Aristotle

Aristotle

Ancient philosophy

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a Greek philosopher. A disciple of Plato, he distanced himself from Plato's thinking and founded a school, the Lyceum. His thirst for knowledge was immense: he took an interest in several disciplines, such as logic, ethics, politics, physics, etc., and laid the foundations of some of them. He was tutor to Alexander the Great. His work had a great posterity, and was transmitted by Arab and then Christian tradition.


The works of Aristotle summarised on this site

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On the Soul

What is the soul? What is it composed of? What is its relationship to the body? Aristotle attempts to answer these questions in this book.

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Metaphysics

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle defines the first philosophy, and the science of being as being. He demonstrates the necessity of the existence of a first mover.

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Nicomachean Ethics

What is the sovereign good, the supreme good? It is happiness, but Aristotle shows that men differ on the means to this end

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Physics

What is chance, what is motion, what is infinity? These are the problems that Aristotle tackles in this work

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Poetics

Aristotle here sets out the rules that a work of art must follow in order to be beautiful, and sets out to define art as a kind of imitation (mimesis)

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Bibliography

Here are the essential books if you wish to gain a better understanding of this author's thought:

De Groot, Jean (2014), Aristotle's Empiricism: Experience and Mechanics in the 4th century BC, Parmenides Publishing
Gill, Mary Louise (1989), Aristotle on Substance: The Paradox of Unity, Princeton University Press
Irwin, Terence H. (1988), Aristotle's First Principles, Oxford: Clarendon Press
Lewis, Frank A. (1991), Substance and Predication in Aristotle, Cambridge University Press.
McKeon, Richard (1973), Introduction to Aristotle (2nd ed.), University of Chicago Press.

Recommended videos

Conferences, symposia, radio broadcasts... here are 10 videos that will help you better understand Aristotle's thought.

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Biography: life of Aristotle

At the Academy

Aristotle was born in 384 BC in Stagire in Macedonia. His father was the king's physician, but died when Aristotle was 11. He was brought up by his brother-in-law.

According to Diogenes Laƫrtius, he had a small voice, short legs, small eyes; he was always well dressed, wore rings on his fingers, and shaved his beard. He is also said to have suffered from a stammer or a lisp.


His thirst for knowledge led Aristotle to study in Athens at the age of 17, around -367. After an unsuccessful attempt at Isocrates' school, he turned to Plato's Academy. Plato was in Sicily at the time, trying in vain to apply his political principles.

For twenty years, until 347 BC, Aristotle studied under Plato. A brilliant student, he became Plato's assistant.

Admiringly, Plato dubbed him the intelligence of the school and gave him the right to teach rhetoric.

In fact, Diogenes Laƫrtius tells us that this Aristotle was the only one [...] to listen to Plato reading his treatise on the soul; all the other listeners left before the end.

He also tells us of this tireless worker that when he slept he held a copper ball over a basin in his hand, so that when it fell into the basin it would wake him.


During this period he wrote 19 works of Platonic philosophy, including Eudemian Ethics. Some of these were dialogues, now lost.

The statue of Aristotle in Stagira, Greece
The statue of Aristotle in Stagira, Greece

However, after a few years he began to reject certain aspects of Plato's thought. Plato remarked: Aristotle has done to me as a foal that rebels against its mother.

Although no chronology is certain, it is estimated that he then wrote, from -350, some books of the Physics, the third book of the treatise On the Soul, some books of the Metaphysics, and the beginning of the Politics.


In 347, Plato died. Who was to succeed him at the head of the Academy? The question arose. Yet it was not Aristotle who was chosen, but Speusippus, Plato's nephew.

Travels

Deprived, Aristotle set off with Xenocrates and Theophrastus, two fellow students, to Assos, in the Troad. There he founded a kind of branch of the Academy. His curiosity about the natural world shone through in the many observations he made at this time of the fauna around him.

When the local king was executed by the Persians, he took refuge in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, where he was welcomed by Theophrastus. There he opened a second school, and began writing his History of Animals.

In 342 BC, King Philip of Macedonia entrusted him with the education of his thirteen-year-old son, Alexander, the future conqueror, better known as Alexander the Great.

For two or three years, he became his tutor. He introduced him to Greek tragedies, made him read the Iliad and the Odyssey, taught him to think logically.

He married and returned with his wife to Stagira, his home town, where he lived for five years. He completed his observations of animals, particularly horses.

During this entire period, he is considered to have written the continuation of The Physics, works such as On Generation and Corruption, The Poetics and The Art of Rhetoric, but also the beginning of The Nicomachean Ethics and the continuation of the Metaphysics.

The Lyceum

In 338BC, Philip II of Macedon conquered Athens. Three years later, Aristotle decided to leave the king's court and return to Athens. He was 49 at the time. Widowed, he remarried, and had a son, Nicomachus, who died young.

The direction of the Academy once again eluded him, to the benefit of Xenocrates. So when he arrived in Athens, just as Alexander was ascending the throne, he founded his own school. Since it was set up near a sanctuary dedicated to Lycian Apollo, it was to be called "the Lyceum".


The members of this school were called peripateticians, because they taught while walking (from the Greek peripatein "to walk"). They taught a wide range of subjects, from philosophy and natural science to medicine and philology.

The peripatetic school was the first of its kind in Europe.

He advocated the systematic observation of facts, before any attempt at explanation. As a result, he carried out several dissections, including that of a chameleon.

The Lyceum included a library and a museum, both funded by Alexander.

This period, which lasted thirteen years, was Aristotle's most prolific. He finished writing The Nicomachean Ethics, elaborated Book VIII of The Metaphysics, wrote the Writings on Natural Philosophy, etc.

This was a period marked by an even more pronounced empiricism: he increased his observations of natural phenomena, described them and sought their causes.


At the death of Alexander, Athens fell into a period of political turmoil. The anti-Macedonian party seized power. Fearing for his life because of his links with Alexander, Aristotle fled Athens in 323 BC. He wished, he said, to prevent the Athenians from committing a new crime against philosophy, alluding here to the trial of Socrates, at the end of which he was sentenced to death.

Death and posterity

He died the following year, in 322 BC, in Chalcis on the island of Evia, aged 62. Theophrastus took over the running of the Lyceum. The school continued to teach until 529 A.D. It was closed down by Justinian I, an Orthodox Christian emperor, who wished to put an end to Greek philosophy, which was equated with paganism.


While Aristotle's dialogues were lost (only a few fragments remain), no fewer than thirty-one treatises have been handed down to us over the centuries. These are essentially lecture notes or writings intended for teaching at the Lyceum.

While his immediate successor, Theophrastus, did much to preserve these works, it was Andronicos of Rhodes who restored all the writings that lay in a cellar, sometimes betraying them (by artificially bringing together certain writings to compose certain works, and giving them a title, such as the Metaphysics).

In the Middle Ages, his works were widely disseminated in the Arab-Muslim world, while the Western world only had access to the works translated by Boethius.
It was Thomas Aquinas who, in the 13th century, gave it extraordinary influence, making it an essential component of the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. This is what is known as scolasticism.

Main works

Categories, Merrimack: Thomas More College Press, 2021
On Interpretation, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938
Posterior Analytics, Merrimack: Thomas More College Press, 2021
Poetics, London: Penguin Classics, 1997
The Art of Rhetoric, London: Penguin Classics, 1992
Physics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008