By Patricia H. Kushlis
Who is Aristotle? Why bother to search for him now?
It’s been ages since I even thought about the ancient Greek philosopher (384-322 BCE) and tutor to Alexander the Great who went on to conquer the known world from his redoubt in Macedonia. Sure, I remember reading Aristotle’s Politics my first year in college and seeing marble statues and busts of him in museums throughout Greece and elsewhere. Nevertheless, I never even thought about anybody going on a deliberate hunt for Aristotle, until I came across two separate references to the “quest for Aristotle.” These disparate searches made me rethink Aristotle’s relevance in what has become an increasingly complex, confused and chaotic world.
The first reference to the search for Aristotle was in the BBC mini-series entitled “Oliver’s Travels” starring Alan Bates, the quintessential “nonstar star” and Irish actress Sinéad Cusack that PBS aired in the US in 1996. The second was in the Mantle of the Prophet, Roy Mottahedeh’s book (1985) about the Iranian clerical establishment’s relationship to the country’s politics before, during and in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution.
Will the real Aristotle please stand up?
When I first watched “Oliver’s Travels” several years ago – the zany tale of a bumbling comparative religion professor made redundant because – well he taught something other than business – and his unlikely partner Diane Priest, the inquisitive, skeptical and attractive local police detective who he picked up early in his journey, I never thought about the possibility of a deeper meaning of the story.
Here was this idiosyncratic down-at-the-heels middle aged professor on a madcap search for an elusive puzzle creator who worked for Guardian under the pseudonym “Aristotle” and a smartly dressed forties-something detective trying to find the culprit behind a series of unexplained murders and other untoward “accidents” that ultimately reached not only into her own station house but also her family.
The unlikely pair ended up not only finding the crossword puzzle creator(s) but also unraveling the multiple murders at the same time. The result: not just intellectual satisfaction in solving the great mystery of the person behind the puzzles but also the corralling and outing of an incredibly large, complex and vicious British criminal ring.
During my first viewing of the five part series, I never considered the possibility of a deeper meaning – or multiple meanings. "Oliver’s Travels" was plain good English comedy fun.
What I missed then was the all important search for rationality in what was seemingly an irrational world. In this case, rationality and logic won out. Or was it a combination of the rational and the irrational that led to the crook’s denouement in the final act? Or could it have been that the search for Aristotle was conducted through an investigation that combined both deductive and inductive reasoning – a hallmark of Aristotelian logic?
Seeking Aristotle in Tehran
Almost simultaneously, I came upon the phrase “finding Aristotle” near the end of Mossahegeh’s Mantle of the Prophet, a book I had been reading to better understand the mosaic of inscrutable and complex Iranian politics unfolding before our very eyes.
Now let’s face it, Mantle of the Prophet is about as far from the seeming frivolity of “Oliver’s Travels” as one can get. This book is not a fun read and it takes far more than five easy hours to get through it.
In Mantle of the Prophet, the search for Aristotle only appears near the book’s end. It is a search embarked upon by a senior Iranian cleric who took off his turban and left Qom, the seat of Iran’s Shiiah religious establishment, during WWII to find Aristotle in Tehran. His was a less successful voyage with a less successful ending than that of Oliver and Diane’s which had begun in South Wales and ended happily in a remote corner of the Orkney Islands. Yet, the cleric’s quest for Aristotle in a secular setting or at least a secular university – as opposed to the Aristotle enshrined, or encased, in medieval Islamic philosophy – was novel in itself.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that what ties together these two seemingly disparate twentieth century searches, was and is their experiential nature. In both, the seekers of knowledge involved embarked upon real world quests – perhaps because their search for truth by argumentation in the academy or the madressah had proved lacking - but through a real life Odyssey. Just as Aristotle’s own search for truth, logic and reason more than a millennium ago was based on investigation and grounded in experience.