Aristotle - World Literature

World Literature



BORN: 384 B.C.E., Stagira, Greece

DIED: 322 B.C.E., Chalcis, Greece


GENRE: Treatises, notes


Inquiry into Animals

Nicomachean Ethics




On the Soul



Aristotle. Aristotle, engraving. The Library of Congress.



Aristotle’s importance may be greater than that of any other philosopher, not only because what he said was taken as an almost unquestionable authority during the formative periods of Western culture, but also because he addressed so many different fields of learning. His ideas influenced practically every field of intellectual endeavor, from philosophy and theology to science and literature. Aristotle’s works defined the basic categories of thought and formulated the fundamental rules of inference, in effect becoming the Western tradition’s basis for thought. In addition, Aristotle’s literary views, discussed in his Poetics, dominated literary criticism from antiquity until modern times, setting a standard for any theoretical approach to literature.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Early Love of Science. Aristotle was born in Stagira, a small town in northern Greece located on the peninsula known as the Chalcidice, in the summer of 384 B.C.E. Aristotle’s father, Nicomachus, was the royal doctor for the Macedonian king, Amyntas II. Young Aristotle is believed to have spent part of his childhood living with his father at the royal court in the Macedonian capital of Pella. This early connection with the Macedonian court would have a major impact on later events in his life. As a doctor’s son, he was probably trained in first-aid techniques and basic drug therapy from an early age. This early training may have contributed to his love of science in general, his orderly approach to learning (evident in the highly structured nature of his works), and to his special interest in biology (clear in Inquiry into Animals). Both of Aristotle’s parents died when he was young, and Proxenus, an older relative, became his guardian.

Plato and the Academy. At age seventeen, Aristotle was sent to Athens to attend the most famous school in Greece, the Academy of the great philosopher Plato. At the time, Athens was the intellectual center of the world, and Plato’s Academy was the center of Athens. Aristotle won recognition as the master’s most brilliant student, and his energetic gathering of research and general love of books led Plato to nickname him ‘‘the reader.’’ During his time at the Academy, Aristotle studied mathematics and dialectic, a form of argumentative reasoning. Although Aristotle was both a student and a close friend of Plato’s, the strength and independence of his own mind suggests that he was never simply a follower of his teacher. Aristotle spent twenty years at the Academy, until Plato’s death in 347 B.C.E.

A School of His Own. Aristotle left Athens soon after Plato’s death in 347 B.C.E. He settled near a Greek city called Atarneus in northern Asia Minor (now Turkey). The city’s ruler, Hermias, was an avid student of philosophy who had supported Plato’s Academy. He invited Aristotle and some other Academy members to set up a similar school in nearby Assos, where he provided them with everything they needed to pursue their studies. Aristotle later married Hermias’s niece, Pythias, and the couple had two children, a daughter and a son.

It was in Assos that Aristotle finally stepped out of Plato’s shadow and began the work that truly reflected his own interests. Instead of puzzling only over the fact that things existed at all (one of Plato’s favorite areas of inquiry), he began to focus on the nature and function of the things themselves. He observed animals in their natural environments and carefully recorded his findings. The result, a huge collection of notes and longer writings, is today called the Inquiry into Animals. It describes in great detail the bodies, habitats, and behavior of an astonishing variety of animals, from whales to woodpeckers and from insects to elephants.

Tutor to Alexander the Great. After Hermias’s territory was overrun by the Persians, Aristotle moved to Mytilene. King Philip II of Macedonia, known for his prodigious military skills and expansionist plans, invited Aristotle to accept the post of tutor to his son Alexander. Philip was impressed with Aristotle’s reputation and family connections to Macedonia. Aristotle accepted, and served in the position for three years, teaching the boy rhetoric, literature, science, medicine, and philosophy. According to legend, Aristotle presented his pupil with a copy of the ancient Greek epic the Iliad, which became Alexander’s most prized possession: he slept with it under his pillow. Alexander went on to become one of the most successful military commanders in history, conquering an empire stretching from modern-day Italy to India within a span of ten years.

