Dawn, The Review, August 10-16, 2000
This great old man of Greece lived more than 23 centuries ago, but his stamp can still be seen on every domain of our lives. He influenced the Christian civilization more than anyone else, save Jesus Christ himself, and his influence on Muslim philosophy was greater than any other single thinker. This goes a long way to prove Aristotle’s basic principle: humans are rational creatures and whatever is supported by logic will always win in the end.
Little is known of the life of the man who wrote over 170 books, out of which at least 47 are preserved for all times to come. It is ironic that most Aristotle scholars mention his biography only in the passing, all too much in a hurry to move on to his works. Surely we deserve to know a little more about the man who contributed something to almost every known culture of the world as it exists today.
Aristotle was the man who gave us such famous postulates as “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” His life may or may not help us understand his works better, but the life of such a man must be studied for its own beauty. Aristotle’s childhood was spent in Stagira, a small town on the outskirts of Greece, where he was born in 384 BC. His father was Nichomacus, a physician of high repute. It is almost certain that he would have initiated Aristotle into the knowledge of plants and herbs at a very young age.
In the absence of sound information, our picture of Aristotle’s childhood is entirely speculative: a young boy getting down on all fours to take a closer look at insects and plants in the hilly tracts of Macedonia. If he actually did that, he must have been very young at that time, and his father would have chided him accordingly. Aristotle was supposed to take interest in biology but it was a slave’s work to collect specimen for his master, or to conduct experiments. Aristotle belonged to the nobility and he was supposed to behave accordingly. He picked up the lesson early, and developed the habits befitting his social status.
However, there was an even stronger lesson Aristotle must have learnt from his natural surroundings: “Things grow!” The principle of growth he observed in plants and birds remained at the heart of his philosophy. A seed carries all the ingredients that determine its potential as well as its limits. The seed of a pine tree will become a pine tree, that’s its potential. But it won’t become an oak tree, that’s its limitation. And as Aristotle grew up, he started expanding the radius of this principle. What are human beings supposed to become? What are their potentials and limitations? What are the potentials and limitations of nations? Of art? Of universe?
Sometime in Aristotle’s early childhood, his father became the royal physician of Amyntas, the King of Macedonia. It isn’t certain whether Aristotle accompanied his father to Pella, the capital, and in any case, when Aristotle was ten, his father suddenly died. The family secrets of medicine went to the grave with him. Aristotle’s mother, Phaestis, who came from an affluent background, was already dead, and the young boy was entrusted to a guardian who was either his uncle or a family friend. Proxenus by name, he taught Aristotle rhetoric and poetry. Hence, it was as a student of these subjects that Aristotle moved to Athens at the age of 17 and joined Plato’s Academy. He remained there for the next 20 years.
It is said that Aristotle at first accepted the master’s answers to his basic question: things do not grow. They seem to grow in this world, but then this world is an illusion. Everything that we see here is a reflection of an original form in the world of ideals. In the world of ideals, everything is present in its accomplished shape. The duty of the philosopher is to get out of the cave, which is this world, and look at the horizon of reality, which is the world of ideals.
But Aristotle couldn’t stay with this belief for long. As he matured he became a staunch opponent of his teacher Plato. There is no such thing as the world of ideals. The reality is what you see and the world of ideals is the illusion. Logic must be bound to what can be seen or proven otherwise with the experience of this world. With this started the second phase in Aristotle’s career, and it was a period when most of his energies were focused on disproving Plato!
Plato died in 347 BC. Aristotle, 37 years old by that time, had long been accepted as the most clever philosopher at the Academy, but due to his views he was superceded by Plato’s nephew who became the new head of that most prestigious institution of learning in the ancient world. Aristotle left Athens. The next few years were a period of wandering. And it was during this time that Aristotle grew out of his antagonism towards Plato’s philosophy and channelled his attention towards developing his own philosophical system. The basis of this system was quite simple. Things come into existence, not as reflections of something in an unknown world, but through four principle causes: there is someone who makes them, there is a substance to make them, there is a form that they adapt, and lastly… they have a purpose. This last cause is the most important one. A chair is a chair as long as it can serve its purpose: you can sit on it. A chair would cease to be a chair if you can’t sit on it even if its made by a carpenter, is made of wood and looks like something of a chair.
This last principle has received much criticism by the thinkers of our age, who prefer to see the world as a series of random and chaotic incidents. “Rain doesn’t fall because plants need it, rather the plants grow because rain falls.” But maybe the modern thinkers are misunderstanding Aristotle. He didn’t mean that rain wouldn’t have fallen if the plants didn’t need it. Perhaps he meant that if rain stops doing its purpose, you would have to give it some other name. And we have more reason to believe him in our own age than his contemporaries had in those days. Today we know that when rain turns into acid we call it acid rain!
The fact that everything has a purpose in life, and it is moved primarily by that purpose, was the central notion in Aristotle’s philosophy. It was finally an answer to the question the little boy had been asking himself all these years. The rest was clear and easy. The difference between a horse and a man was that man could think, while the horse couldn’t! Therefore, man was a rational creature, and its purpose was to lead a life based on sound judgement, and conscious decisions. The best tool a man could have was logic, or his ability to make the correct decisions. The purpose of all human institutions was to aid the development of this decision-making ability in the human being. This is the central argument behind his numerous books on politics, poetics, ethics, rhetoric, current affairs, biology, physics and metaphysics. The purpose of an ideal state is to enable its citizens develop their decision-making ability.
