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A Note on the Life and Work of Aristotle

Ian Johnston

[This introductory note has been prepared for students in Liberal Studies and Classics classes at Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University), Nanaimo, BC, Canada. The text is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged, released May 1999]


Traditionally Aristotle's career is divided up into four distinct periods, corresponding to the major changes in his life. He was born in 384 BC in Stageira, a small community in Chalcidice, in the north­east part of what is now mainland Greece, remote from Athens. His ancestry was Ionian, that is, of the same ethnic group as the Athenians, but Chalcidice at that time increasingly was coming directly under the growing influence of the neighbouring Kingdom of Macedonia, then beginning to emerge as a major power. Aristotle's father, Nicomachus, was evidently the court physician and close advisor to Amyntas II, King of Macedonia. Upon the death of Amyntas II in 370 BC, the Macedonian royal family launched a characteristically bloody internecine quarrel which did not end until five years later. By this time, Nicomachus was dead, perhaps because of his friendship with and loyalty to the sons of Amyntas, and Aristotle, now a teenager, had moved to Athens, brought there in 367 BC by his guardian Proxenus, the husband of Aristotle's sister, Arimneste, possibly in response to the dangerous political climate in Macedonia.

In Athens at age seventeen Aristotle began the second major part of his life as a student in Plato's Academy, where he remained until Plato's death in 347 BC (that is, until Aristotle was 37 years old). During this period Plato produced those later dialogues which indicate a shifting of his philosophical interests from the idealism of the Phaedo and the Republic, written long before Aristotle's arrival, and which, indeed, on occasion subject the most famous doctrines of those earlier dialogues to serious criticism. Although we are not totally clear about exactly how the school was organized, Aristotle, who must have participated fully in the life there, may have given us an idealized sketch in Book IX, Chapter 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics(Barnes 10). In any event, at the Academy Aristotle produced and published a number of works, including one on the immortality of soul. Unfortunately none of these works has survived, except in occasional fragments.

In 347 BC Aristotle suddenly left the Academy and Athens and traveled, perhaps via Macedonia, to the north­east, to Assos, in the territory of Hermias of Atarneus, a small but strategically placed area sandwiched between the ancient empire of Persia and the growing power of Macedonia, now ruled by King Phillip II, a son of Amyntas and therefore presumably well disposed towards the family of the royal doctor who had advised his father. Traditionally the reason for Aristotle's departure from Athens is that he was upset by the death of Plato and by his not being appointed to succeed Plato as head of the Academy (that honour went to Plato's nephew Speusippus). There is, however, some evidence to suggest that Aristotle may have left Athens before the death of Plato, in order to escape the wrath of the anti­Macedonian faction in Athens, which had grown dangerous as a result of King Philip's attack in 348 BC on Olynthus, a flourishing city in Chalcidice and an ally of Athens.

Away from Athens, Aristotle entered the third major period of his life, during which time he lived and worked in Assos (arriving in 347 BC) and in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos (arriving in 345 BC). Here, with the support of Hermias (and perhaps of the court in Macedonia) and with a few friends, some of whom had also studied at the Academy in Athens, he set up a new school. During this period it seems likely that Aristotle began his major studies in biology in collaboration with Theophrastus, who was to be Aristotle's successor and literary executor. In 343 BC he returned to Macedonia, supposedly to serve as the principal tutor of Alexander, the son of King Philip. Subsequently, in 340 BC Aristotle may have lived in his birth place, Stageira. Nine years earlier the town had been destroyed during Philip's campaign in Chalcidice (as a result of the same foreign policy which had aroused the anger of the Athenians over Olynthus), but later it had been rebuilt with the assistance of the Macedonians. During this same period (341­40 BC), Hermias, whose niece Aristotle had married and for whom Aristotle retained a strong respect, may have been betrayed by Philip to the Persians, who tortured Hermias to death.

The fourth, and final phase of Aristotle's life began with his return to Athens in 335 BC, immediately after the assassination of King Philip (in 336 BC), the accession of Alexander, and the latter's brutally swift reassertion of Macedonian dominion over the Greek city states (Athens was forced to submit in 335 BC). In Athens Aristotle taught in a public gymnasium, the Lyceum, perhaps with the active support of Alexander, who launched his invasion of Asia the following year. For the next thirteen years, while Alexander was conquering the east, Aristotle taught and wrote at the Lyceum. When Alexander died very unexpectedly in Babylon in 323 BC, the anti­Macedonian party in Athens rebelled. A charge of impiety (the same charge leveled years before against Socrates) was brought against Aristotle, whom many citizens identified with the Macedonian cause, and he quickly left the city, alleging that he did not want the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy. Aristotle moved to Chalcis on the island of Euboea, where he died the following year (322 BC), at the age of sixty­two.


