Durant 1926: The Work of Aristotle

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter II, Section 2 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.


II. The Work of Aristotle

It was not hard for the instructor of the king of kings to find pupils even in so hostile a city as Athens. When, in the fifty-third year of his age, Aristotle established his school, the Lyceum, so many students flocked to him that it became necessary to make complicated regulations for the maintenance of order. The students themselves determined the rules, and elected, every ten days, one of their number to supervise the School. But we must not think of it as a place of rigid discipline; rather the picture which comes down to us is of scholars eating their meals in common with the master, and learning from him as he and they strolled up and down the Walk along the athletic field from which the Lyceum took its name.

[The Walk was called Peripatos; hence the later name, Peripatetic School. The athletic field was part of the grounds of the temple of Apollo Lyceus—the protector of the flock against the wolf (Iycos).]

In the fifty-third year of his age, Aristotle established his school to conduct research and teach.

The new School was no mere replica of that which Plato had left behind him. The Academy was devoted above all to mathematics and to speculative and political philosophy; the Lyceum had rather a tendency to biology and the natural sciences. If we may believe Pliny, Alexander instructed his hunters, gamekeepers, gardeners and fishermen to furnish Aristotle with all the zoological and botanical material he might desire; other ancient writers tell us that at one time he had at his disposal a thousand men scattered throughout Greece and Asia, collecting for him specimens of the fauna and flora of every land. With this wealth of material he was enabled to establish the first great zoological garden that the world had seen. We can hardly exaggerate the influence of this collection upon his science and his philosophy. 

The main areas of research were biology and the natural sciences.

Where did Aristotle derive the funds to finance these undertakings? He was himself, by this time, a man of spacious income; and he had married into the fortune of one of the most powerful public men in Greece. Athenaeus (no doubt with some exaggeration) relates that Alexander gave Aristotle, for physical and biological equipment and research, the sum of 800 talents (in modern purchasing power, some $4,000,000). It was at Aristotle’s suggestion, some think, that Alexander sent a costly expedition to explore the sources of the Nile and discover the causes of its periodical overflow. Such works as the digest of 158 political constitutions, drawn up for Aristotle, indicate a considerable corps of aides and secretaries. In short we have here the first example in European history of the large-scale financing of science by public wealth. What knowledge would we not win if modern states were to support research on a proportionately lavish scale!

[The expedition reported that the inundations were due to the melting of the snow on the mountains of Abyssinia.]

We have here the first example in European history of the large-scale financing of science by public wealth.

Yet we should do Aristotle injustice if we were to ignore the almost fatal limitations of equipment which accompanied these unprecedented resources and facilities. He was compelled “to fix time without a watch, to compare degrees of heat without a thermometer, to observe the heavens without a telescope, and the weather without a barometer. … Of all our mathematical, optical and physical instruments he possessed only the rule and compass, together with the most imperfect substitutes for some few others. Chemical analysis, correct measurements and weights, and a thorough application of mathematics to physics, were unknown. The attractive force of matter, the law of gravitation, electrical phenomena, the conditions of chemical combination, pressure of air and its effects, the nature of light, heat, combustion, etc., in short, all the facts on which the physical theories of modern science are based were wholly, or almost wholly, undiscovered.” 

However, a fatal limitations of equipment accompanied these unprecedented resources and facilities. 

See, here, how inventions make history: for lack of a telescope Aristotle’s astronomy is a tissue of childish romance; for lack of a microscope his biology wanders endlessly astray. Indeed, it was in industrial and technical invention that Greece fell farthest below the general standard of its unparalleled achievements. The Greek disdain of manual work kept everybody but the listless slave from direct acquaintance with the processes of production, from that stimulating contact with machinery which reveals defects and prefigures possibilities; technical invention was possible only to those who had no interest in it, and could not derive from it any material reward. Perhaps the very cheapness of the slaves made invention lag; muscle was still less costly than machines. And so, while Greek commerce conquered the Mediterranean Sea, and Greek philosophy conquered the Mediterranean mind, Greek science straggled, and Greek industry remained almost where Aegean industry had been when the invading Greeks had come down upon it, at Cnossus, at Tiryns and Mycene, a thousand years before. No doubt we have here the reason why Aristotle so seldom appeals to experiment; the mechanisms of experiment had not yet been made; and the best he could do was to achieve an almost universal and continuous observation. Nevertheless the vast body of data gathered by him and his assistants became the groundwork of the progress of science, the text-book of knowledge for two thousand years; one of the wonders of the work of man. 

