The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) made significant and lasting contributions to nearly every aspect of human knowledge, from logic to biology to ethics and aesthetics. Though overshadowed in classical times by the work of his teacher Plato, from late antiquity through the Enlightenment, Aristotle’s surviving writings were incredibly influential. In Arabic philosophy, he was known simply as “The First Teacher”; in the West, he was “The Philosopher.”
Aristotle’s Early Life
Aristotle was born in 384 B.C. in Stagira in northern Greece. Both of his parents were members of traditional medical families, and his father, Nicomachus, served as court physician to King Amyntus III of Macedonia. His parents died while he was young, and he was likely raised at his family’s home in Stagira. At age 17 he was sent to Athens to enroll in Plato's Academy. He spent 20 years as a student and teacher at the school, emerging with both a great respect and a good deal of criticism for his teacher’s theories. Plato’s own later writings, in which he softened some earlier positions, likely bear the mark of repeated discussions with his most gifted student.
When Plato died in 347, control of the Academy passed to his nephew Speusippus. Aristotle left Athens soon after, though it is not clear whether frustrations at the Academy or political difficulties due to his family’s Macedonian connections hastened his exit. He spent five years on the coast of Asia Minor as a guest of former students at Assos and Lesbos. It was here that he undertook his pioneering research into marine biology and married his wife Pythias, with whom he had his only daughter, also named Pythias.
In 342 Aristotle was summoned to Macedonia by King Philip II to tutor his son, the future Alexander the Great—a meeting of great historical figures that, in the words of one modern commentator, “made remarkably little impact on either of them.”
Aristotle and the Lyceum
Aristotle returned to Athens in 335 B.C. As an alien, he couldn’t own property, so he rented space in the Lyceum, a former wrestling school outside the city. Like Plato’s Academy, the Lyceum attracted students from throughout the Greek world and developed a curriculum centered on its founder’s teachings. In accordance with Aristotle’s principle of surveying the writings of others as part of the philosophical process, the Lyceum assembled a collection of manuscripts that comprised one of the world’s first great libraries.
It was at the Lyceum that Aristotle probably composed most of his approximately 200 works, of which only 31 survive. In style, his known works are dense and almost jumbled, suggesting that they were lecture notes for internal use at his school. The surviving works of Aristotle are grouped into four categories.
The “Organon” is a set of writings that provide a logical toolkit for use in any philosophical or scientific investigation. Next come Aristotle’s theoretical works, most famously his treatises on animals (“Parts of Animals,” “Movement of Animals,” etc.), cosmology, the “Physics” (a basic inquiry about the nature of matter and change) and the “Metaphysics” (a quasi-theological investigation of existence itself).
Third are Aristotle’s so-called practical works, notably the “Nicomachean Ethics” and “Politics,” both deep investigations into the nature of human flourishing on the individual, familial and societal levels. Finally, his “Rhetoric” and “Poetics” examine the finished products of human productivity, including what makes for a convincing argument and how a well-wrought tragedy can instill cathartic fear and pity.
“The Organon” (Latin for “instrument”) is a series of Aristotle’s works on logic (what he himself would call analytics) put together around 40 B.C. by Andronicus of Rhodes and his followers. The set of six books includes “Categories,” “On Interpretation,” “Prior Analytics,” “Posterior Analytics,” “Topics,” and “On Sophistical Refutations.” The Organon contains Aristotle’s worth on syllogisms (from the Greek syllogismos, or “conclusions”), a form of reasoning in which a conclusion is drawn from two assumed premises. For example, all men are mortal, all Greeks are men, therefore all Greeks are mortal.
Aristotle’s “Metaphysics,” written quite literally after his “Physics,” studies the nature of existence. He called metaphysics the “first philosophy,” or “wisdom.” His primary area of focus was “being qua being,” which examined what can be said about being based on what it is, not because of any particular qualities it may have. In “Metaphysics,” Aristotle also muses on causation, form, matter and even a logic-based argument for the existence of God.
To Aristotle, rhetoric is “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” He identified three main methods of rhetoric: ethos (ethics), pathos (emotional) and logos (logic). He also broke rhetoric into types of speeches: epideictic (ceremonial), forensic (judicial) and deliberative (where the audience is required to reach a verdict). His groundbreaking work in this field earned him the nickname “the father of rhetoric.”
Aristotle’s “Poetics” was composed around 330 B.C. and is the earliest extant work of dramatic theory. It is often interpreted as a rebuttal to his teacher Plato’s argument that poetry is morally suspect and should therefore be expunged from a perfect society. Aristotle takes a different approach, analyzing the purpose of poetry. He argues that creative endeavors like poetry and theater provides catharsis, or the beneficial purging of emotions through art.
Aristotle’s Death and Legacy
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., anti-Macedonian sentiment again forced Aristotle to flee Athens. He died a little north of the city in 322, of a digestive complaint. He asked to be buried next to his wife, who had died some years before. In his last years he had a relationship with his slave Herpyllis, who bore him Nicomachus, the son for whom his great ethical treatise is named.
Aristotle’s favored students took over the Lyceum, but within a few decades the school’s influence had faded in comparison to the rival Academy. For several generations Aristotle’s works were all but forgotten. The historian Strabo says they were stored for centuries in a moldy cellar in Asia Minor before their rediscovery in the first century B.C., though it is unlikely that these were the only copies.
In 30 B.C. Andronicus of Rhodes grouped and edited Aristotle’s remaining works in what became the basis for all later editions. After the fall of Rome, Aristotle was still read in Byzantium and became well-known in the Islamic world, where thinkers like Avicenna (970-1037), Averroes (1126-1204) and the Jewish scholar Maimonodes (1134-1204) revitalized Aritotle’s logical and scientific precepts.
Aristotle in the Middle Ages and Beyond
In the 13th century, Aristotle was reintroduced to the West through the work of Albertus Magnus and especially Thomas Aquinas, whose brilliant synthesis of Aristotelian and Christian thought provided a bedrock for late medieval Catholic philosophy, theology and science.
Aristotle’s universal influence waned somewhat during the Renaissance and Reformation, as religious and scientific reformers questioned the way the Catholic Church had subsumed his precepts. Scientists like Galileo and Copernicus disproved his geocentric model of the solar system, while anatomists such as William Harvey dismantled many of his biological theories. However, even today, Aristotle’s work remains a significant starting point for any argument in the fields of logic, aesthetics, political theory and ethics.