Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) is considered the father of logic and the natural science. A pupil of Plato and a teacher of Alexander the Great, he was interested most in the natural world and explaining natural phenomena. He relied on observation to determine the truth, and founded the Lyceum in 335 B.C.

Aristotle has been called the world’s first and greatest encyclopedist. He seemed to be interested in almost everything he studied. He wrote about logic, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, physics, astronomy, drama, and biology. He left behind a wealth of material and remained an authority on nearly everything through the Renaissance. His suppositions were first seriously questioned during the Age of Reason but remained in vogue well into the 19th century..

Based on the number of books written about him (1,696 in 1999 in the Library of Congress collection), Aristotle is the world's 17th most famous person. He ranks behind Jesus and Plato but ahead of Freud and Mozart.

Aristotle's Life

The son of courtly physician, Aristotle was born in Stagira, a town in northeastern Greece, a fact which would forever make him an outsider in Athens. Many of Aristotle’s relatives and ancestors had a connection with medicine, which was regarded as the most practical and grounded of the sciences

After he was orphaned as a boy, Aristotle moved to Athens and studied at Plato’s Academy. He was so studious, smart and determined that Plato called him “the mind of the school.” Many of the others there called him a “metic,” meaning foreigner. Aristotle stayed at the Academy for 20 years and only left when Plato died in 347 B.C. In the end Plato felt betrayed by the direction that Aristotle took with his philosophy and called him “the foal that kicks his mother.”

After leaving the Academy, Aristotle drifted for a while. He couldn’t return to Stagira because it had been destroyed in battle of conquest by Alexander the Great’s father Philip of Macedonia. He set up a small academy in a small kingdom in Asia Minor, where he married the adopted daughter of a king and indulged himself in his passion of studying nature. He then spent two years studying biology on the island of Mytilene (Lesbos).

Some scholars have suggested that Aristotle was gay.

Aristotle and Alexander the Great

In 342 B.C., Philip II of Macedonia hired Aristotle to teach science and politics to his 13-year-old son Alexander the Great. Little is known about what transpired between the two. Neither Aristotle nor Alexander the Great had much to say about the other afterwards and neither seem to have much influence on the other.

One of the few things that Aristotle was recorded as saying was: “the young man is not a proper audience for political science. He has no experience of life, and because he still follows his emotions, he will only listen to purpose, uselessly.” Aristotle appears to have written some pamphlets especially for Alexander. They include On Kingship , In Praise of Colones and The Glory of Rices.


The reason Philip chose Aristotle to be Alexander’s teacher is not clear. Aristotle was not a well known philosopher at that time. His father served as court physician for Philip’s father (Alexander’s grandfather) and perhaps Philips choice was a political move aimed at rebuilding Stagira. Aristotle spent three years with Alexander, until he was 16, when he was made a regent while his father Philip was in Asia Minor.

Aristotle was well paid. Philip also helped Aristotle in his studies of nature by assigning gamekeepers to tag wild animals for him. After Alexander became king of Macedonia he gave Aristotle a lot of money so he could set up a school. While he was in Macedonia, Aristotle made friends with the general Antipater, who ran Macedonia while Alexander was on his campaign of conquest. The friendship was close enough that Antipater was the executor of Aristotle’s will. Aristotle no doubt received some financial assistance from him as well.

Aristotle’s Lyceum

Aristotle established the Lyceum in in Athens, He taught there from the age of 49 until his retirement at 62. The Lyceum was one of the great schools of philosophy in ancient Greece along with Plato's Academy and the school created by the Cynics after the death of Socrates in 339 B.C. The Lyceum was more than a school. It had an extensive library, gardens and a museum. The library was extensive. Some have called it the first well-organized library. After he died his heirs ordered the books and scrolls buried to keep them out of the hands of his rivals.

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Plato and Aristotle in The
School of Athens by Rafael
Aristotle liked to stroll around the garden while he was teaching. Some people called the Lyceum the Peripatetic School (the Walking Around School) because of Aristotle’s teaching methods. Morning classes were for serious students. Evening ones for anyone who wanted to come. Afterwards there were often symposium---festive meals---were conducted according to Aristotle’s rules.

In the classes, students didn’t just listen to lectures and engage in discussions they also studied the habits of insects and dissected animals. In response to students that complained about the smell and guts, Aristotle told them: “The consideration of the lower forms of life ought not to excite a childish repugnance. In all natural things there is something to move wonder.” Aristotle and his students were encouraged to take notes on everything and share them with each other.

