Aristotle is one of the greatest figures in the history of Western thought. In terms of the breadth and depth of his thought, together with the quality and nature of his analysis, his contribution to a variety of fields is almost unparalleled. His areas of investigation ranged from biology to ethics and from poetics to the categorization of knowledge. Born in Stagira in northern Greece, with a doctor as a father, he studied under Plato for 20 years until Plato’s death and then left to travel to Asia Minor and then the island of Lesbos.
He received a request in about 342 b.c.e. from King Philip of Macedon to supervise the education of his son Alexander, who was 13 at that time. He consented and prepared to teach Alexander the superiority of Greek culture and the way in which a Homeric hero in the mold of Achilles should dominate the various barbarians to the east. Alexander went on to conquer much of the known world, although he failed to observe Aristotle’s instruction to keep Greeks separate from barbarians by pursuing a policy of intermarriage and adoption of eastern cultural institutions. Alexander proved to be an obstinate student, and Aristotle’s influence was slight.
Once this tutelage was completed, Aristotle retired first to Stagira and then to Athens to establish his own academy. He continued to be accompanied by former pupils of Plato such as Theophrastus. His academy became known as the Lyceum. Aristotle wrote his most developed works at this time, but much of what has been passed down through the ages was subsequently edited, and much of his work gives the impression that it contains interpolated material and other notes. His works were translated into Latin and Arabic and became immensely influential throughout the Western world. Aristotle departed Athens for the island of Euboea in 322 b.c.e. and died that year.
At the basis of Aristotle’s works is his close observati on of the world and his astoundingly powerful attempts to understand and reconcile the nature of observed phenomena with what might be expected. This is perhaps most easily witnessed in Aristotle’s scientific works, including the Meteorologica, On the Movement of Animals, and On Sleep and Sleeplessness. Aristotle’s works were deeply rooted in the real world, since the establishment of fact is central to the inquiry. This is the strand of Aristotle’s work that was later developed by scholars such as Roger Bacon and early scientific experimenters.
Aristotle’s classification of all material phenomena into categories is contained in his work of the same name. According to this method, everything was part of substance and could be classified as such, while some individual items would be classified as an individual item. The latter are considered to be qualities rather than essential parts of substance.
The ways in which Aristotle organized these categories does not always appear intuitively correct, which reflects differences in methods of thinking and language. He also distinguished between form and matter. Form is a specific configuration of matter, which is the basis or substance of all physical things. Iron is a substance or representation of matter, for example, which can be made into a sword. The sword is a potential quality of iron, and a child is potentially a fully grown person. It is in the nature of some matter, therefore, to emerge in a particular form. If form can be said to emerge from no matter, then it would do so as god.
Whether one thing is itself or another thing depends on the four causes of the universe. The material cause explains what a thing is and what is its substance; the final cause explains the purpose or reason for the object; the formal cause defines it in a specific physical form, and the efficient cause explains how it came into existence. According to Aristotle’s thinking, all physical items can be explained and accounted for fully by reference to these four causes. In a similar way his exposition of the syllogism in all its possible forms and the definition of which of these are valid and to what extent are an effort to establish a system that is inclusive and universal and is both elegant and parsimonious in construction. The syllogism is Aristotle’s principal contribution to the study of logic.
Aristotle’s methods enabled him to make a number of influential contributions to language and to discourse. His Sophistical Refutations, for example, analyzes the use of language to identify the forms of argument that are valid and discard false or disreputable discourse that is aimed at winning an argument rather than seeking the truth. Aristotle, like Socrates and Plato before him, was convinced of the primacy of the search for truth; no matter how uncomfortable this may prove to be.
This placed him in occasional conflict with the Sophists, who were more willing to teach pupils to use philosophical discourse for self-advancement. Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics was aimed at determining the extent to which scientific reasoning rested on appropriately considered and evaluated premises that flow properly from suitable first principles. He applied the same rigorous approach to his examination of the Athenian polis and also to the study of tragedy in the Poetics.
The Poetics remains one of Aristotle’s most influential works. It aims to outline the various categories ofplot and chain of cause and events that are appropriate for the stage and the ways in which the various elements of theater should interact. His conception of the properly tragic character as one whose inevitable downfall is brought about by a character flaw, and that the anagnoresis, or reversal of fortune, was the plot device by which this most commonly was brought about, dominated the production of drama until the modern age.