Ancient Eugenics

Aristotle -- The Culmination of Classic Eugenic Theory

From Plato we pass to Aristotle and the culminating period in the history of ancient eugenics. The Aristotelian scheme is almost entirely negative and restrictive. There is infanticide, but infanticide in its last phase, exposure of the imperfect and maimed, and, in the case of superfluous children, destruction of life in the germ. There is no fantastical scheme for the fusion of parental temperament, no rigid selection on the sole basis of physique.

Like Plato, Aristotle believed in the intimate relationship between psychological phenomena and physical conditions. Body stands to soul in the relation of matter to form, potentiality to actuality; soul is the entelechy of the body. Body being prior chronologically to soul, demands attention first, but only for the sake of the soul. Care, therefore, must be taken that the bodies of the children may answer the expectations of the legislator.

There is no need for a man to possess the physique of a wrestler in order to be the father of healthy children; neither must he be a valetudinarian nor physically degenerate. There is a via media between the extremes of specialized athleticism and physical incapacity, and it is this mean which is the desirable condition for both men and women. The valetudinarian who would have been left to die in the Republic may one day be eliminated by the humaner methods of Aristotle. There is much evidence to prove that physical weakness is a case of simple Mendelian transmission.

As at Sparta and in the states of the Republic and Laws, there is limitation of the marriage age. Aristotle recommends the difference of twenty years between the ages of husband and wife, or, more accurately, the difference between thirty-seven and eighteen. Comparison with the marriage age defined in the Republic and Laws shows that ancient thought had decreed no definite period. Four reasons incline Aristotle to select these ages. Since the procreative power of women stops at fifty, the harmony of the union will be preserved by insuring that husband and wife shall grow old at the same period of time. The disadvantages which attend too great nearness or distance in age between father and child are also avoided. More important than all, these ages, consulting the physical well-being of husband and wife, afford the best prospect of well-developed children.

It is possible to approve of the postponement of marriage till eighteen, or even later; but the limitation on disparity of ages seems unnecessarily severe. Aristotle, studying the results of early marriage in other cities, deplored what he saw as its baneful effect on physique.

Like Sparta and Plato, Aristotle forbade those past their prime to rear children to the state. Marriage is thus divided into two periods, and this first period is to last for seventeen years, not ten as in the Laws. Moreover, he would fix even the season for contracting marriage, and in conformity with Pythagoras and Greek custom generally, chooses Gamelion. Today it is held that neither the vitality of the offspring, their physique, nor their intellectual capacity, show any clear correlation with the season of birth. "There is no atavistic heritage of a special season for reproduction which the human race have originally shown analogous to what one finds today in many species of animals."

"The married couple ought also to regard the precepts of physicians and naturalists." Aristotle, belonging to an Asclepiad family, received the partly medical education which was traditional in such families. Some of his encyclopedic writings deal with medical subjects, and he is said to have practised medicine as an amateur. This is a further stage of the tendency which had begun with Plato's debt to Hippocrates.

Care for the child is to begin before the cradle. And Aristotle insists, like the Spartan legislator, on the avoidance of sedentary occupation and the need for a proper dietary. But he is concerned not only with effect on physique, but also, like Plato, with effect on the mind.

The first seven years of a child's life are to be spent at home, not in the creches of the Republic, nor in the public infant schools of Plato's Laws. This is to be a time of games, "mimicries of future earnest," under the charge of the inspectors of children, for Aristotle held with Plato that the majority of our likes and dislikes are formed in these early ages. Education is to run in cycles of seven years; the child is to be controlled at every period of its evolution. From the age of seven to puberty there are state-controlled gymnastics, but these gymnastics, unlike the Spartan, are merely a means to a further end -- the training of reason from puberty to the age of twenty- one. After this, education ceases, and the young man brings body and mind, fully developed, to the service of the state. Aristotle's scheme is merely adumbrated: there are scattered suggestions rather than coordination, and the last stage of science, which is to cultivate the reason, is never mentioned at all.

