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Aristotle

Background

ARISTOTLE (384–322 B.C.), the great Greek philosopher, was born at Stagira, on the Strymonic Gulf, and hence called “the Stagirite.” Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in his Epistle on Demosthenes and Aristotle (chap. 5), gives the following sketch of his life:—Aristotle (Άριστοτέλης) was the son of Nicomachus, who traced back his descent and his art to Machaon, son of Aesculapius; his mother being Phaestis, a descendant of one of those who carried the colony from Chalcis to Stagira. He was born in the 99th Olympiad in the archonship at Athens of Diotrephes (384–383), three years before Demosthenes. In the archonship of Polyzelus (367–366), after the death of his father, in his eighteenth year, he came to Athens, and having joined Plato spent twenty years with him. On the death of Plato (May 347) in the archonship of Theophilus (348–347) he departed to Hermias, tyrant of Atarneus, and, after three years’ stay, during the archonship of Eubulus (345–344) he moved to Mitylene, whence he went to Philip of Macedon in the archonship of Pythodotus (343–342), and spent eight years with him as tutor of Alexander. After the death of Philip (336), in the archonship of Euaenetus (335–334), he returned to Athens and kept a school in the Lyceum for twelve years. In the thirteenth, after the death of Alexander (June 323) in the archonship of Cephisodorus (323–322), having departed to Chalcis, he died of disease (322), after a life of three-and-sixty years.

Early Life

This account is practically repeated by Diogenes Laertius in his Life of Aristotle, on the authority of the Chronicles of Apollodorus, who lived in the 2nd century B.C. Starting then from this tradition, near enough to the time, we can confidently divide Aristotle’s career into four periods: his youth under his parents till his eighteenth year; his philosophical education under Plato at Athens till his thirty-eighth year; his travels in the Greek world till his fiftieth year; and his philosophical teaching in the Lyceum till his departure to Chalcis and his death in his sixty-third year. But when we descend from generals to particulars, we become less certain, and must here content ourselves with few details.

Aristotle from the first profited by having a father who, being physician to Amyntas II., king of Macedon, and one of the Asclepiads who, according to Galen, practised their sons in dissection, both prepared the way for his son’s influence at the Macedonian court, and gave him a bias to medicine and biology, which certainly led to his belief in nature and natural science, and perhaps induced him to practise medicine, as he did, according to his enemies, Timaeus and Epicurus, when he first went to Athens. At Athens in his second period for some twenty years he acquired the further advantage of balancing natural science by metaphysics and morals in the course of reading Plato’s writings and of hearing Plato’s unwritten dogmas (cf. ἐν τοῖς λεγομένοις ἀγράφοις δόγμασιν, Ar. Physics, iv. 2, 209 b 15, Berlin ed.). He was an earnest, appreciative, independent student. The master is said to have called his pupil the intellect of the school and his house a reader’s. He is also said to have complained that his pupil spurned him as colts do their mothers. Aristotle, however, always revered Plato’s memory (Nic. Ethics, i. 6), and even in criticizing his master counted himself enough of a Platonist to cite Plato’s doctrines as what “we say” (cf. φαμέν, Metaphysics, i. 9, 990 b 16). At the same time, he must have learnt much from other contemporaries at Athens, especially from astronomers such as Eudoxus and Callippus, and from orators such as Isocrates and Demosthenes. He also attacked Isocrates, according to Cicero, and perhaps even set up a rival school of rhetoric. At any rate he had pupils of his own, such as Eudemus of Cyprus, Theodectes and Hermias, books of his own, especially dialogues, and even to some extent his own philosophy, while he was still a pupil of Plato.

Well grounded in his boyhood, and thoroughly educated in his manhood, Aristotle, after Plato’s death, had the further advantage of travel in his third period, when he was in his prime. The appointment of Plato’s nephew, Speusippus, to succeed his uncle in the Academy induced Aristotle and Xenocrates to leave Athens together and repair to the court of Hermias. Aristotle admired Hermias, and married his friend’s sister or niece, Pythias, by whom he had his daughter Pythias. After the tragic death of Hermias, he retired for a time to Mitylene, and in 343–342 was summoned to Macedon by Philip to teach Alexander, who was then a boy of thirteen. According to Cicero (De Oratore, iii. 41), Philip wished his son, then a boy of thirteen, to receive from Aristotle “agendi praecepta et eloquendi.” Aristotle is said to have written on monarchy and on colonies for Alexander; and the pupil is said to have slept with his master’s edition of Homer under his pillow, and to have respected him, until from hatred of Aristotle’s tactless relative, Callisthenes, who was done to death in 328, he turned at last against Aristotle himself. Aristotle had power to teach, and Alexander to learn. Still we must not exaggerate the result. Dionysius must have spoken too strongly when he says that Aristotle was tutor of Alexander for eight years; for in 340, when Philip went to war with Byzantium, Alexander became regent at home, at the age of sixteen. From this date Aristotle probably spent much time at his paternal house in his native city at Stagira as a patriotic citizen. Philip had sacked it in 348: Aristotle induced him or his son to restore it, made for it a new constitution, and in return was celebrated in a festival after his death. All these vicissitudes made him a man of the world, drew him out of the philosophical circle at Athens, and gave him leisure to develop his philosophy. Besides Alexander he had other pupils: Callisthenes, Cassander, Marsyas, Phanias, and Theophrastus of Eresus, who is said to have had land at Stagira. He also continued the writings begun in his second period; and the Macedonian kings have the glory of having assisted the Stagirite philosopher with the means of conducting his researches in the History of Animals.

