384 BC An ancient Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle Portraits. Aristotle (384 BC – March 7, 322 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher, student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. He wrote many books about physics, poetry, zoology, logic, rhetoric, government, and biology.
His father, Nicomachus, died when Aristotle was a child, whereafter Proxenus of Atarneusbecame his guardian. Aristotle, along with Plato and Socrates, are generally considered the three most influential ancient Greek philosophers in Western thought. Among them they transformed Presocratic Greek philosophy into the foundations of Western philosophy as we know it.
The writings of Plato and Aristotle form the core of Ancient philosophy. Aristotle placed much more value on knowledge gained from the senses and would correspondingly be better classed among modern empiricists (see materialism and empiricism).
He also achieved a “grounding” of dialectic in the Topics by allowing interlocutors to begin from commonly held beliefs (Endoxa); his goal being non-contradiction rather than Truth. He set the stage for what would eventually develop into the scientific method centuries later. Although he wrote dialogues early in his career, no more than fragments of these have survived.
The works of Aristotle that still exist today are in treatise form and were, for the most part, unpublished texts. These were probably lecture notes or texts used by his students, and were almost certainly revised repeatedly over the course of years.
As a result, these works tend to be eclectic, dense and difficult to read. Among the most important ones are Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, De Anima (On the Soul) and Poetics. Their works, although connected in many fundamental ways, are very different in both style and substance.
Aristotle is known for being one of the few figures in history who studied almost every subject possible at the time. In science, Aristotle studied anatomy, astronomy, embryology, geography, geology, meteorology, physics, and zoology.
In philosophy, Aristotle wrote on aesthetics, economics, ethics, government, metaphysics, politics, psychology, rhetoric and theology. He also dealt with education, foreign customs, literature and poetry. His combined works practically comprise an encyclopedia of Greek knowledge.
Early life and studies at the Academy
Aristotle was born at Stageira, a colony of Andros on the Macedonian peninsula of Chalcidice in 384 BC. 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. As such, Aristotle’s early education would probably have consisted of instruction in medicine and biology from his father.
About his mother, Phaestis, little is known. It is known that she died early in Aristotle’s life. When Nicomachus also died, in Aristotle’s tenth year, he was left an orphan and placed under the guardianship of his uncle, Proxenus of Atarneus. He taught Aristotle Greek, rhetoric, and poetry (O’Connor et al., 2004). 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 age of 18 to 37 Aristotle remained in Athens as a pupil of Plato and distinguished himself at the Academy. 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.
Aristotle as philosopher and tutor
After the death of Plato (347 BC), Aristotle was considered as the next head of the Academy, a post that was eventually awarded to Plato’s nephew. Aristotle then went with Xenocrates to the court of Hermias, ruler of Atarneus in Asia Minor, and married his niece and adopted daughter, Pythia.
In 344 BC, Hermias was murdered in a rebellion, and Aristotle went with his family to Mytilene. It is also reported that he stopped on Lesbos and briefly conducted biological research. Then, one or two years later, he was summoned to Pella, the Macedonian capital, 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.
It is possible that Aristotle also participated in the education of Alexander’s boyhood friends, which may have included for example Hephaestion and Harpalus.
Aristotle maintained a long correspondence with Hephaestion, eventually collected into a book, unfortunately now lost.According to sources such as Plutarch and Diogenes, Philip had Aristotle’s hometown of Stageira burned during the 340s BC, and Aristotle successfully requested that Alexander rebuild it.
During his tutorship of Alexander, Aristotle was reportedly considered a second time for leadership of the Academy; his companion Xenocrates was selected instead.
Founder and Master of the Lyceum
In about 335 BC, 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 BCÐ322 BC) 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. When reported or imitated in writing, “dialogue” labels a form of literature invented by the Greeks for purposes of rhetorical entertainment and instruction, and scarcely modified since the days of its invention.
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 believable.
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 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 BC.
His death was due to a disease, reportedly ‘of the stomach’, 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’s legacy also had a profound influence on Islamic thought and philosophy during the middle ages. The likes of Avicenna, Farabi, and Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kind were a few of the major proponents of the Aristotelian school of thought during the Golden Age of Islam.
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; Aristotle, however, finds the universal in particular things, and called it the essence of things, while Plato 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 phenomena of the natural world, which include: motion, light, and 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.
Aristotle’s Theory of Universals
Aristotle’s theory of universals is one of the classic solutions to the problem of universals. Aristotle thought – to put it in a not-very-enlightening way – that universals are simply types, properties, or relations that are common to their various instances.
In Aristotle’s view, universals exist only where they are instantiated; they exist only in things (he said they exist in re, which means simply “in things”), never apart from things. Beyond this Aristotle said that a universal is something identical in each of its instances. So all red things are similar in that there is the same universal, redness, in each red thing.
There is no Platonic form of redness, standing apart from all red things; instead, in each red thing there is the same universal, redness.
To further flesh out Aristotle’s theory of universals, it is useful to consider how the theory might satisfy the constraints on theories of universals listed in the problem of universals article.
- First of all, on Aristotle’s view, universals can be multiply instantiated. Aristotle stresses, after all, the one and the same universal, applehood (say), that appears in each apple. Common sense might detect a problem here. (The problem can arise for other forms of realism about universals, however.) Namely, how can we make sense of exactly the same thing being in all of these different objects? That after all is what the theory says; to say that different deserts, the Sahara, the Atacama, and the Gobi are all dry places, is just to say that the exact same being, the universal dryness, occurs at each place. Universals must be awfully strange entities if exactly the same universal can exist in many places and times at once, or so one might think. But maybe that’s not so troubling; it seems troubling if we expect universals to be like physical objects, but remember, we are talking about a totally different category of being. So a common defense of realism (and hence of Aristotle’s realism) is that we should not expect universals to behave as ordinary physical objects do. Maybe then it is not so strange, then, to say that the exact same universal, dryness, occurs all over the earth at once; after all, there is nothing strange about saying that different deserts can be dry at the same time.
- Are Aristotelian universals abstract? And are they, then, what we conceive of when we conceive of abstract objects such as redness? Perhaps. It will help to explain something about how we form concepts, according to Aristotle. We might think of a little girl just forming the concept of human beings. How does she do it? When we form the concept of a universal on Aristotle’s theory, we abstract from a lot of the instances we come across. We as it were mentally extract from each thing the quality that they all have in common. So how does the little girl get the concept of a human being? She learns to ignore the details, tall and short, black and white, long hair and short hair, male and female, etc.; and she pays attention to the thing that they all have in common, namely, humanity. On Aristotle’s view, the universal humanity is the same in all humans (i.e., all humans have that exact same type in common); and this allows us to form a concept of humanity that applies to all humans.
- Are Aristotelian universals the sorts of things we refer to when we use general terms, like ‘redness’ and ‘humanity’? Again, perhaps. The idea is that when we refer to humanity, we refer to the type, human being, that appears identically in each human. We do not refer simply to all the humans, but instead the type, human being, which is the same in each human.