This September, the OUP Philosophy team honors Aristotle (384–322 BC) as their Philosopher of the Month. Among the world’s most widely studied thinkers, Aristotle established systematic logic and helped to progress scientific investigation in fields as diverse as biology and political theory. His thought became dominant during the medieval period in both the Islamic and the Christian worlds, and has continued to play an important role in fields such as philosophical psychology, aesthetics, and rhetoric.
More is known about Aristotle’s life than many other ancient philosophers. Born in 384 BC, Aristotle’s parents were both members of traditionally medical families. His father died when Aristotle was fairly young, and Aristotle probably grew up at the family home in Stagira, in the Chalcidice region of northern Greece. At the age of about seventeen or eighteen, Aristotle was sent to school in Athens at Plato’s Academy, where he quickly made a name for himself as a student of great intellect, acumen, and originality. Aristotle remained at the Academy nearly twenty years, until Plato’s death in 348 or 347. He then relocated to Asia Minor, where he spent some years devoted principally to the study of biology and zoology. In 343 he moved to Pella, where he served as tutor to King Philip’s son, the future Alexander the Great. Aristotle returned to Athens, where for the next decade he engaged in teaching and research at his own school in the Lyceum. He fled from Athens to Chalcis on the death of Alexander, and died a year later in 322.
Aristotle was a tireless collector and organizer of observations and opinions, and analyzed his data with a critical eye. He introduced innovative technical terms, and proposed highly original philosophical theses, and was strongly committed to rational argument. Building his case step by step, Aristotle’s writings often proceed dialectically, presenting the positions of those that he disagrees with as clearly as he can, then refuting them point by point in detail. Always careful to survey the views of reputable thinkers who had approached a problem, Aristotle was the first Greek thinker to make engagement with the books of others a central part of his method. The extant works that comprise the Aristotelian corpus address a broad range of subjects, including logic, epistemology metaphysics, nature, life, mind, ethics, politics, and art.
Aristotle was concerned with the preservation of knowledge of the diverse world we live in. His ethics, which he regarded as a branch of the natural history of human beings, demonstrates an appreciation of complex human motivations. Aristotle, like Kant, had an interest in categories, setting forth both the division of the sciences we continue to use, and the categories that have organized almost all subsequent philosophical thought. He avoids all extremes, and typically does justice to each side of the divisions that split philosophers into warring camps. Many of Aristotle’s works became staples of instruction during the Roman imperial period, and again in the Byzantine period. Translated into Arabic and Latin, they were the intellectual focus of the late medieval period in western Europe, and an inspiration to the great period of Islamic philosophy. Even in the twenty-first century, Aristotle’s organization of what is known and his approach to adding to knowledge are major parts of the intellectual universe.
Featured image: Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens (1846) by Leo von Klenze. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.