Biography of Aristotle

Aristotle was born in 384 BC, in Stagira, near Macedonia at the northern end of the Aegean Sea. His father, Nicomachus, was the family physician of King Amyntas of Macedonia. It is believed that Aristotle's ancestors had been the physicians of the Macedonian royal family for several generations. Having come from a long line of physicians, Aristotle received training and education that inclined his mind toward the study of natural phenomena. This education had long-lasting influences, and was probably the root cause of his less idealistic stand on philosophy as opposed to Plato. Aristotle's father died when he was a boy, and Aristotle was left under the care of his guardian Proxenus.

When Aristotle was seventeen, Proxenus sent him to study at Plato's Academy in Athens, the heart of the intellectual world at the time. Aristotle remained at the Academy for twenty years, until Plato's death in 347 BC. Although Aristotle was Plato's most promising student, Aristotle did not succeed Plato as head of the Academy because of their opposing views on several fundamental philosophical issues, specifically regarding Plato's theory of ideas. As has already been noted, Aristotle was more concerned than Plato with the actual material world, and did not believe that the only thing that mattered is the realm of ideas and perfect forms.

After leaving the Academy, Aristotle was invited to go live in the court of his friend Hermeas, ruler of Atarneus and Assos in Mysia. Aristotle remained there for three years, during which time he married Pythias, the niece and adopted daughter of the king. Later in life Aristotle married Herpyllis, with whom had a son, named Nicomachus after his father. When Hermeas' kingdom was taken over by Persians, Aristotle moved to Mytilene. King Amyntas invited Aristotle to tutor his thirteen-year old son, Alexander. Aristotle tutored Alexander for five years until King Amyntas died and Alexander came to power. In gratitude for Aristotle's services, Alexander provided Aristotle generously with means for the acquisition of books and for the pursuit of scientific inquiry. While the extent to which Aristotle's tutoring influenced Alexander's successes in conquering an empire is disputable, Alexander did try to organize much of his empire along the model of the Greek city-state.

In 335 BC Aristotle went back to Athens, where he found the Academy flourishing under Xenocrates. Aristotle founded his own school, the Lyceum, and ran it for twelve years. The school is often called the Peripatetic School, because Aristotle used to like walking around and discusses his ideas with his colleagues. Peripatetics are "people who walk around." Aristotle would have detailed discussions with a small group of advanced students in the mornings, and larger lectures in the evenings. During his time at the Lyceum, Aristotle wrote extensively on a wide range of subjects: politics, metaphysics, ethics, logic and science.

Aristotle agreed with Plato that the cosmos is rationally designed and that philosophy can come to know absolute truths by studying universal forms. Their ideas diverged, however, in that Aristotle thought that the one finds the universal in particular things, while Plato believed the universal exists apart from particular things, and that material things are only a shadow of true reality, which exists in the realm of ideas and forms. The fundamental difference between the two philosophers is that Plato thought only pure mathematical reasoning was necessary, and therefore focused on metaphysics and mathemtics. Aristotle, on the other hand, thought that in addition to this "first philosophy," it is also necessary to undertake detailed empirical investigations of nature, and thus to study what he called "second philosophy," which includes such subjects as physics, mechanics and biology. Aristotle's philosophy therefore involved both inductive and deductive reasoning, observing the workings of the world around him and then reasoning from the particular to a knowledge of essences and universal laws. In a sense, Aristotle was the first major proponent of the modern scientific method. The Lyceum was an unprecedented school of organized scientific inquiry. There was no comparable scientific enterprise for over 2,000 years after the founding of the Lyceum.

In 323 BC Alexander the Great died unexpectedly and the government of Athens was overthrown by anti-Macedonian forces. Having had close connections with the Macedonian royal family, Aristotle was associated with the Macedonians and was unpopular with the new ruling powers. The new government brought charges of impiety against Aristotle, but he fled to his country house in Chalcis in Euboea to escape prosecution. Aristotle commented that he fled so that "the Athenians might not have another opportunity of sinning against philosophy as they had already done in the person of Socrates." About a year later, Aristotle died after complaints of a stomach illness.

Aristotle's writings were preserved by his student Theophrastus, his successor as leader of the Peripatetic School. Theophrastus' pupil Neleus and his heirs concealed the books in a vault to protect them from theft, but they were damaged by dampness, moths and worms. The books were found around 100 BC by Apellicon, who brought them to Rome. In Rome, scholars took interest in the works and prepared new editions of them. The writings of Aristotle that we have today are based on this collection. Overall, Aristotle wrote three types of works: dialogues or other works of a popular character, collections of scientific data and observations, and systematic treatises. His philosophy can be divided into four main areas: 1) Logic; 2) Theoretical Philosophy, including Metaphysics, Physics and Mathematics; 3) Practical Philosophy, such as Ethics and Politics; and 4) Poetical Philosophy, covering the study of poetry and the fine arts.


Study Guides on Works by Aristotle

The Metaphysicor Metaphysicsis a canonical collection of various writings by Aristotle which were collected and featured in the order they now appear, although there are historical-critical debates about whether this was the original intended...

Though the precise origins of Aristotle's Poetics are not known, researchers believe that the work was composed around 330 BCE and was preserved primarily through Aristotle's students' notes. Despite its vague beginning, the Poetics has been a...

Aristotle's Politics is one of the most influential and enduring texts of political philosophy in all of history. The Aristotelian tradition, following from the philosophy of Plato and continuing in the writings of Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas and...