Considered to be one of the most influential thinkers of Western culture, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle merged science and philosophy to develop a logical and virtuous means of understanding and living in our world.
Born in northern Greece in 384 BC, Aristotle was a Classical Greek philosopher who did much to shape Western thought. As a student and later a teacher in Plato’s school, The Academy, Aristotle developed an inquisitive spirit and a love of knowledge that would lead him to philosophize on multiple topics, including rhetoric, science, psychology, politics, and morality. Philosophy, to Aristotle, meant applying reason to observation as a means of understanding the riddles of our world and making the most of our lives.
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Before he died in 322 BC, Aristotle impacted the intellectual environment of his time by tutoring Alexander the Great in 342 BC and opening his own school, called The Lyceum, around 335 BC. The Lyceum and Aristotle’s ideas waned in influence after the fall of Rome. But in the Middle Ages, Islamic, Jewish, and Christian philosophers rediscovered Aristotle and even incorporated Aristotelian ideas into their respective religious beliefs. Aristotle has been a staple in the study of philosophy ever since.
About a third of Aristotle’s possibly 200 philosophical works survive, and many of these works are likely lecture notes taken by his students. Aristotle wrote on diverse subjects, but in all of them, there is a unifying theme of using sound logic and scientific inquiry to understand the world and our place in it.
Many scholars divide Aristotle’s work into four categories:(1) logic(2) theoretical works on metaphysics and science(3) practical works on human nature and society(4) works about artistic pursuitsWe’ll examine each category in more detail below.
In order to discover the mysteries of our world, Aristotle first had to establish a means of knowing our universe. Aristotle does this in Organon, which is a collection of six treatises detailing a system of logic for collecting, categorizing, and interpreting data and forming valid arguments. Aristotle relied on empirical data, and he argued that if we apply reason and logic to our experiences, we can discover the truth of our world.Aristotle developed the concept of the syllogism, which is a three-part argument containing two premises (or reasons) and one conclusion (a claim that can be deduced from the premises).
The classic example of a syllogism is:Premise 1 – All men are mortalPremise 2 – Socrates is a manConclusion – Therefore, Socrates is a mortalA well-crafted syllogism occurs when the truth of the premises can guarantee the truth of the conclusion. Aristotle was really the first person to establish the building blocks of formal logic and deductive reasoning in this way.
Metaphysics and Science
In works like Physics and Metaphysics, Aristotle approaches deep metaphysical questions of existence from a scientific perspective. Aristotle argued that such abstract ideas revealed themselves in physical objects, and the only way to accurately access these truths was to study physical things. For example, Aristotle at one point studied and categorized animals in an effort to understand how life works and how life manifests itself in different forms.
Some of his observations — like a primitive differentiation between vertebrates and invertebrates — later proved to be accurate!In his metaphysical/scientific works, Aristotle also discussed the concepts of cause and purpose as they reveal themselves in the natural world. According to Aristotle, there are four causes for everything in the universe:(1) The material cause is the physical stuff that composes an object(2) The formal cause is the form or plan that will dictate the structure of the thing(3) The efficient cause is the thing or person or process that actually forms the thing(4) The final cause is the ultimate purpose that demonstrates why this thing is being createdTo Aristotle, everything had a final cause — an ultimate purpose — and studying the physical composure of a thing would help reveal this purpose.
Human Nature and Society
Aristotle discusses human nature and society in works like Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. When it comes to ethics, the proper function of humanity is to use reason to pursue a virtuous life; the end result of this virtuous life is happiness.
Virtue is found in moderation between extremes, and a person cultivates such virtue through practice and habit. The ultimate purpose of the state, then, was to create a just and stable society that would allow its citizens to pursue this virtuous life.
The last major category of Aristotle’s works includes his thoughts on the products of the human mind. In Rhetoric, Aristotle established logical rules for composing a successful persuasive argument. In Poetics, Aristotle shows how art (specifically, poetry, tragedy, comedy, and music) relies on mimesis, which is the imitation of reality, in order to emotionally engage the audience and reveal deeper truths.
Out of all the genres of art, tragedy utilized this mimesis to the best end.
Aristotle was one of the first thinkers to apply a scientific form of inquiry to the study of the abstract and practical questions of our existence.His concept of the syllogism laid the foundations of logical inquiry.His concept of the four causes argued that everything in the universe has a purpose. Analyzing physical objects is the best way to discern this purpose as well as to discern other metaphysical truths.
When it comes to ethics and political philosophy, Aristotle argued that a good society was one where people use reason, virtue, and moderation to pursue the good life.Art can aid in this pursuit of the good life because it utilizes mimesis to imitate reality and reveal truth.Based on this expansive range of topics, it’s clear that Aristotle was a lover of knowledge of all kinds. Thanks to his school, The Lyceum, and his surviving treatises, his ideas have survived and continue to influence modern society.