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Aristotle

Category: Philosopher

 

Aristotle (Greek: Ἀριστοτέλης  384 – 322 BC) was a Greek philosopher and scientist born in the Macedonian city of Stagira, Chalkidice, on the northern periphery of Classical Greece.

His father, Nicomachus, died when Aristotle was a child, whereafter Proxenus of Atarneus became his guardian.

At eighteen, he joined Plato's Academy in Athens and remained there until the age of thirty-seven (c. 347 BC).

Shortly after Plato died, Aristotle left Athens and travelled with Theophrastus to the island of Lesbos, where together they researched the botany and zoology of the island. Aristotle married Pythias and she bore him a daughter, whom they also named Pythias. But his daughter died and soon after her death, Aristotle was invited by Philip II of Macedon to become the tutor to his son Alexander in 343 BC.  

By 335 BC, Artistotle had returned to Athens, establishing his own school there known as the Lyceum. He conducted courses at the school for the next twelve years. While in Athens, his wife Pythias died and Aristotle became involved with Herpyllis of Stagira, who bore him a son whom he named after his father, Nicomachus.

After Herpyllis died, according to the Suda, he also had an ‘eromenos’, Palaephatus of Abydus.  'The terms erastês and erômenos have been standard for the two pederastic roles  as "the love of boys," and "to be a lover of boys”’.  Note that ‘boy’ in this context can mean anything from a teenager to a young man. 

The Fragility of Goodness, Martha Nussbaum, defines the ideal erômenos as

..........a beautiful creature without pressing needs of his own. He is aware of his attractiveness, but self-absorbed in his relationship with those who desire him. He will smile sweetly at the admiring lover; he will show appreciation for the other's friendship, advice, and assistance. He will allow the lover to greet him by touching, affectionately, his genitals and his face, while he looks, himself, demurely at the ground. …

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a

fresco by Raphael. Aristotle gestures to the earth, representing his

belief in knowledge through empirical observation and experience,

while holding a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics in his hand, whilst

Plato gestures to the heavens, representing his belief in the spiritual

The period in which he was in Athens, between 335 and 323 BC, is when Aristotle is believed to have composed many of his works.  In effect, most [but not all] of his output was written at a time when he was far removed from his earlier Platonic influences.  He wrote many dialogues of which only fragments have survived. Those works that have survived are in treatise form and were not, for the most part, intended for widespread publication; they are generally thought to be lecture aids for his students. His most important treatises include Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, De Anima (On the Soul) and Poetics.

He is strongest on any subject related to the physical world – politics, ethics and physics.  He is weakest on metaphysics and the soul – anything spiritual, although it is clear that in some cases, Aristotle’s philosophical and metaphysical views are similar to Plato’s and in some cases Aristotle even expands on them.  There are instances where his expansion is extremely helpful, especially when guided by observation of the physical.

What Aristotle lacks, however, is the mystic’s view.  He understands, but at times it is clear he understands with his head and not his heart.   This lack of direct spiritual experience [although there are observations that show he did have some], mean that he was reduced to direct physical observation to derive additional philosophical beliefs.  On the one hand his promotion of careful observation of the physical world has paved the way for the ‘scientific method’, on the other hand observation only of the physical is a very limiting way to derive hypotheses about the spiritual.

 

For Aristotle, therefore, his philosophy is based on the study of particular phenomena and rises ‘bottom up’ to the knowledge of the spiritual, while for Plato understanding of the spiritual begins with direct experience of the spiritual and ‘descends ‘to theories on the impact the spiritual has on the physical.  It ought to be possible to combine the two, and in some cases Aristotle has done this to good effect, but as Plato was long gone before Aristotle started to use his method, the chance to discuss and compare was impossible.

Aristotle is thus philosophically, something of a help and a hindrance!  On the one hand, Aristotle's views on physical science profoundly shaped medieval scholarship. Their influence extended into the Renaissance and were not replaced systematically until the Enlightenment and theories such as classical mechanics. Some of Aristotle's zoological observations, such as on the hectocotyl (reproductive) arm of the octopus, were not confirmed or refuted until the 19th century. His works contain the earliest known formal study of logic, which was incorporated in the late 19th century into modern formal logic.

We would greatly benefit today if Aristotle's "natural philosophy" was reinstituted as a branch of philosophy examining the phenomena of the natural world.  In modern times, the scope of philosophy has become limited to more generic or abstract inquiries, such as ethics, but philosophy means lover of wisdom, the sciences could do with a bit more wisdom as opposed to cleverness.

