Art Sex Scene of the Week: Save a Horse, Ride Aristotle

Rachel Rabbit White

Rachel Rabbit White

Alexander the Great’s mistress riding the philosopher like a horse was a popular image during the Middle Ages, representing the struggle between sensuality and reason.

Cast in bronze, the philosopher Aristotle crawls on all fours as he is ridden like a horse by Phyllis, Alexander the Great’s infamous mistress. In a single image, we get it: through the seduction of kink, reason has been dethroned and the philosopher is turned into a beast, seeking worldly pleasure.

The fable of Phyllis riding Aristotle was popular in the late Middle Ages. It’s a tale that raises enticing questions: what separates man from beast, and what does it mean in BDSM to be reduced to one? What should guide us: reason, or passion?

The story goes something like this: Aristotle was giving unsolicited relationship advice to to Alexander the Great, for whom he had served since childhood as tutor and then counselor. Alexander’s mistress (or put more accurately, concubine wife) Phyllis was taking up too much of his time, the philosopher warned. He should be spending less time in her alluring chambers and more time on his military campaign conquering half the world. Aristotle convinced Alexander that he should restrain himself by using “reason,” or at least a sort of masculinist, r/NoFap rhetoric.

As the tale goes, once Alexander stopped having sex with Phyllis, she began her trick: instead of pursuing her lover, she teased Aristotle, coming to find him while in her bare feet, hair attractively disheveled—which, of course, worked. The philosopher began to hound her, and she agreed that she would only have sex with him if he got on all fours and carried her around the palace like a horse.

Aquamanile in the form of Aristotle and Phyllis, late 14th or early 15th century. Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Aristotle dropped to the floor; he assumed the position of animal, she in the male-coded role of rider. As the scene unfolded, Phyllis called for the other members of the court to come watch as she humiliated the great philosopher; in some depictions, she’s cackling and cracking a whip. Alexander, hiding behind a curtain, witnessed the whole thing—all of which Phyllis had planned to teach the king that no man is a match for the power of sensuality. Of course, the story is apocryphal, adapted from Indian or Arabic writings in the 12th century, but the image it created was wildly popular. The brass statuette seen here doubled for use as an aquamanile, a tabletop water basin found in wealthier homes in the Middle Ages, used for washing hands during meals as cutlery weren’t commonly used.

While I take pleasure in the seeing the philosopher let go of his dominant posture under the spell of seduction, admittedly projecting my own kinky inclinations onto Phyllis, it’s also not surprising that one of the few fabulistic depictions of a philosopher’s sexuality is a warning against female power to undercut masculine rationality. This is in itself a tired narrative that gets produced and reproduced, most recently by ridiculous Canadian psychology professors equating womanhood with the forces of chaos.

Lou Salomé, Paul Ree, and Friedrich Nietzsche, 1882.

“Don’t forget the whip” was Nietzsche’s injunction in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, cheekily stated when any man was going to meet a woman. But Nietzsche reproduced the Aristotle and Phyllis scene in a photograph in which he is being whipped by Lou Salomé, one of his deepest loves, as he pulls a cart like a horse. (Salomé, a true legend, once refused a marriage offer from Paul Ree but suggested that the three of them—he, she, and Nietzsche—form an “intellectual commune” and live together, making her, in my mind, the ultimate avatar of the MMF threesome as a lifestyle. But that’s another story.)

Aristotle wanted to be whipped. Perhaps he was in love with Phyllis and his reasoning was nothing but an attempt to distance Alexander, his rival, and to provoke her attention. What needed to be tamed was not passion, but reason—and the way to do that was to become an animal. Maybe what Nietzsche meant by “Don’t forget the whip!” was: bring it so your lover can use it on you. Reason by itself is just an instrument; perhaps what we should take from this medieval tale is that those who play at being abstract rational agents, denying the role passion has in their life, are actually bleeding, wanting animals, and their supposed rationality is governed by repressed desires.