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edit index Aristotle


Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a major Greek thinker in Ancient Philosophy, a student of Plato (who was student of Socrates) and a teacher of Alexander the Great. Aristotle was the first to treat many of the subjects we know separately, from Metaphysics, Logic and Physics to Ethics, Poetics, Politics and more. Alongside Plato and Kant, Aristotle is a most important figure in Western Philosophy, the first to create a comprehensive system of thought encompassing the nature of reality, science, morality, politics and beauty. Unfortunately, though Aristotle wrote many elegant treatises and dialogues, described by Cicero as "a river of gold", the majority of the writings were lost, with only his treatises surviving through the ages - with Plato, the opposite is true, that his dialogues remain, while treatises were lost.

As medieval scholarship discovered the Ancients, Aristotle's influence was extended well into the Renaissance, and although ultimately supplanted by Modern Physics, has continued to inform thinking on the nature of potentiality as a continuum. In the biological sciences, some of his observations were confirmed to be accurate only as late as the nineteenth century. The earliest known formal developer of Logic, Aristotle's categorical, syllogistic reasoning is still taught in introductory courses, and his Metaphysics was a profound influence on Islamic Philosophy and Christian Philosophy.

Life and Works

Aristotle was born in Stageira, Chalcidice in 384 BC, near the modern-day Thessaloniki. His father, Nicomachus, was personal physician to Amyntas III of Macedon, and Aristotle was educated as a member of the aristocracy (there is no relationship in the spelling of "aristotle" and "aristocracy"). By eighteen years of age, he continued his education in Athens at Plato's Academy, and did not leave until after Plato's death in 347 BC, some twenty years later. Aristotle traveled with Xenocrates to the court of friend Hermias of Atarneus in Asia Minor, and while there, went with Theophrastus to the island of Lesbos, where together they researched the Botany and Zoology of the island. Aristotle married Hermias's adoptive daughter (or niece), Pythias, and they had a daughter of the same name. After Hermias' death, Aristotle was invited by Philip II of Macedon to tutor Alexander the Great (343 BC).

As head of Macedon's Royal Academy, Aristotle taught Alexander and two other future kings, Ptolemy and Cassander, and in his work on Politics, Aristotle stated only one thing could justify Monarchy: If the virtue of the King and his Royal Family were greater than the virtue of the rest of the citizens all put together. Aristotle encouraged Alexander in his Eastern conquests, and encouraged him 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." However, near the end of Alexander's life, he began to suspect plots against him, and threatened Aristotle in letters, at which Aristotle made no secret of his contempt for Alexander's pretense of Divinity - the King had executed Aristotle's own grandnephew, Callisthenes, as a traitor. Some suspected Aristotle of having a role in Alexander's death, but there is little evidence of it. Upon Alexander's own death, anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens once again flared, and Eurymedon (the hierophant) denounced Aristotle for not holding the Gods in honour, which forced Aristotle to flee the city to his Mother's estate in Chalcis. "I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against Philosophy," he said, a reference to the famous trial and execution of Socrates for "corrupting the youth".

By 335 BC, Aristotle returned to Athens, and established his own school, which he called the Lyceum. Aristotle conducted courses for twelve years, during which time his wife Pythias died, and Aristotle became involved with Herpyllis of Stageira, and together they had a son, also named Nicomachus. During this period, 335 - 323 BC, Aristotle is believed to have also composed many of his surviving works. These works are in treatise form and were generally used as lecture notes for his Lyceum students. These important treatises were ground-breaking, and include work on Metaphysics, Physics, Ethics, Politics and Poetics. Aristotle died in Euboea of natural causes in 322 BC, having named as chief executor his student Antipater, asking to be buried next to his wife.

Aristotle, more than anyone before him, studied in detail nearly every subject imaginable, and made significant contributions to most of them. We owe Aristotle a debt for his study of Astronomy, Economics, Embryology, Geography, Geology, Meteorology, Botany, Anatomy and Zoology, as well as Education, Culture, Literature and the philosophical areas mentioned above. Aristotle's combined surviving works alone constitute a veritable Encyclopedia of Greek knowledge and achievement. Aristotle was probably the last person to know everything there was to be known, which is symbolic of how times have changed.

