Aristotle (Greek: AristotÚlēs) (384 BC – March 7, 322 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. He wrote on diverse subjects, including physics, poetry, zoology, logic, rhetoric, politics, government, ethics, and biology. Aristotle, along with Plato and Socrates, is generally considered one of the most influential of ancient Greek philosophers. They transformed Presocratic Greek philosophy into the foundations of Western philosophy as we know it. The writings of Plato and Aristotle founded two of the most important schools of Ancient philosophy.
Although Aristotle wrote dialogues, only fragments of these have survived. The works that have survived are in treatise form and were, for the most part, unpublished texts. These are generally thought to be lecture notes or texts used by his students. Among the most important are Physics, Metaphysics (or Ontology), Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, De Anima (On the Soul) and Poetics. These works, although connected in many fundamental ways, differ significantly in both style and substance.
Aristotle was a polymath. He not only studied almost every subject possible at the time, but made significant contributions to most of them. In science, Aristotle studied anatomy, astronomy, economics, embryology, geography, geology, meteorology, physics, and zoology. In philosophy, Aristotle wrote on aesthetics, ethics, government, metaphysics, politics, psychology, rhetoric and theology. He also dealt with education, foreign customs, literature and poetry. His combined works practically constitute an encyclopedia of Greek knowledge.
Early Life and study at the academy
Aristotle was born in Stagira, on the peninsula of Chalcidice in 384 BC. His father, Nicomachus, was court physician to King Amyntas III of Macedon. It is believed that Aristotle's ancestors held this position under various kings of the Macedons. He did not go to school, instead he was taught by his father. His father's medical knowledge was perhaps the inspiration for Aristotle's later interest in natural phenomena.
Little is known about his mother, Phaestis, who died early in Aristotle's life. His father Nicomachus died when Aristotle was ten, making him an orphan. Then he was placed under the guardianship of his uncle, Proxenus of Atarneus, who also took over his education. He gave Aristotle significant instruction in Greek, rhetoric, and poetry (O'Connor et al., 2004). Aristotle went to Athens at the age of 18, and attended Plato's school for young Greek aristocracy (the Academy). Aristotle quickly became Plato's favorite student.
From the age of 18 to 37 Aristotle remained at the Academy. The relationship between Plato and Aristotle has formed the subject of various legends, many of which depict Aristotle unfavorably. No doubt there were divergences of opinion between Plato, who took his stand on sublime, idealistic principles, and Aristotle, who even at that time showed a preference for the investigation of the facts and laws of the physical world. It is also probable that Plato suggested that Aristotle needed restraining rather than encouragement, but not that there was an open breach of friendship. In fact, Aristotle's conduct after the death of Plato, his continued associations with Xenocrates and other Platonists, and his allusions in his writings to Plato's doctrines prove that while there were conflicts of opinions between Plato and Aristotle, there was no lack of cordial appreciation or mutual forbearance. Legends that reflect Aristotle unfavourably are allegedly traceable to the Epicureans, although some doubt remains of this charge. If such legends were circulated widely by patristic writers such as Justin Martyr and Gregory Nazianzen, the reason may rest in the exaggerated esteem which early Christian heretics had for Aristotle.
It is not exactly clear when in his life, but according to Clearchus of Soli in his work "De Somno" (apud: Josephus, Contra Apionem, I, 176-183:), Aristotle met a Jew in Asia Minor and regarded him very favorable, noting that there is something to learn from him. Clearchus of Soli quotes Aristoteles as: "'Well', said Aristotle, [...] 'the man was a Jew of Coele-Syria. These people are descended from the Indian philosophers. The philosophers, they say, are in India called Calani, in Syria by the territorial name of Jews; for the district which they inhabit is known as Judea. Their city has a remarkably odd name: they call it Hierusaleme. (180) Now this man, who entertained by a large circle of friends and was on his way from the interior to the coast, not only spoke Greek but had the soul of a Greek. (181) During my stay in Asia, he visited the same places as I did, and came to converse with me and some other scholars, to test our learning. But as one who had been intimate with many cultivated persons, it was rather he who imparted to us something of his own." Flavius Josephus writes: "...he [Aristoteles] went on to speak of the great and astonishing endurance and sobriety displayed by this Jew in his manner of life." (trans. H. St. J. Tackery, The Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge (Mass.)-London)
Aristotle as philosopher and tutor
After the death of Plato (347 BCE), Aristotle was considered for the position of head of the Academy, but this was eventually awarded to Plato's nephew. Aristotle then went with Xenocrates to the court of Hermias, ruler of Atarneus in Asia Minor. He married Pythias, the niece of Hermias, and they had a daughter. They called her Pythias after her mother. In 344 BCE, Hermias was murdered in a rebellion, and Aristotle went with his family to Mytilene. It is also reported that he stopped on Lesbos and briefly conducted biological research. Then, one or two years later, he was summoned to Pella, the Macedonian capital, by King Philip II of Macedon to become the tutor of Alexander the Great, who was then 12.
