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Of the man called Aristotle, few facts about his life have survived until modern times. What information we do have of this ancient Greek scholar comes from his writings and what others have written about him centuries later. His works that have filtered down to us from the ages are not polished and in final form; much of it reads like a professor’s lecture notes. However, in these often-cryptic works we find profound insights into diverse fields of thought that have transcended the millennia. The dozen or so ancient sources that recounted his life were written centuries after his death. Often these biographers contradict each other, and their writing are riddled with gossip and conjecture. The agreed upon facts of his life can be written on a single page. One thing we do know for sure about Aristotle was that he hungered to discover truth and to increase the sum of human knowledge, writing, “the acquisition of wisdom is pleasant; all men feel at home in philosophy and wish to spend time on it, leaving all other things aside.”
The Early Years of Aristotle’s Life
At the time of Aristotle’s birth in 384 BCE, ancient Greece was in the midst of what is now called the Classical Period where the cluster of city-states around the Aegean Sea fostered a variety of thinkers who formed much of the foundation of modern Western civilization. Much of the modern Western politics, art, theatre, scientific investigation, literature, and philosophy sprang forth from this period of Greek history. Aristotle was born at Stagira, a small town in Chalcidice, on the peninsula section of Macedonia on the upper Aegean Sea not far from the modern Thessaloniki. Aristotle’s father was Nicomachus, the physician of the Macedonian king Amyntas II of Pella. Amyntas was the father of Philip II and grandfather of Alexander the Great. From Nicomachus, Aristotle developed an interest in biology and science, which would later become apparent in his research into zoology and biology. While still in his youth Aristotle’s father and mother died, and he was raised by Proxenus, possibly a relative of the family. At age 17 or 18, he became a pupil of the philosopher and teacher, Plato, at the Academy at Athens. There Aristotle studied ethics, aesthetics, philosophy, mathematics, and natural philosophy. Aristotle was Plato’s greatest student and stayed at the academy for 20 years. Upon the death of Plato in 347 BCE, the Academy was taken over by Plato’s nephew Speusippus. At this point, Aristotle left the Academy, possibly because he was unhappy with the emphasis of the school on more mathematics rather than natural philosophical investigations, or possibly there was a power struggle for control of the Academy. A more plausible reason for his departure from Athens may have been due to the fierce anti-Macedonian feelings in the city after Philip sacked the Greek city-state of Olynthus in 348 and sold the citizenry into slavery. For whatever reason, Aristotle left the city while he still could.
Xenocrates of Chalcedon also left the Academy with Aristotle and traveled with him to the town of Assos, on the Asian side of the Aegean Sea. Assos was controlled by a Greek soldier of fortune, Hermias of Atarneus, who had gained control of northwestern Asia minor. Little is known of the man except that he started life as a slave of a banker, won his freedom, and was possibly educated at Plato’s Academy. Apparently, the man had an intellectual nature, for when he became ruler in 351 he invited several academicians to his court, including Aristotle. Hermias asked Aristotle and Xenocrates to set up a school to spread Greek learning to his state. Aristotle, who found favor with Hermias, married his niece or possibly his daughter, Pythias. Pythias bore Aristotle a daughter, which they named after her mother. His new wife may have been much younger than him for in Book VII of Politics he writes, “Women should marry when they are about eighteen years of age, a man at seven and thirty; they are in the prime of life, and the decline in power of both will coincide.” It is interesting to note that Aristotle was in his late thirties when he married.
However, Pythias did not live long, and Aristotle took up with a women named Herpyllis. It is not certain whether she was a slave or concubine; regardless, the couple had a son named Nicomachus, named after Aristotle’s father. The couple remained together until his death. In his will he left ample provision for her care, writing, “in recognition of the steady affection she has shown me.”
The Island of Lesbos
At the possible invitation of his friend Theophrastus, a native of the island of Lesbos, he left the Assos Academy and traveled to Lesbos with Pythias. In the capitol city of Mytilene, Aristotle and Theophrastus established a philosophical circle in the same model as Plato’s Academy. The beautiful island offered bays and inlets where Aristotle studied marine life. There he undertook a pioneering investigation of all forms of marine and land animals. The landlocked lagoon of Pyrrha in the center of the island was one of his favorite locations to conduct his studies. Aristotle’s companion, Theophrastus, was an accomplished investigator in his own right, becoming known as the “father of scientific botany.” He published several works on botany that became fundamental works in the field.
Alexander the Great
At about age 42, in late 343 or early 342, Aristotle was invited by Philip II of Macedon to tutor his 13-year-old son Alexander. Aristotle was instructed to prepare the young man to be a military leader. Aristotle formed the young man in the role of an epic Greek hero, convincing him of the superiority of the Greeks over foreigners. The tutor instructed the young prince to dominate the barbarians (non-Greeks) and hold them in bondage. Philip provided the temple of Nymphs at Mieza as a classroom for Alexander and the children of the other Macedonian nobles. There, Aristotle taught the young men about medicine, philosophy, religion, and art. Alexander developed a keen interest in the works of Homer, particularly the Iliad. Throughout Alexander’s campaigns he carried with him an annotated copy of the Iliad given to him by his teacher. After three years under Aristotle’s tutelage, Alexander was called to help his father. Philip was waging war against Byzantium and left the young prince as regent and heir apparent. With the departure of Alexander, Aristotle returned to his family’s home at Stagira, where he continued his friendships with other pupils of Plato, including Theophrastus.
