The influence of Aristotle (384–322 BC) on philosophy and Western culture generally would be hard to exaggerate. Born in Macedonia, north of Greece, Aristotle traveled to Athens, where he studied at Plato’s school, the Academy. After Plato’s death, Aristotle founded his own school, the Lyceum.
In fifth-century Athens, the study of philosophy included rhetoric, natural science, biology, and other fields of inquiry. Consequently, Aristotle made major contributions to almost every branch of human learning. Aristotle believed philosophy should be studied in a precise order. First, one should learn logic, because logic explains how facts about the world relate to one another. Aristotle developed the theory of syllogisms—arguments that are logically valid. He devised a list of basic syllogisms and rules for reducing more complicated arguments to one of those forms. The most famous Aristotelian syllogism is:
- All men are mortal.
- Socrates is a man.
- Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
After logic, Aristotle believed students should investigate concrete natural phenomena. He wrote many works on the subject—Physics, Parts of Animals, Generation of Animals, Motions of Animals, Meterology, On Generation and Corruption—and deduced several general principles to explain the physical world.
The final subject for study, according to Aristotle, is practical philosophy, which includes ethics and politics. He treated these topics, respectively, in Nichomachean Ethics and Politics. In Aristotle’s conception, ethics is mostly a matter of good training. He believes that people usually know the proper way to behave, and they must simply be morally strong enough to behave in accordance with this knowledge. Being a good person amounts to having the inclination to do the right thing, and this inclination can be bred into us. Politically, Aristotle believed that the goal of the state is to provide the context for the happy and self-sufficient lives of its citizens. He was partial to democratic government, but he acknowledged that occasionally a monarchy is more appropriate.
- Aristotle is sometimes referred to as “the Stagirite,” because he was born in the Macedonian city Stagira.
- Between his time at Plato’s Academy and the founding of his own school, Aristotle was tutor to Alexander the Great, also a Macedonian, who ruled much of the Mediterranean world.