Of the three big names in ancient Greek philosophy — Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle — Aristotle did one thing the others didn’t: he wrote stuff down. In fact, Aristotle was a prolific writer, yet only about one-third of his works remain until this day.
But considering Socrates wrote nothing down, and Plato only recorded conversations taking place between two other people, we know quite a bit more about Aristotle and his ideas than we do about his predecessors. And since they were radically different from what people were saying at the time, it’s easy to see why Aristotle has become one of the world’s most famous philosophers.
So, then, what’s so special about Aristotle?
Plato’s Student. Alexander’s Teacher.
Just like Plato was a student of Socrates’, Aristotle was a student of Plato. How much direct contact they had remains unclear, but Aristotle studied at Plato’s Academy in Athens for about twenty years.
During this time, Aristotle went briefly to Northern Greece at the request of the king of Macedon, Phillip II. His request? Tutor his son, Alexander, a young boy who history would soon call “Alexander the Great.”
As his teacher, Aristotle introduced Alexander to many of the ancient stories of war, perhaps partly instilling him with his ambition as a conqueror. In addition, Aristotle may have influenced Alexander’s opinion towards the Persians, who he would set as his primary target during his wars of conquest.
Specifically, Aristotle looked down upon some groups of people as “barbarians,” mainly those existing outside of Greece. His teachings to Alexander encouraged him to conquer these barbarians and bring them into “civilization.”
At the time, many Greeks considered the Persians, largely because of their militaristic culture, to be less civilized than the Greeks, and so this, along with the two cultures’ shared history may have motivated the great conqueror.
However, Alexander’s dad, Phillip II, also sought to conquer Persia, so it’s just as likely little Alex was just trying to be like his father.
Nevertheless, because of their shared past, the names Alexander and Aristotle are forever tied.
What is Real is What We Can Touch
While Aristotle was in fact a student at Plato’s academy, he pretty much thought his teacher was “full of it.”
First off, he completely rejected Plato’s Theory of Forms. But not because Plato didn’t make a good argument. Instead, he disliked the idea because he believed that our understanding of the world had to come from empirical observation.
In other words, he disagreed that reality was all in our heads. Instead, for him, reality was what we could see, feel, touch, and observe.
The Theory of Universals
From this approach came Aristotle’s Theory of Universals. It was thought up as a response to Plato’s Theory of Forms, and it educated much of Aristotle’s inquiries, as well as his followers.
In essence, Plato’s theory argued that there was a separate world from the one we perceive with our senses, one where things existed in their “ideal form.” So, when we look at an object, such as a book, what we are really seeing is a representation of the concept of a book, which exists in its purest form somewhere other than this reality.
Aristotle, on the other hand, argued that this “ideal form” could be found within the object that we are looking at. So, when we look at a book, yes it’s true that we’re looking at just one version of it. But, through observation and analysis, Aristotle argued, we can also understand the universal concept of a book. Plato thought this was impossible.
If your brain hurts a bit, that’s okay. The main point is that Aristotle thought we had to study the physical world to understand truth.
This was a fairly different viewpoint as compared to the ideas of Socrates and Plato, and so Aristotle inspired his own philosophical school — the peripatetic tradition.
Teaching at the Lyceum
The name, which comes from the ancient Greek word for “walking about,” referred to the fact that Aristotle’s students would often gather at the Lyceum, a sanctuary for the god Apollo located just outside Athens.
Because he was not a citizen of Athens, Aristotle could not own land in the city, so he and his students met informally at the Lyceum. There, they expanded on the Theory of Universals and created the first group in world history committed to studying and understanding the physical nature of reality.
Aristotle the Biologist
In keeping with his belief that the physical world could only be understood through the senses, Aristotle spent time studying botany, zoology, and biology. His favorite activity? Documenting the many different plants and animals that he saw.
This work was, in some ways, the foundation for the Theory of Evolution, which wouldn’t appear until nearly 2,000 years later. Though Aristotle himself never came to this conclusion. Instead, he merely pointed out some of the relationships between different species of animals, which helped inspire the idea that we come from common ancestors.
Furthermore, his many observations of living things helped introduce the systems of animal classifications that we still use today. He spotted many similarities between different species and used these to help explain the interconnectivity of life.
Aristotle the Astronomer
When we think of astronomy, we tend to think of powerful telescopes and spaceships, two things the ancient Greeks most certainly did not have. However, just because they didn’t have the technology to study the cosmos up close doesn’t mean they weren’t interested.
Throughout his life, Aristotle was uniquely concerned with the Universe, hoping to use his scientific approach to solve some of its more profound mysteries.
Of course, many of his theories, such as his belief that the Earth was at the center of the Universe, would later be proven false. But he got the world thinking not only about new things but in new ways, and this has had a profound impact on human culture and history.
The Father of Modern Science
Aristotle’s approach to philosophy and science has made him one of the fathers of modern science. And while many of his ideas were ignored by later Greek philosophers, mainly because they were focused on other things, they were not forgotten.
Curious minds from the Renaissance and beyond turned to Aristotle’s work to inspire and inform them, leaving us to wonder where we might be today if it weren’t for this ancient philosopher’s many ideas.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao