Progressive Living

 Aristotle : a Brief Biography



Progressive Living

"We must not listen to those who urge us to think human thoughts since we are human, and mortal thoughts since we are mortal; rather, we should as far as possible immortalize ourselves and do all we can to live by the finest element in us — for if it is small in bulk, it is far greater than anything else in power and worth."


Aristotle: His Importance and Reputation

Who was this ancient Greek philosopher, and why should anyone care today?

Aristotle was no disembodied intellect, indifferent to the passions of life or to the problems of his time. He was a loving husband, the parent of two children, a devoted friend, and a committed teacher.

Aristotle did more to put both philosophy and science on a systematic footing than any thinker before him — and more than any thinker to come after him for many, many centuries. It could reasonably be said that while the Greeks provided the intellectual foundations for western civilization, Aristotle provided much of the foundation for the Greeks themselves.

Apart from such human and historical considerations, one of the best reasons to read Aristotle is for the excitement of seeing a great mind come to grips with many of the problems that have troubled people from his day to ours. Aristotle shows us vividly both how to do philosophy, and what can be expected to come of it.

Of course, some of Aristotle's writing has now dated, and some of his views, such as those regarding non-Greeks, strike us as offensive today. Given the passage of some 2,500 years, this is hardly surprising. What perhaps is surprising is that such works as his Nicomachean Ethics , which defends a Perfectionistic ethical theory, remain as sensible and important today as the day they were written. And to whatever extent some of his attitudes may offend us now, they were much the same as those of any educated Greek of his time. It is difficult for any thinker to entirely throw off his cultural baggage.


The Life of Aristotle

No Satisfactory Biography Currently Exists

Rather astonishingly, no truly satisfactory biography of Aristotle has yet been written. I. During's "Aristotle in the Ancient Biographical Tradition" (1957) compiles the surviving Arabic and classical sources (all of which are unsatisfactory) on his life. Volume I of Anton-Hermann Chroust's "Aristotle: New Light on his Life and on Some of His Lost Works" (1973) is a brave and strenuous attempt to sift through these sources in an effort to reach consistent conclusions. And J. P. Lynch's "Aristotle's School" tries to give the flavor of life in the Lyceum, where Aristotle taught. A new study has just been published, and may prove better than any of these.

The reason for this disgraceful biographical neglect, presumably, is that the lives of scholars tend not to be especially dramatic, devoted as they generally are to study, writing, and teaching. Moreover, the best available sources on Aristotle's life are frustratingly inconsistent. Still, Aristotle's life was more interesting than that of many a philosopher, and the broad outlines of his life are agreed upon, if not the details.

Aristotle's Family

Aristotle's parents were Nicomachus, a physician said to be able to trace his ancestry through a line of distinguished physicians, and Phaestis, a woman of aristocratic descent. Nichomachus was probably born in Stagira , a small Greek township situated among green but rocky hills roughly 175 miles north of Athens, and about fifty miles east of the Macedonian city of Pella, where Alexander the Great was later born. Phaestis was from Chalcis. (Stagira had originally been settled by emmigrants from the city of Chalcis, on the island of Euboea, and also by the inhabitants of the smaller island of Andros, around 750 BCE.) The following link provides a good map of ancient Greece, and provides an aid in understanding the geography of these cities.

The couple had three children: a daughter, Arimneste, a son, Arimnestus, and Aristotle. Arimneste was probably a good bit older than Aristotle. The parallelism in the names of his brother and sister suggest that Aristotle was the youngest of the three.

Arimnestus died without having sired children. Arimneste may have been the mother of a daughter, Hero, and was certainly the mother of a son, Nicanor.

Infancy, Childhood, & Adolescence

For his part, Aristotle was born in the summer of 384 BCE, also in Stagira. (It seems virtually certain that his physician father would have delivered him with his own hands.)

