Aristotle may have been the most influential scientist and philosopher in the western world before Isaac Newton — for about 2,000 years that is — Aristotle’s empirical observations and careful analyses modeled the scientific method for all subsequent scientists. Moreover, his observations, such as in biology, were so extensive that some of them, such as the reproductive arm of the octopus, were not verified again by science until the 19th century.
Aristotle’s works constitute the foundations of:
- Literary analysis
- Political philosophy
- Ethics, aesthetics
- Botanical and biological classification
He also contributed to mathematics, astronomy, music theory, metaphysics, and linguistics; in fact, he was the first to recognize and name most of these disciplines as distinct areas of knowledge. And whatever topic he tackled, he transformed.
Aristotle was known in medieval Europe as “the Philosopher” and by ancient Muslim scholars as “the First Teacher” – which is remarkable considering that he avowed belief in the ancient Greek gods, which could have made him a heretic in both Islamic and Roman Catholic eyes. But his thought was so influential that he was continuously recognized as the first authority in matters of philosophy and science until at least the Renaissance.
In fact, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that his system of logic was truly super-ceded; the advances of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason incorporated Aristotle’s ideas about logic without contradicting them. And in many areas of thought, such as literary, ethical, and political theory, and aesthetics and metaphysics, academics still study, debate, and learn from his ideas today.
II. Short Biography
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) was born in Stagira, Chalkidice, on the northern coast of ancient Greece. Aristotle’s mother, and his father Nicomachus, the personal physician of the king of Macedon, died during Aristotle’s youth, much of which was spent in the court of Macedon. His brother-in-law Proxenus became his guardian.
Around the age of 18, Proxenus sent Aristotle to study in Athens at Plato’s Academy, the foremost educational institution of the day. Aristotle studied there for twenty years. Plato’s death, in 347 marked a turning point for Aristotle, who had been such a leading student at the academy that he probably would have taken over its leadership if it were not that he had long disagreed with Plato’s theory of forms; Aristotle thought the essences of things were in their observable particulars, not abstractions.
After Plato died, Aristotle dedicated himself to empirical observation for several years. He traveled to Asia Minor (near Turkey) and the court of his friend Hermias, and made detailed observations of plants and animals in the region, especially on the coast of the island Lesbos where he met his first wife, Pythias, Hermias’ niece, with whom he had a daughter, also named Pythias.
In 343 Aristotle was asked by King Philip of Macedon to tutor the 13-year old who would become Alexander the Great, one of the most successful conquerors in history. Aristotle did so, as head of the royal academy of Macedon, until Alexander became King. In 335 Aristotle returned to Athens and established his own school there – the Lyceum.
At the Lyceum, Aristotle wrote many of his famous works. He and his followers were nicknamed the “peripatetics” which means “those who walk around” because of Aristotle’s habit of walking while talking to his students. Also during this time, Pythias died and Aristotle married a woman, Herpyllis, from his home-town, who is believed to have previously been his slave, whom he had freed (there is some debate about the precise nature of their early relationship). They had a son named Nicomachus after Aristotle’s father.
Near the end of his life, Aristotle and Alexander became alienated from each other over Alexander’s policies in Persia. Then, when Alexander died, anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens turned against Aristotle and he eventually fled to his mother’s family’s estate in the north, where he died of natural causes the following year.
III. Aristotle’s Works
Of the 200 written works attributed to Aristotle, only 31 survive, and none of them appear as polished as his ancient reputation. Cicero, a Roman politician and writer considered Latin’s greatest prose stylist described Aristotle’s works as a “river of gold” in contrast to Plato’s “silver.” But the works of Aristotle we have, although compelling in their thought, would not have earned such praise for style; they appear to be lecture notes, rough drafts, and other documents intended only for “in-house” use (within the Lyceum).
Aristotle’s works are divided into groups reflecting Aristotle’s own division of science into theory, practice, production, and its logical foundations:
The Organon (“tools”): works primarily about logic, rational argument, and the scientific method, most notably, Analytics, Categories, and the Sophistical Refutations, whose names accurately descsribe their topics.
