Aristotle was a Greek philosopher, logician, and scientist. Along with his teacher Plato, Aristotle is generally regarded as one of the most influential ancient thinkers in a number of philosophical fields, including political theory.
Aristotle was born in 384 BC in Stagira in northern Greece. Aristotle came from a family of physicians and he received training and education that inclined his mind towards the study of nature phenomena. Aristotles father died when he was young boy and his guardian Proxenus raised him. Proxenus sent him to study at Platos academy in Athens. Aristotle stayed at the academy for twenty years until Platos death in 347 B.C. Aristotle was supposed to succeed Plato as head of the academy but Aristotle didnt because he had different theories then Plato.
After Aristotle left Platos academy he went and lived with his friend Hermeas, ruler of Atarneus and Assos in Mysia. Aristotle stayed there for three years during which time he married Pythias, the niece of the king. After her death Aristotle also married Herpyllis and he had a son, which he named after his father. Hermeias fell under the control of the Persians, and refusing to betray his friends under torture, he was killed. After Aristotles dear friend Hermeias died Aristotle moved to Mytilene where he doubtless engaged in biological research. King Amyntas asked Aristotle to tutor his son Alexander. Aristotle tutored Alexander for five years until king Amyntas died and Alexander came to power. During the time before King Amyntas died Aristotle introduced his nephew Callisthenes to Alexander but warned him to be careful of what he said. Though Alexander later took Callisthenes to Asia where he collected research materials, Callisthenes was eventually suspected by Alexander of plotting against him with Hermolaus: he was confined to an iron cage in which he became infested with vermin before being thrown to a lion.
In 323 BC Alexander the great died unexpectedly and anti-Macedonian forces overthrew the government of Athens. Aristotle had close connections with the Macedonian royal family. Aristotle was associated with the Macedonians and was unpopular with the new ruling powers. The new government brought charge of impiety against Aristotle, but he fled to his country house in Chalcis in Euboea to escape prosecution. Aristotle commented that he fled so that the Athenians might not have another opportunity of sinning against philosophy as they had already done in the person of Socrates. Alone there he wrote Antipater that he had become fonder of myths.
In 335 BC Aristotle went back to Athens and found out that the academy was flourishing under Xenocrates. Aristotle opened his own academy, the Lyceum, he ran it for twelve years. Some people called Aristotles academy The Peripatetic School because he walked around and discussed his ideas with the colleagues. Peripatetic are people who walk around. For the next thirteen years he devoted his energies to his teaching and composing his philosophical treatises. He is said to have given two kinds of lectures: the more detailed discussions in the morning for an inner circle of advanced students, and the popular discourses in the evening for the general body lovers of knowledge.At this Aristotle wrote extensively on a wide rage of politics, metaphysics, ethics, logic and science. Aristotle agreed with Plato that the cosmos is rationally designed and that philosophy can come to know absolute truths by studying universal forms. Their ideas went in different direction but in that Aristotle thought that the one finds the universal in particular things, while Plato believed the universal exists apart from particular things, and that material things are only a show of true reality, which exists in the place of ideas and forms. The differences between the two philosophers is that Plato thought only pure mathematical reasoning was necessary, and therefore focused on the metaphysics and mathematics, Aristotle, on the other hand, thought that in addition to this First Philosophy, it is also necessary to undertake detailed empirical investigations of nature, and thus study what he called second philosophy, which includes such subjects as physics, mechanics and biology.