The Lyceum. In 335 B.C.E., Aristotle returned to Athens and opened his own school, one that rivaled Plato’s Academy. Since it was located at the temple of Apollo the Lycian—Lycia was an area in Asia Minor associated with the god Apollo—the school was called the Lyceum. And because Aristotle often walked up and down a covered courtyard or peripatos while lecturing, he and his followers were referred to as ‘‘Peripatetics.’’ The students and other teachers followed the rules of Aristotle, ate their meals together, and once a month gathered for a symposium, a party of sorts, with a focus of intellectual discussion. At the same time, Aristotle continued writing what was to become an expansive body of work that encompassed the various branches of science, literature, philosophy, and history.

Death of Pupil and Teacher. In 323 B.C.E., Alexander the Great died unexpectedly at the age of thirty-two. He had left no clear instructions for the management of his empire, which quickly dissolved into chaos. In Athens, anti-Macedonian sentiment boiled over and riots broke out. Aristotle, aware that his close connections to the Macedonia court and to Alexander in particular could put his life in danger, left Athens for the island of Euboea. He died there in 322 B.C.E. of a digestive ailment. Some historians have suggested that he was poisoned, but the cause of death is uncertain.



Aristotle's famous contemporaries include:

Socrates (370 B.C.E.-399 B.C.E.): Although a few people practiced something like philosophy before Socrates, his prolific career as a teacher, orator, and defender of philosophy justify his being called ''The Father of Philosophy.''

Alexander of Macedonia (also known as Alexander the Great) (356 B.C.E.-323 B.C.E.): This Macedonian king vastly increased the size of his kingdom and built a lasting reputation as a conqueror during the thirty-three years of his life.

Aristophanes (456 B.c.E.-ca. 386 B.C.E.): This Athenian comic playwright authored Lysistrata, a comedy that deals openly with sex, feminism, and pacifism.

Democritus (460 B.C.E.-370 B.C.E.): This Greek philosopher's most important theory is that all matter is composed of atoms.

Xenophon (431 B.C.E.-355 B.C.E.): This Greek historian's work gives us a window into the lives of the Greeks during his lifetime.


Works in Literary Context

After his death, Aristotle’s manuscripts were hidden in a cellar in present-day Turkey by the heirs of one of his students and not brought to light again until the beginning of the first century B.C.E.,when they were taken to Rome and edited by Andronicus. Andronicus’s revisions probably do not represent works that Aristotle himself prepared for publication. The peculiarly clipped language in which they are written indicates that they are lecture notes organized from oral discussions of the material by Aristotle. Nevertheless, Aristotle’s work had incalculable influence on Western thought for centuries to come, shaping the way artists, writers, architects, doctors, scientists, kings, queens, and even priests approached their work.

Philosophy. Analysts throughout the centuries have asserted that Aristotle’s philosophy is systematic, universal, and epoch-making. Trained in the Platonic tradition, Aristotle nevertheless rejected his teacher’s theory of Ideas. True, in formulating his ontology, or doctrine of being, Aristotle views each individual concrete thing as a blend of matter and form. While the Aristotelian concept of form superficially resembles Plato’s Ideas, the forms, as W. G. de Burgh observed, ‘‘do not exist... in a super-sensible heaven, cut adrift from the actual world of our experience. ... Thus for Aristotle it is the concrete individual, not the mere universal, that has substantial being.’’ The basic task of philosophy, according to Aristotle, is to explain why and how things are what they are. In order to learn why something exists, Aristotle insists that one must identify four fundamental causes. Using the example of a sculpture, Aristotle defines these causes as material (the artist’s medium), efficient (an artistic conception translated into the sculptor’s physical manipulation of his medium), formal (the form the artist strives to externalize), and final (the end-product of the creative process). This “conception of form as the end or purpose of development, in contrast to undeveloped matter,’’ de Burgh has written, ‘‘is the fundamental thought of all Aristotle’s philosophy.’’

