Key thinker: Aristotle (384–322 BC)
Aristotle (384–322 BC)
Aristotle was born in the ancient city of Stagira (now part of the Central Macedonia province in northern Greece). His father was the king’s physician and his mother hailed from the island of Evia. At eighteen, Aristotle left home to attend Plato’s Academy (see Chapter 2 on Plato) on the outskirts of Athens, where he remained for twenty years and acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of philosophy (https://iep.utm.edu/aristotle/). Aristotle’s early ideas still show a strong Platonic influence, but he never shied away from criticising his teacher, most notably about the latter’s theory of Forms (see 2.3.2. The allegory of the cave: knowledge and politics in Chapter 2 on Plato). But the relationship between the two philosophers remained cordial, and Aristotle openly acknowledged his intellectual debt to Plato (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aristotle).
Following Plato’s death in 347 BC, Aristotle left Athens and settled in Atarneus (modern-day Turkey), where his good friend Hermias of Atarneus had set up his seat of government. When Hermias died, however, Aristotle moved to the nearby coastal island of Lesbos, where he continued his research into zoology and marine biology (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aristotle). In 343 BC, the king of Macedon, King Philipp II, invited Aristotle to tutor his thirteen-year-old son, Alexander, later known as Alexander the Great. Although the tutoring only lasted for two or three years, their association continued up to Alexander’s death (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/).
Aristotle returned to Athens around 335 BC to open his own school of philosophy, known as the Lyceum. Unlike Plato’s academy, many of the lectures at the Lyceum were given free of charge and open to members of the public (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aristotle). According to some ancient sources, the collection of documents at the Lyceum constituted one of the first great libraries of antiquity (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/). At the Lyceum, Aristotle produced his most famous writings, some of which have survived in the form of notes taken by his pupils. These notes and draft manuscripts, which were never intended for general readership, are the earliest complete philosophical treatises we have access to (https://iep.utm.edu/aristotle/).
But a resurgence in anti-Macedonian sentiment in Athens after the death of Alexander in 323 BC once again forced Aristotle to leave the city. Alexander’s death ushered in the ‘Hellenistic period’ in ancient Greece, which was marked by a disdain for non-Greeks, especially Macedonians, who were considered barbarians (https://www.worldhistory.org/article/94/the-hellenistic-world-the-world-of-alexander-the-g/). The efforts of Alexander to spread Greek culture throughout the world, or the success of Aristotle’s Lyceum, had done little to change the prevailing attitude of Athenians (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/). Aristotle died the following year at his country house in Chalcis, on the island of Euboea. He was 62 years old.
Aristotle’s influence extends to academic fields ranging from biology, botany, chemistry, history, rhetoric, physics, poetics, political theory, psychology, and zoology, but he is perhaps best known for his contributions to logic and philosophy (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aristotle). Aristotle, who is considered the founder of formal logic, was the first to devise a coherent system of reasoning that allows us to judge the validity of an argument by analysing its formal structure (https://iep.utm.edu/aristotle/).
Aristotle’s metaphysics broke with Plato’s theory of Forms (see 2.3.2. The allegory of the cave: knowledge and politics in Chapter 2 on Plato) by introducing a distinction between form and matter. For Aristotle, every sensible object consists of both form and matter; therefore, we cannot understand the nature of an object by contemplating its essence (form) alone (https://www.britannica.com/story/plato-and-aristotle-how-do-they-differ). But matter is not a thing-in-itself but a potential thing that needs to be actualized by form: any potential thing (matter) only becomes that thing when it is given the right form (https://www.britannica.com/topic/form-philosophy). Because the true nature of a thing is determined by its telos or final state (see Key Concept: Telos), what we see in the world, or what exists, is how it ought to be. Teleological movement or change describes the process through which living things flourish and fulfil their ends under the right conditions. While all objects move towards their telos, they can only reach this final state and actualize their essence under the right conditions (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/form-matter/).
