Aristotle and Aristotelianism
(Copyright 1994-1998 Encyclopaedia Britannica)

  • Introduction
  • The Life of Aristotle
  • First period: in the Academy at Athens
  • Second period: his travels
  • Third period: founding and directing of the Lyceum
  • Personality, character, and philosophical stance
  • Writings
  • Lost works published by Aristotle
  • Extant works


Aristotle, more than any other thinker, determined the orientation and the content of Western intellectual history. He was the author of a philosophical  and scientific system that through the centuries became the support and vehicle for both medieval Christian and Islamic scholastic thought: until the end of the 17th century, Western culture was Aristotelian. And, even after the intellectual revolutions of centuries to follow, Aristotelian concepts and ideas remained embedded in Western thinking. Aristotle's intellectual range was vast, covering most of the sciences and many of the arts. He worked in physics, chemistry, biology, zoology, and botany; in psychology, political theory, and ethics; in logic and metaphysics; in history, literary theory, and rhetoric. His greatest achievements were in two unrelated areas: he invented the study of formal logic, devising for it a finished system, 
known as Aristotelian syllogistic, that for centuries was regarded as the sum of logic; and he pioneered the study of zoology, both observational and theoretical, in which his work was not surpassed until the 19th century. 
Even though Aristotle's zoology is now out-of-date and his thought in the other natural sciences has long been left behind, his importance as a scientist is unparalleled. But it is now of purely historical importance: he, like other 
scientists of the past, is not read by his successors. As a philosopher Aristotle is equally outstanding. And here he remains more than a museum piece. Although his syllogistic is now recognized to be only a small part of formal 
logic, his writings in ethical and political theory as well as in metaphysics and in the philosophy of science are read and argued over by modern philosophers. Aristotle's historical importance is second to none, and his work 
remains a powerful component in current philosophical debate. This article deals with the man, his achievements, and the Aristotelian tradition.

The Life of Aristotle

Aristotle was born in the summer of 384 BC in the small Greek township of Stagira (or Stagirus, or Stageirus), on the Chalcidic peninsula of Macedonia, in northern Greece. (For this reason Aristotle is also known as the "Stagirite.") His father, Nicomachus, was court physician to Amyntas III, king of Macedonia, father of Philip II, and grandfather of Alexander the Great. As a doctor's son, Aristotle was heir to a scientific tradition some 200 years old. The case histories contained in the Epidemics of Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine, may have introduced him at an early age to the concepts and practices of Greek medicine and biology. As a physician, Nicomachus was a member of the guild of the Asclepiads, the so-called sons of Asclepius, the legendary founder 
and god of medicine. (see also Index: Greek philosophy) Because medicine was a traditional occupation in certain families, being handed down from father to son, Aristotle in all likelihood learned at home the 
fundamentals of that practical skill he was afterward to display in his biological researches. Had he been a medical student he would have undergone a rigorous and varied training: he would have studied the role in therapy of diet, drugs, and exercise; he would have learned how to check the flow of blood, apply bandages, fit splints to broken limbs, reset dislocations, and make poultices of flour, oil, and wine. Such, at least, were the skills of the trained physician of his time. It is not known for certain that Aristotle actually acquired these skills; it is known that medicine and its history were later studied in the Lyceum, Aristotle's own institute in Athens, and that later, in a snobbish vein, he considered a man sufficiently educated if he knew the theory of medicine without having gained experience practicing it. This early connection with medicine and with the rough-living Macedonian court 
largely explains both the predominantly biological cast of Aristotle's philosophical thought and the intense dislike of princes and courts to which he more than once gave expression. 

First period: in the Academy at Athens:
While Aristotle was still a youth, his father died, and the young man became a ward of Proxenus, probably a relative of his father. He was sent to the Academy of Plato at Athens in 367 and remained there for 20 years. These years formed the first of three main periods in Aristotle's intellectual development, years dominated by the formative influence of Plato and his colleagues in the Academy. Aristotle doubtless interested himself in the whole range of the Academy's activities. It is known that he devoted some time to the study of rhetoric, and he wrote and spoke for the Academy in its battles against the rival school of Isocrates. After Plato's death in 348/347 his nephew Speusippus was named as head of the Academy. Aristotle shortly thereafter left Athens--in disgust, it is sometimes claimed, at not being appointed Plato's successor. This interpretation of his motive, however, lacks foundation, for evidence suggests that he was ineligible to be the school's head because of his status as a resident alien who could not hold property legally. It is more likely that his departure from Athens may have been linked with an anti-Macedonian feeling that arose in Athens after Philip had sacked the Greek city-state of Olynthus in 348. Aristotle's 12-year absence from Athens nevertheless indicates that he valued more the circle of friends who accompanied him on his travels--chief among them Theophrastus of Eresus, his pupil, colleague, and eventual successor as head of the Lyceum--than he did his membership in the Platonic Academy. 

