|Date of birth, Place:||384 BCE, Stagirus, Greece|
|Date of death, Place:||322 BCE, Chalcis, Greece|
Aristotle is a towering figure in ancient Greek philosophy, making contributions to logic, metaphysics, mathematics, physics, biology, botany, ethics, politics, agriculture, medicine, dance and theatre. He was a student of Plato who in turn studied under Socrates. He was more empirically-minded than Plato or Socrates and is famous for rejecting Plato’s theory of forms.
As a prolific writer and polymath, Aristotle radically transformed most, if not all, areas of knowledge he touched. Aristotle wrote as many as 200 treatises, of which only 31 survive. Aristotle was the first to classify areas of human knowledge into distinct disciplines such as mathematics, biology, and ethics. Some of these classifications are still used today.
Aristotle was born in the town of Stagira (the modern town Stavros), a coastal Macedonian town to the north of Greece. His father was court physician to King Amyntas of Macedonia, and from this began Aristotle’s long association with the Macedonian Court, which considerably influenced his life. There he probably met and was friends with Philip (later to become king and father to Alexander, the Great).
When Aristotle was around 17, he was sent to Athens by his uncle, Proxenus, to complete his education in Plato’s Academy. After Plato died Aristotle accepted an invitation to join a former student, Hermeias, who was gathering a Platonic circle about him in Assos in Mysia (near Troy). Aristotle spent three years in this environment. During this time, he may have done some of the natural investigations that later became The History of Animals, the earliest known zoological encyclopedia (350 BCE). At the end of Aristotle’s stay in Mysia, he moved to Lesbos (an adjacent island). This move may have been prompted by Theophrastus, a fellow of the Academy who was much influenced by Aristotle. It is probable (according to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson) that Aristotle performed some important biological investigations during this period.
At the invitation of Philip of Macedonia he became the tutor of his 13 year old son Alexander (later world conqueror); he did this for the next five years.Upon the death of Philip, Alexander succeeded to the kingship and prepared for his subsequent conquests. Aristotle’s work being finished, he returned to Athens (circa 334 – 5), which he had not visited since the death of Plato. He found the Platonic school flourishing under Xenocrates, and Platonism the dominant philosophy of Athens. He thus set up his own school at a place called the Lyceum.
At his school Aristotle also accumulated a large number of manuscripts and created a library that was a model for later libraries in Alexandria and Pergamon. At the sudden death of Alexander in 323, Athens once again was full of anti-Macedonian sentiment. A charge of impiety was brought against Aristotle due to a poem he had written for Hermeias. One martyr for philosophy (Socrates) was enough for Aristotle and so he left his school to his colleague, Theophrastus, and fled to the Chalcis in Euboea. Here in 322 he died of a disease that is still the subject of speculation.
Since almost a third of Aristotle’s writings addresses biological themes, and since these writings may have occurred early in his career, it is very possible that the influence of the biological works upon Aristotle’s other writings is considerable. Aristotle’s biological works (so often neglected) should be given more attention, not only in the history of biology, but also as a way of understanding some of Aristotle’s non-biological writings.
Both Philip of Macedonia and his son Alexander the Great appear to have paid Aristotle high honor, and there were stories that Aristotle was supplied by the Macedonian court as a form of gratitude, not only with funds for teaching, but also with thousands of slaves to collect specimens for his studies in natural science (as well as a menagerie of exotic animals for Aristotle to study that Alexander encountered in his conquests). Whether these stories are true or false they certainly are exaggerated. It is unknown for how long the exotic animals were sustained in Aristotle’s menagerie or if they just served as a supply for his pathology studies. But as he made remarkable observations of animal behaviour it is expected that not all animal lives came to an end for dissection purpose.
He studied structural and functional adaptations to habitats, like bird territories, hibernation, behaviour of social animals (bees), and he described cycles of population explosions (vole outbreaks) and consecutive crashes.
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; http://www.iep.utm.edu/aristotl/
- Website HyperHistory.net; http://www.hyperhistory.net/apwh/bios/b2aristotle.htm
- Website Hellenica; http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/AristotleBiol.htm