ARISTOTLE (384 B.C.E. – 322 B.C.E.)
Greek philosopher, one of the key intellectual figures of the ancient world.
- Arguably the first practitioner of the scientific method; developed the idea of using existing truths to infer new truths. His writings were the philosophical basis for both early Christian and Islamic scholastic thought.
- Known as the “Father of Biology” for being the first to classify and study animals, drawing parallels between natural anatomical development and philosophy.
- Tutored Alexander the Great in philosophy and science, installing a “violent thirst for passion and learning” in the young conqueror.
- Founded his school in Athens known as the Lyceum, which would eventually evolve into the Peripatetic School—the teachings of which would massively influence the Renaissance.
The third and final member of a chain of Athenian philosophers who would shape the foundation of Western philosophy, Aristotle (384 B.C.E.–322 B.C.E.) was a student of Plato, who would eventually go on to mentor Alexander the Great. Nicknamed “The Reader” by Plato, Aristotle’s writings on science, ethics, and politics dominated Western society for centuries and had a profound impact on the development of Western culture. With his subjects ranging from natural science to metaphysical and ethical philosophy, Aristotle formalized logic and devised the scientific method as we know it today.
Aristotle was born in 384 B.C. in the Greek colony of Stagirus. His father, Nicomachus, was the court physician to the king of Macedonia, and young Aristotle was raised in a mostly aristocratic environment. Although not much is known about Aristotle’s childhood, it is probable that, as a physician’s son, he was highly educated and immersed in the world of science as it existed to that point. Nicomachus died when Aristotle was 10, and his brother-in-law Proxenus became his guardian. At the age of 17, he departed Stagirus for Athens to join Plato’s Academy, where he would remain for the next 20 years.
LIFE AT THE ACADEMY
Just as Plato himself had come to an aged Socrates as a young student, so did Aristotle come to Plato. For the next twenty years, Aristotle attended Plato’s lectures and studied under him, but their relationship was anything but polite and professional: their philosophies were widely different, and the two men frequently clashed, leaving behind an extensive catalogue of literary arguments. Where Plato dealt with metaphysical abstracts and disdained arts and sciences, Aristotle was concerned more with the material world and valued those same practices. The more fervent followers of Plato, among them the famous philosopher Xenocrates, would develop a lasting semi-friendly rivalry with Aristotle that continued long after their master’s death.
When Plato died in 347-8 B.C., his nephew Speusippus succeeded him as the head of the Academy. Aristotle and Xenocrates elected to travel to Assos to visit their mutual friend Hermias, a former slave and member of the Academy, who was also the king of Atarneus and Assos. During his three-year stay in Assos, Aristotle met Pythias, Hermias’ adopted daughter, and married her. Despite his own marriage, Aristotle’s views on women were hardly progressive; he thought of them as deformed men and inferior to their male counterparts and passed his views down to later philosophers as well as Christian and Islamic dogma.
When Speusippus suffered a stroke, Xenocrates succeeded him as the head of the Academy instead of Aristotle, whom many had expected would take the position. Aristotle, however, had a different future ahead of him: that of Alexander the Great’s tutor.
TUTORING THE CONQUEROR
In 343 B.C., Aristotle was invited to become the tutor of Alexander, the son of Philip II of Macedon- the same ruler who had conquered and destroyed Aristotle’s hometown of Stagirus a few years back! The position would bring prestige and wealth to Aristotle, but before accepting he also demanded that Philip rebuild Stagirus and free all of its former citizens who had been enslaved during the town’s conquest. Philip agreed, and Aristotle was assigned to tutor the young prince.
Aristotle tutored the young prince in a variety of subjects, including medicine, a field that interested Alexander throughout his life. Most importantly, however, it was Aristotle who fueled Alexander’s already-existing anti-Persian sentiment and prodded him into invading the East. For three years, Alexander studied under Aristotle before being called to serve as Macedonia’s regent, freeing Aristotle from his position.
In 335 B.C. Aristotle, perhaps feeling some lingering bitterness towards Plato’s Academy, decided to create a school of his own in Athens called the “Lyceum” and conducted in a former gymnasium; the school served as Aristotle’s main project for the next twelve years. He taught, lectured, and produced many of his most famous writings during this period.
Unfortunately for Aristotle, not all of his teachings had stuck with Alexander, whose anti-Persian sentiments faded after his conquest. Alexander grew highly suspicious of his former teacher and even had Aristotle’s grandnephew executed. Meanwhile, the citizens of Athens were becoming fed up with the pro-Macedonian government; when Alexander died in 323 B.C., this regime was overthrown, and Aristotle was charged with impiety. Unlike Socrates before him, Aristotle refused to take his impending execution lying down, and instead fled to Chalcis, where he remained until 322 B.C. when he died of natural causes.