Aristotle was undoubtedly one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Some have even argued that he was the greatest philosopher there ever was. The problem is that from the time of Pythagoras to that of Socrates, the ancient Greeks didn’t write down any of their philosophical statements for posterity. As such, Aristotle’s influence on the world is far greater and has possibly even surpassed that of his teacher Plato, who was the first person in the written tradition of the neo-sophists. The fact is that Aristotle’s works have shaped millennia of philosophy from Late Antiquity through the Renaissance, and beyond. To do this, the prolific polymath produced as many as two-hundred treatises, on a wide range of lecture topics. His lecture notes included On the Soul, Poetics, Politics, Physics, Metaphysics, Nichomachean Ethics, and many more subjects.
It all began in the year 384 BCE, in the Macedonian region of northeastern Greece in the small city of Stagira, where Aristotle was born. His father, Nicomachus, was a member of the medical Asclepiad guild and the royal doctor of the Macedonian King Amyntas III. This inspired Aristotle’s interest in the physical sciences, specifically biology. The point is that Aristotle was well-connected right from the start, spending time within the Macedonian palace, and making his first connections with the monarchy at a very young age. Later, in the year 366 BCE, Aristotle was sent to Athens at the age of eighteen to study at Plato’s Academy. He remained there until 347 BCE, working as a student, then a teacher, and finally a researcher. Then, in 343 BCE, Aristotle was invited by Phillip II of Macedon to become the royal tutor to his son, the young Alexander the Great.
After that, back in Athens, lots of decisions were made in public meetings, often in the Agora, where orators would vie with one another to sway popular opinion. That’s why Aristotle reformulated what we still today call rhetoric, which is really just the art of getting people to agree with you. That is to say, Aristotle’s Rhetoric proposes that a speaker can use three basic kinds of appeals to persuade his audience. These are an appeal to the speaker’s character (“ethos”), an appeal to the audience’s emotion (“pathos”), and an appeal to logical reasoning (“logos”). Aristotle also categorizes rhetoric into three genres. These are epideictic, which are ceremonial speeches dealing with praise or blame, forensic, which are judicial speeches over guilt or innocence, and deliberative, which are speeches calling on an audience to make a decision on an issue. Aristotle also outlines two kinds of rhetorical proofs. They are proof by example (“paradeigma”) and proof by syllogism (“enthymeme”).
Of course, rather than just being another lecturer at the Agora, Aristotle became a professor at the Lyceum sanctuary, which got its name from Apollo Lyceus who was the wolf-god of truth. There, in that sacred space, Aristotle founded the second school of higher learning in the West, in the year 335 BCE. Then, long before the Ivy League, a scholastic rivalry began between the first two universities in history, the Academy and the Lyceum. As such, after his morning lessons, Aristotle would frequently lecture on the grounds for the public, and manuscripts of his compiled lectures were even circulated around Athens. Thus, the group of scholars who followed the Aristotelian doctrine came to be known as the “peripatetics”, which means “wanderers”, due to Aristotle’s tendency to walk as he taught, either throughout the sanctuary or the city.
Aristotle also established a library that helped him to produce many of his hundreds of books on papyrus scrolls imported from Egypt. He even developed the principles of library classification. Unfortunately, although Aristotle wrote many elegant treatises and dialogues, only a third of his original body of work has survived. In regards to what remains, in Book 8 of Physics and Book 12 of Metaphysics, Aristotle explains how the “Prime Mover” must be the initial cause of all the motion in the universe. This was meant to replace Plato’s “Form of the Good”, the primary form in the realm of Being. Thus, Aristotle was a very early deist, as well as an influential cosmogonist. Along with this, in Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul, he posits three different kinds of “psyches”. These are the vegetative soul, the sensitive soul, and the rational soul. Moreover, the unique part of the human, rational soul is its ability to receive forms of other things and to compare them using the intellect and reason. Of course, in contrast to earlier philosophers, but in accordance with the Egyptians, he placed the rational soul in the heart, rather than the brain as taught by Alcmaeon of Croton. So, Aristotle was a great theologist, a decent psychologist, and a terrible neurologist.
