Episode 21 – Oliver Cromwell versus Aristotle

Today’s matchup pits a rebel versus a scholar. On the one side, we have the Englishman who many think had the most significant impact on his country, Oliver Cromwell. He faces off against the ancient Greek thinker, who is considered one of the Fathers of Philosophy, Aristotle.

Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell

First up, is a man that some historians believe “had a greater impact on the history of his nation and no one has been more consistently misunderstood and misrepresented. He called himself Oliver Protector while others called him a traitor, usurper, hypocritical, and cruel. Still, others found him broad-minded, tolerant, passionately religious, and ferociously moral.”

April 25, 1599, four years before the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a boy was born to Robert and Elizabeth Cromwell of Huntingdon. Oliver was one of ten children, with him being the only boy to survive to adulthood. His Great-great-great uncle was Thomas Cromwell the chief minister to King Henry VIII of England until of course, he was decapitated on order of the king on July 28, 1540.

Considering how vital Oliver Cromwell was to become in British history, it is interesting that we know very little about the first 40 years of his life. What we do know is that he attended Huntingdon Grammar School and Sidney Sussex College although he did not complete his studies there. In 1617, when Cromwell was seventeen, he left the college as his father had passed away leaving a widow and seven unmarried sisters.

On August 22, 1620, Oliver married Elizabeth Bourchier who was the daughter of an influential merchant with strong connections to the Puritan community. They would have nine children, five boys, and four girls.  

Cromwell served in Parliament from 1628-29 until King Charles I dissolved it, not calling it back into session until 1640. This new Parliament was known as the Long Parliament, and it was part of the spark that would lead to the English Civil War. Cromwell’s role in sparking the war is best summed up by author Antonia Fraser in her biography of the man when she wrote, “If the definition of an agitator is one who moves, shakes, disturbs, and excites, then Oliver Cromwell surely acted as a political agitator in the twenty-two months from the inception of the Long Parliament to the outbreak of the Civil War.”

It is in the English Civil War that Cromwell makes his initial marks as a commander and leader. The war began on August 22, 1642, with the raising of King Charles I’s standard with his Royalist Army against the Parliamentarian Roundheads. It is in the English Civil War that Oliver Cromwell begins to make his mark on British history.

One thing I’d like to point out is that there wasn’t just one English Civil War but three. The first went from 1642 to 1646, the second was fought between 1648 and 1649. These two were between the forces of King Charles I and the Parliament. The third war, fought between 1649-1651 was between Charles II and the supporters of the Rump Parliament. 

The first fight that Cromwell was to serve in was the Battle of Gainsborough fought on July 28, 1643, where he and Sir John Meldrum and their Parliamentarians faced off against the Royalists led by Charles Cavendish. This was a small win for the Roundheads, but more importantly, showed that Cromwell was an effective leader.

One year later on July 2, 1644, Cromwell, now a Lieutenant General of the horse, helped lead his men alongside Scottish troops to a decisive victory over the Royalist army led by Prince Rupert of the Rhine. While the win gave the Parliamentarians control of the North of England, the Royalists remained a powerful enemy in the south. Because of the lack of follow up on the win, a new rearranged fighting force was created in 1645 known as the New Model Army.

The New Model Army created a professional officer corps along with veteran soldiers, many of whom were deeply religious Puritans. The two co-commanders of the forces of Parliament were Sir Thomas Fairfax and George Monck, with Cromwell being one of the leaders of his own army.  

Negotiations between Parliament and King Charles I were at a stalemate which led to the Second English Civil War in 1648. Cromwell began to use his position as a military commander to petition the people with his rousing, biblical speeches and writings. He also was involved and actually led the trial and execution of the King. Charles I was beheaded on January 30, 1649.

By now, the remaining Royalists were in Ireland who joined up with an alliance of the Irish Confederate Catholics. Cromwell was sent to crush them which he did. Many Catholics in Ireland had their properties taken from them along with a proclamation that the practice of Roman Catholicism was to be banned.  

