Aristotle on Innovation

It is said that the Greeks were reluctant to innovate. The prime example given is the steam engine (aeolipile) of Hero of Alexandria. It was a steam turbine, where steam from a boiler was fed into a ball on pivots; the ball had vents for the steam, the ejection of which caused the ball to rotate. It was treated as a novelty and a feat of ingenuity but never used by the Greeks to do any practical function. Yet, when we look at the architecture and art, we can see small constant refinement in methods and tools. The changes in language and ideas over the centuries show curiosity and openness, even if the technology remained fairly stable. While scientific and philosophical ideas developed rapidly in Greece, we find evidence that innovation is different from science. Innovation is tinkering; it is the spotting of certain phenomenon and characteristics of materials or mechanisms and adapting and combining those into new machines or procedures.

The question of change applies in all fields. Innovation in the field of weaponry can allow a city to defeat another. Innovation in agriculture may lead to better harvests or the cultivation of previously unproductive land. Innovation in the way a city is governed can lead to discord and instability. Innovation in religion may lead to heresy and collapse in faithful observance. Change in itself is neither good nor bad though it may do good or bad.     

In the latest selection from the classics, published by Princeton, Armand D’Angour has selected, translated and introduced texts by Aristotle (384-322 BC), Athenaeus of Naucratis (c. C150-250 AD) and Diodorus Siculus (c. 90-30 BC).

Diodorus is quoted on Dionysius of Syracuse assembling a uniform army and attracting armourers of the highest ability. Aristotle is quoted on the subject of change, criticising the proto-socialism of Socrates and authoritarianism of Plato. He suggests that citizens be able to own personal property and guard the privacy of their families, allowing that some common property (such as land) may be shared to mutual benefit. Aristotle sets out the foundations of liberalism: “A state is not made up only of many people, but of a variety of kinds of people; a state cannot simply be constituted of similar individuals. It’s not like an alliance, whose usefulness depends simply on numbers, not on different kinds, of men.” He refutes common ownership of everything but leaves open the door to a fragmented society, where factions compete for power and favour. This extract from Aristotle’s Politics (book 2) will make interesting reading for those interested in finding a balance between common good and private autonomy.  

The most famous anecdote from Greece is of Archimedes solving the problem of how to calculate the amount of gold used in the creation of a crown. The complexity of the form (and the possibility of hollows) meant that it was difficult to ascertain how much gold had been used in the object and whether it had been adulterated with other metals. Archimedes sank into his bath and saw his body displaced water and he realised that displacement and weight could be used to determine the mass of the crown. This could then be compared to the weight of pure gold of an established volume – to be multiplied up to the volume of the crown. Any discrepancy would indicate the use of non-gold in the crown, thus revealing any deceit on the maker’s part. Comprehending the solution, Archimedes arose from the bath, yelling “Eureka!” (Gr: I have it!).

Archimedes was a naval architect. From Moschion (via Athenaeus) comes an account of Archimedes designing the Syracusia, a warship for Hieron Syracuse. “Hieron arranged for wooden pegs, belly timbers, rib timbers, and whatever material was needed for other uses come partly from Italy and partly from Sicily. He procured esparto from Spain for cables, hemp and pitch from Rhone valley, and other necessary materials from many different places.” He outlines the elaborate construction, including bronze rivets, later sheathed in lead to protect them from corrosion. Archimedes used a windlass of his own design to get the ship into the sea. The huge vessel had space for multiple levels of oarsmen, a garden, library, gymnasium, a fish tank and temple with a stone floor. The ship was a warship, and had battlements, watchtowers, grappling hooks and a baluster. An Archimedes screw was the bilge pump. Hieron gave Syracusia as a gift to Ptolemy II of Alexandria. It was the only voyage it made.   

Diodoros describes the innovative tactics that allowed the Thebans to defeat the mightiest army in Greece at the Battle of Leuctra. Due to general Epaminondas’s uneven distribution of forces in his line, the Spartan phalanx was twisted – one side advancing fast and the others held back. Out of position, the Spartans were attacked from behind, breaking their formation. “Epaminondas’s corps pursued those fleeing, cutting down in large numbers any who resisted, and gained for themselves a most glorious victory. For since they had engaged the strongest of the Greeks and, though fielding a smaller force, had miraculously overcome many times their number, they won a great reputation for their heroism. The highest praises were accorded to the general Epaminondas, who chiefly by his own valor and by his brilliant strategy had defeated in battle the hitherto invincible leaders of Hellas.”

The short introductions are handy guides and the choice provides a broad range of aspects to innovation. The quoted texts are given in English and the original Greek; the other material is in English only.

Aristotle, Armand D’Angour (trans., ed.), How to Innovate: An Ancient Guide to Creative Thinking, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardcover cloth spine, 138pp + xxi, Greek/English text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 069 121 3736

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit