum in 2009, show a truer likeness of Queen Cleopatra than the more representational statues and portraits. Image by PHGCOM

While doing her best to strengthen the economy, and succeeding, she also managed to prevent her enemies, the Romans, from taking over Egypt.

Cleopatra, Victim of Roman Propaganda

Cleopatra was neither beautiful nor promiscuous, says Joyce Tyldesley in her book Cleopatra, Last Queen of Egypt. Tyldesley says portraits of Cleopatra are not reliable or accurate, and are only representations meant to convey queenly attributes. It is difficult to access an accurate likeness of Cleopatra, as Tyldesley explains:

“People tend to think that her coins are more life-like and if you look at them, she’s not particularly beautiful, as she has a big nose and chin. But then, how accurate can a coin portrait be?”

News Discovery quotes El Daly who agrees with Tyldesley.

“El Daly pointed out that coins depicted her as actually being a very plain woman who was not a beauty ‘in any conventional sense.'”

It seems those ancient artists and historians were familiar with the insidious art of airbrushing! I believe they preferred to make the woman a sexy trollop rather than a philosopher, because it felt a whole lot safer that way!

It’s unlikely Cleopatra had more than two lovers, Mark Antony and Julius Caesar.

Cleopatra: Scientist, Inventor, Architect?

During Cleopatra’s time it wasn’t unusual for women to hold high positions in medicine, science and astronomy, in which she excelled. Her skills embraced expertise in such diverse area as cosmetics and gynaecology.

The following except from Anne Zaccadelli’s article quoting Duane W. Roller’s book Cleopatra, can be found on the Oxford University Press Blog:

“Cleopatra was a writer; she wrote a medical treatise called ‘Cosmetics.’ It may have been called ‘Cosmetics’ but this was no Cosmo article. It was a medical and pharmacological work including several remedies for hair loss and dandruff.”

El Daly, in The Missing Millenium, believes “…the earliest Arabic book to mention Cleopatra, a history of Egypt by the Egyptian bishop John of Nikiou, says the queen’s building projects in Alexandria were ‘the like of which had never been seen before.'”

El Daly continues:

“Yet another Arab historian, Ibn Ab Al-Hakam, credits one of the greatest structures of the ancient world, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, to Cleopatra… It was not just a lighthouse to guide ships, it was a magnificent telescope and it had a huge lens that could burn the oncoming ships of enemies that were going to attack Egypt.”


When Cleopatra came to power, Egypt was bankrupt and locked in civil war. Cleopatra strengthened the economy and brought peace to the land. Image by lisasolonynko.

Cleopatra – The Dark Side of a Powerful Queen

Historians believe that, in order to gain and maintain her exalted position as Queen, Cleopatra murdered – at least – two of her siblings. A brother was found drowned in the Nile shortly before she became Queen, but I feel we cannot be sure that his sister instigated his death.

Archaeologists discovered the skeleton of her younger sister, Arsinoe, in a tomb in Turkey in 2009. Arsinoe lived from 63 BC to 41 BC so she was only twenty-two years old when someone murdered her. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, once Cleopatra had secured the affections of her lover, Mark Antony, she persuaded him to execute Arsinoe.

In the end, we are left wondering, and forced against our will, to suspend judgement although it is tempting to read between the lines. We will never know for certain the entire truth about this amazing royal woman of antiquity and mystique, a mystique that goes way beyond the cute hairstyle and sexy pout with which we identify Cleopatra today.

Cleopatra VII was a strong, clever and powerful women who was good for her country for a time. It appears that she was also a woman who would stop at nothing to get exactly what she wanted.

Moses Maimonides: Philosopher and Court Physician


Spanish philosopher Maimonides was a great thinker, theologian and physician who lived a turbulent life. Image by Blaisie Ugolino (1744).

Spanish-born philosopher, Moses Maimonides lived from 1135 (or 1138) to 1204 and earned a reputation as a highly skilled physician later in life. At the beginning of his career, however, he felt torn between choosing to follow Greek philosophy or applying himself to the teaching of the Jewish religion. Rabbi Maimonides refused to accept some literal interpretations of the Bible, causing more orthodox Jews to criticise and to ban him.

In the article “Moses Maimonides (Rambam),” Joseph Telushkin says:

“Philosophically, Maimonides was a religious rationalist. His damning attacks on people who held ideas he regarded as primitive — those, for example, who understood literally such biblical expressions as ‘the finger of God’ so infuriated his opponents that they proscribed parts of his code and all of ‘The Guide to the Perplexed.'”