Democracy is not an ideal form of government because it uses numbers instead of arguments to decide what must be done. The ideal form of government according to Aristotle was the democracy of the few able people, or Aristocracy. In terms of poetics, the best drama was that which had a logical plot rather than a story based on coincidences. So on, and so forth.
Aristotle took up virtually every branch of human knowledge existing in his days and redefined it. This alone is something no one else has done in the entire history of the human race. But Aristotle didn’t stop at redefining each branch, he drew complete outlines and filled them in by writing comprehensive books on each subject. It was such a daunting task that the later generations suspected he had an army of several thousand slaves to work for him. There is little truth in that story, but we must agree that what Aristotle accomplished single-handedly was, indeed, a job of a thousand people.
Meanwhile, Aristotle had been wandering all over Greece and Asia Minor. It must have been during this brief encounter with the non-Greek world that he developed his contempt for the “barbarians”. The Greek civilization was based on rational thinking, while the others merely sprung up like unwanted growth, or so it appeared to the discerning Aristotle. To him the Greek manner of living seemed to be the purpose of the world itself!
Those were the days when such ideas could be valuable. The mighty Greek states such as Athens and Sparta were on their decline, and it was the heyday of smaller states, whose rulers had lived like robber chiefs for several generations and now wanted a ticket to nobility by developing art and culture in their domains. Aristotle must have found these clans more exciting than the accomplished state of Athens, because obviously there was more room for growth in an unfinished work!
Aristotle’s longest stay was at Assos, whose ruler Hermias was a supporter of Philip of Macedon, the ambitious ruler who had waged wars on several Greek states, and had also destroyed Stagira, Aristotle’s home town, a few years back. Hermias was killed in a brush with the Persians in 341 BC, and Aristotle had to move on. But before leaving Assos, he married Pythias, the niece and adopted daughter of Hermias.
Aristotle’s views about women were not very uplifting. Women were some kind of deformed men, he believed. They didn’t have the potential for rational thinking and, therefore, their purpose in life was to serve men. We do not know the origins of his cynicism about women, but it was so deep-rooted that he based his views on a predetermined bias against women, rather than studying the facts first and then developing his opinion in this matter.
We know very little about his private life to understand what incident motivated these views, for they were almost certainly rooted in some personal bias rather than observation and the rational thinking which he accused women to lack. Sadly, the Muslim and Christian civilizations also borrowed Aristotle’s views about women when they adapted his method of thinking.
Aristotle was soon called by Philip. The tyrant was anxious for the education of his only legitimate son, Alexander. Aristotle agreed to take up the job if Philip paid him the highest tuitiuon fee in recorded history: he must rebuild the entire town of Stagira, trace each of its inhabitants who had been sold into slavery, buy them their freedom, and bring them back. And Philip agreed!
We don’t know if Aristotle realized the true potential of Alexander when he first looked at the 13-year-old boy. Also, we don’t know what subjects he taught the young prince. But when the philosopher left him merely three years later, the 16-year-old prince was in a position to command the armies of his father and set out to conquer the world at the age of 20. Aristotle returned to Athens when Alexander conquered it. Finally, he was able to set up his own school, the famous Lyceum.
It is said that Alexander sent Aristotle specimen of minerals, plants and animals from the far off regions he visited during his conquests. That may be true, but the conqueror disappointed his teacher at the peak of his glory: after conquering Persia, he didn’t impose the superior Greek culture on the “barbarians”. Instead, he gave them equal status and adopted many of the Persian etiquette. Aristotle must have felt as if the dreams of his life were shattered to pieces. His nephew, whom he had sent to accompany Alexander, must have shared those feelings, because he would make fun of Alexander’s Persianized mannerism in the open and later participated in a plot of assassination. He was duly executed, and it is said that Alexander also began to look at his old teacher with some suspicion.
Alexander died in 323 BC, and there was an anti-Macedonian upheaval in Athens. Ironically, the Athenians had executed Socrates three generations ago for corrupting the minds of the young. And now they wanted to put Aristotle on trial for opposing the philosophy of Socrates!
Aristotle, whose ethics revolved around the principle of “golden mean,” or “the middle path,” had always believed that while too little courage was cowardice, too much of it was foolhardiness. “I will not allow Athens to sin against philosophy for a second time,” he declared. Taking with him the woman he had married after the death of his first wife, his son, and his servants, he left Athens and settled down in Chalcis, the state of his mother’s origin. He died of dysentery a few months later. The year was 322 BC.
Aristotle’s writing were mostly lost in the chaos that dominated Greece in the following centuries. One of his successors had the wisdom to hide them in a secret vault, from where they were discovered in better times, and re-edited. Sadly, they didn’t include any of his complete books. All that was saved were his lecture notes. That is all that could be passed down to the subsequent generations, and that is all we have of his writings today. And it is, as it was, more than enough to establish him as the major organizer, if not the founder, of almost every subject of classical knowledge.