Aristotle was born in Stageira, Chalcidice, in 384 BC, about 55 km (34 mi) east of modern-day Thessaloniki His father Nicomachus was the personal physician to King Amyntas of Macedon. Aristotle was trained and educated as a member of the aristocracy. At about the age of eighteen, he went to Athens to continue his education at Plato’s Academy. Aristotle remained at the academy for nearly twenty years before quitting Athens in 348/47 BC. The traditional story about his departure reports that he was disappointed with the direction the academy took after control passed to Plato’s nephew Speusippus upon his death, although it is possible that he feared anti-Macedonian sentiments and left before Plato had died He then traveled with Xenocrates to the court of his friend Hermias of Atarneus in Asia Minor. While in Asia, Aristotle traveled with Theophrastus to the island of Lesbos, where together they researched the botany and zoology of the island. Aristotle married Hermias’s adoptive daughter (or niece) Pythias. She bore him a daughter, whom they named Pythias. Soon after Hermias’ death, Aristotle was invited by Philip II of Macedon to become the tutor to his son Alexander the Great in 343 BC.
Aristotle was appointed as the head of the royal academy of Macedon. During that time he gave lessons not only to Alexander, but also to two other future kings: Ptolemy and Cassander. In his Politics, Aristotle states that only one thing could justify monarchy, and that was if the virtue of the king and his family were greater than the virtue of the rest of the citizens put together. Tactfully, he included the young prince and his father in that category. Aristotle encouraged Alexander toward eastern conquest, and his attitude towards Persia was unabashedly ethnocentric. In one famous example, he counsels Alexander to be ‘a leader to the Greeks and a despot to the barbarians, to look after the former as after friends and relatives, and to deal with the latter as with beasts or plants’.
By 335 BC he had returned to Athens, establishing his own school there known as the Lyceum. Aristotle conducted courses at the school for the next twelve years. While in Athens, his wife Pythias died and Aristotle became involved with Herpyllis of Stageira, who bore him a son whom he named after his father, Nicomachus. According to the Suda, he also had an eromenos, Palaephatus of Abydus.
It is during this period in Athens from 335 to 323 BC when Aristotle is believed to have composed many of his works. Aristotle wrote many dialogues, only fragments of which survived. The works that have survived are in treatise form and were not, for the most part, intended for widespread publication, as they are generally thought to be lecture aids for his students. His most important treatises include Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, De Anima (On the Soul) and Poetics.
Aristotle not only studied almost every subject possible at the time, but made significant contributions to most of them. In physical science, Aristotle studied anatomy, astronomy, embryology, geography, geology, meteorology, physics and zoology. In philosophy, he wrote on aesthetics, ethics, government, metaphysics, politics, economics, psychology, rhetoric and theology. He also studied education, foreign customs, literature and poetry. His combined works constitute a virtual encyclopedia of Greek knowledge. It has been suggested that Aristotle was probably the last person to know everything there was to be known in his own time.
Near the end of Alexander’s life, Alexander began to suspect plots against himself, and threatened Aristotle in letters. Aristotle had made no secret of his contempt for Alexander’s pretense of divinity, and the king had executed Aristotle’s grandnephew Callisthenes as a traitor. A widespread tradition in antiquity suspected Aristotle of playing a role in Alexander’s death, but there is little evidence for this.
Upon Alexander’s death, anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens once again flared. Eurymedon the hierophant denounced Aristotle for not holding the gods in honor. Aristotle fled the city to his mother’s family estate in Chalcis, explaining, “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy,” a reference to Athens’s prior trial and execution of Socrates. He died in Euboea of natural causes within the year (in 322 BC). Aristotle named chief executor his student Antipater and left a will in which he asked to be buried next to his wife.
