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384 - 322 BC

The Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle 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).

Peripatetic School

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.

His Writings

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.






Aristotle (in most languages other than English known as Aristoteles) was a Greek philosopher who lived from 384 to 322 BC. Along with Plato, he is often considered to be one of the two most influential philosophers in Western thought.

There is a very famous line of succession that included the three greatest ancient Greek philosophers: Socrates taught Plato, and Plato taught Aristotle, and the three of them together are responsible for the birth of Western philosophy as we know it. The whole line of succession occurred between 470 BC (Socrates' year of birth) and 322 BC (Aristotle's year of death).


Although a student of Plato, Aristotle differed on many points with his great teacher. Whereas Plato was an idealist and a rationalist who believed that what we see is an imperfect copy of the intelligible Forms, Aristotle thought that what we know of the world must begin with the senses (see materialism and empiricism). Thus, Aristotle set the stage for what would eventually develop into the scientific method centuries later.


The works of Aristotle that still exist today were, for the most part, unpublished texts. These were probably lecture notes, or texts used by his students. As a result these works tend to be eclectic, dense, and difficult to read. They include Physics, Metaphysics, Poetics, Nicomachean Ethics, De Anima (On the Soul), and many many others.


The popularity of Neo-Platonism in late antiquity meant that little of Aristotle's writing was available in Latin in the early Middle Ages. By the 12th century there was a great revival of interest in Aristotelianism, 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.


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 theatre, 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.



Called by Roman Catholics the greatest of heathen Philosophers, born at Stagira, a Grecian colony in the Thracian peninsula Chalcidice, 384 B.C.; died at Chalcis, in Euboea, 322 B.C.


His father, Nicomachus, was court physician to King Amyntas of Macedonia. This position, we have reason to believe, was held under various predecessors of Amyntas by Aristotle's ancestors, so that the profession of medicine was in a sense hereditary in the family. Whatever early training Aristotle received was probably influenced by this circumstance; when, therefore at the age of eighteen he went to Athens his mind was already determined in the direction which it afterwards took, the investigation of natural phenomena.


From his eighteenth to his thirty-seventh year he remained at Athens as pupil of Plato and was, we are told, distinguished among those who gathered for instruction in the Grove of Academus, adjoining Plato's house. The relations between the renowned teacher and his illustrious pupil have formed the subject of various legends, many of which represent Aristotle in an unfavourable light. No doubt there were divergences of opinion between the master, who took his stand on sublime, idealistic principles, and the scholar, who, even at that time, showed a preference for the investigation of the facts and laws of the physical world. It is probable that Plato did, indeed, declare that Aristotle needed the curb rather than the spur; but we have no reason to believe 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 differences of opinion between teacher and pupil, there was no lack of cordial appreciation, or of that mutual forbearance which one would expect from men of lofty character. Besides this, the legends, so far as they reflect unfavourably on Aristotle, are traceable to the Epicureans who were known to antiquity as calumnators by profession; and if such legends were given wide circulation by patristic writers, such as Justin Martyr and Gregory Nazianzen, the reason is to be sought not in any well-grounded historical tradition, but in the exaggerated esteem in which Aristotle was held by the heretics of the early Christian period.


After the death of Plato (347 B.C.), Aristotle went, in company with Xenocrates, to the court of Hermias, ruler of Atarneus in Asia Minor, whose niece and adopted daughter, Pythias, he married. In 344 Hermias having been murdered in a rebellion of his subjects, Aristotle went with his family to Mytilene and thence, one or two years later, he was summoned to his native Stagira by King Philip II of Macedon, to become the tutor of Alexander the Great, who was then in his thirteenth year.


Whether or not we believe Plutarch when he tells us that Aristotle not only imparted to the future world-conqueror a knowledge of ethics and politics, but also initiated him into the most profound secrets of philosophy, we have positive proof, on the one hand, that the royal pupil profited by contact with the philosopher, and, on the other hand, that the teacher made prudent and beneficial use of his influence over the mind of the young prince. It was due to this influence that Alexander placed at the disposal of his teacher ample means for the acquisition of books and the pursuit of his scientific investigation, and history is not wrong in tracing to the intercourse with Aristotle those singular gifts of mind and heart which almost up to the very last distinguished Alexander among the few who have known how to make moderate and intelligent use of victory.


