Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher and scientist, one of the key intellectual figures in the history of Western philosophy and culture. He was for centuries authoritatively known as “the Philosopher,” because his philosophy as well as his science dominated Western civilization for about four centuries, after they were resurrected for the European culture in the 12th century. Aristotle’s understanding of a human being as naturally rational and sociopolitical animal makes him a forerunner of naturalistic conceptions of human nature that can be studied empirically.
Aristotle was born at Stagira (known also as the “Stagirite”) in Northern Greece, to the family of physicians at the royal court of Macedon. At the age of 17, he moved to Athens in order to study at Plato’s Academy, where he remained for 20 years until Plato’s death (347 BC). Then, he moved to Assos on the coast of Asia Minor. He was welcomed there by the local tyrant Hermias, whose niece he married later. After Hermias’s execution by the Persians in 345 BC, Aristotle moved to Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, where he met his most famous pupil and associate, Theophrastus. It is thought that there, Aristotle devoted a lot of his time to his empirical studies of marine biology. In 343 BC, he was invited to the royal court at Mieza by Philip II, King of Macedon, in order to become a tutor of his 13-year-old son Alexander. After 3 years of tutorship, Aristotle left his pupil, who became very soon the conqueror of the world, known as Alexander the Great. In 335 BC, Aristotle was back in Athens, where he set up his own school, the Lyceum. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, he was forced to leave Athens. He returned to a family estate on the island Euboea, where he died the next year, at the age of 62.
It is estimated (based on book catalogues in Aristotle’s ancient bibliographies) that he wrote an unbelievable 550 books, the equivalent of about 6,000 modern pages. But even more impressive than the volume is the range of topics he covered: from philosophy, logic, and natural sciences to psychology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. Unfortunately, the majority of these works were lost, and among those are all his published texts (which had a form of Platonic dialogues). What has been available for the last 2,000 years, known as Corpus Aristotelicum, consists of about 2,000 modern pages, and it is a collection of various Aristotle’s lecture notes, esoteric texts for his students, which were not intended for publication. Arrangements of these texts and titles of collections were done by the editor Andronicus of Rhodos, about 250 years after Aristotle’s death. This explains various inconsistencies, contradictions, and general inelegance of many of Aristotle’s surviving texts, including Metaphysics. This is the main reason why we cannot study Aristotle like the majority of other philosophers, such as Descartes or Kant, who have written compact philosophical treatises. Surprisingly enough, these later compilations of Aristotle’s working drafts have had some of the most profound effects on the development of philosophy, science, and the whole European culture.
Philosophy and Science
For Aristotle, the universe, furnished with material objects, is a true reality that can be investigated and truly known, and it is not just a shadow of the “other reality,” which is more real because it is unchangeable, like a world of eternal Platonic forms or Pythagorean numbers. Aristotle agreed with Plato, that true knowledge (episteme) has to correspond to some unchangeable reality, but he was convinced that such reality is within this permanently changing material world. Of course, it is hidden, and it has to be revealed by a new scientific method, which he developed. This method is a combination of empirical observations with rational analysis based on induction and deduction. But first of all, language, the medium of all knowledge, had to be transformed into a scientific tool (organon) and Aristotle, having done this, established a new scientific discipline: logic.
Paradigmatic fundamental entities of reality for Aristotle were organisms: plants, animals, and humans. This is the reason why Aristotle devoted so much interest to their studies (one quarter of all Aristotle’s surviving works are biological) and did it in a such systematic way, setting up biology as a scientific discipline. They are integrated wholes, composites of material stuff and internal principle, which Aristotle called form (eidos), nature (physis), or essence. This internal principle is a cause of the existence of individual and a cause of what the individual looks like and to which natural kind he or she belongs. Forms/ natures/essences are eternal and unchangeable, but they do not exist (as Platonic forms do) separately from individuals. And they are at the same time integrating principles of composite individuals; they are responsible for goals of individual developments and their functionality. Aristotle believed that essences could be and had to be recognized by his scientific approach, and then finally described in words as definitions. Definitions are combinations of genus proximum and differentia specifica, and in this way, they reflect a real internal and eternal structure of the world, built up from natural kinds and relationships between them.
According to Aristotle (Politics, Book 1), the “human (anthrdpos) is by its nature a sociopolitical (politikon) animal (zdion).” The Greek word politikos is usually translated as a political and sometimes as a social, but it is neither of these terms as we understand them today, and therefore it is better to render it by the sociopolitical. Aristotle pointed out that it is human nature to become an integral part of a community, and he believed that the Greek city-state (polis) was such a community. Polis is not an artificial structure, set up by human individuals for some pragmatic reasons, but a natural entity like a colony of bees, wasps, ants, or cranes. But Aristotle was quick to stress that the “human is a social animal in a sense in which a bee is not, or any other gregarious animal,” because the human is “alone among the animals, rational” (literally, animals “which have logos”). Humans alone have an ethical perception of what is good and what is bad, what is just and what is unjust, and thanks to logic, humans can communicate and share a common view on these and similar matters. The human is a fully realized being, a citizen (polites), which means participation in judicial functions and in political offices of a city-state (unfortunately, according to Aristotle, women and slaves were naturally excluded from this). A city-state is a final stage of natural social development, which starts from pair-bonding and household, then goes further, to a larger community of village, and finally ends with the city-state. In Aristotle’s view, human sociality is continually turning to politics as its natural goal.
- Ackril, J. L. (1981). Aristotle, the philosopher. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Barnes, J. (1995). The Cambridge companion to Aristotle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Gotthelf, A., & Lennox, J. G. (Eds.). (1987). Philosophical issues in Aristotle’s biology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.