From the details of Aristotle's life and work, two main biographical questions have, particularly in this century, teased the scholars. The first is the precise nature of Aristotle's relationship to Plato and Platonic philosophy. The issue is extremely complex, since it obviously involves a detailed chronological reconstruction of Aristotle's works, a task which, for reasons outlined in Section III of this paper, presents enormous difficulties. Traditionally, many writers have been fond of contrasting the two most famous Greek philosophers, seeing in Aristotle, for example, a thinker in many respects diametrically opposed to Plato (see, for example, Nisbet, 16, "It is difficult to imagine two minds more unlike than Plato and Aristotle"). In a very famous study of this question published in 1923, Werner Jaeger maintained that in his first Athenian period, that is, while still at the Academy, Aristotle wrote as a faithful disciple of Plato and that after his master's death in 347 BC and Aristotle's departure from Athens for Assos, he moved steadily away Plato's idealistic metaphysics towards a much more empirical philosophy at odds with Plato's mature thinking. 

This view has been the subject of much debate, not least of all because of the difficulties of defining the key notion "Platonism." Thus, while it is certainly true that Aristotle does take issue with particular doctrines found in some Platonic dialogues, it is equally true that Plato himself in his later years, that is, in the years when Aristotle was at the Academy, produced some important challenges to his own earlier writing. The Sophist, for example, takes direct issue with some central arguments in the earlier Phaedo, and in many ways the change in political thinking from the Republic to the Laws indicates that Plato himself was moving in much the same direction as Aristotle is alleged to have done as he distanced himself from his senior (MacIntyre 94). 

Moreover, without attempting in any way to provide an adequate summing up of this complicated issue, one can acknowledge that in many respects Aristotle is directly Plato's intellectual heir, particularly in the political and ethical works. As MacIntyre observes, "It is Plato's project which Aristotle vindicates and . . . completes" (89). At the same time, however, Aristotle creates his own unique philosophical system, often taking issue with key Platonic doctrines, and is not to be too neatly labelled an apostate or reformed Platonist. Aristotle's work, Owen suggests (in contrast to the Jaeger thesis), can best be seen as

. . . a progress from sharp and rather schematic criticism of Plato to an avowed sympathy with Plato's general metaphysical programme. But the sympathy is one thing, the concrete problems and procedures which give content to Aristotle's project are another. They are his own, worked out and improved in the course of his own thinking about science and dialectic. There seems no evidence of a stage in that thinking at which he confused admiration with acquiescence. (34)

The second major question which stems from the details of Aristotle's life is the nature of his relationship with the stormy political events of his age, and particularly of his attitudes towards the Athenians and the Macedonians. Here again, the evidence is very fragmentary. Still, the fact that the major changes in Arisotle's life, from the first visit to Athens to his final flight from the city, always seemed to occur at times of significant political strife does tempt one to speculate. 

Aristotle, after all, had important and long­standing connections at the court of Macedonia, and there are many traditional stories linking him with Philip and Alexander. So much so that, as Chroust points out, one can make a case that Aristotle on more than one occasion may have actively worked as a agent of Philip's imperialistic policy (1: Chapter XIII). The hard evidence is, to be sure, scanty, but it is worth remembering that Aristotle was certainly perceived by many Athenians as a faithful adherent of the Macedonian oppressors, and that in all his years at Athens Aristotle remained an alien and thus never participated as a citizen in Athenian political affairs. Moreover, he named as executor of his will Antipater, the Macedonian general in charge of maintaining by force control over the Greek city states (and probably the most hated man in Athens after Alexander himself). 

It appears evident from the works that Aristotle would have no particular love of the political style of Athens in his own age, although in the Constitution of Athens he follows Plato in approving of the Athenian constitution of 462. On the other hand, one can hardly imagine Aristotle applauding the political transformation of the Hellenic world which Alexander attempted during his campaigns. Many Macedonians themselves were particularly offended at Alexander's departure from traditional customs in favour of an imperial ruling style increasingly influenced by Persian ceremonies. And it is not too difficult to imagine the Ethicsand the Politics as directly inspired by a need to meet the challenge posed by Alexander's apparently limitless desire for self-aggrandizement. 

