Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) – Philosopher, Polymath
It is not easy to document the life of someone who, on the one hand, was never autobiographical in his works, and, on other hand, had his biography written by a man who lived in a barrel, the infamous Diogenes Laertius. The pieces of work that we are certain belong to Aristotle, are the ones least concerned with his private life, while the most unreliable pieces of work are the ones most concerned with Aristotle’s private life.
These biographies are not lightly flawed; we only have to consider the fact that biographies weren’t even an established genre. They were more alike to works of fiction: in fact, they were half intellectually-stimulating, half-gossipy. Biographers’ primary goal wasn’t to remain impartial, but to document the person’s life in an entertaining manner as they often satirized the person they presented and invented parts of his life.
We know that stories of infamy were built around Aristotle’s character by envious intellectual opponents to paint a degrading picture of him for the public eye. The Epicureans, people who borrowed much from Aristotle’s philosophy, called him a drug dealer, a good-for-nothing and a glutton. Others looked down at him for his ideas, like Alexander the Great who was contemptuous of Aristotle’s crowd-pleasing rhetoric.
Yet, the nasty bits slipped out of existence as time passed. Instead, the only stories that remain are the ones exalting him as divine. His reputation as one of the greatest men who ever lived has not been reduced in the least. In his Divine Comedy, Dante Aleghieri called Aristotle “The master of those who know”.
Having influenced a range of subjects, including but not limited to, politics, psychology, metaphysics, biology and the study of literature, we owe Aristotle much of our science, and Western way of thinking.
Aristotle was born in 384 BC in Stagira, a greek colony in Thrace, and died in 322 BC in Euboea. His father was a doctor and Aristotle loved browsing his library, despite the fact that he never pursued medicine as a profession.
While he was still in his youth, his parents died, and Aristotle went to live along with a friend of his father’s, Proxenus. Proxenus was kind and generous and raised Aristotle like his own child.
Since it was obvious from a young age that Aristotle was extremely bright, he was sent to Athens to study in Plato’s academy, one of the most highly prestigious schools at the time.
There, he was called by Plato ‘the intelligence of the school’, (although it has not been certified whether these two great philosophers were ever in contact). As an aristocrat, Aristotle had the advantage of being rid of financial troubles. This also meant he could dedicate his time to academia.
When Plato died in 347 BC, Aristotle, now 37 years old, moved to Assos in Asia Minor where it is believed he wrote much of his Politics. It is necessary to mention that Aristotle’s surviving works are largely composed of lecture notes, while his self-contained works (said to be of higher quality) have been lost.
“Man is by nature a political animal.”Aristotle in Politics
In Politics Aristotle vouches for the city-state method of organization, arguing that bigger communities would be ineffective. And this is, he says, because men are political animals, and a man who doesn’t partake in society is either a beast or a god.
If the common citizen doesn’t believe that he has enough power to influence his society, he feels foreign in his community. Therefore, Aristotle claims, communities should be small enough to give the individual a purpose to live in one, but big enough in order to be self-sufficient.
Aristotle also wrote that the fundamental values of individuals shouldn’t diverge at all, because this only leads to civil conflict. In fact, he claims that although some level of diversity is necessary to kindle philosophical inquiry, education should instill in children the necessary political and religious values to achieve this level of homogeneity, which some would consider brainwashing. According to Nicomachean (Aristotelian) Ethics, as we will see later, the reason why he does not consider it brainwashing is clear.
In Assos, Aristotle founded a school where he taught for three years, but due to the Persian threat in the East, he had to move to Mytilene in the island of Lesbos on the opposite side of Assos. There, he focused his studies on biology for three years until 342 BC, when the father of Alexander the Great, King Phillip II of Macedonia, requested that Aristotle teach his son.
This was obviously a grand opportunity for Aristotle, and he gladly accepted it. During the same time (and after the death of his first wife, Pythia) Aristotle met his second wife, Herpyllis, with whom he had his only son, Nicomachus, who lent his name to his father’s book Nicomachean Ethics. (The book is based on notes from the Lyceum that Nicomachus discovered later in life).
“Piety requires us to honor truth above our friends.”Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes it clear that every individual, having his own function, needs to be raised in a certain way in order to both serve his community and himself. In this book, he develops the concept of eudaimonia (eu=good, daimon=god, soul) which can be translated to flourishing, human prosperity, blessedness or in general, happiness.
According to him, eudaimonia is the ultimate goal of every human being. He claimed that every being has a function, an idea which is tied to his work on biology. As humans, what distinguishes us from other animals is our ability to reason. Therefore if we didn’t apply reason we would be miserable. Think about it. Would any of us be happy if we didn’t have problems to solve? If we didn’t have to organize our societies, build our tools, figure out how to make friends, how to find a lover, how, in essence, to live happily? As Aristotle noted, we would be slaves.
Still, as an empiricist, Aristotle doesn’t fail to mention that there are external factors that play a part in determining our eudaimonia, like disease or civil conflict, and he called these external goods.
Being beautiful, being born into wealth, having good and caring parents etc. are all determined by luck. Ultimately, the best life one can live is determined by good luck and the use of reason. The best life is a life of virtue.
Aristotle also lists the three major virtues – courage, tact and temperament – that make up the traits of the perfect character, someone who can defy fear, who can reason through it, who can remain calm and who does so only when it is necessary.
To sum it up, Aristotle said that our life is but the sum of our actions (and our inactions).
In Rhetoric, Aristotle wrote about the art of persuasion. In ancient Greece, rhetoric was as widespread and as cunning as one can imagine. In fact, Plato criticized rhetoric for this very reason. He said it became detached from all moral standards, that it became a tool to mask the truth and to fool the other to gain from deception.
Ancient Athenians loved to conduct trials and had professionals who would write speeches for the defendants to memorize and then give in trial. The same professional could even write speeches for the accuser and the defendant in a single case, forgoing their moral compass!
Although it is not sure whether or not he came into contact with Plato, Aristotle recognized the way rhetoric had been used. Just as any book on rhetoric at the time, the purpose of his book was to teach you how to make someone trust you and believe you through your arguments, your character, and the emotions you evoke in them.
Aristotle, however, makes it abundantly clear that being an upstanding citizen and being known for your honesty makes you much more believable than honeyed words.
Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great in the small village of Mieza in Macedonia. Alexander had a standard education for the most part. Since Aristotle held the firm belief that all non-Greeks are barbarians, he inspired the already ambitious Alexander to become a despot to the conquered and a leader to the Greeks. This was at the same time that Macedonia was gaining even more power as a city-state and had basically submitted the Athenians and their allies to its power.
In 335 BC, at around 50 years old, Aristotle returned to Athens and established the Lyceum, which eventually became one of the most prestigious schools in Attica. The Lyceum centered around Aristotle’s teachings. Notably, in the large halls of the school, called the Peripatoi, Aristotle and his students would have philosophical discussions centered around logic, metaphysics and practical philosophy (ethics, politics, aesthetics), which granted them the name Peripatikoi. After Aristotle’s death the Lyceum closed as its rival, Plato’s Academy, attracted more students.
When Alexander died in 323 BC and Athens began to break free from Macedonian rule, the Athenians, aware of Aristotle’s ties to Alexander, disowned him. Because of the dangers he faced in Athens, Aristotle found refuge in Chalcis of Euboea, an island next to Attica, and eventually died there in 322 BC. Diogenis Laertius claimed he died by drinking aconite, a poisonous substance. At his request, Aristotle was buried next to his first wife Pythia in northern Athens, the city he so loved for its philosophical ideals.