Plato and Aristotle
A fanciful representation, Raphael's fresco The School of Athens, shows Aristotle (right) and Plato

Aristotle was born in Stagira in north Greece, the son of Nichomachus, the court physician to the Macedonian royal family. He was trained first in medicine, and then in 367 b.c.e. he was sent to Athens to study philosophy with Plato. He stayed at Plato's Academy until about 347 . Though a brilliant pupil, Aristotle opposed some of Plato's teachings, and when Plato died, Aristotle was not appointed head of the Academy.  After leaving Athens, Aristotle spent some time traveling, and possibly studying biology, in Asia Minor (now Turkey) and its islands. He returned to Macedonia in 338 to tutor Alexander the Great; after Alexander conquered Athens, Aristotle returned to Athens and set up a school of his own, known as the Lyceum.  After Alexander's death, Athens rebelled against Macedonian rule, and Aristotle's political situation became precarious. To avoid being put to death, he fled to the island of Euboea, where he died soon after, in 322 b.c.e.

Aristotle is said to have written 150 philosophical treatises. The 30 that survive touch on an enormous range of philosophical problems, from biology and physics to morals to aesthetics to politics. Many, however, are thought to be "lecture notes" instead of complete, polished treatises, and a few may not be the work of Aristotle but of members of his school.

Whereas Aristotle's teacher Plato had located ultimate reality in Ideas or eternal forms, knowable only through reflection and reason, Aristotle saw ultimate reality in physical objects, knowable through experience.  All things were composed of a potential, their matter, and of a reality, their form; thus, a block of marble - matter - has the potential to assume whatever form a sculptor gives it, and a seed or embryo has the potential to grow into a living plant or animal form. In living creatures, the form was identified with the soul; plants had the lowest kinds of souls (vegetative soul), animals had higher souls which could feel (sentient soul), and humans alone had rational, reasoning souls.  This basic psychological typology was to be adopted later (along with other of his ideas) in Neoplatonism, Islamic thought, medieval Christainity, Kabbalah, and more recently Theosophy and Anthroposophy.

Aristotle differed most sharply from medieval and modern thinkers in his belief that the universe had never had a beginning and would never end; it was eternal. Change, to Aristotle, was cyclical: water, for instance, might evaporate from the sea and rain down again, and rivers might come into existence and then perish, but overall conditions would never change.

In the later Middle Ages, Aristotle's work was rediscovered and enthusiastically adopted by medieval scholars. His followers called him Ille Philosophus (The Philosopher), or "the master of them that know," and many accepted every word of his writings -- or at least every word that did not contradict the Bible -- as eternal truth. Fused and reconciled with Christian doctrine into a philosophical system known as Scholasticism, Aristotelian philosophy became the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, some scientific discoveries in the Middle Ages and Renaissance were criticized simply because they were not found in Aristotle. It is one of the ironies of the history of science that Aristotle's writings, which in many cases were based on first-hand observation, were used to impede observational science.

web page Aristotle - Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy - overview of his life and detailed introduction to his teachings

Web Siteelectronic books The Tech Classics Archive at MIT has Aristotle's scientific writings available.

web pagelinksAristotle et al - Readings for Philosophers and Catholics - material on Jacques Maritain and Scholasticism (Aristotlean influence).
Western Philosophy


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page uploaded 21 January 2000