Plutarch wrote that Aristotle not only imparted to Alexander a knowledge of ethics and politics, but also of the most profound secrets of philosophy. We have much proof that Alexander profited by contact with the philosopher, and that Aristotle made prudent and beneficial use of his influence over the young prince (although Bertrand Russell disputes this). Due to this influence, Alexander provided Aristotle with ample means for the acquisition of books and the pursuit of his scientific investigation.
It is possible that Aristotle also participated in the education of Alexander's boyhood friends, which may have included for example Hephaestion and Harpalus. Aristotle maintained a long correspondence with Hephaestion, eventually collected into a book, unfortunately now lost.
According to sources such as Plutarch and Diogenes, Philip burned down Aristotle's hometown of Stageira during the 340s BCE; Aristotle successfully requested that Alexander rebuild it. During his tutorship of Alexander, Aristotle was reportedly considered a second time for leadership of the Academy; his companion Xenocrates was selected instead.
Founder and master of the Lyceum
In about 335 BCE, Alexander departed on his Asiatic campaign, and Aristotle, who had served as an informal adviser (more or less) since Alexander ascended the Macedonian throne, returned to Athens and opened his own school of philosophy. He may, as Aulus Gellius says, have conducted a school of rhetoric during his former residence in Athens; but now, following Plato's example, he gave regular instruction in philosophy in a gymnasium dedicated to Apollo Lyceios, from which his school has come to be known as the Lyceum. (It was also called the Peripatetic School because Aristotle preferred to discuss problems of philosophy with his pupils while walking around -- peripateo -- the shaded walks -- peripatoi -- surrounding the gymnasium).
During the thirteen years (335 BCE–322 BCE) which he spent as head of the Lyceum, Aristotle composed most of his writings. Imitating Plato, he wrote Dialogues in which his doctrines were expounded in popular language. He also composed the surviving treatises, in which the exposition is more didactic and the language more technical than in the Dialogues. These writings succeeded in bringing together the works of his predecessors in Greek philosophy, and how he pursued, either personally or through others, his investigations in the realm of natural phenomena. Pliny the Elder claimed that Alexander placed under Aristotle's orders all the hunters, fishermen, and fowlers of the royal kingdom and all the overseers of the royal forests, lakes, ponds and cattle-ranges; Aristotle's zoological works make this claim believable. Aristotle was fully informed about the doctrines of his predecessors, and Strabo asserted that he was the first to accumulate a great library.
During the last years of Aristotle's life the relations between him and Alexander became very strained, owing to the disgrace and punishment of Callisthenes, whom Aristotle had recommended to Alexander. Nevertheless, Aristotle continued to be regarded in Athens as a friend of Alexander and a representative of Macedonia. Consequently, when Alexander's death became known in Athens, and the outbreak occurred which led to the Lamian war, Aristotle shared in the general unpopularity of the Macedonians. The charge of impiety, which had been brought against Anaxagoras and Socrates, was now brought against Aristotle. He left the city, saying, "I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy" (Vita Marciana 41). He took up residence at his country house at Chalcis, in Euboea, and there he died the following year (322 BCE). His death was due to a disease, reportedly 'of the stomach', from which he had long suffered. The story that his death was due to hemlock poisoning, as well as the legend that he threw himself into the sea "because he could not explain the tides," are without historical foundation.
