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An Introduction to Aristotle Life

Mark Daniels on his life, ideas and place in the history of Western thought.

Aristotle (384-322BCE) lived during the time when Philip of Macedon was conquering the various small Greek city states such as Athens and welding them into the Macedonian Empire. Aristotle’s father had been the Royal Physician in Macedon, and young Aristotle came down to Athens at the age of 17 to study philosophy. He ended up as a student of Plato, who nicknamed him “Brains” and “Bookworm”. He only left the Academy after Plato’s death. He then travelled around a bit, indulging in biological studies, and some argue that this was when he decided to make a formal break with his teacher’s philosophy. In 343BCE he was invited to Macedon as tutor for the 13-year old Alexander the Great, whom he taught for 4 years. When Alexander started conquering the world, he sent back botanical samples for Aristotle’s research. It is felt that Aristotle probably had little influence on his most famous pupil.

On his return to Athens, he founded the Lyceum, a public garden and gymnasium dedicated to Apollo, which became known as the Peripatetic School after the Peripatos, or covered walk, where he wandered each morning while lecturing. The Lyceum was famous for its zoo and library and lasted for 800 years. After 12 years Alexander died in Persia and anti-Macedonian feeling swept Greece. Aristotle was forced to flee north where he lived another year, dying at the age of 62.


Only a fifth of Aristotle’s writings have survived. Several lists of his books were compiled after his death. Many of the works listed have since been lost (On Justice, On the Poets, On Homeric Problems, On Wealth, On the River Nile, the Constitutions of 158 states, etc.) whilst some of the lists don’t even mention the books for which he is most famous today (the Metaphysics, the Nichomachean Ethics) . One estimate awards him authorship of a thousand books.

His writings come in 3 varieties, the exoteric (almost all lost: these were dialogues written in Platonic form and were praised for their style by the literary critics of the day), the hypomneutic (notes to aid his memory for lectures or student’s lecture notes) and the acroamatic (treatises used for teaching in the Lyceum). What we have left today is not particularly readable and mostly comes from a musty cellar in Turkey where a bunch of his manuscripts had been dumped for a century or two and were rediscovered in 100 BCE. This has led to the peculiar names given to his works: the Metaphysics (‘afterphysics’) is called that purely because it was the next document to be catalogued after the Physics, and the topics with which it deals have as a result been called metaphysics ever since! Another more recent find was made in 1890 when some papyri in the British Museum (actually a set of financial accounts from 70 CE) were found to have his Athenian Constitution on the back!


Aristotle’s logic was the foundation of most work done in the subject until the great developments made by Frege about a century ago. Aristotle’s Organon, a collection of 6 works on logic, commences with an examination of the categories of things that exist, and goes on to a treatment of words and their meanings. His logic is based on identifying various categories (predications) which neither affirm or negate anything but which can be used in combinations in sentences to make judgments of truth or falsity. His system of logic concerns only sentences which are true or false: for Aristotle commands, questions and so on are the concern not of logic but of rhetoric.

He considers the difference between nouns and verbs. Nouns have their meaning given to them by the agreement of people speaking the language. They make no reference to time. Verbs have in addition to their meaning a reference to time or tense. These are then subdivided and considered. The actual statement of truth can also come in different forms; we can say that something is true or that it must be true or that it might be true.

The Organon was most feared in the middle ages for its development of the Syllogism which was used as a torture instrument for nobbling university students. A syllogism is a logical argument with 2 premises: the major or universal premise and the minor or particular premise. In its simplest form it works as follows:

Major Premise All men are mortal All S are P
Minor Premise Socrates is a man w is part of S
Conclusion Socrates is mortal w is P

A schema of possible confustications of this fearsome implement is shown on the right – the Square of Opposition.

Overall approach

Aristotle divided science (from the Greek for Knowledge) into 3 different areas:

Theoretical/Speculative Science (mathematics, physics and metaphysics), Practical Science (ethics, politics and economics) and Poetical Science (from the Greek Poiesis - Crafts: covering areas as diverse as drama, literature, shoemaking and medicine! To comprehend any of these you need the primary science which precedes all the rest: Logic.


