Rembrandt – Aristotle With a Bust of Homer

I admit I lack the skill to compose an ekphrasis worthy of this painting by Rembrandt van Rijn, but I feel compelled nevertheless to say what I can about its profound effect on myself.

Rembrandt’s Aristotle With a Bust of Homer depicts not only two, but three characters universally acknowledged as masters of the highest order in their respective fields. Homer, Aristotle, and symbolised by the latter’s gold chain, Alexander the Great.

Rembrandt - Aristotle with a Bust of Homer

The bust of the blind rhapsode gazes into the void before him, from whose mind sprung words and deeds that would provide a source of values in Greece for generations to follow. Poets, philosophers, historians and sophists alike would either return to or react against Homeric ideologies for hundreds of years. Homer, a man of such vision that not only did his works secure his own eternal κλέος, but also that of his characters, fulfilling the promise made to Achilles before his death.

Upon his solemn head rests the hand of Aristotle. A philosopher whose output of work was so prolific, so insightful, comprehensive and groundbreaking that one cannot help but marvel that such a man could exist. Here his aged countenance seems to look wearily upon Homer, and therein I see reverence, inspiration and an almost envious look, as he longs for freedom from his own genius and a simpler life.

The chain represents Alexander, another man who needs no introduction. A man whose κλέος is almost greatest under the sky, and being tutored by Aristotle, left the philosopher a fortune.

This image speaks volumes to me. I see pain in Aristotle, who so often used Homer to supplement his writings, and whose most notable criticism regarding Plato was the latter’s condemnation of poetry. Aristotle was a genius, and after Plato had died was indubitably the greatest mind of his day. Homer is, as Pope says, universally considered first and foremost amongst all poets. Given fortune by history’s most successful general, inspiration by history’s greatest poet, Aristotle struggles with being now the world’s greatest philosopher. Is it the fame and fortune he wishes? Or should he stay true to his teachings, seeking the life of contemplation that Homer seemed to embody, and finally reach his own prescribed state of εὐδαιμονία?