Aristotle's legacy, besides its impact on Western thought, also had a profound influence on Islamic thought and philosophy during the Middle Ages. Muslim thinkers such as Avicenna, Al-Farabi, and Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi were a few of the major proponents of the Aristotelian school of thought during the Golden Age of Islam.
Aristotle defines his philosophy in terms of essence, saying that philosophy is "the science of the universal essence of that which is actual". Plato had defined it as the "science of the idea", meaning by idea what we should call the unconditional basis of phenomena. Both pupil and master regard philosophy as concerned with the universal; Aristotle, however, finds the universal in particular things, and called it the essence of things, while Plato finds that the universal exists apart from particular things, and is related to them as their prototype or exemplar. For Aristotle, therefore, philosophic method implies the ascent from the study of particular phenomena to the knowledge of essences, while for Plato philosophic method means the descent from a knowledge of universal ideas to a contemplation of particular imitations of those ideas. In a certain sense, Aristotle's method is both inductive and deductive, while Plato's is essentially deductive from a priori principles.
In Aristotle's terminology, the term natural philosophy corresponds to the phenomena of the natural world, which include: motion, light, and the laws of physics. Many centuries later these subjects would become the basis of modern science, as studied through the scientific method. In modern times the term philosophy has come to be more narrowly understood as metaphysics, distinct from empirical study of the natural world via the physical sciences. In contrast, in Aristotle's time and use, philosophy was taken to encompass all facets of intellectual inquiry.
In the larger sense of the word, Aristotle makes philosophy coextensive with reasoning, which he also called "science". Note, however, that his use of the term science carries a different meaning than that covered by the term scientific method. "All science (dianoia) is either practical, poetical or theoretical". By practical science he means ethics and politics; by poetical science, he means the study of poetry and the other fine arts; while by theoretical science he means physics, mathematics, and metaphysics.
Metaphysics, philosophy in the strictest sense, he defines as "the knowledge of immaterial being", and calls it "first philosophy", "the theologic science" or of "being in the highest degree of abstraction". If logic, or, as Aristotle calls it, Analytic, be regarded as a study preliminary to philosophy, we have as divisions of Aristotelian philosophy (1) Logic; (2) Theoretical Philosophy, including Metaphysics, Physics, Mathematics, (3) Practical Philosophy; and (4) Poetical Philosophy.
Aristotle's conception of logic was the dominant form of logic up until the advances in mathematical logic in the 19th century. Kant states in the Critique of Pure Reason thought that Aristotle theory of logic had arrived at a complete account of the core of deductive inference.
Aristotle "says that 'on the subject of reasoning' he 'had nothing else on an earlier date to speak of'" (Bocheński, 1951). However, Plato reports that syntax was thought of before him, by Prodikos of Keos, who was concerned by the right use of words. Logic seems to have emerged from dialectics; the earlier philosophers used concepts like reductio ad absurdum as a rule when discussing, but never understood its logical implications. Even Plato had difficulties with logic. Although he had the idea of constructing a system for deduction, he was never able to construct one. Instead, he relied on his dialectic, which was a confusion between different sciences and methods (Bocheński, 1951). Plato thought that deduction would simply follow from premises, so he focused on having good premises so that the conclusion would follow. Later on, Plato realized that a method for obtaining the conclusion would be beneficial. Plato never obtained such a method, but his best attempt was published in his book Sophist, where he introduced his division method (Rose, 1968).
Analytics and the Organon
What we today call Aristotelian logic, Aristotle himself would have labeled "analytics". The term "logic" he reserved to mean dialectics. Most of Aristotle's work is probably not in its original form, since it was most likely edited by students and later lecturers. The logical works of Aristotle were compiled into six books in about the early 1st century CE:
- On Interpretation
- Prior Analytics
- Posterior Analytics
- On Sophistical Refutations
The order of the books (or the teachings from which they are composed) is not certain, but this list was derived from analysis of Aristotle's writings. It goes from the basics, the analysis of simple terms in the Categories, to the study of more complex forms, namely, syllogisms (in the Analytics) and dialetics (in the Topics and Sophistical Refutations). There is one volume of Aristotle's concerning logic not found in the Organon, namely the fourth book of Metaphysics. (Bocheński, 1951).
