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ARISTOTLE AND HIS TIME IN ASSOS

Gary Linkevich April 2015

INTRODUCTION
The English philosopher (and former British Academy president) Sir Anthony Kenny once wrote,
Aristotle, more than any other thinker, determined the orientation and the content of
Western intellectual history. He was the author of a philosophical and scientific system
that through the centuries became the support and vehicle for both medieval Christian
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and Islamic scholastic thought: until the end of the 17 century, Western culture was
Aristotelian. And, even after the intellectual revolutions of centuries to follow,
Aristotelian concepts and ideas remained embedded in Western thinking.
Such praise is not unwarranted; the last of the three great philosophers contributed
meaningfully to nearly every branch of knowledge available in his time, including physics,
metaphysics, biology, zoology, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric,
linguistics, and politics. Medieval Muslim intellectuals referred to him as The First Teacher,
Encyclopedia Brittanica describes him as the first genuine scientist in history, and to say the
least, he is one of historys most important empiricists.
During our trip, we will have the chance to visit a place that symbolizes the midway point of Aristotles life, and his transition from
an exemplary student to a legendary teacher.

ARISTOTLES EARLY LIFE


Aristotle was born in 384 BC in Stagira,
Macedonia (now part of Greece). His father
served as the personal physician to then-King
Amyntas III, and throughout Aristotles
childhood it was assumed that he would be
raised to follow in his fathers footsteps.
Unfortunately for Aristotle (though perhaps
fortunately for Western intellectualism), he lost
both of his parents by the age of 10, and found
himself free to pursue any path he desired. At
the age of 17, this path brought him to the
doors of Platos Academy in Athens, and he
studied there for the next 20 years of his life.

A map of regional geography during Aristotles time.

Raphaels School of Athens Plato (left) speaking


of a higher order, and Aristotle (right) defending
the observable plane of human experiences

The exact reason for Aristotles departure from the Academy remains a matter of debate,
but two theories prevail. 347 BC marked the end of Platos life, and leadership of the
Academy passed to his nephew, Speusippus. Aristotle and Speusippus are not known to
have seen eye-to-eye on many things, and therefore one possibility is that Aristotle left
either due to academic discord or out of jealousy. An alternate explanation has to do
more with regional politics: in 348, King Philip II of Macedon invaded Olynthus and
Chalcidice (the region containing Aristotles hometown of Stagira), prompting fear within
Athens regarding the threatening force of Macedonia. Despite living his entire adult life
in Athens, Aristotle had grown up in the Court of Macedonia, and possibly still retained
his friendship with Philip. Naturally, this made him an unpopular figure socially, and at
the very least contributed to his departure from the Academy in Athens. Regardless of
his motivations, in 348 BC Aristotle left Athens and embarked on a journey around the
Aegean Sea that would occupy the rest of his life. His first destination was Assos.

ARISTOTLES TIME IN ASSOS


Assos was ruled by Hermias, a philosopher-king who had
studied with Aristotle in Athens (an impressive outcome for the
former slave of the previous ruler, Atarneus). Under Hermias,
Assos experienced its greatest prosperity. He invited a
succession of great thinkers naturally starring Aristotle to
move to the city, and succeeded in establishing his own
intellectual circle comprised mostly of former Academy
members. Unsurprisingly, Aristotle arrived to the great acclaim
of his old friend, rose to the head of this new intellectual
domain, and shortly opened his own Academy. It is quite likely
that Aristotle was acting as an ambassador for King Philip II
he was certainly treated as if he were such.
At this point in his life, Aristotles main interest was anatomy,
and the structure of living things in general (a hold-over,
perhaps, from his childhood with his father). In Assos, and later
on Lesbos, Aristotle and his group of colleagues compiled a
volume of biological and zoological observations that laid the
foundations of the biological sciences, and they were not
superseded until more than two thousand years after his
death (Barnes, 2000).

