Aristotle: A General Introduction


I. Life of Aristotle

There are certain facets of Aristotle's life that might be helpful to keep in mind in examining and assessing his work. For example, when reading what he says about governments and political systems in general, and about the Athenian ones in particular, one should be aware that Aristotle was not a citizen of Athens, spent much of his life in places where he was not a citizen(1), and had to leave Athens at least once and probably twice when sentiment turned against his patron country of Macedon and Aristotle had no legal protection from persecution in Athens.

384 BCE - Aristotle was born in Stagira, Thrace, in the northern part of what is now called the Greek peninsula. His father Nicomachus was personal physician to the court of Macedon, and his mother Phaestis was also from a medical family. Both parents seem to have died before Aristotle was 17. Aristotle apparently received some medical training in his teens.

367 - At 17, Aristotle went to Athens to study at Plato's Academy. It is not clear how he got the money to get there and to stay; a suggestion, given the facts that he returned to Macedon as soon as he was asked and that he was always considered by the Athenians to have had operative ties to Macedon, is that his studies were supported in part by the Macedonian royal family.

347 - Plato died; his nephew Speusippus took over leadership of the Academy. This alone would most likely not have forced Aristotle out of the Academy or out of Athens, but at about the same time Philip of Macedon conquered the town of Olynthus, and Athens became hostile to anything connected with Macedon. Aristotle and his Academy colleague Xenocrates left Athens for Skepsis in Asia Minor, where they knew some other students of Plato.

While there, Aristotle and his colleagues made the acquaintance of the tyrant(2)Hermias, and apparently through teaching him Platonic philosophy they convinced him to modify the way he ruled. The success he achieved after these consultations was so great that Hermias granted the philosophers the city of Assos, which he protected.

Sometime between 347 and 343, Aristotle crossed a small strait to the island of Lesbos, and settled in the city of Mytilene. During this period he married a woman named Pythias, who was a relative of Hermias. Aristotle is said to have spent much of his time on Lesbos dissecting fish, and his biological works show evidence of a familiarity with the fish of that region.

343 - Philip of Macedon called Aristotle back to tutor Philip's son Alexander.

334 - Alexander began military campaigns into Asia. Aristotle returned to Athens and founded a new school, the Lyceum. Probably in the 330's, Pythias had died, and some years later Aristotle married a woman named Herpyllis.

II. Work: Some Relationships to Socrates, Plato, and Modern Science

In some respects Aristotle can be seen to continue some of the projects and to work along the lines developed by Plato and Socrates. He came to Athens specifically to study with Plato, and stayed at Plato's school, the Academy, for twenty years, eventually becoming a sort of teaching assistant there. While some reports suggest that Plato and Aristotle had some disagreements during those years, most reports also stress that Plato thought extremely highly of Aristotle's abilities - some say he called A. "the mind of the Academy". When Aristotle left Athens after Plato's death, he did so with another student of Plato, Xenocrates, and the two of them went to live in Skepsis with (or near) some other students of Plato. This seems to suggest that Aristotle did not at all wish to distance himself from Plato's teaching as such, but rather valued it even as he diverged from it in many ways.

This can be seen in Aristotle's writing as well. He is very often concerned to examine the ideas and ways of thinking he had been exposed to at the Academy, and takes as important many of the same questions and issues that Plato and Socrates did. For example, he takes the notion of Forms very seriously, and explores whether they (as a group, or individually) answer the questions or explain the things they were supposed to - see e.g. Physics A (A=Book I), Metaphysics A, Nicomachean Ethics A. For the most part, he concludes that the proposals about Forms fail to solve important problems or fail to explain what they were intended to explain (without further complications, or at all); but he does not suggest that nothing like Forms could exist. Aristotle also shows great interest in questions about how if at all knowledge may be gained, what the best kind(s) of life and community might be, and what the nature of aretê (human excellence) or aretai (the plural: various specific excellences such as courage, justice, etc.) might be. Certainly these are questions that were of central importance to Socrates and Plato; indeed, Socrates may have been the first to explore the latter two kinds systematically, and Plato the first to write about them systematically. And Aristotle's emphasis on seeking "causes" (aitiai; why's or reasons) thematically, even in investigations of ethical or political matters, has obvious counterparts in Plato: consider e.g. Phaedo 96-100, where the Socrates character discusses where his search for causes has led him and why he became dissatisfied with certain types of accounts of the causes of things; and Republic VI-VII (508-520e), where the Socrates character proposes, and his friends accept, an analogy between the sun as cause of the existence and visibility of things, and the Good itself, the Just itself, etc., as the cause(s) of the intelligibility and existence of things (in another sense).