Aristotle’s teleological interpretation of the universe is based on a circular argument: to understand the nature of a thing we must observe its existence and growth, but we must already know what its telos or end-state is before we can do this (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/). For Aristotle, everything in the universe (cosmos) is connected and forms a coherent and orderly system that is governed by its own telos. The growth of individual living things into their end-state is thus only part of a larger teleological movement that transcends their own telos (see 3.3. Theories of Knowing and Being).
Aristotle argues that human beings’ telos is happiness, which can only be achieved in the right political community. As Aristotle famously put it, ‘man is a political animal’ meaning that the essence of a human being is to form political associations, rather than living in isolation from each other (see Aristotle on Human Nature). To Aristotle, human lives are only meaningful in the context of the city-state or polis (see Key Concept: Polis), which allows humans to become political animals by participating in ruling for the common good (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-politics/).
But what makes the polis the perfect form of political association? Aristotle’s political theory classifies different constitutions according to their suitability for governing the polis for the benefit of the people (see 3.1. Introduction). According to this classification, tyranny, oligarchy (rule of the rich), and democracy (rule of the poor) are defective forms of government because they encourage selfishness, i.e., ruling the political community only for the benefit of a particular individual or group. Monarchy and aristocracy, on the other hand, are considered good forms of government because a well-intentioned elite, which knows what is good for the political community, governs in the interest of the people as a whole (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aristotle/Political-theory). Though monarchy and aristocracy are the best forms of government in theory, in practice they often descend into tyranny and oligarchy. Therefore, the ideal constitution is the polity, where middle-class statesmen (the ‘golden mean’) rule over equals in the interest of the larger political community.
The polis is composed of different households that form tribes that then associate with others to create a political community. Although the political community is characterized by the rule of statesmen over equals, household rule is based on the principles of natural superiority: the telos of the propertied free man is to become a ‘political animal’, while the telos of women, children, and enslaved people is to obey the free man and fulfil their domestic duties (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-politics/).
Aristotle justifies the rigid hierarchies in his political theory by pointing to his teleological interpretation of the universe: if women, enslaved people, children, and the poor are inferior to propertied free men in society, then this is how things ought to be. Because women, enslaved people, and children are by nature less rational than free men, they must be ruled over by the latter for their own good. By separating the home from the public sphere, Aristotle obscures the role of the home as a space where the norms and values of the political community are reproduced (see Chapter 9 on Carole Pateman). The separation of the political and domestic sphere stands in marked contrast to bell hooks’ idea of the ‘homeplace’ as a site of resistance where women can challenge and subvert patriarchal society (see 3.5.2. hooks on the Homeplace).
For Aristotle, slavery is a natural part of the polis and, like the poor who don’t own property (demos), enslaved people can never participate in political life. Unlike women or children, they cannot develop any capacity for reason and are driven only by passions. Cedric Robinson and Robin Blackburn have argued that Aristotle’s views on enslaved people provided the argumentative basis for the enslavement of indigenous peoples and Africans in the Americas (see Slaves). It is important to note, however, that racism as we understand it today did not exist in antiquity; rather, slavery was based on conquest and distinctions between ethnicities, languages, or places of birth (see 3.1. Key Concept: Race in Antiquity).
Aristotle’s political theory has been subject to public critique in recent years, as students and academics have called for a re-assessment of his illiberal views as part of the ‘decolonization’ of university curricula (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/21/opinion/should-we-cancel-aristotle.html). The aim of decolonization is not to remove Aristotle from philosophy courses, but to critically engage with his philosophy by reading it alongside feminist and anti-racist thinkers, who have tried to envision a more just and egalitarian world. This way, we can take seriously his contributions to various fields of knowledge while questioning those aspects of his thought which justify the oppression of marginalized people.
Aristotle (2011) Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Barnes, Jonathan, Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Frank, Jill (2019) Athenian democracy and its critics. Ethnic and Racial Studies. 42:8, 1306-131
Robinson, Cedric J., “Slavery and the Platonic Origins of Anti-Democracy”, In Robinson, On Racial Capitalism, pp. 127-146.
Peter Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.