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Aristotle, unlike his teacher Plato, was much concerned with natural phenomena. He was impressed in particular with living creatures: with their abilities to develop in specific predictable ways after they have come into being, to live out lives of characteristic types, and to leave behind replicas of themselves. In the effort to describe and explain these regularities, Aristotle developed many of his most distinctive ideas--change, nature, matter and form, causation, potentiality and actuality. Much of his philosophy is concerned with developing the implications of these ideas and with applying them, in his ethical and political writings, to the special case of human beings.

Aristotle was born in Stagira, a small town in northern Greece, in 384 BCE. At seventeen, he went to Athens and entered Plato's Academy, where he remained until Plato's death in 347 BCE. Aristotle then went to Assos, near Troy. He lived there for two or three years and then went to the island of Lesbos. In 342 BCE, he accepted an invitation from Phillip II of Macedonia to undertake the education of Phillip's thirteen-year-old son, the future Alexander the Great. In 335 BCE he went back to Athens and founded a school called the Lyceum. There he seems to have lectured to students on philosophical and scientific questions in the mornings, and to wider audiences on more accessible topics in the afternoons or evenings. When Alexander died in 323 BCE, Athens was not a safe place for those with connections to Macedonia. So Aristotle left town, to prevent Athens from "sinning twice against philosophy," as he himself may have put it (fr. 667.3), alluding to the fate of Socrates in 399 BCE. Aristotle died in Chalchis in 322 BCE.

The vast breadth of Aristotle's thought is evident in his writings, some of which have survived and some of which we know of only through reports written by historians and philosophers in the centuries following his death.

Aristotle published a number of dialogues modeled after Plato's, but typically addressing popular and edifying themes. These seem to have been very well regarded, for example, by Cicero (Academica 2.38.119). Regrettably, none of them survived, though we have summaries of and quotations from some of them. Aristotle also prepared for publication various philosophical essays on a variety of themes. None has survived in anything like complete form, but extracts from some of them appear in the materials we do have. (Metaphysics Book I, for example, may well be such an extract.) In addition, Aristotle compiled (or saw to the compilation of) a wide variety of records. Three such collections survive in some form or other. One is the History of Animals, a collection of descriptions of animals and their behaviors. Another is the Problems, a collection of philosophical and nonphilosophical puzzles and questions, together with answers, discussions, or further questions. Third is a collection of the constitutions of 158 Greek polises. Only one of these has survived, the Consititution of Athens (Aristot. Ath. Pol.), discovered in Egypt in 1890; it describes the development of the Athenian constitution through the end of the rule of the Thirty Tyrants and the actual working of the constitution in its author's time.

Fortunately, we have more than these fragments. The main body of Aristotle's surviving works comprises scientific and philosophical treatises. In large part these seem to be notes, whether composed by Aristotle himself or taken by his students, of the morning series of lectures that Aristotle gave in the Lyceum. In many instances, the treatises presuppose an understanding of the main doctrines of Aristotelian thought, and in some cases they make explicit reference to the paraphernalia of the classroom. The story of their transmission is remarkable. According to Strabo (Strab. 13.1.54), after Aristotle's death his library found its way into a cave or cellar in Asia Minor, where it remained for some 200 years before being discovered and taken to Athens. Eventually these materials came into the possession of Andronicus of Rhodes, the head of a school descended from the Lyceum, who used them to prepare an edition of Aristotle's writings. Current editions of Aristotle's works are based on Andronicus's edition.

The writings in Andronicus's edition cover a wide range of subjects. The edition begins with six works that have come to be known collectively as the Organon (“instrument”). The Categories and De Interpretatione deal with what we would call philosophy of language; Prior Analytics, with logic; Posterior Analytics, with philosophy of science; and Topics and Sophistical Refutations, with logic.