Aristotle’s metaphysics centres around a god who is utterly uninvolved in the workings of the world, merely acting as an ideal towards which life is influenced. This god’s existence is deducible philosophically from Aristotle’s science and does not rely on religious revelation. This view of the Philosopher’s God was a source of much religious controversy later on. Aristotle argued that all existence (except god) is made up of a union of form and matter. Pure matter is pure potential and needs a form (a specific variety of actuality) in order to bring it into existence. These matter-form objects exist as elements: earth, air, fire and water. The elements then combine with other forms (the form of a rock or the form of a grass) in order to exist as the various things which we see in the world around us. The forms govern the way in which the elements are brought together and the way in which they develop (that’s why acorns turn into oak trees rather than blades of grass). God is pure form without any matter: i.e. perfect actuality with no potential for change. There is unfortunately no space here to consider his famous doctrine of the four causes.


Aristotle’s work on Biology is of course now outdated, but some of his ideas on scientific technique are not. Most of his biological works (such as the dissections) have been lost. The history of animals, which survives, considers every species known to the Greeks: from sheep to hyenas, from woodpeckers to eagles, from crocodiles to whales. Detailed descriptions are given: the organs of their bodies – internal and external, the different materials in them: blood, hair, cartilage etc.; their diet, behaviour and modes of reproduction. Aristotle took evidence from experts, such as beekeepers and fishermen, which he challenged when he felt necessary. There are of course some howlers in his work (“Bison fight by ejecting excrement at enemies up to 8 feet away”), but it is a masterpiece of technique and comprehensiveness.

Psychology / Philosophy of Mind

His famous work, De Anima (On the Soul) deals with the nature, functions and elements of the soul and is regarded by many as the foundation of all modern psychological studies. In other works he looks deeper at matters such as dreaming, sleep, and memory. Aristotle argues, against his teacher Plato, that Soul is not the enemy of the body, imprisoned in it against its will. He saw the soul as complementing the body, suffusing it with purpose, direction and mental capability. His analysis of the different mental faculties (intellect, memory, imagination) managed to fit them into his metaphysical framework of matter and form.

His writings are somewhat abstruse and capable of several interpretations which later thinkers gladly furnished. One such led to Averroes being declared a Muslim heretic and Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia getting the sack from the University of Paris in the 1200’s, when they asserted that all mankind partakes of one soul,that the memory is part of the body and that no individual part of us survives death to experience punishment or reward for the sins on earth.


Aristotle’s ethics are now back in fashion thanks to the work of such modern thinkers as Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair Maclntyre. In the middle ages Aristotle’s works on ethics were regarded as being more concerned with the perfection of the soul than with ethical behaviour. His great work on ethics, named after his son, Nichomachus, has four main parts.

The first deals with the good for man. What is our aim? How can we achieve it? He argues that the good for man is a “flourishing life” where our capabilities and skills are exercised and used properly. This is really only achievable by the middleaged, since raw youths have too little experience to realise the consequences of their actions. In the second section Aristotle considers the practical excellences (once called practical virtues) such as courage, friendliness, ready wit and justice which depend on practical wisdom (sophrosune) for their implementation. This is where his famous doctrine of the Golden Mean comes into play. Aristotle says that each virtue involves moderation, avoiding two opposing vices. For instance, the virtue of courage is the middle way between rashness and cowardice. In the third section, the need for friendship and human society is considered, and its relationship to the flourishing life examined.

In the last section, Aristotle continues to address the question of how to live well, but gives a completely different answer to that in the earlier sections. Whereas before he was concerned with the flourishing life based on practicality and the excercise of virtue of character, he now totally changes tack, goes all mystical, and argues that to really flourish we must sit back and contemplate god, the thought that thinks itself!

