Nope, Aristotle Did Not Say, “It Is the Mark of an Educated Mind to Entertain a Thought Without….”

Oh, Internet, why do you abuse Aristotle so?

This has been bouncing around lately with the hashtag #Aristotle

Like many of the fake-istotle quotes, this one can be googled out of existence in about 5 seconds. According to wikiquote, this was first attributed to Aristotle by Lowell L. Bennion in his Religion and the Pursuit of Truth 1989, 52). They suggest that it is a misunderstanding of Nicomachean Ethics 1094b24. The density of the passage provides some grounds for why it may have been (over)simplified. But since it stands so early at the beginning of the Ethics, I suspect that there was a kind of smash and run search for an authoritative sounding quotation. As a side note, there is an interesting–by which I mean crazy–discussion of what this fake quote might mean on Quora. Some of the content there is interesting and accurate (about the idea of the fake quotation, not the actual bit); other parts are like Ancient Aliens crazy.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1 1094a24-1095a

“It is right that we ask [people] to accept each of the things which are said in the same way: for it is the mark of an educated person to search for the same kind of clarity in each topic to the extent that the nature of the matter accepts it. For it is similar to expect a mathematician to speak persuasively or for an orator to furnish clear proofs!

Each person judges well what they know and is thus a good critic of those things. For each thing in specific, someone must be educated [to be a critic]; to [be a critic in general] one must be educated about everything.”

τὸν αὐτὸν δὴ τρόπον καὶ ἀποδέχεσθαι χρεὼν ἕκαστα τῶν λεγομένων· πεπαιδευομένου γάρ ἐστιν ἐπὶ τοσοῦτον τἀκριβὲς ἐπιζητεῖν καθ’ ἕκαστον γένος, ἐφ’ ὅσον ἡ τοῦ πράγματος φύσις ἐπιδέχεται· παραπλήσιον γὰρ φαίνεται μαθηματικοῦ τε πιθανολογοῦντος ἀποδέχεσθαι καὶ ῥητορικὸν ἀποδείξεις ἀπαιτεῖν. ἕκαστος δὲ κρίνει καλῶς ἃ γινώσκει, καὶ τούτων ἐστὶν ἀγαθὸς κριτής. καθ’ ἕκαστον μὲν ἄρα ὁ πεπαιδευμένος, ἁπλῶς δ’ ὁ περὶ πᾶν πεπαιδευμένος.

53 thoughts on “Nope, Aristotle Did Not Say, “It Is the Mark of an Educated Mind to Entertain a Thought Without….”

  1. You’re an American hero, sir. Fake quotes are the fake news of our discipline. Your sleuthing urge probably dates back to having to listen to that one guy attribute everything he ever heard to Jonathan Swift.

  2. Dear Sirs,
    First of all I would like to congratulate you for this priceless blog, it’s been a great help to me in my 18-year effort to write a book on the ancient Greek literature. (see As for the above-mentioned quote of Aristotle “It Is the Mark of an Educated Mind to Entertain a Thought Without accepting it” you must realize that the fault is not with Aristotle but with the translator. Aristotle wrote “πεπαιδευομένου γάρ ἐστιν ἐπὶ τοσοῦτον τἀκριβὲς ἐπιζητεῖν καθ’ ἕκαστον γένος” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1 1094a24-1095a), in modern Greek (Ίδιον του μορφωμένου ανθρώπου είναι να ζητεί την ακρίβειαν δι’ έκαστον γένος εις τόσον βαθμόν, όσον επιτρέπει
    η φύσις του πράγματος.” In English, the above quote correctly translated should be ” it is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind which the nature of the particular subject admits.) So, fake is the translator’s note. People should be more careful when translating from one language to another, especially if they are not that familiar with a beautiful language like the ancient Greek language.
    Thank you for your attention.
    Best regards from Greece.