Assos was also where Aristotle began his work on Politics, as


well as On Kingship considered two of the greatest works in
political theory. Notably, he diverged from Platos idea that
kings should be philosophers, and philosophers kings by
arguing that,
It is not merely unnecessary for a king to be a philosopher,
but even a disadvantage. Rather a king should take the
advice of true philosophers then he would fill his reign
with good deeds, not with good words.
Aristotle enjoyed his time in Assos, and married Hermias
adopted daughter Pythia, with whom he had a daughter they
also named Pythia (proving, perhaps, that wisdom and
creativity are independent). Eventually, the philosophers time
in Assos was ended by political events: the Persians attacked
the town and brutally tortured Hermias to death, which
Aristotle wisely interpreted as a cue to leave. He escaped from
Assos with his group of biologists, and they traveled to the
island of Lesbos to continue their studies.

ARISTOTLES
LATER YEARS
343/2 B.C. King Philip
II of Macedon invites
Aristotle, so he moves
to Pella, the ancient
capital of Macedonia.
There he tutors Philips
son Alexander (the notyet-Great).
335/4 B.C. Aristotle
returns to Athens and
opens
his
second
philosophical
school,
the Lyceum.
The
students of this school
were called Peripatetics
(Greek for "walking
around") because they
were best known for
walking around in the
Zappeion Gardens while
discussing philosophy.
323 B.C. Fearing antiMacedonian sentiment
in Athens after the
death of Alexander,
Aristotle flees to the
island of Euboia. He
dies there a year later.
A map of Aristotles travels: Stagira - Athens - Assos - Lesbos - Pella - Athens - Euboia. http://www.marshallfarrier.com/aristotle/map.jpg.

ASSOS ITSELF
Assos is a surprisingly misused name, or at least a name that means different things to different people. To some it indicates the
handful of stone houses lined up along the harbor; to those aware of the sites history, it refers to the ruins of the ancient city; and
perhaps in its contemporary usage, it encompasses both of these plus Behramkale, the modern village higher up on the trachyte hill.

(above) A Google Earth photo showing the harbor, the ancient city, and the modern town of Assos.
(below) The ruins of the Temple of Athena at Assos, overlooking the Island of Lesbos.

The most striking reminder of the Aeolian settlers who built the first Assos is the Temple of Athena, which stands proudly on the
cliff top overlooking the island its builders hailed from. A simple Doric temple built out of the local volcanic andesite in 530 B.C., it
once boasted a decorative frieze that is now housed in the Istanbul Archeology Museum. For most visitors, Athena is all that is seen
of Assos as they drive down the road to the harbor. However, if you care to walk down the hill, there is much more to explore, from
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the 4 -century B.C. city walls to a modest amphitheater with a breathtaking view.

Diagram / map of the layout of ancient Assos. The bouleuterion housed the council of citizens; the stoa was a covered walkway or portico, open for public use;
the agora was a marketplace that functioned as the center of athletic, artistic, political, and spiritual life; the iskele was a pier.

ARISTOTLES LEGACY IN ASSOS


Among the observable buildings in the Assos ruins, one has recently been identified as a Parliamentary building in fact, it
represents the oldest Parliament in Anatolia, by a long shot. According to Prof. Nurettin Arslan of anakkale Onsekiz Mart
University, the inscriptions on the building suggest that it is 200 years older than the previously oldest known Parliament in this part
of the world. Moreover, some notable differences distinguish it from other Parliament buildings in Anatolia: for instance, its seats
were made of wood, whereas all others were made of stone. The nearest analog to the layout and design of this building is the
Parliament in Athens.
Arslan suggests that Aristotle's stay in Assos could be the reason this Parliament was established here. His presence could have
created a link between Assos and Athens, through which the people of Assos would have learned a great deal about democracy.
Aristotle's departure came on the heels of the Persian occupation which would have kept them from applying these ideas but
when Alexander (Aristotle's mentee) arrived in Anatolia, the people of Assos could have realized the doctrines of Aristotle and built
this Parliament for governance.

FURTHER READING
Anatolia's oldest Parliament unveiled in Assos at cross paths of Plato and Aristotle. Hurriyet Daily News, Jan 2014.
Barnes, J. (2000) Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
Chroust, A.H. Aristotle's Sojourn in Assos. Historia: Zeitschrift fr Alte Geschichte, Bd. 21, H. 2 (2nd Qtr., 1972), pp. 170-176
Wescoat, B.D. (2012) The Temple of Athena at Assos. Oxford University Press.
Yale, P. (Sept. 2008) Aristotles Turkish hideaway Assos. "Today's Zaman."