The life of Aristotle was spent in a period which he seemed confused and dim to historians who have learned from Demosthenes to see it as the time of the loss of Greek liberties and the decline of Greek ideal; it has seemed a period of stirring action which came close to the fulfillment of an ambitious hope to those who see in the growth of panhellenism preached by Isocrates the beginnings of more stable political organizations and in the exploits of Alexander the Great and spread of Greek ideals. Aristotle spent a large part of his life as an alien in Athens, and he seems to have been unsympathetic with the ambitions of Alexander. Contemporary political events and social changes left few marks on his political and moral philosophy, and the search for effects of social conditions in his metaphysics and in his contributions to science has led only to speculative generalizations concerning the influence of environment on thought: to the conclusion that the existence of classes in society suggested hierarchies in his conception of the universe, that slave labor led him to neglect the mechanical arts and prefer the theoretic to the practical sciences, that his theories were therefore verbal rather than based on the resources of experiences, and that his physical principles reflected his conception of political rule. Apart from such speculations, it is clear that the peace which was forced on Athens by Macedonian domination permitted Aristotle to organize a course of studies and to initiate a vast scheme of research into the history of political organizations, of science, and philosophy- the study of constitutions of Greek states, of the history of mathematics and medicine, and of the opinions of philosophers- as well as into the natural history of minerals, plants, and animals, and to lay the foundations thereby for one of the first attempts at an encyclopedic organization of human knowledge. Aristotle died of stomach illness and in his will Aristotle made provisions for his family, Herpyllis, and his slaves, some of whom he freed. Aristotles writings were preserved by his student, Theophrastus. He was also the successor as leader of the Perpatic School. Theophrastus pupil Neleus and his heirs concealed the books in a vault to protect them from theft, but dampness, moths and worms damaged them. The books were found around 100 BC by Apellicon, who brought them to Rome. In Rome, scholars took interest in the works and prepared new editions of them.
The early writings of Aristotle were intended for the general public. Very few of these survived. What is left is mostly work that is intended for his serious students. His approach on philosophy was not dogmatic but systematic. He constantly questioned his conclusions and found difficulties. This is what made him one of the most influential philosophers in Western thought.
The works of Aristotle fall under three heading:(1) dialogues and other works of a popular character; (2) collections of facts and material from scientific treatment; and (3) systematic works. Aristotles systematic treatises are Logic, Physical works, Psychological works, Works on natural history, and Philosophical works.
Aristotles writings on the general subject of logic were grouped by the later peripatetic under the name Organon, or instrument. From their perspective, logic and reasoning was the chief preparatory instrument of scientific investigation. Aristotle himself, however, uses the term logic as equivalent to verbal reasoning. The Categories of Aristotle are classifications of individual words, and include the following ten; substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, situation, condition, action, passion. They seem to be arranged according to the order of the questions we would ask in gaining knowledge of an object. For example, we ask, first, what a thing is, then how great it is, next of what kind it is. Substance is always regarded as the most important of these. Substances are further divided into first and second: first substances are individual objects; second substances are the species in which first substances or individual inhere.
Aristotle’s views on astronomy, as presented in Metaphysics, Physics, De Caelo (On the Heavens) and Simplicius’ Commentary, will most likely seem very bizarre, as they are based more on a priori philosophical speculation than empirical observation. Although Aristotle acknowledged the importance of “scientific” astronomy – the study of the positions, distances and motions of the stars – he nevertheless treated astronomy in the abstract, linking it to his overall philosophical world picture. As a result, the modern distinction between physics and metaphysics is not present in Aristotle, and in order to fully appreciate him we must try to abandon this pre-conception.
Aristotle argued that the universe is spherical and finite. Spherical, because that is the most perfect shape; finite, because it has a center. The center of the earth, and a body with a center cannot be infinite. He believed that the earth, too, is a sphere. It is relatively small compared to the stars, and in contrast to the celestial bodies, always at rest. For one of his proofs of this latter point, he referred to an empirically testable fact: if the earth were in motion, an observer on it would see the fixed stars as moving, just as he now observes the planets as moving, that is from a stationary earth. However, since this is not the case, the earth must be at rest. To prove that the earth is a sphere, he produced the argument that all earthly substances move towards the center, and thus would eventually have to form a sphere. He also used evidence based on observation. If the earth were not spherical, lunar eclipses would not show segments with a curved outline. Furthermore, when one travels northward or southward, one does not see the same stars at night, nor do they occupy the same positions in the sky. That the celestial bodies must also be spherical in shape can be determined by observation. In the case of the stars, Aristotle argued that they would have to be spherical, as this shape, which is the most perfect, allows them to retain their positions. By Aristotle’s time, Empedocles’ view that there are four basic elements – earth, air, fire and water – had been generally accepted. Aristotle, however, in addition to this, postulated a fifth element called aether, which he believed to be the main constituent of the celestial bodies. This divine element, he believed, is uncompounded, ingenerated, eternal, unalterable, and neither heavy nor light. It can be found in its purest form in the celestial regions, but becomes adulterated in the area below the moon. Aristotle’s view of the universe was hierarchical, and he made a sharp distinction between the sub lunar world of change, and the eternal and immutable heavens.
