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ARISTOTLE

Will Durant, in The Life of Greece began his discussion of Aristotle with these words;

When Plato died Aristotle built an alter to him, and gave him almost divine honors; for he had loved Plato even if he could not like him.

Most members of Plato's Academy were the sons and daughters of rich Athenians, there to learn the secrets of mathematics and philosophy. Above the portico at the entrance to the Academy was an inscription that said, "Let no one without Geometry enter here." Those who came to Aristotle came to study the world around them. Aristotle is without question the greatest biologist who ever lived. He was more interested in the world as he found it than in absolute truth. When he finally turned to examine the abstract it was only after having substantially completed a description of all the world as he found it. It might seem absurd to call him a Platonist. In fact it has been said that there are only two ways to look at the world, the Platonist, and the Aristotelian, as though the two were mutually exclusive. However, this is a mistake because Aristotle's reverence for his teacher was not merely as an idol but as the fundamental source of his thought. Diogenes reported that when Plato would go into one of his long detailed discussion of the soul, the students would quietly walk out until only Aristotle remained. We may not quite understand why when Plato gave up teaching he turned the Academy over to his nephew Speussipus instead of his brightest pupil. But perhaps we should be thankful.

But we must not forget also that Aristotle lived in a different generation from Plato. Plato's generation lived through the glory of the Periclean Democracy and lived to see it lead them into the Pelopenesian war. In fact, for the most part Plato's generation was already withdrawing into the skepticism that would lead them to the Alexandrian era. Aristotle was not an Athenian and he was a-political. In his politics he observed all of the Greek city-states with an equal, observant, and unprejudiced eye. So he drew from his relationship with the Academy a healthy respect for the ideal, but added his own frank and honest view of the world around him.

In some ways the confusion in later centuries concerning his ideas grew out of his Platonist background. On the other hand, perhaps, it is because he covered so many subjects in such highly complex ways. More than likely many of the reasons had more to do with the changes that took place in western civilization after his death. After the death of his famed pupil Alexander the Great, and his own death a year later, Greek philosophy turned to skepticism and his work became less influential in spite of the fact that his school, the Lyceum, remained in business for some years.

Perhaps we can understand this better with a few pertinent facts about his life. In the first place, because he was not an Athenian, he was always treated as an outsider, often suspected as a Macedonian sympathizer. His father, Nichomachus, had been court physician to the Macedonian king Amyntas. Through his fathers work as a physician, Aristotle was exposed to the practical art and science of medicine. This was an important influence in his life. Plato taught that a physician healed the individual man and not Man. Aristotle, therefore, never lost the desire to study specific things. For example, he studied the constitutions of 158 different cities in order to develop his ideas on politics. It was his time spent studying plants, flowers, and animals that made him the worlds first and perhaps greatest biologist.

Philip, King of Macedonia, hired Aristotle to tutor his son Alexander. The period only lasted three years and no one has been able to find any direct correlation between Aristotle's teaching and Alexander. However, without doubt Alexander was one of the greatest if not the greatest politician who ever lived, and to Aristotle Politics was the queen of the sciences. Part of the success of Alexander's politics was due to his practice of maintaining the culture of the countries he conquered relatively intact while introducing Greek ideas to the rest of the world. His infusion of the vast treasuries of the Persians into the empire made the period while he remained emperor of the known world the longest period of prosperity that part of the world had ever known. Not only that, but it was more than simply Greek ideas that were spread throughout the known world by Alexander's conquest. Spread with it was the Greek love of learning. In a real sense the young Macedonian king was responsible for the Hellenization of the world. This was true in spite of the fact that many of his ideas were taken from the Persians. The great network of roads built by the Persian conquerors became the avenues down which Greek thought traveled. The material prosperity of the period undoubtedly contributed to the popularity of the ideas he spread. However, Alexander was convinced he was a god and would live forever. Thus, when he died he left no heir and his empire was split up among his generals. Following the death of Alexander, Aristotle, fearing the Athenians would kill him as they did Socrates moved the Lyceum back to his native province. However, he lived only a year after the death of his famed pupil. The retreat of Greek philosophy into speculative skepticism following the death of Alexander meant a loss of relevance to Aristotle's teaching. At the same time his approach toward the reality of the sensual world lay behind the scientific achievements of the next millennia. Later the Neo-Platonist incorporated some of Aristotle's ideas into their mystical Platonism and this began the worlds misinterpretation of Aristotle. But more of that later.

The secret to understanding any philosopher lies in locating the connections between his original ideas and those of his contemporaries and predecessors. In the case of Aristotle this could turn out to be a particularly thorny problem. His ideas seem to be divorced from traditional Greek philosophy. He seems to represent a severe break with the past. The Greek philosophical historian W. K. C. Guthrie said he seems more like us than like them. However, one point that Guthrie repeated over and over, as though he was trying to pound it into our heads. Aristotle was a Platonist. The enormous respect he had for his master is well known. Nevertheless, Aristotle and Plato are considered to have developed very different philosophies. First and foremost, according to Cornford, one basic assumption Aristotle inherited from Plato was the idea that the true cause or explanation of things is to be sought not in the beginning of things, for example as the Milesians did, but in the end, in the final results of things. Guthrie suggested that the best approach to understanding Aristotle is to begin with the basic difference between the himself and Plato. Aristotle said that knowledge for Plato was a means toward understanding the good. Aristotle, on the other hand, began with the notion that the desire to know is innate in man. It is seen at the lowest level, in the delight we take in the use of our senses. He said that it was enough that all men by nature seek knowledge. In fact it was the seeking that was the end toward which men strived. Between this point of view, and that of his master lies a true understanding of Aristotle's thought.