World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras
Aristotle was born in 384 BCE in the small town of Stagira in Thrace, a primitive outpost of Greek culture east of Macedonia. His father was a wealthy court physician to the kings of Macedonia, and Aristotle spent his early years at Pella, the capital of King Amyntas III and his successor King Philip II of Macedon. Aristotle, seeking to follow in his father's footsteps as a scientist and physician, journeyed south to Athens in 366. He studied at the Academy, Plato's school in Athens, where he became that philosopher's most famous student. At the Academy, Aristotle fit in as a wealthy aristocrat, but his Thracian and Macedonian background plagued him among condescending Athenians. In the end, Aristotle's superior intellect silenced all criticism.
From Plato, Aristotle learned of the universal truth, which Socrates termed "the Good." Plato taught his students at the Academy that the best means to approach an understanding of truth was through reason, the study of mathematics and music, intuition, and intense and deep contemplation. Aristotle, less the mystical and more the pragmatic thinker, broke from his teacher by adopting the scientific approach to human behavior, natural philosophy, natural science, ethics, and metaphysics. Aristotle also learned from Plato of being (ousia), the divine essence, from which all things derive. Aristotle did not abandon this religious interpretation of the ultimate reality but brought science to bear to discover and to understand it. For Aristotle, then, science is a pious act to discover the nature of goodness, justice, virtue, and being, and human experience is an essential matter for study, since the better sort of human beings echo being itself.
Upon Plato's death, Aristotle left what was no doubt a competitive situation among Plato's students, each jockeying to take the place of the master. Aristotle journeyed to a small kingdom in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) where he became court philosopher to King Hermias. Aristotle married the king's daughter but soon fled (with his wife) upon the tragic assassination of the king. Aristotle ended up back in Macedonia in 343, this time as tutor to the royal prince Alexander (Alexander the Great). Legend has it that Philip II of Macedon enticed Aristotle to return to Pella, an intellectual and cultural backwater compared to Athens, with a tempting salary and a promise: Stagira having been destroyed and its population enslaved in one of Philip's campaigns, Philip proposed that in return for Aristotle's services the king would rebuild the town and bring the inhabitants out of slavery. Aristotle agreed to the terms.
Alexander eventually became king of Macedonia in 336 upon his father's assassination and then spent the next 13 years of his life conquering Greece, Asia Minor, Palestine, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan—all of which made up the Persian Empire. Alexander was a warrior and conqueror who thought himself the heroic son of the king of the gods, Zeus. Nevertheless, Aristotle, who eschewed the life of a warrior, had been Alexander's teacher for three years during the years from 13 to 16, and below the surface of Alexander's actions are hints that he had adopted the life of a philosopher and that he thought of himself as a scientist, even a physician. Alexander, for example, composed letters to Aristotle that included samples of plant and animal life that he had gathered for his teacher's collection.
In the meantime, Aristotle had left Macedonia for Athens, where he opened his school, the Lyceum. The philosopher eventually broke with Alexander over the death of Aristotle's grandnephew Callisthenes, a philosopher and historian who accompanied Alexander's expedition. Callisthenes was implicated in a plot to assassinate the king and was executed. Even so, the Athenians associated Aristotle with Alexander, who was very unpopular in Athens. Upon Alexander's death in 323, the Athenians felt free enough to throw off the shackles imposed on them by Alexander—and one shackle was represented by Alexander's former teacher. Aristotle was eventually forced to flee the city and abandon his school. He died soon after, in 322 BCE.
Aristotle is perhaps best known today as a logician. He created a system of thought based on fundamental assumptions that one cannot doubt—the famous a priori truths. Whereas Plato believed that one must accomplish knowledge of truth by means of reason and intuition, Aristotle believed that the philosopher must observe particular phenomena to arrive at an understanding of reality, a scientific technique known as induction. Once truth is known through induction from the particular to the universal, the philosopher can engage in the process of deduction from the basis of the universal to arrive at other particular truths. Aristotle's system of logic is known as syllogism.
Aristotle also made contributions in metaphysics, the study of reality that transcends the physical world. Once again a priori truths are the basis for metaphysical studies. Aristotle assumed that there is a First Cause, an "unmoved mover," that he defined as actuality, in contrast to potency, or the potential, which represents movement. Aristotle argued that all reality can be explained according to cause and effect, act and potential. For example, time is an actual phenomenon—it has existence as a form or essence. Time acts upon human movement, providing a temporal context in which humans are born, live, and die, all the while measuring their lives according to the standard of time. Aristotle further argued in Metaphysics that one must distinguish between art and experience. Art as essence is based on abstract thought—what the Greeks termed the logos—whereas experience is based on a series of particular events occurring in time. In Poetics, Aristotle argued that poetry (art) explores universals and how things ought to be, while history (historia) explains the particulars of human existence and how things are. Wisdom represents the unification of art and experience.
