Poetics | Study Guide


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Aristotle | Biography


Early Life

In 384 BCE, Aristotle was born in the Macedonian city of Stagira in ancient Greece. His father, Nicomachus, was the royal court physician to Amyntas III, the King of Macedonia and grandfather of Alexander the Great. Aristotle trained in medicine while at court with his father, and when his father died in 367, he moved to Athens and joined the Greek philosopher Plato's Academy. He was 17 at the time.

Aristotle stayed at the Academy and studied avidly under Plato for 20 years. Philosophy experts surmise that many of Plato's dialogues written during this period were influenced by the conversations between teacher and pupil. Aristotle was also writing during this period, but only fragments of his work from the Academy survive. In one of his earliest works, titled Eudemus (c. 352 BCE), of which only small pieces remain, Aristotle employs his teacher's style of dialogue to reflect on some of Plato's views. In this work, Aristotle details his theory that death is the soul returning home, thus making the state of death a happier one than that of life.

Aristotle agreed with and used many of Plato's philosophies and techniques while at the Academy. However, he eventually began to diverge from his teacher's ideas. Aristotle seemed to have remained on good terms with the school and with Plato, but his writings started to reflect a disagreement with some of Plato's foundational theories. One of the main philosophical points that Aristotle took issue with was Plato's Theory of Forms. This theory holds that the real world of physical substance is changeable and, therefore, unreliable. Ideas, on the other hand, are a more accurate representation of reality. Aristotle argues against this theory in many of his works, citing its implausibility, and proposes alternative possibilities.

At the same time that Aristotle was studying at the Academy in Athens, King Philip II of Macedonia, son of Amyntas III, went to war against many of the Greek city-states. This war created ill will toward Macedonians living in cities like Athens. It was, consequently, a difficult time for Aristotle to be a Macedonian resident there. Eventually, years after Aristotle left Athens, Philip conquered Athens in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE and united much of Greece.

Travels and Later Life

Around the time of Plato's death in about 348 BCE, Aristotle left Athens for Assus, a city in Anatolia, which is part of present-day Turkey. As Plato's student of 20 years, Aristotle would likely have been a candidate for taking over as head of the Academy. Some sources suggest that Aristotle left Athens because he was not given the post as a result of academic disputes. Other sources theorize that he left Athens shortly before Plato died as a result of political tensions between Athens and Macedonia at the time.

In either case, Aristotle moved to Assus at the invitation of his friend Hermias, who was ruler of the city. He could not return to his hometown of Stagira, which had been destroyed previously by the Macedonian King Philip II. While in Assus, Aristotle married Pythias, who was the ward or niece of Hermias. It is speculated that she was much younger than Aristotle, perhaps around the age of 18, while Aristotle was about 37 at the time. They had one child, a daughter, and Pythias died after only 10 years of marriage.

Aristotle was eventually forced to leave Assus when his friend Hermias was captured, tortured, and executed by the Persians. Aristotle wrote his only known poem, "Ode to Virtue," (c. 341–322) as a tribute to Hermias.

After leaving Assus, during a time of relative peace between Macedonia and Athens, Aristotle was invited by King Philip II to return to Macedonia and reside in the court. There, he served as tutor to Alexander the Great, Philip II's son. Aristotle remained at the court for seven years.

Aristotle returned to Athens in 335 BCE and formed a school known as the Lyceum. In 323 BCE, influenced by increasing anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens after the death of Alexander the Great, Aristotle moved to the house left to him by his mother's family in Chalcis. A year later he died there of a stomach problem at the age of 62.

Contributions to Philosophy and Science

Most of Aristotle's surviving works come from his time at the Lyceum. While studying and teaching there, he invented the concept and system of academic disciplines. This system helped organize his writings on different scientific and philosophic topics. He grouped the sciences into three categories: productive, practical, and theoretical.

Much of Aristotle's remaining work is fragmentary. The pieces he published during his life are now almost completely lost. The works still remaining today are primarily notes from texts and treatises that Aristotle wrote to use in his teachings. These make up only about a third of his known works. It is known through fragments and the writings of others that Aristotle published essays, poetry, and Platonic dialogues, but none of these works remain in their entirety. It is unclear how his surviving works were preserved and how they were handed down. It is widely believed, however, that they were passed between scholars after his death and eventually ended up in Rome.

Aristotle researched and wrote on a wide array of subjects. Most of his work falls into three categories: dialogues and popular works, collections of scientific data and research, and systematic works. He is sometimes called "the founder of logic" as the result of some of his writings, including the text Prior Analytics (c. 350 BCE). One of his most famous texts still remaining is his work titled Metaphysics. It is a philosophical treatise on being, form, and matter. He also made contributions to the fields of astronomy with his studies on comets, chemistry and its many processes, and the field of meteorology. He was particularly interested in rainbows.

Aristotle was a great student of zoology and biology. He is believed to have performed dissections on several different species of animals to study anatomy. He wrote about the internal workings of animals, developed a logical theory of generation and reproduction, and recognized the difference between arteries and veins. While living in Assus, he and his assistants made a study of biology and marine biology and managed to observe details in different organisms that were so minute that they were not confirmed until much later when the microscope was invented. While many of his observations were flawed for lack of better access to resources and technology, his studies of medicine and science formed much of the foundation for what is known today.

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