Aristotle “says that ‘on the subject of reasoning’ he ‘had nothing else on an earlier date to speak of'”. However, Plato reports that syntax was devised before him, by Prodicus of Ceos, who was concerned by the correct use of words. Logic seems to have emerged from dialectics; the earlier philosophers made frequent use of concepts like reductio ad absurdum in their discussions, but never truly understood the logical implications. Even Plato had difficulties with logic; although he had a reasonable conception of a deductive system, he could never actually construct one and relied instead on his dialectic. Plato believed that deduction would simply follow from premises, hence he focused on maintaining solid premises so that the conclusion would logically follow. Consequently, Plato realized that a method for obtaining conclusions would be most beneficial. He never succeeded in devising such a method, but his best attempt was published in his book Sophist, where he introduced his division method.
Analytics and the Organon
What we today call Aristotelian logic, Aristotle himself would have labeled “analytics”. The term “logic” he reserved to mean dialectics. Most of Aristotle’s work is probably not in its original form, since it was most likely edited by students and later lecturers. The logical works of Aristotle were compiled into six books in about the early 1st century AD:
- On Interpretation
- Prior Analytics
- Posterior Analytics
- On Sophistical Refutations
The order of the books (or the teachings from which they are composed) is not certain, but this list was derived from analysis of Aristotle’s writings. It goes from the basics, the analysis of simple terms in the Categories, the analysis of propositions and their elementary relations in On Interpretation, to the study of more complex forms, namely, syllogisms (in the Analytics) and dialectics (in the Topics and Sophistical Refutations). The first three treatises form the core of the logical theory stricto sensu: the grammar of the language of logic and the correct rules of reasoning. There is one volume of Aristotle’s concerning logic not found in the Organon, namely the fourth book of Metaphysics.
The five elements
Concerning the make up of matter, Aristotle followed prior Greek philosophy with an adapted theory of elements. He was not an “atomist” like Democritus. In particular he proposed a fifth element, aether, in addition to the more common four.
- Fire, which is hot and dry.
- Earth, which is cold and dry.
- Air, which is hot and wet.
- Water, which is cold and wet.
- Aether, which is the divine substance that makes up the heavenly spheres and heavenly bodies (stars and planets).
Each of the four earthly elements has its natural place; the earth at the centre of the universe, then water, then air, then fire. When they are out of their natural place they have natural motion, requiring no external cause, which is towards that place; so bodies sink in water, air bubbles rise up, rain falls, flame rises in air. The heavenly element has perpetual circular motion.
Biology and medicine
In Aristotelian science, most especially in biology, things he saw himself have stood the test of time better than his retelling of the reports of others, which contain error and superstition. He dissected animals but not humans; his ideas on how the human body works have been almost entirely superseded.
- About soul (books 3)
- About sense and sensable
- About memory and memories
- About sleep and alertness
- About sleeping
- About divination in sleep
- About Longevity and obsolescence
- About life and death
- About breathing
- About spirit (spurious)
Aristotle defines metaphysics as “the knowledge of immaterial being,” or of “being in the highest degree of abstraction.” He refers to metaphysics as “first philosophy”, as well as “the theologic science.” From Metaphysics or First Philosophy, as Aristotle called them originated the term “metaphysics” of modern times. In the 12 books of the Metaphysical usually add and thesis “About Bees, and Xenofanous & Gorgios” (possibly spurious). In this group of works of Aristotle examines the first principles of all beings and “animated” and “non movables.”
- Ethics Evdimeia (books 7)
- Ethics bigs (books 2)
- Ethics Nikomacheia (books 10)
Aristotle considered ethics to be a practical rather than theoretical study, i.e., one aimed at doing good rather than knowing for its own sake. He wrote several treatises on ethics, including most notably, the Nicomachean Ethics.
Aristotle taught that virtue has to do with the proper function (ergon) of a thing. An eye is only a good eye in so much as it can see, because the proper function of an eye is sight. Aristotle reasoned that humans must have a function specific to humans, and that this function must be an activity of the psuchē (normally translated as soul) in accordance with reason (logos). Aristotle identified such an optimum activity of the soul as the aim of all human deliberate action, eudaimonia, generally translated as “happiness” or sometimes “well being”. To have the potential of ever being happy in this way necessarily requires a good character (ēthikē aretē), often translated as moral (or ethical) virtue (or excellence).