At last, in his fourth period, after the accession of Alexander, Aristotle at fifty returned to Athens and became the head of his own school in the Lyceum, a gymnasium near the temple of Apollo Lyceius in the suburbs. The master and his scholars were called Peripatetics (οἱ ἐκ τοῦ περιπάτου), certainly from meeting, like other philosophical schools, in a walk (περίπατος), and perhaps also, on the authority of Hermippus of Smyrna, from walking and talking there, like Protagoras and his followers as described in Plato’s Protagoras (314 e, 315 c). Indeed, according to Ammonius, Plato too had talked as he walked in the Academy; and all his followers were called Peripatetics, until, while the pupils of Xenocrates took the name “Academics,” those of Aristotle retained the general name. Aristotle also formed his Peripatetic school into a kind of college with common meals under a president (ἄρχων) changing every ten days; while the philosopher himself delivered lectures, in which his practice, as his pupil Aristoxenus tells us (Harmonics ii, init.), was, avoiding the generalities of Plato, to prepare his audience by explaining the subject of investigation and its nature. But Aristotle was an author as well as a lecturer; for the hypothesis that the Aristotelian writings are notes of his lectures taken down by his pupils is contradicted by the tradition of their learning while walking, and disproved by the impossibility of taking down such complicated discourses from dictation. Moreover, it is clear that Aristotle addressed himself to readers as well as hearers, as in concluding his whole theory of syllogisms he says, “There would remain for all of you or for our hearers (πάντων ὑμῶν ἢ τῶν) a duty of according to the defects of the investigation consideration, to its discoveries much gratitude” (Sophisticai Elenchi, 34,184 b 6). In short, Aristotle was at once a student, a reader, a lecturer, a writer and a book collector. He was, says Strabo (608), the first we knew who collected books and taught the kings in Egypt the arrangement of a library. In his library no doubt were books of others, but also his own. There we must figure to ourselves the philosopher, constantly referring to his autograph rolls; entering references and cross-references; correcting, rewriting, collecting and arranging them according to their subjects; showing as well as reading them to his pupils; with little thought of publication, but with his whole soul concentrated on being and truth.

On his first visit to Athens, during which occurred the fatal battle of Mantineia (362 B.C.), Aristotle had seen the confusion of Greece becoming the opportunity of Macedon under Philip; and on his second visit he was supported at Athens by the complete domination of Macedon under Alexander. Having witnessed the unjust exactions of a democracy at Athens, the dwindling population of an oligarchy at Sparta, and the oppressive selfishness of new tyrannies throughout the Greek world, he condemned the actual constitutions of the Greek states as deviations (παρεκβάσεις) directed merely to the good of the government; and he contemplated a right constitution (ὀρθὴ πολιτεία), which might be either a commonwealth, an aristocracy or a monarchy, directed to the general good; but he preferred the monarchy of one man, pre-eminent in virtue above the rest, as the best of all governments (Nicomachean Ethics, viii. 10; Politics, Γ 14-18). Moreover, by adding (Politics, Η 7, 1327 b 29-33) that the Greek race could govern the world by obtaining one constitution (μιᾶς τυγχάνον πολιτείας), he indicated some leaning to a universal monarchy under such a king as Alexander. On the whole, however, he adhered to the Greek city-state (πόλις), partly perhaps out of patriotism to his own Stagira. Averse at all events to the Athenian democracy, leaning towards Macedonian monarchy, and resting on Macedonian power, he maintained himself in his school at Athens, so long as he was supported by the friendship of Antipater, the Macedonian regent in Alexander’s absence. But on Alexander’s sudden death in 323, when Athens in the Lamian war tried to reassert her freedom against Antipater, Aristotle found himself in danger. He was accused of impiety on the absurd charge of deifying the tyrant Hermias; and, remembering the fate of Socrates, he retired to Chalcis in Euboea. There, away from his school, in 322 he died. (A tomb has been found in our time inscribed with the name of Biote, daughter of Aristotle. But is this our Aristotle?)

Such is our scanty knowledge of Aristotle’s life, which seems to have been prosperous by inheritance and position, and happy by work and philosophy. His will, which was quoted by Hermippus, and, as afterwards quoted by Diogenes Laertius, has come down to us, though perhaps not complete, supplies some further details, as follows:—Antipater is to be executor with others. Nicanor is to marry Pythias, Aristotle’s daughter, and to take charge of Nicomachus his son. Theophrastus is to be one of the executors if he will and can, and if Nicanor should die to act instead, if he will, in reference to Pythias. The executors and Nicanor are to take charge of Herpyllis, “because,” in the words of the testator, “she has been good to me,” and to allow her to reside either in the lodging by the garden at Chalcis or in the paternal house at Stagira. They are to provide for the slaves, who in some cases are to be freed. They are to see after the dedication of four images by Gryllion of Nicanor, Proxenus, Nicanor’s mother and Arimnestus. They are to dedicate an image of Aristotle’s mother, and to see that the bones of his wife Pythias are, as she ordered, taken up and buried with him. On this will we may remark that Proxenus is said to have been Aristotle’s guardian after the death of his father, and to have been the father of Nicanor; that Herpyllis of Stagira was the mother of Nicomachus by Aristotle; and that Arimnestus was the brother of Aristotle, who also had a sister, Arimneste. Every clause breathes the philosopher’s humanity.

Sources

Primary Sources

Secondary Sources

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 2

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