    1. Aristot. Nic. Eth. 1094b
      and what branches of knowledge the different classes of the citizens are to learn, and up to what point; and we observe that even the most highly esteemed of the faculties, such as strategy, domestic economy, oratory, are subordinate to the political science. [7] Inasmuch then as the rest of the sciences are employed by this one, and as it moreover lays down laws as to what people shall do and what things they shall refrain from doing, the end of this science must include the ends of all the others. Therefore, the Good of man must be the end of the science of Politics. [8] For even though it be the case that the Good is the same for the individual and for the state, nevertheless, the good of the state is manifestly a greater and more perfect good, both to attain and to preserve.1 To secure the good of one person only is better than nothing; but to secure the good of a nation or a state is a nobler and more divine achievement.
      This then being its aim, our investigation is in a sense the study of Politics.3.

      Now our treatment of this science will be adequate, if it achieves that amount of precision which belongs to its subject matter. The same exactness must not be expected in all departments of philosophy alike, any more than in all the products of the arts and crafts. [2] The subjects studied by political science are Moral Nobility2 and Justice; but these conceptions involve much difference of opinion and uncertainty, so that they are sometimes believed to be mere conventions and to have no real existence in the nature of things. [3] And a similar uncertainty surrounds the conception of the Good, because it frequently occurs that good things have harmful consequences: people have before now been ruined by wealth, and in other cases courage has cost men their lives. [4] We must therefore be content if, in dealing with subjects and starting from premises thus uncertain, we succeed in presenting a broad outline of the truth: when our subjects and our premises are merely generalities, it is enough if we arrive at generally valid conclusions. Accordingly we may ask the student also to accept the various views we put forward in the same spirit; for it is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind which the nature of the particular subject admits. It is equally unreasonable to accept merely probable conclusions from a mathematician and to demand strict demonstration from an orator. [5]

      Again, each man judges correctly those matters with which he is acquainted; it is of these that he is a competent critic.

      1 Or perhaps ‘both to ascertain and to secure.’

      2 καλόν is a term of admiration applied to what is correct, especially (1) bodies well shaped and works of art or handicraft well made, and (2) actions well done (see 3.7.6); it thus means (1) beautiful, (2) morally right. For the analogy between material and moral correctness see 2.6.9.

      Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 19, translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1934.

  3. I ran into a fake quote from Ignatius of Antioch recently, and had a hard time following it to its source (which I think –I think– I found). These things are impossible to kill once they’re out and proliferating, and there is no institution, no mechanism to destroy them, that any of us would want to establish. Thus, we are left with suckiness.

      1. The quote was something like “if the lions tore me apart, I hope they would find the name of Jesus written on my heart”. I traced it back to a book of martyrs from the period of the Reformations — I think it was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

      1. Thank you for this! I do love the quote, despite it not being Aristotle. Not to challenge your answer, but to make sure i can cite my sources… do you happen to have a source that attributes it to Joel Christensen? I can’t seem to find anything…

      2. Nick, I believe the author is saying “my name is Joel Christensen”. This blog’s about page lists an e-mail address with a joel in it.

  4. Πεπαιδευμένου γάρ ἐστιν ἐπὶ τοσοῦτον τἀκριβὲς ἐπιζητεῖν καθ᾽ ἕκαστον γένος, ἐφ᾽ ὅσον ἡ τοῦ πράγματος φύσις ἐπιδέχεται.
    – Διότι ίδιον του μορφωμένου ανθρώπου είναι
    να ζητεί την ακρίβειαν δι’ έκαστον γένος εις τόσον βαθμόν, όσον επιτρέπει η φύσις του πράγματος.
    Αριστοτέλης (Ηθικά Νικομάχεια Α. 1094α24)
    (EN) It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits
    Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Α. 1094α24)
    (FR) L’homme cultivé, en effet, se montre en n’exigeant dans chaque genre de recherche que le degré de précision compatible avec la nature du sujet.
    Aristote (Éthique de Nicomaque, A. 1094a24)
    (DE) Darin zeigt sich der Kenner, daß man in den einzelnen Gebieten je den Grad von Genauigkeit verlangt, den die Natur der Sache zuläßt.
    Aristoteles (Nikomachische Ethik, A. 1094a24)
    (IT) È proprio dell’uomo colto, infatti, richiedere in ciascun campo tanta precisione quanta ne permette la natura dell’oggetto.
    Aristotele (Etica Nicomachea, A. 1094a24)
    (SP) Lo que revela al hombre instruido es el ir en busca de la certidumbre en toda classe de cosas, hasta el punto que la naturaleza del asunto lo permita.
    Aristóteles (Moral a Nicómaco, A. 1094a24)

    1. This is far the same from the quotation. The greek emphasizes precision, not to entertain a thought, etc. This English version of the quotation has been twisted beyond the original meaning to mean something quite different

  5. So, would we then have to attribute the quote to Lowell L. Bennion, as he initially attributed the quote to Aristotle? If Aristotle didn’t say it, and Bennion mistranslated, doesn’t that make the quote his?

