Aristotle: biography of the great philosopher

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Aristotle: biography of the great philosopher
Aristotle. Picture: Eleftherios Damianidis | Dreamstime

He was a student of Plato for twenty years, but is known for rejecting the Platonic theory of forms. He was more empiricist than Plato and his teacher Socrates. A prolific writer, lecturer and polymath, Aristotle radically changed most of the topics he explored.

During his life he wrote dialogues and as many as 200 treatises, of which only 31 have survived. These works are presented in the form of lecture notes and manuscript drafts, never intended for a wide readership. However, these are the earliest complete philosophical treatises that we still have.

What is Aristotle famous for?

As the father of Western logic, Aristotle was the first to develop a formal system of reasoning. He noticed that the deductive validity of any argument can be determined by its structure, and not by its content, for example, in the syllogism: all people are mortal.

Socrates is male, therefore Socrates is mortal.

Even if the content of the argument was changed from Socrates to someone else due to its structure, as long as the premises are correct, then the conclusion must also be correct. Aristotelian logic dominated until the advent of modern propositional and predicate logic 2000 years later.

Aristotle. Picture: Viorel Dudau | Dreamstime

The emphasis on strong arguments serves as a backdrop to other studies of Aristotle. In his natural philosophy, Aristotle combines logic with observation to make general, causal statements. For example, in his biology, Aristotle uses the concept of species to make empirical statements about the functions and behavior of individual animals. However, as his psychological writings show, Aristotle is not a reductive materialist. Instead, he thinks of the body as matter and the mind as the form of every living animal.

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Although his natural science work is firmly based on observation, Aristotle also recognizes the possibility of knowledge that is not empirical. In his metaphysics, he argues that there must be a separate and unchanging being that is the source of all other beings. In his ethics, he believes that only by achieving perfection can one achieve eudaimonia, a kind of happiness or bliss that constitutes the best human life.

Aristotle was the founder of the Lyceum, a school in Athens, Greece. And he was the first of the Peripatetics, his pupils from the Lyceum. The works of Aristotle had a huge impact on ancient and medieval thought and continue to inspire philosophers to this day. Although our main ancient source on the life of Aristotle, Diogenes Laertes, is of dubious reliability, the outline of his biography is credible. Diogenes reports that the Greek father of Aristotle, Nicomachus, was the private physician of the Macedonian king Amyntas.

Education and career of a philosopher

At the age of seventeen, Aristotle emigrated to Athens, where he entered the Academy, studying with Plato for twenty years. During this period, Aristotle acquired his encyclopedic knowledge of the philosophical tradition, which he makes extensive use of in his writings. Aristotle left Athens around the time Plato died, in 348 or 347 BC. E. One explanation is that, as a permanent foreigner, Aristotle was excluded from the leadership of the Academy in favor of Plato’s nephew, an Athenian citizen Speusippus.

Picture: Yuryz | Dreamstime

Another possibility is that Aristotle was forced to flee as the expansion of Philip’s power led to the spread of anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens. Whatever the reason, Aristotle subsequently moved to Atarney, which was ruled by another former Academy student, Hermias. During his three years there, Aristotle married Pythia, the niece or adopted daughter of Hermias, and may have been involved in negotiations or espionage on behalf of the Macedonians. Be that as it may, the couple moved to Macedonia, where Aristotle worked for Philip as tutor to his son Alexander the Great.

Alexander the Great: short but bright life of the great commander
Alexander the Great: short but bright life of the great commander

Thus, Aristotle’s philosophical career was directly linked to the rise of a major power. After some time in Macedonia, Aristotle returned to Athens, where he founded his school in the rented buildings of the lyceum. It is presumably during this period that he wrote most of his surviving texts, which appear to be lecture transcripts edited so that they can be read aloud in Aristotle’s absence. Indeed, this must have been necessary, since after his school had been in operation for thirteen years he left Athens again, perhaps because he was accused of impiety. He died at the age of 63 in Chalkis.

Private life

Diogenes tells us that Aristotle was a thin man who dressed flamboyantly, wore a fashionable hairstyle and several rings. If the will cited by Diogenes is authentic, Aristotle must have had considerable personal wealth, as he promises a furnished house in Stagira, three slave girls, and a talent for silver to his concubine Herpillis.

Aristotle had a daughter from Pythia, and from Herpillis, a son, Nicomacheus (named after his grandfather), who may have edited Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Unfortunately, since there are few sources about the life of Aristotle that have come down to us, the judgment about the accuracy and completeness of these details depends largely on how much one trusts the testimony of Diogenes.

Works of Aristotle

Since commentaries on the work of Aristotle were compiled for about two thousand years, it does not immediately become obvious which sources are reliable conductors of his thought. Aristotle’s works have a concise style and use specific vocabulary. Although he wrote an introduction to philosophy, a critique of Plato’s theory of forms, and several philosophical dialogues, these works survive only in fragments.

Aristotle. Picture: Mohamed Osama | Dreamstime

The existing “Corpus Aristotelicum” consists of Aristotle’s recorded lectures, which cover almost every major area of ​​philosophy. Before the invention of the printing press, handwritten copies of these works were circulated for centuries in the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe. The surviving manuscripts were collected and edited in the authoritative Berlin edition of August Immanuel Becker from 1831–1836. All references to Aristotle’s works in this article follow Becker’s standard numbering.

Noteworthy are the surviving fragments of the lost works of Aristotle, which modern commentators sometimes use as the basis for conjectures about his philosophical development. A fragment of his “Protrepticus” preserves the striking analogy that the psyche, or attachment of the soul to the body, is a form of punishment.

Confucius – the greatest sage from the east
Confucius – the greatest sage from the east

The ancients blessedly say that the soul pays for this punishment and that our life is meant to atone for great sins. And the attachment of the psyche to the body is very similar to this. For they say that, as the Etruscans torture their captives, chaining the dead face to face with the living, fitting each one to each part, it seems that the psyche is stretched everywhere and limited by all the sensitive members of the body.

According to this ostensibly inspired theory, the bonds that bind the psyche to the body are similar to those with which the Etruscans tortured their captives. Just as the Etruscans chain captives face to face with a dead body so that every part of the living body touches a part of the corpse, the psyche is considered to be aligned with the parts of the living body. From this point of view, the psyche is embodied as a painful but corrective atonement for its evil.