Aristotle's treatise on natural science was Physics. Natural science, he wrote, is concerned with physical movement from the first principles of nature. Aristotle associated nature with the first cause. His unmoved mover was an amorphous divine force of creation which establishes the laws through which movement—plant, animal, and human—occurs. The four causal determinants expressed in nature are: 1) the material substance that forms a physical object; 2) the type or class of phenomenon (genos) to which an object belongs; 3) the cause of change in or movement of an object; and 4) the goal or purpose (telos) of movement.
Aristotle's categorizations had a profound impact on the formation of a vocabulary of science. His notion of type or class is the basis for the notion that a species in nature comprises a set genus. Aristotle's idea of goal or purpose forms the philosophical concept of teleology, the study of the end of natural phenomena.
In addition, Aristotle was one of the first students of the human psyche. He wrote treatises on dreams, memory, the senses, prophecy, sleep, and the soul. Aristotle believed that the soul is the actuality within the potency of the body and is the unmoved mover within each individual human, while the mind (nous) is an expression of the soul. Aristotle argued that each human soul is part of a universal whole which is a world soul, the ultimate actuality, and the first cause. Aristotle's study of dreams provided a rational explanation of what the ancients often considered a supernatural phenomenon. Aristotle argued that the only thing "divine" about a dream is that it is part of nature, which is itself the creation of God and hence divine. That events turn out according to one's dream is either coincidence or the result of the subtle impact of a dream on an individual's actions.
In the study of ethics, Aristotle dealt with the question of how the ultimate basis of behavior, the set of rules that establishes the Good, can be understood according to science. Aristotle believed that the tools of science—observation, categorization, logic,and induction—could be brought to bear on the study of human behavior. The scientist studies human behavior in its incredible variety of contexts to arrive at general laws of how humans act and how they should act: how humans act is the realm of the scientist, while how humans should act is the realm of the philosopher. Once again, Aristotle combined science and philosophy into one organized study. Aristotle believed that the ultimate end of human existence is happiness, which occurs when humans conform to the Good. The Good is accomplished when humans exercise reason in accordance with virtue. Aristotle studied human behavior to arrive at a definition of virtue, finding that it is an action performed for its own sake, that is, an action performed for the sake of the Good or an action performed out of principle. Aristotle believed that vice, the opposite of virtue, derives from actions committed for selfish reasons or for personal motives.
The Greek philosophers before and during Aristotle's time were the first political scientists. Aristotle's contribution, Politics, applied his philosophical methods and assumptions to the understanding of statecraft. He argued that the state is, as it were, the actual, while the citizens are the potential. The latter are the parts (the particulars) that made up the whole, or the universal body politic. Aristotle conceived of a pluralistic society operating according to natural laws based in part on reason and necessity, a social compact among people to promote security and serve the needs of survival. Within this concept of the state (which represents virtue) people move, act, and struggle for power and wealth. Aristotle argued, based on his experience at Athens, that slavery was justified because of the inferior intellect of slaves. Likewise, he assumed that women lacked the cognitive abilities of males and therefore should not participate in democracy. In The Athenian Constitution, Aristotle provided a detailed analysis of Athenian democracy, providing details into the life and political science of the great Athenian lawgiver Solon.
In the study of astronomy, Aristotle explored his ideas in On the Heavens. Based on observation, Aristotle established the spherical nature of the earth. Viewing a lunar eclipse, Aristotle detected a slight curvature of the shadow of the earth on the moon's surface. He also observed that the altitude of stars changes according to changes in latitude. In On the Heavens, Aristotle concluded that the earth's circumference is 400,000 stadia (40,000–50,000 miles, which was an overestimate of 45%). He advocated the view that there is more water than land on the earth's surface. Much of Aristotle's thought on astronomy, however, was erroneous, as observation with the naked eye was insufficient for the study of the nature of the stars and planets.
Aristotle's ideas were advocated and defended for centuries after the philosopher's death. Aristotle's disciples were known by the master's teaching style of walking about while engaged in discussion or disputation (from which the name "Peripatetic" derives). Theophrastus took over the helm of the Lyceum, Aristotle's school at Athens. He organized Aristotle's papers and writings and pursued Aristotle's theories and investigations in the physical and metaphysical worlds. After Theophrastus's death in 287 BCE, Strato assumed leadership of the Lyceum and the Peripatetic philosophers.
Bambrough, Renford, ed. and trans. The Philosophy of Aristotle. New York: New American Library, 1963; Barnes, Jonathan. Aristotle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982; Schmitt, Charles B. Aristotle and the Renaissance. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983; Turner, William. "Aristotle." Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1913; Wheelwright, Philip, ed. and trans. Aristotle. New York: Odyssey Press, 1951.
Lawson, Russell M. "Aristotle." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2013. Web. 22 Dec. 2013.