What I Would Go Back in Time and Tell Aristotle to Change the Course of Humanity for the Better


With soap this time.

How little I know.‘ That’s something I think a lot, about the world around me, about the people in it and the accumulated realizations they’ve made. I live in a modern world capital, and I take daily advantage of the comforts to which those realizations have led. And yet, I have only the slightest idea as to how it any of it works.

Lately, I’ve been reading some the so-called Pre-Socratic philosophers, those mysterious paradox peddlers philosophizing in the wilderness before Plato (quite literally) institutionalized the discipline. What survives of their writing is in the form of dubious fragments and hearsay by later (but still ancient) thinkers refuting or praising their ideas. (Sometimes, as in the case of some Democritus, the fragments are just single words the philosopher was thought to have used.) Thus, our knowledge of their philosophy is based on another’s interpretation of their philosophy. It’s proved extremely unfair to their legacy. But even if what we now think of what they then thought resembles it very little, it matters very little. The many centuries of thought devoted to these stereotypes and misinterpretations have endowed them with, despite their bastard origins, some sort of validity.

The most entertaining theories of the Pre-Socratics are cosmological. Other primitive societies and religions have their own charming explanations for how (and, less commonly, why) the universe operates the way it does: the sun is dragged into the sky each morning by some god and retrieved each evening by another, and so on. The Pre-Socratics, however, impress with their ‘secular’ theories. They certainly believed in some gods, especially in the creation of the world, but they were the first group of people in recorded history to apply the advancements in practical science to the impractical heavens. The stars were no gods; they were tears in the dark membrane that separates our sphere from the great, outer fires. Earthquakes weren’t summoned by an angry Poseidon. In the sun, earthquakes were caused the cracking of the drying earth. In the rain: erosion from moisture. These conclusions were not validated by tradition but by what they learned from looking at the world around them. We can see what happens to a handful of the earth, so why not assume that the earth as whole behaves in the same way?

Not all of their conclusions were arrived at so empirically. One can see how spicy foods were thought to be made of sharp, triangular atoms, or how, once the idea four elements was current, wind was be seen as life-giving. After all, living beings breathe and their corpses do not. But there’s no apparent scientific foundation behind the arbitrary formulas revealing how many parts fire make up bone, or the divine perfection of the number ten.

Much of their philosophy was abstract and sometimes reminiscent of New Age thought – the universe is described by Empedeocles as the battlefield of a perpetual struggle between Love and Strife – but we find among these Gaia reveries and impassioned tirades against beans some shockingly accurate (albeit crude) conceptions of atoms (Democritus), relativism (Protagoras), harmonics (the Pythagoreans) and the static theory of motion (Zeno). Of course, their accuracy was more attributable to luck than genius; when they got it right, it was often for the wrong reason. For instance, Anaximander believed that man descended from fish-like creatures – but not because of evolution. His reasoning: if humans are so helpless in their first years of life, someone had to care for the first batch. Empedeocles, however, with his notion of an animal’s advantageous physical features for survival, hit evolution’s ‘outer bull.’ Darwin cited Empedeocles’s theory as natural selection ‘shadowed forth.’ (We only know the fragment thanks to Plato and Artistotle’s smug attempts to disprove it.)

Some civilization may have thought such things before. The Pre-Socratics were merely fortunate enough to live and speak out in an era near the advent of writing. I now know much more than they did about our world: there is more than one ocean, continents shift, the spherical earth revolves around a spherical sun (the Milesians thought it was a fire wheel). I have vague conceptions of gravity, magnets, orbits, bacteria, aviation, penicillin, dinosaurs, elevators and so on, but my knowledge of these matters is no better than hearsay. Someone told me all of these things and I’ve accepted them unquestioningly. So how much more informed am I than our predecessors?


Here’s the scenario I’ve imagined: I fall naked out of the sky on the outskirts of Athens – naked because, as the most realistic and gnarly movie on time travel we have, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, teaches us, our own fabric will not breach the space-time continuum’s – and somehow find my way to Aristotle’s Lyceum academy. (If no one could understand my pronunciation of his name, I imagine that I’d scratch it into the dirt with a stick.) Although he was not a Pre-Socratic, I’ve chosen Aristotle out of all the early philosophers because I believe that he would be the most open to my attempts at communication. I’m not a big fan of Plato’s philosophy – too damned ethereal – and not enough is known about any of the Pre-Socratics to make me confident enough to bet my trip on any of them. (Socrates just doesn’t seem serious enough.)

Artistotle the Stagirite – as Dante called him, ‘the master of those who know’ –  was an eager, brilliant scientist, and regardless of whether or not he could believe my provenance, he would, thanks to my mysterious appearance, almost certainly be interested in what I tried to tell him. Because I don’t speak any Greek outside of rudimentary knowledge of the alphabet, our conversations would, of course, have to be entirely non-linguistic.