Literature and Oratory. Aristotle’s ideas on literature and oratory are presented in two works: the Poetics and the Rhetoric. While the latter work focuses on the formal, linguistic, and stylistic rules for effective persuasion in verbal discussion or written argument, the hugely influential Poetics presents a literary theory that no subsequent critical discussion could ignore. Unfortunately, the Poetics exists in fragments, without the important discussions—on subjects such as catharsis and the comic—referred to in other works. Offering a full treatment of tragedy, with marginal attention to other literary genres, the Poetics nevertheless constitutes a comprehensive philosophy of art. Like Plato, Aristotle defined art as ‘‘mimesis,’’ or imitation, but refined the Platonic conception of art by introducing different types of imitation. According to Aristotle, epic and tragedy portray human beings as nobler than they truly are; comedy does the opposite; and the plastic arts (art that does not involve writing or composing—sculpture, for example) strive toward plain imitation. As his description of tragedy indicates, Aristotle does not separate aesthetical from ethical judgments, and his discussion of tragic characters in the Poetics includes explicit statements about their morality.

Metaphysics Through the Years. Though the discourses in the Metaphysics are not finished works, they are sufficiently complete to show what Aristotle conceives to be the basic problems that confront a science of First Philosophy and to indicate how he thinks one should attempt to resolve these problems. The influence of this work has been enormous, both because it lays out a problem for a study of metaphysics and because it provides a persuasive way of thinking about the issues. Such medieval philosophers as Saint Thomas Aquinas (12241275) attempted to integrate their Christian beliefs into this framework, a synthesis that inevitably modified both the Christian dogmas and the Aristotelian system. Though modern philosophers beginning with Rene Descartes were anxious to reject the Aristotelian beliefs that were part of their scholastic education, much of the Aristotelian vocabulary, such as the notions of substance and attributes, remained. Many of the problems Aristotle discusses in this work remain unresolved by philosophers today. Questions about the meaning of being or the nature of universals and one’s knowledge of them are still vexing philosophical issues.

Biology. Aristotle contributed much to the field of biology, especially through his early work on classification. He realized that scientists had to observe an array of characteristics, not just one, as a basis for grouping, and scientists consider him to be the first person to group organisms in ways that made sense. He did not believe in evolution, but as a careful student of nature, he separated living things according to their complexity, according to a scale of nature. He assigned each increasingly complex form of life a step on a ladder. In the eighteenth century, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) developed a system whereby all organisms were named according to genus and species, expanding and refining Aristotle’s basic idea. Linnaeus said, ‘‘God creates, Linnaeus arranges.’’ His system of classification remains in use today.



Although much of what is read about Aristotle has to do with his impact on science and logic, one should remember that he was among a number of thinkers who developed a ''golden mean'' concept for living. Essentially, the golden mean has to do with moderation. For instance, a coward is a person who flees from the least sign of danger, a courageous person is a person who has an appropriate level of fear in a dangerous situation, and a rash person is one who rushes into a dangerous situation that he or she is ill-equipped to deal with. The courageous person is the one who illustrates the golden mean best because this person is neither too frightened nor too rash. This individual has exercised ethical reasoning. Other works that deal with ethics include:

Atlas Shrugged (1957), a novel by Ayn Rand. This novel analyzes the responsibility of great individual thinkers and innovators to the society in which they live.

Summa Theologica (c. 1274), a theological work by Thomas Aquinas. This treatise, written by a priest and Aristotle scholar, analyzes the virtues of fortitude and prudence, especially as they relate to man's relationship with God.

On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), a book by Friedrich Nietzsche. In this text, Nietzsche attempts to provide a history of morality (or ethics) and to theorize the psychological origins of various systems of belief about morality.