Aristotelian Philosophy

Contrasted with his teacher Plato, Aristotle's Philosophy was aimed at the "particular", or individual, as well as the "universal" in all matters. While Plato posited the universal was found in an ideal realm of forms and prototypes, Aristotle argued the universal was to be found right in the particular things themselves - the form is in the thing. In Aristotle's terminology, "natural philosophy" is a branch of Philosophy examining the phenomena of the natural world, and includes fields regarded today as Physics, Biology and the other Natural Sciences.

At least since the modern Enlightenment, Science has come into its own as a detailed, though not separate, field of study, while the scope of Philosophy, which includes Science, has focused on the Logic, or Metaphysics, as well as the Ethics of Science and other inquiries. Thus, Aristotle made Philosophy central to all reasoning, which he described as "science", while today, we often make the mistake of assuming Philosophy and Science are somehow different inquiries. In Aristotle's system, Logic (or "analytics") comes first, though, and so the order of inquiry is Logic, Metaphysics, Physics, Mathematics, Ethics, and Poetics - in many ways an order still respected today by many thinkers.

Logic: Categorical Syllogisms

What is now known as Aristotelian Logic, Aristotle might have called "analytics", as he often used the term "logic" to mean dialectics, and most of Aristotle's surviving treatises are probably not in original form. Probably edited by Lyceum students and later lecturers, the logical works of Aristotle were compiled into six books by the early first century AD; Categories, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics, and On Sophistical Refutations. The order of the books proceeds from the basics of analysis in simple terms to the study of more complex forms of reasoning in syllogisms. The power and simplicity of Aristotle's conception of Logic was unchallenged, and remained the dominant understanding of Logic until modern advances in Deduction and Mathematical Logic, as well as other areas. Indeed, Kant stated in the Critique of Pure Reason that Aristotle's Theory of Logic completely accounted for the core of deductive inference, and while modern Predicate Logic is based on Aristotelian Logic, Aristotle's conception is still central.

Metaphysics: Potentiality and Actuality

Aristotle moved from Logic to Metaphysics, and examined the concepts of "substance" and "essence" (or ousia). A particular substance, for Aristotle, is a combination of both matter and form. Matter is the "substratum" of which it is composed, just as a house is made of bricks, stones, timbers, made up of a substratum, or a potential house. There is a change in the substratum (a kinesis), whereby a growth and diminution, a locomotion, and an alteration result in a coming to be. In particular change, the potentiality (dynamis) of matter becomes the actuality (entelecheia) of form. This is what the "thing" is capable of doing, or being acted upon, if not prevented by something else, just as the seed of a plant within the soil is a potential plant. The acorn is a potential oak, and the eyes possesses the potentiality of sight, and the talent of playing a flute can be actualized through learning - the universal is present within each particular thing. Actuality is the fulfillment of potentiality, or the formal cause. Actuality is the purpose (telos), and the very principle of every change, for the sake of which that end exists, so actuality is the end, the final cause.

Science: Generation and Parts

Being an ancient thinker, Aristotle's writings on Science could never be entirely correct, because Science is always encountering new theory and evidence. Aristotle's accounts of his scientific observations are a mixture of precocious accuracy and curious "errors", but his work remains influential. Aristotle was the first to show that the Sun was actually larger than the Earth, that the distance from the Earth to the Sun and Stars was so great, that it only seemed they were smaller, which is the view that held from Democritus on through until the Renaissance, and he also designed the first known prototype of a pinhole camera. However, he also posited a geocentric Cosmology which was widely accepted up until that same Renaissance. For Aristotle, each of the four earthly elements had its natural place. The Earth was at the centre of the Universe, then water, air, and fire came into natural motion with no external cause in a perpetual circular motion. The material cause is that from which a thing comes into existence as from its parts, its constituents, its substratum or materials. The efficient cause is that from which the change or the ending of the change first starts, or the first change which sets a series of changes in motion. Aristotle is the earliest natural historian, and his research on Lesbos and the surrounding seas contain striking passages about the sea-life from the local fishermen, including some descriptions two thousand years ahead of their time. Aristotle separated the aquatic mammals from fish, and knew that sharks and rays were part of another group, and he broke open fertilized chicken eggs to observe when visible organs were generated in the embryos.

