Aristotle, known as Aristoteles in most languages other than English (Aristotele in Italian), (384 BC – March 7, 322 BC) was a Greek philosopher. Along with Plato, he is often considered to be one of the two most influential philosophers in Western thought.
The three greatest ancient Greek philosophers were Aristotle, Plato, who was a teacher of Aristotle, and Socrates (c. 470-399 BC), whose thinking deeply influenced Plato. Among them they transformed early (now, “presocratic”) Greek philosophy into the foundations of Western philosophy as we know it. Socrates wrote nothing, and his ideas come down to us only indirectly through Plato and a few other ancient writers. The writings of Plato and Aristotle form the core of Ancient philosophy.
Their works, although connected in many fundamental ways, are very different in both style and substance. Plato wrote several dozen philosophical dialogues–arguments in the form of conversations, usually with Socrates as a participant–and a few letters. Though the early dialogues are concerned mainly with methods of acquiring knowledge, and most of the last ones with justice and practical ethics, his most famous works expressed a synoptic view of ethics, metaphysics, reason, knowledge, and human life. The predominant ideas were that knowledge gained through the senses is always confused and impure, and that true knowledge is acquired by the contemplative soul that turns away from the world. The soul alone can have knowledge of the Forms, the real essences of things, of which the world we see is but an imperfect copy. Such knowledge has ethical as well as scientific import. Plato can be called, with qualification, an idealist and a rationalist.
Aristotle, by contrast, placed much more value on knowledge gained from the senses, and would correspondingly be better classed among modern empiricists (see materialism and empiricism). Thus, Aristotle set the stage for what would eventually develop into the scientific method centuries later. Although he wrote dialogues early in his career, no more than fragments of these have survived. The works of Aristotle that still exist today are in treatise form and were, for the most part, unpublished texts. These were probably lecture notes, or texts used by his students, and were almost certainly revised repeatedly over the course of years. As a result these works tend to be eclectic, dense, and difficult to read. Among the most important are Physics, Metaphysics, (Nicomachean) Ethics, Politics, De Anima (On the Soul), and Poetics.
History and influence of Aristotle’s work
Alfred North Whitehead once commented that the history of philosophy was a series of footnotes to Plato. If anything of the sort is true, then the only other possible candidate would be Aristotle, and in his case it might be more literally true, given the number of commentaries devoted to his work.
The popularity of Neo-Platonism in late antiquity, combined more generally with the subsequent fall of Rome, the burning of the library at Alexandria, and the Church’s suppression of pagan philosophy, meant that little of Aristotle’s writing was available in Latin in the early Middle Ages. His works were read during the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, however, and the Islamic philosopher Averroes commented extensively on it. By the 12th century there was a great revival of interest in Aristotle in Christian Europe, and the great translator William of Moerbeke worked from both Greek and Arabic manuscripts to produce Latin translations. Aristotle’s works were commented on by Thomas Aquinas and became the standard philosophical approach of the high and later middle ages. Aristotle’s works were held in such esteem that he was known as The Philosopher.
Indeed, the views of Aristotle became the dogma of scholastic philosophy. It was this dogma that was rejected by the philosophers of the early modern period, such as Galileo and Descartes.
Aristotle’s theories about drama, in particular the idea of the dramatic unities, also influenced later playwrights, especially in France. He claimed to be describing the Greek theater, but his work was taken as prescriptive. In more recent times there has been a new revival of interest in Aristotle. His ethical views in particular remain influential.
See also: Aristotle’s theory of universals, accidental properties
The article Aristotelian logic discusses the influence of Aristotle’s Organon. See also the article Term Logic that outlines the system of traditional logic based on the Organon, that survived until the twentieth century.
Called by Roman Catholics the greatest of pagan Philosophers, born at Stagira, a Grecian colony in the Macedonian peninsula Chalcidice, 384 B.C.; died at Chalcis, in Euboea, 322 B.C.
His father, Nicomachus, was court physician to King Amyntas of Macedonia. This position, we have reason to believe, was held under various predecessors of Amyntas by Aristotle’s ancestors, so that the profession of medicine was in a sense hereditary in the family. Whatever early training Aristotle received was probably influenced by this circumstance; when, therefore at the age of eighteen he went to Athens his mind was already determined in the direction which it afterwards took, the investigation of natural phenomena.
