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 Politics

Politics is first and foremost Aristotle’s description of the ideal role of the polis. The Greek world of Aristotle's time was made up of poleis (the singular of which is polis), or small city-states, each with its own autonomous government. The polis consisted of citizens, slaves, non- citizen manual laborers (called "mechanicals"), children, women, and immigrants. The citizens were adult males generally born to citizen parents. The citizens governed the city, while the slaves, mechanicals (the term for people who not slaves, but also are not citizens), and women did all the work to provide the necessary food, shelter, and equipment for society. Because daily tasks were accomplished by others, citizens enjoyed a great deal of freedom and luxury. The leisure they enjoyed was highly valued, and it 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.

The Greeks were fiercely proud of their accomplishments, and they coined the derogatory term "barbarian" to describe anyone who was not Greek. Citizenship was considered an essential part of personal identity, and thus exile from one's polis was considered a fate worse than death. There were few enough citizens in a given city that each would at least recognize, if not know, the all other citizens, and all citizens were expected to take part in public office. Unlike the modern Western system of representative democracy, in which a populace elects someone to speak for it, the polis called for all Greek citizens to voice their own opinions in large deliberative and judicial assemblies. There was a strong bond of kinship created in citizenship, as they all lived together, governed together, served in the army together, and enjoyed leisure time together.

Aristotle’s admiration for the Greek polis shows itself very clearly in the Politics. He argues that the polis is the highest form of human association, and all of his discussions of political theory are based on the assumption that the polis is the best and only sensible political system. Ironically, Aristotle, through his tutoring of the young Alexander the Great during part of his time away from Athens, was closely affiliated with the very force that brought the system of independent and self-sufficient poleis to an end. Within Aristotle's lifetime, Alexander unified all of Greece and assimilated it into his empire, thus effectively rendering the independent poleis extinct.

While many of Aristotle's recommendations in Politics are only applicable in the context of the polis, there is still a great deal that one can learn from the work. His remarks on the nature of justice, the goal of political association, and the relationship between individual and state have as much relevance now as they were in his time.

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