by Ron Kurtus (revised 1 May 2010)
Aristotle (384-323 BC) was a Greek philosopher, mathematician, scientist and physician. He studied under Plato, tutored Alexander the Great and had his own school in Athens.
He is considered of the great figures in the history of Western thought. His political affiliation with Macedonia resulted in his death, when the people in Athens rebelling against Macedonian rule.
Questions you may have include:
- What did he do at different phases in his life?
- What were Aristotle's beliefs?
- How did his studies influence the world?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Birth to age 19: 384-365 BC
Aristotle was born in 384 BC in the city of Stagira in northern Greece. He was the son of Nichomachus, who became the court physician to the Macedonian royal family. One of his likely playmates was the king's son, Phillip.
Aristotle gained interest in the life sciences and learned scientific thought processes from observing his father at work.
When Aristotle was 10 years old, Nichomachus died. His death prevented Aristotle from following in his father's footsteps as a physician. His mother also died when he was young, and he was brought up by an uncle or friend of the family, Proxenus.
Sent to study in Athens
When he was 17, his guardian Proxenus sent Aristotle to Athens to become a student at Plato's Academy and complete his education. Although the Academy was considered the top intellectual center in Athens, it was also involved in political activities, which were to later influence Aristotle's life.
Ages 20 to 39: 364-345 BC
Aristotle was a brilliant pupil and was soon called on to teach other students, primarily in the subjects of rhetoric and dialectic (the art of conversation).
In general, Aristotle agreed with the views taught at the Academy, but towards his later years there, he expressed differences in philosophical views from that of Plato and his Plato's nephew Speusippus, who was also a teacher at the Academy.
The major area of disagreement concerned politics. In 359 BC, King Phillip of Macedonia started aggressive campaigns against neighboring Greek cities. Since Aristotle spent his childhood in the Macedonian royal court, he retained had close ties with Phillip. This made Aristotle unpopular with many at the Academy who had opposing political views.
In 347 BC, when Aristotle was 37 years old, Plato passed away. Since Aristotle was considered the top lecturer and writer at the Academy, it was assumed that he would be appointed to lead the school. Instead, Plato's nephew Speusippus was appointed. Due to the fact he was not appointed and political differences with Speusippus and other members of the Academy, Aristotle left. He had been there for 20 years.
Gets married in Assos
Shortly afterwards, Aristotle moved from Athens to Assos, where he probably acted as ambassador for Phillip of Macedonia. Aristotle married Pythias, the adopted daughter of Hermias who ruled the area. They had one daughter.
While in Assos, Aristotle became the leader of a group of philosophers and scientists who observed and discussed the anatomy, structure and classification of various plants, animals and insects.
In 346 BC, a peace treaty was made between Macedonia and Athens.
Ages 40 to 59: 344-325 BC
In 344 BC, the Persians attacked Assos and killed Hermias. Aristotle escaped and made his way to Macedonia, stopping for a year on the island of Lesbos to continue his study of biology.
At the age of 42, in 342 BC, Aristotle became a member of the Macedonian Royal Court, probably as a teacher. Most historians say he was invited by Philip to educate his son, Alexander—who would later become Alexander the Great—however some historians dispute that as fiction . There are other stories that some of the pay Aristotle received was in the form of slaves to aid in gathering material for his biology studies.
When he was about 47, Aristotle's wife Pythias died. She was in her mid-30s. Aristotle did not marry again, but he had a lasting relationship with a woman from his home town of Stagirus, named Herpyllis. Together they had a a son, Nicomachus.
Meanwhile, Alexander went on a mission to conquer the known world.
Started a school
After Alexander conquered Athens, Aristotle returned to the city where he was educated. Although Alexander wished the Academy to continue, he encouraged Aristotle to start a rival school.
In 335, at the age of 49, Aristotle started his own school called the Lyceum. His school had a broad range of subject, but showed emphasis on the study of nature.
When Aristotle taught his students, he would restlessly walk back and forth among them. People made jokes of this method of teaching, although his followers did not seem to mind. He gave two forms of lectures. One consisted of detailed discussions for his advanced students. Then in the evenings, he would give talks for those in the general public who were simply lovers of knowledge.
To teach his students, Aristotle wrote out prodigious lecture notes, as well as the textbooks for the students. These writings represented an enormous output of virtually every field of knowledge, including logic, metaphysics, ethics, politics, rhetoric, poetry, biology, zoology, physics, and psychology.
Ages 60 to death at 61: 324-323 BC
Alexander the Great died in 323 BC. Immediately afterward, the people of Athens rebelled against Macedonian rule. The great political orator, Demosthenes, led the rebellion.
Since Aristotle was associated with Alexander, his political situation became precarious. To avoid being put to death, Aristotle fled to the island of Euboea, where he died soon after.
The rebellion against the Macedonians failed and Demosthenes himself was condemned to death.
Aristotle was a great thinker of all times. He used his powers of observation and analysis to document concepts in many fields of science, as well as to develop a lasting philosophy concerning life. His life and death were intertwined with the politics of the day.
Lessons learned from the life of Aristotle include:
- It helps to have a parent with political connections
- Children often gain curiosity from their parents
- Political affiliations can advance your career or can prove disastrous in troubled times
Observe and ask, "Why?"
Resources and references
Philosophy of Aristotle - Good overview of Aristotle's ideas from the University of Tennessee-Martin
Aristotle - Short biography of Aristotle's life and ideas from the University of California-Berkeley Museum of Paleontology
Aristotle - Biography with numerous references from St. Andrews School of Mathematics in the United Kingdom
The Basic Works of Aristotle by Aristotle, edited by Richard McKeon; Princeton Review (2001) $19.95 - This definitive translation has been considered the best available one-volume book on Aristotle and includes selections from his greatest writings.
The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle by Jonathan Barnes (Editor); Cambridge University Press (1995) $27.00 - A clear exposition of the central philosophical concerns in Aristotle's work, without editorial interpretation.
Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development by Werner Jaeger; Oxford University Press (1962)
Aristotle and his School by Felix Grayeff; Barnes & Noble (1997)
Questions and comments
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