The Duty of Every Jew

Maimonides is, however, firm in what he regards as essential elements of true belief. Kenneth Seeskin’s article “Maimonides” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, says:

“Maimonides lists 13 principles that he considers binding on every Jew: the existence of God, the absolute unity of God, the incorporeality of God, the eternity of God, that God alone is to be worshipped, that God communicates to prophets, that Moses is the greatest prophet, that the Torah was given by God, that the Torah is immutable, that there is divine providence, that there is divine punishment and reward, that there will be a Messiah, that the dead will be resurrected.”

How can a philosopher who makes such a strong and prescriptive statement endorse a negative theology?

A Negative Theology – “Via Negative”

According to Maimonides, it is only possible to explain God by using negative attributes, i/e what He is not.

Jeremy Harwood explains:

“It would be incorrect, for instance, to say that He exists; all that can be safely said is that He is not non-existent. Maimonides concluded that what he termed God’s ‘essence’ was  indefinable and unknowable.”

It is easy to understand that such ambiguous statements did not make the great Jewish intellectual popular with his more conservative peers.

Kenneth Seeskin explains that Maimonides’ theology “…departs from Aristotelian thought by emphasizing the limits of human knowledge and the questionable foundations of significant parts of astronomy and metaphysics.”

Maimonides: A Turbulent Life


This is a statue of Maimonides in Cordoba, his birthplace. Image by Tomisti.

Maimonides was born in Cordoba in Spain, according to the BBC in the article “Moses Maimonides philosopher.” He lived in Spain at a time when Jews and Christians co-habited together in peace under Muslim rule. But in 1148, the puritanical Almahados invaded the country, forcing Maimonides and his family to flee due to religious persecution. 

The Almahados were fanatical members of a Muslim dynasty in Spain and North Africa in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. There was widespread rioting and the Almahados destroyed many synagogues.

The family escaped to Fez in Morocco. Since there is ambiguity about Maimonides’ date of birth, he was either ten years old, or thirteen years old, when he left his country of birth.

Five years later, he settled in Egypt where he remained for the rest of his life. For some time, his brother, David, helped to support him. Tragically, as David Zakikowski explains in his article “Maimonides, His Life and Works,” over a span of two years from 1166 on, Maimonides’ father, wife and two sons all died. Then, in 1171, his brother David, the family’s main means of support, died of drowning en route to India.

If all these terrible events were not enough, Maimonides now had no means of supporting himself, because rabbis were not paid. Therefore, Maimonides decided to train as a physician.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he became the official physician of Saladin’s vizier, although most other sources, including the BBC, Jeremy Harwood and the Jewish Virtual Library, claim he was physician to Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria.

Possibly, Maimonides started out as physician to the vizier and was then promoted — but it is not possible to be certain from the material available.

Maimonides’ Major Works

Maimonides first important work was The Treatise on the Art of Logic. Then, in 1168, he produced a compendium of Jewish law based on the Torah. These 14 volumes were entitled The Mishnah Torah, and from its publication, this work established him as one of the world’s great thinkers.

His major philosophic work, The Guide to the Perplexed, addresses the philosopher’s struggle between philosophy and religion and seeks to resolve the conflict between religious and secular knowledge:

“It took the form of a letter of advice written to one of his students who was unable to decide whether to follow the precepts of Greek philosophy or to abide strictly by the teachings of the Jewish religion… despite the teachings of Aristotle whom he deeply admired, there were fundamental limits to the extent of human knowledge.”

He concludes truths established through human reason could not contradict God’s revelations.


Although he was born in Spain, Maimonides fled to Egypt where he trained to become a physician. Image by embalu.

 Minor Works

At sixteen years old, Maimonides wrote a guide to the proper use of linguistic terms in religion. Later, in his role as physician in Saladin’s court, he also wrote about the causes of diseases and how to cure them.

Maimonides’ Legacy

According to Jeremy Harwood, Moses Maimonides was responsible for re-introducing Aristotelian ideas into Western philosophy and for his attempts to reconcile conflict and contradictions between philosophical ideas and the contents of the Bible:

“His work proved to be remarkably influential on later thinkers, including St. Thomas Aquinas, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Liebniz and Sir Isaac Newton.” 

