Corps de l’article
Aristotle is perhaps the most commented philosopher. Gilles Maloney’s Moi, Aristote represents in some sense an attempt to ‘uncomment’ on Aristotle, to let him speak for himself. In the avant- propos to his biographie romancée of Aristotle, Maloney promises to remain faithful to the vocabulary and thought of the philosopher. He delivers on this promise. Given that Aristotle’s opera consist largely of lecture notes, Maloney does not have too much difficulty in finding a model for Aristotle’s voice. It is the voice of a calm teacher and a philosopher for whom the beginning of philosophy is in wonder – the Greek thauma.
Gilles Maloney is a retired member of the Literature Department at Laval University. A classicist distinguished by his contributions to scholarship on the Hippocratic corpus, Maloney’s knowledge of ancient science is evident in his patient integration of Aristotle’s biological works into Moi, Aristote. In fact, the biography includes almost exhaustive references to Aristotle’s works. Maloney manages in his biography of the philosopher to summarize with a light hand a broad range of key Aristotelian doctrines. The reader is introduced to (or reminded of) Aristotle’s accounts of psychology, ethics, politics, animal movement, as well as theology. Moreover, we encounter a broad cast of characters in this book, including, amongst others, Aristotle’s family, students and associates. Maloney clearly has the scholar’s eye for accuracy and completeness. Yet, Maloney is also an excellent writer. His literary skill is evidenced in the deftly executed structure of the work.
Certain elements of ring composition can be discerned in the references to Aristotle’s interests. For example, Aristotle’s early fascination with movement is crowned by an almost mystical awareness of the unmoved mover towards the end of the book. The theme of rhetoric, introduced early on in relation to Plato’s dialogues and Aristotle’s work at his teacher’s Academy, reaches a climax in the final pages with an account of the drafting of Aristotle’s Rhetoric in the context of his own school, the Lyceum. Moreover, the great orator Demosthenes is prominent throughout Moi, Aristote. In fact, Maloney quotes directly from many of his speeches. In fact, Demosthenes personifies Athenian resistance to Macedonian ascendance. And, although Aristotle’s life path provides logic and cohesion to the book, political events provide most of the forward movement. That is, the dramatic arc of Moi, Aristote traces the rise and fall of Macedonia and its relations with Athens. This political background is structured in a diptych of sorts.
Throughout roughly the first half of the book, Philip of Macedonia makes regular appearances both as political leader and as Aristotle’s friend and associate, while in the second half it is Aristotle’s pupil Alexander the Great who plays the role of communicating the political realities of the day to the reader and binding that larger world to Aristotle himself. The general question of the political is, however, introduced already towards the beginning of the book as Aristotle is made aware of Plato’s involvement with politics in Syracuse.
Maloney delicately puts Aristotle’s ethics into relation with Aristotle’s first-person accounts of the characters we encounter in the work, above all of Philip and Alexander. Although he does not obscure what are for modern readers Aristotle’s completely unacceptable views on gender and slavery, Maloney does represent Aristotle as a kind and generous person both in his relations to women and slaves. Although the plot is driven largely by political events, these do have a direct impact on his peripatetic existence and his emotional life. For example, Aristotle witnesses the unhappy aftermath of the destruction of his hometown at the hands of Philip’s forces. And, in a sense, Aristotle’s marriage was made possible by a move from Athens to avoid the dangers of anti-Macedonian sentiment. Aristotle suffers the loss of loved ones – his young wife, his nephew. Yet, although, the pain of these episodes is communicated to the reader, affairs of the heart and family relations are ultimately accessory to the main current of the book. Aristotle’s first mover is his almost childlike curiosity and desire to know nature.
Unlike those of other biographies romancées of ancient figures such as Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian or Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, the fictionalized elements in Moi, Aristote are very limited. Maloney clearly wanted his book to emerge as faithfully as possible from the authentic works of Aristotle. Accordingly, Maloney does not speculate about Aristotle’s views concerning the goings on around him. Indeed, Maloney’s Aristotle remains remarkably neutral in the face of the political events which rocked the Greek world of his day. The philosopher’s inner thoughts and feelings concerning his powerful friends – Philip and Alexander – remain rather distant and largely unexplored in Moi, Aristote. Indeed, the Aristotle of Moi, Aristote does not enter into any real conflict. His move away from Plato is not a break. His relationship with Alexander is not vexed. This Aristotle is always characterized by that most important of virtues which he so insightfully analyzed, namely, friendship. Maloney does not attempt to recreate a complex inner life of his protagonist. Rather, the moi here is closer to that of to a diarist who records events and activities but does not commit existential considerations to the page.
Maloney’s fictionalized biography illustrates the idea that for the ancient Greeks philosophy was a way of life. The repeated appearances of the Cynic Diogenes in Moi, Aristote underline this theme. But Maloney’s Aristotle is, above all, a researcher with an unrelenting interest in discovering the whole of the world around him. How else can we explain his Aristotle’s detailed observations concerning dreams, language, fish and insects? But unlike some researchers who may be driven by any range of passionate ambitions, Maloney’s Aristotle is a paragon of virtue and moderation. His research aims not at recognition or power, but at theoria or ‘contemplation.’
This is a very enjoyable read. Moreover, because it is so historically accurate, it is also a useful work. Philosophy students will find in it a wonderful overview of Aristotle’s works, his friends and his world. The reader does hear in Moi, Aristote, the philosopher speaking for himself and recognizes the voice of the author of ta ethika, ta physika, etc. Maloney deserves praise for his careful, comprehensive, both ambitious and modest work, that provides a new yet faithful perspective on Aristotle.