Works in Critical Context

Traditionally readers of Aristotle have been impressed most by the systematic nature of his work, and accordingly they have treated the whole of it as expressing a single body of doctrine. In recent decades, however, much scholarship has been devoted to exploring the development of Aristotle’s thought. The underlying assumption of this approach is that at one time Aristotle more or less agreed with his teacher Plato, but gradually began to articulate his own views. Such studies have focused on the relative influence Plato’s views seem to have had on Aristotle in a given work as a way of assessing his intellectual development.

In Werner Jaeger’s book Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development (1948), the work that pioneered these developmental studies, Jaeger argues that Aristotle’s thought is divided into three periods that roughly correspond to the three main periods of his life. In his years at the Academy, Aristotle’s views on the soul and on ethics, which may be found in surviving fragments, are thoroughly Platonic. After Plato’s death Aristotle left the Academy and began to develop his own metaphysical and epistemological views. His return to Athens and founding of the school at the Lyceum marks a third period in his development, in which he turned from the philosophical problems he inherited from Plato and embarked upon a program of empirical research. This period thus includes his biological works as well as the lost collection of political constitutions. Further research has discredited some of Jaeger’s conclusions, but most studies of Aristotle’s development continue to assume with Jaeger that his thought progresses steadily away from Platonism.

Poetics. In Aristotle’s time the influence of the Poetics did not extend beyond his own school, and, unlike his scientific and philosophical works, the book was rediscovered relatively late, during the Italian Renaissance. But its impact then became significant, especially upon the literature and literary criticism in France and England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The principles of poetry and drama in the Poetics were considered by many during this period to be the correct rational principles to which literary works should conform. Much of the Poetics was still an authoritative source for literary principles well into the nineteenth century. The Poetics was used, for example, to argue for clearly defined literary genres as we know them today.

Rhetoric. Many of those who practiced and taught rhetoric in Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. wrote books about the art of rhetoric. Aristotle’s Rhetoric is written within this tradition; but his work is the first and only systematic treatment of rhetoric in this period. It is unlikely that the Rhetoric had a significant influence as a handbook for public speaking among Aristotle’s contemporaries, because by the time it was written political oratory was in decline. Though the work itself is not polemical, it no doubt served also to distinguish Aristotle’s views on rhetoric from those of his rival Isocrates. Cicero and other Romans studied the Rhetoric. For them it is likely that its rhetorical principles were instructive as practical guidelines for oratory. When humanistic learning was revived during the Renaissance, the Rhetoric formed the basis for the study of rhetoric. The Aristotelian rhetorical model is still commonly taught in introductory writing courses at the high-school and college level.


Responses to Literature

1. Can you think of a situation in which ‘‘the golden mean’’ is not the best method for determining what one should do? Since perceptions or measures of moderation will vary from person to person, what factors decide where the golden mean lies? Drawing from what you know about Aristotle’s philosophy, as well as those of great thinkers throughout the ages, explain and defend your answers.

2. For many years, Aristotle’s reputation as a philosopher was so strong that he was often referred to simply as ‘‘The Philosopher.’’ To modern ears, his work sounds much more like science than philosophy. What are some of the differences between the kind of philosophy Aristotle participated in and the kind of philosophy practiced by philosophers in the twenty-first century?

3. Explain Aristotle’s statement from Poetics that ‘‘all art is the imitation of nature.’’ Provide evidence from literature, musical composition, and the plastic arts.




Allan, D.J. The Philosophy of Aristotle. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1970.

Cherniss, Harold. Aristotle’s Criticism of Plato and the Academy. New York: Russell & Russell, 1944.

Halliwell, Stephen. Aristotle’s Poetics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Jaeger, Werner. Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development, second edition, translated by Richard Robinson. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1948.

Lear, Jonathan. Aristotle: The Desire to Understand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Lloyd, G.E.R Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of His Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Owens, Joseph. The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1963.

Parker, Steve. Aristotle and Scientific Thought. London: Chelsea House, 1995.

Sachs, Joe. Aristotle’s Physics: A Guided Study. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Solmsen, Friedrich. Aristotle’s System of the Physical World: A Comparison with His Predecessors. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970.

Stocks, J. L. Aristotelianism. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1963.