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3: Aristotle

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    Aristotle (/ˈærɪˌstɒtəl/; Greek: Ἀριστοτέλης Greek pronunciation: [aristotélɛːs], Aristotélēs; 384–322 BC) was a Greek philosopher and scientist born in the city of Stagira, Chalkidice, on the northern periphery of Classical Greece. His father, Nicomachus, died when Aristotle was a child, whereafter Proxenus of Atarneus became his guardian. At seventeen or eighteen years of age, he joined Plato's Academy in Athens and remained there until the age of thirty-seven (c. 347 BC). His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics and government – and constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy. Shortly after Plato died, Aristotle left Athens and, at the request of Philip of Macedon, tutored Alexander the Great beginning in 343 BC.

    Teaching Alexander the Great gave Aristotle many opportunities and an abundance of supplies. He established a library in the Lyceum which aided in the production of many of his hundreds of books. The fact that Aristotle was a pupil of Plato contributed to his former views of Platonism, but, following Plato's death, Aristotle immersed himself in empirical studies and shifted from Platonism to empiricism. He believed all peoples' concepts and all of their knowledge was ultimately based on perception. Aristotle's views on natural sciences represent the groundwork underlying many of his works.

    Aristotle's views on physical science profoundly shaped medieval scholarship. Their influence extended from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages into the Renaissance, and were not replaced systematically until the Enlightenment and theories such as classical mechanics. Some of Aristotle's zoological observations, such as on the hectocotyl (reproductive) arm of the octopus, were not confirmed or refuted until the 19th century. His works contain the earliest known formal study of logic, which was incorporated in the late 19th century into modern formal logic.

    In metaphysics, Aristotelianism profoundly influenced Judeo-Islamic philosophical and theological thought during the Middle Ages and continues to influence Christian theology, especially the Neoplatonism of the Early Church and the scholastic tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. Aristotle was well known among medieval Muslim intellectuals and revered as "The First Teacher" (Arabic: المعلم الأول‎‎).

    His ethics, though always influential, gained renewed interest with the modern advent of virtue ethics. All aspects of Aristotle's philosophy continue to be the object of active academic study today. Though Aristotle wrote many elegant treatises and dialogues – Cicero described his literary style as "a river of gold" – it is thought that only around a third of his original output has survived.


    Aristotle, whose name means "the best purpose", was born in 384 BC in Stagira, Chalcidice, about 55 km (34 miles) east of modern-day Thessaloniki. His father Nicomachus was the personal physician to King Amyntas of Macedon.Aristotle was orphaned at a young age. Although there is little information on Aristotle's childhood, he probably spent some time within the Macedonian palace, making his first connections with the Macedonian monarchy.

    At the age of seventeen or eighteen, Aristotle moved to Athens to continue his education at Plato's Academy. He remained there for nearly twenty years before leaving Athens in 348/47 BC. The traditional story, about his departure, records that he was disappointed with the Academy's direction after control passed to Plato's nephew Speusippus, although it is possible that he feared anti-Macedonian sentiments and left before Plato died.

    Aristotle then accompanied Xenocrates to the court of his friend Hermias of Atarneus in Asia Minor. There, he traveled with Theophrastus to the island of Lesbos, where together they researched the botany and zoology of the island. Aristotle married Pythias, either Hermias's adoptive daughter or niece. She bore him a daughter, whom they also named Pythias. Soon after Hermias' death, Aristotle was invited by Philip II of Macedon to become the tutor to his son Alexander 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. 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, Aristotle 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 Stagira, who bore him a son whom he named after his father, Nicomachus. According to the Suda, he also had an eromenos, Palaephatus of Abydus.

    This period in Athens, between 335 and 323 BC, is when Aristotle is believed to have composed many of his works. He wrote many dialogues of which only fragments have survived. Those works that have survived are in treatise form and were not, for the most part, intended for widespread publication; 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.

    Near the end of his life, Alexander and Aristotle became estranged over Alexander's relationship with Persia and Persians. A widespread tradition in antiquity suspected Aristotle of playing a role in Alexander's death, but there is little evidence.

    Following Alexander's death, anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens was rekindled. In 322 BC, Demophilus and Eurymedon the Hierophant reportedly denounced Aristotle for impiety, prompting him to flee to his mother's family estate in Chalcis, at which occasion he was said to have stated: "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 later that same year, having named his student Antipater as his chief executor and leaving a will in which he asked to be buried next to his wife.

    Charles Walston argues that the tomb of Aristotle is located on the sacred way between Chalcis and Eretria and to have contained two styluses, a pen, a signet-ring and some terra-cottas as well as what is supposed to be the earthly remains of Aristotle in the form of some skull fragments.

    In general, the details of the life of Aristotle are not well-established. The biographies of Aristotle written in ancient times are often speculative and historians only agree on a few salient points.

