Aristotle is a fascinating individual and acclaimed as one of the greatest thinkers ever. He is the third in a direct line of great philosophers: Socrates, Plato (trained by Socrates), and Aristotle (trained by Plato). Whereas Socrates suffered public condemnation because of philosophy, Aristotle was elevated by King Philip to high social status, and was chosen as the private tutor of Alexander, who later became Alexander the great. We see in these three generations, therefore, the transition from philosophy as socially taboo to philosophy as socially prominent.
Plato called Aristotle the “Nous of the Academy”, that is to say, he was intelligence personified.[i] Aristotle studied under Plato either eight or 20 years, accounts vary, but in either case he was extremely impacted by his mentor, and became renowned.
Alexander was 13 when Aristotle began to tutor him. Already a privileged heir of a conquering King, Alexander was a wildly passionate youth, and hard to tame. Nevertheless, Alexander cherished Aristotle, and wrote to Aristotle, “for my part, I had rather excel in the knowledge of what is good man in the extent of my power and dominion.”[ii] However, Alexander’s time with Aristotle was only two years, and as he assumed power he followed in the fiery passion of his conquering father. Still Aristotle’s influence was seen. While Alexander is now credited with the tremendous accomplishment of bringing unifying rule to a large portion of the world at that time, he was not without his detractors. And those same detractors were critical of Aristotle as Alexander’s mentor. This would prove to hurt him late in his life.
Nevertheless it served Aristotle well to be Alexander the Great’s teacher, and as condemned as Socrates was, was how promoted Aristotle was. Aristotle was extremely interested in organizing and categorizing knowledge in many fields. He was able to set up the Lyceum, which went beyond Plato’s Academy in that it promoted biology and the natural sciences along with philosophy. And because of his political stature (supported by Alexander), it is written that “he had at his disposal a thousand men scattered throughout Greek and Asia, collecting for him specimens of the fauna and flora of every land.”[iii] With this he established the world’s first zoological garden besides laying the foundation for the sciences of all those fields.
As great as Plato was, and in previous articles I’ve attested to the impact that he has had on Western civilization to this day, Aristotle built on what Plato started and refined the thinking of Western civilization to the nth degree:
“The first great distinction of Aristotle is that without predecessors, almost entirely by his own hard thinking, he created a new science – logic. Renan speaks of the ‘ the ill training of every mind that has not, directly or indirectly, come under Greek discipline’; but in truth the Greek intellect itself was undisciplined and chaotic till the ruthless formulas of Aristotle provided a ready method for the test and correction of thought. Even Plato (if a lover may so far presume) was an unruly and irregular soul, caught up too frequently in a cloud of myth, and letting beauty too richly veil the face of truth.”[iv]
One of the things that mark Aristotle is his versatility. Aristotle was the first to separate the different branches of learning. He’s the one that’s credited with establishing the accepted the divisions of philosophy. “He offered what might be called a general theory of knowledge, based on a process of investigation and acquisition of proof . “[v] as noted above, he also refined logic to the point of establishing the truth of a supposition. He became the first one to use logic to differentiate between valid and invalid suppositions.
He introduced the concept of syllogism, a concept that uses simple deductive reasoning to prove a third thing from two previous suppositions. The parts of a syllogism are called the major premise, the minor premise, and the conclusion. For example,
- All people have a soul
- Fred is a person
- Therefore, Fred has a soul
Like his teacher, Plato, Aristotle was deeply interested in politics. However, he did not agree with the conclusions of his mentor, and championed the concept of the city-state. Aristotle said, “man is by nature an animal designed for living in states” which is sometimes paraphrased “man is by nature a political animal.” Aristotle wrote:
“Man is the only animal with the power of speech… Speech is for pointing out what is useful and hurtful; it points out also what is just or unjust. This is peculiar to man… He is the only animal to have a sense of good and evil, just and unjust, and so on.”[vi]
Aristotle Promoted Slavery
Aristotle also wrote that Greeks should rule over non-Greeks, or “barbarians”. As much as we may admire him, most of us are appalled at the idea of slavery. Nevertheless, Aristotle believed that there was not a natural leader among any people except for the Greeks. To Aristotle slaves were identical in nature to barbarians. Aristotle blatantly promoted the concept of Greek superiority.
While Aristotle promoted the idea that the earth is round, his concept was that the earth was an orb at the very center of the universe. He postulated that the structure of the cosmos was of at least 55 large, concentric, invisible spheres. This was in response to earlier propositions by other philosophers that the cosmos consisted of spheres, but their proposals were of lesser numbers. Aristotle’s explanation dominated the field of astronomy for about two millennia.[vii]
“Aristotle studied more than 540 distinct animal species and dissected specimens of at least 50 species. He discovered, among other things, that whales and dolphins are mammals, like people; that some fish have bones and others cartilage; the cows have four chambered stomachs; that birds and reptiles are anatomically similar; and that embryonic chicks have beating hearts. One of his most famous observations was that the gestation of a baby chick in its egg. ‘with the common hen, after three days and three nights there is the first indication of the embryo,’…”[viii]
Exile and Death
When Alexander died suddenly, probably of malaria around 323 BC, Aristotle’s political status changed dramatically. He was put on trial in Athens. To escape the fate of Socrates he fled to an estate that he owned on the island of Euboea. He died within a few months.
In the next article we will take a quick look at Aristotle’s writing.
[i] THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY, Will Durant, Touchstone, Simon & Schuster New York, 1933, p. 59
[ii] ibid. P. 61
[iii] ibid. P. 63
[iv] ibid. P. 67
[v] ANCIENT PHILOSOPHERS, Don Nardo, Lucent books, Farmington Hills, Michigan, 2002, P. 50
[vi] ibid. P. 55
[vii] ibid. P. 60
[viii] ibid. P. 60
© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.