Reader's Encyclopedia

Aristotle (384-322 bc)

Greek philosopher, born at Stagira. Brought up in a family of moderate wealth and position, Aristotle went at the age of eighteen to Athens to study in Plato'sAcademy, where he remained for twenty years, until the death of his teacher. He moved to Assos, then to Mytilene, then to Macedon, whence he was invited by King Philip to tutor the young Alexander. Aristotle remained in Macedonia for eight years, until Philip was assassinated (336 bc) and Alexander succeeded to the throne. Much of Aristotle's work in natural history was done during the time he spent in Assos, Mytilene, and Macedon. On his return to Athens, he taught at the Lyceum. Finally, at Alexander's death in 323 bc, Aristotle left Athens, where there was an upsurge of anti-Macedonian feeling, and retired to Chalcis, where he died a year later.

The works for which he was most widely known among the ancients have been lost, but fragments indicate that they were dialogues written in a highly polished rhetorical style. These are referred to as his exoteric writings, or those designed for the general public outside his school. A second class of writings, the esoteric, or those designed for use by the students of the Lyceum, has survived. These are called the acroamatic writings and are known to us as the treatises of Aristotle. A third class of writings, the hypomnematic, or memoranda, has also been lost.

The treatises include first the logical works (Categories, Topics, De interpretatione, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Sophistical Refutations) known as the Organon, or instrument. For Aristotle, logic was preparation for scientific knowledge, not knowledge itself. He was the first to insist on rigorous scientific procedure, and his method of demonstration by the syllogism and by dialectic, or reasoning from the opinions of others, became standard philosophic method. Aristotle maintained that all human knowledge originates in sensible experiences, out of which the soul perceives the universal.

Aristotle's natural philosophy, contained in the eight books of the Physics, examines the physical universe. They include the important distinction between the substance (or essence) of a thing and its accidental properties. Other works in this group include On the Heavens (De caelo), On Coming into Being and Passing Away (De generatione et corruptione), and Meteorology (Meteorologic). Parva naturalia and De anima are his works on psychology. He wrote an introduction to biology called Historia animalium, in which he classified the animals, their methods of reproduction, and their evolution. In his treatises on metaphysics, known as Metaphysica, Aristotle discusses theology, or primary philosophy, which he considered the highest type of theoretical science. Unlike his teacher Plato, he does not posit a separate world of perfect Forms or Ideas but always finds form immanent in matter.

There are two Aristotelian ethical treatises, known as the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics. According to the former, happiness is the goal of life. Pleasure, fame, and wealth, however, will not bring one the highest happiness, which is achieved only through the contemplation of philosophic truth, because it exercises man's peculiar virtue, the rational principle.

In Aristotle's Politics (eight books), the good of the individual is identified with the good of the city - state. The study of human good is thus a political inquiry, as it is in Plato. Aristotle discusses different types of government, finally preferring monarchy, an aristocracy of men of virtue, or constitutional government of the majority. Slavery is considered natural in Aristotle 's politics, because some men are adapted by nature to be the physical instruments of others. Aristotle's Rhetoric treats methods of persuasion; the Poetics is his great contribution to literary criticism.

Called by Dante "the master of those who know," Aristotle mastered every field of learning known to the Greeks. His influence on St. Thomas Aquinas and the medieval world, through the translation of the Arabic scholar Averroes, was profound and enduring.