Some time after 384, Nicomachus was invited to work at Pella as the doctor to the king, Amyntas III, who was the father of Philip of Macedon. (Philip, in turn, was the father of Alexander the Great.) Nicomachus must have been at least reasonably well thought of, as his son, Aristotle, was later invited to return to Pella to instruct Alexander.

Presumably, Aristotle grew up in Pella. There is some evidence that he was unhappy there much of the time: in later life he was often to mention his dislike of princes and courts. It's likely that, as a boy, Aristotle studied medicine with his father. The practice of medicine was handed down from father to son in that era, and it was said in antiquity that when Aristotle left home to study in Athens he at first practiced medicine.

Aristotle seems to have lost both parents at an early age. His mother probably died before he turned 18, and his father was certainly dead by 367, very possibly a victim of vicious, internal Macedonian feuding. However, while his relationship with his father was tragically brief, it seems to have been cordial: Aristotle was later to name his own son Nicomachus in remembrance.

Upon the death of Aristotle's father, he became the ward of one Proxenus, the husband of his sister, Arimneste. It is possible that Proxenus was a friend of Plato; and it has also been suggested that the fate of the young Aristotle was put to the oracle at Delphi. In any case, in 367, at the age of 17, Aristotle left Proxenus' protection to become a student of Plato at the renowned Academy at Athens. (A plausible alternative account has it that he spent his first three years in Athens, not at the Academy, but rather in a school of rhetoric run by Isocrates.) Plato, the founder of the Academy, was then 61. At the time, the members of this institution were much preoccupied with politics, law, mathematics, and astronomy, over and above their more general philosophical investigations. All of this interest in politics seems to have made a considerable impression upon Aristotle; certainly it was a central interest of his in later years.

Adult Life

Aristotle remained at the Academy some twenty years until the death of Plato in 347. Few details of his academic career there survive, but Plato is supposed to have remarked, half jokingly, half ruefully, upon Aristotle's energy and enthusiasm. Aristotle's relationship with his great teacher was warm and respectful, and the feeling was reciprocal. Plato called him the "intellect" of the school, and Aristotle later eulogized him as "the man whom it is not lawful for bad men even to praise." Perhaps Aristotle saw in Plato something of the father he had lost.

Plato's nephew Speusippus was named head of the Academy upon Plato's death in 347, and shortly thereafter Aristotle departed. It has been suggested that Aristotle was perturbed at not being named as head of that institution himself, but there is some evidence to suggest that as a resident alien he couldn't have held such an office. And, tellingly, there were strong anti-Macedonian feelings abroad in Athens after Alexander's father, Philip, sacked the Greek city state of Olynthus in 348.

When Aristotle left the beloved Academy behind for the city of Assos in what is today north-western Turkey, his friend, the lethargic Xenocrates of Chalcedon, went with him. Two former members of the academy had been invited to teach the ruler of the area, a certain Hermias of Atarneus, who had earlier been enthralled upon hearing Plato lecture, and in gratitude for their acceptance of his offer Hermias had awarded them the city. The four scholars established a sort of Academy East, where Aristotle may have done work on his Politics, as well as on the lost essay On Kingship.

Aristotle became the intimate friend of Hermias, who was a Greek soldier of fortune and a vassal of Persian overlords, and soon married Hermias' adopted daughter, Pythias. Aristotle was 37, and some slight evidence suggests she may have been 18. She bore him a daughter, whom he named after his wife. However, his wife soon died. Their relationship seems to have been tender: Pythias wished to have her bones interred with those of Aristotle when he died, and Aristotle was to remember her request many years later when he came to write his will. He later had a relationship with Herpyllis, a handmaiden of Pythias, who bore him an illegitimate son, Nicomachus. She was to outlive Aristotle, and was well provided for in his will.

Because of a Persian attack on Assos, Aristotle didn't remain there for long. Around 344 he moved due south to the city of Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, where he founded another academy.

The island of Lesbos. Mytilene is on the peninsula at the right. Note the central lagoon.

