"The Master of
Those Who Know"
By Matt McKeown
Aristotle may be the single most influential mind in human history.
To write a brief introduction to Aristotle is, by any reasonable metric, impossible. He contributed to every branch of knowledge then in existence and pioneered new ones; perhaps a third of his work survives, and yet there are scholars who spend entire decades-long careers studying only a fraction of that fraction. It is not for nothing that Dante, in the fourth canto of the Inferno, alluded to him only with the reverent circumlocution “the master of those who know.”
Considering this, we know surprisingly little about his biography. He was born in 384 BC in the city of Stagira (and is therefore sometimes called “the Stagirite”); he traveled to Athens to study under Plato at the original Academy, later founding a school of his own called the Lyceum; and he was the tutor of Alexander the Great, finally dying just one year after his famous pupil in 322 BC. Apart from this outline and a few more facts and debated reports, not much has been preserved of his life. Even his surviving works are in some respects misleading: the volumes he actually published for popular consumption, including dialogues, have been almost completely lost, and what we do have are generally thought to be something along the lines of lecture notes (hence their terse, difficult style), never meant for publication.
Beginning with his relationship to Plato, Aristotle proposed major revisions to his master’s ideas about metaphysics. Plato, of course, is known for the theory of the Forms—transcendent ideas that existed in a sort of celestial realm, of which the material world as we know it is nothing more than a series of ephemeral shadows. Aristotle modified this theory, arguing that the Forms were actually present in particular objects, which were instantiations of them rather than mere reflections. (His greater emphasis on the importance of the physical world is famously allegorized in The School of Athens, a famous work of Raphael that is a recurring motif here at the Journal, which at its center shows the elderly Plato pointing up toward the heavens and the young Aristotle gesturing down at the earth.)
This alteration in his ideas about reality also led to a different epistemology from Plato’s. Where the older philosopher attributed knowledge to a process of recollection leading back to the Forms, Aristotle posited a learning process that began with the senses, slowly abstracting knowledge through the mediation of the world around us. This made him a major figure in early science on the one hand—indeed, there were few advances in most of the sciences for the next few centuries after his death, so successful were his theories—and also an important early logician. His six-volume treatise on logic, the Organon or “Toolbox,” was almost the only one of his works to remain widely known and available in western Europe between the seventh and twelfth centuries, thanks to a Latin translation completed by Boethius.
Aristotle also took a keen interest in human nature and behavior. Three of his best-known works, On the Soul, Nicomachean Ethics, and Politics, all deal with these subjects—what we might call philosophical anthropology. The Ethics is probably the most famous, especially for its doctrine of “the golden mean”: the idea that every virtue properly has not one but two opposites, one being a defect in the desirable quality of a given virtue, and the other an excess; thus, for instance, cowardice is the defective opposite of courage, but rashness is its excessive opposite. Besides his theory of the virtues, however, one of Aristotle’s principal claims was that “man is a political animal”—or as we might put it today, a social animal. Analyzing humanity in individual terms, while not valueless, was in his view always and necessarily incomplete, because human beings can only fully realize their potential in a community. (Enlightenment and modern ideas of individualism, social contract theory, and the like would probably have struck him as extraordinarily silly.)
Aristotle wrote on artistic subjects as well; the Poetics deals primarily with the underlying rules of drama, while the Rhetoric covers public speaking in its political and judicial aspects. Both works remain influential among artists, critics, lawyers, and statesmen to this day.
As alluded to above, most of Aristotle’s work was lost—either permanently, as in the ironic fate of most of his published works, or to western Europe during the “dark ages,” when the knowledge of Greek waned to almost nothing. From the late eighth century into the fourteenth, the center of Aristotelian scholarship was the Arabic world, from Spain to the borders of India. Major advances in mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, alchemy, and optics were made, and this period is often referred to as the Islamic Golden Age, exemplified by figures like Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides (who though Jewish was part of the Muslim culture of Medieval Spain). One of the major results of the Crusades and the Reconquista was the appropriation not only of Aristotle but of Arabic commentaries upon him, and it was by interacting with both of these sources that western Scholasticism reached its zenith, exhibited particularly in the person of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Notwithstanding certain reactions against Aristotle and his thought in later centuries (the scholars of the Renaissance showed a definite preference for Plato over Aristotle, and there were a number of attacks on him in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, notably from Bertrand Russell), he remains perhaps the single most significant figure in western intellectual history. An ongoing revival of interest in his ethical theories has taken place over the last century; Martin Heidegger drew strongly from the Nicomachean Ethics, and Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous After Virtue endorsed a deliberate return in the same direction. There is a sense in which most if not all our ideas to this day must acknowledge Aristotle as their father.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
Matt McKeown is a writer and editor for CLT, and a proud uncle of seven nephews. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at some of our other material here at the Journal, like these profiles of St. Athanasius and Hannah Arendt, these “Great Conversation” posts on the four loves and the universal-particular problem, or these student contributions on Christian versus Virgilian piety and the checks and balances of the Constitution.
Published on 25th April, 2022. Page image of a Roman copy of a bust of Aristotle by the Sicyonese sculptor Lysippus, made ca. 330 BC.