This article offers an overview of Aristotle’s work by way of a brief summary of 6 of his most famous and influential books. It begins with a discussion of Aristotle’s life and legacy. Then Aristotle’s Metaphysics is explored in light of the relationship between metaphysics and epistemology. Aristotle’s Poetics, which contains Aristotle’s categorization and discussion of different poetic modes, is then discussed. This is followed by a summary of Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, and the summary of the latter is accompanied by a discussion of some contemporary receptions of Aristotle’s theory of politics. Aristotle’s theory of the soul, as set out in De Anima, is considered in light of its influence on various religious thinkers, before the article concludes with a discussion of the Categories, returning to where we began: with a discussion of Aristotle’s conception of knowledge.
Aristotle’s Life and Work
Aristotle was one of the two most important philosophers of Ancient Greece and has a claim to being the most important philosopher in history. Certain details of his life are worth summarizing, both for their own sake and for their potential significance for his philosophical work.
Aristotle was born in Stagira in 384 BC, a city in the northeast of Greece. As a young man, he studied under Plato at the latter’s famous “Academy.” After a stretch in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), where he likely developed further non-philosophical interests, including one in marine biology, he was summoned by Philip of Macedon to become the tutor to Philip’s son, Alexander, a boy of thirteen who would become Alexander the Great.
Incidentally, though we would nowadays class marine biology (and most of what falls under the purvey of “natural science”) as non-philosophical, Aristotle and many other ancient and medieval philosophers saw a great deal of continuity between philosophical and scientific research.
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Aristotle eventually returned to Athens, where he founded his own school, known as the Lyceum, which focused on teaching and researching many of Aristotle’s favored fields of intellectual inquiry. The Lyceum seems to have offered a broader curriculum than Plato’s Academy, which was more squarely focused on philosophy. Aristotle was eventually compelled to flee Athens for political reasons and died on Euboea, an island off the Greek coast, in 322 BC.
Aristotle’s Metaphysics is one of his most famous and oft-studied works, yet a difficulty is presented by the diverse range of topics he attempts to cover. In certain ways, this is almost fitting—metaphysics as a discipline has proven especially difficult to define, and many of those who consider themselves to be doing metaphysics would not at all agree that they are doing the same kind of thing as others who purport to be doing likewise.
It is equally fitting that the Metaphysics begins with a discussion of knowledge ( or epistemology), given the close relationship between these two disciplines in subsequent philosophical history. Aristotle posits that knowledge is derived from perception, the most fundamental form of knowledge is wisdom, and wisdom constitutes knowledge of first principles. It is only this latter form of knowledge which permits one to teach others the way things really are.
The Metaphysics then develops various other themes—the paradoxes of philosophy, possible objections to the idea of “first principles” in the understanding, the principle of contradiction, and the hierarchy of the sciences. Much of the most important material in the Metaphysics is found in the latter portion of the book, which is concerned with topics that are more conventionally understood to be “metaphysical”—substance, matter, essence, potential, and actuality.
Aristotle’s Poetics is often described as the first work of aesthetics—that is, the philosophical study of beauty, taste, art, and the elements of art. Certainly, Aristotle was not the first philosopher to talk about art or to claim a discussion of art as a distinctly philosophical concern, but there is a systematic treatment of the subject in the Poetics which does seem genuinely novel.
The Poetics is conventionally understood as falling into five main parts. First, there is the discussion of the forms of poetry and the distinction between tragedy, epic, and comedy. Then there is a discussion of tragedy and how it is to be defined. Then there is a discussion of tragedy, the way it must be constructed, the effect that tragedy has on those who hear it, and a discussion of “catharsis.” Then possible criticisms of both tragedy and epic are considered. Lastly, an argument is given for the superiority of tragedy over epic as a poetic form.
3. Nicomachean Ethics
The Nichomachean Ethics is Aristotle’s best-known work on moral subjects. It is also probably his last word on the subject, at least among the texts we currently have.
Aristotle begins with a discussion of the highest good for human beings, a move that has proven to be extremely influential among moral philosophers since. The answer he gives is an ancient Greek concept with no direct English equivalent—eudaimonia—which means something between “human flourishing” and “happiness.” What precisely this means is, unsurprisingly, a matter of some dispute.
The association between flourishing and happiness can be understood in light of Aristotle’s doctrine that the highest good for human beings is equivalent to that which constitutes the proper function of the human soul or nature. Much of the rest of the book moves from this very abstract discussion to offer some more concrete analysis of the “virtues”—qualities of a good human being, as well as some examples to distinguish where praise and blame are more appropriate.
Aristotle’s Politics is arguably understudied relative to his ethical theory, and the politics which his philosophical teacher and rival Plato sets out in The Republic. Yet the Politics contains some really fascinating and important discussion of the various ways in which the political realm or the polis differs from or relates to other social units.
Certainly, various more modern philosophers (Hannah Arendt being a prominent example) find a great deal of intellectual interest in Aristotle’s discussion of if and whether the city and its government can be seen as a kind of expansion or maximization of the principles of household rule (the king is to the city as the father is to his household).
Aristotle’s politics can be understood as partly an attempt to make sense of the political as a distinct field of intellectual inquiry, and at the same time to understand the emerging complexity of urban political arrangements as an extension of yet more basic forms of social organization.
5. De Anima
Aristotle’s De Anima is one of his most significant and influential books in part due to its extraordinary influence over Christian, Muslim, and Jewish theologians, as well as the role it played in the development of modern-day philosophy of mind.
For Aristotle, some form of soul inheres in every living thing. Indeed, to have a soul is a mark of what it is to be a living thing. The vegetative and animal souls are, in a sense, components of our souls (human beings have the nutritive and motive capacities possessed by plants and animals, respectively). Aristotle takes our capacity of understanding as a mark of difference between human beings and other living things.
Of the many arguments from De Anima which have been lifted from it for distinctly religious purposes, none is more important than Aristotle’s argument for the immortality of the soul, which he justifies on the basis that the active principle of our minds has no corresponding bodily organ. The attempt to draw parallels between mental processes or entities and their physical correspondents has been a feature of the philosophy of mind ever since.
Aristotle’s work on Categories constitutes one of the most significant contributions to metaphysics, and introduces the very idea of “categorisation” as a metaphilosophical concern (that is, as an element of the study of philosophy itself).
In the Categories, Aristotle attempts to categorize perception. That is, he sets out to sort all of our perceptions into one of ten different categories. He is interested in categorizing anything which can be expressed outside of some further, more elaborate structure. In other words, he is interested in the categorization of simple perceptions.
Part of the Categories is concerned with developing what we would now call a “philosophy of language,” given that Aristotle begins by discussing the question of equivalence in language. He does this both to justify the particular categorical terms he applies and to justify his characterization of simple perception, which relies on that which can be predicated (that is, that which can be offered as a description of some thing).
The Categories are, in effect, an attempt to make sense of the most basic elements of reality, to offer us a way of relating seemingly disparate perceptions into something approaching a more coherent whole.