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Aristotle | Biography


Youthful Studies at Plato's Academy

Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle had perhaps an unmatched impact on Western intellectual history. In ancient Greece, he was often called "the man who knew everything." Among other achievements, he was the first known Western thinker to write about systematic principles of scientific examination.

He was born in 384 BCE in Stagira, a Greek seaport in the region of Macedonia. His father, Nicomachus, worked as physician to the Macedonian royal court and may have encouraged young Aristotle's interest in medicine and the natural sciences. Nicomachus died when his son was young. In his late teens, Aristotle's guardian, Proxenus, sent him to Athens, the intellectual center of the ancient world, to study at Greek philosopher Plato's renowned Academy.

The bright and curious Aristotle became one of Plato's star pupils. He and Plato respected each other, and Aristotle's early work shows the strong influence of his teacher. Like Plato, Aristotle wrote in dialogue form, but the two disagreed about the fundamentals of philosophy. Plato believed truth could be found in abstract ideas, while Aristotle believed in the reality of physical objects and sensory experience. He looked at the world like a scientist would, searching for objective solutions to problems. And he rejected Plato's famous theory of Forms. "Plato is my friend," Aristotle wrote, "but truth is much more."

Aristotle stayed at the Academy for 20 years, first as a student and then as a teacher. Plato's death around 347 BCE led to changes in the school. Although many, including Aristotle, assumed he would succeed Plato as the leader of the Academy, the job was given to Plato's nephew instead, and Aristotle left Athens to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Travels, Research, and Tutoring Alexander the Great

After leaving the Academy, Aristotle went to Assos, a city in Asia Minor near present-day Turkey. There he befriended Hermias, the city's ruler and another Academy graduate. Hermias's niece Pythias became Aristotle's first wife. The couple moved to the island of Lesbos where Pythias died in childbirth. Aristotle later married a woman named Herpyllis, who gave birth to their son, Nicomachus, named after Aristotle's father. However, Aristotle asked to be buried next to Pythias in his will. Aristotle used his time in Assos and Lesbos for scientific research into zoology and marine biology.

Around 343 BCE Aristotle was summoned to Macedonia's capital. King Philip II, the Macedonian monarch and son of Aristotle's father's employer, wanted the scholar to tutor his teenage son, Alexander. Aristotle and Alexander worked together for only a couple of years, and, despite their respective greatness, seem to have had almost no personal effect on one another.

Aristotle's Own School: The Lyceum

After his job at the Macedonian court ended around 334 BCE, Aristotle returned to Athens and started his own school of philosophy in the Lyceum, a former wrestling gymnasium in which Aristotle rented space for his school. The school was called the Lyceum after the gymnasium, which in turn got its name from a word used to describe the Greek sun god Apollo.

Unlike Plato's Academy, which was private, the Lyceum held many public lectures open and free of charge to all who were interested. However, the Academy permitted at least two female students to attend, while the Lyceum excluded women, as Athenian women were not allowed to attend public schooling. Aristotle walked the school's leisurely pathways during lectures and discussions, forcing his students to follow him. They became known as "peripatetics," for the Greek word for "by foot," or "walking around." Between lessons, Aristotle kept busy tending to a botanical garden and writing most of the manuscripts he would leave behind.

Final Departure from Athens

Alexander the Great's death in 323 BCE toppled the pro-Macedonian government in Athens. A strong anti-Macedonian backlash began in the city. Even Macedonians who had not supported Alexander were suspect. Aristotle, a Macedonian by birth, feared citizens' accusations. Thinking of how Athenians had turned on the Greek philosopher Socrates for impiety, Aristotle said he did not want the city "to sin twice against philosophy." He left for good. He went to Chalcis, his mother's home city, and died in 322 BCE of a stomach ailment.

Aristotle willed his library to Theophrastus (c. 372–c. 287 BCE), the student who succeeded him as head of the Lyceum. Included in the library were Aristotle's own extensive writings.

Lasting Legacy in the Sciences and Humanities

Aristotle's lectures filled almost 150 volumes. Although fewer than a quarter of his writings have survived, Aristotle's thought continued to shape the Western world long after his death.

He wrote on subjects as diverse as ethics, politics, nature, theology, psychology, and physics. He is credited with inventing the study of formal logic because of his work on the syllogism (drawing a conclusion from two given premises). As a scientist he pioneered systems for classifying and coding animals and plants. His book Para Psyche, better known by its Latin title De Anima, is the first known psychology text.

The Nicomachean Ethics, a series of thoughts on the best way to live, is the most famous of Aristotle's ethical works. The text is considered fundamental reading for students of ethics and philosophy.

Frameworks of Aristotelian thought remain central to many academic disciplines, including philosophy, logic, biology, and physics.

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