Aristotle: His Life, Works, and Place in History

By Sunil Tanwar / 05.09.2015

Life and Works:

After Plato, Aristotle was the doyen of Greek philosophy and perhaps the greatest philosopher of the ancient world. He was the most renowned disciple of Plato but not the copy-cat of the master.

It is generally said that Plato found the corrective to his thinking in his own student. He was born in 384 B. C. at Stagira which was a colony of Macedon. In early life he was well acquainted with the problems of colony and colonial life.

All these created a lasting imprint on his mind and character. He earned the experience of practical life. Aristotle belonged to an upper middle class family. His father was a physician and attended the family of King Amyntas. Philip the king of Macedon occupied the throne.

In 367 B. C., at the age of seventeen, he left Stagira and migrated to Athens to study philosophy at the Academy of Plato. There he studied for twenty years under the guidance of Plato.

After the death of Plato (347 B. C.) he left Plato’s Academy. At the time of death Plato nominated his nephew Speusippus to take the charge of the Academy. Most probably this displeased Aristotle because of which he left Academy. Some scholars are of opinion that Plato’s Academy could not satisfy his ever-growing zeal for knowledge.

With a few companions he went out for a tour and extensively travelled different countries and returned to his native land. Then he was invited by the Macedonian King Philip to teach his son Alexander and the duration was just two years. During his travel of foreign countries he vigorously studied different science subjects and particularly marine biology. From his father he inherited the practical training of medical science. He also studied physics and natural sciences. Aristotle acquired a good command over both theoretical and practical sides of different science subjects.

In 335 B. C. Aristotle informed Alexander that he wanted to establish a study centre at Athens. Since he was not a citizen of Athens it was difficult for him to acquire land. Alexander favoured him. Moreover he had many friends in Athenian and Macedonian highups. All these helped him to set up a school.

In 335 B. C. his school, Lyceum, was established. But the death of Alexander in 323 B. C. revived the anti-Macedonian feeling in Athens and his Lyceum incurred the wrath of Athenians. He left Athens and went to Euboea where he died in 322 B. C.

Aristotle appointed several lecturers to teach various subjects—theology, math­ematics, metaphysics, astronomy, biology, botany and meteorology. Aristotle him­self lectured on all these subjects and also on Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric and Poetics. To teach different subjects Aristotle generally collected data and materials. He also wrote extensively on Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric and Poetics.

He was a prolific writer. But most of his writings have been lost. His politico-legal doctrine as a whole is expounded in Politics. It is a classic work. The book contains not only his own views but also a criticism of Plato’s views. His other famous books are Ethics, The Athenian Constitution and Rhetoric.

His Politics is not only a book of Political Science, but also a book on Ethics. It is a scientific book on the combination of politics and ethics as well as human good and morals.

Human Good and Politics:

Aristotle has said that Political Science is the architectonic or master discipline and naturally it controls all other disciplines. Under its authority all the subjects including sciences are taught. It also directs the citizens what they will learn and also how much. Since political science is the supreme authority.

Aristotle has said, its purpose with also be supreme that is all-embracing. In his own words—”Now since political science uses the rest of the sciences and since again it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from the end of the science must include those of other sciences, so that its end must be the good of man.” Political science thus aims at the whole of human good, and not at the good of isolated individuals.

What is human good? In defining it he has followed the standard Greek usage. It means “happiness” or “the good life”. Again good life includes the exercise of ethical virtues and intellectual virtues.

He thought that the possession of wealth, health and friend would enable a man to be happy and at the same time exercise the ethical virtues. Aristotle called health, wealth etc. as external goods. But he has warned us by saying that their excessive amount is not necessary for the attainment of happiness and exercise of ethical virtues.

Good life also includes the exercise of intellectual virtues. It means wisdom and philosophical contemplation. On this subject we find a great influence of Plato upon Aristotle. “As a young man he had been influenced by Plato’s arguments in favour of the philosophical life and in all his ethical writings we find him arguing that philosophical contemplation is the highest and best human activity.” But philo­sophical contemplation is a rare ability.

It is not to be found in all the citizens of the Polis. However, for good life, it has necessity. Moreover, he thought that for the exercise of intellectual and ethical virtues a certain amount of leisure and material prosperity was necessary. He did not exclude the material possession from the domain of good life. That is why we find him advocating slavery.

Nature of Political Science:

Following Aristotle we can devote a few words to the analysis of the nature of political science. He has said that every reader of science expects certain amount of certainty or accuracy. This he can get from mathematics and astronomy. But hundred percent accuracy cannot be obtained from any science.

So far as political science is concerned there is no guarantee of perfect accuracy. It is due to the nature of political science. Human behaviour is the subject-matter of political science and it is impossible to make correct predictions. But degree of accuracy is greater in physical and biological sciences. However, this does not lower the value of political science.

Aristotle has called mathematics, physics etc. “theoretical” subjects because they are engaged in disinterested scientific enquiry. These sciences do not make any analysis of “ought to be”. They are rather interested in “what is”. On the contrary, political science is a practical science whose aim is to determine how one ought to act.

The end of political science is not knowledge but action. The subject deals with human behaviour as well as that of the group. It analyses human behaviour and on the basis of it draws conclusions.

These conclusions guide the future course of action relating to political affairs. The aim is to establish the standard of social behaviour. Aristotle’s Politics is a handbook or guide for the intending statesman. It is not an academically dispassionate account of political phenomena.