Second period: his travels:
With him went another Academy member of note, Xenocrates of Chalcedon, whose lethargy became the target of Plato's ridicule. Plato reportedly contrasted it with Aristotle's more energetic manner: "The one needs a spur, the other a bridle . . . . See what an ass I am training to compete with what a horse." The distinctive characters of the two men, however, seem to have integrated well in establishing a new academy on the Asian side of the Aegean at the newly built town of Assus. At Assus, Hermeias of Atarneus, a Greek soldier of fortune, had first acquired fiscal and then political control of northwestern Asia Minor, as a vassal of Persian overlords. After a visit to the Athenian Academy he invited two of Plato's graduates to set up a small branch to help spread Greek rule as well as Greek philosophy to Asian soil. Aristotle came to this new intellectual centre. To this period may belong the first 12 chapters of Book 7 of Aristotle's Politics. There he sketches the connection between philosophy and politics, namely, that the highest purpose of a city-state (polis) is to secure the conditions in which those who are capable of it can live the philosophical life. Such a life, however, lies only within the capacity of the Greeks, whose superiority qualifies them to employ the non-Greek tribal peoples as serfs or slaves for the performance of all menial labour. Thus, citizenship and service in the armed forces are considered to be the exclusive rights and duties of the Greeks. Aristotle's espousal of an enlightened oligarchy, nonetheless, actually 
constituted an advance over the political concepts flourishing at the time and it should be viewed in its context as a positive development in the establishment of the noble civilization created by the Greeks. At about the same time, Aristotle composed the work, now lost, On Kingship, in which he clearly distinguishes the function of the philosopher from that of the king. He alters Plato's dictum--for the better, it is said--by teaching that it is (see also Index: philosopher-king)   . . . not merely unnecessary for a king to be a philosopher, but even a disadvantage. Rather a king should take the advice of true philosophers. Then he would fill his reign with good deeds, not with good words. Aristotle thus strove to assure the independent role of the philosopher. Aristotle was on good terms with his patron, Hermeias, and married his niece, Pythias. She bore Aristotle a daughter, whom he called by her mother's name. In the Politics, Aristotle prescribed the ideal ages for marriage--37 for the husband and 18 for the wife. Because Aristotle was himself 37 at this time, it is tempting to guess that Pythias was 18. It is also possible that their own marital relations are reflected in his further, somewhat cryptic, observation: "As for adultery, let it be held disgraceful for any man or woman to be found in any way unfaithful once they are married and call each other husband and wife." In his will Aristotle ordered that "Wherever they bury me, there the bones of Pythias shall be laid, in accordance with her own instructions." Pythias did not live long, however; and after her death Aristotle chose another companion, Herpyllis (whether concubine or wife is uncertain), by whom he then had a son, Nicomachus. She outlived Aristotle, and he made ample and considerate provision for her in his will "in recognition of the steady affection she has shown me." After three years at the young Assus Academy, Aristotle moved to the nearby island of Lesbos and settled in Mytilene, the capital city. With his friend Theophrastus, a native of that island, he established a philosophical circle patterned after the Athenian Academy. There his centre of interest shifted to biology, in which he undertook pioneering investigations. (The landlocked lagoon of Pyrrha in the centre of Lesbos has been identified as one of his favourite haunts.) He appears to have felt it necessary to justify this new attention to biology by rejecting the arguments that had classed it as an inferior, unattractive study. In his biological researches he focused on a new type of causation, namely teleological. Teleological causation has to do with the aim, or end, of nature, a type that is distinct from mechanical causation but one that is, nonetheless, operative in the inorganic sphere. According to Aristotle, natural organisms--plants and animals--have natural ends or goals, and their structure and development can only be fully explained when these goals are understood. To admit the existence of such ends, or aims, in nature is to argue teleologically (Greek telos, "an end") or to admit the idea of a final cause (Latin finis, "end"). Teleology, and theory in general, is important in Aristotle's biology; but it is always, in principle at least, subordinate to observation. Thus, confessing his ignorance of the mode of generation of bees, Aristotle wrote in his treatise On the Generation of Animals:  The facts have not yet been sufficiently established. If ever they are, then   credit must be given to observation rather than to theories, and to theories   only insofar as they are confirmed by the observed facts. Associated with his researches into plant and animal life were his reflections on the relation of the soul to the body. As revealed by his tract On the Soul, Aristotle distanced himself from the Platonic conception of the soul as an independently existing substance that is only temporarily resident in the body. With greater emphasis on the positive value of material existence, he suggested instead that the soul is the vital principle essentially united with the body to form the individual person. With some acknowledgment to Plato, he then proceeded to define the soul as the form of the body and the body as the matter of the soul. In late 343 or early 342 Aristotle, at about the age of 42, was invited by Philip II of Macedon to his capital at Pella to tutor his 13-year-old son, Alexander. As the leading intellectual figure in Greece, Aristotle was commissioned to prepare Alexander for his future role as a military leader. As it turned out, Alexander was to dominate the Greek world and defend it against the Persian Empire. Using the model of the epic Greek hero, as in Homer's Iliad, Aristotle attempted to form Alexander as an embodiment of the classical valour of an Ajax or Achilles enlightened by the latest achievement of Greek civilization, philosophy. With his firm conviction of the superiority of Greeks over foreigners, he instructed Alexander to dominate the barbarians--i.e., 
non-Greeks--and to hold them in servility by refraining from any physical intermixture with them. Despite this advice, however, Alexander later became committed to intermarriage; he chose a wife from the Persian nobility and forced his high-ranking officers (and encouraged his troops) to do likewise. In other ways too the influence that Aristotle had on Alexander was negligible. Although later, on his return to Athens, Aristotle enjoyed considerable political and economic support from the Macedonians and perhaps received assistance in the organization of his biological researches, it is not likely--as some have held--that Alexander collected and dispatched to Aristotle specimens of rare animals from Persia and India; in fact, Alexander's first penetration of the valley of the Indus did not occur until 328/327, less than six years before Aristotle's death. Indeed, the relation between the two was embittered by the execution of Aristotle's nephew, the historian Callisthenes of 
Olynthus, who was charged with treason while accompanying Alexander to Persia early in 328 in order to write a chronicle of the campaign. It has even been reported that Alexander meditated revenge on Aristotle himself because he was a blood relative of the victim. But Alexander was diverted by his preoccupation with the invasion of India. Clearly, in matters of political ideology, a gulf separated Aristotle and Alexander. Aristotle showed no awareness of the fundamental changes that Alexander's conquests were bringing to the Greek world; indeed, he was opposed in principle to Alexander's imperial policy because it diminished the importance of the city-state. On the other hand, Alexander gratified his tutor by rebuilding the town of Stagira, Aristotle's birthplace, which Philip II had destroyed earlier. After three years at the Macedonian court, Aristotle withdrew and returned to 
his paternal property at Stagira (c. 339). There he continued the associations of his philosophical circle, which still included Theophrastus and other pupils of Plato. 

