Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

Aristotle was born at Stagira in northern Greece in 384 BCE His father, Nicomachus, was a physician at the court of Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. In 367 BCE, 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 BCE, 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 BCE, 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 BCE, 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 BCE, 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.

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.

Background on Nicomachean Ethics

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 6th century BCE 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 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 Nicomachean 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.

The title Nicomachean Ethics stems from the belief that the work was likely either edited by or dedicated to Aristotle’s son, Nicomachus.

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 5, 6, and 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics are also found in the Eudemian Ethics.