ARISTOTLE: The Historical Background

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter II, Section 1 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


I. The Historical Background 

Aristotle was born at Stagira, a Macedonian city some two hundred miles to the north of Athens, in the year 384 B. C. His father was friend and physician to Amyntas, King of Macedon and grandfather of Alexander. Aristotle himself seems to have become a member of the great medical fraternity of Asclepiads. He was brought up in the odor of medicine as many later philosophers were brought up in the odor of sanctity; he had every opportunity and encouragement to develop a scientific bent of mind; he was prepared from the beginning to become the founder of science. 

We have a choice of stories for his youth. One narrative represents him as squandering his patrimony in riotous living, joining the army to avoid starvation, returning to Stagira to practice medicine, and going to Athens at the age of thirty to study philosophy under Plato. A more dignified story takes him to Athens at the age of eighteen, and puts him at once under the tutelage of the great Master; but even in this likelier account there is sufficient echo of a reckless and irregular youth, living rapidly. The scandalized reader may console himself by observing that in either story our philosopher anchors at last in the quiet groves of the Academy. 

Aristotle was a riotous youth who anchored at last in the quiet groves of the Academy.

Under Plato he studied eight—or twenty—years; and indeed the pervasive Platonism of Aristotle’s speculations—even of those most anti-Platonic—suggests the longer period. One would like to imagine these as very happy years: a brilliant pupil guided by an incomparable teacher, walking like Greek lovers in the gardens of philosophy. But they were both geniuses; and it is notorious that geniuses accord with one another as harmoniously as dynamite with fire. Almost half a century separated them; it was difficult for understanding to bridge the gap of years and cancel the incompatibility of souls. Plato recognized the greatness of this strange new pupil from the supposedly barbarian north, and spoke of him once as the Nous of the Academy,—as if to say, Intelligence personified. Aristotle had spent money lavishly in the collection of books (that is, in those printless days, manuscripts); he was the first, after Euripides, to gather together a library; and the foundation of the principles of library classification was among his many contributions to scholarship. Therefore Plato spoke of Aristotle’s home as “the house of the reader,” and seems to have meant the sincerest compliment; but some ancient gossip will have it that the Master intended a sly but vigorous dig at a certain book-wormishness in Aristotle. A more authentic quarrel seems to have arisen towards the end of Plato’s life: Our ambitious youth apparently developed an “Oedipus complex” against his spiritual father for the favors and affections of philosophy, and began to hint that wisdom would not die with Plato; while the old sage spoke of his pupil as a foal that kicks his mother after draining her dry. The learned Zeller, in whose pages Aristotle almost achieves the Nirvana of respectability, would have us reject these stories; but we may presume that where there is still so much smoke there was once a flame. 

Aristotle, however, maintained his mental independence even at the Academy.

The other incidents of this Athenian period are still more problematical. Some biographers tell us that Aristotle founded a school of oratory to rival Isocrates; and that he had among his pupils in this school the wealthy Hermias, who was soon to become autocrat of the city-state of Atarneus. After reaching this elevation Hermias invited Aristotle to his court; and in the year 344 B. C. he rewarded his teacher for past favors by bestowing upon him a sister (or a niece) in marriage. One might suspect this as a Greek gift; but the historians hasten to assure us that Aristotle, despite his genius, lived happily enough with his wife, and spoke of her most affectionately in his will. It was just a year later that Philip, King of Macedon, called Aristotle to the court at Pella to undertake the education of Alexander. It bespeaks the rising repute of our philosopher that the greatest monarch of the time, looking about for the greatest teacher, should single out Aristotle to be the tutor of the future master of the world. 

Aristotle tutored Alexander, the future master of the world.

Philip was determined that his son should have every educational advantage, for he had made for him illimitable designs. His conquest of Thrace in 356 B. C. had given him command of gold mines which at once began to yield him precious metal to ten times the amount then coming to Athens from the failing silver of Laurium; his people were vigorous peasants and warriors, as yet unspoiled by city luxury and vice: here was the combination that would make possible the subjugation of a hundred petty city-states and the political unification of Greece. Philip had no sympathy with the individualism that had fostered the art and intellect of Greece but had at the same time disintegrated her social order; in all these little capitals he saw not the exhilarating culture and the unsurpassable art, but the commercial corruption and the political chaos; he saw insatiable merchants and bankers absorbing the vital resources of the nation, incompetent politicians and clever orators misleading a busy populace into disastrous plots and wars, factions cleaving classes and classes congealing into castes: this, said Philip, was not a nation but only a welter of individuals—geniuses and slaves; he would bring the hand of order down upon this turmoil, and make all Greece stand up united and strong as the political center and basis of the world. In his youth in Thebes he had learned the arts of military strategy and civil organization under the noble Epaminondas; and now, with courage as boundless as his ambition, he bettered the instruction. In 338 B. C. he defeated the Athenians at Chaeronea, and saw at last a Greece united, though with chains. And then, as he stood upon this victory, and planned how he and his son should master and unify the world, he fell under an assassin’s hand. 

Of course, Alexander’s father, Philip of Macedon, had his own philosophy as a ruler.

Alexander, when Aristotle came, was a wild youth of thirteen; passionate, epileptic, almost alcoholic; it was his pastime to tame horses untamable by men. The efforts of the philosopher to cool the fires of this budding volcano were not of much avail; Alexander had better success with Bucephalus than Aristotle with Alexander. “For a while,” says Plutarch, “Alexander loved and cherished Aristotle no less than as if he had been his own father; saying that though he had received life from the one, the other had taught him the art of living.” (“Life,” says a fine Greek adage, “is the gift of nature; but beautiful living is the gift of wisdom.”) “For my part,” said Alexander in a letter to Aristotle, “I had rather excel in the knowledge of what is good than in the extent of my power and dominion.” But this was probably no more than a royal-youthful compliment; beneath the enthusiastic tyro of philosophy was the fiery son of a barbarian princess and an untamed king; the restraints of reason were too delicate to hold these ancestral passions in leash; and Alexander left philosophy after two years to mount the throne and ride the world. History leaves us free to believe (though we should suspect these pleasant thoughts) that Alexander’s unifying passion derived some of its force and grandeur from his teacher, the most synthetic thinker in the history of thought; and that the conquest of order in the political realm by the pupil, and in the philosophic realm by the master, were but diverse sides of one noble and epic project—two magnificent Macedonians unifying two chaotic worlds. 

Alexander’s wild nature and ancestral passions were barely influenced by the philosophy of Aristotle.

Setting out to conquer Asia, Alexander left behind him, in the cities of Greece, governments favorable to him but populations resolutely hostile. The long tradition of a free and once imperial Athens made subjection—even to a brilliant world-conquering despot—intolerable; and the bitter eloquence of Demosthenes kept the Assembly always on the edge of revolt against the “Macedonian party” that held the reins of city power. Now when Aristotle, after another period of travel, returned to Athens in the year 334 B. C., he very naturally associated with this Macedonian group, and took no pains to conceal his approval of Alexander’s unifying rule. As we study the remarkable succession of works, in speculation and research, which Aristotle proceeded to unfold in the last twelve years of his life; and as we watch him in his multifold tasks of organizing his school, and of coordinating such a wealth of knowledge as probably never before had passed through the mind of one man; let us occasionally remember that this was no quiet and secure pursuit of truth; that at any minute the political sky might change, and precipitate a storm in this peaceful philosophic life. Only with this situation in mind shall we understand Aristotle’s political philosophy, and his tragic end. 

Aristotle approved of Alexander’s unifying rule, but his philosophic life was not very peaceful; this lead to his tragic end.


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