Third period: founding and directing of the Lyceum:
Aristotle remained in Stagira until 335, when, nearing 50 years of age, he once again returned to Athens. At this time the presidency of the Academy became vacant by the death of Speusippus, and Xenocrates of Chalcedon, his old associate in biological research, was elected to the post. Although Aristotle appears never to have wholly severed his links with the Academy, he nonetheless opened, in 335, a rival institution in the Lyceum, a gymnasium attached to the temple of Apollo Lyceus, situated in a grove just outside Athens. The place had for some time been frequented by other teachers--Plato even mentions it as having been one of Socrates' haunts--and the name of the temple came to be applied to Aristotle's school in particular. But it was probably only after Aristotle's death that the school, under Theophrastus, acquired extensive property. From the fact that his instruction was given in the peripatos, or covered walkway, of the gymnasium, the school has derived its name of Peripatetic. Informal as the school may have been under Aristotle, it was very important to him because, by coordinating the work of a number of scholars, he was able for the next 12 years to organize it as a centre for speculation and research in every field of inquiry and to give lectures on a wide range of scientific and philosophical questions. The chief difference between the new school and the Academy was that the scientific interests of the Platonists centred on mathematics whereas the main contributions of the Lyceum lay in biology and history. On the death of Alexander the Great in 323 a brief but vigorous anti-Macedonian agitation broke out in Athens. Aristotle, who had long-standing Macedonian connections and was a friend of Antipater, the Macedonian regent of Athens, felt 
himself in danger. He therefore left Athens and withdrew to his mother's estates in Chalcis on the island of Euboea. There he died in the following year from a stomach illness at the age of 62 or 63. It was reported that he abandoned Athens in order to save the Athenians from sinning twice against philosophy (referring to Socrates as the earlier victim). 

