How We Discovered Aristotle Standing in for Bertrand Russell

Torah isn’t like any other philosophy or area of study: those can be compartmentalized. You can study science or math intellectually, but it won’t affect you as a person or change your behavior. Torah is different. Torah dives deep into your psyche and changes you as a person. If you learn Torah, it makes you a better person, whether you realize it or not.

The classic anecdote given to illustrate this story is about Aristotle, the most revered of philosophers. He was brilliant, but it was all mental development; it meant nothing to the development of his character. Once, he was out in the field and hungry, so he ripped a limb off a rabbit and ate it raw. His students asked him, “How is it that Aristotle, the greatest of all philosophers, can stoop to do something so low?”

He replied: “When I’m teaching, I’m Aristotle. But I’m not always Aristotle.”

(Alternative version: he replied “Is a mathematician a triangle?”)

From here we can see that “chachma bagoyim” is just that – merely cold, intellectual knowledge, with no moral aspect.

At this point in the lesson Devorah, the Asker of Questions, invariably raises her hand. “Excuse me! But what is the source for this story?”

The teacher just looks at her. Everyone knows the story. Asking for a source is like asking for the source of Little Red Riding Hood. It just is.

“It’s a very common story, but I would like to please know where it comes from,” Devorah explains. “I haven’t been able to find it in any biographies of Aristotle.”

For the record, I totally believe that Devorah read a biography of Aristotle, looking for this story.

“I’ll have to get back to you,” the teacher says.

She doesn’t, of course. A week later Devorah follows up, and the teacher promises to ask her husband. If she does, he doesn’t know either.

Devorah, in her infinite faith, believed the story must have a source, or everyone wouldn’t be quoting it. So she kept asking. Finally, a teacher had a brainstorm: crowdsource the question!

The challenge was issued to the entire class: find the source for the Aristotle story. We all went home and passed the challenge on to our fathers and brothers. And the search was on.

For a month, there were periodic updates, as students raised their hands to give the status of their research teams. People found the story – in many permutations – quoted in recent books, mostly mussar seforim, but nobody had a source tracing it back further than, say, 1950.

Finally, at around a month and a half, the story was traced back to its apparent origins, which was neither Aristotle nor a raw rabbit leg.

Bertrand Russell, while he was a Professor of Ethics at Harvard was carrying on an adulterous affair.  Harvard’s Board of Governors called Russell in and censured him. Russell maintained that his private affairs had nothing to do with the performance of his professional duties.

“But you are a Professor of Ethics!” one of the Board members remonstrated.

“I was a Professor of Geometry at Cambridge,” Russell rejoined, “but the Board of Governors never asked me why I was not a triangle.”

This satisfied the class. Obviously, Bertrand Russell lacked the name recognition of Aristotle. Describing adultery in a classroom was less preferable than describing animal cruelty. And so the story was massaged for best reception by the audience, but the point was clear: being an ethicist didn’t make you ethical. Unlike being a Torah scholar, which automatically makes you a moral person who would never take part in any sexual impropriety.

And so, the search was halted and everyone was happy.

Except Devorah. I spoke to her last week and she still considers the search unfinished. The story had been about Aristotle. Surely, the Jewish world would not participate in wholesale libel against a man so highly regarded by the Rambam?

PS: Apparently there isn’t an authoritative source for the Russell story either, although he did carry out an affair while being a professor of philosophy, and ethics was a particular interest of his. Still, he never worked at Harvard, and the actual quote “When I was professor of mathematics they didn’t ask me why I wasn’t a triangle” is not known to have been uttered.

How We Discovered Aristotle Standing in for Bertrand Russell

16 thoughts on “How We Discovered Aristotle Standing in for Bertrand Russell

  1. I’d recommend that Devorah also go on looking for the source of the story about Russell, as the only place I’ve found it is at Aish Or maybe it comes from an issue of “Conservative Judaism”

    And here’s someone who claims that the story about Aristotle is in the Talmud, which I doubt but there’s the name and email of the person who says it’s there, so she can try to track her down

    If you follow the thread, someone posts a link to “Conservative Judaism” and a link to Google Books but I wasn’t able to located what he refers to. But you can probably find a full set at the JTS library. But if that’s the source, someone should tell Aish.


  2. When I wrote my comment Warren’s wasn’t up yet; I see now that we both quoted the same source. I left out the part about her claim that the quote of Aristotle is in the Talmud, because as far as I know Aristotle is not mentioned anywhere in the Talmud. I don’t think tracking her down will help in that regard. The part I quoted was her claim that Russel was quoting Aristotle, which is certainly believable but simply puts the question on Russel – what was his source that Aristotle said it?


      1. Esther Bernstein says:

        Who was the first to tell this story? Why did he tell it at that particular point in time? Was he influenced by his culture (well, of course he was, but which elements of that culture and to what extent)? Who was the next to tell it? Was it popular in the writer/storyteller’s own time, or was it virtually unknown until later? Why did it become a “story for the ages”? What is it about Little Red Riding Hood that carries through the ages? What was the original storyteller’s point? Did that change over the years? How and why? Etc, etc.

        See where I’m going? Fiction is not truth, but it tells a truth. It says something about people, events, etc., and in order to understand those truths, of course we need to know the fiction’s source.


      2. Ah. I thought we were discussing questioning the veracity of something. That type of questioning is inherently inapplicable to fiction; hence, my question. Though I do agree that it is valuable to ask questions about fiction – it’s just a different type of questioning.


      3. Esther Bernstein says:

        Bad4, I think the fiction in question is Little Red Riding Hood. I completely agree with the previous comment, and can say more but didn’t want to derail the conversation – you know me, get me started on this and I can pontificate for hours 🙂


  3. The Aristotle story would seem to be against the Rambam in The Guide for the Perplexed (1:5):

    WHEN the chief of philosophers (Aristotle) was about to inquire into some very profound subjects, and to establish his theory by proofs, he commenced his treatise with an apology, and requested the reader to attribute the author’s inquiries not to presumption, vanity, egotism, or arrogance, as though he were interfering with things of which he had no knowledge, but rather to his zeal and his desire to discover and establish true doctrines, as far as lay in human power. We take the same position, and think that a man, when he commences to speculate, ought not to embark at once on a subject so vast and important; he should previously adapt himself to the study of the several branches of science and knowledge, should most thoroughly refine his moral character and subdue his passions and desires, the offspring of his imagination; when, in addition, he has obtained a knowledge of the true fundamental propositions, a comprehension of the several methods of inference and proof, and the capacity of guarding against fallacies, then he may approach the investigation of this subject. He must, however, not decide any question by the first idea that suggests itself to his mind, or at once direct his thoughts and force them to obtain a knowledge of the Creator, but he must wait modestly and patiently, and advance step by step. (Friedlander translation)


  4. I’ve heard this story represented as absolute truth in elementary school countless times, but I was always more concerned about teachers retelling the story of Damon and Pythias in all its variations at least three times a year.


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