From his eighteenth to his thirty-seventh year he remained at Athens as pupil of Plato and was, we are told, distinguished among those who gathered for instruction in the Grove of Academus, adjoining Plato’s house. The relations between the renowned teacher and his illustrious pupil have formed the subject of various legends, many of which represent Aristotle in an unfavourable light. No doubt there were divergences of opinion between the master, who took his stand on sublime, idealistic principles, and the scholar, who, even at that time, showed a preference for the investigation of the facts and laws of the physical world. It is probable that Plato did, indeed, declare that Aristotle needed the curb rather than the spur; but we have no reason to believe that there was an open breach of friendship. In fact, Aristotle’s conduct after the death of Plato, his continued association with Xenocrates and other Platonists, and his allusions in his writings to Plato’s doctrines, prove that while there were differences of opinion between teacher and pupil, there was no lack of cordial appreciation, or of that mutual forbearance which one would expect from men of lofty character. Besides this, the legends, so far as they reflect unfavourably on Aristotle, are traceable to the Epicureans who were known to antiquity as calumniators by profession; and if such legends were given wide circulation by patristic writers, such as Justin Martyr and Gregory Nazianzen, the reason is to be sought not in any well-grounded historical tradition, but in the exaggerated esteem in which Aristotle was held by the heretics of the early Christian period.
After the death of Plato (347 B.C.), Aristotle went, in company with Xenocrates, to the court of Hermias, ruler of Atarneus in Asia Minor, whose niece and adopted daughter, Pythias, he married. In 344 Hermias having been murdered in a rebellion of his subjects, Aristotle went with his family to Mytilene and thence, one or two years later, he was summoned to his native Stagira by King Philip II of Macedon, to become the tutor of Alexander the Great, who was then in his thirteenth year. Whether or not we believe Plutarch when he tells us that Aristotle not only imparted to the future world-conqueror a knowledge of ethics and politics, but also initiated him into the most profound secrets of philosophy, we have positive proof, on the one hand, that the royal pupil profited by contact with the philosopher, and, on the other hand, that the teacher made prudent and beneficial use of his influence over the mind of the young prince. It was due to this influence that Alexander placed at the disposal of his teacher ample means for the acquisition of books and the pursuit of his scientific investigation, and history is not wrong in tracing to the intercourse with Aristotle those singular gifts of mind and heart which almost up to the very last distinguished Alexander among the few who have known how to make moderate and intelligent use of victory. About the year 335 Alexander departed for his Asiatic campaign; thereupon Aristotle, who, since his pupil’s accession to the throne of Macedonia had occupied the position of a more or less informal adviser, returned to Athens and there opened a school of philosophy. He may, as Aulus Gellius says, have conducted a school of rhetoric during his former residence in the city; but now, following the example of Plato, he gave regular instruction in philosophy choosing for that purpose a gymnasium dedicated to Apollo Lyceios, from which his school has come to be known as the Lyceum. It was also called the Peripatetic School because it was the master’s custom to discuss problems of philosophy with his pupils while walking up and down (peripateo) the shaded walks (peripatoi) around the gymnasium.
During the thirteen years (335-322) which he spent as teacher at the Lyceum, Aristotle composed the greater number of his writings. Imitating the example of his master, he placed in the hands of his pupils “Dialogues” in which his doctrines were expounded in somewhat popular language. Besides he composed the several treatises (of which mention will be made below) on physics, metaphysics, and so forth, in which the exposition is more didactic and the language more technical than in the “Dialogues”. These writings show to what good use he put the means placed at his disposal by Alexander. They show in particular how he succeeded in bringing together the works of his predecessors in Greek philosophy, and how he spared neither pains nor expense in pursuing, either personally or through others, his investigations in the realm of natural Phenomena. When we read the works treating of zoology we are quite prepared to believe Pliny’s statement that Alexander placed under Aristotle’s orders all the hunters, fishermen, and fowlers of the royal kingdom and all the overseers of the royal forests, lakes, ponds and cattle-ranges, and when we observe how fully Aristotle is informed concerning the doctrines of those who preceded him, we are prepared to accept Strabo’s assertion that he was the first who accumulated a great library. During the last years of Aristotle’s life the relations between him and his former royal pupil became very much strained, owing to the disgrace and punishment of Callisthenes whom he had recommended to the King. Nevertheless, he continued to be regarded at Athens as a friend of Alexander and a representative of the Macedonian dominion. Consequently, when Alexander’s death became known at Athens, and the outbreak occurred which led to the Lamian war, Aristotle was obliged to share in the general unpopularity of the Macedonians. The charge of impiety, which had been brought against Anaxagoras and Socrates, was now, with even less reason, brought against him. He left the city, saying (according to many ancient authorities) that he would not give the Athenians a chance to sin a third time against Philosophy. He took up his residence at his country house, at Chalcis, in Euboea, and there he died the following year, 322 BC. His death was due to a disease from which he had long suffered. The story that his death was due to hemlock poisoning, as well as the legend, according to which he threw himself into the sea “because he could not explain the tides” are absolutely without historical foundation.
