Aristotle is one of the greatest figures in the history of Western thought. In terms of the breadth and depth of his thought, together with the quality and nature of his analysis, his contribution to a variety of fields is almost unparalleled. His areas of investigation ranged from biology to ethics and from poetics to the categorization of knowledge. Born in Stagira in northern Greece, with a doctor as a father, he studied under Plato for 20 years until Plato’s death and then left to travel to Asia Minor and then the island of Lesbos.
He received a request in about 342 b.c.e. from King Philip of Macedon to supervise the education of his son Alexander, who was 13 at that time. He consented and prepared to teach Alexander the superiority of Greek culture and the way in which a Homeric hero in the mold of Achilles should dominate the various barbarians to the east. Alexander went on to conquer much of the known world, although he failed to observe Aristotle’s instruction to keep Greeks separate from barbarians by pursuing a policy of intermarriage and adoption of eastern cultural institutions. Alexander proved to be an obstinate student, and Aristotle’s influence was slight.
Once this tutelage was completed, Aristotle retired first to Stagira and then to Athens to establish his own academy. He continued to be accompanied by former pupils of Plato such as Theophrastus. His academy became known as the Lyceum. Aristotle wrote his most developed works at this time, but much of what has been passed down through the ages was subsequently edited, and much of his work gives the impression that it contains interpolated material and other notes. His works were translated into Latin and Arabic and became immensely influential throughout the Western world. Aristotle departed Athens for the island of Euboea in 322 b.c.e. and died that year.
At the basis of Aristotle’s works is his close observation of the world and his astoundingly powerful attempts to understand and reconcile the nature of observed phenomena with what might be expected. This is perhaps most easily witnessed in Aristotle’s scientific works, including the Meteorologica, On the Movement of Animals, and On Sleep and Sleeplessness. Aristotle’s works were deeply rooted in the real world, since the establishment of fact is central to the inquiry. This is the strand of Aristotle’s work that was later developed by scholars such as Roger Bacon and early scientific experimenters.
Aristotle’s classification of all material phenomena into categories is contained in his work of the same name. According to this method, everything was part of substance and could be classified as such, while some individual items would be classified as an individual item. The latter are considered to be qualities rather than essential parts of substance. The ways in which Aristotle organized these categories does not always appear intuitively correct, which reflects differences in methods of thinking and language. He also distinguished between form and matter. Form is a specific configuration of matter, which is the basis or substance of all physical things. Iron is a substance or representation of matter, for example, which can be made into a sword. The sword is a potential quality of iron, and a child is potentially a fully grown person. It is in the nature of some matter, therefore, to emerge in a particular form. If form can be said to emerge from no matter, then it would do so as god.
Whether one thing is itself or another thing depends on the four causes of the universe. The material cause explains what a thing is and what is its substance; the final cause explains the purpose or reason for the object; the formal cause defines it in a specific physical form, and the efficient cause explains how it came into existence. According to Aristotle’s thinking, all physical items can be explained and accounted for fully by reference to these four causes. In a similar way his exposition of the syllogism and the definition of which of these are valid and to what extent are an effort to establish a system that is inclusive and universal and is both elegant and parsimonious in construction. The syllogism is Aristotle’s principal contribution to the study of logic.
Aristotle’s methods enabled him to make a number of influential contributions to language and to discourse. His Sophistical Refutations, for example, analyzes the use of language to identify the forms of argument that are valid and discard false or disreputable discourse that is aimed at winning an argument rather than seeking the truth. Aristotle, like Socrates and Plato before him, was convinced of the primacy of the search for truth; no matter how uncomfortable this may prove to be. This placed him in occasional conflict with the Sophists, who were more willing to teach pupils to use philosophical discourse for self-advancement. Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics was aimed at determining the extent to which scientific reasoning rested on appropriately considered and evaluated premises that flow properly from suitable first principles. He applied the same rigorous approach to his examination of the Athenian polis and also to the study of tragedy in the Poetics.
The Poetics remains one of Aristotle’s most influential works. It aims to outline the various categories of plot and chain of cause and events that are appropriate for the stage and the ways in which the various elements of theater should interact. His conception of the properly tragic character as one whose inevitable downfall is brought about by a character flaw, and that the anagnoresis, or reversal of fortune, was the plot device by which this most commonly was brought about, dominated the production of drama until the modern age.
A number or prominent scholars and thinkers of the medieval ages, called Aristotelians, seized upon Aristotle’s methods. From the time of Porphyry (260–305 c.e.), the Aristotelian method of analysis was used as a weapon to attack Christianity. This raised a theme that recurred numerous times throughout western Europe, particularly in the subsequently developed universities. While Arabic scholars generally saw no problem in utilizing the dialectical method as a tool in helping to understand the ways in which the physical universe worked, those from Christian countries faced opposition when Aristotelian thought was classified as irreligious or blasphemous. This was determined by the prevailing political and religious environment and meant that some scholars were able to avail themselves of Aristotelian thought quite freely, while others were constrained from doing so and their insights were lost to history. Among the former are, notably, Thomas Aquinas (1225–74 c.e.), whose writings investigated the canon of Aristotle with considerable intensity and clarity.
Albertus Magnus (1200–80 c.e.), an important tutor of Aquinas, had achieved a great deal in integrating Aristotelian thought and methods into the mainstream of Christian thought in terms of responsible philosophical inquiry. Together with Roger Bacon (1220–92 c.e.), the Aristotelians made progress toward experimental science that would eventually flourish with the scientific method.
In the Islamic world Aristotelianism is perhaps best known in the person of Ibn Sina (980–1037 c.e.), the Persian physician and philosopher whose ideas perhaps came the closest of all Muslim thinkers to uniting Islamic belief with the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. Ibn Sina shared Aristotle’s devotion to the systematic examination of natural phenomena and his support for logical determinism brought him into conflict with religious authorities. His religious beliefs tended toward the mystic, possibly as a means of resolving the difficulties inherent in the gap between observable and comprehensible phenomena and divine revelations. The eastern part of the Islamic world had enjoyed the infusion of ideas from the Hellenistic tradition for some centuries and so was better able to integrate concepts more peaceably than in, for example, the western Islamic states of the Iberian Peninsula. Consequently the beneficial impact of Aristotle’s protoscientific method may be discerned in many of the scholarly works of the medieval Islamic world. This also provided a route by which ideas could be transmitted further east.
- The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation. Ed. by J. Barnes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995;
- Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Christian Classics, 1981;
- Bernays, Jacob. “On Catharsis.” American Imago (v.61/3, 2004);
- Broadie, Sarah. “Virtue and Beyond in Plato and Aristotle.” Southern Journal of Philosophy (v.43, 2005);
- Clegg, Brian. The First Scientist: A Life of Roger Bacon. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2003;
- Halliwell, Stephen. Aristotle’s Poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998;
- Morewedge, Parviz. Metaphysica of Avicenna. New York: Global Scholarly Publications, 2003;
- Shiffman, Mark. “Shaping the Language of Inquiry: Aristotle’s Transformation of the Meanings of Thaumaston.” Epoche: A Journal for the History of Philosophy (v.10/1, 2005);
- Weishepl, James A., ed. Albertus Magnus and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays. Toronto, Canada: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1980.