The Toolbox of Thinkers

Cover page of the Organon of 1562.

Organum Aristotelis.

Printed in 1562 by Guillaume Morel in Paris.

 

The Greek term “organon” means nothing else but “tool”. Under this title, various treatises by Greek philosopher Aristotle were compiled, which had a huge historical influence as almost the entire scholarly work of the Middle Ages, the Scholasticism, was based on them. When our edition of 1562 was printed, Humanists were eagerly trying to smash the imposing building of Scholasticism while raising the status of Aristotle’s work at the same time. A contradiction? Not at all! But we have to go far afield to understand it.

This portrait of Aristotle is the Roman copy of a work by Greek sculptor Lysippos.

Logic: Science or a Tool?

When talking about Aristotle as a philosopher, we must not think of a wizened little man in an isolated thinker’s hermitage who doesn’t do anything but brooding over his books.

Aristotle himself divides his actual work (and thus the fields of knowledge studied at his time) into three groups: theoretical, practical and poietic knowledge. One seeks theoretical knowledge for one’s one sake. In the opinion of the ancient thinker, it ranges from questions about the nature of the soul to zoological problems. He considers ethics (“How to behave morally?”) and state philosophy practical areas, because they can have an impact on politics and thus on the daily life of everyone. Finally, poietic knowledge covers rhetoric and literary studies.

Let’s not talk about the quality of this classification. But something that many of us primarily associate with philosophy is completely missing. You know, these seemingly abstract concepts and analyses about whom non-philosophers say that they are solutions to problems that normal people don’t even have. They deal, for example, with so-called syllogisms, logical arguments with two propositions leading to a conclusion: if bronze is heavy (1) and all statues are made of bronze (2), we can deduct that all statues are heavy (3). Especially these syllogisms, and the field of logic and description in general, how we make assertions, what kinds of argumentation there are etc, all of this ultimately originates in Aristotle’s theoretical foundation.

Strangely enough, he believed that this wasn’t part of philosophy itself but just a tool that a philosopher needed to work. And that’s why already the first commentators of Aristotle’s work summarised these treatises on logic under the catchy title of Organon, i.e. tool.

Anselm of Canterbury is considered to be the founder of Scholasticism. In this depiction he gives his work to Empress Matilda.

Scholastics and the Question of the Sex of Angels

The Organon’s historical influence was tremendous. From a fine fretsaw to a chisel and a heavy sledgehammer, by means of this work, Aristotle had sorted everything a thinker needed in order to argue “logically” in a toolbox for the philosophers and theologians of the following centuries. Porphyry from Greece and Boethius from Rome deserve special credit for passing on its significance to the Middle Ages. Thanks to them, medieval scholars examined any question according to the Aristotelian criteria. Just like in debating societies of British Universities, no problem was to abstruse – as long as it didn’t violate the fundamental principles of Christian faith. Even the question of the sex of angels could be debated intensively. As long as, one might say, it wasn’t of much relevance for everyday life…

Freethinker and anti-scholastic: Franciscan friar Roger Bacon. Photo: Michael Reeve / CC BY-SA 3.0

What about the Connection to the Real World?

And so it happened that one of the greatest scholastics became the most determined opponent of this movement: the English Franciscan friar Roger Bacon. In the 13th century, he shouted to his theologian colleagues: “Back to the roots!” The Doctor Mirabilis, the wonderful teacher, as he was called, urged the pedantic critics and quibblers to read Aristotle correctly (and in Greek, of course!). Then they would understand that the Greek philosopher would have shook his head in disapproval about their hair-splitting and pointless discussions. In his zoological research, Aristotle actually took an empirical approach and repeatedly dissected chicken eggs, for example. In this way, he wanted to find out how the organs of chicks develop. For Aristotle, logic was merely a tool for organising practical knowledge, not a purpose by itself.

But Roger Bacon was ahead of his time. Who would have wanted to diverge from the church’s doctrine? And who knew the language of Aristotle back then? Armed with such knowledge, only the Humanists were capable of removing the dust from Greek erudition and rediscovering it in a completely new way.

Guillaume Morel: Royal Court Printer and Greek Scholar

Shortly before 1500, Aldus Manutius printed Aristotle’s entire work in Greek for the first time ever. A pioneering achievement! Since then, new editions of single treatises were repeatedly published. Our book was printed in 1562 by Guillaume Morel in Paris. Morel, born in 1505 in Teilleul (Normandy) in ordinary circumstances, had drawn attention to himself at an early age due to his extraordinary talent for the Greek language. In Paris, he quickly found a job as proof-reader in a printing house where he proofread the galleys; a responsible job. In 1544 he caused a sensation with his own edition of Cicero’s “De finibus”. What is done by philologists at universities today – namely “textual criticism” and doing research on the original wording of ancient works – was often the task of printing houses and their employees back then.

Morel became self-employed and, in 1552, he joined forces with Adrien Turnèbe, the royal printer for the Greek language. Such royal printers enjoyed numerous privileges and there was only a single one of them for each subject. Although the title was passed on to other printers later, Morel received the royal matrices in 1555.

His edition of the Organon is considered a well-researched work. We find an essay of Porphyry as introduction, which had been standard since ancient times, followed by the “Categories”, the treatise on the “Proposition”, “Logic”, “Doctrine of Demonstration”, “Topics”, i.e. the treatises on definitions, and the “Sophistical Refutations”. At first glance, the last work deals with the sophists, a group of pre-philosophers with whom Socrates was always at loggerheads. However, Aristotle wanted to achieve something much more general: which errors should be avoided in reasoning and drawing conclusions? True to the motto: one can also learn something from poorly written books, he used the example of sophists.

Even if you don’t know Greek: just admire the elegant font style! Since Aldus Manutius, creating aesthetically pleasing Greek letters repeatedly challenged printers. In this case, they used their experience with Latin letters to transfer the ornamentations and stylish contractions of neighbouring letters (the technical term is ligature) to the Greek language. As a result, the typeface presents itself with the elegance of a sweeping style of handwriting.

Although Morel was a successful publisher, he died impoverished. His wife took over the business and her son-in-law became royal printer for the Greek language.

Even though Aristotle’s opinions on logic and topics are widely considered obsolete by now, we must not forget: without the Organon as toolbox of medieval thinkers, the intellectual history of Europe would have taken a completely different course.

 

Our edition isn’t available online. Wikisource offers an English translation of the Organon.