Place of Aristotle:

The political ideas and philosophy of Aristotle have tremendously influenced the thinkers and philosophers of subsequent periods. Polybius and Cicero may be mentioned in this connection.

Polybius’s teaching of the forms of government and their successive change originated from the theory of Plato and Aristotle and was instrumental in their popularization of their views. Cicero held high regards for Aristotle and he shared most of his views on the advantages of mixed form of government.

Cicero subscribed to Aristotle’s teaching of the correspondence be­tween the laws on the one hand and natural rights and rational principles on the other. Influence of Aristotle is also to be found on Christian political thought.

Church Fathers modified some of the doctrines of Aristotle. St. Augustine placed himself upon the footstep of Aristotle and made a difference between monarch and tyrant and insisted that the government would be limited by law.

In the 13th century, Politics was translated into Latin and exercised the minds of many persons and Thomas Aquinas was one of them. Aristotle’s conception of law, justice and form of government found place in the political ideas of Thomas Aquinas. He reproduces much of the six-fold classification of constitutions. Aristotle was highly respected by Aquinas.

Dante has very little respect for Aristotle. In spite of this, in his De Monarchia he used a number of Aristotelian arguments in support of his ideal of world monarchy. According to Dante, all the elements of state (family association) as well as statehood in general come about in a natural way. On the whole, De Monarchia is greatly influenced by Politics. Marsiglio of Padua borrowed a number of Aristotle’s political ideas for writing his Defensor Pacis (1324). Here the influence of Politics is unmistakable.

The conception developed by Aristotle in Politics were thus used by Marsiglio under very different historical conditions as means for substantiating the doctrine of people’s sovereignty anticipating in fact the social contract theory of Rousseau.

Politics continued to be the essential background of political philosophers such as Machiavelli, Jean Bodin and Richard Hooker. Influence of Politics upon Hobbes’s Leviathan cannot be denied.

In the thirties of the 19th century Politics was published by the Prussian Academy of Berlin and a serious study commenced. A great many thinkers of this century were considerably influenced by the ideas of Aristotle. Politics was translated in different European languages.

Machiavelli rejected Aristotle’s conception of combination between ethics and politics, but accepted his secular idea of politics. Like Aristotle, he has laboriously investigated the causes of social unrest and revolution, changes of constitutions, sources and causes of strife and impact of all these upon the dynamic political life.

The practical aspect of politics was not unknown to Aristotle. Needless to say, Machiavelli has followed the footsteps of the Greek philosopher. The difference is Machiavelli confined himself within Italy, whereas Aristotle’s interest crossed the boundary of his own city-state.

The influence of Aristotle upon Jean Bodin is prominent. Bodin largely follows Aristotle in his analysis of natural and geographic factors, the specificity of state power as compared with other kinds of authority and the difference between monarchy and tyranny.

Montesquieu also in this respect does not lag behind Bodin. He is indebted to Aristotle in respect of his analysis of the role of geographic and climatic factors, the forms of government and their principles. Following Aristotle, Montesquieu has also developed the concept of law.

So far as the origin of state is concerned, Aristotle and Rousseau are not similar. But the state on both occasions has become the manifestation of idealism and morality. Despotism has been severely castigated by both philosophers.

The prob­lem of relationship between the state as a whole (political organism) and its parts (individuals) has been treated by both almost in the same manner.

The argument of Rousseau is not very much different from that of Aristotle so far as the relationship between the state and the individual is concerned. Like the Greek philosopher, Rousseau has not assigned any special status to the individual.

Rousseau’s general will is an indicator of the fact that the individual must surrender to the collective decision. There is a surprising similarity between the common good of Aristotle and that of Rousseau.

To Plato and Aristotle the state was an absolute end, ethically a complete whole. This concept has been borrowed by the German philosopher Hegel. The state, according to Hegel, is the highest embodiment of ethics and morality and these two of the individual cannot be separated.

Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau and Hegel all have thought that for the attainment and enrichment of morality the individual must surrender to the state. None of them has recognized the separate existence of association within the ambit of state. Thus Rousseau and Hegel, following different paths and pursuing different aims, have revived and re-emphasized the ethical aspect of the political teachings of Plato and Aristotle which has been rejected by Machiavelli.

Even in the 20th century the interest in Aristotle has not declined at all. His Politics is still read by the serious students of all disciplines. The reason is the problems raised by Aristotle are of ethical and political and these problems still haunt us.

In order to solve the problems he made certain recommendations. We are studying the problems because these are also our problems and also his recommen­dations.

The world has progressed during the last twenty three centuries. But we have not yet been able to discover what the best form of government is. How can the stability of a constitution be achieved? We are not definitely thinking in setting up an ideal state, but we are aspiring for a well-administered state.

We are on the threshold of the twenty first century. Science and technology have placed enor­mous power at the disposal of man. But still there are different classes, class- antagonisms, and bitter rivalry among the elites and competition among the political brokers.

By criticizing Plato’s theory of communism in family and property Aristotle has displayed a good deal of pragmatism. It is practically impossible to deny man’s attachment to property and family.

He is also perfectly correct when he says that by destroying private property and family life the unity of the state cannot be achieved. Today we fully understand the worth of his argument.

The causes of revolution and particularly its remedies are really unique in many respects. Maxey asks—can modern political science prescribe any surer remedies than these to counteract the virus of revolution.