Aristotle was born at Stagira in northern Greece in 384 b.c. His father, Nicomachus, was a physician at the court of Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. In 367, Aristotle moved to Athens, which was the intellectual and cultural center of ancient Greece. He spent many years studying in Plato’s Academy, surrounded by other philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians. Plato died in 347, and Aristotle left the Academy in that same year. There is speculation that he left because Plato had not chosen him as his successor. It is more likely, however, that anti-Macedonian sentiment was growing in Athens, and Aristotle was afraid of being persecuted for his associations with King Philip’s court.
Over the next four years, Aristotle traveled throughout the eastern Aegean area, studying and teaching. During this time, he conducted a remarkable array of experiments and observations in the biological sciences. In 343, he was summoned back north to Macedonia to be the personal tutor to the young Alexander the Great. While we know very little about Aristotle’s influence on Alexander, there has been a great deal of speculation and mythologizing about the relationship between these two eminent figures.
As the Macedonians extended their empire over Greece, it became safe for Aristotle to return to Athens. In 334, he established his own philosophical school at the Lyceum, where he taught for the next eleven years. His lectures covered almost every area of study, including physics, metaphysics, ethics, psychology, politics, and poetry. His pioneering work in logic and biology was not improved upon for two thousand years.
In 323, Alexander the Great died, and Aristotle left Athens, fearing another upsurge of anti-Macedonian sentiment. Alluding to the trial and execution of Socrates some seventy-six years earlier, Aristotle reportedly claimed that he did not wish the Athenians to “sin a second time against philosophy.” A year later, he died in Chalcis in Euboea.
Though Aristotle published many admired works in his lifetime, none have survived to the present day. Those works that we do have consist mostly of lecture notes from his courses at the Lyceum. That these works were never intended for publication explains why they are generally dry and hard to follow. The Nicomachean Ethics was likely either edited by or dedicated to Aristotle’s son, Nicomachus.
The Greek world of Aristotle’s time was made up of small city-states, each with its own autonomous government. The city-state consisted of slaves, noncitizen manual laborers, children, women, aliens, and citizens. The citizens were adult males, most of whom had been born to citizen parents. The citizens governed the city, while the slaves, laborers, and women did all the work to provide the necessary food, shelter, and equipment. Because they were freed from the necessity of meeting day-to-day needs, citizens enjoyed a great deal of freedom and luxury. The leisure they enjoyed was highly valued and made possible one of the greatest periods of intellectual energy in human history. That this system was exploitative is hardly debatable, but it also produced an incredible array of philosophy, drama, art, and architecture. Aristotle’s students were young citizens whose tuition was meant to prepare them for a life of civic duty.
There were few enough citizens that everyone in a given city would at least recognize, if not know, one another, and all citizens were expected to take part in public office. Unlike our modern system of representative democracy, where we simply elect officials to speak for us, all Greek citizens were expected to voice their own opinions in large deliberative and judicial assemblies. There was a strong bond of kinship created in citizenship, as the same people lived together, governed together, served in the army together, and enjoyed leisure time together.
The age of the city-state came to a close within Aristotle’s lifetime, however, due to the efforts of his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great. Alexander came to power in the northern kingdom of Macedonia and within a decade had established one of the largest empires the world has ever seen. When Alexander died, Greece once more became fragmented, but the fierce independence of the city-states was a thing of the past. Greek culture was on the decline, and within a few hundred years, it would be swallowed up by the burgeoning Roman Empire.
As the successor of Socrates and Plato, Aristotle was the last of the great Greek philosophers. Philosophy first flourished in Greece sometime in the early sixth century b.c. as inquisitive thinkers began developing rational methods for investigating the mysteries of nature and mathematics. These pre-Socratic thinkers were as much scientists and mathematicians as they were philosophers.
While there is significant pre-Socratic influence in Aristotle’s work, primarily in the sciences and metaphysics, his most significant influence was undoubtedly Plato (427–347 b.c.). Plato’s philosophy was centered on his famous Theory of Forms, or Theory of Ideas. The theory is based on the observation that there must be some universal quality that all things classed under a single name share in common. For instance, a flower is beautiful in a very different way from a human, but both the flower and the human must share something in common if we are to call them both “beautiful.” Plato’s answer is that they share in common the “Form of Beauty,” which is itself invisible, unchanging, and eternal. Anything that we perceive in this world as beautiful is beautiful because it participates in some way in the Form of Beauty. But while beautiful flowers will wilt and beautiful humans will grow old and die, the Form of Beauty is everlasting and unchanging. Plato theorizes that our world of sensible experience, with its changes and disappointments, is but a poor reflection of the ideal world of pure Forms that underlies our experience. The goal of philosophy, then, is to train the mind to see beyond the veil of experience and to contemplate the true reality of Forms that lies behind it.
While Aristotle was undoubtedly influenced by Plato, this influence was mostly negative. Most of his works, including the Nicomachean Ethics, contain involved refutations of many of Plato’s theories. Aristotle himself was an empirical scientist who felt that true wisdom comes from examining the objects of experience and not from trying to look beyond them. In the Ethics, he is primarily critical of Plato’s Form of Good. According to Aristotle, there is not a single Form by virtue of which all good things are good. Instead, he discusses at length the multiplicity of the various virtues.
Aristotle’s work in the Ethics is deeply informed by his own work in the sciences and metaphysics. Properly describing the breadth of Aristotle’s impressive system is far beyond the scope of this Spark-Note, but Jonathan Barnes’s Aristotle (2000) provides an excellent and brief introduction to Aristotelian philosophy.
In terms of impact on the Ethics, perhaps Aristotle’s most significant concept is that of the teleology of nature. According to Aristotle, nature works toward a telos, or end goal. His biological work aims constantly at the question of what purpose different aspects of plants and animals serve. He classifies humans as “rational animals,” meaning that our telos is rational. In other words, our function in life is to realize our full potential as rational beings. If we are not fully rational, we are falling short of our true nature.
This teleological view gives Aristotle’s Ethics a clear sense of direction. Our goal in life is to achieve our true nature, and this true nature consists essentially of rationality. The purpose of a moral education, then, is to teach us how we may become perfectly rational and immune to the temptations of our lower animalistic parts.
Ethics is just one of a number of fields that Aristotle classifies as “practical science.” Unlike the natural sciences, which examine the world around us, these sciences deal with the practical aspects of human society and how best to arrange this society. The practical sciences are all closely connected, and Aristotle frequently expounds on the connection between the good life for the individual and the kind of state that could make this good life possible. Hence, Aristotle’s Politics is an important companion and sequel to his Ethics.
While the Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle’s most popular work on ethics, there is a second work called the Eudemian Ethics, which is far less widely read. Most scholars agree that the Eudemian Ethics was written earlier in Aristotle’s career and represents a less mature view. Books V, VI, and VII of the Nicomachean Ethics are also found in the Eudemian Ethics.
Aristotle’s influence on Western philosophy is difficult to exaggerate. While his works were lost to the West for many centuries, they were slowly transmitted back into Europe by Arab scholars during the Middle Ages. Thanks mostly to the influence of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Aristotelian philosophy became accepted almost as dogmatically as the Bible during the late Middle Ages. While modern philosophy broke significantly from the scholastic tradition of the Middle Ages, Aristotle’s influence remains undiminished. In particular, his emphasis on scientific reasoning and experimentation has been a cornerstone of modern empiricist philosophy.