Aristotle

We explain who Aristotle was and the contributions he made. In addition, we explore his main characteristics and forms of government.

Aristóteles
Aristotle proposed the earliest systematic studies of metaphysics.

Who was Aristotle?

Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC) was an Ancient Greek philosopher who was born in Stagira and died in the city of Chalcis. Disciple of Plato and founder of the Lyceum, he is considered to be one of the greatest thinkers of all time. His ideas and reflections, collected in almost 200 treatises (of which only 31 have survived), have influenced Western intellectual history for over two thousand years.

He cultivated a wide range of interests throughout his life. His studies comprised logic, politics, ethics, physics, biology, rhetoric, poetics and astronomy. He was a founding figure in all of them, since he proposed the earliest systematic studies of each subject.

Aristotle was a disciple of other important philosophers of the time, such as Plato and Eudoxus during the twenty years in which he studied at the Academy of Athens. In that same city he founded the Lyceum, where he taught his own disciples.

Following the fall of Alexander of Macedon (known as Alexander the Great), a disciple of his, Aristotle left for the city of Chalcis, where he died.

Life of Aristotle

Aristotle was born in the city of Stagira in 384 BC. His parents were Nicomachus, court physician to King Amintas III of Macedon, and Phaestis, also linked to the Asclepiades who practiced medicine in ancient Greece. Both parents died when Aristotle was very young and at the age of 17, he was left in the care of his guardian, Proxenus of Atarnaeus, who sent him to study at Plato's Academy in Athens.

The Stagirite (as Aristotle is called, after his birthplace) remained at the Academy for twenty years, from 367 BC to 347 BC. There he met Eudoxus, who greatly influenced Aristotle in his philosophical attempt to develop a metaphysical principle that kept things as they appeared in their manifestation (which he later called phainomena, "phenomena"). He was also acquainted with Philip of Opus, Coriscus, Speusippus and Erastus, all thinkers and pupils of Plato.

Around this time, he is believed to have participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were annual initiation rites held in Eleusis in honor of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. About them he wrote that "to experience is to learn," as his original phrase, pathein mathein (παθείν μαθεĩν), is translated.

In 347 BC, and coinciding with the death of Plato, Aristotle left Athens and went to Atarnaeus and Assos. He then traveled to the island of Lesbos, where he married Pythias of Assos, niece of Hermias, governor of Assos. Pythias bore him a daughter, whom they named after her mother. In 343 BC he was summoned to Pella in Macedon to teach Alexander the Great, of whom he was tutor for two years.

After serving the army and having tutored Ptolemy and Cassander (both future kings), Aristotle returned to Athens in 335 BC. There he founded his own school, the Lyceum, named after the temple dedicated to the god Apollo Lycius, where the school was constructed. Unlike the Academy, it was a public school that even offered classes free of charge. The students of the Lyceum were known as "the Peripatetics", a term that comes from the Greek peripatētikós (περιπατητικός), which means "itinerant", since they were in the habit of discussing while walking.

During his time at the Lyceum, Aristotle wrote many dialogues and treatises, of which only the latter have survived. It is believed that they were not for the most part intended for widespread publication. In those years, his wife died and Aristotle became involved with Herpyllis, a woman from Stagira. Herpyllis bore him a son, Nicomachus, to whom he dedicated his treatise on ethics, Nicomachean Ethics. It is considered one of the most important books on ethics as an autonomous discipline in history.

In 323 BC Alexander the Great died. Seeing that Athens no longer welcomed Macedonians, Aristotle fled to Chalcis, on the island of Euboea, where he died the following year, at the age of 61, presumably of a digestive disease.

Aristotelian thought

Like most thinkers of his time, Aristotle made philosophy in the broad sense. This means that he took interest in all branches of knowledge accessible at the time, and was the first to conduct empirical research in many fields.

His thought is usually classified according to the three-fold distinction he himself made of the sciences: practical, productive and theoretical or contemplative:

Practical wisdom

Practical wisdom included ethics and politics. He wrote several works on both disciplines, though his greatest contribution was to ethics, a branch to which he dedicated at least three known writings: Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics and Magna moralia.

Aristotle believed that ethics was practical wisdom oriented towards virtue ethics. As such, ethics should teach the pursuit of happiness understood as the ultimate end of man. According to Aristotle, the explanation for this was that all human activity tends to some good. Since happiness (eudaimonia) is the highest good, we speak then of eudemian or eudaemonist ethics.

Politics for Aristotle, it was the study of the laws and customs related to everyday life. Aristotle's political ideas were compiled by the philosopher in his book Politics, the main work in which his doctrines are found.