Regardless, Aristotle was the first person to study biology systematically, making him an expert naturalist. His data in Parts of Animals, Movement of Animals, Generation of Animals, and History of Animals, are assembled from his own observations, statements given by people with specialized knowledge such as beekeepers and fishermen, and less accurate anecdotes provided by overseas travelers. The thing is that while Aristotle was aware that new mutations occur, he saw these as rare accidents. So, Aristotle was critical of Empedocles’ theory regarding the origin and evolution of living things and he actively ridiculed the idea that accidents could lead to orderly results. Aristotle just couldn’t wrap his head around the prototypes of “natural selection”. He did, however, properly infer growth laws from his observations on animals, including that a brood size decreases with body mass, whereas the gestation period increases. From the data that he collected and documented, Aristotle was able to infer that brood size decreases with adult body mass so that an elephant has fewer young per brood than a mouse.
Although, it should be understood that Aristotle didn’t do experiments in the modern sense. Instead, he used the ancient Greek term “pepeiramenoi” to mean observations, or at most investigative procedures like dissection. Ultimately, Aristotle practiced a different kind of science by systematically gathering data, discovering patterns common to whole groups of animals, and inferring possible causal explanations from that. This style is still common in modern biology when large amounts of data become available in a new field, such as genomics. Aristotle was even considered to be the expert on all matters of biology for more than a millennium, yet history now remembers him as a philosopher. This is because Aristotle was a revolutionary ethicist, among other things. In essence, he was circling back to the teachings of Pythagoras, who believed that we should do things in moderation, rather than too little or too much.
At the Lyceum, Aristotle taught his followers that good and successful people all possess distinct “virtues”, of which he focused on eleven specifically. This includes, but is not necessarily limited to, pride, courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, truthfulness, patience, magnanimity, wittiness, modesty, and friendliness. As an example of this, in Book 8 and Book 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies three different kinds of friendship. In regards to this particular branch of ethics, Aristotle also observed that every virtue is in the middle of two vices. This was a revolutionary way of approaching what it means to be a good person. As such, virtue ethics is still one of the three major approaches in normative ethics among contemporary philosophers. I even used a combination of Aristotle’s virtues with Kant’s maxims to form the basis of an algorithm in the applied moral calculus of my Heheian ethics.
In Aristotle’s virtue ethics, there’s no categorical imperative or principle of utility. Instead, virtue theory is all about character. The idea is that, if people can just focus on being good, then the right actions will follow, effortlessly. Traditional virtue theorists reflect the ancient assumption that humans have an essence, and that the way to flourish is by adhering to that nature. Aristotle described this in terms of what he called proper functioning. Aristotle argued that the universe has built into us the desire to be virtuous. He said that having virtue just means doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, in the right amount, toward the right people. Virtue means “in just the right amount”, being the sweet spot between two vices, which are always the extreme of excess and the extreme of deficiency. This perfect point is known as the “Golden Mean”, as shown in the example below.
Basically, Aristotle taught his followers that character is developed through habituation. Meaning, if you do a virtuous thing over and over again, eventually, it will become part of your character. According to Aristotle, the way to know the right thing to do is by finding someone who already knows, and emulating them. These people who already possess virtue are moral exemplars, and according to virtue theory, we are all equipped with the ability to recognize them, and the desire to emulate them. This allows you to achieve what’s known as “eudaimonia”, which can be translated as “fulfillment” or “human flourishing.” Simply put, it’s about pushing yourself to the limits and becoming successful at whatever you do. So, living a good life means that you’re never done improving.
Tragically, the whole purpose of Aristotle’s life was to make sense of the world in which he lived, but the thing was that not everyone wanted to see things the way he did. So, in the end, Aristotle was forced to flee Athens in 323 BCE, but fortunately, the Lyceum continued to function under a series of leaders for centuries, beginning with Aristotle’s successor Theophrastus. When it was all said and done, Aristotle and Alexander the Great even became estranged over Alexander’s relationship with the Persians. Then, following the death of Alexander the Great, in June of 323 BCE, the anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens was rekindled. A year later, in 322 BCE, Demophilus and Eurymedon denounced Aristotle for impiety, prompting him to flee to his mother’s family estate in Chalcis, on Euboea. Aristotle defiantly proclaimed, “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy”. This was an obvious reference to Athen’s trial and execution of Socrates, his teacher’s teacher. Sadly, it was all just too much for the old man to bear, so Aristotle just gave up and died that same year, when his heart finally gave out.