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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, king of Macedonia from 393 to 370 BCE; Amyntas was grandfather of Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia from 336 to 323 BCE, who established the ancient world's largest empire. Aristotle trained in medicine while at court with his father. Nicomachus died when Aristotle was about 10; seven years later Aristotle moved to Athens to study under the Greek philosopher Plato (428 or 427–348 or 347 BCE) at the Academy.

Aristotle remained at the Academy for 20 years, during which Plato wrote many of his famous dialogues—writings in which several characters discuss a topic by asking questions about it. Philosophy experts believe many of Plato's dialogues were influenced by conversations with his student Aristotle. Aristotle also wrote during this period, but only fragments of his work from the Academy survive. In one of his earliest works, Eudemus (c. 352 BCE), 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, making death a happier state than 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 seems to have remained on good terms with the school and with Plato even as his writings started to reflect disagreement with some of Plato's foundational theories, such as his Theory of Forms. According to this theory, the real world of physical substance is changeable and therefore unreliable; ideas are a more accurate representation of reality. Aristotle argues against this theory in many of his works, citing its implausibility and proposing other possibilities.

While Aristotle studied at the Academy in Athens, Philip II, king of Macedonia from 359 to 336 BCE, went to war against many of the Greek city-states. This war created ill will toward Macedonians—like Aristotle—living in Athens and other cities. Years after Aristotle left Athens, Philip II conquered the city in the Battle of Chaeronea (336 BCE) and united much of Greece.

Travels and Later Life

In 348 BCE, around the time of Plato's death, Aristotle left Athens for Assos, a city in Anatolia, part of present-day Turkey. As Plato's longtime student, Aristotle likely would have been a candidate for heading Plato's Academy. Some sources suggest Aristotle left Athens because he did not get this post, possibly because of his academic disputes with Plato. Others theorize he left Athens shortly before Plato died because of the political tensions between Athens and Macedonia.

In either case, Aristotle moved to Assos at the invitation of his friend Hermias (died 348 BCE), the city's ruler, who had studied at Plato's Academy with Aristotle. While in Assos, Aristotle married Pythias, Hermias's adopted daughter. Historians speculate she was much younger than Aristotle; when they married, she may have been about 18 and Aristotle about 37. Pythias and Aristotle had one child, a daughter, also named Pythias. Pythias the Elder (as she became known) died after she and Aristotle had been married for 10 years.

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

After Aristotle left Assos, during a time of relative peace between Macedonia and Athens, Philip II invited him to return to Macedonia and reside in the court. There he served as tutor to Alexander, Philip II's son, later to become Alexander the Great. Aristotle remained at the court for seven years.

When Alexander took power, he sent Aristotle to Athens to form a school to rival Plato's Academy. In 335 BCE, Aristotle founded his school, known as the Lyceum, which became a renowned center for learning. While there, Aristotle became romantically involved with Herpyllis, possibly a slave or a friend, and they had a son, Nicomachus.

In 323 BCE, with the death of Alexander the Great and facing anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens, Aristotle moved to the house his mother left him, in Chalcis. A year later he died there of a stomach ailment; he was 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 and began to organize his writings on different scientific and philosophic topics. He grouped the sciences into three categories: productive, practical, and theoretical.

As noted earlier, much of Aristotle's remaining work is fragmentary and consists largely of notes from texts and treatises he wrote for his teaching. The pieces he published during his life are now almost completely lost. Fragments and writings of other people indicate 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 handed down. Historians believe the works likely 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" because of writings such as Prior Analytics (c. 350 BCE). One of his most famous remaining texts is Metaphysics, a philosophical treatise on being, form, and matter. He also made contributions to astronomy with his studies on comets, chemistry and its many processes, and meteorology. He was particularly interested in rainbows.

Aristotle was a great student of zoology and biology. He is believed to have performed dissections on more than 50 species of animals to study anatomy. He wrote about animals' internal systems, developed a logical theory of generation and reproduction, and recognized the difference between arteries and veins. While living in Assos, he and his assistants focused on biology and marine biology and observed minute details in a range of organisms; their findings remained unconfirmed until much, much later, when the microscope was invented (around 1590). Although many of Aristotle's observations were flawed for lack of access to adequate resources and technology, his studies of medicine and science form the foundation for much of what is known today.

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