The Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) organized all knowledge of his time into a coherent whole which served as the basis for much of the science and philosophy of Hellenistic and Roman times and even affected medieval science and philosophy.
Aristotle was born in the small Greek town of Stagiros (later Stagira) in the northern Greek district of Chalcidice. His father, Nicomachus, was a physician who had important social connections, and Aristotle's interest in science was surely spurred by his father's work, although Aristotle does not display a particularly keen interest in medicine as such. The events of his early life are not clear, but it is possible that his father served at the Macedonian court as physician to Amyntas II and that Aristotle spent part of his youth there.
At the age of 17 Aristotle joined Plato's circle at the Academy in Athens. There he remained for 20 years, and although his respect and admiration for Plato was always great, differences developed which ultimately caused a breach. On Plato's death in 348/347 B.C. Aristotle left for Assos in Mysia (in Asia Minor), where he and Xenocrates joined a small circle of Platonists who had already settled there under Hermias, the ruler of Atarneus. Aristotle married Pythias, the niece of Hermias, and in a fine hymn expressed his shock and dismay over Hermias's death at the hands of the Persians some time thereafter.
After 3 years in Assos with Theophrastus and Xenocrates, Aristotle went to Mytilene for 2 years. Later, Theophrastus and Aristotle made their way to the court of Philip of Macedon, where Aristotle became tutor to Alexander, who later gained immortality by becoming master of the whole Persian Empire. Scant information remains regarding the specific contents of Alexander's education at the hands of Aristotle, but it would be interesting to know what political advice Aristotle imparted to the young Alexander. The only indication of such advice is found in the fragment of a letter in which the philosopher tells Alexander that he ought to be the leader of the Greeks but the master of the barbarians (foreigners).
Aristotle returned to Athens in 335/334. Under the protection of Antipater, Alexander's representative in Athens, he established a philosophical school of his own in the gymnasium Lyceum, located near a shrine of Apollo Lyceus. The school derived its name, Peripatetic, from the colonnaded walk (peripatos). Members took meals in common, and certain formalities were established which members had to observe. The lectures were divided into morning and afternoon sessions, the more difficult ones given in the morning and the easier and more popular ones in the afternoon. Aristotle himself led the school until the death of Alexander in 323, at which time he felt it expedient to leave Athens, fearing for his safety because of his close association with the Macedonians. He went to Chalcis, where he died the following year of a gastric ailment. His will, preserved in the writings of Diogenes Laertius, provided for his daughter, Pythias, and his son, Nicomachus, as well as for his slaves.
Aristotle produced a large number of writings, but relatively few have survived. Because of the great weight of his authority it was inevitable that several spurious treatises should find their way into the corpus of his work. His earliest writings, consisting for the most part of dialogues, were produced under the influence of Plato and the Academy. Most of these are lost, although the titles are known from the writings of Diogenes Laertius and from one of several Lives to come down from antiquity. They include his Rhetoric, Eudemus (On the Soul), Protrepticus, On Philosophy, Alexander, On Monarchy, Politicus, Sophistes, Menexenus, Symposium, On Justice, On the Poets, Nerinthus, Eroticus, On Wealth, On Prayer, On Good Birth, On Pleasure, and On Education. These were exoteric works written for the public, and they deal with popular philosophical themes. The dialogues of Plato were undoubtedly the inspiration for some of them, although the divergence in thought between Plato and his pupil—which was to become apparent later—reveals itself to a certain extent in these works too.
A second group of writings is made up of collections of scientific and historical material, among the most important of which is the surviving fragment of the Constitution of the Athenians. This formed part of the large collection of Constitutions, which Aristotle and his students collected and studied for the purpose of analyzing various political theories. The discovery of the Constitution of the Athenians in Egypt in 1890 shed new light not only on the nature of the Athenian democracy of the 5th century B.C., but also on the difference in quality between the historical and scientific works of Aristotle and his successors. The prejudices and errors shown in the Constitution reveal a mind influenced by Plato and aristocratic social prejudices, while the factual discrepancies reveal the unreliable historical sources which Aristotle used for this type of treatise. Other works in this category are the Pythian Victors, Barbarian Customs, Didascaliai (lists of dramatic performances at Athens), Homeric Questions, Problems, and Olympian Victors.
