Aristotle’s influence

Live and die in Aristotle’s works.
– Christopher Marlowe, Faust

After Sulla removed Aristotle’s esoteric writings to Rome, they were edited and published by the peripatetic philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes. By late antiquity they had almost fallen out of circulation, hampered by the rise of the Church and of neo-Platonism, the fall of Rome, and the loss of the Greek language amongst educated people. In the early sixth century, the Christian philosopher Boethius translated Aristotle’s works on logic into Latin, and, for centuries to come, these were the only significant portions of Aristotle’s writings (or indeed of Greek philosophy) available in the Occident. However, the study of Aristotle continued unabated in the Orient, in the Byzantine Empire and more particularly in the Abbasid Caliphate, where Persian and Arab philosophers such as Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes wrote extensive commentaries on Aristotle, whom they referred to deferentially as The First Teacher.

In the twelfth century, this Aristotelian fervour spilt over into Christian Europe. In the Condemnations of 1210–1277, the Bishops of Paris prohibited Aristotle’s physical writings on the grounds of heterodoxy, but without too much success. In the thirteenth century William of Moerbeke produced a Latin translation of Aristotle’s writings from the original Greek text rather than from Arabic translations, the first complete Latin translation faithful both to the spirit and to the letter of Aristotle. At around the same time, Albert the Great and his pre-eminent student Thomas Aquinas, the Doctor Angelus, sought to reconcile Christian thought with Aristotle, whom they and other scholastic thinkers referred to simply as The Philosopher. Under the aegis of the Church, Aristotelian ideas achieved such prominence and such propriety as to be assimilated to God-given gospel, to be overturned only centuries later by pioneers like Galileo, Descartes, and Newton.

Aristotle is without a doubt one of the greatest philosophers of all time, and, along with Plato, one of the most influential people in Western history. Raphael’s Renaissance masterpiece, The School of Athens, depicts Plato and Aristotle walking side by side, surrounded by a number of other philosophers and personalities of antiquity. An elderly Plato is holding a copy of his Timaeus and pointing vertically to the lofty vault above their heads, whilst a younger Aristotle is holding a copy of the Nicomachean Ethics and gesturing horizontally towards the descending steps at their feet. Plato was chiefly interested in moral philosophy, and held natural philosophy, that is, science, to be an inferior and unworthy type of knowledge. His idealism culminated in the Theory of the Forms, according to which knowledge of the truth cannot be acquired through the sense experience of imperfect particulars, but only through the rational contemplation of their universal essences or Forms. Aristotle flatly rejected the Theory of the Forms and emphasised that all philosophy should be grounded in the simple observation of particulars. In so doing, he laid the foundations for the scientific method, and his meticulous zoological observations remained unsurpassed for several centuries. His moral philosophy prevailed throughout the ancient and mediaeval periods, exerting a profound influence on Christian thought, and returned to due prominence in the twentieth century with the resurgence of virtue ethics. His extant works, to say nothing of those that have been lost, cover such a wide range of topics, from aesthetics to astronomy and from politics to psychology, as to constitute a quasi encyclopaedia of Greek knowledge. Some of his most important works are Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, On the Soul, Poetics, and, of course, the Organon, with which he created the field of logic and dominated it so thoroughly and for so long that even Kant in the eighteenth century thought that he had said the last word upon it.

More than any other figure in Western history, Aristotle is the embodiment of knowledge and of learning. His ideas have shaped centuries of thought and are still keenly pored over by all those who seek to understand Western civilisation, or simply to inhabit one of the greatest minds of all time.

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.


Corpus Aristotelicum

According to legend, while the infant Plato was sleeping in a bower of myrtles on Mount Hymettus, bees settled upon his lips, auguring the honeyed words that would one day flow through his mouth. In his Lives of Philosophers, Diogenes Laertes says that, in the night before Plato was introduced to him as a pupil, Socrates ‘in a dream saw a swan on his knees, which all at once put forth plumage, and flew away after uttering a loud sweet note.’ Cicero, who was himself one of the greatest stylists in antiquity, lauded Plato’s subtle and mellifluous dialogues, but then added that if Plato’s prose was silver, Aristotle’s was ‘a flowing river of gold’. This may come as a surprise to modern readers of Aristotle, whose treatises often seem heavily technical, poorly written, and badly organised – and yet it is difficult to doubt the judgement of a man like Cicero. One can only assume that Cicero had before him works that have since been lost, such as the dialogues that Aristotle is known to have written earlier on in his career, probably while still at the Academy. The few fragments of these dialogues that remain suggest that they were written in a style similar to that of the Son of Apollo, who was then Aristotle’s master.