Political Philosophy

Aristotle argued that the human society is not just a matter of human convention but that it is the natural state of humanity: man is a social animal. He analysed human society. Individuals gather in families whose purpose is to survive. The families gather in villages which aim to live well, in comfort. The most perfect form of a village is a city-state (polis), which unlike villages is not dependent on other villages but self-sufficient. Justice is a necessary need of such societies, and his Politics spends much time analysing it. He considers slavery (which he supports), citizenship, monarchy, aristocracy, democracy and constitutional change in the light of the 150-odd city states which he had studied. He also considers the role of education. His main concerns were for stability and security and he advocated the mixed constitution of a republic as being the best for this. This was, however, a state which had between 10-100,000 men in it.

Literary Criticism

Aristotle wrote several works on this subject. His On Comedy was famously lost and ended up as the subject of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. See also ‘Averroes’s Search’ by JL Borges (in Labyrinths). In his Poetics (the first known dedicated work on literary criticism) he discusses why we indulge in poetry ( a pleasure in mimicry which enables us to understand things and a delight in rhythm and metre), he considers varieties of poetry (epic, dramatic and lyrical) and examines the use of metaphor. He spends much effort analysing tragic drama, its use of plot, character, diction etc. For him, tragedy arouses fear and pity and causes a catharsis of these two emotions which can in itself become a delight. He argues that “poetry is something more philosophical and more worthy of serious philosophical attention than history” since it treats of the universal whilst history deals of the particular – contradicting Plato who regarded poetry as a variety of benign lunacy.

History of Western Thought

The manuscripts dug up in the Turkish cellar in 100BCE consisted of 60 genuine Aristotelian works and 20 pseudonymous fakes. This find heralded the beginning of over a thousand years of confusion in the study of Aristotle’s works! Andronicus of Rhodes (who lived around 50 BCE) edited the Aristotelian corpus which exists today and over the next few centuries his ideas were taken up and commented on by scholars such as Alexander of Aphrodisias. After the sack of Rome in 410 western interest in philosophy was overshadowed by simpler needs such as not getting clobbered by Vandals or starving to death. In the east, however, things were different, and Aristotelian studies remained part of the Byzantine philosophical curriculum. When Islam started founding new empires, the study of Aristotle was taken up there and various documents appeared which were really neo- Platonic but which had Aristotle’s name on the title-page. Two of these, the Theology, a paraphrase of the neo- Platonic thinker, Plotinus, and the Liber de Causis, led Muslim thinkers to believe that Aristotle and Plato had actually been propounding the same philosophy. One of the earliest Muslim philosophers, al-Farabi, wrote a book called The Reconciliation of the Two Sages, arguing just this, and the mistake was not realised for some time. At about this time philosophy got under way out west and copies of Aristotle’s Organon started doing the rounds. Boethius, another Roman philosopher (c500) who also felt that Aristotle and Plato’s philosophies were very similar, had translated it into Latin and prefixed it with an introduction by Porphyry, a neo-Platonic thinker. In the 1200s a number of Dominicans such as St. Thomas Aquinas started looking at other works of Aristotle which came flooding into west Europe in Greek, Arabic and Hebrew, and tried to merge his system with Catholicism (Maimonides had done the same for Judaism and Averroes had a stab at it for Islam).

There were great debates about Aristotle then and later on in Italy in the 1500s. Descartes and the rise of the ‘new philosophy’ saw a reaction against the thought of Aristotle which was seen as old hat and unnecessarily complicated. Aristotle was rescued through the efforts of Leibniz and sundry others who pointed out that the mediaevals had complicated much of his thought and that his ideas on such matters as science, which had been overlooked, were highly relevant to modern debates.

Nowadays there is a renewed interest in Aristotle’s ethics, as mentioned above. His logic has been mostly subsumed in more sophisticated systems which enable algebraic formulae to be used. His views on God still challenge the theologians. All-in-all, not too bad a record for a chap who’s been dead for over two and a quarter millennia!

© M. Daniels 1995

Mark Daniels is Assistant Editor of Philosophy Now and has the finest beard in Norwich.

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