    Loss and preservation of his works

    Modern scholarship reveals that Aristotle's "lost" works stray considerably in characterization from the surviving Aristotelian corpus. Whereas the lost works appear to have been originally written with an intent for subsequent publication, the surviving works do not appear to have been so. Rather the surviving works mostly resemble lecture notes unintended for publication. The authenticity of a portion of the surviving works as originally Aristotelian is also today held suspect, with some books duplicating or summarizing each other, the authorship of one book questioned and another book considered to be unlikely Aristotle's at all.

    Some of the individual works within the corpus, including the Constitution of Athens, are regarded by most scholars as products of Aristotle's "school," perhaps compiled under his direction or supervision. Others, such as On Colors, may have been produced by Aristotle's successors at the Lyceum, e.g., Theophrastus and Straton. Still others acquired Aristotle's name through similarities in doctrine or content, such as the De Plantis, possibly by Nicolaus of Damascus. Other works in the corpus include medieval palmistries and astrological and magical texts whose connections to Aristotle are purely fanciful and self-promotional.

    According to a distinction that originates with Aristotle himself, his writings are divisible into two groups: the "exoteric" and the "esoteric". Most scholars have understood this as a distinction between works Aristotle intended for the public (exoteric), and the more technical works intended for use within the Lyceum course / school (esoteric). Modern scholars commonly assume these latter to be Aristotle's own (unpolished) lecture notes (or in some cases possible notes by his students). However, one classic scholar offers an alternative interpretation. The 5th century neoplatonist Ammonius Hermiae writes that Aristotle's writing style is deliberately obscurantist so that "good people may for that reason stretch their mind even more, whereas empty minds that are lost through carelessness will be put to flight by the obscurity when they encounter sentences like these."

    Another common assumption is that none of the exoteric works is extant – that all of Aristotle's extant writings are of the esoteric kind. Current knowledge of what exactly the exoteric writings were like is scant and dubious, though many of them may have been in dialogue form. (Fragments of some of Aristotle's dialogues have survived.) Perhaps it is to these that Cicero refers when he characterized Aristotle's writing style as "a river of gold"; it is hard for many modern readers to accept that one could seriously so admire the style of those works currently available to us. However, some modern scholars have warned that we cannot know for certain that Cicero's praise was reserved specifically for the exoteric works; a few modern scholars have actually admired the concise writing style found in Aristotle's extant works.

    One major question in the history of Aristotle's works, then, is how were the exoteric writings all lost, and how did the ones we now possess come to us. The story of the original manuscripts of the esoteric treatises is described by Strabo in his Geography and Plutarch in his Parallel Lives. The manuscripts were left from Aristotle to his successor Theophrastus, who in turn willed them to Neleus of Scepsis. Neleus supposedly took the writings from Athens to Scepsis, where his heirs let them languish in a cellar until the 1st century BC, when Apellicon of Teos discovered and purchased the manuscripts, bringing them back to Athens. According to the story, Apellicon tried to repair some of the damage that was done during the manuscripts' stay in the basement, introducing a number of errors into the text. When Lucius Cornelius Sulla occupied Athens in 86 BC, he carried off the library of Apellicon to Rome, where they were first published in 60 BC by the grammarian Tyrannion of Amisus and then by the philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes.

    Carnes Lord attributes the popular belief in this story to the fact that it provides "the most plausible explanation for the rapid eclipse of the Peripatetic school after the middle of the third century, and for the absence of widespread knowledge of the specialized treatises of Aristotle throughout the Hellenistic period, as well as for the sudden reappearance of a flourishing Aristotelianism during the first century B.C." Lord voices a number of reservations concerning this story, however. First, the condition of the texts is far too good for them to have suffered considerable damage followed by Apellicon's inexpert attempt at repair.

    Second, there is "incontrovertible evidence," Lord says, that the treatises were in circulation during the time in which Strabo and Plutarch suggest they were confined within the cellar in Scepsis. Third, the definitive edition of Aristotle's texts seems to have been made in Athens some fifty years before Andronicus supposedly compiled his. And fourth, ancient library catalogues predating Andronicus' intervention list an Aristotelian corpus quite similar to the one we currently possess. Lord sees a number of post-Aristotelian interpolations in the Politics, for example, but is generally confident that the work has come down to us relatively intact.

    On the one hand, the surviving texts of Aristotle do not derive from finished literary texts, but rather from working drafts used within Aristotle's school, as opposed, on the other hand, to the dialogues and other "exoteric" texts which Aristotle published more widely during his lifetime. The consensus is that Andronicus of Rhodes collected the esoteric works of Aristotle's school which existed in the form of smaller, separate works, distinguished them from those of Theophrastus and other Peripatetics, edited them, and finally compiled them into the more cohesive, larger works as they are known today.


    More than 2300 years after his death, Aristotle remains one of the most influential people who ever lived. He contributed to almost every field of human knowledge then in existence, and he was the founder of many new fields. According to the philosopher Bryan Magee, "it is doubtful whether any human being has ever known as much as he did". Among countless other achievements, 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.