In this connection, the remarkable silence about Alexander's achievements in the Ethics and the Politics may be very eloquent. If there is any truth to the ancient stories about Alexander's being assassinated, there is no shortage of suspects, including Antipater and his family and thus, by a chain of events more dramatically appealing than historically verifiable, Antipater's good friend, Aristotle himself.

More significant than these speculations is the question of the extent to which Aristotle's political life influenced his philosophical writing, in other words, how much the political ideologies of the Macedonian royal family and the political situation of his age help to explain some of the features of Aristotle's theories. Here again we are dealing with a very complex and highly speculative matter, but it is certainly not beyond belief that a man with Aristotle's political connections and reputation could on occasion deliberately shape his lectures to engage as a partisan in the most pressing political issues of the day, the subjects of fierce debate among Athenians, including, one may assume, Aristotle's students. Indeed, it would be very surprising if he had not done so. 

This possibility has led at least one writer to link the twin features of Macedonian foreign policy toward the Greek states (politically separate city states with their own forms of government under the protection of the absolute hereditary monarch of Macedonia) with the recurring dichotomies in Aristotle's writings: the dual structure of politics (celebrating monarchy and moderate democracy), the dual morality of the ethics (paying the highest praise to both the contemplative life and the active political life), and the duality in the metaphysics (establishing the one unmoved mover and the many unmoved movers).

This whole philosophy of Aristotle culminating in the doctrine of state would give the impression of one single enormous contradiction, if no account were taken of the political background, which alone explains its true significance. The fundamental contradiction of Aristotelian politics, to which the ethics and the metaphysics contribute, the apparently irreconcilable opposition between the two political ideals of a hereditary monarchy and of a moderate democracy, explain themselves when the Aristotelian conception is confronted with the historical reality of its time, if we remember the object of the great struggle between the Greek city republics, at the head of which Athens stood, and the Macedonian monarchy, which was in power at the time when Aristotle wrote his Politics. (Kelsen 52).

Whether or not we accept this important and extreme claim, we cannot help but be aware, as we read Aristotle's political and ethical works, of the voice of experience speaking there, a voice which reveals both an sensible appreciation of people, individually and in political groups, as they actually are and thus a guiding sense of what it is reasonable to expect from human behaviour in this non­utopian world. That quality more than anything else may help to explain why these particular parts of Aristotle's achievement have retained their appeal so well, long after the scientific and logical works, excessively admired for hundreds and hundreds of years, have lost most of their influence.


The most challenging task in our understanding of Aristotle, however, concerns the editions of his work, for no major philosophical figure has left a more complex legacy for the scholarly editor. Ancient tradition divided Aristotle's writings into two groups: the exoteric and the esoteric. The former, we can reasonably infer, were prepared for publication and distribution outside the Academy and the Lyceum, and were therefore written and edited appropriately by Aristotle himself. The result was a style which won admiring comments from later readers, including Cicero. Unfortunately, virtually all these so­called exoteric works have disappeared, so that we have very little evidence of what we can regard as a suitably finished composition, sent out into the world with the author's approval. 

The esoteric works, by contrast, were never designed by Aristotle for publication. They are, in effect, lecture notes or rough drafts (either by Aristotle or recorded by students at the Lyceum) dealing with the many different courses in logic, physics, biology, metaphysics, ethics, politics, rhetoric, and aesthetics which Aristotle gave over a period of more than thirty years. Virtually every text of Aristotle's we now possess falls into this category. Consequently, they suffer from the many common faults of lecture notes: they are frequently disjointed, contradictory, elliptical, awkwardly repetitive, and in many places generally confusing; the chronology of the different sections of a particular work is difficult to establish once and for all (there may, for example be a fifteen year gap between some books of the Metaphysics and others, the chronology of the parts of thePolitics is the subject of much debate, and parts of the Nicomachean Ethics are identical to part of the Eudemian Ethics apparently written many years earlier). 

Given the common professorial habit of more or less continuous emendation of often erratic lecture notes, we can easily understand the source of these problems, and we should perhaps be thankful that so much of Aristotle's writings are more or less comprehensible. In addition, of course, the ancient editors have compounded the problem by often arbitrary divisions, by the insertion into particular works of valuable fragments from elsewhere, and by additions of their own. The result, to use the mildest term available, is an severe interpretative challenge.

Apart from the usual stylistic difficulties of the esoteric works, Aristotle's writings on ethics present a particular problem. For two principal esoteric works on ethics survive, the Eudemian Ethics and the Nicomachean Ethics, and the question naturally arises as to which of these two represents Aristotle's more mature conception. On this point there does seem to be a wide agreement that the latter work comes later, during Aristotle's second sojourn in Athens (i.e., between 335 and 323 BC), whereas the former is an earlier product, perhaps the result of a course given in Assos in about 347 BC). The relationship between these two works is often cited as an explanation for, among other things, the two separate discussions of pleasure in the Nicomachean Ethics in VII.9 and X.1­4 (Barnes 250) and the mixture of early and late Aristotelian views (Gauthier and Jolif 46).

