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1. From Stagira to Plato's Academy (384-349)

Aristotle lived from 384-322BC, and is universally considered as one of the great thinkers of the ancient world. He was born in the city of Stagira in Macedonia. As the ancient Greeks had only one name, they were often referred to by their given name and the city at which they were born; thus: Aristotle of Stagira.

His father, Nichomacus, was the personal physician to the King of Macedonia, Amyntas; later, Aristotle would be tutor for a number of years to Amyntas' grandson: Alexander (later known as Alexander the Great). AristotleÍs relationship with the Macedonian leadership was a complex one: he was certainly not an unconditional supporter, and indeed, differed markedly with his student Alexander over the status of Greek culture. Yet at the same time, Aristotle was denounced as pro-Macedonian by his enemies at strategic moments in his life (347BC and 322BC: read below).

In 367, at the age of 17, Alexander left Stagira to attend school in Athens; he attended the Academy founded by Plato. Recall that the Academy had been set up by Plato as a continuing educational experience, the principles of which were later set out in PlatoÍs major work, the Republic. Aristotle continued at the Academy until the death of Plato in 347, some twenty years. Aristotle was recognized as a brilliant if independent student of philosophy. At the death of Plato, Aristotle hoped to succeed him as director of the Academy, but Speusippus, a nephew of Plato was chosen instead. This was related, at least in part, to philosophical differences between Plato and Aristotle, but was also related to the fact that Speusippus, having been named heir to PlatoÍs estate, also "inherited" the Academy. Moreover, Aristotle was not an Athenian by birth, and was taxed with pro-Macedonian sympathies, at a time when anti-Macedonian sentiment was on the rise in Athens. As a result, Aristotle left Athens in 347.

Middle Years: Greek Islands and Macedonia (349-334)

From 347 until 343 Aristotle travelled in the Greek islands and in Asia Minor. From 347-345 Aristotle was centered in Assos, whose ruler was Hermias, a pro-Macedonian leader influenced in part by philosophical ideas of a Platonic bent. It was here that Aristotle met his wife, Pythias, who is described as either a niece or daughter (perhaps both: a niece and adopted daughter) of Hermias, whom he married after the death of this latter at the hands of the Persians in about 341.

From 345 to 343 Aristotle lived on the island of Lesbos, at Mytilene, where he met Theophrastus, who became his scientific collaborator and later succeeded him as the head of the school-the Lyceum-which Aristotle would later found in Athens. It was during the period 347-343 that Aristotle made many of the observations of fauna and flora which figure in his biological writings.

In 343 Aristotle accepted the invitation of Phillip, King of Macadenia (and son of Nichomacus who had previously employed AristotleÍs father) to tutor his son Alexander. The tutoring was intense at the outset, in the years 343-342. Though the two are reported to have been friends, Aristotle and Alexander had rather different ambitions: that of Aristotle was to establish a new philosophical world view for the Greek world, that of Alexander was to conquer an empire that would be Greek only in part. Alexander later favored a policy of combining Greek and non-Greek cultures, in order to better rule the outlying provinces, while Aristotle persisted in the more nationalist defence of Greek culture against that of the rest of the world (termed "barbarians"). Interaction between Aristotle and Alexander declined after 342, and as of 340 Aristotle most probably returned to his home town of Stagira.

The Lyceum and Philosophy (334-322)

In 336 Philip of Macedonia was assassinated, and Alexander succeeded him, launching a series of campaigns that extended his rule from Greece to India in the far east and Egypt in the south. Aristotle, for his part, returned to Athens in 335, where he began to lecture in a gymnasium (place of physical and intellectual culture) known as the Lyceum. He lectured while walking about in one of its covered walkways, earning him the knickname "Peripatetic" (from the Greek for "walking about").

Aristotle lectured and directed the Lyceum for twelve years, producing during this time the treatises (or lecture notes) which now form his works. Aristotle's works encompassed all the major areas of thought: logic, science, metaphysics, ethics, and politics. He developed a new, non-Platonic theory of form, created a system of deductive reasoning for universal and existential statements, produced a theory of the cosmos, matter, life, and mind, and theorized about the relationship between ethics and politics and the nature of the good life. His system would rival that of Plato for allegiance for the next 2000 years.

In 323 Alexander the Great died while on campaign in the East; killed at age 32 either by a microbe or by poison. Once more, anti-Macedonian sentiment gained the upper hand in Athens and the Assembly declared war against Alexander's successor, Antipon, and attempted to free Greek city states from Macedonian rule. Aristotle, as in 347, was perceived as an anti-Athenian, pro-Macedonian. Charges of "impeity" (disbelief in the established gods) were made against him; this was the same charge that had been levelled against Socrates in 399BC and ultimately led to his conviction and execution.

Aristotle is said to have declared that he would not let the Athenians "sin twice against philosophy", and to avoid Socrates fate, he left Athens. He went into voluntary exile in the city of Chalcis, accompanied by his companion Herpyllis, with whom he had lived after the death of his wife, and who was likely the mother of his son Nicomachus. Aristotle died of a digestive ailment the next year, 322BC, at the age of 63.

Bibliographic References

The literature on Aristotle is immense. Here is a selection of works of interest to those wishing to read more about Aristotle's life and work, with special emphasis on his scientific and philosophical views:

Aristotle, edited by Jonathan Barnes (1984): Complete Works of Aristotle. [Updated and improved translation, but it does not include the notes and indexes of the Oxford edition.]

Aristotle, general editor W. D. Ross (1908-1930): The Works of Aristotle Translated into English, 11 volumes. [The Oxford translation, with extensive notes and indexes.]

Guthrie, W. K. (1962): A History of Greek Philosophy, 6 volumes. v.6: Aristotle: An Encounter [Very readable, scholarly study of Aristotle. ]

Lloyd, G. E. R. (1968). Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of His Thought. [Excellent introduction to the scope and range of Aristotle's thought. It deals with the relation of Aristotle to Plato, and includes sections on physics, logic, and pschology.]

Lloyd, G. E. R. (1970). Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle. [Deals with pre-Socratics, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle. Excellent introduction in conjunction with follow up volume Greek Science After Aristotle.]

Lloyd, G. E. R. (1973): Greek Science After Aristotle. [Follow up to the preceding volume, with sections on Epicureans, Stoics, Hellenistic science, Ptolemy, Galen, the social context and historical decline of ancient science.]

Sambursky, S. 1956). The Physical World of the Greeks. [Excellent study of Greek theory of elements, numbers, cosmos, it concludes with a study of the limitations of Greek science.]

Sarton, George (1952): A History of Science, 2 volumes. v.1: Ancient Science Through the Golden Age of Greece. [A history of ancient science, and its relation to society and art. Sarton was for a long time editor of Isis, the main journal for the history of science.]

Zeller, Eduard (1931). Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy, 13th edition, revised by W. Nestle. [This is an outline history by one of the great 19th Century German scholars. It contains a nice general introduction to Greek philosophy in general, followed by sections on the Pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle, Hellenistic and Roman philosophy]