Everyone has heard of Aristotle - the philosopher, the scholar. But who was the man, really? What debt do we owe to him in the twenty-first century?
Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities.
Aristotle was born in approximately 384 B.C., in Stagira, Greece. His father was Nicomachus, court physician to King Amyntas II of Macedonia, so it is clear that Aristotle was comfortable in the society of royals and educated people from a very early age.
Both of his parents died when he was young, apparently, but Aristotle remained attached to the Macedonian court. Proxenus of Atarneus, the husband of Aristotle's older sister, Arimneste, became Aristotle's guardian. Proxenus sent Aristotle to Athens when he turned 17, to study at Plato's Academy. Aristotle surely appreciated this gesture, for he later said, "Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well."
The only physical description of Aristotle indicates that he had bandy legs and small eyes, but the source may or may not be reliable. He was, according to some, vain about his hair.
Plato, a former student of Socrates, did not charge admission to his academy; he was comfortably well off. Academy members focused on the pursuit of philosophical truths.
Aristotle quickly became known at Plato's Academy as "the reader" and as the brains of the school. Aristotle occasionally disagreed with Plato's philosophy, causing Plato to call him "the foal" - an ungrateful youth who insults his teacher as a young foal kicks its mother.
While Plato thought communal property would remove envy, Aristotle believed it would cause resentment because those who worked harder would feel cheated.
While Plato believed that only humans have souls, and that those souls are immortal, Aristotle believed that all living things have souls, but those souls die along with the living thing.
While Plato believed in the unity of the state through communism, Aristotle believed that communism runs counter to the diversity of mankind.
Many assumed Aristotle would become the director of the academy after Plato, but, because of their many disagreements, Plato made other plans. In 347 B.C. Plato died, and the 37-year-old Aristotle left Athens to seek his own path.
Aristotle's friend from Plato's Academy, Hermias, King of Atarneus and Assos in Mysia, invited Aristotle to his court. While there Aristotle married Pythias, who was either the daughter or niece of Hermias. The couple had a daughter and called her Pythias, after her mother.
In 338 B.C. Aristotle began tutoring the son of King Phillip II of Macedonia, thirteen-year-old Alexander the Great. Aristotle was appointed head of the royal academy of Macedon. He felt so strongly about the value of education that he once wrote, "The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead." Aristotle also taught two other future kings - Ptolemy and Cassander. The impact of his philosophies on these future rulers surely changed history.
In 335 B.C., after Alexander became king and conquered Athens, Aristotle returned to Athens and founded his own school, the Lyceum. Plato's Academy still existed, headed by Xenocrates, and it was still the leading influence on Greek thought.
Also in 335 B.C., Aristotle's wife died. Aristotle then had a romance with a woman, possibly a slave gifted to him by the Macedonian court. He may have freed her, then married her. This woman, Herpyllis, bore him a son, Nicomachus, named for Aristotle's father.
Aristotle preferred to walk while teaching at the Lyceum. His students followed him, perhaps out of necessity more than choice, and became known as "Peripatetics," people who travel about. Aristotle said, "The one exclusive sign of thorough knowledge is the power of teaching." Over the years members of the Lyceum documented Aristotle's lessons and their own research in manuscripts, creating a massive collection of knowledge.
Aristotle spent most of his remaining life at the Lyceum in Athens, studying, teaching, and writing, until the political climate changed.
Alexander the Great died suddenly, in 332 B.C., and the pro-Macedonian government was overthrown. Aristotle was charged with impiety - not holding the gods in high esteem. He fled Athens for Chalcis on the island of Euboea, where he soon died of a digestive disorder.
In his time there was no great store of knowledge - no encyclopedias, no large libraries, certainly no search engines or databases. Aristotle became his era's walking and talking version of these things. He wrote books - often the first books - on many diverse topics: biology, physics, astronomy, psychology, technology, zoology, metaphysics, poetry, logic, ethics, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, and government.