This venture may have been suggested by his star pupil, Theophrastus, who was a native of the island; but in any case this period of teaching and research lasted two years. It is known that the lagoon in the center of the island was much investigated by him, and the sea life he would have found there may have played an important part in the development of his keen interest in marine biology.

Excursus: Aristotle on Biological Causation & Science

His biological meditations led Aristotle to postulate a new type of causation, the "teleological." In teleological causation, end states are in some sense the cause of preceding actions or processes. Millennia later, the science of cybernetics was to illustrate the mechanism of such causation, in the inorganic realm, in the form of homeostasis, one type of teleological causation; and Jean Piaget, in Behavior and Evolution, has shown the role of teleology in the evolutionary process. Aristotle's theory to the effect that living things have natural ends or goals, and that their structure and development can only be understood in light of these, has in the end been vindicated, after being relentlessly attacked throughout the early part of the twentieth century.

Those calling themselves Aristotelians, in the late Medieval era for example, tended to give short shrift to observation in science. Not so Aristotle himself, as his biological writings illustrate. For example, in addressing the subject of reproduction he observed: "The facts have not yet been sufficiently established. If ever they are, then credit must be given to observation rather than to theories, and to theories only insofar as they are confirmed by the observed facts."

Aristotle & Alexander the Great

Early in 342, in the most pivotal event of his life, some biographers state that Aristotle was invited to the Macedonian capital of Pella by Philip II for the purpose of tutoring his son, Alexander (others have disputed this claim). Though Aristotle and his father had lived there earlier, and although Aristotle already had a reputation as a great scholar, another influential factor in the invitation may have been Hermias, who had been negotiating with Philip regarding an expedition against Persia. (The Persians were the greatest power in the area, and had earlier invaded Greece.)

At the age of 62, Aristotle's mentor, Plato, had received a similar invitation to educate the young Dionysios II. Though reluctant, Plato had accepted. He acknowledged that this was, in part, from "a feeling of shame . . . lest I might someday appear to myself wholly and solely a mere man of words." Yet Plato had also said that there would never be much improvement in governance until philosophers were kings, or kings became philosophers.

Though the results of Plato's efforts were disappointing, an object lesson which would certainly not have been lost on Aristotle, he nevertheless accepted Philip's invitation. In a vein similar to Plato's, Aristotle's political philosophy called upon kings to heed the counsel of philosophers, saying, for example that "a king should take the advice of true philosophers. Then he would fill his reign with good deeds, not with good words."

So, despite his disgust with political intrigue and drunken orgies, Aristotle did his best for seven years, from the time Alexander was 13, to instill some wisdom and respect for excellence in his restless pupil. One tactic he adopted to this end was to expose Alexander to the influence of Homer, who was perhaps the moral instructor of the Greeks, going so far as to prepare a special edition of The Iliad for Alexander's use.

This tactic fell on fertile soil with the hyperambitious Alexander. In ways large and small Alexander was to model his life on that of the soldier-hero of The Iliad, the similarly ambitious Achilles. An interesting passage in Aristotle reads as follows:

"There is a general assumption that the manner of a man's life is a clue to what he on reflection regards as the good —in other words, happiness. Persons of low tastes (always in the majority) hold that it is pleasure. Accordingly they ask for nothing better than the sort of life which consists in having a good time. (I have in mind the three well-known types of life—that just mentioned, that of the man of affairs, that of the philosophic student.) The utter vulgarity of the herd of men comes out in their preference for the sort of existence a cow leads. Their view would hardly get a respectful hearing, were it not that those who occupy great positions sympathize with a monster of sensuality like Sardanapalus. The gentleman, however, and the man of affairs identify the good with honor, which may fairly be described as the end which men pursue in political or public life."

(Sardanapalus was a legendary Assyrian king, probably an amalgam of several actual Assyrian kings, who was noted for his effeminacy and his small army of concubines.)