Aristotle characterizes everything that exists into certain categories; substance, quality, quantity, relation, etc. Substance is prior to the other categories since substances exist as separate entities, while the other categories exist only as the qualities of substance. These substances include individual substances like “dog” and “chair” and also their species and genera like “animal” and “furniture.” For a dog is an animal, a dog is not just some quality of an animal.
Form is different from matter. A chair’s form is the structure of the chair, the chair’s matter is wood. He does not accept Plato’s notion of a transcendental Form of Chair; the form of the chair is the form of that particular chair. The chair’s matter, wood, can also be divided into form and matter, since wood is made of earth, air, water, and fire combined in a particular way. Aristotle calls prime matter the “stuff” that has no particular form. He raises the question whether form can have no matter, to which he answers that this form without matter is God. If matter becomes a chair the matter is chair potentially, or capable of being a chair, whereas the form is the actuality in virtue of which it is now an actual chair. Matter and form are the “causes” of what comes to be. Aristotle defines four kinds of causes; 1) material cause – what something is made of, 2) formal cause – what it is essentially, 3) efficient cause – what brought it into being, and 4) final cause – what its function is. The causes apply to things and not events
He was a great physicist and wrote many books on the subject. His most famous one is Nicomacheun Ethics. The influence of Aristotle’s philosophy has been pervasive; it has even helped to shape modern language and common sense. His doctrine of the Prime Mover as final cause played an important role in theology. Until the 20th century, logic meant Aristotle’s logic. Until the Renaissance, and even later, astronomers and poets alike admired his concept of the universe. Zoology rested on Aristotle’s work until British scientist Charles Darwin modified the doctrine of the changelessness of species in the 19th century. In the 20th century a new appreciation has developed of Aristotle’s method and its relevance to education, literary criticism, the analysis of human action, and political analysis
Aristotle, like Eudoxus and Callippus before him, believed that each planet followed the path laid out by a certain number of spheres. Callippus had postulated 33 spheres in all, 4 each for Saturn and Jupiter, 5 each for Mars, Venus, Mercury, the sun and the moon. The problem with this model, however, was that, according to Aristotle; it did not explain how the motion of the outer spheres was to be prevented from interfering with the motion of the inner spheres. Aristotle therefore attempted a mechanical explanation, and postulated 22 counteracting spheres, which would set things in balance. It is generally held that Aristotle’s addition of these counteracting spheres complicated rather than cleared up the problem of planetary motion. Aristotle’s many-faceted theory of motion was a fundamental part of his world picture. The complexity of this theory is evidenced in the numerous interpretations offered by modern scholars. Here only the bare bones of it will be presented. According to Aristotle, there were three kinds of motion: rectilinear, circular and mixed. The four elements of the sub lunar world tend to move in straight lines: earth downward, fire upward, water and air falling in between. Aether, on the other hand, naturally moves in circles. He further maintained that everything that is moving has to be set in motion by something else, and thus in order to avoid an infinite regress, he posited a first mover. Aristotle’s descriptions of such a “prime mover” demonstrate how he mixes physics with metaphysics. In De Caelo, Aristotle equated the prime mover of all things with the sphere of the fixed stars, which was itself moving with unceasing motion. In the Metaphysics, however, he placed an unmoved prime mover “behind” the fixed stars. He describes this transcendent first mover as eternal and without magnitude; he says that it causes circular movement, and that is the kind of movement that is most perfect, since it has no beginning or end; he states that it is good, and its activity is the highest form of joy. It seems that at one point Aristotle thought of the prime mover as somehow an integral part of the universe itself and at another as existing outside space and time. These differences may mirror different objectives that Aristotle had at various points in his career.