Aristotle taught that to achieve a virtuous and potentially happy character requires a first stage of having the fortune to be habituated not deliberately, but by teachers, and experience, leading to a later stage in which one consciously chooses to do the best things. When the best people come to live life this way their practical wisdom (phronēsis) and their intellect (nous) can develop with each other towards the highest possible human virtue, the wisdom of an accomplished theoretical or speculative thinker, or in other words, a philosopher.
In addition to his works on ethics, which address the individual, Aristotle addressed the city in his work titled Politics. Aristotle considered the city to be a natural community. Moreover, he considered the city to be prior in importance to the family which in turn is prior to the individual, “for the whole must of necessity be prior to the part”. He also famously stated that “man is by nature a political animal.” Aristotle conceived of politics as being like an organism rather than like a machine, and as a collection of parts none of which can exist without the others. Aristotle’s conception of the city is organic, and he is considered one of the first to conceive of the city in this manner.
The common modern understanding of a political community as a modern state is quite different to Aristotle’s understanding. Although he was aware of the existence and potential of larger empires, the natural community according to Aristotle was the city (polis) which functions as a political “community” or “partnership” (koinōnia). The aim of the city is not just to avoid injustice or for economic stability, but rather to allow at least some citizens the possibility to live a good life, and to perform beautiful acts: “The political partnership must be regarded, therefore, as being for the sake of noble actions, not for the sake of living together.” This is distinguished from modern approaches, beginning with social contract theory, according to which individuals leave the state of nature because of “fear of violent death” or its “inconveniences.”
Rhetoric and poetics
Aristotle considered epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, dithyrambic poetry and music to be imitative, each varying in imitation by medium, object, and manner. For example, music imitates with the media of rhythm and harmony, whereas dance imitates with rhythm alone, and poetry with language. The forms also differ in their object of imitation. Comedy, for instance, is a dramatic imitation of men worse than average; whereas tragedy imitates men slightly better than average. Lastly, the forms differ in their manner of imitation – through narrative or character, through change or no change, and through drama or no drama. Aristotle believed that imitation is natural to mankind and constitutes one of mankind’s advantages over animals.
While it is believed that Aristotle’s Poetics comprised two books – one on comedy and one on tragedy – only the portion that focuses on tragedy has survived. Aristotle taught that tragedy is composed of six elements: plot-structure, character, style, spectacle, and lyric poetry. The characters in a tragedy are merely a means of driving the story; and the plot, not the characters, is the chief focus of tragedy. Tragedy is the imitation of action arousing pity and fear, and is meant to effect the catharsis of those same emotions. Aristotle concludes Poetics with a discussion on which, if either, is superior: epic or tragic mimesis. He suggests that because tragedy possesses all the attributes of an epic, possibly possesses additional attributes such as spectacle and music, is more unified, and achieves the aim of its mimesis in shorter scope, it can be considered superior to epic.
Aristotle was a keen systematic collector of riddles, folklore, and proverbs; he and his school had a special interest in the riddles of the Delphic Oracle and studied the fables of Aesop.
- Rhetoric (books 3)
- Poetic (not preserved in whole)
More than twenty-three hundred years after his death, Aristotle remains one of the most influential people who ever lived. According to the philosopher Bryan Magee, “it is doubtful whether any human being has ever known as much as he did”.Aristotle was the founder of formal logic, pioneered the study of zoology, and left every future scientist and philosopher in his debt through his contributions to the scientific method. Despite these achievements, the influence of Aristotle’s errors is considered by some to have held back science considerably. Bertrand Russell notes that “almost every serious intellectual advance has had to begin with an attack on some Aristotelian doctrine”. Russell also refers to Aristotle’s ethics as “repulsive”, and calls his logic “as definitely antiquated as Ptolemaic astronomy”. Russell notes that these errors make it difficult to do historical justice to Aristotle, until one remembers how large of an advance he made upon all of his predecessors.