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Virgil or Aristotle… Who is Contemplating the Bust of Homer?

By Gerald Therrien

One of Rembrandt’s greatest paintings is known by some people as ‘Aristotle contemplating the Bust of Homer’. Since no surviving records exist from either Rembrandt’s hand nor the patron who commissioned this masterpiece in 1653 AD, speculation has run rampant for over 350 years as to the true identity of the mysterious character holding the blind poet’s head.

In the course of the following short composition, I will present how and why I came to the conclusion that it is much more reasonable to conclude that it is not Aristotle as many have been led to believe, but rather the Roman imperial epic poet Virgil, who is contemplating the Bust of Homer.  

Now admittedly, both interpretations can be used to address what I called the conflict between Plato’s Aristocratic man, that is ‘man motivated by discovery and creativity’ (expressed by Homer) against Plato’s Timocratic man (aka: man motivated by power and the appearance of honour, which can be expressed by either Aristotle or Virgil).  Rembrandt poetically conveys this conflict in the Timocratic man by having one of his hands on Homer’s head and the other hand on his nice shiny gold chains.

While both examples are rooted in the political warfare between the idea of republic and the idea of empire, Aristotle is best seen in his philosophical conflict with Plato, that was written about extensively by the late, great philosopher Lyndon LaRouche in an essay titled ‘The Secrets Known Only to the Inner Elite’ in 1978. This conflict between both philosophers is clearly showcased in Raphael Sanzio’s painting of the ‘School of Athens’.  

Central detail from Raphael’s School of Athens featuring an epistemological dispute between Plato holding his Timaeus, moving toward the viewer and pointing to the heavens contrasted with Aristotle holding his Ethics, standing in a fixed position and holding his hand down towards worldly things

However, I think that Rembrandt’s painting best shows the direct ideological conflict between the method of composition found in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey versus the ‘Roman-tic’ facsimile conveyed in Virgil’s later epic the Aeneid.  For too long, the acceptance of Virgil as a so-called ‘creative’ writer has been criminally tolerated and it is my intent to shed some light on this error.  Before plunging into this controversy, it must be pointed out that both Aristotle and Virgil have their connections with the Roman Empire.  

First, a look at Aristotle: 

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BC) was a Roman general – the first General to bring his troops within the city limits of Rome, and in 82 BC, was appointed ‘Dictator’ by the Roman Senate – setting the stage for the later actions of Julius Caesar and the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.  Sulla was the Roman general who was involved in the expansion of the Roman Empire over the Greek city-states (in Greece and in Asia Minor) in the war against Mithridates, King of Pontus (comprising present-day Turkey and the cities around the Black Sea coast).  During this war, Athens was allied with Mithridates, and was besieged and sacked by Sulla in 86 BC.  It was during this siege of Athens, that Plato’s Academy was destroyed, and the writings of Aristotle brought back to Rome for the first time.

According to the historian Strabo (64 BC – 24 AD) who lived shortly after these events, Aristotle’s writings had been inherited by Aristotle’s successor at the Peripatetic school Theophrastus (371-287 BC). After Theophrastus, the writings were inherited by Neleus, who brought them to the Greek city of Scepsis, and eventually were passed down to his descendants, who were called ‘ordinary people’ by Strabo until the first century BC. The writings were then hidden underground and became damaged by ‘moisture and moths’, until they were later rediscovered and then sold to a wealthy book collector named Apellicon. After the sack of Athens, Apellicon’s library was ‘acquired’ by Sulla and was shipped back to Rome, where these writings were somehow pieced back together by the grammarian Tyrannion of Amisus, and published by Andronicus in 60 BC, as the ‘writings’ of Aristotle. 

Strabo writes: “… the earlier school of Peripatetics who came after Theophrastus had no books at all, with the exception of only a few, mostly exoteric works, and were therefore able to philosophize about nothing in a practical way, but only to talk bombast about commonplace propositions, whereas the later school, from the time the books in question appeared, though better able to philosophize and Aristotle-ize, were forced to call most of their statements probabilities, because of the large number of errors.”