But there are substantial differences as well between Aristotle and his predecessors. Sometimes, these are disagreements, but often they are differences of interest, priorities, or approach. One very great difference is the range of investigations we know Aristotle to have conducted; it is much greater than the ranges attributed to Plato and Socrates. While Plato seems to have had interests in mathematics and astronomy, and Socrates may have had an interest in astronomy or natural sciences generally (if the account in the Phaedo is correct), Aristotle is known to have written on these, as well as on what we would call biology (specifically), meteorology, human physiology, rhetoric, and more. He is credited with the first systematic study of logic.

Moreover, Aristotle not only explored theory but emphasized the role of observation and data collection in science and philosophy. For example, he seems to have assigned some students the job of gathering copies or accounts of the constitutions of as many poleis (city-states) as possible, for purposes of a comparative study and analysis; he or one of the students wrote up a study of the constitution of Athens that survives today. He also assigned students to collect specimens of animals and plants from different areas (Alexander the Great is said to have sent back to Aristotle interesting plants and animals he found during his conquests).  Although it does not seem that Aristotle was involved in anything we might today call 'experiments', he did do a lot of dissection, and compiled a great deal of other observational data. This can be seen from works such as Parts of Animals, History of Animals, Motions of Animals, and De Anima (On the Soul).Thus it would not be correct to say that Aristotelian science was not concerned with the empirical. The contemporaries of Galileo (16th - 17th century CE) who called themselves Aristotelians but did not make systematic observations and collations of data on their own were thus in a very fundamental way not Aristotelian.

I mention this because I frequently run across references to "the shift from Aristotelian to modern (post-Cartesian) science" and even to "the triumph of modern over Aristotelian science", often suggesting that empirical methods began to be used in the 17th century, and I find such formulations misleading. It is certainly true that Descartes, Galileo, and other founders of modern Western science held that the work of their contemporaries in natural science had deep flaws and features that precluded its being fruitful or useful; and it is true that these contemporaries saw themselves as followers of Aristotle. However, the emphasis on direct observation and testing of hypotheses that one finds in Galileo and Descartes is very much in keeping with Aristotle's conception of natural science, however little one finds of it in some later Aristotelians.

This is not to say that Galileo, Descartes, and modern Western science are entirely consonant with Aristotle's science; there are also fundamental differences. For example, Aristotle would agree with Galileo, Descartes, and modern Western science that mathematics is an important tool for describing many physical phenomena and their relationships; but whereas Descartes and his successors would hold that we can have a mathematical physics (i.e. that all of the ingredients of the universe that are necessary for physics are describable mathematically, and that all we need to know in order to understand them is available through observation and mathematical manipulation of the data), and Galileo held that "the book of the written in the language of mathematics" (The Assayer), Aristotle would not have been so sure. He felt that we would not be able to tell for sure what the universe was really all about, or even what it contained, unless and until we knew "first causes and principles", ultimate reasons and sources for things. He also felt that some kinds of cause that operate in the functioning of things in "nature" would not be understandable mathematically: the end or direction toward which a given change occurs, for example. It might also be pointed out that the perceptible things that numbers are used to describe are not exactly the same as the numbers used to symbolize them, so that there will always be aspects of them that are not evoked by a given description. I suspect that Aristotle's interest in seeking first causes and principles would lead him to say that we will not know exactly what a mathematical description is telling us, much less how far it is adequate and accurate, unless we can understand why the thing described is describable mathematically.

This raises another point of difference between Descartes and Aristotle: Descartes held that we could know at least some first principles (Discourse on Method, Part Four), and that the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal divine being guaranteed that certain of our ideas - including our ideas of laws of nature - were true. Aristotle, on the other hand, suggests that we do not yet know any first causes or principles, and that it is not yet clear whether we can or how we can tell whether we have learned any (Metaphysics A2). Descartes suggests that science can be pursued independently of questions of purpose or meaning or good, implying that our conceptions in the latter area do not or need not affect our conceptions and conclusions in the other (Discourse on Method, Part Three). He also seems to assume that what we are not aware of could not possibly be affecting our ideas or beliefs in any way, and specifically that since we are not aware of our body's effect on our mind or soul (he seems to think he can tell exactly where body ends and mind begins), nothing material could be affecting our thoughts without our knowing that it is doing so (Discourse Parts Four and Five).

