Aristotle: Giant of Science, Western Philosophy

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Aristotle was one of the most famous people ever to live. A student of Plato, the founder of Western philosophy, Aristotle is thought by many to have surpassed his tutor in fame and influence. Aristotle's writings cover a wide breadth of subjects and were the guiding light for hundreds of years of philosophers, scientists, and thinkers in other fields.

Born in 384 B.C. in Stagirus, in northern Greece, Aristotle was the son of Nicomachus, the son of the personal physician of Amyntas, then king of Macedon. Nicomachus died when Aristotle was little, and a man named Proxenus became Aristotle's guardian.

When he was 18, Aristotle joined Plato's Academy, where he stayed for another 19 years, learning from his fellow students and from Plato and other tutors. A towering intellect, Aristotle was intensely curious and recorded his thoughts and observations on a very wide variety of subjects, among them aesthetics, biology, government and politics, linguistics, logic, metaphysics, music, poetry, physics, theater, and zoology. His preference for conclusions based on perception, rather the Theory of Forms preferred by Plato, led Aristotle to champion an ancient version of the scientific method. He was a keen observer of the world around him and recorded a great many elements of animal and plant life.

Plato died in 347 B.C. and named as his successor not Aristotle but Speusippus, Plato's nephew. For this and other reasons, Aristotle left the Academy and traveled for a few years. In 343 B.C., Aristotle accepted the invitation of King Philip II of Macedon to become the head of Macedon's royal academy. Aristotle tutored several a large handful of knowledge-hungry youths, including Philip's son Alexander.

Aristotle instilled in Alexander a curiosity that went with the conqueror to the eastern borders of the Persian Empire and beyond. Alexander took on campaign with him dozens of biologists, zoologists, and other scientists and researchers; their findings were duly reported back to the Greek civilizations. While Alexander was away fighting, Aristotle stayed behind, tutoring others, including two other future kings, Cassander and Ptolemy I.

In 335 B.C., Aristotle returned to Athens and established his own school, called the Lyceum. He taught there for the next 12 years. During this time, Aristotle wrote many of his most famous works. 

Of the dozens of writings that Aristotle is thought to have crafted, only about a third have survived and some of those exist only as fragments.

Among Aristotle's works to have survived are more than two dozen of the most widely studied writings in the history of Western science and philosophy. He wrote on:

  • natural history (among them History of Animals, On the Parts of Animals, On the Movement of Animals)
  • physical science (among them Meteorologics, On the Heavens, Physics)
  • psychology (among them On Memory, On the Soul), logic (among them Categories, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics)
  • philosophy (among them Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric). 

Aristotle in 322 B.C., in Euboea, of natural causes. He was immensely popular with future generations, including the Catholic Church, which endorsed his teachings as writ, and medieval Muslim scientists, who referred to him as "the First Teacher." Aristotle is today revered as the father of modern logic and empiricism.

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