About the year 335 Alexander departed for his Asiatic campaign; thereupon Aristotle, who, since his pupil's accession to the throne of Macedonia had occupied the position of a more or less informal adviser, returned to Athens and there opened a school of philosophy. He may, as Aulus Gellius says, have conducted a school of rhetoric during his former residence in the city; but now, following the example of Plato, he gave regular instruction in philosophy choosing for that purpose 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 it was the master's custom 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 (335-322) which he spent as teacher at the Lyceum, Aristotle composed the greater number of his writings. Imitating the example of his master, he placed in the hands of his pupils "Dialogues" in which his doctrines were expounded in somewhat popular language. Besides he composed the several treatises (of which mention will be made 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 means placed at his disposal by Alexander. They show in particular how he succeeded in bringing together the works of his predecessors in Greek philosophy, and how he spared neither pains nor expense in pursuing, either personally or through others, his investigations in the realm of natural Phenomena. When we read the works treating of zoology we are quite prepared to believe Pliny's statement 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 when we observe how fully Aristotle is informed concerning the doctrines of those who preceded him, we are prepared to accept Strabo's assertion that he was the first who accumulated a great library. During the last years of Aristotle's life the relations between him and his former royal pupil became very much strained, owing to the disgrace and punishment of Callisthenes whom he had recommended to the King. Nevertheless, he continued to be regarded at Athens as a friend of Alexander and a representative of the Macedonian dominion.


Consequently, when Alexander's death became known at Athens, and the outbreak occurred which led to the Lamian war, Aristotle was obliged to share 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 him. 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 his 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 from which he had long suffered. The story that his death was due to hemlock poisoning, as well as the legend, according to which he threw himself into the sea "because he could not explain the tides" are absolutely without historical foundation.


Very little is known about Aristotle's personal appearance except from sources manifestly hostile. There is no reason, however, to doubt the faithfulness of the statues and busts coming down to us, possibly from the first years of the Peripatetic School, which 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 -- in a word, an embodiment of those moral ideals which he outlined in his ethical treatises, and which we recognize to be far above the concept of moral excellence current in his day and among his people. When Platonism ceased to dominate the world of Christian speculation, and the works of the Stagirite began to be studied without fear and prejudice, the personality of Aristotle appeared to the Christian writers of the thirteenth century, as it had to the unprejudiced pagan writers of his own day, 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 other words, for Plato's tendency to idealize the world of reality in the light of intuition of a higher world, Aristotle substituted the scientific tendency to examine first the phenomena of the real world around us and thence to reason to a knowledge of the essences and laws which no intuition can reveal, but which science can prove to exist.


In fact, Aristotle's notion of philosophy corresponds, generally speaking, to what was later understood to be science, as distinct from philosophy. In the larger sense of the word, he makes philosophy coextensive with science, or reasoning: "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 Critics

Aristotle has been criticised on several grounds.


1. At times the objections that Aristotle raises against the arguments of his own teacher Plato, appear to rely on faulty interpretations of those arguments.

2. Although Aristotle advised, against Plato, that knowledge of the world could only be obtained through experience, he frequently failed to take his own advice. Aristotle conducted projects of careful empirical investigation, but often drifted into abstract logical reasoning, with the result that his work was littered with conclusions that were not supported by empirical evidence; for example his assertion that objects of different mass fall at different speeds under gravity, which was later refuted by Galileo.

3. In the middle ages, roughly from the 12th century to the 15th century, the philosophy of Aristotle became firmly established dogma. Although Aristotle himself was far from dogmatic in his approach to philosophical inquiry, two aspects of his philosophy might have assisted its transformation into dogma. His works were wide ranging and systematic so that they could give the impression that no significant matter had been left unsettled. He was also much less inclined to employ the skeptical methods of his predecessors, Socrates and Plato.


In any case, Aristotle was regarded as, not a great philosopher, but as "The Philosopher" by Scholastic dogmatists. It required a repudiation of Aristotelian principles for the sciences and the arts to free themselves for the discovery of modern scientific laws and empirical methods.













This web page was last updated on: 21 December, 2008