The young prince went on to become one of the most accomplished military leaders in history, conquering much of the known world, including the Persian Empire and Egypt. His 11 years of warfare in Asia covered a track of over 20,000 miles—subduing all before him. Alexander’s conquests widened the boundaries of the classical world far beyond the dreams of his predecessors. Once Alexander had conquered the “barbarians” in the name of Greece, he chose not to enslave or subjugate them; rather, he adopted many of their customs. For he was now the successor to Darius as ruler of Persia and became a Pharaoh in Egypt. Against Aristotle’s instruction, he married a Persian princess and encouraged his officers to take Persian wives. His vision of assimilation of cultures had its limits, for the children of Darius and the children of mixed marriages were to be bought up in the Greek and Macedonian tradition. As a result, the great conqueror of worlds became an agent for the spread of Greek culture and institutions into Asia.
Athens and the Lyceum
When Aristotle was nearly 50 years old, he returned to Athens to found a new school called the Lyceum. The school was attached to the temple of Apollo Lyceus, situated in a public exercise area next to a grove of trees. The place was already frequented by teachers and students; according to Plato, this was a former haunt of Socrates. The instruction of the students was given in the Peripatos, or covered walkway of the gymnasium, hence the students were called Peripatetics. For the next 12 years, Aristotle coordinated the work of a number of scholars and taught on a wide range of scientific and philosophical topics. Under Aristotle, the Lyceum concentrated on the study of biology and history, whereas the revival Academy focused on scientific interests of the Platonists, which emphasized mathematics and abstract thought.
The Lyceum was not like modern universities with detailed schedules, course outlines, regular meeting times, grades, and a degree. It was not a private school but was held in a public place next to the temple. The Athenians would come to the temple on the edge of the city to worship at the temple, exercise, or take in a lecture of the great philosopher. As legend has it, he would work with his private students in the morning and give public lectures in the afternoon. The Lyceum differed from the Academy since the Platonists placed more emphasis on mathematics and pure reason, whereas Aristotle focused more on the observable world, such as biology. It was not until after Aristotle’s death that the school under Theophrastus acquired more land and students.
Alexander’s Influence on Aristotle
Alexander’s influence and the teacher’s association with the Macedonian kingdom would be felt throughout Aristotle’s life, sometimes for good, other times to his detriment. When Aristotle returned to Athens, he enjoyed political and economic support from the Macedonians. It is believed that while Alexander was on his military campaigns in the far reaches of Persia and Egypt, he would send back rare animals for Aristotle and the students at the Lyceum. Alexander also paid homage to his tutor by later rebuilding Stagira, Aristotle’s birthplace, after Philip destroyed the town.
The relationship between Aristotle and his star pupil broke down when Alexander had Aristotle’s nephew, the historian Callisthenes of Olynthus, executed. Callisthenes had been following Alexander’s army across Persia and chronicling the conquests. Alexander grew suspicious of him, and he was accused of treason and executed. It is believed that Alexander was plotting revenge against Aristotle since he was a blood relative of Callisthenes. Luckily, the philosopher was saved by Alexander’s preoccupation with the invasion of India.
When Alexander the Great died in 323, anti-Macedonian sentiment broke out in Athens. Due to Aristotle’s many connections with Macedonians, he felt it was not safe to remain in the city and fled to his mother’s family estate in Chalcis on the island of Euboea. He was reported to have said he abandoned Athens in order to save the Athenians from sinning twice against philosophy, referring to the trial and death of Socrates. There Aristotle died the following year from a stomach ailment at age 62 or 63.
Though few details of Aristotle’s life are known, scholars have been able to piece together the events of his life from his writings and from what others have left behind to help. He was presumed to be a wealthy man stemming from his family holdings in Stagira. His ability to spend 20 years at Plato’s Academy, though he became a teacher there, would indicate he had family financial support to take care of his day-to-day needs. Anecdotal information about the man indicates he had a kind and gentle personality; in his writings he makes reference to his happy family, children, and servants.
The Works of Aristotle
After Aristotle’s death, ancient scholars began to collect and edit his works. Much of the works referenced by ancient writers but have been lost to history. It is estimated that only one-fifth of his work has lasted through the centuries, with most remaining in separate treatises that have been combined and edited by numerous scholars and historians over the intervening two millennia.
The scope of Aristotle’s research and writings was not limited to a few narrow fields as most academics are limited to today; rather, his work ranged from the plant and animal kingdoms, ethics, politics, psychology and physiology, logic and language, physics, and metaphysics, and much more. Just a few of the titles in his catalogue include: On Justice, On the Poets, On the Soul, On the Science, On Species,…Lectures on Political Theory (in eight books), On Animals (in nine books), On Magnets, Olympic Victors, and the Nile River. His breadth of scholarship knew few bounds, touching upon nearly ever realm of the physical world and human endeavor.