The Jewish Virtual Library link in the article resources accesses an excellent biography containing a personal account of Maimonides’ daily life in court as a physician. It is too lengthy to introduce here without infringing copyright, but is a fascinating glimpse into the life of his great Jewish philosopher and well worth a visit.

This tolerant and wise religious leader was open to Arab and Greek thought and did not believe that true prophecy was confined only to the Jews. He was also ready to find similarities and to refute contradictions between the ancient Greeks and the Jewish traditions.

Despite the rejection and criticism Maimonides suffered during his lifetime, Maimonides had an enormous influence on future philosophical thought.

Thales of Miletus, Philosopher and the World’s First Natural Scientist


Thales believed that the earth floated on an underlying sea and subterranean waves caused earthquakes. Image by Ernst Wallis et al.

Thales of Melitus (c. 620 B.C.-c. 540 B.C.) is famous for being the first philosopher to seek rational explanations for natural phenomena. He favoured a materialistic approach rather than relying on theology or myth.

Thales’ major project was to figure out the materials that make up the earth, and he came to the conclusion that everything we know is derived from water.

Unfortunately, his logic did not lead him in the right direction. Perhaps, in spite of his logical approach, the Greek myth of Poseidon had some bearing on his thought, as there is some similarity between that myth and Thales’ actual conclusion.

Will Bouwman in “Philosophy’s Roots and Branches,” says, “[Poseidon] would wreak havoc by stamping the sea floor petulantly.”

Thales believed that the “earth floated on an underlying sea, and earthquakes occurred when the earth was rocked by subterranean waves,” claims Jeremy Harwood in “Thales of Melitus.”

Thales also realised that water became vapour when it evaporated and that freezing made it solid. This was enough to convince him that water was the single, fundamental element of the natural world.

In spite of his faulty logic, Thales achieved great things through his many interests. Harwood describes him as follows: “…a noted astronomer, geographer, mathematician and engineer; he was also a shrewd businessman who made a fortune out of olives.”

Thales also inspired future philosophers, notably Anaximander, Pythagoras and Parmenides.

Thales: Early Life

We don’t know much about Thales’ early life, although there are many unsubstantiated, conflicting accounts. Miletus, his birth place, was in Asia Minor, and was a “busy Aegean maritime port at the mouth of the River Meander, from which we get the verb,” says Will Bouwman in “Philosophy’s Roots and Branches.” 

Bertrand Russell in “The Milesian School,” describes Miletus as “…a flourishing, commercial city, in which there was a large slave population, and a bitter class struggle between the rich and poor among the free population.”

Russell indicates that this was a violent and tyrannical society during the sixth and seventh centuries B.C.

As a young man born into a noble family, Thales was probably sent to Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and Egypt for his education.

Thales and the Eclipse

We can produce accurate dates for Thales’ contribution to philosophy. In “The Rise of Greek Civilization” in his “History of Western Philosophy,” Bertrand Russell says:

“Philosophy began with Thales, who, fortunately, can be dated by the fact that he predicted an eclipse, which, according to the astronomers, occurred in the year 585 B.C. Philosophy and science – which were not originally separate – were therefore born together at the beginning of the sixth century.”


Thales predicted an eclipse of the sun in c.585 B.C. Image by Efi21.

However, later in “Early Greek Mathematics and Astronomy,” Russell maintains that the Egyptians and Babylonians laid the foundations for astronomy and geometry and predicted a cycle of eclipses.

He claims that these foreign influences enabled Thales to predict this particular eclipse; “…there is no reason to suppose that he added anything to what he learnt from Egyptian or Babylonian sources, and it was a stroke of luck that his prediction was verified.”  

Thales and the Pyramid

I cannot guarantee that this story is authentic, but it’s a charming one and it seems likely it is true, since Thales was an expert in geometry and in problem-solving.

Bertrand Russell relates how Thales was in Egypt and the king allegedly asked him to judge the height of a pyramid.

“He waited for the time of day when his shadow was as long as it was tall; he then measured the shadow of the pyramid, which was, of course, equal to its height.”

Matter is Alive, Says Thales, and the Primordial Substance is Water

In Thales’ view, water, not the gods, gave birth to the world. The gods had no control over the world, which was alive and which changed, grew and developed of its own accord. “Thus Thales formulated the first naturalistic explanation of the cosmos,” says Will Bouwman.

To prove that matter is alive, Thales came up with two novel examples: firstly, magnets and secondly, amber.