Aristotle spent twelve years at the Lyceum. In 323 B.C., during a wave of anti-Macedonian feeling, that followed the death of Alexander the Great, Aristotle was accused of impiety and forced to flee Athens. He ended up in Chaleis on the island of Euboea, where he died the next year at the age of 63. He was rich when he died. He left most of his money to his family and freed some of his slaves.

Aristotle’s Writing

When Aristotle left Plato Academy he set out on his own to make his own observations on the world and attempted to systematically classify and organize what he saw and thought. In his great work on natural history, the Historia Animalium , he did a series of investigations into "these beings that are the work of nature."

Many of Aristotle’s texts were lists of why questions followed by because answers. His arguments often begin with banal assumptions that everyone could agree on, and he then built on them. Ethics begins: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good.” Politics opens: Every state is a community of some kind and every community is established with a view to do some good.” Even Metaphysics starts that way: “All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses.”

Aristotle wrote about everything from the habits of bees, to the mechanics of perception to the laws of barbarians. The way he classified things and solved problems in subjects as diverse as biology, logic and politics shaped the vocabulary and way these things were thought about even today. Most of the works that have come down to us today were originally notes and commentary connected to his morning lectures to serious students.

Aristotle’s major works include Rhetoric , History of Animals , Metaphysics , Ethics , Politics and Poetics . Among the 200 or so other titles attributed to him are On the Gait , On Psychology (On the Soul) , On Sleep and Sleeplessness , Parts of Animals , On Prophesying and On Longevity, Youth and Age

Aristotle’s Philosophy

The primary goal of Aristotle’s search for knowledge was to find out as much about everything as possible and during the search explain things and ideally uncover important kernels of knowledge that could be applied to all things. Some have called this a search for common sense. Unlike Socrates, who questioned everything and sought to tear down the pretensions of his time, Aristotle sought universal truths and “what everyone believes is true.” He also disapproved of the Platonic emphasis on mathematics. Aristotle wrote: “The moderns have turned philosophy into mathematics.”

Aristotle saw the a world of change and motion and ultimately debunked some of Plato’s most basic theories. “So, goodbye to Forms. They are idle prattle, and if they do exist are wholly irrelevant.”Aristotle believed that the sensory world was real and argued that “individual things combined form and matter and that the forms they incorporated determined how they moved, grew and evolved.” He warned, however, of falling into the trap of oversimplification and often pointed out weaknesses and contradictions.

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Aristotle wind rose

Describing the idea of change and the mind, Aristotle said. “That which is capable of receiving the object of thought, is mind, and it is active when it possesses it. This activity therefore rather than the capability appears as the divine element in mind, and contemplation the pleasantest and best activity. If then God is forever in that good state when we reach occasionally it is a wonderful thing---if in a better state, more wonderful still. Yet is so. Life too he has, for the activity of the mind is life, and he is that activity. His essential activity is his life, the best life and eternal. We say then that God is an eternal living being, the best of all, attributing to him continuous and eternal life. That is God.

Aristotle, Science and Categorization

In addition to being interested in almost everything, Aristotle was also obsessed with classifying everything. He classified a wide variety of things into branches of knowledge: logic, poetics, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, physics, astronomy, psychology and biology. These provided the foundations for the sciences as they exist today.

Within the major subjects, the classification process continued. Politics described different kinds of governments and communities In Poetics and Comedy in Poetics II he discusses the difference between tragedy, comedy and different kids of poetry. He also addressed different kinds of plots and characters.

Aristotle also grouped his subjects into more general branches of knowledge. All knowledge he said is practical, productive or theoretical. The three theoretical sciences as he defined them are: Physics (the science of nature), Mathematics (the sciences of quantitative aspects of things) and Theology (the “first philosophy,” or the science of being). Logic, or Analytics, as he called it was essential to understanding all things. He devised the idea of a premise and a conclusion, making a conclusion based on proof and winning debates based on reason.

Earth of the later Greeks

Aristotle and the Universe

Aristotle provided the intellectual foundations of astrology and described many events---especially those involving growth and decay---as related to the movement of heavenly bodies and the path of the sun. Ptolemy later wrote extensively on the subject and argued that astronomy was based on physical laws not the whims of the Gods.

