Phyllis Rides Aristotle


by Justin E. H. Smith

The apocryphal story of Phyllis and Aristotle is captivating for a number of reasons. For one thing, it recalls for us a period in the history of culture in which philosophy, and philosophers, were implicated not just in elite disputation, but also in popular lore and moral instruction. The tale of Phyllis and Aristotle is an exemplum, that is, a stock lesson telling you — and here, ‘you’ is not a subtle follower of philosophical arguments, but a simple fellow influenced by memorable stories accompanied by vivid images — what you ought not to do. The fact that it was the greatest philosopher in Western history who provided the exemplum is worthy of pause, but we’ll get back to that in a second.

Phyllis was the preferred consort, perhaps the wife, of Alexander the Great, who in turn was a disciple of the philosopher. This much is historical fact. A legend arose over the course of the late middle ages according to which Aristotle grew enamored of Alexander’s favorite, who for her part consented to give the philosopher what he wanted, but only as his dominatrix. In particular, she wished to ride on the his back, with the peripatetic down on his hands and knees like a beast.

An anonymous Latin text relates that Aristotle had initially instructed his disciple to abstain from amorous relations with his own wife, since this diverted him from the manly projects in which he was engaged (empire-building, philosophy, e.g.). Phyllis was therefore spurned, and to get revenge she decided to seduce not her own husband, but the old philosopher who had drawn her husband away from her. This proved not so difficult, and soon enough Aristotle began to solicit her carnally. To which solicitations Phyllis responded:

This I will certainly not do, unless I see a sign of love, lest you be testing me. Therefore, come to my chamber crawling on hand and foot, in order to carry me like a horse. Then I’ll know that you aren’t deluding me.

Hans Baldung’s 1503 pen-and-ink drawing (above), as well as his 1513 woodcut (top), are some of the most vivid representations of the ensuing ride.  In 1512 Lucas van Leyden gives us a depiction of the same scene in which Aristotle is wearing unmistakably Moorish or Islamic gear (below). My favorite rendering of this subject is the 14th-century French bronze aquamanile that shows Phyllis plainly slapping Aristotle’s rear, just like she might a horse, in full three-dimensional splendor (final image below).

What exactly is going on here? It should be pointed out that there is a long tradition of associating Aristotle with the bawdy that, as far as I know, goes back to the mid-16th-century Latin translation, by Theodor Gaza, of the Greek author’s biological works treating, most relevantly, the reproduction of animals, and therefore also the cosmic significance of sexual difference, copulation, etc. From this association there arose the countless editions of works bearing the title Aristotle’s Masterpiece, which were essentially manuals of advice for midwives, plus a diverse selection of ‘secrets’ about the feminine sex. I have been told that in Australia one could receive late editions of the Masterpiece, in a plain brown wrapper and by mail order, into the 1930s.

Even before the Gaza edition, Aristotle’s name would have been loosely associated with the topic of animals via Albertus Magnus, the 13th-century teacher of Thomas Aquinas who wrote, among many other works, a treatise De animalibus. Though it might be hard for us to see today, to the extent that animals owe their very existence to copulation, from a certain medieval point of view there is already something bawdy in the very undertaking of zoology.

I do not know to what extent these associations influenced the rise of the legend of Phyllis and Aristotle, and this present post is really more a query than a report. It seems to me quite likely that in addition to Aristotle the advisor of midwives, another aspect of his legacy that could be playing a role in this legend is that of Aristotle the happily married father and family man. We know in fact that Aristotle went to Macedonia as Alexander’s tutor shortly after the death of his wife, Pythias, with whom he had had a daughter; he would later have another female lover who would bear him a son, Nicomachus, for whom he would eventually write one of his two major works on ethics. It is also likely that he had a male lover, but whether he did or not it remains the case that Aristotle was far more active in all that stuff that has to do with social reproduction through opposite-gender pairing than great philosophers have typically been held to be. Nietzsche famously noted that all the great philosophers have been unmarried and non-reproductive — except for Socrates, who was however married to a shrew, as if to demonstrate precisely the lesson that philosophers ought not to marry. Strangely, Nietzsche does not even mention Aristotle in this connection, but if he had he would have had to acknowledge that the Stagirite is both an exception to the rule as well as an exception to Socrates’s exception that supposedly proves the rule.

The figure of Phyllis riding Aristotle begins to appear at the moment when Aristotle is beginning his slow decline as the preeminent representative of philosophy, as ‘the Philosopher’. Several more centuries would follow in which celibacy would function as the norm and implicit ideal among philosophers. Against this background, it seems to me that much of the trouble philosophy as an academic discipline is currently having in the matter of gender equity has to do not just with its legacy of macho grandstanding, the old-boys’-club sense of entitlement that so many of its cocky male practitioners have, etc., but also, at least in part, with the fact that the discipline has its deep historical roots in something akin to monasticism, a commitment whose demise Nietzsche seems to be bemoaning, where the boys’ club is constituted not on the basis of a shared commitment to prowling, lecherous domination of women, but rather to an ideal of separateness.

Aristotle betrayed philosophy, at least on a certain understanding, by allowing it to get mixed up with the sensual, corporeal realm. The exemplum thus works at two levels at once, for the initiates and the masses alike. Keep your wits by staying away from temptresses, it tells the masses, while to the philosophers, it says: maintain the standard of pure rationality by not getting mixed up with the natural world and its cycles of generation and corruption.

I don’t mean to oversimplify, but my own take on the discipline’s current wave of self-criticism is that its demographic problem flows directly and inescapably from the way philosophy continues to define itself as an intellectual project. This is not to say that reason is ‘masculine’ and the senses are ‘feminine’; this is not at all what I think. But I do think that centuries-old associations have a way of insinuating themselves into the way we talk and act far more than most people, and certainly most non-historians, like to think. And I believe that within our supposedly intellectually grounded defense of philosophy as a largely a priori discipline separate from the natural and cultural worlds, there is an echo of that old exemplum, intended for simpletons, about staying pure and free of temptation.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website