Meme Police: A Collection of things Aristotle Did Not Say

This is likely to be an ongoing list. If you have any additions, explanations, or counterclaims, leave a comment and we will integrate it. The Kiwi Hellenist has started a blog for some other authors.

1. “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it”

This is probably a willful twisting of something from the Nicomachean Ethics

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.

2. “A Whole is greater than the sum of its parts”

This really popular misattribution may be a poor translation of the Metaphysics

Aristotle, Metaphysics 8.6 [=1045a]

“For however many things have a plurality of parts and are not merely a complete aggregate but instead some kind of a whole beyond its parts, there is some cause of it since even in bodies, for some the fact that the there is contact is the cause of a unity/oneness while for others there is viscosity or some other characteristic of this sort.

πάντων γὰρ ὅσα πλείω μέρη ἔχει καὶ μή ἐστιν οἷον σωρὸς τὸ πᾶν ἀλλ᾿ ἔστι τι τὸ ὅλον παρὰ τὰ μόρια, ἔστι τι αἴτιον, ἐπεὶ καὶ ἐν τοῖς σώμασι τοῖς μὲν ἁφὴ αἰτία τοῦ ἓν εἶναι, τοῖς δὲ γλισχρότης ἤ τι πάθος ἕτερον τοιοῦτον.

3. “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” [and many variations thereof]

This one has absolutely no basis. Aristotle says many things about education, this just ain’t one of them.

4. “We are What we repeatedly do. Excellence is an act, not a habit.”

This one is has likely slipped into the Internet Aristotle Quotarium from Will Durant’s misconstruing of the Nicomachean Ethics. Indeed, this has been debunked more than a few times. Here’s another version: “Excellence is not a singular act but a habit. You are what you do repeatedly.” there are many variants

Here’s the closest Aristotle actually gets:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1105b

“It is therefore well said that a person becomes just by doing just things and prudent from practicing wisdom. And, no one could ever approach being good without doing these things. But many who do not practice them flee to argument and believe that they are practicing philosophy and that they will become serious men in this way. They act the way sick people do who listen to their doctors seriously and then do nothing of what they were prescribed. Just as these patients will not end up healthy from treating their body in this way, so most people won’t change their soul with such philosophy.”

εὖ οὖν λέγεται ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ τὰ δίκαια πράττειν ὁ δίκαιος γίνεται καὶ ἐκ τοῦ τὰ σώφρονα ὁ σώφρων· ἐκ δὲ τοῦ μὴ πράττειν ταῦτα οὐδεὶς ἂν οὐδὲ μελλήσειε γίνεσθαι ἀγαθός. ἀλλ’ οἱ πολλοὶ ταῦτα μὲν οὐ πράττουσιν, ἐπὶ δὲ τὸν λόγον καταφεύγοντες οἴονται φιλοσοφεῖν καὶ οὕτως ἔσεσθαι σπουδαῖοι, ὅμοιόν τι ποιοῦντες τοῖς κάμνουσιν, οἳ τῶν ἰατρῶν ἀκούουσι μὲν ἐπιμελῶς, ποιοῦσι δ’ οὐδὲν τῶν προσταττομένων. ὥσπερ οὖν οὐδ’ ἐκεῖνοι εὖ ἕξουσι τὸ σῶμα οὕτω θεραπευόμενοι, οὐδ’ οὗτοι τὴν ψυχὴν οὕτω φιλοσοφοῦντες.

5. “Knowing Yourself is the Beginning of all Wisdom”

No. I don’t even need to look this up. No. No. No. This is a version of the Delphic Oracles “know thyself” Γνῶθι σαυτόν. At least attribute it to Plato or Aristotle something. Or do what Diogenes Laertius does at give it to Pittakos (1.79.10)

6. “Whosoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wild beast or a god.”

This is almost Aristotle. It is mostly Francis Bacon (‘Essays’, XXVII “On Friendship” (1612, rewritten 1625). Aristotle said something not to far off, but still not this

Aristotle, Politics 1.2 1253a25–30

“It is clear that the state is naturally prior to each individual person. If each person when separated is not sufficient on his own, just as other parts are to the whole while a person who is incapable of joining commonwealth or does not need any part of a state because of self-sufficiency is either a beast or a god.”

ὅτι μὲν οὖν ἡ πόλις καὶ φύσει πρότερον ἢ ἕκαστος, δῆλον. εἰ γὰρ μὴ αὐτάρκης ἕκαστος χωρισθείς, ὁμοίως τοῖς ἄλλοις μέρεσιν ἕξει πρὸς τὸ ὅλον, ὁ δὲ μὴ δυνάμενος κοινωνεῖν ἢ μηθὲν δεόμενος δι᾿ αὐτάρκειαν οὐθὲν μέρος πόλεως, ὥστε ἢ θηρίον ἢ θεός.

7. “Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.”

This is totally super-capitalist, corporate double-speak nonsense. It does not even remotely sound like Aristotle. I am not sure where it comes from and I cannot find it debunked, but I will keep looking.

8. “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”

This one is likely a mistranslation or an attribution of a lost saying by Seneca in On Tranquility of mind. But I can’t really justify that by what I have found in the Seneca. Regardless, this is more neo-capitalist nonsense. I have a hard time believing this is anywhere in Aristotle.