Aristotle elaborated on the conventional Greek model of the universe and described the heavens as a composite of 55 ethereal shells. Most of the universe was made of a transparent and weightless material known as ether, he said, and the different motions of the planets and the sun were explained by the fact that each of these heavenly bodies was attached to a different ethereal shell which rotated independently from the others. Aristotle's concept of the universe provided the basis for Western astrology and astronomy and endured through the Middle Ages until Copernicus's theory that the Earth revolved around the sun was accepted.

Aristotle believed the world was a sphere based on the shadow cast on the moon during an eclipse. His model of the universe explained how the planets followed different courses but it didn't explain whey the plants took such irregularly non-linear routes across the sky. Astrologers through the ages explained these deviations with a complicated system of epicycles, equants, eccentrics and deferents.

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Pompeii Nilotic scene

Aristotle and Natural Science

Aristotle carefully observed and recorded nature; he wrote treatises on biology and zoology. He believed that all materials were made of four elements: water, earth, air and fire. The nature and kind of a substance or material was based on the proportions of the four elements. This view of chemistry endured through the Renaissance.

"In all of nature," Aristotle wrote, in de Partibus Animalium , "there is something of the marvelous. We should study every kind of animal without hesitation, knowing that in all of them there is something natural and beautiful."

Aristotle taught his students that arrows and stones were pushed by the atmosphere, the heart not the brain was the center of intelligence, heavy objects fell faster than light ones, and living creatures, like maggots, could be conceived spontaneously without ancestors. He believed that metals grew underground like plants.

The Aristotelean belief that all colors were created by mixing black and white endured until the 17th century. The "waterfall illusion" was first described by Aristotle in the forth century B.C. This phenomena occurs if you stare at a waterfall for a minute or so, then look at the rocks or trees---they appear to move upwards.╛

Aristotle and Animals

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Aristotle devised a system of "blooded animals" and "bloodless animals." the former was further subdivided by their method of reproduction (egg-laying vs. live-bearing), habitat and structure (for instant soft shelled vs. hard shelled insects). Aristotle used a system of "genuses" and "species" but they weren't as clearly defined as our modern system.

Aristotle was the first man to carefully examine a sea urchin. The creature’s mouth was named Aristotle' Lantern in his honor. "The urchin has of hollow teeth inside," Aristotle wrote, "and in the middle of these a fleshy substance serving the office of a tongue...The mouth-apparatus of the urchin is continuous from one end to the other, but to outward appearance it is not so, but looks like a horn lantern with the panes of horn left out."

The Aristotelian view of plant reproduction was that higher form plants like trees and flowers were animated with a vegetable "soul" and lower forms such as fungus and moss was generated spontaneously in decaying matter. Aristotle wrote that flies, worms an other small animals were born from decaying matter through process of spontaneous generation.

Aristotle and Humans

Aristotle’s views on humanity seem less sophisticated than his views on animals. He believed that if someone shared a feature of an animal, such as pantherlike penetrating eyes or an eaglelike aquiline nose, he shared qualities with the animals he resembled. Broad ape-like faces revealed stupidity, he said, and a small face honesty.

Aristotle kept slaves and justified slavery by classifying humanity into two kinds of people: The few, smart people destined to be masters and the multitudes of less talented people designated to be slaves. In Politics he wrote: “the first and fewest possible parts of a family are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children...He who is by nature not his own but another’s man, is by nature a slave: and he is said to be another’s man who, being a human being, is also a possession.”

Among Aristotle other observations were that man was the only living creature endowed with laughter and "beauty is a far greater recommendation than any letter of introduction." Aristotle wrote a treatise on laughter but it was lost to history.

Aristotle's Legacy

Pompeii scholar
After his death Aristotle’s writings were scattered or lost. It took three centuries just to drag up what remained from underground caches and cellars and put them in a coherent form.

By the early Middle Ages all that was left in Europe of Aristotle’s work were a few fragments from Logic . Fortunately, many of his texts had earlier made their way to the great Arab-Islam dynasties in the Middle East, where were translated into Arabic. Centuries later they made their way back to Europe and were translated into Latin.

Aristotle views on science endured until relatively recently. Among those who sang his praises were Darwin who called him the great scientist of his time and described other scientists as “mere schoolboys to old Aristotle.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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