I saw the Master there of those who know,
Amid the philosophic family,
By all admired, and by all reverenced;
There Plato too I saw, and Socrates,
Who stood beside him closer than the rest.
Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno IV, verses 131-135.
Aristotle was born in 384 BC at Stageira in Chalcidice, a Grecian colony in the Macedonian region of north-eastern Greece. In 348, Stageira was occupied and destroyed by Philip II of Macedon. Philip later rebuilt the city and freed its inhabitants from slavery in honour of Aristotle, who had been his childhood friend, and whom he had appointed as tutor to his son, the future Alexander the Great.
The Stagirite’s father, Nicomachus, was the personal physician to King Amyntas of Macedon, the father of Philip, and the profession of medicine was quasi hereditary in his family. His mother, Phaestis, was a woman of aristocratic descent, and he also had one sister, Arimneste, and one brother, Arimnestus. Both ‘Arimneste’ and ‘Arimnestus’ translate as ‘Greatly remembered’, and the parallelism of these names suggests that Aristotle may have been the youngest of the three siblings. Arimneste married Proxenus of Atarneus and had a daughter, Hero, and a son, Nicanor. Hero in turn had a son, the historian Callisthenes of Olynthus, great nephew to Aristotle. Both Nichomachus and Phaestis died when Aristotle was about ten years old, and Aristotle became the ward of Proxenus of Atarneus. Proxenus taught him Greek, rhetoric, and poetry, and thereby complemented the biological education that Nicomachus had been giving him.
In 367, at the age of seventeen, Aristotle went to Athens to study at Plato’s Academy, which had by then already become a pre-eminent centre of learning. Whilst Plato and Aristotle certainly had differences of opinion, there was no lack of cordial appreciation, or of that mutual forbearance which one would expect from men of lofty character. Aristotle remained at the Academy for nearly twenty years and left around the time of Plato’s death in 347. The reasons for his departure are unclear: he may have felt slighted that the scholarchship (or leadership) of the Academy had passed on to Plato’s nephew Speusippus, or he may have opposed Speusippus’ views, or he may have left before Plato’s death because he feared growing anti-Macedonian feelings.
Then in his thirty-seventh year, Aristotle travelled with Xenocrates of Chalcedon to Assos on the north-western coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) to join the court of his friend Hermias of Atarneus. He may or may not have travelled to Assos as an ambassador for Philip. In either case, it seems that he exerted a moderating influence on Hermias, who softened his harsh tyrannical rule and introduced reforms consistent with Platonic principles of government. Aristotle married Hermias’ niece and adoptive daughter, Pythias, who was then probably around eighteen years old, and Pythias bore him a daughter, also called Pythias. In 344, Hermias was captured by the Persians and tortured for information about Philip’s plans, but Hermias kept his silence. His dying words were that he had done nothing shameful or unworthy of philosophy, and Aristotle honoured him by dedicating a statue in Delphi and composing a hymn to Virtue. At around this time, Aristotle travelled with his pupil Theophrastus (‘Divinely speaking’ – the nickname given to him by Aristotle) to the nearby island of Lesbos where he researched the zoology of the island and Theophastrus researched its botany.
Some two years later Aristotle was invited by Philip to tutor his son Alexander, who was then thirteen years old. At the temple of the Nymphs near Mieza near the Macedonian capital of Pella, Aristotle gave lessons not only to Alexander, but also to two other future rulers, Ptolemy and Cassander. He probably had considerable influence over Alexander, who took with him on his eastern conquests a crowd of zoologists, botanists, and other researchers. It is said that Aristotle prepared for Alexander a special edition of Homer’s Iliad, which inspired the young prince to model his life on that of the greatest of the Greek heroes of the Trojan War, the semi-divine Achilles. According to Plutarch and to Aulius Gellius, upon hearing that Aristotle had published some of his oral teachings, Alexander wrote to him from Asia,
Alexander to Aristotle, greeting. You have not done well to publish your books of oral doctrine; for what is there now that we excel others in, if those things which we have been particularly instructed in be laid open to all? For my part, I assure you, I had rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and dominion. Farewell.
In 339, Xenocrates succeeded Speusippus as Scholarch of the Academy, with Aristotle being passed over for the scholarchship for a second time. By 335, Aristotle had returned to Athens where he established his own school in a public exercise area dedicated to the god Apollo Lykeois, whence its name, the Lyceum. Aristotle often discussed philosophical problems while walking along the shaded walks (peripatoi) of the Lyceum, for which reason affiliates of the school came to be known as ‘peripatetics’. The Lyceum survived until 86, when Athens was sacked by the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (Sulla being the only man in history to have attacked and occupied both Athens and Rome). Aristotle taught at the Lyceum for some twelve years, during which time he also wrote many of his works and collected the first great library of the Ancient World. After the death of his wife Pythias, he became involved with (but did not marry) Herpyllis of Stageira, who bore him a son whom he named after his father, Nicomachus. According to the Suda, he also kept an eromenos (younger male lover), the historian Palaephatus of Abydus.
Near the end of his life, Alexander ordered the execution as a traitor of Aristotle’s grandnephew Callisthenes and this and other things soured the relationship between the king and his master. After Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323, anti-Macedonian feelings in Athens flared up, and Eurydemon the hierophant denounced Aristotle for not holding the gods in honour. Aristotle fled to his country house at Chalcis on Euboea, an island off the Attic coast and the homeland of his mother’s family. Referring to the trial and execution of Socrates in 399, he famously explained, ‘I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy’. He died of natural causes within the year on March 7 of 322, aged sixty-two. There is a story according to which he threw himself into the sea ‘because he could not explain the tides’, but this is unlikely to be true, as are other fanciful conjectures about his death. After Aristotle had left Athens, Theophrastus – who was not Macedonian but Lesbian – had stayed behind as scholarch of the peripatetic school, and in his will Aristotle made provisions for him and for others to take over the care of his children and of Herpyllis. He also left him his works and his library, and designated him as his successor at the Lyceum.
Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.