A few twitter correspondents responded that this sounds a little bit like the end of the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle writes “pleasure brings completion to an activity” ( τελειοῖ δὲ τὴν ἐνέργειαν ἡδονή, 1174b). I will not claim that this sounds nothing like the apocryphal translation above, but I will insist that in its context, Aristotle’s comment has nothing to do with “work” in the way it is construed, but instead this is about aesthetic pleasure. The worst version of this meme is this terrible, no-good, evil version:

Note the double emphasis on work? This is the kind of poster a middle manager puts up to ‘motivate’ his underpaid minions before he drives home in his Porsche….

9. “Well-begun is half done”

This is not really Aristotle. The idea is proverbial even when it is kind of quoted by Aristotle. But these words belong to someone else. Here is as close as Aristotle gets:

Aristotle, Politics 5, 1303b

“For the mistake happens in the beginning and the beginning is said to be half of the whole, so that even a minor mistake at the beginning is equal to those made at different stages.”

ἐν ἀρχῇ γὰρ γίγνεται τὸ ἁμάρτημα, ἡ δ᾿ ἀρχὴ λέγεται ἥμισυ εἶναι παντός, ὥστε καὶ τὸ ἐν αὐτῇ μικρὸν ἁμάρτημα ἀνάλογόν ἐστι πρὸς τὰ ἐν τοῖς ἄλλοις μέρεσιν.

This particular quotation comes from the Benjamin Jowett translation and is replicated on the wikiquote site. Aristotle in phrasing this as “it is said” (λέγεται) is marking the line as a proverb. Horace’s “The one who has begun has completed half the task.” dimidium facti, qui coepit, habet (Epistle 1.2) is closer to the popular version. Hesiod has “fool does not know that half is greater than the whole” ( Νήπιοι οὐδ’ ἴσασιν ὅσῳ πλέον ἥμισυ παντός)

10. “The more you know the more you know you don’t know”

(yes, Pinterest). This is clearly a retread of Plato’s Apology 21d: “I think that I am wiser by this very small bit: I don’t pretend to know what I don’t know.” ἔοικα γοῦν τούτου γε σμικρῷ τινι αὐτῷ τούτῳ σοφώτερος εἶναι, ὅτι ἃ μὴ οἶδα οὐδὲ οἴομαι εἰδέναι.

11. “To write well, express yourself like common people, but think like a wise man. Or, think as wise men do, but speak as the common people do.” 

This shows up a lot in business oriented and inspirational self-help tomes. This does not sound like Aristotle at all. I can’t find anything remotely close to this. Any challengers? (see also the shortened “Think like a wise man, Talk like the common people.”

Image result for To write well, express yourself like common people, but think like a wise man. Or, think as wise men do, but speak as the common people do." ~ Aristotle

12. “No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness”

This is another indirect attribution that probably comes from Seneca De Tranquilitate Animi 10 (“or [believe] Aristotle that there was never any great genius without a tincture of insanity”. sive Aristoteli nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtura dementiae fuit). So, it is almost Aristotle, except that we do not have it in any of Aristotle’s extant works (and ancient authors like Seneca, Plutarch and Diogenes Laertius are not beyond making quotes up or misattributing them).

Aristotle does talk about poetry and madness in the Poetics and in his Problems.

Image result for "No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness. aristotle

  1. “Memory is the scribe of the soul”

Ugh. “scribe”? Soul? This one sounds like it a misunderstanding or a fabrication made to sound old-fashioned.

This seems to become really popular at the end of the 19th century where it makes its way into quotation books (Pearls of Thought by Martin Ballou, 1892; Pensnylvania School Journal 42; James Wood, Dictionary of Quotations 1899). This seems off to me and I cannot find a passage to match it. Since there is no work or passage attached to any version of this quotation and there is not even a discussion of it on places like wikiquote, I feel pretty confident calling this one false until someone tells me otherwise.

14. “It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”

I really did not need to look this one up. The tone of self-help encouragement motivating this quote is really not Aristotelian. I think this might be one of the clearest offenders. But, its essential badness made me google it. This line is often misattributed to Buddha–but it is often attributed to Aristotle…Onassis. So this meme is a new variation on an old virus. I fear we might already be too late

15“Tolerance and apathy are the last virtues of a dying society”

The character of this quotation is alien to Aristotle and ancient Greek ideas including using “tolerance” in this way and “dying society” (see the quora discussion). I poked around a bit through Aristotle, changing some of the ideas (an ancient Greek might think of “sick” or “corrupt” society”) but there is nothing close to this.

While searching, I found the variation “Tolerance is the last virtue of a depraved society” attributed to Dr. James Kennedy (an Evangelical preacher) and then Hutton Gibson (father of Mel Gibson and Holocaust Denier). Some of the mis-translations and fake translations can be found in quote books from the 19th century. This one does not appear in any books older than a decade or so and mostly in self-published racist texts whose titles and authors I will not print.

