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Rembrandt and Aristotle: the Power of Ideas

Author interested in a wide range or topics including history, art, television, and geo-politics.

Painting of Rembrandt, self-portrait circa 1659

Painting of Rembrandt, self-portrait circa 1659

The Artist

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, or simply and more commonly known as Rembrandt, was "The Dutch Master," ranked among the greatest of Dutch artists. He lived in what is today the Netherlands from 1606 to 1669 A.D., but he transcended the art form of his time. Prolific in his subject matter and medium, Rembrandt is worthy of the best artists of other earlier times including Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, or Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet of later eras.

Painting of Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, Rembrandt circa 1653

Painting of Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, Rembrandt circa 1653

The Philosopher

What I would like to explore is Rembrandt's oil painting, Aristotle With a Bust of Homer. Painted in 1653 on commission from Don Antonio Ruffo of Sicily, the painting depicts the great philosopher Aristotle, himself a student of the equally great Plato, and teacher of Alexander the Great.

Aristotle lived from 384 to 322 B.C., primarily in Athens until called on to tutor Alexander. Aristotle’s philosophy could be described as grounded in realism while Plato’s was in the abstract. The tension between these schools is what underlies the ethos of the West. All later Western philosophy, theology, and even much of political thought can be derived from these schools or in attempting to synthesize them.

Marble bust of Homer, unknown artist, circa 1st or 2nd cent. B.C. (Roman copy of Greek original)

Marble bust of Homer, unknown artist, circa 1st or 2nd cent. B.C. (Roman copy of Greek original)

The Bard

Rembrandt represents Aristotle as contemplating Homer: the great bard of antiquity. Not much is known of Homer, or whether he even existed. But the stories attributed to him originated around the 8th century B.C., and outside the Bible, these tales may be the most influential stories of Western literature.

Alexander the Great is said to have slept with a copy of the Iliad—likely apocryphal but telling. Alexander undoubtedly compared himself to Achilles and all later conquerors and would-be conquers of the West would compare themselves to Alexander.

Mosaic of Alexander the Great, unknown artist; Mosaic in Pompeii circa 100 B.C.

Mosaic of Alexander the Great, unknown artist; Mosaic in Pompeii circa 100 B.C.

The Conqueror

Close inspection of Aristotle shows a gold chain wrapped around him, with a medallion of Alexander’s image, presumably a gift from his once student and master. A reward, but also a reminder of who rules the world: not philosophers, despite Plato’s dream, but men like Alexander.

Rembrandt understands that while philosophy helps explain the world, it is ultimately a distillation and quantification of ideas expressed in great literature. While Homer paints a myth involving long-ago wars fought by gods and heroes, the explanation of human nature and condition is fundamental to the ethics of philosophical tradition.

Marble bust of Aristotle, from Lysippus circa 330 B.C. (Roman copy of a Greek original)

Marble bust of Aristotle, from Lysippus circa 330 B.C. (Roman copy of a Greek original)

What Endures

Rembrandt expresses the tension between the ideas contained in stories and expressed in philosophy, but are ultimately subject to the reality of what we find ourselves in. Aristotle’s reality was that while he was a great philosopher, he was still subject to this great king; he accepted his gilded chains. Rembrandt must have understood this tension and reality.

Rembrandt himself lived a good life but, never one of means, was always subject to his patrons and creditors. Nevertheless, while Alexander is remembered, his empire is dust. The legacy of the artists and philosophers, however, lives on.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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