Jonathan Barnes

Jonathan Barnes, who taught philosophy in Oxford, Geneva and Paris, lives in retirement in the middle of France. He has written several books about ancient philosophy, the most recent of which, Coffee with Aristotle, has a preface by his brother.

What, even bedbugs? Demiurge at Work

Jonathan Barnes, 5 June 2008

Why are there peacocks? And why are there pigs? ‘Nature loves beauty and delights in diversity: that is well shown by the tail of the peacock, for there nature makes it evident that the bird is born for the sake of the tail and not vice versa.’ ‘Pigs are born to be slaughtered, and god has added a soul to their flesh as a sort of salt, thereby providing us with pork.’...

Already hailed in America as ‘climactic’ and ‘monumental’, The Way and the Word is the product of a collaboration between an eminent Hellenist and an expert Sinologist. It compares ancient Greek thought and ancient Chinese thought. The period of comparison is officially the six centuries from about 400 BC to about 200 AD, but in fact a considerable part of the Greek...


Jonathan Barnes, 9 July 1987

Ioannes Philoponus – Industrious Jack – was a Christian Neoplatonist who worked in Greek Alexandria in the sixth century AD. He was a tireless author. His vast oeuvre, considerable portions of which survive, included commentaries on Aristotle, philosophical treatises, and works of Christian theology and Christian polemic. As a theologian, he was embroiled in the doctrinal disputes of the time, championing the monophysite cause and espousing tritheism. As a philosopher, he was most remarkable – as the title of Richard Sorabji’s splendid book indicates – for his rejection of various parts of the dominant Aristotelian view of the physical universe.’

A Kind of Integrity

Jonathan Barnes, 6 November 1986

Hans-Georg Gadamer ranks as one of Germany’s foremost philosophers. He occupied a chair at Heidelberg for quarter of a century, during which time his lecturing skills and a steady flow of publications brought him a reputation and a following second to none. Since his retirement he has divided his time between Germany and North America. Many of his writings have been translated, and the English version of his major work on Truth and Method has helped to extend his fame. His thought now enjoys a considerable vogue in the English-speaking world.


Jonathan Barnes, 24 July 1986

In 1045 BC the Mandate of Heaven passed from the Shang to the Chou dynasty, and the sun rose on an age of gold. The tao prevailed in the land: the right path was taken, men were upright and amiable and rich, things went the way things ought to go. So at least thought Confucius five hundred years later. Finding his Utopia in the past, he claimed not to innovate but to transmit an ancient learning: in order to return to the tao, China need only recover the wisdom of the age of Chou.


Jonathan Barnes, 23 January 1986

‘Theaetetus is flying’: Plato presented the sentence as a paradigm falsehood; good Aristotelians later argued that its falsity was apodictically certain. For the impossibility of human flight seemed to follow ineluctably from two seemingly irrefragable truths. First, there’s no flying without wings. ‘Flight,’ according to Aristotle, ‘is the form of locomotion peculiarly appropriate to birds,’ and it is properly accomplished by means of wings. (A stock example in the ancient logic books ran: ‘If the earth flies, it has wings.’) Secondly, men have no wings. According to Aristotle again, ‘birds cannot have an upright posture like men. For the nature of their wings is useful to them given the way in which their bodies are in fact constituted, but if they were upright the wings would be useless – as they are on the Cupids which painters depict. And it is clear that no man – nor anything else of a similar form – could be winged: for the possession of wings would be useless for them in their natural movement, and nature makes nothing contrary to nature.’ Only things with wings can fly; no man can have wings: therefore no man can fly. Flying is strictly for the birds.’

Hellenic Tours

Jonathan Barnes, 1 August 1985

Greek, Sir, said he, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can.’ So Johnson in 1780. An early editor punctiliously observed that ‘this was said twenty-five or thirty years ago, when lace was very generally worn.’ Two centuries later lace is quite out of fashion.

The Gods of Greece

Jonathan Barnes, 4 July 1985

Every pilgrim who ascends the Acropolis is seized by the splendour of the Parthenon, its ruined elegance, its marmoreal serenity. But the pilgrimage is secular: although we know that the Parthenon was a temple, we do not experience it as a numinous haunt of the gods. The power of its finished form is now perhaps beyond imagination: but it may be doubted whether even the vast chryselephantine statue of Athene which it housed – and which was, by all accounts, incomparable in its vulgarity – added any awfulness to the place. The museum visitor who contemplates a marble Aphrodite may likewise know that Aphrodite was a Greek goddess. But her smooth contours are unlikely to excite thoughts of religious passion.


Jonathan Barnes, 6 September 1984

Who else would refer in the space of a hundred pages to a newly discovered papyrus of Stesichorus, a Zurich medical dissertation on the fear of being buried alive, and four 19th-century Danish followers of Hegel? George Steiner’s erudition is as exuberant as ever. The latest book, like its predecessors, teems with esoteric references, recondite allusions and jackdaw juxtapositions. It resounds with the clangour of dropping names.

Aristotle and Women

Jonathan Barnes, 16 February 1984

Science is practised amid folklore and ideology, and it is foolishly romantic to imagine that the scientist conducts his professional affairs on a high plateau of reason untainted by the miasmous exhalations of ordinary life. It is equally foolish to suppose that science is and can be nothing more than a cunning defence of the ‘dominant ideology’ of the society within whose bounds it happens to be pursued. But it is plausible – even platitudinous – to think that the scientist may be influenced, in unconscious acquiescence or conscious reaction, by the unscientific ideas prevalent in his society. That platitude generates a host of particular questions for the historian of science. How far was this astronomer influenced by the astrological beliefs of his contemporaries? How far was that botanist moved by the accumulated wisdom of country folk? How far did this biologist escape from the anthropocentric prejudices of his society? If we are interested in Kepler or in Newton, it will matter that the one was a devotee of astrology, the other of alchemy. But those dispiriting facts impinge upon the history of science only to the extent that Kepler’s astrology disoriented his star-map or Newton’s alchemy upset his calculations. The general form of the questions, in short, is this: how far did items of folklore or of ideology affect science?–



16 February 1984

Jonathan Barnes writes: No mystery and, alas, no joke. If Mr Darke uses epamphoterizein in his Greek prose, he may yet be as elegant as Plato; if he writes ‘dualise’ in English, he is a barbarian.

Good Repute

M.F. Burnyeat, 6 November 1986

‘Aristotle and Plato’, ‘Plato and Aristotle’ – the coupling of names is something we take for granted. They are the two giants of ancient philosophy, are they not,...

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The Sponge of Apelles

Alexander Nehamas, 3 October 1985

Thales of Miletus, with whom histories of Western philosophy conventionally begin, was said to have been so concerned with the heavens that he fell into a well while he was gazing at the stars....

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