Sunday, May 31, 2009

Author Sketch: Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Politics)


Born: 384 BCE in Stagira
Died: 322 BCE in Chalcis

Other Things That Happened in Aristotle’s Lifetime:
The 30th dynasty rises in Egypt, the last native house to rule.
Rome builds wall around the city.
Alexander the Great creates an empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indus River.
China was reaching the end of the Warring States period under three Zhou emperors, Anwang, Liewang, and Xianwang.

Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC

Works under study: Nicomachean Ethics (Book One), Politics (Book One)

Unlike Plato, who was born and lived almost exclusively in Athens, Aristotle lived and taught all over the Mediterranean. In this sense, he is a model for the Hellenic age that followed the Peloponnesian War and the decline of Athens as a military power. While Athens was still a major seat for the accumulation and dispensation of knowledge, the events that unfolded on the world stage in Aristotle’s lifetime dwarfed the city-skirmishes that largely characterized Greek politics prior to the 4th century and drew nearly every civilization within reach of the Mediterranean into a single culture unified by Alexander.

In the spirit of his times, Aristotle was born in Stagira, a Greek colony not far from the southern border of Macedon and lived apart from the intrigues of Athens until the age of seventeen when he moved there to study at Plato’s Academy. There is ample evidence suggesting that Aristotle was a remarkable student and can be considered, in his transmission of Platonic thought, an accurate and insightful source. After Plato’s death, Aristotle moved his operation to the city of Assus where he and three other former students of the Academy advised a local ruler named Hermias and opened their own school. This arrangement must have been a fruitful one for Aristotle married Hermias’ adopted daughter, Pythias. Three years later, he moved his new family to the city of Mytilene on the nearby isle of Lesbos where he engaged in most of his observations of nature and biological processes.

In 342 BCE, Aristotle was summoned to the court of Phillip II of Macedon that he might tutor his son, Alexander. A mere two years into this relationship, Phillip left Macedonia to wage war and Alexander was installed as regent to rule in his stead. With Alexander mostly distracted by his duties, Aristotle was free to open a school and concentrate on his own studies as well as act as an advisor to the regent prince when asked.

Aristotle Tutoring Alexander by J.L.G Ferris, 1895

When Alexander assumed the throne after his father’s assassination in 336, Aristotle left Macedon and returned to Athens to teach. There is compelling evidence to suggest that Aristotle’s connection with Alexander gave him new authority in Athens and he used it to establish the Lycaeum where he would walk with his students as he lectured. It is widely assumed that the written works associated with Aristotle are something like transcriptions of his lectures at the Lycaeum. In this sense, they are not the work of one particular period of his life but the sum of his learning up to that point.

When Alexander died thirteen years later, having brought what the Greeks would have thought as the known world under one flag, Aristotle’s reputation and fortune in Athens seem to have diminished with his passing. As the political waters around him began to fill up with ever more sharks bent on his death, Aristotle either fled or was exiled from Athens in 323 BCE. He, along with his second wife and two children, returned to his mother’s ancestral lands near Chalcis and, within just a few months, died in 322 BCE at the age of sixty-two.

Though Socrates and Plato are considered the source for much of his philosophy (though he differed with them in some ways), Aristotle, by virtue of his life’s course, was able to bring those ideas to bear on the flow of history in a way that neither of his predecessors could imagine. Meticulous and observational by his nature, Aristotle can seem a colder intellect than those who came before him but, whatever we can glean from his character some 2400 years later, one must respect the comprehensive nature of his learning, his relentless quest to synthesize and codify existing knowledge as well as his influence on knowledge for centuries after his death.

Map Legend:

1. Stagira
2. Athens
3. Assus
4. Mytilene
5. Macedon
6. Athens
7. Chalcis


  1. I really like what you guys are doing.I respect Aristotle's insatiable desire to learn,which I strive to share.He lived a long time,too.62 seems old for 323BC.Peace to all.....

  2. Thanks for the kind words. Aristotle's interest in both the abstract and the natural brought together two fields of inquiry that were too often independent in his predecessors. While his essays on philosophy attract the most attention, his works on the natural sciences mirror that of Darwin after him and are inferior only in the tools he uses to collect his observations which are essentially limited to his five senses.

    Given his relatively high position in society, living to be sixty-two is impressive but I find it interesting that he died only months after leaving/fleeing Athens. Without hard evidence suggesting that he was already ailing before his quick exodus, it is tempting to see the relationship between the two events as causal rather than casual.