  6. This is incorrect. Aristotle is not talking about his later sentence when he talks about this “mark of education”. That is, the expectation about a skilled person is just an elaboration or lemma related to the earlier discussion which is summed up by the famous “mark of education” sentence.

    Aristotle is talking about being able to accept a premise without agreeing with it, which is essential to analyzing the soundness of an argument.

    That is, he is noting that the form of an argument is just as important as its content, and the only way to quickly analyze its form is by assuming everything the person has stated is true, no matter how ridiculous it is e.g. Aliens and the Loch Ness monster are, in fact, evidence that George Washington, first president of the United States of America, is a living 15 year old Lawyer in Japan in 2023 (the year I am writing this).

    This is a rather elementary point in logic, but Aristotle was one of the first people to write about applied logic or critical thinking, and this treatise is one of the most important works in that area, so it makes sense for him to make this point and try to get lay people to understand how important it is even if logicians and mathematicians don’t think it’s important for them to.

    The paraphrase about “entertaining a thought” is actually just that, a paraphrase, not a misquotation or exaggeration or oversimplification. In fact, the translation that you cite is an oversimplification of what Aristotle is saying, and is a confused translation. The famous paraphrase is more accurate. That is, Aristotle is not talking about “clarity” in the modern English sense here. The Greek word he is using is related to sophos or discernment/wisdom. That is, the ability to see that which is true by becoming aware of it through less obscurity or vagueness etc. The “nature of the matter” is the domain of discourse known well to all predicate logicians. That is, if the context of the discussion is public policy, a request for mathematical proofs from the policy maker after you just met them doesn’t make any sense, because the place to seek clarity is in fact in their own confused, mathematically ignorant and sophomoric false beliefs. Your job (if you are a mathematician) is to take those false premises and see how they have led them to their conclusions, and then see what true beliefs they have and how they have used them to get to their correct political science conclusions, both so that you can improve your mathematics and your political science. The politician’s job in the conversation is exactly the same as yours, except they are looking at your false political science confusions and your true mathematical beliefs and trying to learn about politics and mathematics by doing that.

    Aristotle is an optimist. He elaborates in the next paragraph that although we are currently likely critics of the specific kind, that is, restricted to our own domains, he thinks through these dialectics we can achieve the appropriate “synthesis” of ideas that Hegel discussed many centuries later, to become experts in “everything”. As Maimonides later remarked in a sacred text in Judaism:

    “You know that these matters are intertwined with each other. And He – there is nothing in existence except God Himself and all His actions – and they are everything that existence encompasses without Him – and the only way to understand Him is through His actions, which indicate His existence, and what one must believe about Him – I mean: what is obliged to Him or is denied of Him. Therefore, it is necessary to examine all existences according to what they are until we derive from each type genuine, correct premises that will aid us in our divine inquiry. And many premises taken from the nature of numbers and the qualities of geometric forms will guide us regarding matters that are far from Him. Our Torah has distanced many such matters. However, regarding astronomical and natural wisdom, I do not see that they would suffice being essential in understanding the value of the world in God’s guidance as it truly is, not as imaginations. There are many contemplative matters – and even though we won’t derive premises for this wisdom from them – but they train the intellect and endow it with the ability to discern the truth in matters intrinsic to it (and remove the confusion found in many opinions of those who speculate due to the ambiguity of accidental matters and what might arise from the loss of those opinions) connected to the representation of those matters as they truly are – even if they are not foundational to divine wisdom and are not devoid of other utilities in matters close to that wisdom. Therefore, it is impossible for anyone who seeks human perfection, without first studying the craft of logic, then the disciplines in order, then the natural sciences, and then theology.”

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