16“There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”

This one is easy. Wikiquote has already debunked it. But the content of the quote as well as its form should be a warning anyway. The final triplet is not really Aristotelian, but it is almost imaginably Greek. This is alleged to come from Elbert Hubbard’s Little Journeys to the Houses of American Statesmen, but that provides only the second half.

17. “The end of labor is to gain leisure.”

This shows up in Tyron Edwards’ A Dictionary of Thoughts in 1909, Century Illustrated Magazine, also from 1909. And then it just keeps on keeping on. This may be Aristotelian, but as far as I can find, it is not really Aristotle.

There are ideas that seem akin to this in Aristotle: in Nicomachean Ethics, for example, he says “[because], happiness seems to reside in leisure, we labor [sacrifice leisure] so that we may have leisure” δοκεῖ τε ἡ εὐδαιμονία ἐν τῇ σχολῇ εἶναι, ἀσχολούμεθα γὰρ ἵνα σχολάζωμεν (1177b). And Aristotle talks a lot about leisure as being desirable and “although leisure and business are both necessary, leisure is more fully an end than business” (εἰ γὰρ ἄμφω μὲν δεῖ, μᾶλλον δὲ αἱρετὸν τὸ σχολάζειν τῆς ἀσχολίας καὶ τέλος, 1337b33-35). Earlier, he repeats the phrase that “business is for the sake of leisure” (ἀσχολίαν δὲ σχολῆς), in a series of nearly Orwellian paradoxes: “war is for the sake of peace, business for the sake of leisure, and necessary and useful things are for the sake of the good.” (πόλεμον μὲν εἰρήνης χάριν, ἀσχολίαν δὲ σχολῆς, τὰ δ᾿ ἀναγκαῖα καὶ χρήσιμα τῶν καλῶν ἕνεκεν,1333c35-37).

So, for this one, I think we have a bit of an elaborated translation of an essentially Aristotelian idea. But, still, he didn’t really say this—Aristotle is perfectly capable of saying that the telos (“end, Goal”) of a thing is another thing. Where he mentions telos in conjunction with leisure, he writes that leisure itself is an end on its own more than business [read: ‘labor’] is. This is a rather different notion than saying that one is the end of the other.

18. “It is unbecoming for a young man to use maxims.”

Eh, yeah. He kind of said this. But what he meant was…ugh.

Image result for aristotle sad bust
Why? Why?

19. “To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand out in the cold.”

This is another one of those lines that is so clearly Un-Aristolelian to anyone who has read a little bit of Aristotle that it seems absurd someone would attribute it to the Stagirite. But, spend a little time lurking on pinterest and inspirational meme-o-ramas, and you’ll find Aristotle and Plato carrying a lot of weight.

This one was attributed to ‘anonymous’ only as recently as last year. Let’s all work together to try to make it stop. Right. Now.

20. “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self

There is some actual Greek for this one (“Aνδρειότερος εἶναι μοί δοκεῖ ὂ τῶν ἐπιθυμῶν ἢ τῶν πολεμίων κρατῶν καὶ γὰρ χαλεπώτατόν ἐστι τὸ ἑαυτόν νικῆσαι) but the manuscript tradition is a little crazy. Basically, this is from multiple levels of quotebook traditions and is probably not Aristotle. It is, also, not really Aristotelian. The short story? It was added to one edition of Stobaeus’ Florilegium because it sounded a little like a quotation from Democritus. I have the story here.

21. “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal”

This popular meme has its roots in the deep past…of the 1970s (that’s CE, just to clear up any confusion). Wikiquote suggests it is a mistaken summary or expansion of a section of the Politics but I think it is just modern partisan posturing.

22. “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim of human existence.”

I mean, this is kind of the whole aim and purpose of the Nicomachean Ethics, but this is not a quotation of a translation of it. It is just the kind of vanilla summary that an English Professor might give of the text in some lecture just before the world ends on the SyFy network. This is Helen-Cylon level fake.

23. “The antidote for fifty enemies is one friend.

So, this sounds nice, but would you really want to go against 50 people with one ally? This is motivational poster fake. Its earliest appearance is in self-help quotation books in the 1980s. Figures.

24. “Those that know do, those that understand, teach.” 

This variation on the put down “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach” does not seem to appear before the last decade or so. But there may be something to its sense. In the Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle explores how some people are good at things without understanding them and that “those people will succeed even though they are witless and without reason, just as some people sing well enough even though they cannot teach others how to sing” (οὗτοι κατορθώσουσι κἂν τύχωσιν ἄφρονες ὄντες καὶ ἄλογοι, ὥσπερ καὶ εὖ ᾄσονται οὐ διδασκαλικοὶ ὄντες, 1247b). Peisistratos Level Fake.

25. “Character is made by many acts: it may be lost by a single one

This is a misattribution made only rather recently online from a Methodist Minister’s writings in the 1800s. It is a very Christian and rather un-Aristotelian notion. This is all about sin. It may be riffing on Aristotelian notions of practice and character, but it is Peisistratos Level Fake.


16 thoughts on “Meme Police: A Collection of things Aristotle Did Not Say

  1. Ooh, I know number 7! Sounds a whole lot like Frederick Buechner from Wishful Thinking: “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger coincide.”

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