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The Life Of Aristotle Essay, Research Paper

The Life of Aristotle

When Plato died in 347 bc, Aristotle moved to Assos, a city in Asia Minor, where

a friend of his, Hermias (died 345 bc), was ruler. There he counseled Hermias

and married his niece and adopted daughter, Pythias. After Hermias was captured

and executed by the Persians, Aristotle went to Pella, the Macedonian capital,

where he became the tutor of the king’s young son Alexander, later known as

Alexander the Great. In 335, when Alexander became king, Aristotle returned to

Athens and established his own school, the Lyceum. Because much of the

discussion in his school took place while teachers and students were walking

about the Lyceum grounds, Aristotle’s school came to be known as the Peripatetic

(”walking” or “strolling”) school. Upon the death of Alexander in 323 bc, strong

anti-Macedonian feeling developed in Athens, and Aristotle retired to a family

estate in Euboea. He died there the following year.


Aristotle, like Plato, made regular use of the dialogue in his earliest years at

the Academy, but lacking Plato’s imaginative gifts, he probably never found the

form congenial. Apart from a few fragments in the works of later writers, his

dialogues have been wholly lost. Aristotle also wrote some short technical notes,

such as a dictionary of philosophic terms and a summary of the doctrines of

Pythagoras. Of these, only a few brief excerpts have survived. Still extant,

however, are Aristotle’s lecture notes for carefully outlined courses treating

almost every branch of knowledge and art. The texts on which Aristotle’s

reputation rests are largely based on these lecture notes, which were collected

and arranged by later editors.

Among the texts are treatises on logic, called Organon (”instrument”), because

they provide the means by which positive knowledge is to be attained. His works

on natural science include Physics, which gives a vast amount of information on

astronomy, meteorology, plants, and animals. His writings on the nature, scope,

and properties of being, which Aristotle called First Philosophy (Prot?

philosophia), were given the title Metaphysics in the first published edition of

his works (circa 60 bc), because in that edition they followed Physics. His

treatment of the Prime Mover, or first cause, as pure intellect, perfect in

unity, immutable, and, as he said, “the thought of thought,” is given in the

Metaphysics. To his son Nicomachus he dedicated his work on ethics, called the

Nicomachean Ethics. Other essential works include his Rhetoric, his Poetics

(which survives in incomplete form), and his Politics (also incomplete).


Perhaps because of the influence of his father’s medical profession, Aristotle’s

philosophy laid its principal stress on biology, in contrast to Plato’s emphasis

on mathematics. Aristotle regarded the world as made up of individuals

(substances) occurring in fixed natural kinds (species). Each individual has its

built-in specific pattern of development and grows toward proper self-

realization as a specimen of its type. Growth, purpose, and direction are thus

built into nature. Although science studies general kinds, according to

Aristotle, these kinds find their existence in particular individuals. Science

and philosophy must therefore balance, not simply choose between, the claims of

empiricism (observation and sense experience) and formalism (rational deduction).

One of the most distinctive of Aristotle’s philosophic 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 had

tended to assume that only one sort of cause can be really explanatory;

Aristotle proposed four. (The word Aristotle uses, aition, “a responsible,

explanatory factor” is not synonymous with the word cause in its modern sense.)

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, which is 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. Thus, 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 becoming a mature specimen. In different contexts, while the causes are

the same four, they apply analogically. Thus, 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, or Aphrodite;

and the final cause is its function, to be a work of fine art.

In each context, Aristotle insists that something can be better understood when

its causes can be stated in specific terms rather than in general terms. Thus,

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.

Aristotle thought his causal pattern was the ideal key for organizing knowledge.

His lecture notes present impressive evidence of the power of this scheme.


Some of the principal aspects of Aristotle’s thought can be seen in the

following summary of his doctrines, or theories.

Physics, or Natural Philosophy

In astronomy, Aristotle proposed a finite, spherical universe, with the earth at

its center. The central region is made up of four elements: earth, air, fire,

and water. In Aristotle’s physics, each of these four elements has a proper

place, determined by its relative heaviness, its “specific gravity.” Each moves

naturally in a straight line?earth down, fire up?toward its proper place, where

it will be at rest. Thus, terrestrial motion is always linear and always comes

to a halt. The heavens, however, move naturally and endlessly in a complex

circular motion. The heavens, therefore, must be made of a fifth, and different

element, which he called aither. A superior element, aither is incapable of any

change other than change of place in a circular movement. Aristotle’s theory

that linear motion always takes place through a resisting medium is in fact

valid for all observable terrestrial motions. He also held that heavier bodies

of a given material fall faster than lighter ones when their shapes are the same,

a mistaken view that was accepted as fact until Galileo and his experiment with

weights dropped from the Leaning Tower of Pisa.


In zoology, Aristotle proposed a fixed set of natural kinds (”species”), each

reproducing true to type. An exception occurs, Aristotle thought, when some

“very low” worms and flies come from rotting fruit or manure by “spontaneous

generation.” The typical life cycles are epicycles: The same pattern repeats,

but through a linear succession of individuals. These processes are therefore

intermediate between the changeless circles of the heavens and the simple linear

movements of the terrestrial elements. The species form a scale from simple

(worms and flies at the bottom) to complex (human beings at the top), but

evolution is not possible.

