Aristotle was Plato's greatest student and philosophical equal. Only his didactic works have been saved, which fully work out a comprehensive encyclopedia of knowledge. Aristotle fashioned his ontology through a critique of the Platonic theory of Ideas. The Aristotelian comprehensive world view determined the way nature was regarded up until the 17th century.

His life

Aristotle was born in 384 BCE at Stagirus in Chalkidiki, a Chalkidian colony belonging eventually in the state jurisdiction of the Macedonians. His father, Nicomachus, served as physician to Amyntas, the Macedonian king. The education he received accorded with the ancient Greek ideals as they crystallised around the 5th c. BCE. They emphasised individual freedom, equality under the law and participation in the political community. Aristotle fully espoused these ideals and integrated them in his political philosophy overlooking along the way the contemporary tendencies towards the formation of expanded centralised and authoritarian states.

Aristotle was the first Greek philosopher with an extensive and systematic training. At the early age of seventeen he was introduced to the Platonic Academy, where he remained a member for twenty years. He definitely held a prominent position among the members of the Platonic circle since, following Plato's death, it is said that he claimed twice the position of scholarch (leader), yet without success. After his second unsuccessful bid, he decided to distance himself from the Academy and organise his own circle of students. Aristotle's school, the so called Lyceum, assumed its definitive form after the philosopher's death with the aid of Theophrastus, his basic student and collaborator. The school members were given the name "Peripatetics" due to the assumption that teaching took place outdoors during extended walks.

To the Athenians, Aristotle always remained a stranger intimately connected with the Macedonian court, which rendered him eligible for the hostility of the anti-Macedonian party. At times, he had to leave Athens depending on the outcome of political confrontations. He lived for three years in Assos, Asia Minor, near the ruler-philosopher Hermias, and for two years in Mytilene before taking over Alexander the Great's education (with Alexander being at that time heir to the Macedonian throne). He only managed to return to Athens in 335 BCE when the city was no longer under Macedonian rule. But with Alexander's death in 323 BCE, and during the social and political unrest that befell the city, he nearly lost his life and subsequently took refuge in Chalkis where he died on the following year at the age of sixty-two.

Aristotle's works and method

During his life Aristotle published a limited number of works with some of them assuming the dialogic form and addressing themselves to a wider public. None of these works has survived intact. What has survived, though, is his unpublished instructive textbooks, or rather the personal notes through which he organised his teaching. Aristotle's manuscripts were collated in the form of treatises and published during the 1st c. AD by a gifted philologist and expert in Aristotle's philosophy, Andronicus from Rhodes. It is this publication that endowed Aristotle's works with their final form.

If these manuscripts had been lost, the history of subsequent philosophy would have been different since the philosopher's work formed the basis of the Byzantine, Arabic and Scholastic schools of philosophy. Aristotle's works were the focus of debate and interpretation throughout the later Greek antiquity and the Byzantine period, were already translated in Arabic in the 9th c. AD and served as the foundation of Arabic philosophy. Through the Arabs they became widely known in the Latin West during the 12th century when the attempt was made to synthesise Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy in the context of the scholastic system.

The range of interests covered by Aristotelian philosophy is impressive. His philosophy offered a determining contribution to all fields of knowledge. In the realm of philosophy proper, he successfully combined Plato's ethics and political philosophy with the naturalistic philosophy of the pre-Socratics while inaugurating the field of Logic. Concerning science proper, he set the foundations for physics, chemistry and meteorology, and pointed up the significance and central position of biology. He systematised the practice of rhetoric, founded literary theory ("poetics") and initiated the systematic inventory of the Greek city states' political forms of government. In a few words, Aristotle designed, ranked and implemented a comprehensive encyclopedia of knowledge.

                                         Aristotle's Works

LOGIC

NATURE – BIOLOGY

ETHICS - POLITICS

  • Categories
  • Physics

Nicomachean Ethics

On Interpretation

On the Heavens

Eudemian Ethics

  • Topics

On generation and Corruption

[Magna Moralia]

On Sophistical Refutations

Meteorology

Politics

Prior Analytics

History of Animals

The Athenian Constitution

Posterior Analytics

On the Parts of Animals

 

 

On the Generation of Animals

RHETORIC & POETICS

 

On Progression of Animals

Art of Rhetoric

 

On the Motion of Animals

Poetics

 

On the Soul

 

 

"Little Physical Treatises"

 

Aristotle's specialty and particular talent was his ability to point up and work through crucial problems. He always focused on a particular issue and used it as an opportunity to sift the existing responses to it, establish fine distinctions and trace its core in the context of a philosophical dilemma, a crucial "aporia." The philosopher mostly elaborated his own answers, yet he quite often suggested more than one alternative solutions to the intellectual and philosophical challenges he confronted.