Aristotle’s hierarchical model of the universe had a profound influence on medieval scholars, who modified it to correspond with Christian theology. Saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, re-interpreted the prime movers as angels. Backed up by religious authority, Aristotle’s model lasted for centuries. Unfortunately, this had the effect of restraining the progress of science, as few people dared to challenge the authority of the church. Nevertheless, we can say of Aristotle that he made a contribution to astronomy simply by starting to ask certain questions about the universe, thereby stimulating other minds to do the same.
One of the most famous of Aristotle’s contributions was a new notion of causality. “Each thing or event,” he thought, “has more than one ‘reason’ that helps to explain what, why, and where it is.” Earlier Greek thinkers thought that only one sort of cause can explain itself; Aristotle said four. (The word Aristotle uses, aition, “a responsible, explanatory factor” is not the same as the word cause now. These four causes are the “material cause”, (the matter out of which a thing is made); the “efficient cause”, (the source of motion, generation, or change); the “formal cause”, (the species, kind, or type); and “the final cause”, (the goal, or full development, of an individual, or the intended function of a construction or invention.) Although I don’t know what these mean, they sound philosophical. An example he gave is “a young lion is made up of tissues and organs, its material cause; the efficient cause is its parents, who generated it; the formal cause is its species, lion; and its final cause is its built-in drive toward maturity.” Another example he gave is “the material cause of a statue is the marble from which it was carved; the efficient cause is the sculptor; the formal cause is the shape the sculptor realized Hermes, perhaps; and the final cause is its function, to be a work of fine art.” In each way, Aristotle says that something can be better understood when its causes can be said in specific terms rather than in general terms. So it is more informative to know that a “sculptor” made the statue than to know that an “artist” made it; and even more informative to know that “Polycleitus” chiseled it rather than simply that a “sculptor” did so.
Because of his tie with Alexander the Great Aristotle wrote Politics as a guide to rulers as to how to govern a country. In Politics Aristotle lays out his ideal form of Government. It contains thought provoking discussions on the role of human nature in politics, the relation of the individual to the state, the place of morality in politics, the theory of political justice, the rule of law, the analysis and evaluation of constitutions, the relevance of ideals to practical politics, the causes and cures of political change and revolution, and the importance of a morally educated citizenry. He stressed that the ideal citizen and ruler must possess certain virtues, such as wisdom, temperance and courage. And the work as a whole echoes Aristotle’s dominant theme of moderation. Politics is an excellent historical source because of the close tie Aristotle had to the everyday business of government in Athens. It reflects the idealized values of the people and the influence of Aristotle’s teacher Plato.
The importance of wisdom and justice also directly parallel the classical Greek ideology. Aristotle believed that nature formed politics and the need for city-states (government) formed out of nature. Aristotle lays the foundations for his political theory in Politics by arguing that the city-state and political rule are “natural.” The argument begins with a historical account of the development of the city-state out of simpler communities. First, individual human beings combined in pairs because they could not exist apart. The male and female joined in order to reproduce, and the master and slave came together for self-preservation. The master uses his intellect to rule, and the natural slave uses his body to labor. Second, the household arose naturally from these primitive communities in order to serve everyday needs. Third, when several households combined for other needs a village emerged also according to nature. Finally, “the complete community, formed from several villages, is a city-state, which can attain the limit of self-sufficiency. It comes to be for the sake of life, and exists for the sake of the good life.” .Aristotle backs up four claims about the city-state: First, the city-state exists by nature, because it comes to be out of the more primitive natural associations and it serves as their end, because only it attains self-sufficiency. Second, human beings are by nature political animals, because nature, which does nothing in vain, has equipped them with speech, which enables them to communicate moral concepts such as justice, which are formative of the household and city-state. Third, the city-state is naturally prior to the individuals, because individuals cannot perform their natural functions apart from the city-state, since they are not self-sufficient. However, these three claims are immediately followed by a fourth: the city-state is a creation of human intelligence. “Therefore, everyone naturally has the impulse for such a political community, but the person who first established it is the cause of very great benefits.” This great benefit may be the laws of the city-state. Aristotle points out that the legal system alone saves them from their own savagery. It’s interesting to see that Aristotle’s view of nature transcends in his view of the human character and what the humans should be.
