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Ethiopian Blackness: Aristotelian Commentators on “Affective Qualities” and Racial Characteristics

Thomas Cirillo

Ethiopian Blackness: Aristotelian Commentators on “Affective Qualities” and Racial Characteristics

            In his chapter on “Quality” in the Categories Aristotle distinguishes between innate characteristics and acquired traits, both of which he discusses under the rubric of “affective qualities” (pathētikai poiotētes, Aristot.Cat.9a28). Aristotle uses skin color as an example and explains that a complexion resulting from illness or climatic factors differs from one that is a product of an individual’s “nature”: “For if whiteness or blackness has come about in one’s natural constitution (en tēi kata phusin sustasei), it is called a ‘quality,’ – for we are called ‘qualified’ with respect to them, – and if paleness or blackness has happened to come about either through a long disease or through exposure to the sun… then they are also called ‘qualities,’ – for in a similar way we are called ‘qualified’ with respect to them” (Aristot.Cat.9b21-27). In the Categories, Aristotle does not correlate whiteness or blackness with particular ethnicities and elsewhere he suggests that such phenotypes are accidental and not generally the type of attributes that establish essential differences among human beings(e.g., Aristot.Meta.1058a34-36, 1058b3-5; see Ross 1955; Balme 1962, 1987; Cooper 1987).

            Later ancient commentators on the Categories, however, frequently associated the “affective qualities” of blackness and whiteness (and other colors) with ethnic groups. This can be traced to Porphyry’s use of the blackness of an Ethiopian as an example of an “inseparable accident” (Porph.Intr.12.26-13.8) and his distinction between “someone who is blackened for a short time by the sun and someone who is born black” (Porph.In Cat.131.7-9). After Porphyry, thinkers from Dexippus, writing in mid-fourth century Syria, to pagan and Christian members of the Alexandrian philosophical school, to Arethas the 10th century Archbishop of Caesarea expanded upon the trope of Ethiopian blackness and commented upon prevalent theories concerning the production of phenotypes. We find, for example, “whiteness in Scythians” (Philopon.In Cat.64.30) as a comparandum for Ethiopian blackness, and material drawn from such disparate “sciences” as Hippocratic environmental determinism (Dexipp.In Cat.47.28-48.19) and the analysis of sexual phantasiai (Elias.In Cat.231.16-18) inform the commentators’ explanations for skin color.

            The commentators were ostensibly intending to critique and explain the logical, taxonomical, and epistemic terminology and value of the Categories. But their remarks betray a familiarity with ideas beyond the scope of the Aristotelian Organon as they delve into biology, natural history, medicine, and ethnology. In doing so these later commentators reveal historically, geographically, and theologically contextualized interpretations of “affective qualities” that are illustrative of broader views on race, ethnicity, and heredity. Moreover, we find in these commentators the potential genesis for the prevailing modern ideology that finds a strong correspondence between phenotypic qualities and racial categories.

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