The Theoretical Sciences: In addition to the most famous books, Physics, and Metaphysics, this grouping includes his works on biology, meteorology, astronomy, and psychology.
The Practical Sciences: Included the book Politics, and three books on ethics, the central topic of political philosophy to Aristotle.
The Productive Sciences: The Poetics and Rhetoric, both concerned with what we now call “the language arts.”
IV. Aristotle’s Ideas
The scientific method: Aristotle departed drastically from his teacher Plato’s theory of “forms” – the abstract essences of observable phenomena, which Plato believed to be real and the source of all observable phenomena. Aristotle, in contrast, believed that the essences of things were their observable forms and that empirical observation is the best path to truth; he believed in the veracity of human perception and saw no need for habitual skepticism. In addition to such observations, Aristotle also believed it was important to consider expert–and even popular opinion—in philosophy; he did not claim that we must agree with these opinions, but he took them as important data; he often argued that popular, even naïve, ideas pointed towards crucial insights and needed to be accounted for.
In logic, Aristotle is most known for his systematic treatment of syllogistic reasoning as the heart of deduction. A syllogism is a sequence of statements including at least two premises and a conclusion, such as:
Premise 1: All men are mortal
Premise 2: Socrates is a man
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal
Aristotle was far from the first man to reason well, but he described the laws governing sound reasoning in more clarity and detail than any before him. His contributions included thorough analyses of all the most fundamental elements of logical reasoning, such as “inclusion” and “exclusion” – the foundations of category theory — and a variety of meta-theorems about logic, such as the “law of the excluded middle” – which amounts to the law that statements must be either true or false, never both at the same time (which is no longer believed to be true for all forms of logic).
In the hard-sciences, Aristotle classified over 500 species of birds, animals, and fish, based on their anatomy and behaviors. These classifications fit into a larger scheme, of which man was seen to be a part, progressing from un-living matter, through plants, and animals, to the human level, uniquely characterized by the ability to reason.
Aristotle saw psychology as a natural science — another aspect of living matter. He postulated the existence of three souls, the vegetative, animal, and human, which were cumulative; i.e. humans have all three, and animals have the first two. The vegetable soul possesses only the ability to nourish and sustain its life, the animal soul also has the abilities to feel, perceive, and move – and the human soul, reason. In his book De Anima, “of the soul,” Aristotle discusses the five senses, memory, dreams, and imagination.
Perhaps because Aristotle was wrong about much of his hard-science, his Politics and Ethics (three books on ethics) remain among his most relevant and still studied works. They revolve around the idea that the purpose of politics is to provide the conditions under which human beings can maximize happiness by fulfilling their natural potentials, a condition he called eudaimonia. As Aristotle approached these issues scientifically, he was concerned more with describing human nature than defining a system of moral laws.
His analysis of human virtues as forms of moderation is among the most famous sections of his Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle argues that all virtues, such as temperance, courage, and modesty, walk a middle path between two vices – a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency; so, for example, he argues that courage is half-way between cowardice and rashness. This detailed analysis of human virtues is among his clearest and most still-relevant writings.
Aristotle’s most general ideas about politics, such as it being an extension of ethics, are still often discussed although his more specific ideas were too limited by his cultural origins to carry weight today; for example, he believed that slavery was part of the natural order and that only the affluent and educated should work in government. He also supported public education, democracy, and freedom of worship.
The last area of his work – Poetics and Rhetoric – presented many ideas about writing, persuasion, drama, and aesthetics, that we still study today. The Poetics focuses on dramatic tragedy, with ideas such as catharsis. Rhetoric remains the most influential discussion of persuasive techniques in history.
Because of Aristotle’s status and antiquity, “controversies” about his works largely concern the question of what he intended.
