The Early Years
Aristotle, the greatest and most influential of all the Greek philosophers, was born in 384 BC in the town of Stageria (near Macedonia, on the northern peninsula of Greece). His father, Nicomachus, was a friend and physician to King Amyntas of Macedonia. Nicomachus belonged to a large family of physicians and healers who are believed to hold this position under various kings of Macedonia.
As a boy, Aristotle most likely watched his father treating patients and making medicines from parts of plants and animals. From this, and having come from a long line of physicians, Aristotle may have gained his interests in nature study, biology, anatomy and zoology. Also, during these years he may have developed his keen powers of observation, which he later used in his studies of natural phenomena.
Aristotle's parents died when he was just a boy, ending his plans to take up medicine. He was left in the care of an uncle (either by blood or as a family friend), Proxenus of Atatneus. Proxenus continued Aristotle's education by instructing him in Greek, rhetoric, and poetry.
In 367 BC, when Aristotle was seventeen, he left Stageria to study at Plato's Academy in Athens, the heart of the intellectual world at the time. Plato had founded the Academy twenty years before Aristotle arrived there. It was a place where people could think, develop understanding, and acquire knowledge. Aristotle became a pupil of Plato, and his thoughts were so impressive that he soon became a teacher, himself, remaining at the academy for 20 years. During this time, Plato and Aristotle became friends. Aristotle was inspired by Plato and wanted to learn all that he could from him.
The Academy encouraged their students to let their minds and thoughts roam free. Much of the discussion at the Academy was in the tradition of a dialogue or conversation between two people. One person would ask a question, the others would talk about it, suggest answers, ask more questions, and so on. Gradually the answers would emerge.
As Aristotle's own knowledge increased, he began to question Plato's views and methods of the Academy. At the time of Plato's death in 347 BC, Aristotle was the Academy's most promising student, although he did not succeed Plato as head of the school. Plato's nephew, Speusippos, took over the Academy. He was a mathematician in the tradition of Pythagoras, who believed that the world and everything in it could be explained by numbers and sums. Aristotle became restless in that he could not agree with these views. He soon left the Academy and set of on his travels.
From Athens, Aristotle traveled to Assos, where he was received warmly by the ruler, Hermias, of Atarneus. Here he studied politics and biology, taught pupils, and advised the rulers. He married Pythias, the niece and adopted daughter of Hermias, who was only about eighteen at the time. They had a daughter who they also called Pythias, although the elder Pythias died about 10 years into the marriage. Later in life, Aristotle married again to Herpyllis, with whom he had a son he named Nicomachus, after his father.
The First Naturalist
Hermias soon gathered a group of philosophers in Assos. Aristotle established an Academy and became leader of the group. Going back to his childhood education from his father, he began to carry out many observations and studies on nature, especially fish and seashore creatures. He would cut them open, identify their parts and organs, and suggested their meaning. This was far different from what his colleagues did. They were thinkers, not doers. They rarely carried out tests or observed the real world closely or made records of what they saw. Aristotle was establishing a whole new tradition, which today is a central part of science.
Much of his work has been important and admired in the history of science, but with today's technology, has become out of date. However, his studies in nature and biology have stood the test of time relatively well, mostly because of his emphasis on first-hand observations and experience.
Aristotle's basic classification had two groups: those with red blood and those without. Animals with red blood, such as snakes, birds, and mammals are what we now call vertebrates, or animals with backbones. Those without blood, now know as invertebrates, or those without backbones, include worms, crabs, and starfish. We now know that these animals do have a type of blood, but their blood systems are very different from those of vertebrates.
Tutor to the Great
Hermias' kingdom was taken over by the Persians in 344 BC, he was captured and executed. Aristotle, along with his family and many of his scientists, escaped to the island of Lesbos, where they remained for about a year, continuing their research.
In 342 BC Aristotle went to Pella, the Macedonian capital, where he was invited by King Phillip II to tutor his thirteen-year old son, Alexander. He taught the boy mathematics, navigation, astronomy, biology, logic, ethics, and politics, but also of the most profound secrets of philosophy. Alexander was clever, but he did not take up with philosophy or the other subjects. He was more interested in war and conquest. He became known as Alexander the Great and conquered most of the known world before his death.
Alexander remembered his teacher and the influence he made on him. He provided Aristotle generously with means for the acquisition of books and tools for scientific inquiry; he also sent back exotic plants and animals from his conquests around the world.
Aristotle's Own School
In 335, when Alexander became king, Aristotle returned to Athens to find the Academy flourishing under Xenocrates. At the age of fifty, Aristotle established his own academy, the Lyceum, and ran it for twelve years. The school was also referred to as the Peripatetic School, from Aristotle's practice of walking up and down in the garden during his lectures. The Greek word means "walking" or "strolling." Aristotle would have detailed discussions with a small group of advanced students in the mornings, discussing logic and philosophy. Then in the afternoons, he would give public lectures in rhetoric, politics and ethics.