Personality, character, and philosophical stance:
The features of Aristotle, familiar from busts and engravings, appear handsome and refined. An ancient tradition, possibly from an unfriendly source, says, however, that Aristotle had spindleshanks and small eyes and that he spoke with a lisp. In compensation for these physical defects, he was notably well dressed. His cloak and sandals were of the best quality and he sported rings. Presumably he was rich, with large family holdings at Stagira. One use that he made of his money was to collect books. Plato, with a touch of contempt for Aristotle's devotion to reading and perhaps not without some envy of his affluence, called him "the reader." Aristotle was an intellectual but not devoid of passion. A story is told of Plato giving a reading of his Phaedo, a purported record of Socrates' last day. The dialogue is moving and solemn. As Plato was reading, however, his audience gradually melted away. In the end, Aristotle alone was left. Probably fictitious, the anecdote was invented to express a truth: 
Aristotle was, in fact, spellbound by the Socratic doctrine of immortality as expounded by Plato. It not only interested him intellectually but also absorbed him emotionally. His earliest works, dialogues written when he was still a member of the Academy (now lost except for some fragments), were in part concerned with thoughts of the next world and the worthlessness of this one. The anecdotes related of him reveal him as a kindly, affectionate character, and they show barely any trace of the self-importance that some scholars think they can detect in his works. His will, which has been preserved, exhibits the same kindly traits; he makes references to his happy family life and takes solicitous care of his children, as well as his servants. This personal happiness is reflected in On Philosophy, perhaps the last of his strictly literary works. After writing this work, which he completed in around 348, he devoted his energies to research, teaching, and the writing of more technical treatises. The greatness of On Philosophy, which survives only in fragments, is evident in its influence on the thought of later antiquity; perhaps more than any other single work it established philosophy as a profession. In the extant part, Aristotle defines the specific role of the philosopher. Dividing the historical development of civilization into five main stages, Aristotle sees the emergence of philosophy as its culmination. First, men are compelled to devote themselves to the creation of the necessities because without them they could not survive. Next come the arts that refine life and then the discovery of the art of politics, the prerequisite of the good life as Aristotle conceived it. To these necessities and refinements of life is added the knowledge of their proper use in the fourth stage. Only with the emergence of the well-regulated state comes the leisure for intellectual adventure, used at first for the study of the material causes of existing things. Finally comes the shift from natural to divine philosophy, when the mind lifts itself above the material world and grasps the formal and final causes of things, realizing the intelligible aspect of reality and the purpose that informs all change. This divine philosophy gave its attention to the astral gods. Aristotle had experienced in Athens the long intellectual struggle to discover perfect order in the heavens. He had learned that perfection was not to be confined to the mathematical abstractions, to which Plato had at first directed the attention of his pupils, but had come to recognize that the visible heavens themselves could be accepted as the embodiment of the divine. With the declaration of this intimacy between the deities and the work of their hands in the material universe, Aristotle issued his manifesto, which is an optimistic affirmation of the values of this world; simultaneously he rejected the Platonic doctrine that the soul is imprisoned in the body and in need of struggling free from the bonds of matter. It was by this stroke that Aristotle established his own identity in the history of thought. 

Aristotle's writings fall into two groups: the first consists of works published by Aristotle but now lost; the second of works not published by Aristotle and, in fact, not intended for publication but collected and preserved by others. In the first group are included (1) the writings that Aristotle himself termed "exoteric," or popular--that is, those written in dialogue or other current literary forms and meant for the general reading public--and (2) those that he termed "hypomnematic," or notes to aid the memory, and collections of materials for further work. Of these, only fragments are extant. Finally, the writings that generally have survived, termed "acroamatic," or treatises (logoi, methodoi, pragmateiai), were meant for use in Aristotle's school and were written in a concise and individualistic style. In later antiquity Aristotle's writings filled several hundred rolls; today the surviving 30 works fill some 2,000 printed pages. Three ancient catalogs list a total of more than 170 separate works by Aristotle, a figure corroborated by references and lists of titles in the extant treatises as well as by a number of citations and paraphrases in early commentators. Cicero must have been alluding to Aristotle's popular dialogues when he described in the Academica "the suave style of Aristotle . . . . A river of gold." The extant works contain several passages of polished prose, but for the most part their style is clipped. 