Aristotle, like the ancients generally, recognizes the importance of both environment and heredity. There are three stages in the formation of character, nature, custom, reason: innate potentiality, environment, self-direction by the light of a principle. We are born good, we have goodness thrust upon us, we achieve goodness. Heredity to Aristotle explains the slave just as certainly as it explains those who never will be slaves; yet to admit emancipation for all slaves is to confess that there is no slave by nature without the potentialities of full manhood. It is true that some men from the beginning are fit only for that lower work on which the fabric of society must rest. The maintenance of heterogeneity is an essential condition of progress: there must always be the minuti homines at the base of things, though we have long since passed from the permanent grades of Plato, Aristotle, and the Middle Ages. Plato, indeed, at one period seems to have conceded that the man from the copper class might rise to the silver or gold, and it is at this that social reform must aim, not to abolish class, but to provide that each individual shall, as far as possible, reach his proper stratum and remain in it.

Like Plato, Aristotle recognizes that there are victims of heredity who can never be made good by education. But this factor of heredity is amenable to no certain control. Helen may boast of her immortal lineage, but those who think it reasonable that as a man begets a man and a beast a beast, so from a good man a good man should be descended, these fail to see that, though such is the desire of nature, her failures are frequent. Nature's aim is perfection, to make this the best of all possible worlds; but there are failures because matter is not always congruous with form. But "Nature's defects are man's opportunities": matter must therefore be helped as far as possible to the realization of its true form by the human agency of education.

So much importance did Aristotle attach to education that, like Sparta, he would make it entirely an affair of the state. There is to be one educational authority and one sole system of education.

The laws of Aristotle are as catholic as the laws of Alfred: "the legislator must extend his views to everything." Therefore his eugenic scheme will be enforced by law. His aim is to embody public opinion in law, not to educate opinion to such a point that law will become unnecessary.

"Every city is constituted of quantity and quality." Aristotle, therefore, no less than Plato, would fix an ideal limit to the population as well as regulate its quality. In the Aristotelian scheme, as in the Platonic, there emerges a certain Malthusian element; but it is a legal ordinance and not a natural law: it is to prevent population from interfering with the equalization of lots, not from outrunning the limits of subsistence. He conceived that Plato's plan of unigeniture made it more than ever essential that there should not be too many sons in a household, and yet, in his view, the Platonic means were insufficient. But there is also the conception of the mean, of an enclosing limit flowing naturally from the teleological method. Just as a boat can no more be two furlongs long than a span long, so a state can no more have 100,000 citizens than ten. Its essence lies in the fact that it can easily be comprehended as a whole.

Yet, though Aristotle held the State to be a natural organism, he would not concede that hypertrophy was prevented by natural laws without the need for human cooperation. It is absurd to leave numbers to regulate themselves, according to the number of women who should happen to be childless, because this seems to occur in other cities. Rejecting as a mere palliative the remedy of colonization, which Pheidon of Corinth had suggested, and Plato had kept in the background of the Laws, he insisted that a limit must be set to the procreation of children, even during a seventeen years' term. When infractions occurred -- and one would imagine that under such circumstances they would be of frequent occurrence o there is not to be exposure, which is impious on the ground of superfluity, but destruction of life in the germ.

Today limitation of numbers among the upper classes of the community is being brought about naturally by the increase of foresight and self-control. It is the lower classes whose reckless propagation constitutes the problem of modern eugenics. Aristotle, denying these classes the rights of citizenship, and treating them politically as cyphers, sets them outside his scheme of social reform. The number of slaves, resident aliens, and foreigners, is to be left to chance, "and it is perhaps necessary that their numbers should be large."

The Aristotelian eugenics, therefore, are as selfish and parochial as the Spartan. As in the animal body, the homogeneous are for the sake of the heterogeneous. Where eugenics is most necessary, eugenics is denied; the man who performs a task which ruins his body or his mind is set beyond the pale as a mere living instrument. This was the simple pre-humanitarian solution of a difficult problem. But Aristotle recognized, as eugenists recognize today, that any scheme of constructive eugenics must be set aside as visionary and impracticable, so slender is our knowledge of the genetic processes of man. Aristotle, finding a scapegoat in a mythological nature, abandoned the problem as insoluble: today we are still seeking some outline of an analysis of human characters.