Scholars believe that Aristotle produced 200 or more works; of those, only 31 remain.
Aristotle promoted linear thinking. He essentially established the basis for Western philosophy.
He tried to classify animals based on their characteristics. First, he divided them into two groups - those with red blood, including vertebrates, and those with no blood, including cephalopods. Of course, this basic division is erroneous, because cephalopods do have blood.
Aristotle believed that all living things could be arranged on a scale of perfection, starting with plants at the bottom and working up to man. Plants have a vegetative soul, for reproduction and growth; animals have a vegetative soul plus a sensitive soul, for locomotion and sensation; humans have a vegetative soul and a sensitive soul, plus a rational soul. The rational soul, according to Aristotle, is in the heart, not the brain. In all cases, the soul dies with the body. However, Aristotle conceded, "To attain any assured knowledge about the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world."
Unfortunately, Aristotle's work was so well respected that few contested his assertions. If only scholars had taken heed of Aristotle's wise words: "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." However, too often Aristotle's conclusions were taken as fact, sometimes for decades or centuries, even when he was mistaken.
For example, Aristotle believed that memories are physical imprints on the brain. People of low intelligence have good memories, he thought, because their brain fluids don't wash away those imprints as readily.
Aristotle was an Eternalist, believing that the world is a perfectly engineered system that has always existed. There's no reason, therefore, to consider how the world may have begun or how it might end. In such a case, there's no reason to consider how some animals might have evolved from others in the past. In such a case, there's no reason to imagine the world had a Creator.
Aristotle believed the Earth is the center of the universe, and that the world is made up of five elements. The first four, proposed by Empedocles and accepted by Aristotle, are Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. The fifth, proposed by Aristotle himself, is Aether, the substance that makes up the heavenly bodies.
Aristotle dissected many creatures and documented the results with great care. However, when writing about creatures in other parts of the world, creatures he could not have seen, he relied on second-hand knowledge, most likely from Alexander the Great's soldiers. For example, having never seen an elephant, Aristotle wrote that their legs bend very little, if at all.
Aristotle admitted that his scholarship sometimes included a bit of guesswork: "The true and the approximately true are apprehended by the same faculty; it may also be noted that men have a sufficient natural instinct for what is true, and usually do arrive at the truth. Hence the man who makes a good guess at truth is likely to make a good guess at probabilities."
Aristotle had a love for art and for poetry. He once said, "The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance."
He also stated, "The poet being an imitator, like a painter or any other artist, must of necessity imitate one of three objects, - things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be. The vehicle of expression is language, - either current terms or, it may be, rare words or metaphors."
Some of Aristotle's scholarly work reads like poetry, such as this excerpt from "History of Animals": "But some animals agree with each other in their parts neither in form, nor in excess and defect, but have only an analogous likeness, such as a bone bears to a spine, a nail to a hoof, a hand to a crab's claw, the scale of a fish to the feather of a bird, for that which is a feather in the birds is a scale in the fish."
A Student of Human Nature
Aristotle offered keen insights into the human condition. He once said, "All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsions, habit, reason, passion, desire."
Conversely, he asserted as fact some theories that few would accept in the twenty-first century. For example, "Two corners of the eye are formed at the junction of the eyelids, one in the direction of the nose, the other towards the temple. If these corners are large, they are a sign of an evil disposition; if those near the nose are fleshy, and have a swollen appearance, they are an evidence of wickedness."
It is hard to reconcile the sometimes meticulous scholarship with the other times reckless theorizing. That is, of course, a problem caused by looking two thousand years back in time through our modern lens.
Taking all in all - the research and the theorizing, the scientific and the poetic, the logical and the theoretical, Aristotle offered an overwhelming foundation of material for generations of scholars to build upon. By his own standards, ultimately, Aristotle lived a worthy life: "We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts not breaths; in feelings, not in figures on a dial. We should count time by heart throbs. He most lives who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best."