Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

In Aristotle’s footsteps

Henri Colt
Laguna Beach, California, United States

Photo by Gianluca Cinnante on Unsplash.

Squatting on a cement slab, the old doctor watched sea urchins bristle their spines in clear Aegean waters. His short brown tunic covered shoulders broad as an oxen’s chest. He flexed his tanned, muscular forearms and clenched his fists, then rolled his cotton trousers up to his knees and stood studying the horizon.

There is not much time, he thought. The sea, which moments earlier was flat as shimmering glass, had begun to flutter. Small waves exaggerated by the passing of an outboard motorboat slapped against the concrete breakers. After a sudden splash that sent salty droplets onto his cheeks, he saw a school of fish dart between nearby rocks.

This should be a good place, he murmured to no one in particular. He adjusted his kufi and stepped into the water.

He was used to being alone. Every day he had wandered somewhere around Dikili, a coastal town in the district of, south of Troy, not far from the ancient city of Pergamum to the East. He squinted to focus clearly on the islands of Garip at the edge of the bay and further still on a land the Greeks called Lesbos.

He had come to Turkey from Stageira, near the remnants of the old city-state, perched on the peaks of a craggy peninsula in central Macedonia. They called him Doctor Aristotolia there, not for his medical skills, but for the way he recited, year after year in ancient Greek, French, English, and even Arabic, the teachings of the great philosopher, Aristotle.

A veritable Peripatetic of old traditions, he loved to walk. Each spring, he headed east across Southern Thrace, past the sobering memorials of more than half a million casualties on the Gallipoli peninsula and across the Dardanelles, the former Hellespont, to Asia Minor. Beyond Çanakkale, he traveled toward the ruins of Assos, where Aristotle had married young Pythias, the adopted daughter of King Hermias. For three months and almost 1000 kilometers, he lived mostly on bread and canned sardines.

Far from living in isolation that would have betrayed the twenty-three-centuries-old teachings of his tutor, he stopped along the way to meet friends and make new acquaintances. He sat in waterfront cafés to indulge in the occasional bottle of Ouzo and Raki, licorice-tasting drinks he could afford thanks to coins thrown to him by generous tourists. He played cards with the fishermen and backgammon with the school children, ministering also to their rashes and sniffles. “Every object in the universe has a purpose for which it exists,” he told them, “and you are no different.”

Townspeople gathered around him to take counsel about what was good, true, and how to live a conscious life. “Do not fear taking responsibility for your happiness,” he said, “and live well. To learn and wonder about the world using all of our senses makes us human, for the good is simple. But tardy not to become true to yourself,” he would say, “for we are in a race against time.”

Arriving in Assos, known under the modern name of Behramkale, he always climbed the rocky promontory to the ancient Temple of Athena. This year, he had stayed only three days. Comfortably seated beneath its Doric columns, he gathered his thoughts, to divorce them from those engrained on his heart by the great philosopher. Like Aristotle, his physician-father taught him much, and he was orphaned when barely a teenager. He obtained scholarships to the best universities and was schooled first in Athens, then Paris and Oxford in both philosophy and mathematics, but later abandoned an academic career to travel the world and write. At fifty, he was in Lesbos, and two years later married and settled in Stageira, Aristotle’s birthplace.

Like every year for twenty years, he would leave Assos and continue his way along the rugged coast to Dikili, near the plain of Atarneus. It was here, long ago, that his wife had died with his unborn child, the result of his mishandling an uncommon complication of her pregnancy. She was very young, much younger than he, and bright, and kind, and talented in the languages of love. She cared nothing for material things but shared with him all she thought was sacred and joyous. Her loss had pained him and pained him still.

Now, the doctors had told him they had little to offer him, and the abdominal cramps would soon return. So today, for one moment only, he would ask to be forgiven for the tragedy of having lost the ones he loved. Like for the ancient Greeks, the ritual of his sacrifice would appease the gods. It would remind him that unlike trees and animals, each of our decisions can be a rational choice, but that overwhelmed with emotions we can be unreasonable and that our mistakes, however terrible, also make us human.

He was already a decade older than was Aristotle when he died, and this could be his final act rather than travel to Chalkis, across the sea on the Greek island of Euboea. It was the place where Faistida, Aristotle’s mother was born, and where coincidently, his own mother, Celestine, had raised him in a small cottage with a garden surrounded by olive trees.

The man sensed rather than saw what hid beneath the slime-covered rocks next to his feet. He plunged his hands into the water, and when they emerged from the bay with a listless white and maroon octopus, his tunic and trousers were quite wet. He scrambled over jagged rocks, clinging to the animal as it labored for its life. The reflection of his embroidered kufi glittered momentarily from the sun on the water’s surface. Grappling his way across an iron-clad pontoon, he jumped onto a wooden dock the size of a small dining table. He then saw that the animal’s struggle had been in vain.

He shuddered as if the death-spiral he had witnessed had been his own. Picking up the now lifeless creature, he said a silent prayer, not to God, but to Nature and the Cosmos for the cyclical changes Aristotle once called a continuous coming-to-be that made life as near to eternal as possible. After stepping onto the beach, he pushed the octopus’s head through its mouth, turning it inside out. Then he cleaned it by removing the ink pouch before rubbing out its eyes, and he threw the innards to the fish. Seagulls overhead squawked with excitement, their forward-slanted wings signaling an aerial attack. He solemnly buried what was left of the octopus and moved on.

A young woman with a dark complexion, wearing blue jeans, a light tunic, and a hijab, was seated on a small ledge above him. She was possibly a refugee, he thought, and she was crying. He imagined how watching him might have raised untold emotions. He stopped rather than pass her by.

“As-salamu-alayka,” he said. “May peace be upon you.”

She seemed surprised he had addressed her in Arabic.

“Wa alaikum assalam wa rahmatu Allah,” she stammered according to Muslim custom. “And to you be peace together with Allah’s mercy.” She acknowledged his greeting with one of greater respect and kindness.

He requested permission to sit beside her on the ledge. Tears continued to fall softly from her pale green eyes, but he waited. When she finally spoke and told him her story, he listened patiently, for there are times when the greatest philosophers know to remain silent.

HENRI COLT is a physician-writer, medical ethicist, and philosophical counselor whose short stories have appeared in Rock and Ice Magazine, Hektoen International, Active Muse, and elsewhere. He is the editor of The Picture of Health: Medical Ethics and the Movies (Oxford University Press). He is Professor Emeritus, University of California.

Winter 2022



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