The chief interest of the Aristotelian eugenics lies in the fact that he set out to construct a scheme which should be practicable for Athens, no academic speculation in the clouds, but a possible plan of social reform. "The legislator must bear two things in mind -- what is possible and what is proper. It is not enough to perceive what is best without being able to put it in practice." Hence careful attention is paid to popular opinion and existing custom. The consensus mundi, the collective capacity of the many, are factors the importance of which he constantly emphasizes. This "divine fight of things as they are," involving a certain conservatism, led him to uphold any custom revealing after analysis a balance of good in its favour. Hence the acceptance of infanticide and slavery, and regulation of the marriage age. The doctrine of the mean also, which helped to decide the proper disposition of parents and to fix the number of the state, was an essential article of received opinion. If Athens had ever instituted a eugenic system, it would have been the system of Aristotle, not of Sparta or Plato. Aristotle, applying the idea of development to knowledge as well as to the objects of knowledge, not only conceived his own theories as a development of those of his predecessors, but imagined himself as standing at the culmination of Greek thought. This eschatology was justified. The politics not only set the final seal upon political science in Greece, it marks also the last word in eugenics.

Looking back upon these past systems, we find that the task was easier for a pre-Christian age which could sacrifice the lower classes in the interests of the higher and solve the problems of heredity by infanticide. Even when the influence of Sparta had died away and eugenics was regarded no longer as a mere ancillary to war, parochialism confined it to a single state, inhumanity to a single class. The features which are so prominent in all these early schemes

  • Precise limitation of the marriage age and detailed schemes of education -- are features which, though still recognized, no longer have their place in the foreground of modern thought.

The Greeks were concerned more with the banks of the stream; the modern aim is to control its source. The gradual process of social reform during the first three quarters of the nineteenth century has gradually brought us farther back in the course of successive stages. From measures of sanitation and factory laws we have passed to national schemes of education. A gradual extension of aim has led to efforts to guard the child at birth, even before birth; and, finally, eugenics has set itself to solve the problems of heredity. The "Life-History Albums" of Sir Francis Galton|Galton] would trace the workings of the ancestral curse, the Ate of inherited disease as well as of inherited sin: Mendelism would render possible a factorial analysis of the individual.

Nevertheless, though the Greeks abandoned the question of heredity in despair, and, unable to prevent its victims being born, slew them if possible at birth, they realized many of the problems which, 2, 000 years later, are still confronting eugenists, and they realized in part the remedies. It is wrong to say that antiquity never raised the question as to whether a hereditary disease or predisposition to disease should be a bar to marriage. The Spartans, Plato, Aristotle, all realized the problem, Plato returning to atavism for his remedy, Aristotle conceiving the humaner methods of modern eugenists. Sparta and Plato, too, were not blind to the need, today so urgent, of restrictive measures dealing with the insane, and Plato even dreamt of segregation. There is the recognition, also, that eugenics is the sphere of the physician as well as of the philosopher; that quantity is a factor in the problem as well as quality; that selective eugenics must regard the mental as well as the physical. But even that final formulation in the pages of Aristotle, which would have been possible to the age, and more possible today than the narrow scheme of Sparta or the unsubstantial visions of Plato, even these saner eugenics have in them much that is impossible, no little that is abhorrent, to thinkers of today. But the idea had been given life and brought to bear. Long after the sowers had passed away it sprang to renewed existence in a different age and in a different form, engendered by new conditions.

After Aristotle stretches a gulf of years in which eugenics lies amid the lumber of forgotten theory. The state education of the fourth century may have owed something to Plato and Aristotle, but there is no state control of marriage. Zeno and Chrysippus, influenced, perhaps, by a perverted Platonism, advocated community of wives. But Zeno taught that the intelligent man should avoid all public affairs except in a state approaching perfection; and Chrysippus, writing a treatise on the education of childhood, is reproached by Poseidonius for neglecting its first and most important stages, especially those before birth. "Poseidonius blames Chrysippus and admires what Plato taught about the formation of children while yet unborn."

No attempt was ever made to realize the ideals of the Republic "except by dreamers and somnambulists at second-hand in an age of mysticism and social degeneration." Plotinus obtained from the Emperor Gallienus and his wife the concession of a ruined city in Campania, which had once been founded by philosophers. He proposed to restore it, name it Platonopolis, and adopt the laws of Plato. This early anticipation of the Oneida Community never seems to have been realized.

