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Aristotle was one of the most important and prolific of all ancient philosophers. Born in the town of Stageira in northern Greece, Aristotle had an immediate environment of intellectual inquiry. His father, Nico-machus, was physician at the court of Macedonian King Amyntas II. At the age of eighteen Aristotle traveled to Athens to study at the Academy of the Greek philosopher
All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, passion, and desire. • Aristotle C384—322 bce)
Plato. He remained there for twenty years, until Plato’s death. Afterward, perhaps disappointed at the choice of the philosopher Speusippus as Plato’s successor, Aristotle accepted an invitation from Hermias, ruler of Assos (in modern Turkey). While at the court of Hermias, he pursued both academic and private interests, beginning an extensive period of field research in the natural environment and marrying Hermias’s daughter, Pythias.
After the fall of Hermias in 345, Aristotle accepted an invitation from King Philip II of Macedon to come to his court in Pella to tutor the young prince, Alexander of Macedon. The influence of Aristotle over the young Alexander has been much overstated, and their relationship seems to have been formal rather than warm. Nevertheless, Alexander did take Callisthenes, Aristotle’s nephew and collaborator, with him on his expedition to Asia to act as court historian.
Shortly after Alexander’s departure for Asia, Aristotle returned to Athens, where he set up his own philosophical school known as the “Lyceum” in an area outside the city walls. The philosophical style of thinking that he founded there was known in antiquity as “peripatetic,” from a colonnade (peripatos) at the Lyceum. Aristotle remained in Athens until after the death of Alexander, when an outburst of anti-Macedonian sentiment made it unsafe for him. During this time in Athens, his wife died. Aristotle preferred not to remarry, living instead with a slave, Herpyllis, who bore him a son, Nicomachus. Aristotle died soon after his retirement from Athens, and his successor, both as the head of the Lyceum and as the heir to his papers, was Theophrastus, his longtime student, collaborator, and colleague.
Aristotle was a prolific writer on an enormous range of subjects. Like Plato, he wrote dialogues, although these survive only in fragments and quotations. The greater part of his published work is summaries and notes of his teaching. Aristotle’s principal concern was, as with the pre-Socratics (a group of fifth-century Greek philosophers), the description, analysis, and understanding of the natural world. He was an acute and precise observer, and he applied his scientific acumen in an astonishing variety of fields. He was an especially skilled biological taxonomist, identifying literally hundreds of species of animals. He also brought geological, chemical, and meteorological observations to his study of the weather. This combination in itself is representative of his underlying methodology, which was to marry rigorous empirical observations in the field with a carefully crafted analytical and theoretic framework. This marriage was not always possible. His contributions to physics, although naturalistic in their conception, are highly theoretical.
Aristotle was not interested only in the natural world. He also took the human world as a subject for study. He was, perhaps, the first political scientist, seeking to catalogue and examine a range of constitutional arrangements. This examination led to the construction of his highly influential work, The Politics, which provides both a taxonomy (system of classification) and an explanation of political behavior based on theories of self-interest. It remains a core text of political theory. He also sought to collect constitutional histories of Greek city-states, and 158 constitutions were so described. For the most part, these works do not survive except as fragmentary quotations embedded in later works. The exception is the Constitution of Athens (Athenaion Politeia), which was not written by Aristotle himself but probably by one of his students.
Another enormous philosophical contribution was in his employment of formal logic. Rather than examine arguments by their capacity to persuade, Aristotle preferred to test their internal consistency. In order to do this, he devised a kind of algebra of logic, which formal logicians still employ in their deliberations.
Aristotle was a genuine polymath (a person of encyclopedic learning). As such, he asserted the interconnectedness of knowledge (what the U. S. biologist EdwardWilson has called “consilience”) as well as its underlying coherence. Although Aristotle was not exclusively and obsessively empirical, he preferred not to engage in explicit speculation about the nature of broad concepts. Here, later generations saw his sharpest contrast with Plato. Plato’s theory of forms, in particular, and the idealism that emerges from it, have been seen as a clear and sharp contrast with Aristotle’s acute and rigorous empiricism.
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it. • Karl Marx (1818—1883)
Much of Aristotle’s work survived antiquity by translation into Arabic. His approach influenced generations of Arab thinkers as well as the scientific and, through the Italian religious philosopher Thomas Aquinas, theological traditions of medieval Europe. By then, however, Aristotle’s conclusions had been turned into dogma and were overturned only by a more rigorous application of his own methodology.
See also Greece, Ancient; Plato; Political Thought