The Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle (384-322 BC) organized all knowlwdge of his time into a coherent whole which served as the basis for much of the science and philosophy of Hellenistic and Roman times and even affected medieval science and philosophy.
Aristotle was born in the small Greek town of Stagiros (later Stagira) in the northern Greek district of Chalcidice. His father, Nicomachus, was a physician who had important social connections, and Aristotle’s interest in science was surely spurred by his father’s works, although Aristotle does not display a particular keen interest in medicine as such. The events of his early life are not clear, but it is possible that his father served at the Macedonian court as physician to Amyntas II and that Aristotle spent part of his youth there.
At the age of 17 Aristotle joined Plato’s circle at the Academy in Athens. There he remained for 20 years, and although his respect and admiration for Plato was always great, differences developed which ultimately caused a breach. On Plato’s death in 348/347 BC Aristotle left for Assos in Mysia (in Asia Minor), where he and Xenocrates joined a small circle of Platonists who had already settled there under Hermias, the ruler of Atarneus. Aristotle married Pythias the niece of Hermias, and in a fine hymn expressed his shock of dismay over Hermias’s death at the hands of the Persians some time thereafter.
After 3 years in Assos with Theophrastus and Xenocrates, Aristotle went to Mytilene for 2 years. Later, Theophrastus and Aristotle made their way to the court of Philip of Macedon, where Aristotle became tutor to Alexander, who later gained immortality by becoming master of the whole Persian Empire. Scant information remain regarding the specific contents of Alexander’s education at the hands of Aristotle, but it would be interesting to know what political advice Aristotle imparted to the young Alexander. The only indication of such advice is found in the fragment of a letter in which the philosopher tells Alexander that he ought to be the leader of the Greeks but the master of the barbarians (foreigners).
Aristotle returned to Athens in 335/334. Under the protection of Antipater, Aristotle’s representative in Athens, he established a philosophical school of his own in the gymnasium Lyceum, located near a shrine of Apollo Lyceus. The school derived its name, Peripatetic, from the colonnaded walk (paripatos). Members took meals in common, and certain formailities were established which members had to observe. The lectures were divided into morning and afternoon sessions, the more difficult ones given in the morning and the easier and more popular ones in the afternoon. Aristotle himself led the school until the death of Alexander in 323, at which time he felt it expedient to leave Athens, fearing for his safety because of his close association with the Macedonians. He went to Chalcis, where he died the following year of a gastric ailment. His will, preserved in the writings of Diogenes Laertius, provided for his daughter, Pythias, and his son, Nichomacus, as well as for his slaves.
Aristotle produced a large number of writings, but relatively few have survived. Because of the great weight of his authority it was inevitable that several spurious treatises should find their way into the corpus of his work. His earliest writings, consisting for the most part of dialogues, were produced under the influence of Plato and the Academy. Most of these are lost, although the title are known from the writings of Diogenes Laertius and from one of several Lives to come down from antiquity. They include his Rhetoric, Eudemus (On the Soul), Protrepticus, On Philosophy, Alexander, On Monarchy, Politicus, Sophistes, Menexenus, Symposium, On Justice, On the Poets, Nerinthus, Eroticus, On Wealth, On Prayer, On Good Birth, On Pleasure, and On Education. These were exoteric works written for the public, and they deal with popular philosophical themes. The Dialogues of Plato were undoubtedly the inspiration for some of them, although the divergence in thought between Plato and his pupil—which was to become apparent later—reveals itself to a certain extent in these works too.