From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) was a Greek philosopher, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology. Together with Plato and Socrates (Plato's teacher), Aristotle is one of the most important founding figures in Western philosophy. Aristotle's writings were the first to create a comprehensive system of Western philosophy, encompassing morality and aesthetics, logic and science, politics and metaphysics.
Aristotle's views on the physical sciences profoundly shaped medieval scholarship, and their influence extended well into the Renaissance, although they were ultimately replaced by Newtonian physics. In the zoological sciences, some of his observations were confirmed to be accurate only in the 19th century. His works contain the earliest known formal study of logic, which was incorporated in the late 19th century into modern formal logic. In metaphysics, Aristotelianism had a profound influence on philosophical and theological thinking in the Islamic and Jewish traditions in the Middle Ages, and it continues to influence Christian theology, especially the scholastic tradition of the Catholic Church and some strains of Eastern Orthodox thought. His ethics, though always influential, gained renewed interest with the modern advent of virtue ethics. All aspects of Aristotle's philosophy continue to be the object of active academic study today. Though Aristotle wrote many elegant treatises and dialogues (Cicero described his literary style as "a river of gold"), it is thought that the majority of his writings are now lost and only about one-third of the original works have survived.
Aristotle considered ethics to be a practical rather than theoretical study, i.e., one aimed at doing good rather than knowing for its own sake. He wrote several treatises on ethics, including most notably, the Nichomachean Ethics.
Aristotle taught that virtue has to do with the proper function (ergon) of a thing. An eye is only a good eye in so much as it can see, because the proper function of an eye is sight. Aristotle reasoned that humans must have a function specific to humans, and that this function must be an activity of the psuchē (normally translated as soul) in accordance with reason (logos). Aristotle identified such an optimum activity of the soul as the aim of all human deliberate action, eudaimonia, generally translated as "happiness" or sometimes "well being". To have the potential of ever being happy in this way necessarily requires a good character (ēthikē aretē), often translated as moral (or ethical) virtue (or excellence).
Aristotle taught that to achieve a virtuous and potentially happy character requires a first stage of having the fortune to be habituated not deliberately, but by teachers, and experience, leading to a later stage in which one consciously chooses to do the best things. When the best people come to live life this way their practical wisdom (phronēsis) and their intellect (nous) can develop with each other towards the highest possible ethical virtue, that of wisdom.
In addition to his works on ethics, which address the individual, Aristotle addressed the city in his work titled Politics. Aristotle considered the city to be a natural community. Moreover, he considered the city to be prior in importance to the family which in turn is prior to the individual, "for the whole must of necessity be prior to the part".
The common modern understanding of a political community as a modern state is quite different to Aristotle's understanding. Although he was aware of the existence and potential of larger empires, the natural community according to Aristotle was the city (polis) which functions as a political "community" or "partnership" (koinōnia). The aim of the city is not just to avoid injustice or for economic stability, but rather to allow at least some citizens the possibility to live a good life, and to perform beautiful acts: "The political partnership must be regarded, therefore, as being for the sake of noble actions, not for the sake of living together." This is distinguished from modern approaches, beginning with social contract theory, according to which individuals leave the state of nature because of "fear of violent death" or its "inconveniences."
Rhetoric and poetics
Aristotle considered epic poetry, tragedy, comedy, dithyrambic poetry and music to be mimetic, each varying in imitation by medium, object, and manner. For example, music imitates with the media of rhythm and harmony, whereas dance imitates with rhythm alone, and poetry with language. The forms also differ in their object of imitation. Comedy, for instance, is a dramatic imitation of men worse than average; whereas tragedy imitates men slightly better than average. Lastly, the forms differ in their manner of imitation – through narrative or character, through change or no change, and through drama or no drama. Aristotle believed that imitation is natural to mankind and constitutes one of mankind's advantages over animals.
While it is believed that Aristotle's Poetics comprised two books – one on comedy and one on tragedy – only the portion that focuses on tragedy has survived. Aristotle taught that tragedy is composed of six elements: plot-structure, character, style, spectacle, and lyric poetry. The characters in a tragedy are merely a means of driving the story; and the plot, not the characters, is the chief focus of tragedy. Tragedy is the imitation of action arousing pity and fear, and is meant to effect the catharsis of those same emotions. Aristotle concludes Poetics with a discussion on which, if either, is superior: epic or tragic mimesis. He suggests that because tragedy possesses all the attributes of an epic, possibly possesses additional attributes such as spectacle and music, is more unified, and achieves the aim of its mimesis in shorter scope, it can be considered superior to epic.