Next comes a series of treatises dealing with physics or natural science. Physics 1.7-3.2, in conjunction with De Anima 2.5 and Metaphysics 9.6 (Aristot. Met.), constitutes in effect an introduction to many of the fundamental ideas in Aristotle's thought: change, nature, matter and form, cause and explanation, teleology, and potentiality and actuality. The rest of the Physics discusses motion, void, time, place, infinity, and the “prime mover.” The remaining physical treatises discuss the motion of bodies (On the Heavens), types of change that do not involve motion (On Generation and Corruption), and the weather (Meteorology). After these come a series of works on psychology and biology. The psychological works are On the Soul, Sense and Sensibilia, On Memory, On Sleep, On Divination in Sleep, On Length and Shortness of Life, and On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration. The biological works are the History of Animals, Parts of Animals, Movement of Animals, Progression of Animals, and Generation of Animals. Next comes a dense, systematic study of the nature and structure of being, The Metaphysics (Aristot. Met.), so called because Andronicus placed it after (meta) the physical or natural scientific treatises.

Following the Metaphysics are two major ethical treatises, the Nicomachean Ethics (Aristot. Nic. Eth.) and the Eudemian Ethics (Aristot. Eud. Eth.). In the manuscripts the treatises overlap in part, Eudemian Ethics 4-6 coinciding with Nicomachean Ethics 5-7. Scholars disagree over which is the more important, though most give the nod to the Nicomachean Ethics. Each treatise, in its own way, tries to define happiness (i.e., the best life for a human being); to describe the virtues of character and intellect, pleasure, and friendship; and to determine the place of each of these in the happy life. Along with these two treatises, Andronicus also included The Greater Moralia (Aristot. Gtr. Mor.) and the Virtues and Vices (Aristot. Virt.), but many scholars believe that, while they may reflect Aristotle's ideas, they were not in fact written by him. After these comes the Politics (Aristot. Pol.), which discusses the various possible and actual kinds of societal and political arrangement and other topics in political philosophy.

Andronicus's edition concludes with the Rhetoric (Aristot. Rhet.) and the Poetics (Aristot. Poet.). These deal with literary theory, the former discussing oratory and the latter tragedy.

Primary Sources

The complete Greek text of Aristotle's writings, less the Constitution of Athens, is in I. Bekker, ed., Aristotelis Opera (Berlin: Acadamie der Wissenschaften, 1831). More recent texts of many of Aristotle's writings can be found in the Oxford Classical Text series and the Loeb Classical Library. Occasionally, new texts of individual treatises are published as well.

The standard English version of Aristotle's writings, referred to as the “Oxford Translation,” is W. D. Ross and J. A. Smith, eds., The Works of Aristotle Translated into English (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910-1952.) A useful one-volume abridgment of the Oxford Translation is R. McKeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1941). A two-volume revision of the Oxford Translation is J. Barnes, ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984). Barnes includes all of Aristotle's works mentioned above, as well as a number of works attributed to Aristotle but of doubtful authenticity; various fragments, including parts of two poems; and Aristotle's will.

Aristotle's works are also available in the Loeb Classical Library series, which provides translations usually distinct from those in the revised Oxford Translation and with a Greek text on facing pages. Translations of and commentaries on portions of various works are also available in the Clarendon Aristotle Series.

It is standard practice to refer to Aristotle's writings by "Bekker number" (that is, by page number letter, column, and line number of Bekker's text). These numbers appear in the margins of many modern texts and translations.

Secondary Sources

General accounts of Aristotle's thought include:

    Ackrill, J. L. Aristotle the Philosopher. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.Allan, D. J. The Philosophy of Aristotle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952. Barnes, J. Aristotle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. Grene, M. A Portrait of Aristotle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963. Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 6: Aristotle: An Encounter. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Jaeger, W. W. Aristotle. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948. Lear, J. Aristotle: The Desire to Understand. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Lloyd, G. E. R. Aristotle. London, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1968. Randall, J. H. Aristotle. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. Ross, W. D. Aristotle. London: Methuen, 1923.
A comprehensive but accessible guide to Aristotle's thought is:

    Barnes, J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
A collection of some of the best of the secondary literature on all aspects of Aristotle's thought, as well as an extensive bibliography, is found in:

    Barnes, J.; Schofield, M.; and Sorabji, R., eds. Articles on Aristotle. 4 vols. London: Duckworth, 1975.
Collections of more recent articles on Aristotle's ethical and political thought include:

    Rorty, A. O., ed. Essays on Aristotle's Ethics. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1980. Keyt, D., and Miller, Fred D., Jr., eds. A Companion to Aristotle's Politics. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1991.
Charles M. Young, Claremont Graduate University
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