Productive knowledge

Productive knowledge was oriented to the arts, especially to poetics. In fact, the most important Aristotelian aesthetic text is called Poetics. This text does not dwell on beauty but expounds on the arts as physical and tangible objects. Unlike Aristotelian Rhetoric, dedicated to the art of persuasion, Poetics examines the art of literary creation.

Theoretical wisdom

Theoretical wisdom encompassed physics, mathematics and metaphysics. He called the latter “first philosophy”, since it posits the theory of the general principles of thought. Furthermore, it is a doctrine of “being as being”.

Some of the main ideas of Aristotelian metaphysics are:

  • Metaphysics as “first philosophy”. This idea holds that no particular science universally studies what is, but states that each one is dedicated to a part of the concrete reality. Metaphysics is the most general science because it studies “being as being”.
  • “Being” is said in many ways. This Aristotelian statement expounds on the idea of the polysemy of being (that "being" is said in many senses). Whether "being" as potency, act, substance, or accident, all these forms are valid depending on the level and line of analysis.
  • Metaphysics is theology. Metaphysics as theology must be understood as the study of a hypothetical figure, the first unmoved mover of the universe that gives principle and vital impulse to all things that exist.

As regards physics and mathematics, there are several Aristotelian treatises that examine these disciplines. Broadly speaking, physics or natural philosophy contemplates the movement, the generation and the corruption of things, as well as the denial of the Void and the idea of “aether” (that every point in space is filled with matter). As for mathematics, it is intertwined with logic, although it is worth pointing out that Aristotle did not consider the latter substantial knowledge.

Works of Aristotle

The works of Aristotle that have survived the passage of time were collected in the Corpus Aristotelicum by the philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes. Andronicus' Corpus was edited by the classical philologist August Immanuel Bekker between 1831 and 1870. This corpus is divided into five major groups:

  • Logic or Organon. The following works belong to this group:
    • Categories (Categoriae)
    • On interpretation (De Interpretatione)
    • Prior Analyticsl (Analytica Priora)
    • Posterior Analytics (Analytica Posteriora)
    • Topics (Topica)
    • On Sophistical Refutations (De Sophisticis Elenchis)
  • Natural philosophy. The following works belong to this group:
    • Physics (Physica)
    • On the Heavens (De Caelo)
    • On Generation and Corruption (De Generatione et corruptione)
    • Meteorology (Meteorologica)
    • Of the Soul (De Anima)
    • Little Physical Treatises (Parva Naturalia and other writings).
  • Metaphysics. The following works belong to this group:
    • Metaphysics (Metaphysica)
  • Ethics and politics. In this group we find the following works:
    • Nicomachean Ethics (Ethica Nicomachea)
    • Eudemian Ethics (Ethica Eudemia)
    • Politics (Politica)
  • Rhetoric and poetics. In this group we find the following works:
    • Rhetoric (Ars Rhetorica)
    • Poetics (Ars Poetica)

Beyond the classification of Andromachus of Rhodes, Aristotle's work has no clear order. The specific dates of each of the treatises are unknown, with the exception of Eudemus, dedicated to a friend who died in 354 BC, and Protrepticus, dedicated to Themison, around 315 BC. Nonetheless, his work is traditionally divided into three major periods comprising the following years:

  • First period (368-348 B.C.). The Academy.
  • Second period (348-335 B.C.). Leaving the Academy. Development of first own thought.
  • Third period (335-322 B.C.). The Lyceum and empirical studies.

Both Andromachus’ and the period classification aim to establish a broad chronological order, which merely serves organizational and in any case, educational purposes. Similarly, it is uncertain whether his writings were intended for widespread publication or whether their use was limited (as is commonly believed) for use within the Lyceum. This remains an area of contention among scholars to the present day.

References

  • Guthrie, W. K. C. (1993). Historia de la filosofía griega. Vol. VI: Introducción a Aristóteles. Gredos.
  • Guthrie, W. (1953). Los filósofos griegos. De Tales a Aristóteles. FCE.
  • Barnes, J. (1987). Aristóteles. Cátedra.

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ESPÍNOLA, Juan Pablo Segundo. "Aristotle".
Encyclopedia of Humanities. 17 January, 2024, https://humanidades.com/en/aristotle/.

About the author

Author: Juan Pablo Segundo Espínola

Bachelor of Arts in philosophy (University of Buenos Aires)

Translated by: Marilina Gary

Degree in English Language Teaching (Juan XXIII Institute of Higher Education, Bahía Blanca, Argentina).

Updated on: 17 January, 2024
Posted on: 28 September, 2023

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