Lost works published by Aristotle:
The lost popular works include poetry and letters as well as essays and dialogues in the Platonic manner. Several problems have confronted scholars in their attempts to reconstitute these lost popular works. The lost dialogues, for example, appear to diverge widely from the doctrines of the surviving treatises. Indeed, they appear to outdo Plato in his own teaching. Thus, what is known of Aristotle's dialogue Eudemus, or On the Soul, compares the relation of the soul to the body with an unnatural union, like that of the torture that the Tyrrhenian pirates inflicted on their prisoners by binding each of them to a corpse. Inasmuch as Aristotle in his extant treatises criticized his Platonist friends for making soul and body enemies, Alexander of Aphrodisias, an authoritative Aristotelian commentator of the late 2nd century AD, raised the question whether he expressed "two truths," one "exoteric" for public consumption, the other "esoteric" and reserved for his students in the Lyceum. The present consensus of scholars is that Aristotle's popular writings generally derived from the early stage of his intellectual development during his time in Plato's Academy: they represent not his "public" but his juvenile thoughts. 
Chief among the lost works are: Eudemus, in the tradition of Plato's Phaedo; On Philosophy, a type of philosophical program containing themes to be developed later in his Metaphysics; the Protrepticus, or exhortation to the life of philosophy; Gryllus, or On Rhetoric; On Justice, expressing nascent themes of his Politics; and On Ideas, which criticizes Plato's theory of Forms. 

Extant works:
The works that have been preserved derive from manuscripts left by Aristotle on his death; many of them were probably used by him as lecture notes. These are the "esoteric" writings of a concentrated, academic nature intended for the ears of the initiates. From classical antiquity romanticized accounts circulated of the way these manuscripts were preserved; e.g., in Plutarch's Sulla, chapter 26; and in Strabo's Geography 13:54. According to these versions, Aristotle's and Theophrastus' notes had been bequeathed to an old colleague, Neleus of Scepsis, whose heirs apparently were not interested in the contents but, in order to prevent them from being confiscated for the library of the kings of Pergamum, hid them in a cellar in Scepsis. Long afterward, in the 1st century BC, the descendants sold them to Apellicon of Teos, a philosopher, who brought them back to Athens. When Athens was conquered by Sulla in 86 BC, he appropriated the books and sent them to Rome, where they were purchased by Tyrannion the grammarian. The manuscripts suffered further maltreatment, first at the hands of copyists, then through subjective restoration of worm-eaten passages and systematic ordering irrespective of actual chronology, until Andronicus of Rhodes, the last head of the Lyceum, acquired the copies and edited and published them about 60 BC. 
The story is improbable. It is difficult to imagine that the Lyceum would have allowed the manuscripts of its founder to have been so carelessly looked after. And it is now known that the "esoteric" writings were not wholly ignored in the two centuries after Theophrastus' death. It is true, nevertheless, that the Andronicus edition is the first publication of Aristotle's works, even if the story of the edition's appearance was spread by Andronicus to emphasize its novelty. The form, titles, and order of Aristotle's texts that are studied today were given to them by Andronicus almost three centuries after the philosopher's death, and the long history of commentary upon them began at this stage. 

These facts have affected the interpretation of Aristotle. The books of Aristotle that are known today were, in effect, never edited by him. Thus, for example, Aristotle is not the author of the work called Metaphysics; rather, he wrote a dozen little treatises: on the theory of causes in the history of philosophy, on the chief philosophical problems, on the multiplicity of meanings of certain key philosophical terms, on act and potency, on being and essence, on the philosophy of mathematics, and on God. Those that the editors thought worth collecting were given the title Metaphysics; i.e., the tract that is to be read after the Physics. It is not surprising, then, that the Metaphysics and the other works of Aristotle sometimes seem to lack unity or any clear progression of thought, that they are sometimes repetitious and at times even contradictory. The texts furthermore suggest that students or subsequent members of the Lyceum even revised Aristotle's expressions. It is probable that Aristotle would never have released the work. Andronicus, assisted by previous editors, imposed a logical and didactic order upon all the writings, undoubtedly influenced by Aristotle's own emphasis on logic as the propaedeutic (preparatory study) of all understanding. By ignoring the chronological order of the treatises and by grouping dissertations from different periods under the same title, the editors fashioned the Aristotelian corpus into a systematic whole. It is quite likely that Aristotle himself had never thought of his writings in this way. 

Aristotle's treatises reveal the philosopher at work. He defines the problem he is to deal with, assesses the views of his predecessors, formulates his own preliminary opinion, considers whether there is a need to modify it in the light of difficulties and objections, rehearses the arguments for different points of view--always searching, in short, for the most adequate solution or resolution of his problem. The reader, therefore, sees Aristotle at work, not dogmatically propounding a doctrine but often laboriously developing a perspective or an insight that emerges from difficulties, contradictions, and paradoxes. Not surprisingly, few syllogisms appear in Aristotle's treatises; the reader, however, should perceive in them a structure that Aristotle himself terms "dialectical"; i.e., in the manner of a dialogue by an exchange of arguments for and against. 

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