The Life and History of Aristotle

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Aristotle

Aristotle was born in 384 b.c. in the small town of Stagira on the northeast coast of Thrace. His father was the physician to the king of Macedonia. It could be that Aristotle's great interest in biology and sci ence in general was nurtured in his early childhood as it was the custom, according to Galen, for families in the guild of the Asclepiadae to train their sons in the art of dissection. When he was seventeen years old, Aristotle went to Athens to enroll in Plato's Academy, where he spent the next twenty years as a pupil and a member. At the Academy, Aristotle had the reputation of being the "reader" and "the mind of the school." He was profoundly influenced by Plato's thought and personality even though eventually he was to break away from Plato's philosophy in order to formulate his own version of certain philosophical problems. Still, while at the Academy, he wrote many dialogues in a Platonic style, which his contemporaries praised for the "golden stream" of their eloquence. He even reaffirmed, in his Eudemus, the very doctrine so central to Plato's thought, the doctrine of the Forms, or Ideas, which he later criticized so severely. There is no way now to reconstruct with exactness just when Aristotle's thought diverged from Plato's. Plato's own thought, it must be remembered, was in process of change while Aristotle was at the Academy. Indeed, it is usually said that Aristotle studied with Plato during Plato's "later" period, a time when Plato's interests had shifted toward mathematics, method, and natural science. During this time, also, specialists in various sciences, such as medicine, anthropology, and archeology, came to the Academy. This meant that Aristotle was exposed to a vast array of empirical facts, which, because of his temperament, he found useful for research and for his mode of formulating scientific concepts. It may be, therefore, that the intellectual atmosphere of the Academy marked by some of Plato's latest dominant concerns and the availability of collected data in special fields provided Aristotle with a direction in philosophy that was congenial to his scientific disposition. The direction Aristotle took did eventually cause him to depart from some of Plato's doctrines, though the degree of difference between Plato and Aristotle is still a matter of careful interpretation. But even when they were together at the Academy, certain temperamental differences must have been apparent. Aristotle, for example, was less interested in mathematics than Plato and more interested in empirical data. Moreover, as time went on, Aristotle's gaze seemed to be more firmly fixed upon the concrete processes of nature, so that he considered his abstract scientific notions to have their real habitat in this living nature. By contrast, Plato separated the world of thought from the world of flux and things, ascribing true reality to the Ideas and Forms, which, he thought, had an existence separate from the things in nature. It could be said, therefore, that Aristotle oriented his thought to the dynamic realm of becoming, whereas Plato's thought was fixed more upon the static realm of timeless Being. Whatever differences there were between these two great minds, the fact is that Aristotle did not break with Plato personally, as he remained at the Academy until Plato's death. Moreover, throughout Aristotle's later major treatises, unmistakable influences of Plato's thought are to be found in spite of Aristotle's unique interpretations and style. But his distinctly "Platonist" period came to an end upon Plato's death, when the direction of the Academy passed into the hands of Plato's nephew Speusippos, whose excessive emphasis upon mathematics was uncongenial to Aristotle, for which reason, among others, Aristotle withdrew from the Academy and left Athens. It was in 348/47 b.c. that Aristotle left the Academy and accepted the invitation of Hermeias to come to Assos, near Troy. Hermeias had...
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