Major Works: Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, On The Soul, Physics, Poetics, Politics
Influences: Pre-Socratics, Homer, Socrates, Plato
Themes: Science, Morality, Happiness, Art, Nature, Politics, Afterlife
Quotes: “All men by nature desire knowledge” (Metaphysics) / “For one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy” (Nicomachean Ethics) / “Those who have many friends and mix intimately with them all are thought to be no one’s friend” (Nicomachean Ethics) / “The natural way of doing this [seeking scientific knowledge or explanation of fact] is to start from the things which are more knowable and obvious to us and proceed towards those which are clearer and more knowable by nature” (Physics) / If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost (Politics) / “A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action … with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions” (Poetics)
Literary Echoes: Thomas Aquinas, Avicenna, Dante, Marx, Kant, Rousseau, Spinoza
I considered leaving Aristotle out of these blogs on the evolution of world literature, as he wasn’t really renowned for his writing style and didn’t produce any standout literary works like Homer’s Odyssey or Plato’s Republic. It would have been a mistake to omit him though, given his vast contribution to advancing human knowledge. For example, Poetics is one of the first works of literary criticism, providing a systematic look at Greek drama.
Aristotle was really a scientist, in the broadest sense of the word. His vast output (of which only about 20% is believed to have survived), includes at least 150 works on logic and on language; on the arts and rhetoric; on ethics and politics and law; on psychology and physiology; on natural history – zoology, biology, botany; on chemistry, astronomy, mechanics, mathematics; on the philosophy of science and the nature of motion and space and time; on metaphysics and theory of knowledge.
Empirical research – gaining knowledge by direct observation – was one of Aristotle’s great contributions to science, and marked him out from his teacher Plato. As a tireless collector of facts – zoological, astronomical, meteorological, historical, sociological, etc – Aristotle was a polymath but his scientific fame rests primarily on his work in zoology and biology; his studies on animals laid the foundations of the biological sciences and were not superseded until more than two millennia after his death. What also marks him out from Plato is his preference for a simpler style of science writing; whereas Plato’s dialogues are finished literary artefacts, Aristotle’s writings for the most part are like lecture notes. Aristotle was a member of Plato’s Academy for 20 years, and loved and revered him, but also rejected some of his philosophical ideas, most famously Plato’s theory of Forms.
Aristotle’s eternal question was, what things in fact are substances? Plato’s theory of Forms was by far the most elaborate response to this question – a field of philosophy known as ontological theory – with which Aristotle was acquainted. Aristotle contended that whiteness exists insofar as certain substances are white. Plato, on the contrary, held that a substance is white insofar as it shares in whiteness. In Aristotle’s opinion, white things are prior to whiteness, for the existence of whiteness is simply a matter of there being white things. In Plato’s opinion, whiteness is prior to white things, for the existence of white things is simply a matter of their sharing in whiteness.
Aristotle’s arguments against this Platonic notion are powerful; but they have not convinced determined Platonists – nor is it easy to see how the dispute might be settled. Unlike Plato’s Forms, which exist eternally and are always the same, Aristotle’s substances are for the most part temporary items which undergo a variety of alterations. So then, what are substances exactly? Aristotle’s answer is mercifully clear and commonsensical. The first and plainest examples of substances are animals and plants; other examples are natural bodies (sun, moon and stars) and perhaps also artefacts (tables and chairs, pots and pans).
Aristotle: A Brief Timeline
384BC: Born in the northern Greek town of Stagira
367BC: Aged 17, he left Stagira for Athens, to join Plato’s Academy
347BC: Plato dies, and Aristotle leaves Athens for Atarneus. He wrote an elegy to Plato in which he praised him as a man “whom it is not right for evil men even to praise; who alone or first of mortals proved clearly, by his own life and by the course of his arguments, that a man becomes good and happy at the same time”
347-335BC: Years of travel, during which much of his biological research was conducted
335BC-322BC: Returns to Athens, to set up the Lyceum and teach there. Some of his
political researches were carried out during this later period of his life
322BC: Retires to Chalcis on the island of Euboea, where his mother’s family had property, and dies 13 months after his flight from Athens
Works & Influence
Dante called Aristotle “maestro di color che sanno” (“master of those who know”), which reflects how – even in the early 14th century – the advances that Aristotle had made in various fields of knowledge were still not surpassed more than a millennium and a half later. Arguably Aristotle’s greatest single achievement was his biological research, followed closely by his work on logic. Few thinkers have founded two new sciences.