Very little is known about Aristotle’s personal appearance except from sources manifestly hostile. There is no reason, however, to doubt the faithfulness of the statues and busts coming down to us, possibly from the first years of the Peripatetic School, which represent him as sharp and keen of countenance, and somewhat below the average height. His character, as revealed by his writings, his will (which is undoubtedly genuine), fragments of his letters and the allusions of his unprejudiced contemporaries, was that of a high-minded, kind-hearted man, devoted to his family and his friends, kind to his slaves, fair to his enemies and rivals, grateful towards his benefactors — in a word, an embodiment of those moral ideals which he outlined in his ethical treatises, and which we recognize to be far above the concept of moral excellence current in his day and among his people. When Platonism ceased to dominate the world of Christian speculation, and the works of the Stagirite began to be studied without fear and prejudice, the personality of Aristotle appeared to the Christian writers of the thirteenth century, as it had to the unprejudiced pagan writers of his own day, calm, majestic, untroubled by passion, and undimmed by any great moral defects, “the master of those who know”.
Aristotle defines philosophy in terms of essence, saying that philosophy is “the science of the universal essence of that which is actual”. Plato had defined it as the “science of the idea”, meaning by idea what we should call the unconditional basis of phenomena. Both pupil and master regard philosophy as concerned with the universal; the former however, finds the universal in particular things, and calls it the essence of things, while the latter finds that the universal exists apart from particular things, and is related to them as their prototype or exemplar. For Aristotle, therefore, philosophic method implies the ascent from the study of particular phenomena to the knowledge of essences, while for Plato philosophic method means the descent from a knowledge of universal ideas to a contemplation of particular imitations of those ideas. In a certain sense, Aristotle’s method is both inductive and deductive, while Plato’s is essentially deductive.
In Aristotle’s terminology , the term natural philosophy corresponds to the phenomenon of the natural world: motion, light, the laws of physics. Many centuries later these subjects would later become the basis of modern science, as studied through the scientific method. The term philosophy is distinct from metaphysics, which is what moderns term philosophy.
In the larger sense of the word, he makes philosophy coextensive with reasoning, which he also called “science”. Note, however, that his use of the term science carries a different meaning that that which is covered by the scientific method. “All science (dianoia) is either practical, poetical or theoretical.” By practical science he understands ethics and politics; by poetical, he means the study of poetry and the other fine arts; while by theoretical philosophy he means physics, mathematics, and metaphysics.
The last, philosophy in the stricter sense, he defines as “the knowledge of immaterial being,” and calls it “first philosophy”, “the theologic science” or of “being in the highest degree of abstraction.” If logic, or, as Aristotle calls it, Analytic, be regarded as a study preliminary to philosophy, we have as divisions of Aristotelian philosophy (1) Logic; (2) Theoretical Philosophy, including Metaphysics, Physics, Mathematics, (3) Practical Philosophy; and (4) Poetical Philosophy.
Aristotelian discussions about science had only been qualitative, not quantitative. By the modern definition of the term, Aristotelian philosophy was not science, as this worldview did not attempt to probe how the world actually worked through experiment. Rather, based on what one’s senses told one, Aristotelian philosophy then depended upon the assumption that man’s mind could elucidate all the laws of the universe, based on simple observation (without experimentation) through reason alone.
One of the reasons for this was that Aristotle held that physics was about changing objects with a reality of their own, whereas mathematics was about unchanging objects without a reality of their own. In this philosophy, he could not imagine that there was a relationship between them.