    Later Greek philosophers

    The immediate influence of Aristotle's work was felt as the Lyceum grew into the Peripatetic school. Aristotle's notable students included Aristoxenus, Dicaearchus, Demetrius of Phalerum, Eudemos of Rhodes, Harpalus, Hephaestion, Mnason of Phocis, Nicomachus, and Theophrastus. Aristotle's influence over Alexander the Great is seen in the latter's bringing with him on his expedition a host of zoologists, botanists, and researchers. He had also learned a great deal about Persian customs and traditions from his teacher. Although his respect for Aristotle was diminished as his travels made it clear that much of Aristotle's geography was clearly wrong, when the old philosopher released his works to the public, Alexander complained "Thou hast not done well to publish thy acroamatic doctrines; for in what shall I surpass other men if those doctrines wherein I have been trained are to be all men's common property?"

    Influence on Byzantine scholars

    Greek Christian scribes played a crucial role in the preservation of Aristotle by copying all the extant Greek language manuscripts of the corpus. The first Greek Christians to comment extensively on Aristotle were John Philoponus, Elias, and David in the sixth century, and Stephen of Alexandria in the early seventh century. John Philoponus stands out for having attempted a fundamental critique of Aristotle's views on the eternity of the world, movement, and other elements of Aristotelian thought. After a hiatus of several centuries, formal commentary by Eustratius and Michael of Ephesus reappears in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, apparently sponsored by Anna Comnena.

    Influence on Islamic theologians

    Aristotle was one of the most revered Western thinkers in early Islamic theology. Most of the still extant works of Aristotle, as well as a number of the original Greek commentaries, were translated into Arabic and studied by Muslim philosophers, scientists and scholars. Averroes, Avicenna and Alpharabius, who wrote on Aristotle in great depth, also influenced Thomas Aquinas and other Western Christian scholastic philosophers. Alkindus considered Aristotle as the outstanding and unique representative of philosophy and Averroes spoke of Aristotle as the "exemplar" for all future philosophers. Medieval Muslim scholars regularly described Aristotle as the "First Teacher". The title "teacher" was first given to Aristotle by Muslim scholars, and was later used by Western philosophers (as in the famous poem of Dante) who were influenced by the tradition of Islamic philosophy.

    In accordance with the Greek theorists, the Muslims considered Aristotle to be a dogmatic philosopher, the author of a closed system, and believed that Aristotle shared with Plato essential tenets of thought. Some went so far as to credit Aristotle himself with neo-Platonic metaphysical ideas.

    Influence on Western Christian theologians

    With the loss of the study of ancient Greek in the early medieval Latin West, Aristotle was practically unknown there from c. AD 600 to c. 1100 except through the Latin translation of the Organon made by Boethius. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, interest in Aristotle revived and Latin Christians had translations made, both from Arabic translations, such as those by Gerard of Cremona, and from the original Greek, such as those by James of Venice and William of Moerbeke.

    After Thomas Aquinas wrote his theology, working from Moerbeke's translations, the demand for Aristotle's writings grew and the Greek manuscripts returned to the West, stimulating a revival of Aristotelianism in Europe that continued into the Renaissance. Aristotle is referred to as "The Philosopher" by Scholastic thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas (see Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 3, etc.). These thinkers blended Aristotelian philosophy with Christianity, bringing the thought of Ancient Greece into the Middle Ages. It required a repudiation of some Aristotelian principles for the sciences and the arts to free themselves for the discovery of modern scientific laws and empirical methods. The medieval English poet Chaucer describes his student as being happy by having

    at his beddes heed
    Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
    Of aristotle and his philosophie,

    The Italian poet Dante says of Aristotle in the first circles of hell,

    vidi 'l maestro di color che sanno
    seder tra filosofica famiglia.
    Tutti lo miran, tutti onor li fanno:
    quivi vid'ïo Socrate e Platone
    che 'nnanzi a li altri più presso li stanno;

    I saw the Master there of those who know,
    Amid the philosophic family,
    By all admired, and by all reverenced;
    There Plato too I saw, and Socrates,
    Who stood beside him closer than the rest.
    —Dante, L'Inferno (Hell), Canto IV. Lines 131–135

    Post-Enlightenment thinkers

    The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has been said to have taken nearly all of his political philosophy from Aristotle. However debatable this is, Aristotle rigidly separated action from production, and argued for the deserved subservience of some people ("natural slaves"), and the natural superiority (virtue, arete) of others. It is Martin Heidegger, not Nietzsche, who elaborated a new interpretation of Aristotle, intended to warrant his deconstruction of scholastic and philosophical tradition. Ayn Rand accredited Aristotle as "the greatest philosopher in history" and cited him as a major influence on her thinking. More recently, Alasdair MacIntyre has attempted to reform what he calls the Aristotelian tradition in a way that is anti-elitist and capable of disputing the claims of both liberals and Nietzscheans.

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