We possess only vague impressions and limited biographical reports of Aristotle, called in the Middle Ages “the master of those who know.” Our scarce testimony comes from letters, poems, and other material from Stagira, Delphi and Athens. Moreover, ancient biography is not beyond suspicion, having been compiled long after Aristotle’s lifetime. For example, the best known text, Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers (220 CE), is a mélange of fact and fiction. Diogenes has this to report about Aristotle: “He spoke with a lisp, and he also had weak legs and small eyes, but he dressed elegantly and was conspicuous by his use of rings and his hair-style.”
Whether or not Aristotle was such a dandy we may never know, but it is certain that his life and work coincided with the demise of the Greek polis. Aristotle witnessed the defeat of Athens and Thebes against Philip II at Chaeronea (338 BCE), and, it seems, was a tutor of Philip’s son, Alexander the Great.
Born in 384 BCE in Stagira, in the northwest of Greece, Aristotle, unlike Plato, was not a scion of high-born Athenian aristocracy, nor even a citizen of Athens. He was a resident alien (a “metic”), a foreigner who was deprived of political rights. Nevertheless, he was from a renowned family. His father Nicomachus was a royal physician at the Macedonian court. Aristotle received a first-rate education, which was supervised by his guardian after the death of his father. In 367 at the age of seventeen, Aristotle, due to tensions at the court, went to Athens in order to study with Plato. Plato’s Academy was then the most renowned intellectual center in the Greek world, and people came from all over to study, learn and teach.
For the next twenty years (367–347), Aristotle studied with Plato and other members of the Academy—Speusippus, Xenocrates, and Eudoxus of Cnidus. During this first stay in Athens, Aristotle began to lecture with a blackboard and used various scientific instruments and astronomical charts, and apparently produced first drafts of his works on physics, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and rhetoric. Plato, the founder and head of the Academy, was forty-five years Aristotle’s senior, and while we have no reliable information about their relationship, we have Aristotle’s own words about his teacher: “Of course such an examination is contrary to us, given that those who introduced those ideas were our friends. However, … for the preservation of the truth, we would seem to be obliged not to spare our own sentiments, since we are philosophers….” Hence the famous Latin dictum attributed to Aristotle (freely paraphrased from the Greek of the Nicomachean Ethics): amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas, “Plato is a friend, but truth is a better friend.”
Aristotle does not seem to have involved himself much with political matters in the polis, although he did found politics as an autonomous science. That said, he acted as mediator between Macedon and various Greek cities, for which the citizens of Athens were grateful. Most of his time was consumed with his studies, research and teaching. If the ancient reports are to be believed, Aristotle spoke with incisive wit and could deliver clear and captivating lectures. A diligent reader, collector and thinker, he was ever open to the world and learned in its ways, well beyond simply the teachings of the Academy. He was masterfully versed in the works of the sophists, the pre-Socratics, the medical writers, as well as Greek lyric, epic, and drama, and the various constitutions of his world.
After Plato’s death, Aristotle, at the age of thirty-eight, left Athens due to political danger. Considered too friendly to the Macedonians, who were threatening the freedom of Greece, he embarked, with his friend Hermias of Atarneus, on his years of travel (347–335/4). In Assus in Asia Minor, Aristotle was well provided for by the ruler and free to pursue philosophy and the sciences. There he met his collaborator and friend, Theophrastus of Eresus. He eventually married Pythias, Hermias’ sister (or niece), with whom he had a daughter of the same name and a son, Nicomachus.
After Hermias’ death in 345, Aristotle moved to Mytilene on Lesbos. Two years later, at the request of King Philip, he took up the education of the thirteen-year-old Alexander. It stirs the imagination: was one of the greatest philosophers the teacher of one of the most powerful rulers? Yet Aristotle never mentions Alexander in any of his extent works. Aristotle is rumored, however, to have authored a text, Alexander, or On the Colonies, and to have introduced Greek wisdom to his young pupil. It is said that Aristotle had a copy of Homer’s Iliad made for Alexander, and that in his admiration for Achilles, Alexander took it with him on his campaigns. In addition, Alexander also took scientists with him on his campaigns Following the destruction of Thebes in 335, and with it the end of Greek resistance to Macedonian rule, Aristotle, almost fifty, returned for his second sojourn in Athens (335/4–322). During these twelve years, Aristotle worked at the Lyceum near Mount Lycabettus, a gymnasium open to everyone. Due to its peculiar architecture it was known also as Peripatos, meaning “walk,” or “hall for strolls and discussions.” Here Aristotle set his extraordinary library as well as scientific instruments, and lectured publicly, in the style of the teaching and research of the Academy, revised earlier works and elaborated new ones, and organized research teams.
Following Alexander’s death in June 323, Aristotle left Athens once again. He was fearful of falling victim to anti-Macedonian intrigue and under suspicion of impiety, the charge that led to the death of Socrates (and before him Anaxagoras). He retreated to the house of his mother in Chalcis on Euboea. He died from illness soon after, in October 322, at the age of sixty-two. According to his wishes he was buried next to his wife Pythia.
For further reading, see:
Robert Bartlett and Susan Collins eds., Action and Contemplation: Studies in the Moral and Political Thought of Aristotle, Albany: 1999.