The last group of writings is made up of those that have actually survived, and they consist of both philosophical and scientific works. Among them are Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics, Sophistic Arguments, Physics, On Heaven, On Generation and Corruption, Meteorology, On the Soul, History of Animals, On the Origin of Animals, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, Politics, Poetics, On Interpretation, On the Movement of Animals, On Feeling and the Senses, On Memory and Recollection, On Dreams, On a Dream, On Divination through Dreams, On the Long and Short Life, On Life and Death, and On Breathing.
Upon the death of Theophrastus, who had kept Aristotle's manuscripts after the master's death in 322, these works were hidden away in a cellar in the Troad and not brought to light again until the beginning of the 1st century B.C., when they were taken to Rome and edited by Andronicus. Our texts derive from Andronicus's recension and probably do not represent works which Aristotle himself prepared for publication. The peculiarly clipped language in which they are written indicates that they are lecture notes of some sort organized from oral discussions of the material by Aristotle. From the time of his death until the rediscovery of these writings, Aristotle was best known for the works which today are the lost writings. Ironically, modern scholars find themselves in possession of works which their ancient counterparts lacked for several centuries, while the works extant in antiquity are lost today.
Philosophical and Scientific Systems
The extant writings, however, are sufficient to show the quality of Aristotle's achievement. The Topics and the Analytics deal with logic and dialectic and reveal Aristotle's contributions to the development of the syllogism and inductive inference. His view of nature is set forth in the Physics and the Metaphysics, and we see the premise established in these works which marks the most serious difference between Aristotelianism and Platonism: that all investigation must begin with what the senses record and must move only from that point to abstract thought. As a result of this process of intellectualizing, God, who for Plato is eternal Beauty and Goodness, is for Aristotle the Unmoved Mover, Thought contemplating Itself, the highest form of being which is completely lacking in materiality. Aristotle's God neither created nor consciously controls the universe, although the universe is affected by Him (it). Man is the only creature capable of thought even remotely resembling that of the Unmoved Mover, so man's highest goal is to reason abstractly, and he is more truly human to the extent that he achieves that goal.
But such a conclusion does not lead Aristotle to the moralist position taken by Plato, or by the Stoics or Epicureans in later times. Aristotle views men and their affairs from a cooler and more pragmatic point of view, and in the Nicomachean Ethics he analyzes the human situation from the point of view of reality as his researches reveal it to him. Man cannot be happy without the usual necessities of physical life, but those necessities do not suffice for true happiness. Since only the philosopher achieves a level of intellectual activity which might be taken seriously, it is the philosopher who achieves true human happiness through the use of his acutely developed ability to think abstractly.
Aristotle's work was often misunderstood in later times. The cardinal sin which later generations committed against this most dynamic of thinkers was to ascribe to his views a rigidity and certainty which they never had. The scientific and philosophical systems set forth in his writings are not conclusions which must be taken as absolute truth, but rather tentative positions arrived at through careful observation and analysis. Modern scholarship has helped to show the vitality of Aristotle's mind, but in the stagnant intellectual climate of imperial Rome and the totally unscientific Christian Middle Ages Aristotle's views on nature and science were taken as a complete system. As a result, his prestige was enormous but not for any reason that would have pleased him.
Aristotle shares with his master, Plato, the role of synthesizer and catalyst. Each of these two giants showed how the probings of the Pre-Socratics fell short of their goals, and each constructed philosophical systems on premises which they considered sound. Plato had a more direct influence on the development of that great mystical movement in late antiquity, Neoplatonism, and Aristotle had a more profound effect on science. Antiquity produced no greater minds than those of Plato and Aristotle, and the intellectual history of the West would be radically different without them.
Further Reading on Aristotle
Translations of the individual works of Aristotle are too numerous to mention, but a useful starting point is Works, translated under the editorship of W.D. Ross (12 vols., 1908-1952). A one-volume Basic Works was edited by Richard McKeon (1941). One of the best short introductions to Aristotle's writings is Geoffrey R.G. Mure, Aristotle (1964), highly readable but more limited in depth than the useful works of W.D. Ross, Aristotle (1923; 5th ed. rev. 1953) and The Development of Aristotle's Thought (1957). Other useful general works include D.J. Allan, The Philosophy of Aristotle (1952), and John Herman Randall, Aristotle (1960). For historical background see M.L.W. Laistner, A History of the Greek World, from 479 to 323 B.C. (1957).