Ethics: Biography: Aristotle

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Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)

The son of a court physician, Aristotle was born in Stagira, near Macedonia. At the age of 17 he entered Plato’s Academy, the heart of the intellectual world at the time, where he stayed until Plato’s death in 347. Although Aristotle was Plato's most promising student, he did not succeed him as head of the Academy, largely it is thought because of their opposing views on several fundamental philosophical issues, especially Plato's theory of ideas. Between 343-340 he was the tutor of the young Alexander the Great.

In 335 he returned to Athens and set up the Lyceum, which he ran for twelve years. As a school of organized scientific inquiry, it was unprecedented. It is often called the Peripatetic School, because Aristotle liked to stroll in the peripatos or covered walk discussing his ideas with his colleagues and students. The Lyceum soon came to rival the Academy, and continued in existence as a school for nearly 800 years. There was no comparable scientific enterprise for over 2,000 years after its foundation.

In 323 he was charged with impiety and brought to trial, more for political than religious reasons. So, alluding to the execution of Socrates, he explained that in order to prevent the Athenians “from sinning a second time against philosophy” he would take his family north to Chalcis, his mother's birthplace, where he owned an estate. There he died soon afterwards in November, 322, at the age of 62.

Having come from a long line of physicians, it is perhaps not surprising that Aristotle emphasized the importance of empirical research in all disciplines and the accumulation of data using the inductive as well as the deductive method of reasoning, in contrast to Plato’s largely deductive method. His education had a lasting influence and probably accounts for his less idealistic approach to philosophy compared to Plato’s. In addition to metaphysics, which he described as “first philosophy,” Aristotle believed it was necessary to undertake empirical research into nature. This he described as “second philosophy,” which included subjects like physics, mechanics and biology.

He wrote prolifically, but the most famous philosophical works that have survived include the Organon (the logical works), De Anima (On the Soul), Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, Magna Moralia, Politics, Rhetoric, and Poetics, along with other works on natural history and science. His concern was to present as full an account as possible of the many different facets of the world in which we live. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in his ethical theory which still exerts considerable influence today, particularly his account of ethical virtues and of human flourishing (“happiness”). He also invented the study of formal logic, for which he developed the syllogistic system of analysis. His ideas effectively shaped the course of western intellectual history until the seventeenth century.