Biography of Aristotle

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Aristotle (384 BCE – March 7, 322 BCE) was a Greek scientist and philosopher. Along with Plato, he is often considered to be one of the two most influential philosophers in Western thought.

The three greatest ancient Greek philosophers were Aristotle, Plato (a teacher of Aristotle), and Socrates (c. 470-399BCE), whose thinking deeply influenced Plato. Among them they transformed early (now, presocratic) Greek philosophy into the foundations of Western philosophyas we know it. Socrates-possibly as a result of the reasons articulatedagainst writing philosophy attributed to him in Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus-wrote nothing, and his ideas come down to us only indirectly through Plato and a few other ancient writers. The writings of Plato and Aristotle form the core of Ancient philosophy.

Their works, although connected in many fundamental ways, are very different in both style and die The majority of Aristotle’s work has been lost, some since Classical times. There is a glimpse of what we have lost in the praise given by Cicero to the eloquence of Aristotle’s dialogues. The surviving works are known and respected for a plain and unadorned (though not easy) style; not one is a dialogue. Some lost works of Aristotle may have survived in hard-to-restore carbonised form at the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, currently under excavation.

In late antiquity Aristotle fell nearly out of sight. Early Christian writerssuch as Tertullian rejected philosophy altogether as a pagan study that was made obsolete by the Gospels. In the 5th century Saint Augustine used Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophy in his theology, but had no use for Aristotle. At the end of the century, however, Boethius undertook to translate the works of Aristotle and other Greeks into Latin, as the teaching of Greek was being lost in the West; his translations and commentaries were nearly all that was known of Greek philosophy in the West for several centuries. They were little missed, as the hostility of early Christianity to pagan philosophy continued.

Aristotle’s works were read during the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, however, and the Islamic philosopher Averroes commented extensively on it and attempted to fuse it with Islamic theology. Maimonides also tried this with Judaism. By the 12th century there was a great revival of interest in Aristotle in Christian Europe, and the great translator William of Moerbeke worked from both Greek and Arabic manuscripts to produce Latin translations. Aristotle’s works were commented on by Thomas Aquinas and became the standard philosophical approach of the high and later middle ages. Aristotle’s works were held in such esteem that he was known as The Philosopher.

Indeed, the views of Aristotle became the dogma of scholastic philosophy. It was this dogma that was rejected by the philosophers of the early modern period, such as Galileo and Descartes.

Aristotle’s theories about drama, in particular the idea of the dramatic unities , also influenced later playwrights, especially in France. He claimed to be describing the Greek theater, but his work was taken as prescriptive. In more recent times there has been a new revival of interest in Aristotle. His ethical views in particular remain influential.

See also: Aristotle’s theory of universals, accidental properties

The article Aristotelian logic discusses the influence of Aristotle’s Organon. See also the article Term Logic that outlines the system of traditional logic based on the Organon, that survived until the twentieth century.

Aristotle was born at Stageira, a Greek colony on the Macedonian peninsula Chalcidice in 384 BCE. His father, Nicomachus, was court physician to King Amyntas III of Macedon. It is believed that Aristotle’s ancestors held this position under various kings of Macedonia. Aristotle was probably influenced by his father’s medical knowledge; when he went to Athens at the age of 18, he was likely already trained in the investigation of natural phenomena.

From the ages of 18 to 37 Aristotle remained in Athens as a pupil of Plato and distinguished himself at the Academe. The relations between Plato and Aristotle have formed the subject of various legends, many of which depict Aristotle unfavourably. No doubt there were divergences of opinion between Plato, who took his stand on sublime, idealistic principles, and Aristotle, who even at that time showed a preference for the investigation of the facts and laws of the physical world. It is also probable that Plato suggested that Aristotle needed restraining rather than encouragement, but not that there was an open breach of friendship. In fact, Aristotle’s conduct after the death of Plato, his continued association with Xenocrates and other Platonists, and his allusions in his writings to Plato’s doctrines prove that while there were conflicts of opinion between Plato and Aristotle, there was no lack of cordial appreciation or mutual forbearance. Besides this, the legends that reflect Aristotle unfavourably are traceable to the Epicureans, who were known as slanderers. If such legends were circulated widely by patristic writers such as Justin Martyr and Gregory Nazianzen, the reason lies in the exaggerated esteem Aristotle was held in by the early Christian heretics, not in any well-grounded historical tradition.

After the death of Plato (346 BCE), Aristotle went with Xenocrates to the court of Hermias, ruler of Atarneus in Asia Minor, and married his niece and adopted daughter, Pythia. In 344 BCE, Hermias was murdered in a rebellion, and Aristotle went with his family to Mytilene. Then, one or two years later, he was summoned to his native Stageira by King Philip II of Macedon to become the tutor of Alexander the Great, who was then 13.

Plutarch wrote that Aristotle not only imparted to Alexander a knowledge of ethics and politics, but also of the most profound secrets of philosophy. We have much proof that Alexander profited by contact with the philosopher, and that Aristotle made prudent and beneficial use of his influence over the young prince (although Bertrand Russell disputes this). Due to this influence, Alexander provided Aristotle with ample means for the acquisition of books and the pursuit of his scientific investigation, and it is quite likely that Alexander the Great’s renowned military ability can be traced, at least in part, to his relationship with Aristotle.

According to sources such as Plutarch and Diogenes, Philip had Aristotle’s hometown of Stageira burned during the 340′s BCE, and Aristotle successfully requested that Alexander rebuild it.

