Don’t worry, I sacrificed accuracy for alliteration in the title. That would be way more than I’m prepared to write, but I thought I should at least pay some sort of tribute to the man, since my blog name is from his work On the Parts of Animals, in which he says, “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.”
If you only know a little about Aristotle, it’s probably that he’s associated with the Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato, forming three generations of a teacher-student relationship. Like the other two, Aristotle has a reputation as one of the great early thinkers of Western civilization, but he didn’t coast on his predecessors’ fame. Here are a few things to know about Aristotle:
Aristotle was kind of a big deal.
Aristotle was born in 384 BC and started out as one of Plato’s pupils in Athens, but he moved on from there and eventually got himself the sweet gig of tutoring the young Alexander the Great. During this time, he also tutored the future pharaoh Ptolemy I, who may have founded the Library of Alexandria.
As Alexander stomped around the Mediterranean conquering everything in sight, he collected flora and fauna for Aristotle to study and categorize, creating what is often considered the first zoo and botanical garden set up for scientific study. Thanks to this collection, Aristotle was able to observe and dissect hundreds of species, making him the foremost expert of his day in biology and botany. In his later years, Aristotle moved back to Athens and started his own school, the Lyceum, which helped give his ideas and works the exposure that made him a major force in Western philosophy.
“Huge” is inadequate to describe his volume of work or his innovations in philosophical study.
Aristotle wrote on a staggering variety of topics, from politics to poetry to biology. His position as Alexander’s tutor and head of the Lyceum no doubt added some weight to his thoughts, but he also used radically different methods from his teacher Plato and other contemporary philosophers.
Aristotle’s immense body of work is linked by his consistent reliance on what is now called term logic or Aristotelian logic. His main idea was that this type of reasoning could be used to construct chains of statements that hung together logically. Beyond this, he also introduced the revolutionary practice of actually conducting experiments and gathering observations to serve as the first step in his logical pursuit of universal truths. Prior to this, most philosophers worked in the opposite direction, starting from assumed universal premises that were often wrong.
Unfortunately, Aristotle didn’t totally exclude sources other than his own results and sometimes used assumed but untested truths, with the result that his work in biology and physics is something of a mixed bag of keen observations and total nonsense. It wasn’t until the advent of more modern scientific methods that many of his incorrect statements were disproven, and in the meantime they were relied on by centuries of other writers and thinkers, undistinguished from his more useful contributions.
With the knowledge we all have at our fingertips today, it’s easy to rag on Aristotle for the things he got wrong, but it’s important to remember what a huge step he took by introducing the idea of empirical observation. He probably wasn’t the first person to come up with it, but it survived and spread thanks to his influence, and science, among many other fields, owes him a huge debt.
We probably only have about a third of what he actually wrote.
One of the most frustrating things about ancient texts is finding references in surviving works to ones that have been lost, which happens a lot with Aristotle and other writers of his time. It’s maddening to have just enough information to know that we’re missing out on whole plays, volumes of history, or mathematical treatises. Sometimes the basic content of these works can be reconstructed from fragments and the context of related texts, but often we’re left with nothing but our incomplete knowledge and the hope that we’ll find an improbably preserved copy someday.
In Aristotle’s case, the loss is even more annoying because the references to his lost works indicate that their style may be quite different from the Aristotle we know and love (or hate, or love to hate. Hey, style is subjective!). In fact, many scholars believe that most of what we have is actually some form of lecture notes, which explains his concise, dense writing style. It’s hard to say for sure, but many of the lost works may have taken the form of dialogues similar to Plato’s, intended more for public consumption and therefore probably easier to read.
Actually, we only have as much as we do of Aristotle because of the work of Muslim scholars, who translated many classical Greek works into Arabic. The Roman world lost track of these works for centuries, but thanks to the exchange of ideas between Middle Eastern and Western philosophers, doctors, and mathematicians, they were eventually translated into Latin as well.
Aristotle just might save your life.
Just ask one of the students at The Queen’s College, Oxford. According to a story that I can only describe as “apocryphal but awesome”, this student was on his way to Christmas Eve mass in 1340 when he ran into an angry boar. Desperate to defend himself, the student used the only weapon available, one of Aristotle’s books, and managed to choke the boar to death. (Your opinion of Aristotle determines whether you consider this his most useful contribution to history.) Afterward, the boar’s head was served at Christmas dinner amid, one assumes, much revelry and merry-making.
This highly unlikely feat, some claim, is immortalized in “The Boar’s Head Carol“, a lively macaronic Christmas carol (macaronic meaning not pasta-related, but sung partly in English and partly in Latin). It’s a fun song, but I like it so much better with the story, which I think really illustrates the value of “cramming.”
Well, that’s all the Aristotle we have time for today! Check out his works here and see whether you would’ve enjoyed his lectures. If you want, you can just start with a good overview of his work, life, and legacy.