Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) is considered one of the most influential individuals in history. He made important contributions to just about all fields of knowledge that existed in his time and became the founder of many new ones. The ancient Greek philosopher covered a wide range of subjects including biology, zoology, music, theatre, physics, politics, rhetoric, linguistics and much, much more. Along Socrates and Plato, Aristotle is one of the key figures in the emergence of Western philosophy and thought, while his writings in physical sciences profoundly influenced the intellectual life in medieval Europe.
The celebrated philosopher has written the first known system of logic that still forms the basis of modern logic. Aristotle’s metaphysics, on the other hand, became an integral part of Christian theology, especially scholasticism and continues to play an essential role in Christian reasoning to the present day. His philosophy has also profoundly influenced the Jewish and Muslim thought. The medieval Muslim thinkers referred to him as ‘the first teacher’.
Aristotle was born in 384 BC in the ancient Greek city of Stagira on the Chalkidiki peninsula east of the modern city of Thessaloniki. His parents were members of aristocracy (his father Nicomachus was the physician of the Macedon king Amyntas) and were able to provide their son the best education. At the age of 18, Aristotle was sent to Athens to study at Plato’s Academy. After completing education, he stayed at the Academy until 348 or 347 BC. He is said to quit because he was dissatisfied with the new Academy’s leadership after Plato’s death although some historians argue that he left before Plato’s death due to the rise anti-Macedonian sentiment in the city.
After leaving Athens, Aristotle went to the court of Hermias of Atarneus in north-east Asia Minor. From there, he travelled to the island of Lesbos and focused on study of botany and zoology. He married Hermias’ adoptive daughter Pythias with whom he had a daughter who was named after his wife Pythias. In 343 BC, he accepted the invitation of Philip II of Macedon to come to his court and tutor his son Alexander (the Great).
In Macedonia, Aristotle become the head of the Macedon academy. Besides tutoring Alexander, he also taught Ptolemy (the founder of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt) and Cassander (the future King of Macedon). Aristotle returned to Athens in 335 BC while his former pupil was preparing for the conquest of the Persian Empire. While in Athens, Aristotle founded his own school called the Lyceum and gave lessons at the school for more than a decade. After the death of his wife Pythias, he started an affair with Herpyllis of Stagira. She bore him a son who was named Nicomachus after Aristotle’s father. According to the 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia Suda, Aristotle also had an erotic relationship with a young men called Palaephatus of Abydos.
It is believed that Aristotle’s most productive period was after his return to Athens in 335 BC. He is thought to write many of his works while in Athens for the second time including many dialogues and treatises such as Physics, Metaphysics, Politics, On the Soul (De Anima) and Nicomachean Ethics. He also wrote on theology, rhetoric, psychology and economics, and made important contributions to a wide range physical science including zoology, geography, geology, astronomy and anatomy, to mention only a few.
In the second half of the 320s, Alexander the Great feared a plot against him and sent threatening letters to Aristotle. The philosopher indeed openly opposed Alexander’s divine pretences, while his grandnephew Callisthenes was executed by Alexander for treason. Throughout antiquity, Aristotle was believed to had been involved in the death of Alexander the Great but there is no evidence to support this claim. After Alexander’s death, Aristotle once again witnessed the rise of anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens. He was charged of impiety by Eurymedon the hierophant and left Athens for the second time in 322 BC, probably fearing for his life. He retreated to Chalcis on the island of Euboea where he died of natural causes within the same year.
Although Aristotle’s philosophy is the object of academic study worldwide, it is thought that most of his works have been lost over the centuries. Those that survived through the medieval manuscripts are thought to represent only one third of works created by the celebrated ancient Greek philosopher. The surviving works are collected in the so-called Corpus Aristotelicum. Some, however, are believed not to be composed by Aristotle himself but rather under his supervision and direction, while some are thought to be a product of his successors at the Lyceum. The Corpus is broken down into five sections – Logic, Physics, Metaphysics, Ethics and politics, and Rhetoric and poetics.
Aristotle’s works are sometimes also divided into exoteric and esoteric. The first group of works refers to those that were intended for the public, while esoteric works were used mostly within his school such as the treatises. The Corpus Aristotelicum are exclusively treatises. Esoteric works, on the other hand, are lost although a few dialogues survived in fragments.