Now the interesting thing about Alexander, a "man of affairs", is that, like Achilles, he lived, above all, for honor and for respect. And there is much in his almost victorian attitude toward women that is baffling, unless one keeps in mind both the sexual conduct of Achilles and the powerfully negative example of Sardanapalus. Finally, while Alexander enjoyed his wine (perhaps even to the point of alcoholism) he had utter contempt for wounds and other types of physical discomfort. It is in connection with Homer, then, that Alexander's seven years with Aristotle most reflect the philosopher's influence, rather than in any specific philosophical doctrine, as the intelligent but pragmatic and sometimes brutal Alexander had little interest in philosophy. (He may have had some interest in biological research, and it has been said that he appointed men to collect specimens of various kinds for his former teacher.)

In addition to Alexander, Aristotle may have been charged with the educations of the children of other court officials. In any case, he struck up a relationship with Philip's chief diplomat, Antipater. The actual instruction was carried out, not at Pella, but at nearby Mieza.

In 340, Alexander was called upon to act as regent in Philip's absence (due to a military campaign), which probably drastically altered the time available for his association with Aristotle. (In 336, Philip was assassinated in peculiar and rather mysterious circumstances, so that at the age of 20 Alexander came to the throne. Soon plotting a glorious campaign of vengeance against Persia, he was to have little further use for Aristotle, though he was prevailed upon to restore the little city of Stagira, which Philip had razed.)

Aristotle Returns to Athens

By 339, lacking the motives for which he had originally come to Pella, and probably bored with the task of educating lesser students than Alexander, Aristotle found himself casting about for a new direction in life. Initially, he retreated to his paternal property in Stagira, where he associated with Theophrastus and former students of Plato. But by comparison with Athens, Stagira was in every way a backwater. Moreover, Speusippus died, to be replaced by Aristotle's old colleague Xenocrates, so that around 335, after an absence of some 13 years, he decided to return.

This can't have been an especially easy decision for him to have made. Athens, along with other fiercely independent city-states, had been conquered by the Macedonian Philip, and resentment of anyone affiliated in any way with Macedonia ran deep. Still, Aristotle could count on the protection of his diplomat friend Antipater, who had been placed in charge of overseeing the Greek possessions in Alexander's absence.

Rather than returning to the Academy, Aristotle established his own competing institution at the Lyceum, a "gymnasium" attached to a temple consecrated to Apollo Lyceus just outside of Athens. He was fond of walking and talking with his students in the garden there, which resulted in the institution becoming known as the "peripatetic" school. Dedicated to the cult of the Muses, it was well equipped with maps, as well as the largest library in Europe. Regular dinners were held (on plate belonging to the Lyceum), and symposia were conducted along guidelines prepared by Aristotle himself. He is said to have devoted mornings to more technical problems of philosophy, and to have addressed a more general audience in the afternoon on subjects such as rhetoric. Most of the treatises which we now possess were probably written up as lecture notes for presentations at the Lyceum. (Others have argued that some of these treatises were written by others at a later time.)

This fruitful, and probably happy, period came to an abrupt end in 323. Following news of Alexander's death, a revolt of anti-Macedonian Athenians was directed against Antipater. As a Macedonian and resident alien, Aristotle suddenly found himself facing charges of "impiety" for an elegy he had written to Hermias 20 years earlier. (In 341 Hermias had been betrayed to the Persians, and was tortured to death by them. Even under torture, however, he had refused to betray his friends. Moved, Aristotle had written a hymn to virtue in his name.) Fearful that he might be made to share the fate of Socrates (state execution), Aristotle removed himself to his mother's estate in Chalcis. After his busy life in Athens, he found little to engage him there, writing to Antipater "the more I am by myself, and alone, the fonder I have become of myths."

He died of a stomach ailment after a few short months in Chalcis between July and October of 322 at the age of 62.

Aristotle's classic Nicomachean Ethics is reviewed in the PL Philosophy Field Guide. Navigation options may be found below.
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