Knowledge unlocks a world of possibilities The Robinson Library

Home About The Library Navigation Help Sitemap Terms of Use Contact Information


bust of AristotleAristotle

[ar' i stot' l] the first philosopher to analyze the process whereby certain propositions can be logically inferred to be true from the fact that certain other propositions are true

Aristotle was born in 384 B.C., in Stagira, a small town in northern Greece. His father, Nichomachus, was the personal physician of Amyntas II, the king of Macedonia. His parents died when he was a boy, and he was then raised by a guardian named Proxenus.

When Aristotle was about 18 years old, he entered Plato's Academy in Athens, where he remained until Plato's death in 347 B.C. He then left to join a small group of Plato's disciples living with Hermeias, a former student at the Academy who had become ruler of the coastal towns of Atarneus and Assos in Asia Minor. Aristotle remained with Hermeias for about three years and married the ruler's adopted daughter, Pithias.

In 343 or 342 B.C., Philip II, king of Macedon, invited Aristotle to supervise the education of his young son Alexander. Alexander studied under Aristotle until 336 B.C., when the youth became ruler after his father was assassinated. Alexander would go on to conquer all of Greece, overthrow the Persian Empire, and become known as Alexander the Great.

About 334 B.C., Aristotle returned to Athens and founded a school called the Lyceum. The emphasis of his work at the Lyceum differed from that of the Academy in that it represented a switch from pure philosophy and mathematics to biology and history. Over 12 years he organized it as a center for the broadest scientific investigation. Because Aristotle frequently taught while walking with his students, the school, Aristotle's philosophy, and his followers were called peripatetic, taken from the Greek word meaning walking around.

Soon after Alexander died in 323 B.C., Aristotle was charged with impiety by the Athenians. Remembering what had happened to Socrates, the last Athenian philosopher to be so charged, Aristotle fled to the city of Chalcis, where he died the following year.

His Writings

The Popular Writings were dialogues modeled on Plato's dialogues and produced while Aristotle was still at the Academy. These works were intended for a general audience outside the school, rather than for philosophers at the school. For this reason, Aristotle referred to them as his exoteric writings (exo- means outside in Greek). None of these writings have survived, but the works of later writers include many references to and quotations from them.

The Memoranda were largely collections of research materials and historical records prepared by Aristotle with the help of his students. These were intended as sources of information for scholars. Like the popular writings, very few of the memoranda survive.

The Treatises make up nearly all of Aristotle's surviving writings. These were probably written for use either as lecture notes or as textbooks at the Lyceum, and were intended only for students in the school. For this reason, the treatises are called esoteric works (eso- means inside in Greek).

His Philosophy

Logic. Aristotle's works on Logic are collectively called the Organon, which means instrument, because they investigate thought, which is the instrument of knowledge. The Organon includes The Categories, The Prior and Posterior Analytics, The Topics, and On Interpretation. Aristotle was the first philosopher to analyze the process whereby certain propositions can be logically inferred to be true from the fact that certain other propositions are true. He believed that this process of logical inference was based on a form of argument called a syllogism, in which a proposition is argued or logically inferred to be true from the fact that two other propositions are true. For example, from the facts that (1) all men are mortal and (2) Socrates is a man, it can be logically argued that (3) Socrates is mortal.

Nature. Aristotle defined the philosophy of nature in his Physics as the study of things that change. He argued that to understand change, a distinction must be made between the form and matter of a thing. For example, a sculpture might have the form of a man, and bronze as its matter. Aristotle believed that change essentially consists of the same matter acquiring new form. In the example given, change occurs if the bronze sculpture is molded into a new form.

To better understand change, Aristotle studied its causes. The material cause of the sculpture is the material of which it is made. Its efficient cause is the activity of the sculptor who made it. Its formal cause is the form in which the bronze is molded. Its final cause is the plan or design in the sculptor's mind.

Aristotle studied movement as a kind of change and wrote about the movement of the heavenly bodies in On the Heavens. in On Coming-to-be and Passing-away, he investigated the changes that occur when something seems to be created or destroyed.

Aristotle's philosophy of nature includes psychology and biology. In On the Soul, he investigated the various functions of the soul and the relationship between the soul and the body. One of the world's first great biologists, Aristotle gathered vast amounts of information about the variety, structure, and behavior of animals and plants. He analyzed the parts of living organisms teleologically, that is, in terms of their purposes. By gathering facts about phenomena in an orderly and systematic way, he also became the first encyclopedist.

Metaphysics. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle tried to develop a science of things that never change and investigate the most general and basic principles of reality and knowledge. Since the most important of these unchanging things is God, he sometimes called this science theology (the study of God). Aristotle himself, however, never used the name metaphysics. This name was given to the work centuries after his death simply because it followed the Physics in the written edition of Aristotle's works (metaphysics means after the physics in Greek).

Ethics and Politics. According to Aristotle, ethics and politics both study practical knowledge, that is, knowledge that enables man to act properly and live happily. He argued that man's goal is happiness, and that he achieves happiness when he fulfills his functions. It is necessary, therefore, to determine what man's function is, and according to Aristotle that function is to reason. Thus, according to Aristotle, a happy life for man is a life governed by reason.

Aristotle believed that a man who has difficulty behaving ethically is morally imperfect. His ideal man practices behaving reasonably and properly until he can do so naturally and without effort. He believed that moral virtue is a matter of avoiding extremes in behavior and finding instead the mean that lies between the extremes. For example, the virtue of courage is the mean between the vices of cowardice at one extreme and foolhardiness at the other. The virtue of generosity is the mean between stinginess and wastefulness.

Literary Criticism. Aristotle's Poetics examines the nature of tragedy, and takes as its prime example Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus Rex. Aristotle believed that tragedy deeply affects the spectator by arousing the emotions of pity and fear, and then purifying and cleansing him of these emotions. He called this process catharsis.

His Influence

Aristotle's philosophy continued to be taught at the Peripatetic school by a long line of successors after his death. One of these successors, Critolaus, went to Rome in 155 B.C. and gave the Romans their first contact with Greek philosophy.

Aristotle's works were lost after the fall of Rome and were not reintroduced into Europe until the 12th century. Then his influence became overriding for hundreds of years. To some of the leading Christian and Arabic scholars of the Middle Ages, Aristotle's writings seemed to contain the sum total of human knowledge. Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the most influential philosophers of the Middle Ages, considered Aristotle "the philsopher." Dante Alighieri, one of the best known poets of the Middle Ages, called Aristotle the "master of those who know."

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Questions or comments about this page?

  The Robinson Library > Philosophy

This page was last updated on March 22, 2016.

About This Site | Navigation Help | Sitemap | Terms of Use | Contact