In Aristotle’s Ethics he points out the popular view of what happiness was (and maybe still is). Honor, pleasure and wealth are the things he believed the Greek people wanted to be happy. He stated that honor is a superficial aim because at any moment it can be taken away from us. Pleasure is enjoyable but is more an animal quality than human, and wealth is merely a means towards a greater good. Aristotle taught moderation; the pursuit of the above three vices is okay, but doesnt make it an all encompassing goal. In contrast to the three things he warned against spending your life on, there were about four things that he felt should be heartily sought after. Aristotle felt that everyone should possess these qualities, and they were crucial for a good ruler. Wisdom, courage, temperance and justice were the four virtues that Aristotle held so high. He felt that only through these four qualities could lead a person or a country to true happiness. Aristotle’s virtues parallel the thinking of other classical Greeks. One of the obvious reasons for this is that the teacher-student bond tied many philosophers. The great Socrates taught Plato, and of course Plato was Aristotle’s teacher. Although, the influence of the teacher is very strong, the students also have show that they can think independently and their works have a distinctly different taste to them. Plato said the just person is wise, temperate and courageous and the just state is ruled by wisdom. Plato’s just state-displayed courage over force and temperance over intemperance.Socrates, another of the famous classical Greeks, died for his views of wisdom and justice. Socrates used logic to tell himself and his colleagues that he must die for the sake of avoiding hypocrisy. Socrates’ whole life he preached that the state’s laws must be held supreme for justice to prevail. The state sentenced him to death, and to avoid death would be to contradict the state’s laws. In the process he would be contradicting what he had lived for. Many people likened Socrates to a gadfly, always buzzing in the state’s face to make sure they were doing the just thing. Aristotle also knew the importance of justice but he approached it slightly differently. Justice, Aristotle’s third moral virtue, consisted of two main aspects. The first was that the laws made citizens just; the state had to strive to make the people act morally and good. Aristotle’s second aspect of justice was that people should be awarded justly, or in proportion to what they have done or accomplished. The higher the merit the higher the honor or the higher the crime the worse the punishment.In Politics Aristotle lays down his ideal structure of the family.His structure greatly reflected the values of the people in the pater-dominated tradition. The belief of the time was that the father was basically the king of his house; Aristotle didn’t vary much from this. The father had supreme authority and had control over his wife. He does concede that there is reciprocity between the two but he feels that there is a permanent basic inequality. The wife should remain the ruled one and show her courage (a moral virtue) through her obedience and her glory through silence. The father also rules over his children with supreme authority.Only through his death is his authority removed. Aristotle also included the slave as part of the family, but he differentiates from the practices of the time as what he considers to be an acceptable slave. The status quo was the removal of strong bodies from conquered nations for the purpose of manual labor.He felt that slavery through conquest was unacceptable.Slavery he believed to be acceptable was those that needed the slave/master relationship to survive. Those that were too unintelligent to govern themselves needed this bond to get through life. In exchange for their daily care, the “natural” slaves are to do light household duties such as cooking. It is interesting to note that in his will Aristotle called for the emancipation of some of his own acquired slaves. An example of the slave/master relationship that Aristotle discussed can be seen in today’s world. Sometimes an elderly or sick person requires constant care. They need to have everything done for them and therefore can’t govern themselves. Another person is required to make the persons important decisions and is responsible for their care. In this example the distinction can be seen between Aristotle’s idea of a slave and Greeks traditional view, which was similar to the United States’ in the 1800’s.Aristotle was a brilliant person who taught moderation in government and in life. He stressed the importance of moral virtues as the key to happiness and a successful government. Aristotle thought that the need for government and authority developed on its own from nature. He taught in the Lyceum, a school he founded in Athens, how a just person should live and how a just state should rule. His messages of virtue and moderation transcend time and still are a great influence on history.
McKeon, Richard. Introduction To Aristotle. New York: (Random House Inc, 1992)
Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. New York: (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1980)