Inevitably, however, Aristotle’s work in both those fields, and others, is now outdated. Aristotle’s logic remained at the cutting edge until the end of the 19th century, with the rise of thinkers like Wittgenstein, Russell and Gödel. As for biology, it was the major advances in the 18th century from Carl Linnaeus (taxonomy) and Georges Cuvier (paleontology) that superseded Aristotle’s work. In a famous 1882 letter, Charles Darwin remarked that his “two gods”, Linnaeus and Cuvier, were “mere school‐boys to old Aristotle”, revealing his high respect for him. It may also have reflected some real insight on Darwin’s part into the teleological aspect [philosophical attempt to describe things in terms of their apparent purpose, directive principle, or goal] of Aristotle’s thought.
Aristotle’s biological research was collected in two large volumes, the History of Animals and the Dissections. The Dissections has not survived, while The History – the Researches – discusses in detail the parts of animals, both external and internal. The latter is a flawed masterpiece; though Aristotle has been criticised for having no notion of the importance of measurement – real science is quantitative, but Aristotle’s descriptions are qualitative – and for influential errors like the theory of “spontaneous generation”, his research is also highly informative about biological life, especially marine animals – fish, crustacea and cephalopods. He was a taxonomist, but not a systematic thinker; in fact, his method and thought consists in the posing of particular puzzles (“aporiai”) and in the development of particular solutions to them.
Aristotle divided knowledge into three major classes: “All thought is either practical or productive or theoretical”. Theoretical knowledge includes all that we now think of as science, for him the greatest part of the sum of human knowledge. The productive sciences are those concerned with making things – farming, art and engineering. Aristotle had little to say about productive knowledge, with the Rhetoric and the Poetics his only surviving works in that field. The practical sciences are concerned with action, and how we ought to conduct ourselves in private and in public affairs. Indeed, two of his most famous works, the Politics and Nicomachean Ethics, belong to the practical branch of philosophy.
Physics and Metaphysics
The essays that constitute the Physics are among the more complete of Aristotle’s surviving works: as ever with Aristotle, they’re not easy reading and some of his arguments are tough to penetrate, but the general intent is clear. For him, material objects change, and their changes are caused. Aristotle’s doctrine of the “four causes” is at the heart of his explanation of the physical world:
“A thing is called a cause in one way if it is a constituent from which something comes to be (for example, bronze of the statue, silver of the goblet, and their genera); in another way if it is the form and pattern, that is, the formula of its essence, and the genera of this (for example, 2:1, and in general number, of the octave), and the parts present in the account; again, if it is the source of the first principle of change or rest (for example, the man who deliberates is a cause, and the father of the child, and in general the maker of what is being made and the changer of what is changing); again, if it is a goal – that is, that for the sake of which (for example, health of walking – Why is he walking? – we say: ‘In order to be healthy’, and in so saying we think we have stated the cause); and also those things which, when something else has initiated a change, stand between the changer and the goal – for example, slimming or purging or drugs or instruments of health; for all these are for the sake of the goal, and they differ from one another in being some instruments and others actions.”
In Book VIII of the Physics, Aristotle argues for the existence of a changeless source of change – an “unmoved mover”, as it is normally called. This idea – of some original source which imparts change to other things without changing itself – had a huge influence on thinkers like Aquinas, who saw it as a proof for God. Some scholars take Aristotle’s words at face value, and find the idea of God a recurrent theme throughout his writings, as though he were a profoundly religious scientist. Other scholars dismiss Aristotle’s use of the words “god” or “divine” as a turn of phrase, as though the primary substances are divine only in the sense that other things are dependent upon them, making him a wholly secular thinker. Neither view is plausible; it’s best to connect Aristotle’s remarks about the divinity of the universe with the sense of wonderment which nature and its works produced in him, and us.