Aristotle is also the creator of syllogisms with modalities (modal logic). The word modal refers to the word 'modes', explaining the fact that modal logic deals with the modes of truth. Aristotle introduced the qualification of 'necessary' and 'possible' premises. He constructed a logic which helped in the evaluation of truth but which was difficult to interpret. (Rose, 1968).
In the period between his two stints in Athens, between his times at the Academy and the Lyceum, Aristotle conducted most of the scientific thinking and research for which he is now most renowned. In fact, most of Aristotle's life was devoted to the study of the objects of natural science. Aristotle’s Metaphysics contains observations on the nature of numbers but he made no original contributions to Mathematics. He did, however, perform original research in the natural sciences, including: botany, zoology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and meteorology, geometry and several other sciences.
Aristotle's writings on science are largely qualitative, not quantitative. Beginning in the sixteenth century, scientists began applying mathematics to the physical sciences, and Aristotle's work in this area was found to be hopelessly inadequate. His failings were largely down to lacking concepts like mass, velocity, force, and temperature. He had a notion of what speed and temperature was, but no quantitative understanding of them. This was partly due to not having basic experimental apparatus, like a clock or thermometer.
His writings provide an account of many scientific observations, but there are some curious errors. For example, in his History of Animals he claimed that human males have more teeth than females. In a similar vein, Galileo showed by simple experiments that Aristotle's theory that the heavier object falls faster than a lighter object is incorrect.
Some have alleged that Aristotle regularly started from theory and twisted facts to fit it. For instance he observed living things on earth, in the oceans, and in the air. From this he concluded there must be fire beings living on the moon. This is obviously absurd. In his defense, there are very few passages like this. In many passages Aristotle suggest that facts must be collected before an axiomatized deductive science can be built. But Aristotle never had all the facts, and thought he had facts when he had only falsehoods.
In places, Aristotle goes too far in deriving 'laws of the universe' from simple observation and over-stretched reason. Today's scientific method assumes that thinking without sufficient facts often leads people astray, and one must be much stricter than Aristotle was in comparing one's ideas to the actual world through experimentation; only then can one discern if one's hypothesis corresponds to reality.
Aristotle also had some scientific blind spots, the largest being his inability to see the application of mathematics to physics. Aristotle held that physics was about changing objects with a reality of their own, whereas mathematics was about unchanging objects without a reality of their own. In this philosophy, he could not imagine that there was a relationship between them. He also posited a flawed cosmology that we may discern in selections of the Metaphysics. His cosmology would gain much acceptance up until the 1500s. From the 3rd century to the 1500s, the dominant view held that the Earth was the center of the universe; of course, we now know that the Earth is not even the center of our own solar system.
Aristotle's scientific shortcomings should not mislead you into forgetting the immense advances that he made in the many fields of science. For instance, he founded logic as a formal science and created foundations to biology that were not superseded for two millennia. Also, he introduced the fundamental notion that nature is composed of things that change and that studying such changes can provide useful knowledge. This made the study of physics, and all other sciences, respectable. This observation, though, goes beyond physics and is really the subject matter of metaphysics.
The Material Cause is that from which a thing comes into existence as from its parts, constituents, substratum or materials. This reduces the explanation of causes to the parts (factors, elements, constituents, ingredients) forming the whole (system, structure, compound, complex, composite, or combination) (the part-whole causation).
The Formal Cause tells us what a thing is, that any thing is determined by the definition, form, pattern, essence, whole, synthesis, or archetype. It embraces the account of causes in terms of fundamental principles or general laws, as the whole (macrostructure) is the cause of its parts (the whole-part causation).
The Efficient Cause is that from which the change or the ending of the change first starts. It identifies 'what makes of what is made and what causes change of what is changed' and so suggests all sorts of agents, nonliving or living, acting as the sources of change or movement or rest. Representing the current understanding of causality as the relation of cause and effect, this covers the modern definitions of "cause" as either the agent or agency or particular events or states of affairs.
