Today, it seems that Aristotle’s status and prestige in the Western world are slowly increasing. They are still, regrettably, behind Plato’s. Also, most academic philosophers, as such, give short shrift to any ancient intellectuals who developed complete philosophical systems. Nonetheless, his recognition seems to be slowly improving.
As a Greek who worked extensively in Athens, Aristotle was at the forefront of the acknowledged foundations of Western civilization. These Greeks are credited as the first to “think about thinking.” In the 5th and 4th centuries B.C, Athens and a few other Greek city states get the credit for these achievements. But it should be remembered that at least one other Greek city state, Sparta, was a very negative military dictatorship, with similarities to modern totalitarian models.
Aristotle was born in northern Greece in Stagira in 384 B.C. He was not a Macedonian, but initially lived not too far from Macedonian Greeks who would later play a key role in his life. At a young age, he moved to Athens and entered Plato’s Academy. At that time, Plato was considered the preeminent philosopher in the Athenian world. Aristotle at first adhered to Plato’s philosophical system, but later broke with his mentor and developed quite different ideas.
Both Aristotle and Plato were the first to develop philosophical systems. These were a hierarchy, consisting of views on metaphysics (“What is it,” i.e. what is reality?) to epistemology (“How do you know this?”) to ethics and politics (“So what?”). At some point, the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, evidently published many sayings and observations, which, in their own context, had some value. But he never consolidated these into a complete philosophical system.
After Aristotle left the Academy and returned to northern Greece, he came into contact with Philip II, King of Macedonian Greeks. His oldest son, Alexander, was considered a prodigy and Aristotle became his teacher and mentor. After Phillip conquered all Greece, the two became quite close.
When Alexander, becoming known as Alexander the Great, began his military campaign to go east and conquer Persia and the known world, he carried Aristotle’s (by now) considerable volume of written works with him. For centuries, Aristotle remained a prominent, if not the number one, philosopher and scientist, first in the eastern Hellenic world legacy of Alexander, and then in the Arab Islamic world, centered in Baghdad and Damascus. Crusading Christians, around 1100 A.D., discovered some of Aristotle’s works, many of which may have been in the form of student notes, and returned them to Europe.
After Plato’s death, Aristotle returned to Athens and founded his own Academy, called Lyceum. When word reached him that Alexander was claiming divine status for himself, Aristotle denounced him for what he considered as a breach of a reason and logic base.
No direct connection has been found between this feud and Aristotle’s hurried departure from Athens. Evidently, some influential Athenians accused Aristotle of irreverence towards the Greek Gods. Potentially, this could have been a capital offense. But Aristotle said he had no intention of becoming a philosophical martyr like Socrates. He closed Lyceum and returned to his native northern Greece. Aristotle died shortly after in 322 B.C.
Details of Aristotle’s Work
It is estimated that only about one third of his total works have as yet been recovered. He wrote and researched prodigiously on virtually every topic then known to man. Besides his philosophical system, he wrote on biology, zoology, astronomy, psychology, botany, esthetics and other topics.
A summary of his philosophical system is:
Metaphysics—There is one universe and man can potentially know it all. This universe exists independently of man, not inside his head. Plato, on the other hand, said that this world is only semi-real and a reflection of true reality, the World of Forms.
Epistemology—His greatest achievement is the view that the universe can be known by us through exercise of reason and logic. Every human achievement, before or since, scientific, artistic, or other, stems from employment of reason and logic. Plato, on the other hand, said that knowledge of true reality could only be obtained through a mystical experience.
Ethics and Politics—Aristotle said that ethical guidance should be obtained from observations of wise Athenians. Plato, on the other hand, advocated a strict dictatorship, with a hierarchical structure to society. On top would be the dictators, the philosopher kings, and below them would be the soldiers and farthest down would be farmers and tradesmen.
Why, then, didn’t Aristotle’s philosophical system prevail as number one in the world? His views contained weaknesses, some of which may have stemmed from when he was still aligned with Plato.
Metaphysics—An entity known as the “Prime Mover” seemed to have the function of holding the earth together. This entity did not interfere in earthly affairs and did not possess what we consider as God-like characteristics.
Epistemology—Later philosophers attacked reason and logic as qualities that could not be proven. Evidently, Aristotle never invoked the doctrine of self evidentially. Reason and logic are not provable, since any attack on them involved the attacker’s acceptance and use of reason and logic in his assertions.
Aristotle’s theory of Universals was quite flawed. This pertains to what is “man-ness”, “horsiness”, etc. He claimed that every living entity contained two types of literal material elements, a “particular part” and a “universal part.” Antagonists replied rightly that, upon dissecting any living entity, only particular parts existed. In other words, the entity’s species, sex, height, weight, etc. were all unique.
On ethics, Aristotle advocated a “Golden Mean”, to result from observing wise Athenians. In other words, the right amount of golden mean of “courage” was the mean between two extremes, cowardice and foolhardiness. Similar golden means were developed for all virtues.
His approach suffered from an obvious lack of objectivity in defining what were the ends around such Golden Mean. Also, just who were these “wise Athenians?”
These flaws all served to keep Aristotle’s philosophy from dominance in the Hellenic and Arabic worlds. He did, however, retain prominence and respect.
As Rome conquered Greece and much of Europe, it is uncertain if they even knew of Aristotle. In any event, Romans and later Christian philosophers, especially the latter, adhered to Plato’s views.
When returning Crusaders brought much of Aristotle’s works back to Europe, one European monk studied them in detail. Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, concluded that Aristotle could be completely reconciled with Christianity (he failed). Yes, there was one world and it was knowable to Man. Earth was the material part and Heaven was the spiritual part. Reason and logic could be employed to understand all about Earth, although faith was still required for the Heavenly portion.
By making reason and logic respectable and not subject to condemnation by the Catholic Church, Aquinas paved the way for the Renaissance. Once again, after centuries of the Dark and Middle ages, scientific inquiry and artistic and architectural achievements began.
In the minds of many, Aristotle’s philosophy became tied to the philosophy of the Catholic Church. Later philosophers such as John Locke and the Founding Fathers of the U.S. all relied on reason and logic in developing their great political theory of individual rights. But they didn’t give Aristotle his due. Today, all of Western civilization relies, usually implicitly, on his teachings to reach current knowledge and our standard of living.
On a lighter note, Aristotle’s theme park is located in Stagira. During the summer, if the weather cooperates, can see some of the monasteries on Mount Athos. It prides itself in including a series of instruments. When they are properly played, they reinforce the phenomena of nature. The instruments include: solar, lens, Pentaphone, Optical Discs, Pendulum, Water Turbine, Inertia sopheres, Parabolic reflectors and Telescopses and they do make music.
There have been accountings that Aristotle loved the honey of Hakidiki. It is based on the climate and edaphic conditions and flora of Halkidiki. This region was also known for its wine wine and still is. The say Aristotle’s favorite was “limnio.”
All things considered, we owe a profound debt of gratitude today to that singular Greek, Aristotle.
Images provided by Halkidiki Marketing.