As for On The Soul and the Metaphysics, his focus is often on the reliability of the senses, but sadly many of his remarks are not backed up by argument or empirical research, and Aristotle’s reply to the sceptics in the Metaphysics is little more than a curt dismissal. As arch-materialist Thomas Hobbes would say in his Leviathan, Aristotle’s Metaphysics was “for the most part so far from the possibility of being understood, and so repugnant to naturall Reason, that whosoever thinketh there is any thing to bee understood by it, must needs think it supernaturall“. Aristotle should have taken scepticism more seriously, but we can’t fault him for not achieving excellence in every field of knowledge he explored. Aristotle’s general account of the physical world, or “sublunary sphere”, can sometimes seem absurd, and is very often false, but it’s worth remembering that Aristotle didn’t have the scientific concepts and tools of the 16th and 17th centuries, which allowed scientists to apply quantitative methods to inanimate nature, and later resulted in the birth of modern physics and chemistry.
Ethics and Politics
The title Ethics is misleading, as are the standard English translations of two key terms in Aristotle’s practical philosophy – aretê, normally rendered “virtue”, and eudaimonia, as “happiness”. A more accurate title would be On Matters of Character. Aristotle is not asking what makes us happy, nor concerned with how we should lead our lives, but wants to instruct us in how to make a success of our lives and achieve excellence. One of his great contributions to moral understanding is the idea of the “golden mean”, the idea that virtue occupies the middle ground between two vices. He created a system of 11 virtues:
Aristotle distinguishes between excellences of character and excellences of intellect. The former are moral virtues – courage, generosity, etc – and also dispositions like self-control and good humour or wit, while the latter include such things as knowledge and good judgement. For Aristotle, society and the state are not artificial trappings imposed upon natural man, but manifestations of human nature itself. The “good life”, which is the goal of the state, is identified with excellence, which is also the goal of individuals. States are natural entities, and like other natural objects, Aristotle deems them to have a goal or end. Teleology is a feature of his political theory as much as his biology.
In the last books of the Politics, Aristotle begins to describe his utopia or ideal state, inspired no doubt by Plato’s Republic. As with Plato’s Republic, there’s a whiff of totalitarianism about Aristotle’s ideas for organising the state, but for me his intentions are largely benign. Aristotle believes the state should intervene before birth, during pregnancy, and then later throughout childhood via education: “No one would dispute that the legislator must busy himself especially about the education of the young . . . Since the whole city has one goal, it is evident that there must also be one and the same education for everyone, and that the superintendence of this should be public and not private . . . Public matters should be publicly managed; and we should not think that each of the citizens belongs to himself, but that they all belong to the State.” It’s no surprise that Aristotle’s Lyceum inspired the French school system, and others, in the form of the “lycée”.
Poetics & Drama
Poetics is short, and only one half of it still exists. It includes an essay on language and linguistics, but consists mainly of what commentators have seen as literary theory – in particular, the theory and criticism of tragic drama. But that’s not how Aristotle saw the work; its chief aim was to tell us not how to judge a work of art but how to produce one. All art, Aristotle thinks, is a matter of representation or “mimesis” (imitation): “Epic, and tragic poetry, and also comedy and dithyramb and most flute and harp-music, are all by and large imitations“. Art imitates human life, in particular human action, and human actions differ in character: “It is this difference which distinguishes tragedy from comedy; for the latter is supposed to imitate men who are worse, and the former men who are better, than those of today“.
Of the six elements of tragedy which Aristotle later distinguishes – plot, character, language, thought, spectacle and song – plot is most important: it is in virtue of its plot that a tragedy will be “complete” or unitary, and it is via plot that a tragedy will perform its emotionally purgative function. For Aristotle, “the chief means by which a tragedy works on the emotions are certain parts of the plot, namely discoveries and reversals“. The plot revolves around a central figure, later known as the “tragic hero”, who must be a man “neither preeminent in excellence and goodness nor falling into misfortune through badness and villainy, but rather through some mistake – a man of high reputation and good fortune, like Oedipus or Thyestes or famous men from such families“.
Hopefully the above provides a few good examples of Aristotle’s influence on the history of western thought. It’s also worth noting that Aristotle had a notoriously large library and that “he is the first man we know to have collected books, and his example taught the Kings of Egypt how to put together a library”. Though his more philosophical writings – the essays in Physics, Metaphysics, and Ethics – are not as sure-footed or scientific as his works on logic and biology, they still retain enormous vitality and it’s hard to fathom that someone was able to think with such sophistication two and a half millennia ago. For the purposes of this blog, his main contribution to literature was the Poetics, helping to establish the field of literary criticism, and I plan to soon publish an in-depth look at the development of literary criticism through the ages, starting with the Poetics.