During his time at the Lyceum, Aristotle is thought to have composed his principle writings, many of which have survived to this day. His works were mainly in the form of lecture notes, written extensively on a wide range of subjects including politics, metaphysics, ethics, logic and science. He also included how investigations should be approached and carried out.
The Final Years
Upon the death of Alexander in 323 BC, the government of Athens was overthrown by anti-Macedonian forces. Because of his close connections to the Macedonian royal family, Aristotle was associated with the Macedonians and was unpopular with the new ruling powers. The new government brought charges of impiety against Aristotle. With the fate of Socrates before his eyes, he chose a timely escape. Socrates was put on trial in Athens in 399 BC, charged with corrupting the youth and not believing in the ancestral gods. He was convicted and executed.
Aristotle said "the Athenians might not have another opportunity of sinning against philosophy as they had already done in the person of Socrates." In 322 BC, he returned to Chalcis, his mother's homeland. He moved into a house once owned by his mother, which still belonged to her family. In the autumn of the same year, he died at the age of 62, after complaining of stomach problems.
Life after Aristotle
The Peripatetic School at the Lyceum in Athens continued after Aristotle's death. Theophrastus, a student and successor of Aristotle, lead the school and continued the study of metaphysics and psychology. He was then replaced by Strato, who worked on physical theories. Over the years, the school declined as Aristotle's influence faded.
Aristotle's writings were preserved by Theophrastus. Theophrastus' pupil, Neleus, and his heirs concealed the books in a cellar vault to protect them from theft, but they were damaged by dampness, moths and worms. The books were discovered two hundred years later and taken to Rome where they were edited and published by Andronikos, the eleventh head of the Lyceum school.
While most of his works were lost, scholars took interest in what they found and prepared new editions of them. The works of Aristotle that we have today are based on this collection. Although Aristotle's own writing style was difficult to follow, translators, editors and copiers re-examined the fragments and changed some meanings. In recent times, experts have been trying to separate Aristotle's thoughts from those who have tampered with his writings over the centuries.
Overall, Aristotle wrote three types of works: dialogues or other works of a popular character, collections of scientific data and observations, and systematic treaties. His philosophy can be divided into four man areas: 1) Logic; 2) Theoretical Philosophy, including Metaphysics, Physics and Mathematics; 3) Practical Philosophy, such as Ethics and Politics; and 4) Poetical Philosophy, covering the study of poetry and the fine arts.
During his life, Aristotle dealt with a huge range of scientific subjects, from the physics of motions to the way grasshoppers chirp by rubbing their legs across their wings. He recognized the importance of change, and the process, by which it happens, as well as the results and outcomes.
In today's world of technology and advancements, many of Aristotle's theories and proposals are out of date. Yet, even as they were being overtaken, his influence remained. Until the 20th century, logic pertained to Aristotle's logic. Until the Renaissance, and even later, astronomers and poets alike admired his perception of the universe. Aristotle's deep understanding, his skill at asking the right questions, and his reliance on observation and firsthand evidence stimulated scientists like Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin.
The writings of Aristotle that have survived to this date are in the form of lecture notes that he used in the Lyceum school. The most important works that remain include Organon ("Instrument"), which set out his ideas of positive knowledge and science and how investigations should be approached and carried out.
His works on natural science include Physics, which gives a vast amount of information on astronomy, meteorology, plants, and animals. This work also introduced a method of classification which we still use today.
His writings on nature, scope, and properties of being, which Aristotle named First Philosophy, were given the title Metaphysics in the first published edition of his works (70 BC), because they followed Physics. In Metaphysics Aristotle demonstrates the ideas of existence, knowing and "being," and their substances and qualities. Metaphysics deal with objects and events that occur in the real world.
His treaties on Rhetoric and Poetics involve the power and persuasive use of words in speech, poetry, drama, and creative writing.
Logic dealt with the art and process of using language to reason from one fact or statement to another. Facts do not simply exist - they must be expressed and understood in terms of words and language. Aristotle developed a type a reasoning we call syllogism. Here is an example. All dogs have tails. All Labradors are dogs. Therefore, all Labradors have tails. This reasoning is of this type: All Bs are Cs. All As are Bs. Therefore, all As are Cs. Note that the order and relationship of information is important. Logic reasoning tells us that we cannot state the reverse. All dogs are not necessarily Labradors.
Aristotle dedicated his work on ethics to his son Nicomachus, calling it Nicomachean Ethics. It dealt with human thought and behavior concerned with right and wrong, good and bad, and moral questions.
Aristotle's Words of Wisdom
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act, but a habit."
"Dignity does not come in possessing honors, but in deserving them."
"Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime."
"Man perfected by society is the best of all animals; he is the most terrible of all when he lives without law, and without justice."
"It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen."
"What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies."
"We make war that we may live in peace."
"In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous."
"Man is by nature a political animal."
"Art completes what nature cannot bring to finish."
"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."
Read more about Aristotle.
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