Aristotle makes none of these assumptions. Indeed, he insists that understanding first causes would include understanding "that for the sake of which things are done", the so-called 'final cause'. In his On the Soul he takes as a point of departure the standard Greek view that a soul is what a living thing is said to "have" that distinguishes it from a non-living thing, and examines just what it seems that such an entity does. His account looks at sensation, desire, nutrition, movement, thought, and so on; it looks at what kinds of body a thing would need in order to have any or all of these; but it does not attempt to delineate the nature or content of the interaction of soul and body.

III. Some very general notes on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics

The English word 'ethics' comes from the Greek 'êthos' , which means 'character' or 'disposition'. According to Aristotle, as well as to many modern philologists, this word is closely related to the word 'ethos' , which means 'habit'. Aristotle believes that this connection is significant, in the following way.

Aristotle's ethics centers on the notion of 'aretê', a word usually translated as 'virtue' but that basically means 'excellence'. The term usually is used of human qualities - moral, physical, and intellectual (courage, strength, and wisdom were all called aretai), but it was sometimes used of the functions of non-human things too. The aretai (plural) with respect to human character and behavior might be called "virtues": justice, courage, moderation, being a good friend, generosity, and so on. Greek moral education, such as it was, focused not only on teaching rules and laws, but also on cultivating aretai (mainly, this involved encouraging people to emulate those figures of history and myth who were held up as examples of one or another aretê - but as early as Hesiod there were somewhat deeper speculations about which aretai were appropriate to cultivate under which circumstances, and why; see his Works and Days).

Aristotle, like his predecessors Socrates and Plato, realized that this moral education would get nowhere, or could actually make things worse, if it continued to take place without a clear idea of what aretê was. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle manages to come up with a provisional definition (Book II, Ch. 6, 1107a): Aretê is a state or condition of soul that is concerned with choice, and that involves observance of the mean (middle between excess and deficiency) relative to us (i.e. to each of us). This mean is determined by means of a principle, in the way that a prudent man would determine it. For example, courage would be a state or condition of soul involving choices about what to do in dangerous situations; the courageous act is in the middle between overly bold acts and overly timid or self-protective acts. The courageous person is not the one who feels no fear, for Aristotle thinks that fear is legitimate in certain situations; the courageous one is the one who feels fear at "appropriate" things, and who acts "appropriately" in the face of them. ("Prudence" or "practical wisdom", phronêsis, is the ability to determine what is "appropriate" here.)

What has "habit" to do with this? In the beginning of Book II, Aristotle suggests that "ethical aretê" is the product of habit. Our states of soul with respect to moral issues come to be through our involvement in relevant activities. We would not know what it was like to make the choices associated with courage if we were not involved in activities where fear was a factor, and so on, and we would not see how our choices were connected to outcomes in a given type of situation if we did not continue to make choices in that kind of situation over time. Aristotle seems also to have in mind the idea that if someone is not consistent in his or her choices (does not build up a habit of choosing in a certain way in situations of a given kind), that person would not be said to exhibit aretê, but instead would be said to exhibit sporadic good behavior.


1. Aristotle was what was termed a metoikos or "metic" when he was in Athens: a resident alien who is not a slave. A metic could not vote or serve on juries (a big difference between metic and citizen - politês - in Athens, but not in a non-democracy), but perhaps more importantly, a metic could not inherit property from a citizen without the citizen's getting a special dispensation; and a metic was not fully, or at least not always, protected by all the laws that protected a citizen. Legally drawn-up business contracts between metic and citizen seem to have been enforced, but crimes against the person, family, or property of a metic generally had to be brought to court by a citizen - so that if no citizen would come forward to do this, the metic was without protection. Similarly, a metic accused of a crime generally did best to get citizens to speak for him or her if possible.

2. A "tyrant" (turannis) was someone who had seized political power in some way other than through legal means. The word did not have the connotation of harsh rule that it has today, although some tyrants certainly were harsh and violent. Hermias had apparently been fairly harsh at first, but it seems that Aristotle and his fellow philosophers were able to change that by teaching Hermias some of Plato's reflections on politics, rule, and aretê (Hermias seems to have read or heard Plato earlier).

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