Magnets have the power to attract other items such as iron or steel through a magnetic field. Amber, explains Bouwman, “…when rubbed with fur like children rub balloons on their jumpers will be charged with enough electricity to make your hair stand on end.” (The Greek world for amber is “electron.”)

These two examples encouraged Thales to reach his final conclusion.

“Thales believed the primordial water metamorphosed into earth, to air, to fire, creating the universe we are familiar with – much as the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had envisaged, but, as he was now committed to explaining events without the intervention of the gods, he tried to show how what happened could be attributed to natural causes,” explains Bouwman.

I cannot help but feel that Thales found inspiration from the myth of Poseidon for his “world floating on an underlying sea being rocked by huge waves” theory, but to his credit, he does not mention this scary god in his hypothesis.

Bouwman tells another charming story about Thales, that he was so busy studying the stars, he fell into a well, or maybe it was a ditch.

Thales: Questions, Mistakes, and False Assumptions

It is hard to say which stories are true and which stories are merely fanciful anecdotes, but what is certain is that Thales, for all his mistakes and false assumptions, questioned and speculated and got the whole philosophy show on the road, inspiring others to pit their wits against his and advance their own scientific and philosophical theories.

Thales’ ideas, says Bouwman “…could be challenged and tested in the ways that the whim of divine beings could not.”

That is why we regard Thales as the world’s first great Philosopher of Science.

George Santayana – The Poet Philosopher on Beauty and Love


George Santayana says there is no source of all things, just a succession of different complexities. Image by: User talk:Óðinn

Santayana (1863-1952) whose full name was Jorge Agustin Nicolas Ruiz de Santayana y Borras was a Spanish-born philosopher who made an enormous impact on American philosophical thinking. Despite this, his entire persona seems to be riddled with contradictions.

Tim Madigan in Philosophy Now describes Santayana as an atheistic philosopher, which seems, at first glance, a contradiction in terms.

Santayana, the Catholic – Santayana the Atheist

How is it possible for a philosopher to be both an atheist and a Catholic? Is it possible that two such strong doctrines could get along together? Bertrand Russell in History of Western Philosophy, explains that Santayana was drawn to religion from aesthetic and historical viewpoints, but he did not appreciate it as a moral inspiration.

Simply put, he disbelieved the dogma, but if other people believed it, that was fine with Santayana, who enjoyed and appreciated what he regarded as the Christian myth.

This apparent instability in his logic attracted a great deal of criticism from his peers, and William James described his doctoral thesis as “the perfection of rottenness,” says Russell.

Understandably, the the two philosopher did not get along, and Santayana never came to terms with James’ rubbishing of his thesis. Bertrand Russell explains that William James was deeply offended by Santayana’s free-thinking, which he regarded as immoral.

Philosophers Should Celebrate What Makes Life Worth Living

Santayana’s approach embraces and links together literature, religion and philosophy. His scope is wide-ranging, encompassing poetry, novel-writing, essay-writing and literary criticism.

He believes that creativity inspires human endeavour and that there is a natural basis for all things. Santayana proposes four major realms of being, which are essence, matter, spirit and truth. Matthew Caleb Flamm, in his article George Santayana, defines essence as equivalent to ideals, while matter is the natural ground for the ideals.

“Knowledge,” explains Jeremy Harwood in 100 Great Thinkers, “was a compound of conviction, animal faith and intuitive essence.”

In Santayana’s world, the usefulness of beliefs depends on how much they add to human happiness, while culture must be in harmony with the environment. A true sceptic, he is always doubting. Harwood quotes Santayana: “Perhaps there is no source of things at all, the simple form from which they are evolved, but only an endless succession of different complexities.

Most importantly, Santayana is a naturalist, and believes that it is the task of the philosopher to celebrate whatever gives value to our lives and makes them worth living.

Hermann Saatkamp and Martin Coleman quote Santayana in their article “George Santayana” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Cultivate imagination, love it, give it endless forms, but do not let it deceive you. Enjoy the world, travel over it, and learn its ways, but do not let it hold you …”

Santayana on Beauty and Love

In 1896, Santayana published his work Sense of Beauty based on a series of lectures he delivered as a Harvard professor between 1892 and 1893. This work is a history of both theory and aesthetics. The article “George Santayana” published by The Poetry Foundation, explains: “….his intent is to demonstrate the relationship between human judgements and developed taste.” 