Cromwell’s actions in Ireland are a focus of some controversy as it has been pointed out that many civilians there were massacred, something Oliver denied. Two mass killings, at Drogheda and Wexford, saw thousands killed. Even worse, after Cromwell left, the new commander, General Henry Ireton, went about the Irish countryside burning crops, causing a genocidal famine that was estimated to have killed 600,000 people out of a population of 1.4 million. This is about 43% of the people who lived in Ireland, a staggering number that is greater than the percentage killed in the Holodomor.

Because of this, British and Irish relations deteriorated for centuries. Winston Churchill was to comment on the Anglo-Irish ties, “upon all of these Cromwell’s record was a lasting bane. By an uncompleted process of terror, by an iniquitous land settlement, by the virtual proscription of the Catholic religion, by the bloody deeds already described, he cut new gulfs between the nations and the creeds. ‘Hell or Connaught’ were the terms he thrust upon the native inhabitants, and they for their part, across three hundred years, have used as their keenest expression of hatred ‘The Curse of Cromwell on you’… Upon all of us, there still lies ‘the curse of Cromwell.'” 

Then Scotland rebelled by naming Charles II their king. Cromwell went back and smashed the Scots, with his greatest military triumph occurring at the Battle of Dunbar. Charles II headed south with his army pointed at London, thinking Cromwell was too busy in the north. Oliver moved his forces toward the Royalists, and at the Battle of Worcester, his men destroyed their foes with Charles barely escaping.

Over the next few years, Parliament tried to set up elections to come up with a new government but failed. Cromwell stepped into the vacuum when he was made Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. This was done through the Protectorate of which Oliver Cromwell was to head.

This form of government was to last from 1653 to 1659. Cromwell was to die on September 3, 1658. His son Richard was named as Lord Protector, but he was not Oliver. The Protectorate dissolved, and on May 29, 1660, Charles II was named King.

Because of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritanical rule, England was a gloomy place. Charles II was anything but a Puritan as he had at least 12 illegitimate children and his court was pretty jovial. One thing the new King had done was to exhume the body of Cromwell on the 12th anniversary of his father’s execution. Following that, he had Oliver’s head severed, publicly displayed and his body dumped in a pit. 

Now for our Putting it Into Perspective segment. 

During the 1650’s, the first US corporation is formed, the Harvard Corporation, the most massive land battle of the century, the Battle of Berestechko is fought in Ukraine, New Amsterdam is incorporated, later becoming New York City, Louis XIV is crowned as king of France and The Great Fire of Meireki in Edo, Japan kills 100,000 people.

Now we head way back in time to our next contestant, Aristotle.


The legacy that he left when he died in 322 BC was one of the greatest in the history of mankind. Born in 384 BC in Stagira, Chalcidice, in the north of Greece, he would be raised by guardians in his early days as his father Nichomachus, died when he was a young boy.

Very little is known about the life of Aristotle except that he joined Plato’s Academy in Athens around the age of seventeen. What we do know of him is through his extraordinary volumes of writings on a vast array of subjects. We also know that he was the tutor of Alexander the Great at the behest of his father Philip II of Macedon. 

In my research of Aristotle, I was stunned by the amount of work this man put out. We only have about one-third of his writings available to us, so much of what we know of his ideas come from students and their heirs.

One of the best books I have read in the past ten years is The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman. If you are interested in philosophy or just the influence of these two men on history, I highly, and I mean highly recommend it.

Here is an excerpt about the difference between Aristotle and his teacher, Plato. “Aristotle is no woolly-minded, dreamy-eyed philosopher. He is the realist and empiricist compared with Plato the mystic and idealist. Aristotle believed his teacher’s dismissal of the material world as a realm of illusion and error was a major mistake, and he devoted himself to analyzing the world in all its rich multiplicity. If Plato tells us to leave the cave in order to find a higher truth beyond the senses, Aristotle retorts: Don’t be in such a hurry. What happens in that cave is not only important, but the only reality we can truly know.”

The ramifications of the differences between the two men would shape western civilization for both good and bad. Let’s head back to the author Herman, describing the influences of Plato and Aristotle to get a better understanding. 