In contrast, today the term science refers to the position that thinking alone often leads people astray, and therefore one must compare one’s ideas to the actual world through experimentation; only then can one see if one’s ideas are based in reality.
Aristotle has been criticised on several grounds.
- # At times the objections that Aristotle raises against the arguments of his own teacher Plato, appear to rely on faulty interpretations of those arguments.
- # Although Aristotle advised, against Plato, that knowledge of the world could only be obtained through experience, he frequently failed to take his own advice. Aristotle conducted projects of careful empirical investigation, but often drifted into abstract logical reasoning, with the result that his work was littered with conclusions that were not supported by empirical evidence; for example his assertion that objects of different mass fall at different speeds under gravity, which was later refuted by Galileo.
- # In the middle ages, roughly from the 12th century to the 15th century, the philosophy of Aristotle became firmly established dogma. Although Aristotle himself was far from dogmatic in his approach to philosophical inquiry, two aspects of his philosophy might have assisted its transformation into dogma. His works were wide ranging and systematic so that they could give the impression that no significant matter had been left unsettled. He was also much less inclined to employ the skeptical methods of his predecessors, Socrates and Plato.
In any case, Aristotle was regarded as, not a great philosopher, but as “The Philosopher” by Scholastic dogmatists. These “scholars” blended Aristotelian philosophy with Christianity, bringing the thought of Ancient Greece into the Middle Ages. It required a repudiation of Aristotelian principles for the sciences and the arts to free themselves for the discovery of modern scientific laws and empirical methods.
This is not a complete list of Aristotle’s works, but it does provide links to translations of those works which still exist. Please update any links that you find to be broken.
- Project Gutenberg – Aristotle, 384-322 B.C., index of free books (many links)
- The Athenian Constitution, trans. by Harris Rackham (HTML at Perseus)
- The Athenian Constitution, trans. by Frederic G. Kenyon (HTML at Internet Classics)
- Categories, trans. by E. M. Edghill
- Complete On-Line Works and Commentary (HTML in Sweden)
- Eudemian Ethics (HTML at Perseus)
- History of Animals, trans. by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson
- Metaphysics, trans. by W. D. Ross
- Metaphysics, trans. by Hugh Tredennick (HTML at Perseus)
- Meteorology, translated by E. W. Webster
- Nicomachean Ethics, trans. by Harris Rackham (HTML at Perseus)
- Nicomachean Ethics, trans. by W. D. Ross
- http://webatomics.com/Classics/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html HTML at Internet Classics
- http://nothingistic.org/library/aristotle/nicomachean/ HTML with chapter headings at nothingistic.org
- http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/aristotle/Ethics.pdf PDF at McMaster
- On Dreams, translated by J. I. Beare
- On the Generation of Animals, translated by Arthur Platt
- On the Gait of Animals, translated by A. S. L. Farquharson
- On Generation and Corruption, trans. by H. H. Joachim
- On the Heavens, trans. by J. L. Stocks
- On Interpretation, translated by E. M. Edghill
- On memory and reminiscence, translated by J. I. Beare
- On the motion of animals, translated by A. S. L. Farquharson
- On longevity and shortness of life, translated by G. R. T. Ross
- On the Parts of Animals, trans. by William Ogle
- On sophistical refutations, translated by W. A. Pickard-Cambridge
- On sense and the sensible, translated by J. I. Beare
- On sleep and sleeplessness, translated by J. I. Beare
- On the Soul, trans. by J. A. Smith
- On Youth and Old Age, On Life and Death, On Breathing, trans. by G. R. T. Ross
- Physics, trans. by R. P. Hardie and R. K. Gaye
- Poetics, trans. by William Hamilton Fyfe (HTML at Perseus)
- Poetics, trans. by S. H. Butcher
- Politics, trans. by Harris Rackham (HTML at Perseus)
- Politics, trans. by Benjamin Jowett
- http://www.constitution.org/ari/polit_00.htm HTML at constitution.org
- http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/aristotle/Politics.pdf PDF at McMaster
- Posterior Analytics, trans. by G. R. G. Mure
- Prior Analytics, trans. by A. J. Jenkinson
- Rhetoric, trans. by W. Rhys Roberts
- Rhetoric, trans. by John Henry Freese (HTML at Perseus)
- Topics, trans. by W. A. Pickard-Cambridge