Santayana believes that beauty exists only in perception and not in the thing itself. “…beauty is an emotional element, a pleasure of ours, which nevertheless we regard as a quality of things.” 

kiss statue

The ideal of love never keeps its promise. Image by Clarita.

In his article, Tim Madigan quotes from Santayana’s work Reason in Society, which is the second volume of The Life of Reason. It begins by asserting the difficulty of expressing the intensity of the emotion “love” for a poet, and even more, for a philosopher who cannot call on dramatisation or metaphor like the poet:

 “Even a poet… can give of love but a meagre expression, while the philosopher, who renounces dramatic representation, is condemned to be avowedly inadequate.

Love’s Polar Opposites

Madigan explains that according to Santayana,  love has two polar opposites which further complicates rational thought; those of animal lust and of romantic idealisation.

Although he never married or had children, Santayana is open about sexual matters, and his term for sexual love is “frank love.” For Santayana, the sexual drive is a kind of artistic expression, while the ideal side of love only offers an abstract possibility, because perfection cannot be achieved and, therefore, whoever seeks it is destined for disappointment.

Santayana says:

“Love, to the lover, is a noble and immense aspiration; to the naturalist it is a thin veil and prelude to the self-assertion of lust. This opposition has prevented philosophers from doing justice to the subject. Two things need to be admitted by anyone who would not go wholly astray in such speculation: one, that love has an animal basis; the other, that it has an ideal object. Since these two propositions have usually been thought contradictory, no writer has ventured to present more than half the truth, and that half out of its true relations.” (Quoted by Tim Madigan.)

Santayana – the Anti-Idealist

Tragically, therefore, the neoplatonic (ie: idealistic)  idea of love can never be satisfied. Despite this, love must always have an ideal object.  A single quotation of Santayana’s in Madigan’s article, succinctly explains his logic: “…all beauties attract by suggesting the idea then fail to satisfy by not fulfilling it.”  

Tim Madigan presents this example from a very male perspective to describe this unrealised ideal, and it would not be difficult to apply it to a number of other things:

“If a man falls in love with a fair-haired woman, he does so because his heart has been captured by the ideal of a perfect blonde. It is this ideal object, not the woman ‘in her unvarnished and accidental person,’ that the man truly loves.”

The frustration of not finding satisfaction in the love object can result in a number of alternative substitutes for sex, for example, religion, philanthropy, keeping and fondling pets, and passionate enjoyment in nature and the arts. All these, Santayana regards as an escape from the world where the idealisation of love has proved inadequate.

Aesthetics Versus Human Values

The main difficulty with Santayana’s theory about the ideals of love is that they fail to recognise that people can love each other for their kindnesses, their understanding, their like-mindedness, even their flaws. While beauty may be desirable because we are visual creatures, it is not the answer to everything.

A beautiful but empty human vessel could hardly satisfy another human being for a lifetime. We value each other for many, many reasons. No one, after all, remains physically beautiful forever, but they may still remain contented in a happy and fulfilling marriage or partnership until the end of their lives.

When we truly love, we do not love the person for being an ideal – we love them for themselves, whatever that may be.

Santayana, perhaps sadly, spent his whole life searching for this perfect ideal in his prolific body of writings, by looking for meaning and ways to establish value through the relationship between the individual and his/her environment

Legacy of Santayana

Santayana taught at Harvard and in 1889 both T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein were among his students and were influenced by his teaching. In 1912 he came into a large inheritance when his mother died. At this point, he went to live in Rome and met Robert Lowell, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams.

Santayana’s key works were: The Sense of Beauty; (1896) The Life of Reason; (5 books, 1905/06) Scepticism and Animal Faith (1923) and The Realms of Being (4 books, 1927 – 1940). He wrote many other works of philosophy, as well as books of poetry and novels.

The Poetry Foundation quotes from the Dictionary of Literary Biographies by John K. Roth:

“Santayana thought that nature is ultimately man’s source and destiny and that nature manifests itself in man in his urge to make existence as reasonable and beautiful as possible… he believed that his own philosophy had universal roots and that his work expressed qualities of shared experience that cut across cultural lines.”

In spite of his great influence of American philosophical thinking, Santayana never relinquished his Spanish nationality. He died in Rome in 1952 at the age of 89 years.

Truth and Morality in Ancient Greece: Plato vs. Aristotle


Does art deceive our eyes and corrupt our minds? Plato believed that it did. Image by jojo22

The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, (384 BC – 322 BC) advocated studying philosophy through empiricism, which is the idea that it’s only possible to determine any truth through actual experience.

