Who Was Aristotle?

2020-11-24

Greatness is out of fashion these days -- even suspect because of its seeming elitism. Yet it is an inconvenient truth that talents, opportunities, efforts, and achievements vary greatly. In every field of human endeavor there are only a few people who are remembered even 50 years after their passing; multiply 50 by 50 and we reach 2500 years, nearly the upper limit of recorded history, whose rolls are inhabited by a minuscule percentage of those who have ever lived. Even fewer of those remembered are anything but a name, whose works and deeds are still widely studied to this day. At the very pinnacle of these is Aristotle, whose concepts and insights form the foundation of much of human knowledge, science, art, culture, and society.

But who was Aristotle? He was, of course, no more a disembodied mind than any other human being. He had parents (who died when he was a child), an older sister and a younger brother, a wife (who also died young) by whom he had a daughter, another partner after his wife died by whom he had a son, friends, enemies, teachers, schoolmates, colleagues, students, servants, and some very powerful people whom he served and befriended as well. Although the facts of his life are hazy indeed 2400 years later, if the reconstructions of Carlo Natali and especially Anton-Hermann Chroust are close to the mark then he lived quite an eventful life, not just of scholarship but of political influence and something approaching intrigue.

Aristotle was born in 384 BC at a town in northern Greece (almost in Macedonia) called Stagira, a colony founded earlier by the cities of Chalkis and Andros. On both his father's side and his mother's side he was said to be descended from Asclepius, a physician mentioned in The Iliad of Homer. His father's family came from Andros and his mother's from Chalkis. His mother Phaestis was apparently from a well-to-do family of Chalkis, where they owned an estate. His father Nicomachus was the court physician to and perhaps a friend and confidant of Amyntas III, the king of Macedonia.

Amyntas died in 370 BC when Aristotle was 14 and Aristotle's parents died before Aristotle went to Athens in 367 BC, so it's possible that Nicomachus and Phaestis were killed during the royal intrigues that followed the death of Amyntas and before the ascension of King Philip II in 359 BC. Aristotle's older sister Arimineste married a man (seemingly a distant relative) named Proxenus and was then put under their care and guidance, it appears across the Aegean Sea at Atarneus on the western coast of Asia Minor. At age 16 or 17 Aristotle went to Athens for further education, perhaps initially with the rhetorician and philosopher Isocrates and then with Plato once the latter returned from an ill-fated venture in Syracuse in southern Italy. Aristotle spent the next 20 years as an active member of the Academy, Plato's school and research community, where he studied and eventually taught.

In 348 or 347 BC, Aristotle left the Academy under circumstances that are unclear. Some accounts say that he left after the death of Plato in 347 BC, but others say that he left in 348 BC before Plato died. Why would he have left sooner? Chroust speculates that Aristotle, with his Macedonian connections, was forced to leave because of anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens stirred up by the fall of Olynthus to the forces of King Philip in the summer of 348 BC. Aristotle went not to Chalkis on the island of Euboea (which was in a state of chaos at the time) but to Atarneus. Here he became a friend and adviser to Hermias, the ruler of Atarneus. While in Atarneus he met and married a woman named Pythia, the daughter or niece of Hermias, with whom he had a daughter also named Pythia.

Scholars of a philosophical bent think that Aristotle went to Atarneus (and then nearby Assos and Mytilene) to study biology. He certainly did study there, but Chroust argues that Aristotle was also engaged in diplomatic missions from King Philip to Hermias, since Atarneus would have provided a beachhead for Philip's planned invasion of Persia. Perhaps the Persian king Artaxerxes I got wind of such machinations, because he had Hermias captured, tortured, and killed in 342 BC.

By then Aristotle might have relocated to Macedonia (Herpyllis, his common-law wife after the death of Pythia and the mother of his son Nicomachus, was from Stagira). Legend has it that Philip called upon Aristotle to tutor his son Alexander (the future Alexander the Great), although there is no early evidence for this relationship (indeed, the Epicureans and Stoics would have loved to pin Alexander's character failings on his teacher Aristotle, but they never mentioned it among their many calumnies). Philip himself was assassinated in 336 BC, whereupon the young Alexander ascended to the throne and proceeded to conquer all of Greece. Amongst the ensuing squabbles, it's possible that Aristotle convinced Alexander to spare the city of Athens, which had revolted along with Thebes (which Alexander destroyed) when rumors spread that Alexander had been killed in fighting the Illyrians. Perhaps not coincidentally, Aristotle returned to Athens in 335 BC, where he founded his own school (the Lyceum) and spent the next thirteen years while Alexander went off to conquer Asia.

During Alexander's prolonged absence, he put one of Philip's old generals, Antipater, in charge of keeping the peace back in Greece. It seems that Aristotle and Antipater had a close relationship (indeed, Antipater was the executor for Aristotle's last will and testament) and they exchanged many letters (which might have included reports from Aristotle on the political situation in Athens). When Alexander died at Babylon in 323 BC, Aristotle once again fled Athens because of anti-Macedonian agitation, which this time took the form of a charge of impiety against Aristotle (the same charge which had led to the execution of Socrates in 399 BC). To prevent the Athenians from "sinning twice against philosophy", Aristotle fled to the estate of his mother's family in Chalkis, where he died soon after in 322 BC at the age of 62, perhaps of stomach cancer.

Thus we can see that Aristotle led a full and eventful life. In the midst of all this, Aristotle founded the sciences of logic and biology, wrote hundreds of popular and scholarly works on an enormous range of subjects, taught numerous students, and contributed fundamentally to epistemology, metaphysics, psychology, rhetoric, literary analysis, political theory, and ethics. Although he was not without a few faults, his intellectual legacy is immense and will never be equalled.

What was Aristotle like as a person? That's hard to say. Unlike Socrates, he never served in the military and never had to work for a living, although as we've seen the ancient sources indicate that he was quite active in diplomatic affairs. Unlike Plato, Epicurus, and many other ancient (and modern) philosophers, Aristotle married and had children, to whom he was very devoted (as witness the great care he expended in his will to ensure that his deceased relations would be remembered and that his living relations would be cared for). Also in his will he made provisions to free the slaves he inherited with generous stipends so that they could support themselves. He seems to have been a steadfast friend to powerful men like Philip, Hermias, and Antipater as well as to colleagues in learning like Plato, Theophrastus, and Xenocrates. Clearly he worked extremely hard to understand the world around him; but he also, through his popular writings and his teaching, put a great deal of thought and effort into convincing other people (especially rich young aristocrats) to take life seriously through philosophical exploration instead of, say, military expeditions or the pursuit of mindless pleasures.

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living; Aristotle examined everything so deeply that we could say his life was more worth living than that of any other person in human history. That, my friends, is greatness.

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