The Final Cause is that for the sake of which a thing exists or is done, including both purposeful and instrumental actions and activities. The final cause or telos is the purpose or end that something is supposed to serve, or it is that from which and that to which the change is. This also covers modern ideas of mental causation involving such psychological causes as volition, need, motivation, or motives, rational, irrational, ethical, all that gives purpose to behavior.
Additionally, things can be causes of one another, causing each other reciprocally, as hard work causes fitness and vice versa, although not in the same way or function, the one is as the beginning of change, the other as the goal. [Thus Aristotle first suggested a reciprocal or circular causality as a relation of mutual dependence or action or influence of cause and effect.] Also, Aristotle indicated that the same thing can be the cause of contrary effects, its presence and absence may result in different outcomes.
Aristotle marked two modes of causation: proper (prior) causation and accidental (chance) causation. All causes, proper and incidental, can be spoken as potential or as actual, particular or generic. The same language refers to the effects of causes, so that generic effects assigned to generic causes, particular effects to particular causes, operating causes to actual effects. Essentially, causality does not suggest a temporal relation between the cause and the effect.
All further investigations of causality will be consisting in imposing the favorite hierarchies on the order causes, like as final > efficient> material > formal (Thomas Aquinas), or in restricting all causality to the material and efficient causes or to the efficient causality (deterministic or chance) or just to regular sequences and correlations of natural phenomena (the natural sciences describing how things happen instead of explaining the whys and wherefores).
Chance and spontaneity
Spontaneity and chance are causes of effects. Chance as an incidental cause lies in the realm of accidental things. It is "from what is spontaneous" (but note that what is spontaneous does not come from chance). For a better understanding of Aristotle's conception of "chance" it might be better to think of "coincidence": Something takes place by chance if a person sets out with the intent of having one thing take place, but with the result of another thing (not intended) taking place. For example: A person seeks donations. That person may find another person willing to donate a substantial sum. However, if the person seeking the donations met the person donating, not for the purpose of collecting donations, but for some other purpose, Aristotle would call the collecting of the donation by that particular donator a result of chance. It must be unusual that something happens by chance. In other words, if something happens all or most of the time, we cannot say that it is by chance.
However, chance can only apply to human beings, it is in the sphere of moral actions. According to Aristotle, chance must involve choice (and thus deliberation), and only humans are capable of deliberation and choice. "What is not capable of action cannot do anything by chance" (Physics, 2.6).
Substance, potentiality and actuality
Aristotle examines the concept of substance (ousia) in his Metaphysics, Book VII and he concludes that a particular substance is a combination of both matter and form. As he proceeds to the book VIII, he concludes that the matter of the substance is the substratum or the stuff of which is composed e.g. the matter of the house are the bricks, stones, timbers etc., or whatever constitutes the potential house. While the form of the substance, is the actual house, namely ‘covering for bodies and chattels’ or any other differentia. The formula that gives the components is the account of the matter, and the formula that gives the differentia is the account of the form (Metaphysics VIII, 1043a 10-30).
With regard to the change (kinesis) and its causes now, as he defines in his Physics and On Generation and Corruption 319b-320a, he distinguishes the coming to be from 1. growth and diminution, which is change in quantity 2. locomotion, which change in space and 3. alteration, which is change in quality. The coming to be is a change where nothing persists of which the resultant is property. In that particular change he introduces the concept of potentiality (dynamis) and actuality (entelecheia) in association with the matter and the form.
Referring to potentiality, is what a thing is capable of doing, or being acted upon, if it is not prevented from something else. For example, a seed of a plant in the soil is potentially (dynamei) plant, and if is not prevented by something, it will become a plant. Potentially beings can either 'act' (poiein) or 'be acted upon' (paschein), as well as can be either innate or come by practice or learning. For example, the eyes possess the potentiality of sight (innate - being acted upon), while the capability of playing the flute can be possessed by learning (exercise - acting).
Referring now to actuality, this is the fulfillment of the end of the potentiality. Because the end (telos) is the principle of every change, and for the sake of the end exists potentiality, therefore actuality is the end. Referring then to our previous example, we could say that actuality is when the seed of the plant becomes a plant.
“ For that for the sake of which a thing is, is its principle, and the becoming is for the sake of the end; and the actuality is the end, and it is for the sake of this that the potentiality is acquired. For animals do not see in order that they may have sight, but they have sight that they may see.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics IX 1050a 5-10).