One further but minor concern is the origin of the name Nicomachean, which has exercised the imaginations of scholars, particularly in France, where the selection of a suitable preposition to follow the word L'Ethique is a problem. Nicomachus, by common agreement, refers to Aristotle's son, but does the title mean dedicated to Nicomachus or edited by Nicomachus? Inasmuch as the text is an esoteric work, that is, not prepared for publication, it seems unlikely that Aristotle would dedicate it at all, and the name Eudemian Ethics is customarily interpreted as meaning edited by Eudemus. However, it seems unlikely that Nicomachus, who was still very young at the time of his father's death and who died comparatively early, would be assigned by Theophrastus, Aristotle's successor at the Lyceum and the founder of the peripatetic school as a separate institution, to such a daunting task as editing a major work. Perhaps Theophrastus completed the editorial labours with the assistance of Nicomachus and, out of respect for Aristotle, called the title after the name of Artisotle's father and son. Whoever the editor, he is responsible for the sometimes very arbitrary division of the work into the separate books (for example, Book I comes to an logical end with the conclusion of Chapter 12, since the material in Chapter 13 is an obvious introduction to Book II).

The history of the transmission of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics from the edition of Theophrastus and Nicomachus to the Middle Ages is tortuous, involving commentaries, translations (into Latin and Arabic), and borrowings, all from manuscripts which have since disappeared. A major landmark in the transmission of Aristotle was the Latin translation in 1246­7 of theNicomachaen Ethics and some commentaries by Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln. This edition was the basis of Aquinas's study of Aristotle and thus of a major part of the intellectual revolution in Christian theology in the late middle ages, the fertile but sometimes forcible (and in places bitterly opposed) reconciliation of Aristotelian logic and metaphysics with Christian ideology.

Of all Aristotle's surviving works, the Ethics has retained the most vitality, remaining from age to age an important part of contemporary debates about the good life. Aristotle's renown as a metaphysician and scientist declined sharply during the Renaissance. The Ethics, however, in spite of the ebb and flow of philosophical opinion, has always found readers seeking practical and stimulating reflections on questions central to human conduct. In 1536, for example, Diego Mendez de Segura, a practical man of the world who sailed with Columbus, left his sons as a specially valuable heirloom a copy of The Moral Philosophy of Aristotle (Jane 141), and almost four centuries later in the midst of our postmodern arguments about how to organize our moral discourse at a time when we seem to have lost touch with the earlier confidence in Enlightenment rationalism, the Ethics of Aristotle is at the very centre of contemporary discussions, not as a historical curiosity but as a vital guide to moral clarity in a confusing age.


Barnes, Jonathan. Introduction to The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. J. A. K. Thomson. Revised Hugh Tredennick. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

Chroust, Anton Hermann. Aristotle: New Light on His Life and on Some of His Lost Works. 2 volumes. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Fox, Robin Lane. Alexander the Great. London: Allen Lane, 1973.

Gauthier, Rene Antoine and Jean Yves Jolif. L'Ethique a Nicomaque. Tome I. Introduction et Traduction. Louvain: Publications Universitaires de Louvain, 1958.

Irwin, T. H. Review of The Aristotelian Ethics by Anthony Kenny. Journal of Philosophy 77.6 (1980)

Jane, Cecil, ed. The Four Voyages of Columbus. New York: Dover, 1988.

Kelsen, Hans. "The Philosophy of Aristotle and the Hellenic­Macedonian Policy." The International Journal of Ethics. 48.1 (1937): 1­64.

Kenny, Anthony. The Aristotelian Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

McIntyre, Alisdair. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

Nisbet, Robert. The Social Philosophers: Community & Conflict in Western Thought. New York: Washington Square Press, 1983.

Owen, G. E. L. "The Platonism of Aristotle." In Articles on Aristotle, Edited by Jonathan Barnes, Malcolm Schofield, and Richard Sorabji. Volume 1. London: Duckworth, 1975: 14­34.

Ross, W. D. "The Development of Aristotle's Thought." In Articles on Aristotle. Edited by Jonathan Barnes, Malcolm Schofield, and Richard Sorabji. Volume 1. London: Duckworth, 1975: 1­33.


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