Nuremberg Chronicles

On the other hand, in some cases, [not all and I emphasise this] he set spiritual understanding back millennia.  Aristotle, for example, refuted Democritus's claim that the Milky Way was made up of "those Stars which are shaded by the Earth from the Sun's rays," pointing that, given "current astronomical demonstrations" that "the size of the sun is greater than that of the earth and the distance of the stars from the earth many times greater than that of the sun, then ... the sun shines on all the stars and the earth screens none of them.”  Now you may think this is eminently sensible, but Democritus was talking symbolically not physically – so Aristotle completely failed to grasp the meaning of Democritus’ sentence – which is spiritual.

Understandably, given the very physical and theological approach used by all three major religions he was used  - and mis-used - extensively.  Aristotelianism was used by Judeo-Islamic theologians during the Middle Ages and continues to influence Christian theology, even today, ‘especially the scholastic tradition of the Catholic Church’. Aristotle was well known among medieval Muslim intellectuals and revered as "The First Teacher" (Arabic: المعلم الأول‎).  His political and ethical works obviously have very direct appeal.

Aristotle has become a ‘personality’ too – always a very bad sign.  I cringed at this sentence “his work's influence often ranks him among the world's top personalities of all time” along with Goldie Hawn I suppose.

Aristotle with Alexander the Great

There appears to have been a crucial turning point in his life. 

The death of his daughter appears to have had a terrible negative effect. 

In some people, grief opens the door and leads to wisdom, with Aristotle it appear to have hardened his heart and made him bitter.  There is no love, or companionship in his advice, at times it is pure aggression.  Aristotle actually encouraged Alexander toward eastern conquest and his attitude towards Persia was truly grim. In one famous example, he counsels Alexander to be "a leader to the Greeks and a despot to the barbarians, to look after the former as after friends and relatives, and to deal with the latter as with beasts or plants”.

Following Alexander's death, anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens was rekindled. In 322 BC, Eurymedon the Hierophant denounced Aristotle for not holding the gods in honour, prompting him to flee to his mother's family estate in Chalcis. He died in Euboea of natural causes later that same year.

References

Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer - Rembrandt

His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics and government – and constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy. He was a prolific writer, although it is thought that only around a third of his original output has survived.  Some examples of his work include:

  • On Generation and Corruption (Ancient Greek: Περὶ γενέσεως καὶ φθορᾶς, Latin: De Generatione et Corruptione), also known as On Coming to Be and Passing Away) which like many of his texts, is ‘both scientific and philosophic’
  • Organon - What we today call Aristotelian logic, Aristotle himself would have labeled "analytics". The term "logic" he reserved to mean dialectics. Most of Aristotle's work is probably not in its original form, because it was most likely edited by students and later lecturers. The logical works of Aristotle were compiled into six books in about the early 1st century CE:
  • Categories - the basics, the analysis of simple terms
  • On Interpretation - the analysis of propositions and their elementary relations
  • Posterior Analytics - the study of more complex forms, namely, syllogisms
  • Prior Analytics – is a book on formal logic.  His conception of it was the dominant form of Western logic until 19th century advances in mathematical logic.
  • Topics and On Sophistical Refutations - dialectics
  • Metaphysics – One would have hoped that of all Aristotle’s books this one would have been of most interest to the site, but there are severe difficulties with it.  Some of the earlier scholars of the Metaphysics were Arabs, who relied on Arabic translations from early Syriac translations from the Greek. The book was then lost in the Latin West from the collapse of Rome until the twelfth century. For a period, scholars relied on Latin translations of the Arabic. These were sometimes inaccurate, having been through so many stages of translation.  It is worth noting that Ibn Sina (Avicenna), one of the greatest Medieval Islamic philosophers, said that he had read the Metaphysics of Aristotle forty times, but still did not understand it.  .  In the thirteenth century the original Greek manuscripts became available, so there is hope here.  The contents are as follows:
  • Books I–V: Causes and effects; a survey of previous philosophies from Thales to Plato, especially their treatment of causes;  problems or puzzles (ἀπορία aporia) of philosophy; the principles of contradiction; definitions of about fifty key terms such as cause, nature, one, and many.
  • Book VI  - a classification of the sciences into productive, practical or theoretical. This is connected with the treatment of causes, as it tries to find which sciences are closest to the root causes of everything.
  • Book VII and VIII: An examination of ‘substances’. What substances are there, and are there any substances besides perceptible ones? Aristotle separates matter and spirit [though the names he uses are different].  He also looks at whether energy exists as an underlying common denominator if both form and function and concludes that it does. 
  • Book IX: Potentiality and actuality – see observation
  • Book X: Discussion of unity, one and many, sameness and difference.
  • Book XI: Briefer versions of other chapters and of parts of the Physics.
  • Book XII: Further remarks on beings in general, first principles, and God or gods. This book includes Aristotle's famous description of the unmoved mover, "the most divine of things observed by us", as "the thinking of thinking".
  • Books XIII and XIV: Philosophy of mathematics, in particular how numbers exist.

Observations

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