Aristotle was convinced that sciences have their own unique principles, methods and, to a degree, particular language. It would, therefore, be impossible and undesirable to attempt the integration of human knowledge upon a unified foundation. Aristotelian ethics, for instance, cannot be harmonised with physics because human agency is not subject to natural determinism, and is regulated by its own endemic rules. Aristotle laid the foundations of an ethics more functional and flexible than Plato's a system of ethics that is supported by many even today.

Aristotle's writings are neither particularly appealing nor accessible to the average reader. Coming to terms with his body of work presupposes prior knowledge of the philosophical tradition as well as familiarisation with the dense, intractable and often dry style of the philosopher. In contrast with Plato, Aristotle appeared not to trust everyday language with its vagueness and paraphernalia. He believed that a special vocabulary and mode of expression that would be based on clarity was absolutely essential to philosophy. A large part of the philosophical terminology used today has been set up by Aristotle.

Logic and reality

Aristotelian logic is not a science, yet it comes to determine a compound of rules on the basis of which we think, come to an understanding and argue whenever we examine a particular issue. First and foremost, Logic constitutes the systematisation of the appropriate use of language. To Aristotle, there is a close connection between language and reality. The correct use of language reflects the appropriate function of thought, whereas the latter in its turn reveals crucial elements about the objective structure of the world. Aristotelian logic starts from the analysis of simple language propositions that relate an individual subject to a general predicate. This means that thinking operates through the two categories of individual and general concepts. Correspondingly, reality as such is made up of two categories of beings: the concrete / specific human beings, beasts and things that surround us (which Aristotle calls "kath'hekaston [of a particular]." The totality of characteristics and qualities we attribute to these individual entities Aristotle calls "katholou [universal]."

The deepest difference between a "kath'hekaston" and a "katholou" is that, in order for general qualities to exist, there must have been individual subjects first. Aristotle expressed this distinction by saying that only the "kath'hekaston" are "substances." "Substance" is the most fundamental Aristotelian "category." It comes, additionally, to express an ontological position: the only self-existent entities, the only substances, are the individual, perceptible beings and things.

Platonic Ideas, according to Aristotle, do not form a distinct realm of Being. He expressed strong criticism against the Platonic theory of Ideas, which he transformed in his own philosophical system into "forms" (or "eidoi"). Yet Aristotelian form is not an entity that dwells in a heavenly place. It is, on the contrary, the whole of the qualities that define a particular being without which it would cease to be what it is. Every individual substance is a synthesis of "form" and "matter" ("matter" is another basic ontological innovation in Aristotle's work). Socrates' form is the qualities that determine who he is: the fact that he is a human being, that he is a philosopher. His matter is whatever individuates him.

The natural world

Aristotle's philosophy of nature proved to be particularly resilient in the course of time. It defined the way in which people regarded nature for twenty centuries.

Movement is the fundamental concept of Aristotelian physics. Nature itself is seen to be the cause of movement whereas physical beings are defined in terms of their ability to move and submit to change (Physics 193b8-23). Despite the dominant continuous flux in nature, the Aristotelian world in its entirety is not subject to birth or temporal determination; it is eternal. Nature, for Aristotle, works in "teleological" fashion. All physical/ natural beings tend to realise their predetermined end, their "telos." The foetus, in Aristotle's language, is a "potential [dunamei]" human being.

Aristotle's universe is spherical and self-enclosed. Immobile earth, around which orbit the planets and fixed stars, lies at its centre. The terrestrial realm is the space of birth and corruption, of the material beings that move in all possible ways and submit to all kinds of modification. In contrast, order and regularity prevail in the heavenly realm with cyclical and regular movement constituting the only alteration.

The question whether in the Aristotelian universe there is any space for God is a legitimate one. Nature, according to Aristotle, has the capacity to regulate itself. And yet, at times Aristotelian metaphysics has been endowed with the "theology" label and twist . The philosopher acknowledges the existence of an entity that is completely devoid of movement and matter, which he calls "god" or "the unmoved mover [kinoun akiniton]". This entity is potentially conceivable in terms of its being the cause of movement without moving as such, and as lying beyond the possibility of transformation. The Aristotelian "kinoun akiniton" neither creates the universe nor intervenes in any way in its operation. It merely guarantees the chain of its transformations.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Aubenque, P. Le problème de l’ être chez Aristote. Παρίσι, 1962.
  • Barnes, J., Schofield, M., Sorabji, R. eds. Articles on Aristotle Vol 1-3,. Λονδίνο, 1975-1979.
  • Guthrie, W.K.C. A History of Greek Philosophy, τόμ. VI, Aristotle, An Encounter,. Kαίμπριτζ, 1981.
  • Jaeger, W. Aristotle. Fundamentals of the History of his Development , 2η έκδ. Oξφόρδη, 1948.
  • Solmsen, F. Aristotle's System of the Physical World: A Comparison with his Predecessors. Ιthaka NY, 1960.
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