In the "Utopia" of Sir Thomas More, the marriage preliminaries, suggesting something of Plato's physical point of view, recall a passage in the Laws. But in Campanella's "City of the Sun" we find a closer approximation to the Platonic eugenics. Marriage, recognized as an affair of the state rather than of the individual, because the interests of future generations are involved, is only to be performed in the light of scientific knowledge. The "great master," who is a physician, aided by the chief matrons, is to supervise marriage, which will be confined to the valorous and high-spirited. There is to be a system of state education, and the women are trained for the most part like men in warlike and other exercises. Campanella has been called the prophet of modern eugenics: he is the connecting-link between the crude eugenics of the past and the scientific eugenic possibilities which are now emerging as a result of our increasing knowledge of human eugenics.

Decline in the Hellenic Age

Realizing only vaguely the difficulties with which modern science has encompassed the problem, the ancients might have been expected to have cherished the ideal till actual experiment revealed these incommensurable factors. With their conception of the state as an etre moral collectif, with their recognition of law as the sum of the spiritual limits of the people, with the favourable support of the consensus mundi which Aristotle never opposed, everything seemed opportune for its realization. But just as a good man is crushed by a bad environment, so a social theory must wither in an unresponsive age. Eugenics is dependent upon the ethical perspective; the philosophy of egotism -- le culte de soi-meme -- finds no appeal in a theory which looks beyond the pleasure of the individual to the interests of the future race.

From Socrates to Aristotle philosophy has striven to stem the current of political dissolution, and in philosophy we see an insurgent pessimism, an evergrowing prominence assigned to the theoretic life. The supremacy of Macedon signalized the final breakdown of Greek civilization. Aristotle, standing on the border-line, found in classic antiquity an influence sufficiently strong to place the community in the foreground as compared with the individual.

After Aristotle, the tendency, which had already been at work among the philosophers of the Academy and the Peripatetics, completely reversed the position. Turning aside from the ideal of man as an organic member of society, philosophy concerned itself instead with the satisfaction of the ideas of the individual.

In place of their old dead principles men required new guides: they sought and found these in two directions -- in Orientalism and philosophy. From Orientalism they learnt to profess complete detachment from an ephemeral world of sordid corporeal change, to contemn women and offspring, to throw aside costume, cleanliness, and all the customary decencies of life: Karma will soon be exhausted, Nirvana attained. No theory of racial regeneration can flourish in such an atmosphere of inconsequent egotism.

Epicureanism, with its watchword of "seclusion," teaching its disciples to forego marriage and the rearing of children, can have had no place for eugenics. Equally opposed is the tendency of Stoicism, which "draws such a sharp distinction between what is without and what is within that it regards the latter as alone essential, the former as altogether indifferent, which attaches no value to anything except virtuous intention, and places the highest value in being independent of everything."

Such a system is not likely to concern itself with the interests of a state in which the mass of men are fools, and denied every healthy endeavor. It is true that besides this tendency toward individual independence there was a logical development of Stoicism which recognized that man, to obtain his freedom, must live, not for himself, but for society. But it was the earlier end that continued to predominate, bringing Stoicism nearer and nearer to the selfish egotism of Epicurus. It is only in a community of wise ones that a man will marry or beget children. A generation imbued with such philosophies would have as little thought of racial improvement as an age which found its guidance in the teachings of Schopenhauer and Hartmann.

Moreover, cosmopolitanism, consequent on the dissolution of the city state, not only brought individualism in its train, but let loose the inveterate pessimism of the ancients. So long as the city state existed, the Greeks, forgetful of the Golden Age in the past and the inevitable cataclysm in the future, concerned themselves with the future progress of a limited race. But pessimism, linked with individualism, became a living force in a despairing age, which had never developed the evolutionary conceptions of Anaximander. The creed of a warrior caste, even in the hands of Plato and Aristotle, had never lost its aristocratic character, and when this spirit gave way before the cosmopolitanism and individualism of subsequent philosophy, directing human values away from an evolutionary worldview, the eugenic ideal died and remained lost for centuries. Neither the future nor the past mattered to men whose creed was selfish individualism, but only the present. Extreme individualism, and a new religion that represented human affairs as being the will of God, were the two influences which effectually thwarted the further growth, and indeed the very survival of, classical eugenic thought.


Roper, Allen G. Ancient Eugenics< The Arnold Prize Essay, 1913 Oxford.

Public Domain text taken from
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