“For the next two thousand years, Aristotle would become the father of modern science, logic, and technology. Plato, by contrast, is the spokesman for the theologian, the mystic, the poet, and the artist.

One gave us a view of reality as multiform and continually evolving; the other, as eternal and One.

One told us we have to learn to deal with things as they are, including each other. The other said we need to think about how things ought to be, including ourselves and our society. 

One shaped the contours of Christianity; the other, the ideas of the Enlightenment. 

One gave us modern economics; the other, the Reformation.

One inspired Europe to lift itself out of the Dark Ages; the other inspired the greatest artistic works of the Renaissance, including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. 

One gave us the US Constitution, the Manhattan Project, and shopping malls. The other gave us Chartres Cathedral, but also the gulag and the Holocaust.

Aristotle asks, ‘How do you fit into the world that already exists?’

Plato asks, ‘Why does that world exist at all.’”

Aristotle’s abstract philosophical treaties included works on logic, metaphysics, the theory of knowledge known as epistemology, the ideas of universals and particulars as well as the concepts of substance and essence. In natural philosophies, he gave us the beginnings of physics, the five elements, motion, astronomy, geology, biology, systematic studies, and the classification of living things.

Aristotle wrote about the soul, memory, dreams, along with ethics, politics, and economics. His works influenced countless philosophers over the millennium. Aristotle basically founded numerous fields of study that we still, 2,300 years later, still study in schools around the world.

His influence on Christian as well as Islamic philosophers and thinkers is enormous. Much of what we know about Aristotle comes from Muslim scholars and scientists. It is almost impossible to overstate the impact he made on our world.

But not all believe that his works were positive. Bertrand Russell said that “almost every serious intellectual advance has had to begin with an attack on some Aristotelian doctrine.” Biologist Peter Medawar said that the Greek philosopher assembled “a strange and generally speaking rather tiresome farrago of hearsay, imperfect observation, wishful thinking, and credulity amounting to downright gullibility.”

Before we say goodbye to Aristotle, I’d like to end with another paragraph from Herman’s book, The Cave and the Light, “Today’s affluent, globalized material world was largely made by Aristotle’s offspring – and it is not so different from the Athens of Socrates’s day. It’s a world filled with comforts and conveniences, a world of constant change and unimaginable individual freedoms. But it is also riddled with false facades and shoddy superficialities, and it is populated by institutions that have become obsessed with process for its own sake, rather than keeping Western civilization ‘on message’ regarding the larger meaning of freedom and liberty, community and spiritual truth.”

Now for the scoring. 

First, we have the 15 points for the length of time each man was either a rebel, rogue or scholar. With Oliver Cromwell, we begin with his time as a member of Parliament in 1628 until his death in 1658 which is some 30 years. Aristotle began his career as a philosopher when he was 18 or so in 366 BC and ended when he died in 322, which is 44 years. The 15 points go to the Greek with the Lord Protector getting 12.

Next, we will give out the 20 points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. Cromwell actually had a robust immediate influence on global politics as the colonies in the America’s were changed because of his actions. Aristotle, on the other hand, taught Alexander the Great, and you know how that guy turned out. In this category, I’m giving the Greek 20 points and Cromwell 18. 

We now turn to the 25 points for their lasting effect on world history, and here we have an absolute rout. I don’t think I need to recount the influence Aristotle had on the world. Cromwell’s influence was fleeting but substantial. The Greek gets 25, the Brit, 15.

Now for the big prize, 40 points for how they affected their country for the better. Cromwell is a tough one to gauge as the aftermath of his death, pretty much wiped out his influence. If you look at him from an Irish or Scottish point of view, he gets nothing. From a British standpoint, it can go either way depending if you’re a Royalist or a Roundhead. With Aristotle, he affected his country for the better with his founding of so many sciences, his teaching of Alexander and all of his writings. Forty points go to Aristotle, 20 to Cromwell. 

Well, apparently we have an overwhelming winner in this battle, and that is the Greek philosopher Aristotle with the maximum number of points, 100 to Oliver Cromwell’s 65.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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