Reading the works of Aristotle is not that of gliding through the pages of masterfully crafted prose; it is more like reading lecture notes. His writing style is abrupt, staccato, with indulgent breaks in thought. The way to read Aristotle is not to think of it as a well thought out text on a subject, rather as a series of notes where the reader must make the transitions and occasionally fill in the missing pieces to complete the thought.
The works of Aristotle are customarily divided into three main areas. The first are his writings of a popular nature, written for an audience beyond his students. Though these writings were often referred to in antiquity, none have survived until modern times. The second area is a collection of scholarly data attributed to Aristotle that was used in his research and teaching. Only one writing in this area, the Constitution of Athens, has survived. The third area is his surviving works from his extant corpus, the authenticity of which has been the subject of much debate over the centuries. These works are his notes for lectures, students’ renditions of his lectures, and summaries of his principles compiled by himself or by his followers.
The writings that are available have been divided into five categories based on his philosophical area of interest. Though his original work was written in Greek, the extant works are normally identified by their Latin titles. The first group, called the Organon, is on logic. It is a collection of six works devoted to reasoning and definition. The second group is primarily composed of the works Physics and Metaphysics, which deal with the form and matter of reality, space, motion, and existence. The third group consists of biological and psychological works. The fourth group of writings deals with ethics and politics, and the fifth group covers poetics and rhetoric.
The arrangement into five categories of Aristotle’s work does not correspond to the order in which they were written, since the dates and places where they were written is poorly known. It is generally believed that his earlier works were more influenced by his time at the Academy and his teacher Plato. In later writings he became more critical of Plato and developed his own approach to the topic of his research and writings. Since all of his works have been handed down through the centuries, they have been edited, sometimes heavily. The Politics and his two treaties on ethics show the editorial hand in composing a larger work from separate shorter monographs
The Legacy of Aristotle
The journey of Aristotle’s works from the original fifth century BCE Greek to modern languages has been a long and twisted traverse. About 250 years after Aristotle’s death his works were organized under the authority of the Romans by Andronicus of Rhodes. By the second century in the Common Era (CE), the Greek texts were widely available. Over the course of the early centuries of the Common Era the texts were translated into Latin, which was a more important language to support the spread of Aristotle’s work. The Christian Roman Emperor Justinian banned all pagan schools in 529, which stopped any further refinement of the text until the eighth or ninth centuries. When the Roman empire crumbled in the fourth and fifth centuries, Europe was left with few centers for higher learning or repositories of documents. Monasteries held the ancient documents waiting for scholars to seek them out centuries later. By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Aristotle and Plato dominated higher philosophy and scholarship. In the fifteenth century Greek scholars migrated to Italy and printed the works of Aristotle in a volume of thick quartos called the Aldine between 1495 and 1498.
The original Greek texts were eventually translated into Arabic and Hebrew. The translations into Latin made the works of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers available to the Europeans, whereas only a small amount had been available in Latin in the past. The Arabic and Hebrew “commentaries” on Aristotle, especially in the area of medicine and optics, provided Europeans with knowledge beyond what had been accessible with Greek sources alone.
The work of Aristotle would hold a prominent place in Western thought for nearly two millennia. It was not until the start of the scientific revolution in the sixteenth century that the word of Aristotle would be questioned and eventually overturned. Though this ancient Greek teacher, scientists, and philosopher has been dead for nearly 25 centuries, his works are still actively debated and discussed even to this very day.
References and Further Reading
- Aristotle and Richard McKeon (Editor). The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: The Modern Library, 2001.
- Barnes, Jonathan. Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Hall, John Whitney (General Editor). History of the World: Earliest Times to the Present Day. Massachusetts: World Publications Group, Inc., 2005.
- Leroi, Armand Marie. The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science. New York: Viking, 2014.
- Martin, Thomas R. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. 2nd Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.
- The Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition. New York: American Corporation, 1968.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Doug West
Doug West (author) from Missouri on April 09, 2021:
MG Singh emge from Singapore on April 08, 2021:
This is a nice article but I will give you a side shot. Of all the things Aristotle wrote, was his claim that males have more teeth than females. Aristotle writes in his History of Animals 509b (2.3.13)
“And the males have more teeth than the females in humans, in sheep, in goats, and in swine; and in the other species the observation has not been made yet.”
It was Acharya Rajnish who pointed this out with the cryptic comment, " he is the father of logic yet he made this statement, he could at least have counted and he had two wives."
Doug West (author) from Missouri on April 07, 2021:
Thanks for the comment. The teachings of Aristotle have always amazed me for just how long they lasted as dogma after his death. Some of his work was not questioned for over a thousand plus years.
P.S.: I seem to have trouble writing short articles - glad you enjoy the long ones.
fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on April 07, 2021:
Doug, this was a very detailed amazing piece on one of the greatest minds ever. I have always enjoyed your in-depth articles on historical figures. Thank you.