For both Aristotle and his teacher, Plato (427 BC – 347 BC), there are two themes essential to their concept of truth in art – morality and reality.

Plato and Aristotle: Truth and Falsity in Art

The following definitions of the theory upheld by both Plato and his pupil, Aristotle, appear in Rosalind Hursthouse’s essay, “Truth and Representation.” 

  1. Can art be morally educative or formative by conveying moral truths, or by aiding our grasp and understanding of moral truths, and hence give us moral knowledge?
  2. Can art truly represent reality, and, in particular, can it represent moral reality (and hence convey moral truths and yield moral knowledge)?

Hursthouse points out that both definitions emphasise art in terms of mimesis, which means “imitation.” Sometimes this means, literally, to copy – while in other cases it may mean “representation,” “impersonation” or “mimicry.”

The Greeks lumped all these together, whereas today we would be specific about which kind of imitation we mean.

What Did Plato, Aristotle’s Teacher, Believe About Representation?

In the chapter: “Plato,” in his book, 100 Great Thinkers, Jeremy Harwood points out that Plato is the first philosopher in the Western tradition whose work is still available to us intact, so we know exactly what he believed.

Plato (c. 427 BC – c. 347 BC) had plenty to say on the subject of representation. He is famous for his assertion that art is a third remove from the throne of truth. He reaches this conclusion through claiming that man-made objects must have an original form that God created. Therefore, life is just an imitation of this original form from God’s eternal plan.

This assumes that life is not a reality, but a representation. Therefore, art is an imitation of an imitation. These three removes are considered inclusively in Plato’s thinking.

Plato believed that the artist has the intention to deceive us because paintings deceive the eye. He also went to great pains to restrict the form that poetry could take.

In his book, The Republic, Plato set out his ideas of a Utopian society in which the society trained the rulers from birth for their role in controlling the state and attending to its good, and who were known as “guardians.” The rest of society were soldiers and the common people.

What Did Plato Believe About Censorship for the Moral Good?

Plato upholds arguments against art that invoke religious as well as moral and psychological aspects. To represent the gods as deceitful, or less than good in any respect, is wrong and false.

These representations corrupt the young and influence both their character and their behaviour, as Rosalind Hursthouse explains: “Plato argues that the only sort of character whose ‘representation’ can play a proper part in the education of the Guardians is that of a good man…”

In the society that Plato proposed, the above comment seems justifiable. However, for Plato, poetry is actually dangerous! According to Hursthouse, “… [H]e concludes, all dramatic poetry (whose recitation would necessarily involve impersonating or representing all sorts of undesirable characters) must be banned; and epic poetry must be written in such a way that ‘the proportion of representation will be small – limited to the direct speeches of good men,’ especially when the good man ‘is behaving with steadiness and determination, and only failing in a few respects and to a limited degree, owing to illness or love or drink, or some other misfortune.'”  

It’s clear that Plato was no democrat, and this restriction of the content of poetry and drama as an exercise to educate the young in moral values seem draconian to us today; but, in fact, Plato claims he is merely censoring what is false about what is important. In other words, the poems are untrue. Not only are they false, but they are also wicked and sinful and may corrupt the young.


Pleasure or pain is a thought accompanied by joy or grief. But several different emotions can cause the same feeling. Image by pedrojperez.

In short, The Republic is a political treatise and its central purpose is in educating and moralising to the young.

Plato Considers the Corruption of the Young and Impressionable

Hursthouse’s analysis of Plato concedes that sometimes children do not grasp the differences between play and reality, and that it is quite possible that in their play, they might form negative attitudes about killing, violence and gender-roles.

She points out, “Children cannot distinguish between what is allegory and what isn’t, and opinions formed at that age are usually difficult to eradicate or change.”

We know from experience that there have been many copycat killers or acts of extreme violence committed as a result of viewing a film or a news item. Impersonating bad behaviour is a common human failing and has been throughout history.

However, it is possible to produce emotional and literal interpretations in poetry, drama and other art disciplines which are not untruthful, yet evoke the imagination of the artist and the audience and from which learning can be achieved.

Aristotle Argues Against Plato about Emotion, Poetry and Universal Truth

Aristotle, however, believed that universal truths could be conveyed through poetry, truth that could be of benefit to human beings and to society. An emotion is, simply, a thought experienced with either pleasure or with pain, but different emotions can give rise to the same feeling. We might ask whether the sinking feeling in our stomach is jealousy or sorrow and to find out, we need to examine our thoughts.

