August 11, 2015, by Oliver Thomas

Donald Trump, Aristotelian?

Trump’s recent comments suggest a return to ancient Greek physiological theory. Oliver Thomas investigates.


Think Trump, think hair, towers, The Apprentice, controversy,… but not Aristotle.

However, last Friday Trump called into CNN to complain about Megyn Kelly’s aggressive questioning during the previous evening’s Republican debate. The topic of the questions had been Trump’s long history of disparaging comments about women, so it was a curious tactic for Trump to counter with the following explanation of Kelly’s tone:

‘You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her… wherever.’

No surprise, perhaps, that the widespread criticism of this comment has passed over its relationship to ancient Greek theories of vision. But lecturing on medical texts for Women in the Greek World last semester has made me notice such things.

Greek thinkers were split between the understanding that we see thanks to light entering our eyes, the idea (still remarkably widespread) that the eye sends something out which interacts with an object to make it visible, and some combination of the two theories. How could one find evidence to distinguish which is right?

With a menstruating woman, of course.

If you could find an eye, under any special conditions, which had an identifiable effect on objects that it looked at, the ‘emission’ theory would have to be part of the story of vision. And Aristotle’s essay On Dreams (459b-60a) presents the following case in point. I leave it up to interested readers to try to reproduce Aristotle’s results.

‘In very clean mirrors, whenever women during their periods look into the mirror, the reflecting surface develops a kind of blood-red clouding. If the mirror is new it is not easy to wipe off such a stain, though it is easier if it is old. … It stands to reason that the eyes, during the period, take on a disposition like any other body-part, since they naturally contain blood-vessels. Hence during the period, on account of a disturbance and inflammation of the blood, the difference in the eyes, though invisible to us, does exist, and the air is moved by them, and it gives the air at the mirror’s surface a specific quality to match its own condition.’

Trump’s claim that you could actually see blood coming from Kelly’s eyes was, of course, not to be taken literally: even Aristotle denied that. But the underlying notions – that menstruation should affect the whole circulatory system including the eyes and that the eyes emit – seem recognisable. Greek men might also have nodded in approval at the reductive implication that a woman’s intellectual vigour in debate is an ‘abnormality’ conditioned by her menstrual cycle.

Several Republican candidates may betray a shaky grasp of the latest trends in climate science and evolutionary biology. Trump has trumped that with a return to Aristotle, and it hasn’t yet damaged his ratings. Will this turn into a broader strategy? Stay tuned, if you can bear it, for a prime-time unveiling of Trump’s beliefs about natural slavery…


Images: (l) Donald Trump (c) Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons. (r) Roman copy of Lysippus’ portrait bust of Aristotle, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, via Wikimedia Commons.

Posted in Greek cultureTeaching