Aristotle

384-322 b.c.. Greek philosopher. Born at Stagira, he went to Plato's school at Athens (367-347). After the death of Plato he lived in the Troad and on Lesbos, eventually becoming tutor to the son (the future Alexander the Great) of Philip II of Macedon. In 335 he returned to Athens to open a new school called the Lyceum. When Alexander died in 323, the school was in danger from the anti-Macedonian forces, so Aristotle took refuge on Euboea.

Although a student of Plato, Aristotle came to differ with his teacher. Werner Jaeger (Aristotle, Fundamentals of the History of His Development, ET 1934) has distinguished three periods in his life. In the first (to 347 b.c.) he was a defender of Platonism, presenting his material in dialogues holding the Platonic view of the soul and adhering to the doctrine of form. In the second period (347-335) he became increasingly critical of Platonism, especially of the idea of forms. Finally, in the period after 335, he became an exponent of empirical science, and by the end of his life had come to reject all the essential features of Platonic otherworldly metaphysics.

The material on which Aristotle's fame rests is not in dialogue form, but apparently in lecture notes preserved perhaps by his students. His work is encyclopedic, which may help to explain why it was so popular in the Middle Ages when knowledge sources were limited. Among his major works are Ethics; Physics; Metaphysics; the works on logic known as the Organon; a variety of writings on natural science such as On the Heavens, On the Soul, On the Parts of Animals; Politics; Rhetoric; and Poetics.

His teachings were not very influential among Christians until the high Middle Ages (a.d. 1050-1100). During these years knowledge of his work was gradually gained from Arabic translation made by Jews and Muslims. These were then translated into Latin during the twelfth century. The logical works were recovered first, and then the entire Aristotelian metaphysical system became available. The intellectual shock this work caused may be likened to that occasioned by Copernican cosmology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or to Darwinian biology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Aristotle presented a complete explanation of reality without any reference to the Christian God. His “unmoved mover” or “first cause” was a principle of existence, not a personal being. The universe he described was eternal, without beginning or end, and man had no individual immortality in the Aristotelian system. Some medieval scholars wished to ban his works, while others opted for a “double truth” theory in which Aristotle should guide logic and Christianity should be supreme in revelation, but the two fields could not be reconciled. The future of Western thought, however, lay in the work of scholars such as Albertus Magnus* and Thomas Aquinas* who attempted to harmonize Aristotelian philosophy with Christianity and then developed the Scholastic movement.

See also Ramus, Peter.

W.D. Ross (ed.), The Works of Aristotle Translated into English (12 vols., 1908-52); idem, Aristotle (1953); J.H. Randall, Jr., Aristotle> (1960).