While pity is discomfort at another’s misfortune, envy might invoke a very different emotion, that of pleasure at another’s misfortune. This is known today as “Schadenfreude” as explained by B. Rose Huber in the Princeton Journal Watch of Princeton University. Schadenfreude comes from the German language. “Schaden” means “harm” and “freude” means “joy.”

It seems we are biologically programmed to feel this way, so Aristotle was being most incisive about human nature when he wrote about emotions and how different emotions can produce similar feelings within us.

As Rosalind Hursthouse summarises: “The most significant background disagreements between them (Plato and Aristotle) concern the Theory of Forms and the role of emotion in moral education.”  

Another way of thinking about it would be to say that Plato’s approach is theoretical, rational, and upholds a suppression of our animal desires, while Aristotle’s empirical thought is less rigid and supports the correct training of those same appetites and emotions.

Aristotle: an Influential Moral Thinker and Philosopher

Jeremy Harwood says that Aristotle’s “advocacy of empiricism as the only reliable philosophical method  profoundly influenced medieval and later scholars.”

Aristotle also acknowledged that no one can devise a single, philosophical principle, as claimed by Socrates and his own teacher, Plato, claimed. As a result of this insight, he denied that the laws of nature could ever be exact. “…although he maintained that certain metaphysical categories, quantity, quality substance and relation, for example – could be used in devising descriptions of natural phenomena,” explains Harwood.

Harwood sets out the Four Moral Causes devised by Aristotle to help people to understand how to analyse empirically:

“…the Material Cause (what is it made of) the Formal Cause (what is it), the Efficient Cause (how it came to be) and the Final Cause (what is it for).” 

Aristotle was also the philosopher who posited “The Golden Mean” which means the “middle way between two extremes,” explains Harwood. We need to reason and to reason well, Aristotle believed, to attain our full potential.

Courage is the golden mean between being a crazy risk-taker and yet not being cowardly when action is required – while if we are truthful, we will avoid boasting and yet not employ inappropriate modesty.

Aristotle: One of the Greatest Moral Philosophers

From the careful and empathetic reasoning described above, it is clear that Aristotle was one of the greatest moral philosophers of all time.

Aristotle was not overly influenced by the arguments of his teacher, Plato, although both men agreed on certain metaphysical arguments, for example, that the soul was divided into two parts, the rational and the irrational. However, both men were, to a large extent, products of their own time and place.

Bertrand Russell says, in his Chapter, “Aristotle’s Ethics” in History of Western Philosophy:

“The views of Aristotle on ethics represent, in the main, the prevailing opinions of educated and experienced men of his day. They are not, like Plato’s, impregnated with mystical religion, nor do they countenance such unorthodox theories as are to be found in The Republic, concerning property and the family.”

Russell says that any person with any depth of feeling would find Plato’s philosophy as set out in The Republic, “repulsive.” On the other hand, Aristotle’s beliefs about morality were entirely conventional and in agreement with the ideological systems of his day.

These beliefs were still a long way from how we think about morality today, with our concern for human rights and equality.

“Aristotle thinks that justice involves not equality, but right proportion which is only sometimes equality,” says Russell. These so-called proportions of equality account for differences between, say, a master and a slave, or a father and a son. A master could never take a slave to be his friend. Chillingly, Russell quotes Aristotle:

“There is nothing in common between the two parties; the slave is the living tool.”

Aristotle and Plato: Influence, Accusations, and Obscurity

Aristotle studied under the tutelage of Plato, and he remained at the Academy, first as a pupil and later as a teacher, for twenty years. After the death of Plato, Aristotle was engaged to teach Alexander the Great. When his teaching engagement with Alexander the Great came to an end some years later, Aristotle returned to Athens and set up his own philosophy school, The Lyceum.

On Alexander’s death in 323 BC, Aristotle fled into exile and died a year later.

Aristotle’s work fell into obscurity in Europe during the Dark Ages, although it was still prevalent in the Muslim world. In the Middle Ages, Aristotle became, once again, an influence in Europe and remains so to this day.

Plato, on the other hand is frequently accused of advocating totalitarianism, although some philosophers present arguments that dispute this. However, Plato too, had enormous influence on Western philosophical ideas and on the later development of Christian thought.