Whilst the lost works of Aristotle appear to have been intended for publication, this is not the case for the surviving works, the so-called Corpus Aristotelicum, which are not dialogues but technical philosophical treatises from within Aristotle’s school. They were probably lecture notes or student texts, and were almost certainly repeatedly reworked over a period of several years. Although their prose is unembellished, this does not usually detract from their philosophical content, and some scholars even come to admire them for their candour and for their clarity. Aristotle divided his writings into two groups, those intended for the public (‘exoteric’) and those intended for his students and for other specialists (‘esoteric’), and it is possible that all of his extant writings are from the second, esoteric group. According to Strabo and to Plutarch, Aristotle willed his esoteric writings to Theophrastus, who in turn willed them to his student Neleus of Scepsis, who supposedly took them from Athens to Scepsis. Neleus’s heirs hid them in a vault, where they were discovered by the famous book collector Apellicon of Teos some two hundred years later, in the first century BC. According to the story, Apellicon repatriated the dilapidated manuscripts to Athens, wherefrom Sulla, who occupied Athens in 86 BC, removed them to Rome. They were then published by the grammarian Tyrannion of Amisus and, later, by the peripatetic philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes.

The works in the Corpus Aristotelicum can be classified into one of several groups according to their subject matter. Aristotle referred to the branches of learning as ‘sciences’, which he divided into three groups: theoretical sciences, practical sciences, and productive sciences. Theoretical sciences are concerned with knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and comprise both natural sciences and non-empirical forms of knowledge such as mathematics and ‘first philosophy’ (metaphysics). Practical sciences are concerned with good conduct and action both at the individual level, as in ethics, and at the societal level, as in politics. Productive sciences are concerned with the creation of beautiful or useful artefacts, and include, amongst many others, agriculture, medicine, music, and rhetoric. Logic, that is, the branch of learning that is concerned with the principles of intellectual inquiry, does not fit into this tripartite division of the sciences, but stands apart under the heading of Organon or ‘Tool’.

Not all the works in the Corpus Aristotelicum are considered to be genuine, and the list that follows is composed only of those that are. The works are referred to by their English titles, but their Latin titles and standard abbreviations, which are often used by scholars, are also given. The works are ordered by their Bekker numbers, which are named after the classical philologist August Immanuel Bekker, editor of the Prussian Academy of Sciences edition in Greek of the complete works of Aristotle (1831-1870). The Bekker numbers are based on the page numbers used in the Bekker edition, and take the format of up to four digits, a letter for column ‘a’ or ‘b’, and then the line number. For example, the beginning of On the Soul is 402a1, which corresponds to the first line of the first column on page 402 of the Bekker edition. Bekker numbers are included in all modern editions or translations of Aristotle that are intended for scholarly readers, and enable citations to be cross-checked in any edition or translation that contain the numbers. The equivalent numbering system for the Corpus Platonicum is the Stephanus pagination.

Categories [Categorie, Cat.]
On Interpretation [De Interpretatione, DI]
Prior Analytics [Analytica Priora, APr]
Posterior Analytics [Analytica Posteriora, APo]
Topics [Topica, Top.]
Sophistical Refutations [De Sophisticis Elenchis, SE]
Theoretical Sciences
Physics [Physica, Phys.]
On the Heavens [De Caelo, DC]
Generation and Corruption [De Generatione et Corruptione, Gen. et Corr.]
Meteorology [Meteorologica, Meteor.]
On the Soul [De Anima, DA]
Brief Natural Treatises [Parva Naturalia, PN]
Sense and Sensibilia
On Memory
On Sleep
On Dreams
On Divination in Sleep
On Length and Shortness of Life
On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration
History of Animals [Historia animalium, HA]
Parts of Animals [De Partibus Animalium, PA]
Movement of Animals [De Motu Animalium, MA]
Progression of Animals [De Incessu Animalium, LA]
Generation of Animals [De Generatione Animalium, GA]
Metaphysics [Metaphysica, Met.]
Practical Sciences
Nicomachean Ethics [Ethica Nicomachea, EN]
Eudemian Ethics [Ethica Eudemia, EE]
Politics [Politica, Pol.]
Productive Sciences
Rhetoric [Ars Rhetorica, Rhet.]
Poetics [Ars Poetica, Poet.]

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.

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