Aristotle: The Man Who Needs No Introduction
Before embarking on our journey to character and (self) leadership, we should briefly discuss the life and work of Aristotle, the man and the philosopher - he who needs no introduction.
Aristotle was born at Stagira, in northern Greece. His father Nicomachus was a doctor at the court of King Amyntas III of Macedon, father of Philip II, and grandfather of Alexander the Great. At the age of seventeen, Aristotle went to Athens, the intellectual and cultural center of the time, to complete his education.
Statue of a young Aristotle. (Rama/ CC BY 2.0 fr)
He joined Plato’s Academy where he stayed for twenty years, studying, writing, debating and eventually teaching, especially rhetoric. Aristotle left Athens when Plato died probably because he diverted from his teacher’s thought and so wasn’t chosen as his successor at the Academy. On another account, he left because Macedonia had subjugated Athens and so anti-Macedonian feelings could lead to his persecution due to his association with the court, an association that would influence his life considerably.
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Plato’s Academy: The School of Athens by Raphael (1509–1510), fresco at the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. (Public Domain)
After spending almost five years in philosophical activity and empirical research first in Assos in the northern Aegean and then on the nearby island of Lesbos, Aristotle went to Macedonia as the personal tutor of young Alexander. He returned to Athens in 335 and founded his own school, the Lyceum, in an area dedicated to the god Apollo Lykeios, in the center of the city. The Lyceum was a public place where he taught, researched, and wrote. (The Lyceum was excavated and opened in Athens for the public in 2014 and can be visited daily).
His school became known as “ Peripatetic” because of the covered courtyard or colonnade ( peripatos) in the area of the school. The name may also have been given because Aristotle used to walk with his students when he lectured, advanced students in the morning, and the general lovers of knowledge in the evening. For him, teaching was the most important manifestation of knowledge, and as he said, claiming to know means being able to teach.
School of Aristotle in Mieza, Macedonia, Greece. (Jean Housen/CC BY SA 4.0)
Aristotle stayed in Athens until 323 when Alexander the Great died. He was accused of impiety, just like Socrates had been around 75 years before him. Unlike Socrates, however, he chose to leave Athens so that the city didn’t sin against philosophy for a second time, as he said. He died a year later in Chalcis, on the island of Euboea.
One of the most famous figures in the history of western thought, Aristotle was mainly concerned to discover the truth and increase knowledge because he believed that, by nature, human beings desire to know. For him, a fully human life is a life of intellectual activity. His emphasis on good reasoning and the scientific method characterizes most of his work.
Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition. (Public Domain)
Aristotle was a prolific writer. He wrote extensively on numerous topics, but only around one-fifth of his works survives - containing samples from the different areas he studied. Although he is said to have been praised for his style of writing, his surviving works are mostly in the form of notes, probably for his own use rather than intended for publication. So, at times they are obscure, repetitive, and a challenge to follow, and we should probably read them as the lecture notes they were rather than as systematic treatises.
We could think of Aristotle as a polymath. He wrote on mathematics, logic, animal biology, the soul, rhetoric, tragic drama, poetry, political theory, philosophy of science, metaphysics. He also wrote on ethics, with the Nicomachean Ethics being his seminal text.
Aristotle was especially influenced by his research in animal biology. The other most significant influence on him was Plato (427?–347 BC). The teacher had a significant impact on the student: on the topics he studied, the search for knowledge, the value of explanation, or the method of building an argument. For example, as Socrates started a dialogue with the opinion of his student on a given topic, in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle starts his inquiry with the endoxa, or the most popular opinions on a subject, believing that most people, the laymen, the educated or the wise, can’t be wholly mistaken - and he wished to build on existing knowledge. He used this method because he also wanted to examine the world people knew, the culture they lived in, and the individual behaviors they could observe. Then, he criticized, adapted, or rejected the opinions he didn’t agree with before presenting his own.
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Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael. (Public Domain) Aristotle gestures to the earth, representing his belief in knowledge through empirical observation and experience, while holding a copy of his ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ in his hand, whilst Plato gestures to the heavens, representing his belief in The Forms, while holding a copy of ‘Timaeus’.
Aristotle rejected Plato’s theory of Forms. He argued that this theory was too abstract and of little use to human beings. This theory saw properties, such as Beauty, as abstract, eternal, and universal entities that existed separately of the beautiful objects themselves. For example, Beauty can only be understood through the mind, not through sensory experience or opinion. Or the essence of “manhood” can be conceived if we think of the universal idea of Man, that never changed, not of a specific individual who changed and died. But Aristotle was a philosopher-scientist, who believed in sense, perception, and facts.
He argued that true wisdom comes from examining the objects of experience, not from looking beyond them in the world of ideas in another space and time. He didn’t commit to one single and universal idea that can make all good things good. Aristotle focused on the particulars in a situation and although he accepted that universal principles could exist, people could only learn them from experience.
Top Image: 2nd century AD copy of a 4th cent. BC sculpture of Aristotle, which Alexander the Great commissioned from the sculptor Lysippus. Source: Nick Thompson/CC BY NC SA 2.0