Further Reading

  • Ackrill J. L. 2001. Essays on Plato and Aristotle, Oxford University Press, USA
  • BOOK, Adler, Mortimer J., Mortimer Adler, Aristotle for Everybody, Macmillan, New York, 1978, A popular exposition for the general reader.
  • Bakalis Nikolaos. 2005. Handbook of Greek Philosophy: From Thales to the Stoics Analysis and Fragments, Trafford Publishing ISBN 1-4120-4843-5
  • Barnes J. 1995. The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle, Cambridge University Press
  • BOOK, Bochen'ski, I. M., I. M. Bochen'ski, Ancient Formal Logic, North-Holland Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1951,
  • Bolotin, David (1998). An Approach to Aristotle's Physics: With Particular Attention to the Role of His Manner of Writing. Albany: SUNY Press. A contribution to our understanding of how to read Aristotle's scientific works.
  • Burnyeat, M. F. et al. 1979. Notes on Book Zeta of Aristotle's Metaphysics. Oxford: Sub-faculty of Philosophy
  • Chappell, V. 1973. Aristotle's Conception of Matter, Journal of Philosophy 70: 679-696
  • Code, Alan. 1995. Potentiality in Aristotle's Science and Metaphysics, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 76
  • Frede, Michael. 1987. Essays in Ancient Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
  • Gill, Mary Louise. 1989. Aristotle on Substance: The Paradox of Unity. Princeton: Princeton University Press
  • BOOK, Guthrie, W. K. C., A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 6, Cambridge University Press, 1981,
  • Halper, Edward C. (2007) One and Many in Aristotle's Metaphysics, Volume 1: Books Alpha - Delta, Parmenides Publishing, ISBN 978-1-930972-21-6
  • Halper, Edward C. (2005) One and Many in Aristotle's Metaphysics, Volume 2: The Central Books, Parmenides Publishing, ISBN 978-1-930972-05-6
  • Irwin, T. H. 1988. Aristotle's First Principles. Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • Jori, Alberto. 2003. Aristotele, Milano: Bruno Mondadori Editore (Prize 2003 of the "International Academy of the History of Science") ISBN 88-424-9737-1
  • Knight, Kelvin. 2007. Aristotelian Philosophy: Ethics and Politics from Aristotle to MacIntyre, Polity Press.
  • Lewis, Frank A. 1991. Substance and Predication in Aristotle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lloyd, G. E. R. 1968. Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of his Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr., ISBN 0-521-09456-9.
  • Lord, Carnes. 1984. Introduction to The Politics, by Aristotle. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
  • Loux, Michael J. 1991. Primary Ousia: An Essay on Aristotle's Metaphysics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press
  • Owen, G. E. L. 1965c. The Platonism of Aristotle, Proceedings of the British Academy 50 125-150. Reprinted in J. Barnes, M. Schofield, and R. R. K. Sorabji (eds.), Articles on Aristotle, Vol 1. Science. London: Duckworth (1975). 14-34
  • Pangle, Lorraine Smith (2003). Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Aristotle's conception of the deepest human relationship viewed in the light of the history of philosophic thought on friendship.
  • Reeve, C. D. C. 2000. Substantial Knowledge: Aristotle's Metaphysics. Indianapolis: Hackett.
  • BOOK, Rose, Lynn E., Lynn E. Rose, Aristotle's Syllogistic, Charles C Thomas Publisher, Springfield, 1968,
  • BOOK, Ross, Sir David, W. D. Ross, Aristotle, Routledge, 6th ed., London, 1995, An classic overview by one of Aristotle's most prominent English translators, in print since 1923.
  • Scaltsas, T. 1994. Substances and Universals in Aristotle's Metaphysics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Strauss, Leo. "On Aristotle's Politics" (1964), in The City and Man, Chicago; Rand McNally.
  • BOOK, Swanson, Judith, The Public and the Private in Aristotle's Political Philosoophy, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1992,
  • BOOK, Taylor, Henry Osborn, Henry Osborn Taylor,weblink Greek Biology and Medicine, 1922, Chapter 3: Aristotle's Biology,weblink
  • BOOK, Veatch, Henry B., Henry Babcock Veatch, Aristotle: A Contemporary Appreciation, Indiana U. Press, Bloomington, 1974, For the general reader.
  • Woods, M. J. 1991b. "Universals and Particular Forms in Aristotle's Metaphysics." Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy supplement. 41-56

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Some content adapted from the Pseudopedia article "Aristotle" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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