Greek science straggled because the Greek disdain of manual work kept everybody from stimulating contact with machinery and from direct acquaintance with the processes of production.

Aristotle’s writings ran into the hundreds. Some ancient authors credit him with four hundred volumes, others with a thousand. What remains is but a part, and yet it is a library in itself—conceive the scope and grandeur of the whole. There are, first, the Logical works: “Categories,” “Topics,” “Prior” and “Posterior Analytics,” “Propositions,” and “Sophistical Refutation”; these works were collected and edited by the later Peripatetics under the general title of Aristotle’s “Organon,”—that is, the organ or instrument of correct thinking. Secondly, there are the Scientific works: “Physics,” “On the Heavens,” “Growth and Decay,” “Meteorology,” “Natural History,” “On the Soul,” “The Parts of Animals,” “The Movements of Animals,” and “The Generation of Animals.” There are, thirdly, the Esthetic works: “Rhetoric” and “Poetics.” And fourthly come the more strictly Philosophical works: “Ethics,” “Politics,” and “Metaphysics.”

Aristotle wrote voluminously on Logics, Science, Esthetics and Philosophy.

Here, evidently, is the Encyclopedia Britannica of Greece: every problem under the sun and about it finds a place; no wonder there are more errors and absurdities in Aristotle than in any other philosopher who ever wrote. Here is such a synthesis of knowledge and theory as no man would ever achieve again till Spencer’s day, and even then not half so magnificently; here, better than Alexander’s fitful and brutal victory, was a conquest of the world. If philosophy is the quest of unity Aristotle deserves the high name that twenty centuries gave him—IlIe Philosophus: The Philosopher. 

It was essentially the compilation of an Encyclopedia.

Naturally, in a mind of such scientific turn, poesy was lacking. We must not expect of Aristotle such literary brilliance as floods the pages of the dramatist-philosopher Plato. Instead of giving us great literature, in which philosophy is embodied (and obscured) in myth and imagery, Aristotle gives us science, technical, abstract, concentrated; if we go to him for entertainment we shall sue for the return of our money. Instead of giving terms to literature, as Plato did, he built the terminology of science and philosophy; we can hardly speak of any science today without employing terms which he invented; they lie like fossils in the strata of our speech: faculty, mean, maxim, (meaning, in Aristotle, the major premiss of a syllogism), category, energy, actuality, motive, end, principle, form—these indispensable coins of philosophic thought were minted in his mind. And perhaps this passage from delightful dialogue to precise scientific treatise was a necessary step in the development of philosophy; and science, which is the basis and backbone of philosophy, could not grow until it had evolved its own strict methods of procedure and expression. Aristotle, too, wrote literary dialogues, as highly reputed in their day as Plato’s; but they are lost, just as the scientific treatises of Plato have perished. Probably time has preserved of each man the better part. 

Instead of great literature, Aristotle gave us technical, abstract, concentrated science.

Finally, it is possible that the writings attributed to Aristotle were not his, but were largely the compilations of students and followers who had embalmed the unadorned substance of his lectures in their notes. It does not appear that Aristotle published in his life-time any technical writings except those on logic and rhetoric; and the present form of the logical treatises is due to later editing. In the case of the Metaphysics and the Politics the notes left by Aristotle seem to have been put together by his executors without revision or alteration. Even the unity of style which marks Aristotle’s writings, and offers an argument to those who defend his direct authorship, may be, after all, merely a unity given them through common editing by the Peripatetic School. About this matter there rages a sort of Homeric question, of almost epic scope, into which the busy reader will not care to go, and on which a modest student will not undertake to judge. We may at all events be sure that Aristotle is the spiritual author of all these books that bear his name: that the hand may be in some cases another’s hand, but that the head and the heart are his.

[The reader who wishes to go to the philosopher himself will find the Meteorology an interesting example of Aristotle’s scientific work; he will derive much practical instruction from the Rhetoric; and he will find Aristotle at his best in books i-ii of the Ethics, and books i-iv of the Politics. The best translation of the Ethics is Welldon’s; of the Politics, Jowett’s. Sir Alexander Grant’s Aristotle is a simple book; Zeller’s Aristotle (vols. iii-iv in his Greek Philosophy), is scholarly but dry; Gomperz’s Greek Thinker. (voL iv). Is masterly but difficult.]

Aristotle is the spiritual author of all these books that bear his name. The hand may be in some cases another’s hand, but that the head and the heart are his.


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