The lingering sweetness of Aristotle’s last will and testament

I have been reading Anton-Hermann Chroust’s lovely book, Aristotle: New Light on His Life and Some of His Lost Works (Volume 1), which is sadly out of print. Chroust published this volume, a collection of his papers, in 1973, and it’s so beautifully written it makes me embarrassed for my own half-assed attempts to write.

One learns to live with one’s own failures of talent.

Anyhoodily, the book is a wonderful collection of Chroust’s explorations of the various ancient Vitae Aristotelis out there; much like other historians of ancient figures, such as Pedro Brown or Bart Ehrmann, Chroust seems to have been prolific as well as eloquent.

There is a lot of wonderful scholarship here, and for me I learned what we might know and what we really don’t know about Aristotle, but my favorite essay concerned Aristotle’s last will and testament. I expected tedious, and I’d planned to skip that chapter, but instead I found myself both engaged and enchanted. Chroust lays out, side-by-side, translations of the three texts we have of the will: Diogenes Laertius and the nearly identical texts of I and IV Vita Aristotelis Arabica from Ibn Abi Yaqub an-Nadim and Ibn Abi Usaibia.

Aristotle died in Chalcis, and as a result, Chroust notes we really have no way of figuring through what law might have governed the dispensation of the will. Aristotle never became an Athenian citizen, which is itself a very interesting part of Aristotle’s biography, and it’s clear from the will that he died a well-to-do man. There are reasons to suppose that he entered this world well-off as well, through connections to the Macedonian court–a connection that may have driven him to exile in Athens when young (as enemies of his family and their associates came to power) and then out of Athens repeatedly as King Philip and then Alexander made enemies in Athens.

Back to the will, however. Aristotle is one of the most difficult thinkers in my class on justice because so much of what he says about slaves and women sounds so terrible in modern ears, so heavily drenched in liberal notions of freedom and individual agency. I am always having to urge students past those things to see the pith of Aritotle’s ideas about justice among individuals and between leaders and subjects.

The nice thing about the will is that you see many of his principles of governing a household via gentle, thoughtful custodianship in practice. He has two children: a legitimate daughter, Pythias, whose mother has died, and a son, Nichomachus, by a concubine. I’m not sure we know all that much about Macedonian laws, but at the time Chroust was writing, he did have good information about Athenian law, and there, illegitimate children had pretty draconian limits on what they could get from an estate. Those limits are observed here, but it is clear in Aristotle’s lanaguage regarding both his son and his daughter that he expected his executors, Nicanor and Theophrastus, to treat both children kindly and with generosity. His provisions for Pythias are detailed, but give considerable latitude within the constraints of Greek womanhood: she is promised to Nicanor (a marriage that never happens because he gets himself executed about a year later), but Aristotle makes it clear that she has her choice of places to live, either in Chalcis, in her own house on the estate there, or back in Stagira, in his father’s house, which he seems to have retained there.

Similarly cared for, in detail, are slaves and students. There are apparently multiple roads where slaves could be manumitted, and Aristotle seems to use all of them here. He frees some at once, and others at the time that Nicanor takes over the estate. (Property went with legitimate children to go to their male issue and under the direction of their spouses.) Aristotle’s maid-servant, Ambracis, is freed and thanked, and given an additional large payment if she stays on to look over Pythias until the girl is married. Other, male slaves are similarly freed immediately and given generous settlements. Of the children given as slaves in the household, Aristotle tells his executors that none of them should be sold, but they should be kept on until they reach a proper age, and that they shall have their freedom if they deserve it. Here, I’d like to get my hands on the original Greek to see what verb he uses for deserve because that is a word in English that carries some baggage it may not in the original. I suspect here it conveys the idea that the children have grown into mature and responsible adults capable of looking after themselves. As vile as the idea of child slaves is, Aristotle’s was not a world kind to fatherless or landless children with no skills.

Chroust, apparently as touched by the exercise as I am, finished his essay with my sentiments exactly:

The technical language of Aristotle’s last will and testament cannot obscure its spirit of true humanity and genuine piety which forever attests to the fact that the testator was a great man. In more than one sense, this testament is the abiding memorial and the eloquent testimony of a noble human being.

(p. 220)

The EN tested my patience a bit with its seemingly endless pages about moderation, a virtue I am decidedly bad at. Nonetheless,the will, and all my explorations of the Vitae suggest to me that Aristotle himself engaged with others in the spirit of justice, with moderation and mildness. He did not have an easy life for all his wealth, given his outsider status in Athens, and he lost quite a few people he must have cared for in the harsh word Alexander and his enemies created. Moderation, indeed, must have felt like a virtue needed among leaders.