In the scenario, I can only impart one thing to Aristotle before I am whisked back to present day. What would I tell him? How would I tell him? Even if I could speak Greek, or convince that I really was from the future, how could I convince him of the validity of my modern knowledge?

Nothing about geometry, certainly. I suppose it’s not shameful that a modern, mathematically disinclined young man like myself would have nothing to teach the Greeks, geometers par excellence. But what about algebra? Did they know about variables? Matrices? Calculus? What is calculus? And physics? Aristotle thought that falling objects accelerated because they were increasingly happy to return to earth. But could I have proven gravity to him? I think I’m in the minority because I know what the c stands for in E = mc², but I’m in the vast majority in not understanding why the formula is so celebrated, or what exactly it changed.

Ideally, the lesson would improve humanity’s quality of life centuries. My first thought was gunpowder. Then I realized that I had no know idea how to make it (or introduce any other useful chemical compounds), although I might have thrown some potassium-rich bird poop in a fire. (How does the Judge make it in Blood Meridian? Urine mixed with something, right? Sulfur?) Then, of course, I realized the longer gunpowder was kept out of humanity’s hands, the better for it.

This is a scenario I’ve introduced to several people, an no one’s had a satisfactory answer. Some people think historically: warn them about assassinations and wars, they say. Such historical strife seems inevitable, however, like a drop of mercury: whatever conflict you think you’ve got your finger on will merely be pushed to the side. Murderous figures that emerge during unstable political and cultural climates are only filling a void someone else inevitably would have.

The best answer that I’ve come up with: Aristotle, wash your hands. When I started writing this tonight, I thought that I would be able to convince him of natural selection. But although Darwin’s contribution is extremely revealing about the nature of the world and our place in it (on par with Copernicus’s, I think), it has changed very little practically about the way we live. (I also spent a lot of time in MS Paint trying to recreate the exact diagram I would draw for him, with one sharp-toothed lion and one dull-toothed lion and arrows pointing to the disproportionate numbers of their offspring. It got very complicated.) Also, he was already set against the idea of natural selection.

However, if I could convince Aristotle about the nature of disease – and, as a zoologist, I think he would be more welcoming to the idea – I could thwart its devastation more than a thousand years prematurely. The Greeks already believed in objects invisible to the naked eye (atoms). Would they believe in microscopic, malicious creatures? I’m not sure if they had soap – their hygiene was apparently execrable. Maybe I would be better off visiting the Hipprocrates the physician.

Wash your hands. As often as possible. That’s the best I can do.

Is that the best anyone can do?


What’s interesting is how much the Greeks could teach me. How do you start a fire without matches? I’ve tried rubbing sticks and pounding rocks together and I’ve never made a single spark. Imagine being familiar enough with the sky to realize the stars had moved.

The paradox of technology is that the more that we, society, know, the less that we, the hoi polloi, need to know. The grand developments are understood by the few and taken advantage of my the many. So, as a rare gift from the many to the few: Aristotle, wash your hands. And tell your friends, too.

Also, beans are actually really good for you.


~ by ohkrapp on November 13, 2008.

3 Responses to “What I Would Go Back in Time and Tell Aristotle to Change the Course of Humanity for the Better”

  1. books:

    gottlieb, anthony. the dream of reason.
    russell, bertrand. the history of western philosophy.
    kirk, raven, schofield. the pre-socratic philosophers.

    and, yes, that’s actually socrates (soh-craytes) in the bill and ted’s excellent adventure. it and ‘honey, i shrunk the kids’ were the only two movies at my daycare.

  2. That’s an interesting idea to ponder. My ideal Greek-confrontation moment would be with Euclid. I would mention him about the non-Euclidian geometries, especially the works of Riemann and thrill him to the core of his being (hopefully).

    To Aristotle, rather than conveying one isolated factual knowledge about nature that we’ve discovered so far, could we perhaps mention the paradigm shift the scientific method underwent since the Greeks, how the emphasis of explanatory tools overwhelmingly shifted towards materialist and reductionist theories, how it steadily diverged from other ways of knowing, how diverse its branches turned out to be and how all the branches hang together with uncanny elegance and unity? It’s my distinct feeling that those bright guys would appreciate this unassailable change in perspective more than any empirical fact we can give them. It’s not at all clear to me, morever, this new light that we’ve just provided them would be less efficient in improving their (and our) immediate world than, say, germ theory of disease (although, obviously, we have to mention beans), cause it shouldn’t be a far cry to discover these facts themselves, once you know what the correct ways to look at their underpinning laws are. And with that, what we call the Enlightment could have been foreshadowed for a good millenium or so.

    I have no idea how you could mime that, though.. Maybe with a smug and erudite smile accompanied with a sincere ‘there there’ tap on the shoulder, to mean ‘boy, where do i start..’?

  3. […] for this piece were lifted from The Gaming Liberty,  Krapp’s Last Blog and Cluster […]

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