More than twenty-three hundred years after his death, Aristotle remains one of the most influential people who ever lived. According to the philosopher Bryan Magee, "it is doubtful whether any human being has ever known as much as he did". pioneered the study of zoology, and left every future scientist and philosopher in his debt through his contributions to the scientific method. Despite these achievements, the influence of Aristotle's errors is considered by some to have held back science considerably. Bertrand Russell notes that "almost every serious intellectual advance has had to begin with an attack on some Aristotelian doctrine". Russell also refers to Aristotle's ethics as "repulsive", and calls his logic "as definitely antiquated as Ptolemaic astronomy". Russell notes that these errors make it difficult to do historical justice to Aristotle, until one remembers how large of an advance he made upon all of his predecessors.
Later Greek philosophers
The immediate influence of Aristotle's work was felt as the Lyceum grew into the Peripatetic school. Aristotle's notable students included Aristoxenus, Dicaearchus, Demetrius of Phalerum, Eudemos of Rhodes, Harpalus, Hephaestion, Meno, Mnason of Phocis, Nicomachus, and Theophrastus. Aristotle's influence over Alexander the Great is seen in the latter's bringing with him on his expedition a host of zoologists, botanists, and researchers. He had also learned a great deal about Persian customs and traditions from his teacher. Although his respect for Aristotle was diminished as his travels made it clear that much of Aristotle's geography was clearly wrong, when the old philosopher released his works to the public, Alexander complained "Thou hast not done well to publish thy acroamatic doctrines; for in what shall I surpass other men if those doctrines wherein I have been trained are to be all men's common property?"
Influence on Christian theologians
Aristotle is referred to as "The Philosopher" by Scholastic thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas. See Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 3, etc. These thinkers blended Aristotelian philosophy with Christianity, bringing the thought of Ancient Greece into the Middle Ages. It required a repudiation of some Aristotelian principles for the sciences and the arts to free themselves for the discovery of modern scientific laws and empirical methods. The medieval English poet Chaucer describes his student as being happy by having
- at his beddes heed
- Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
- Of aristotle and his philosophie,
- I saw the Master there of those who know,
- Amid the philosophic family,
- By all admired, and by all reverenced;
- There Plato too I saw, and Socrates,
- Who stood beside him closer than the rest.
Views on women
Aristotle's analysis of procreation is frequently criticized on the grounds that it presupposes an active, ensouling masculine element bringing life to an inert, passive female element; it is on these grounds that Aristotle is considered by some feminist critics to have been a misogynist.
On the other hand, Aristotle gave equal weight to women's happiness as he did to men's, and commented in his Rhetoric that a society cannot be happy unless women are happy too: In places like Sparta where the lot of women is bad, there can only be half-happiness in society.(see Rhetoric 1.5.6)
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has been said to have taken nearly all of his political philosophy from Aristotle. However implausible this is, it is certainly the case that Aristotle's rigid separation of action from production, and his justification of the subservience of slaves and others to the virtue – or arete – of a few justified the ideal of aristocracy. It is Martin Heidegger, not Nietzsche, who elaborated a new interpretation of Aristotle, intended to warrant his deconstruction of scholastic and philosophical tradition. More recently, Alasdair MacIntyre has attempted to reform what he calls the Aristotelian tradition in a way that is anti-elitist and capable of disputing the claims of both liberals and Nietzscheans.
List of works
The works of Aristotle that have survived from antiquity through Mediæval manuscript transmission are collected in the Corpus Aristotelicum. These texts, as opposed to Aristotle's lost works, are technical philosophical treatises from within Aristotle's school. Reference to them is made according to the organization of Immanuel Bekker's Royal Prussian Academy edition (Aristotelis Opera edidit Academia Regia Borussica, Berlin, 1831–1870), which in turn is based on ancient classifications of these works.
- Lai d' Aristote
- Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.
- Aristotelian ethics
- Aristotelian physics
- Aristotelian view of God
- List of writers influenced by Aristotle
- Corpus Aristotelicum