One of these debates concerns his theory of perception; Aristotle believed in the inherent accuracy of our sensory perceptions in conveying to us the real properties of things observed. He claimed that our sense organs work by “exemplifying” the properties they register, but what he meant by that is still debated. According to the literalist interpretation, he believed that our sense organs literally become such properties, such that, for example, when the eye perceives the color red, the gelatinous material of the eye actually becomes red. The alternative, intentionalist, interpretation claims that he meant only that the sensory organs encode or represent their objects in some sense.
Another debate about Aristotle concerns his idea of “natural slavery”; he argued that some people are slaves by nature, and this argument was, unfortunately, used to argue for the rightness of slavery by some such as the 16th century Spanish theologian, Sepulveda. Others, attempting to rehabilitate Aristotle argue that he believed people’s nature could change through education and habit, and that, therefore, he did not necessarily believe that slavery should be a permanent condition. This controversy is, of course, also haunted by the fact that Aristotle’s second wife had been a slave, and it is not definitely known, although often assumed, that Aristotle freed her.
Aristotle was influenced by the many great Greek philosophers who preceded him, including especially Socrates, Plato, Heraclitus, Democritus, Hippocrates, Empedocles, Epicurus, Parmenides, and Anaximander.
Although Aristotle rejected the metaphysics of his teacher Plato, regarding the theory of “forms,” he clearly owed much to Plato, who laid the groundwork for Aristotle’s theories of politics and ethics by being the first to clearly inter-relate these subjects, in the Republic. Aristotle’s theory of teleology, central to his philosophy, also had roots in Plato’s Phaedo.
Aristotle was also influenced by the Milesian philosophers, such as Anaximander, who promoted a materialist world-view, encouraging Aristotle’s devotion to empirical observation.
In general, Aristotle’s thought is rooted solidly in the Greek tradition which preceded him, with its emphases on reason, physics, mathematics, rhetoric, and the cultivation of personal virtues. He was a product of the culture that most valued democracy and debate before the modern age.
Quote #1: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
This quote represents Aristotle’s thought about the nature of intellect and the spirit of inquiry for which the Greek philosophers are known. The quote provides valuable perspective on Aristotle’s work, which consists, to such a large degree, of classifications, definitions, and authoritative arguments. Aristotle is not considered a “skeptic” because he believed that observation and reason could yield truth. But this quote reminds us that Aristotle’s approach to knowledge and truth was grounded in a recognition that we often do not know what is true or false, which is why we engage in philosophical and scientific enquiry.
Quote #2: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
This powerful idea was a centerpiece of Aristotle’s arguments in the Nicomachean Ethics, where he discusses human virtues and how to develop them. “Excellence” is the embodiment of virtues, qualities of action and mind that aim at the “highest good” in any area of life—including not only ethical good, but also “good” as in “skilled” or “effective.” Aristotle argued that we only embody such virtues when we become automatically drawn to the virtuous choices and perform the excellent skills automatically. And whether for good or bad, character is formed by habit.
Quote #3: “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self.”
This statement can be seen as an implication of the statement in quote #2, and idea that is perhaps most often learned through the pursuit of excellence. Therefore, this quote highlights both Aristotle’s maturity – he must have learned this lesson for himself – and his interest in self-improvement. Aristotle’s discussions about virtue in the Ethics imply that self-improvement requires prolonged self-examination and resistance to ingrained behaviors. We are not told whether Aristotle conquered himself, but his astounding productivity suggests that he had some success.
VIII. Pop Culture
Example #1: Aristotle defined the plot of popular fiction as we know it. It was Aristotle who first described the three-act structure of dramas that we see in nearly all popular film and television. Dramas are expected to have a beginning, middle, and end, with exposition, conflict, and resolution. Aristotle also wrote that it is plot, specifically, that fulfills the purpose of tragic drama, not character, or other elements. This idea seems have ruled drama ever since; although some writers have experimented with other types of drama, Aristotle’s analysis seems to have become the first law of screen-writing.
Example #2: Aristotle has appeared as a character in many films about Alexander the Great, and as a figure in educational, and sometimes comedic programs. He is mentioned in several Monty Python sketches, and in this moment from The Simpsons: