Aristotle's Universe: from Metaphysics to Physics

Aristotle Biography - Aristotle Pictures - Aristotle from The School of Athens
Aristotle Pictures - Aristotle from The School of Athens. Public Domain - With gratitude to School Mathematics/Statistics University of St Andrews, Scotland

Astronomy and physics are very old topics of study. They date back many centuries, explored by philosophers around the world, ranging from the scholars of the Asian continent to the Middle East, Europe, and of course, Greece. The Greeks took their study of nature very seriously, with many a teacher opining on the mysteries of the universe as they saw it. The Greek philosopher and naturalist Aristotle was one of the most famous of these experts.

He led a long and impressive life, distinguishing himself as a scholar from an early age.

Aristotle was born around 384 BC in Stagirus on the Chalcidic peninsula of northern Greece. We don't know anything about his childhood. It's quite likely his father (who was a doctor) would have expected his son to follow in his footsteps. So, Aristotle probably traveled with his father on his work, which was the way of the physician of the day.

When Aristotle was around the age of 10, both his parents died, ending the plan for him to take up medicine in his father's footsteps. He lived under the care of an uncle, who continued his education by teaching him Greek, rhetoric, and poetry.

Aristotle and Plato

Around the age of 17, Aristotle became a student at Plato's Academy in Athens. While Plato was not there at the time, but on his first visit to Syracuse, the Academy was being run by Eudoxus of Cnidos.

Other teachers included Speusippus, Plato's nephew, and Xenocrates of Chalcedon.

Aristotle was so impressive as a student that he soon became a teacher himself, remaining at the academy for 20 years. While we know little about Aristotle's subjects at the Academy, it is said that he taught rhetoric and dialogue.

He probably did teach rhetoric, as during this time he published Gryllus, a tome that attacked Isocrates's views on rhetoric. Isocrates ran another major educational establishment in Athens.

Leaving the Academy

The events leading to Aristotle's departure from the academy are a bit cloudy. Some say that after Plato died in 347 BC, Speusippus assumed the leadership of the Academy. Perhaps Aristotle quit because he disagreed with Speusippus's views, or hoped to be named Plato's successor, himself. 

Aristotle eventually traveled to Assos, where he was received warmly by the ruler Hermias of Atarneus. Hermias had gathered a group of philosophers on Assos. Aristotle became the leader of this group. Thanks to his father, he was very interested in anatomy and biology and was a great observer. He probably began writing politics during these years.  When the Persians attacked Assos and captured Hermias, Aristotle escaped with many of his scientists to the island of Lesbos. They remained there for about a year, continuing their research.

Return to Macedonia

Around 346 BCE Aristotle and his crew arrived in Macedonia, where he remained for seven years. Eventually, after several years of war and unrest, Aristotle moved back to his home in Stagirus along with his circle of philosophers and scientists, where they continued their work and writings.

 

Aristotle's Teachings

Aristotle apparently lectured on a wide variety of topics and made major innovations in others that were never taught before. He often spoke about the same topic, continuously improving on his own thought processes and writing down his lectures, many of which we still have today. Some of his topics included logic, physics, astronomy, meteorology, zoology, metaphysics, theology, psychology, politics, economics, ethics, rhetoric, and poetics. Today, there exists some debate on whether the works we recognize as Aristotle's were all written by him or were later works created by his followers. However, if scholars do point out that there's a difference in writing style, which could be due to his own evolution in thought, or thanks to his fellow researchers and students following up on Aristotle's ideas.

 

Based on his own observations and experiments, Aristotle developed important principles in physics that govern different types of motion, speed, weight, and resistance. He also impacted the way we understand matter, space and time.

Aristotle's Later Life

Aristotle was forced to move one more time during his lifetime. Thanks to his ties to Macedonia, Aristotle was forced to retire to Chalcis after Alexander the Great (who was a great friend of his) died. He moved into a house once owned by his mother which still belonged to her family. He died there one year later at the age of 62, after complaining of stomach problems.

Edited by Carolyn Collins Petersen.