In conclusion, the matter of the house is its potentiality and the form is its actuality. The Formal Cause (aitia) then of that change from potential to actual house, is the reason (logos) of the house builder and the Final Cause is the end, namely the house itself. Then Aristotle proceeds and concludes that the actuality is prior to potentiality in formula, in time and in substantiality.
With this definition of the particular substance (matter and form) Aristotle tries to solve the problem of the unity of the beings; e.g., what is that makes the man one? Since, according to Plato there are two Ideas: animal and biped, how then is man a unity? However, according to Aristotle, the potential being (matter) and the actual one (form) are one and the same thing. (Aristotle, Metaphysics VIII 1045a-b).
The five elements
- Fire, which is hot and dry.
- Earth, which is cold and dry.
- Air, which is hot and wet.
- Water, which is cold and wet.
- Aether, which is the divine substance that makes up the heavenly spheres and heavenly bodies (stars and planets).
Each of the four earthly elements has its natural place; the earth at the centre of the universe, then water, then air, then fire. When they are out of their natural place they have natural motion, requiring no external cause, which is towards that place; so bodies sink in water, air bubbles up, rain falls, flame rises in air. The heavenly element has perpetual circular motion.
Although Aristotle wrote several works on ethics, the major one was the Nicomachean Ethics, which is considered one of Aristotle's greatest works; it discusses virtues. The ten books which comprise it are based on notes from his lectures at the Lyceum and were either edited by or dedicated to Aristotle's son, Nicomachus.
Aristotle believed that ethical knowledge is not certain knowledge, like metaphysics and epistemology, but general knowledge. Also, as it is a practical discipline rather than a theoretical one; he thought that in order to become "good", one could not simply study what virtue is; one must actually do virtuous deeds. In order to do this, Aristotle had first to establish what was virtuous. He began by determining that everything was done with some goal in mind and that goal is 'good.' The ultimate goal he called the Highest Good.
Aristotle contended that happiness could not be found only in pleasure or only in fame and honor. He finally finds happiness "by ascertaining the specific function of man". But what is this function that will bring happiness? To determine this, Aristotle analyzed the soul and found it to have three parts: the Nutritive Soul (plants, animals and humans), the Perceptive Soul (animals and humans) and the Rational Soul (humans only). Thus, a human's function is to do what makes it human, to be good at what sets it apart from everything else: the ability to reason or Nous. A person that does this is the happiest because they are fulfilling their purpose or nature as found in the rational soul. Depending on how well they did this, Aristotle said people belonged to one of four categories: the Virtuous, the Continent, the Incontinent and the Vicious.
Aristotle believed that every ethical virtue is an intermediate condition between excess and deficiency. This does not mean Aristotle believed in moral relativism, however. He set certain emotions (e.g., hate, envy, jealousy, spite, etc.) and certain actions (e.g., adultery, theft, murder, etc.) as always wrong, regardless of the situation or the circumstances.
In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle often focused on finding the mean between two extremes of any particular subject; whether it be justice, courage, wealth and so forth. For example; too much courage can be a bad trait because it leads to ignorant choices, and too little courage would mean one is prone to cowardice. Aristotle says that finding this middle ground is essential to reaching eudemonia, the ultimate form of godlike consciousness. This middle ground is often referred to as The Golden Mean. Aristotle also wrote about his thoughts on the concept of justice in the Nicomachean Ethics. In these chapters, Aristotle defined justice in two parts, general justice and particular justice. General justice is Aristotle’s form of universal justice that can only exist in a perfect society. Particular justice is where punishment is given out for a particular crime or act of injustice. This is where Aristotle says an educated judge is needed to apply just decisions regarding any particular case. This is where we get the concept of the scales of justice, the blindfolded judge symbolizing blind justice, balancing the scales, weighing all the evidence and deliberating each particular case individually. Homonymy is an important theme in Aristotle’s justice because one form of justice can apply to one, while another would be best suited for a different person/case. Aristotle says that developing good habits can make a good human being and that practicing the use of The golden mean when applicable to virtues will allow a human being to live a healthy, happy life.