In other words – NO ONE had read Aristotle’s works until over 250 years after his death, until this pile of variously discarded and damaged manuscripts was re-assembled as if written by the same author and were published in Rome, all so that we could then be taught of the greatness of this Greek, someone named Aristotle! – The philosopher-to-be, the Empiricist of the Roman Empire!

I would assert that just as the ‘managers’ of the Roman Empire needed a philosophy that would justify the existence of the empire, in the same way these ‘managers’ of the Empire needed a poet to concoct a myth for the masses, to justify the founding of Rome and thus, of the Roman Empire.  Here we must look with new eyes upon Virgil:

Virgil, who lived 70 – 19 BC, was commissioned by Caesar Augustus (63 BC-14 AD) to write an epic that would legitimize the duty and obedience owed to the ‘pax romana’ of the new Roman Empire – about how Aeneas fled from Troy and travelled to Italy where he founded the city of Rome, and whose descendants would later become emperors.  Virgil spent over 10 years writing the ‘Aeneid’ when he died in 19 BC. Despite having been incredibly influenced by Homer’s epics, it is revealing that he never once mentioned Homer.

Aristotle and Virgil: Imperial Philosopher and Poet for Hire

In the ‘Poetics’, Aristotle writes that “Epic poetry and Tragedy, Comedy also and Dithyrambic poetry, and the music of the flute and of the lyre in most of their forms, are all in their general conception modes of imitation” (book 1); and that “It is Homer who has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skilfully” (book 24). 

This is the opposite of Plato who in his Republic described the metaphor of the shadows on the wall of the cave, and who argued that mere imitators should not be allowed into the republic, but only those poets who aim to tell of beauty, goodness and truth.  Plato doesn’t throw the baby out with the bath-water, but he takes Homer’s Odyssey as a starting point and elevates his idea of discovery and of learning how to steer our thoughts, and brings us into a new Odyssey, to discover the ideas needed for the republic and the philosopher-king.  

In both Homer’s Odyssey and Plato’s Odyssey (aka: the Republic) we see a change in thinking, an improvement, a progress of ideas, that is the main focus of ‘intention’, unlike Virgil’s Aeneas who follows his obedience to his duty and his destiny, who doesn’t change, but is governed by fate and necessity. 

Virgil, unfortunately follows Aristotle’s view of poetry and tries to ‘imitate’ Homer, instead of trying to see the ‘intent’ of Homer, and how Odysseus changes.  And as Homer showed us, Necessity is not the mother of invention, but that Intention is the mother of invention.

A word on Dante Alighieri’s Relationship to Virgil

Unfortunately, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321 AD), whose poetic works went far in launching a renaissance nearly a thousand years after the fall of Rome was never able to read Homer, since the Iliad and Odyssey were not translated into Latin until 30 years after the poet died. Instead, Dante had to rely on the Aeneid for the story of Odysseus, where Virgil showed how he despised Odysseus, calling him a ‘heartless schemer’, a ‘master-craftsman of crime’ and the ‘double-talking Ulysses’.  

It was undoubtedly this slanderous portrayal which explains why Dante chose to place Odysseus in the 8th circle of Hell.  However, Dante still must have understood the problem with Virgil, as he wouldn’t let the roman imperial poet enter Paradise – only Purgatory and Hell.

And so, in Rembrandt’s painting, we see Virgil, vainly trying to figure out how Homer wrote his poems, while he holds his gold from Caesar.

Gerald Therrien is a historian, Senior Fellow at the Rising Tide Foundation and author of a four volume series on Canadian History entitled Canadian History Unveiled. In a recent lecture on the topic of Homer’s Odyssey, Gerald explained his hypothesis of Virgil (not Aristotle) contemplating the Bust of Homer.

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