Aristotelian Psychology

For Aristotle, psychology was a study of the soul. Insisting that form (the

essence, or unchanging characteristic element in an object) and matter (the

common undifferentiated substratum of things) always exist together, Aristotle

defined a soul as a “kind of functioning of a body organized so that it can

support vital functions.” In considering the soul as essentially associated with

the body, he challenged the Pythagorean doctrine that the soul is a spiritual

entity imprisoned in the body. Aristotle’s doctrine is a synthesis of the

earlier notion that the soul does not exist apart from the body and of the

Platonic notion of a soul as a separate, nonphysical entity. Whether any part of

the human soul is immortal, and, if so, whether its immortality is personal, are

not entirely clear in his treatise On the Soul.

Through the functioning of the soul, the moral and intellectual aspects of

humanity are developed. Aristotle argued that human insight in its highest form

(nous poetikos, “active mind”) is not reducible to a mechanical physical process.

Such insight, however, presupposes an individual “passive mind” that does not

appear to transcend physical nature. Aristotle clearly stated the relationship

between human insight and the senses in what has become a slogan of empiricism?

the view that knowledge is grounded in sense experience. “There is nothing in

the intellect,” he wrote, “that was not first in the senses.”


It seemed to Aristotle that the individual’s freedom of choice made an

absolutely accurate analysis of human affairs impossible. “Practical science,”

then, such as politics or ethics, was called science only by courtesy and

analogy. The inherent limitations on practical science are made clear in

Aristotle’s concepts of human nature and self-realization. Human nature

certainly involves, for everyone, a capacity for forming habits; but the habits

that a particular individual forms depend on that individual’s culture and

repeated personal choices. All human beings want “happiness,” an active, engaged

realization of their innate capacities, but this goal can be achieved in a

multiplicity of ways.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is an analysis of character and intelligence as

they relate to happiness. Aristotle distinguished two kinds of “virtue,” or

human excellence: moral and intellectual. Moral virtue is an expression of

character, formed by habits reflecting repeated choices. A moral virtue is

always a mean between two less desirable extremes. Courage, for example, is a

mean between cowardice and thoughtless rashness; generosity, between

extravagance and parsimony. Intellectual virtues are not subject to this

doctrine of the mean. Aristotle argued for an elitist ethics: Full excellence

can be realized only by the mature male adult of the upper class, not by women,

or children, or barbarians (non-Greeks), or salaried “mechanics” (manual

workers) from whom, indeed, Aristotle proposed to take away voting rights.

In politics, many forms of human association can obviously be found; which one

is suitable depends on circumstances, such as the natural resources, cultural

traditions, industry, and literacy of each community. Aristotle did not regard

politics as a study of ideal states in some abstract form, but rather as an

examination of the way in which ideals, laws, customs, and property interrelate

in actual cases. He thus approved the contemporary institution of slavery but

tempered his acceptance by insisting that masters should not abuse their

authority, inasmuch as the interests of master and slave are the same. The

Lyceum library contained a collection of 158 constitutions of the Greek and

other states. Aristotle himself wrote the Constitution of Athens as part of the

collection, and after being lost, this description was rediscovered in a papyrus

copy in 1890. Historians have found the work of great value in reconstructing

many phases of the history of Athens.


In logic, Aristotle developed rules for chains of reasoning that would, if

followed, never lead from true premises to false conclusions (validity rules).

In reasoning, the basic links are syllogisms: pairs of propositions that, taken

together, give a new conclusion. For example, “All humans are mortal” and “All

Greeks are humans” yield the valid conclusion “All Greeks are mortal.” Science

results from constructing more complex systems of reasoning. In his logic,

Aristotle distinguished between dialectic and analytic. Dialectic, he held, only

tests opinions for their logical consistency; analytic works deductively from

principles resting on experience and precise observation. This is clearly an

intended break with Plato’s Academy, where dialectic was supposed to be the only

proper method for science and philosophy alike.


In his metaphysics, Aristotle argued for the existence of a divine being,

described as the Prime Mover, who is responsible for the unity and

purposefulness of nature. God is perfect and therefore the aspiration of all

things in the world, because all things desire to share perfection. Other movers

exist as well?the intelligent movers of the planets and stars (Aristotle

suggested that the number of these is “either 55 or 47″). The Prime Mover, or

God, described by Aristotle is not very suitable for religious purposes, as many

later philosophers and theologians have observed. Aristotle limited his

“theology,” however, to what he believed science requires and can establish.


Aristotle’s works were lost in the West after the decline of Rome. During the

9th century ad, Arab scholars introduced Aristotle, in Arabic translation, to

the Islamic world. The 12th-century Spanish-Arab philosopher Averro?s is the

best known of the Arabic scholars who studied and commented on Aristotle. In the

13th century, the Latin West renewed its interest in Aristotle’s work, and St.

Thomas Aquinas found in it a philosophical foundation for Christian thought.

Church officials at first questioned Aquinas’s use of Aristotle; in the early

stages of its rediscovery, Aristotle’s philosophy was regarded with some

suspicion, largely because his teachings were thought to lead to a materialistic

view of the world. Nevertheless, the work of Aquinas was accepted, and the later

philosophy of scholasticism continued the philosophical tradition based on

Aquinas’s adaptation of Aristotelian thought.

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 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.

Not only the discipline of zoology, but the world of learning as a whole, seems

to amply justify Darwin’s remark that the intellectual heroes of his own time

“were mere schoolboys compared to old Aristotle.”

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