Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

Aristotle, the man whose works would have enormous and long-lasting influence in not just in philosophy, but also subjects including ethics, logic, biology, zoology, physics, politics, poetry, music, and drama—and whose greatest intellectual contribution is likely to have set the foundations for the study of science itself—was born in Stagira in northern Greece in 384 BCE. His father, Nicomachus, was the personal physician to Amyntas III of Macedon, whose son became Philip II of Macedon and whose grandson would become Aristotle’s pupil, Alexander the Great, conqueror of much of the known world at the time.

Aristotle lived in a turbulent time that saw both the twilight of the Greek city-state and the rise of Alexander the Great. Greece had long consisted of a number of independent city-states, of which Athens and traditionally the most significant. Though the city-states relied on slave labor and the disenfranchisement of women, the male citizens established one of the earliest forms of democracy, and in the span of less than two hundred years they managed to establish what the Western world still looks to as the basis of its political institutions, philosophy, mathematics, drama, art, and architecture. Slaves and noncitizen workers performing the bulk of the city’s labor gave male citizens the opportunity for open inquiry into the nature of the world. As a result, teachers, teaching, and places for learning—such as the Academy that Plato founded in Athens in 385 BCE—became more sought after.

Aristotle’s parents both died when he was thirteen, and in 367 BCE, he moved to Athens to study at Plato’s Academy, where he stayed for twenty years. Plato’s influence on Aristotle was significant. He left the Academy in 347 BCE, the year Plato died, and some have speculated that he felt snubbed that Plato did not choose him as his successor. The more likely explanation, however, is that anti-Macedonian sentiment was on the rise in Athens, causing Aristotle to fear being persecuted for his associations with King Philip’s court.

Over the next four years, Aristotle traveled through the eastern Aegean region, 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 son of Philip II, the young Alexander. Philip agreed to rebuild the Aristotle’s home city of Stagira (which he had recently destroyed) in return for his services. Though the relationship between Aristotle and Alexander has been the subject of much speculation over the centuries, we don’t know much about it for sure except that this tutelage would last for three years, and that Alexander studied alongside other children of Macedonian nobility—including Ptolemy, who would serve as one of Alexander’s generals and later rule Egypt, establishing the Ptolemaic dynasty.

As the Macedonians came to dominate Greece, Aristotle returned to Athens and set up his own philosophical school at the Lyceum, where he taught from 335 BCE to 323 BCE. Most of his best known works—including Nicomachean Ethics, Poetics, Politics, and Physics—are thought to have been produced during this 12-year period. Their dry style and uneven structure reflects the fact that they were most likely lecture notes not intended for publication.

Alexander the Great died unexpectedly in 323 BCE, and even though Aristotle and his former student had become estranged a few years earlier, Aristotle again became a victim of rising anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens. In 322 BCE, Aristotle fled Athens after being accused of impiety, reportedly saying, “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy,” in a reference to the trial and execution of Socrates in Athens after facing similar charges in 399 BCE. Aristotle was able to avoid Socrates’ fate, but he died the same year.

Aristotle’s published writings were all lost or destroyed in the centuries after his death, and what we have are lectures, or notes on lectures, that Aristotle gave at the Lyceum between 335 and 323 BCE. These works were first collected two centuries after Aristotle’s death by Andronicus of Rhodes. Though Aristotle’s works were lost to the West for many centuries, they were preserved by Arab scholars and transmitted back to Europe in the Middle Ages. As a result, not only do we not know the chronology of Aristotle’s writings, but we are also unsure if Andronicus arranged them in the order that Aristotle had intended. We cannot even be certain that all the works collected by Andronicus were written by Aristotle. It is believed that what Andronicus collected constitutes less than one-third of all of Aristotle’s writings.

Background on Poetics

Aristotle’s one-time teacher, Plato (427–347 BCE) famously attacked art in Book X of his work The Republic. According to Plato’s Theory of Forms, objects in this world are imitations or approximations of ideal Forms that are the true reality. A chair in this world is just an imitation or instantiation of the Form of Chair. That being the case, art is twice removed from reality, as it is just an imitation of an imitation: a painting of a chair is an imitation of a chair which is in turn an imitation of the Form of Chair. Further, Plato argues that art serves to excite the emotions, which can detract from the balanced reasoning that is essential to virtue. Aristotle’s Poetics can be read as a response to Plato’s attack on art in The Republic.

Poetics, in true form, was likely a much longer work than the one we have today. The main focus of the Poetics is on Greek tragedy. (Aristotle supposedly wrote a second book on comedy, but if he did, it is now lost.) Though there were thousands of tragedies and scores of playwrights, we only have thirty-three extant tragedies, written by the three great tragedians: Aeschylus (525–456 BCE), Sophocles (496–405 BCE), and Euripides (485–406 BCE). Tragedies were performed in Athens twice annually at festivals in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine and excess. Though the tragedies likely evolved out of religious ceremonies celebrating the cycle of the seasons, they became increasingly secular. The dramatic festivals were immensely important events, and the winning playwrights achieved great fame.

Poetics also discusses epic poetry, using the example of Homer (eighth century BCE) almost exclusively. Homer wrote two great epics, the The Iliad and the The Odyssey, which deal with the fall of Troy and Odysseus's subsequent wanderings respectively. These epics are the source of a great number of Greek tragedies and are considered among the earliest great works of world literature.

Athough Poetics is in a very different category from works Aristotle on topics such as ethics, logic, and physics, it has exercised a great deal of influence on subsequent literary theory, particularly in the Renaissance. Later interpreters unfortunately turned many of Aristotle's suggestions into strict laws, restricting the flexibility of drama in ways that Aristotle would not have anticipated. The tragedies of Racine and Corneille in particular are formed according to these demands. Even though such great playwrights as Shakespeare often went against these “laws,” they were held as the model for writing tragedy well into the 19th century.