In about 335 BCE, Alexander departed for his Asiatic campaign, and Aristotle, who had served as an informal adviser (more or less) since Alexander ascended the Macedonian throne, returned to Athens and opened his own school of philosophy. He may, as Aulus Gellius says, have conducted a school of rhetoric during his former residence in Athens; but now, following Plato’s example, he gave regular instruction in philosophy in a gymnasium dedicated to Apollo Lyceios, from which his school has come to be known as the Lyceum. (It was also called the Peripatetic School because Aristotle preferred to discuss problems of philosophy with his pupils while walking up and down – peripateo – the shaded walks – peripatoi – around the gymnasium.)

During the thirteen years (335 BCE-322 BCE) which he spent as teacher of the Lyceum, Aristotle composed most of his writings. Imitating Plato, he wrote “Dialogues” in which his doctrines were expounded in somewhat popular language. He also composed the several treatises (which will be mentioned below) on physics, metaphysics, and so forth, in which the exposition is more didactic and the language more technical than in the “Dialogues”. These writings show to what good use he put the resources Alexander had provided for him. They show particularly how he succeeded in bringing together the works of his predecessors in Greek philosophy, and how he pursued, either personally or through others, his investigations in the realm of natural phenomena. Pliny claimed that Alexander placed under Aristotle’s orders all the hunters, fishermen, and fowlers of the royal kingdom and all the overseers of the royal forests, lakes, ponds and cattle-ranges, and Aristotle’s works on zoology make this statement more believeable. Aristotle was fully informed about the doctrines of his predecessors, and Strabo asserted that he was the first to accumulate a great library.

During the last years of Aristotle’s life the relations between him and Alexander the Great became very strained, owing to the disgrace and punishment of Callisthenes whom Aristotle had recommended to Alexander. Nevertheless, Aristotle continued to be regarded at Athens as a friend of Alexander and a representative of Macedonia. Consequently, when Alexander’s death became known in Athens, and the outbreak occurred which led to the Lamian war, Aristotle shared in the general unpopularity of the Macedonians. The charge of impiety, which had been brought against Anaxagoras and Socrates, was now, with even less reason, brought against Aristotle. He left the city, saying (according to many ancient authorities) that he would not give the Athenians a chance to sin a third time against philosophy. He took up residence at his country house at Chalcis, in Euboea, and there he died the following year, 322 BCE. His death was due to a disease from which he had long suffered. The story that his death was due to hemlock poisoning, as well as the legend that he threw himself into the sea “because he could not explain the tides,” is without historical foundation.

Very little is known about Aristotle’s personal appearance except from hostile sources. The statues and busts of Aristotle, possibly from the first years of the Peripatetic School, represent him as sharp and keen of countenance, and somewhat below the average height. His character (as revealed by his writings, his will (which is undoubtedly genuine), fragments of his letters and the allusions of his unprejudiced contemporaries) was that of a high-minded, kind-hearted man, devoted to his family and his friends, kind to his slaves, fair to his enemies and rivals, grateful towards his benefactors. When Platonism ceased to dominate the world of Christian speculation, and the works of Aristotle began to be studied without fear and prejudice, the personality of Aristotle appeared to the Christian writers of the 13th century, as it had to the unprejudiced pagan writers of his own day, as calm, majestic, untroubled by passion, and undimmed by any great moral defects, “the master of those who know”.

Aristotle defines philosophy in terms of essence, saying that philosophy is “the science of the universal essence of that which is actual”. Plato had defined it as the “science of the idea”, meaning by idea what we should call the unconditional basis of phenomena. Both pupil and master regard philosophy as concerned with the universal; the former however, finds the universal in particular things, and calls it the essence of things, while the latter finds that the universal exists apart from particular things, and is related to them as their prototype or exemplar. For Aristotle, therefore, philosophic method implies the ascent from the study of particular phenomena to the knowledge of essences, while for Plato philosophic method means the descent from a knowledge of universal ideas to a contemplation of particular imitations of those ideas. In a certain sense, Aristotle’s method is both inductive and deductive, while Plato’s is essentially deductive.

In Aristotle’s terminology, the term natural philosophy corresponds to the phenomenon of the natural world,which include: motion, light, the laws of physics. Many centuries later these subjects would later become the basis of modern science, as studied through the scientific method. The term philosophy is distinct from metaphysics, which is what moderns term philosophy.

In the larger sense of the word, he makes philosophy coextensive with reasoning, which he also called “science”. Note, however, that his use of the term science carries a different meaning than that which is covered by the scientific method. “All science (dianoia) is either practical, poetical or theoretical.” By practical science he understands ethics and politics; by poetical, he means the study of poetry and the other fine arts; while by theoretical philosophy he means physics, mathematics, and metaphysics.

The last, philosophy in the stricter sense, he defines as “the knowledge of immaterial being,” and calls it “first philosophy”, “the theologic science” or of “being in the highest degree of abstraction.” If logic, or, as Aristotle calls it, Analytic, be regarded as a study preliminary to philosophy, we have as divisions of Aristotelian philosophy (1) Logic; (2) Theoretical Philosophy, including Metaphysics, Physics, Mathematics, (3) Practical Philosophy; and (4) Poetical Philosophy.

Aristotelian discussions about science had only been qualitative, not quantitative. By the modern definition of the term, Aristotelian philosophy was not science, as this worldview did not attempt to probe how the world actually worked through experiment. Rather, based on what one’s senses told one, Aristotelian philosophy then depended upon the assumption that man’s mind could elucidate all the laws of the universe, based on simple observation (without experimentation) through reason alone.

One of the reasons for this was that Aristotle held that physics was about changing objects with a reality of their own, whereas mathematics was about unchanging objects without a reality of their own. In this philosophy, he could not imagine that there was a relationship between them.

In contrast, today the term science refers to the position that thinking alone often leads people astray, and therefore one must compare one’s ideas to the actual world through experimentation; only then can one see if one’s ideas are based in reality.

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