The Low Down on Aristotle
Heidegger famously said of Aristotle’s biography, “He lived, he worked, he died.” While many scholars take that to mean that Heidegger was dismissing the significance of biography in considering a philosopher’s work, Iain Thompson has convincingly argued that Heidegger takes for granted the significance of biography, so in the air was Werner Jaeger’s work on Aristotle’s biography, that he means not to dismiss it but to say it is not sufficient for understanding Aristotle. As when people resort to psychologizing a particular thinker instead of dealing with their work, it would be dismissive to say that we can entirely understand a thinker on the basis of things that happened to them or the whims of fortune that characterized their lives.
And yet. Perhaps we have swung too far away from caring about the specific details of the lives of those we study. I hesitate to say that the details can wholly frame our reading, but I also think it behooves us to see these thinkers as human beings: they didn’t just live, work and die; they struggled to find work they enjoyed, they loved, they fought, they studied and were disappointed; they struck out on their own. Examining the details we know and the gossip we can gather about a philosopher who has become more a marble bust than a human thinker can bring down to earth a towering colossus.
Someone recently told me of Carlo Natali’s Aristotle: His Life and School, which is all you need in the way of information, gossip and innuendo about Aristotle’s life, and even better, historical and archaeological information about the school Aristotle founded. Natali’s book is just as good on what we know about Aristotle as what we know about what people who were his contemporaries and in the next generation or so said about Aristotle.
What We Know
We know that Aristotle was born in Stagira in 384 / 383 BCE. Stagira was a polis of Thrace, on the Silean Plain in the Chalcidian peninsula. It was a colony of Andros, which was an ally and tributary of Athens during the first Athenian league. It would thus be wrong to say that Aristotle grew up as a Macedonian subject, if anything, he grew up an Athenian subject.
Stagira has a staggered history. Xerxes appears to have ignored it when he came by on his way to conquer Greece in 480 BCE. In 424, during the Peloponnesian War, Stagira allied itself with Sparta despite its historical allyship with Athens. In retaliation, Cleon put the city under siege in 422. About 70 years later, when Aristotle was a student at Plato’s Academy, Philip of Macedon invaded the Chalcidian peninsula and forced all the independent poleis to submit to him. It is worth noting that Aristotle’s father’s house was still standing in 322 BCE when he died, so it is not likely that Philip conquered Stagira.
We know that Aristotle’s parents were Nicomachus and Phaestis, and that Phaestis, at least, was also a Stagirite. One gets the sense that Greeks traced their ancestry to Greek gods and heroes the way that some Americans try to trace their ancestry to the Mayflower. Aristotle’s father Nicomachus claimed to be descended from Nicomachus the son of Machaon, who was the son of Asclepius, the famous doctor to whom Socrates says we owe a cock when he drinks the hemlock in the Phaedo. Homer has Machaon wounded by Paris in the Trojan War, where he was a physician and a medic. But we don’t know anything about Aristotle’s father other than this. The claimed ancestry suggests he was a doctor, but we don’t have evidence for this. Maybe Aristotle always wanted to be a doctor himself so he made this story be known, but it isn’t until late antiquity that biographers begin to say that Nicomachus was a court physician and friend of Amyntas, the king of Macedonia.
Aristotle’s mother, Thestis or Phaestis, is mentioned in his will. She was said to be a descendant of the Chalcidians who founded Stagira, which like saying that your ancestor was a god or hero, was a way of showing or claiming honor. We know that Aristotle did go to Chalcis the second time he left Athens and that he had a house and garden there, so it is likely that this was more than just an honorific. Aristotle had a brother named Arimnestus, who died before Aristotle without children and to whom Aristotle directs his executors to erect a statue in his memory upon his death.
The Neoplatonic Lives include the claim that Proxenus, a citizen of Atarneus, adopted Aristotle when his father died, around 370-369 BCE, which could be the root into Aristotle’s close connection with the tyrant Hermias of Atarneus, and Proxenus could also be the one who enrolls Aristotle in Plato’s Academy, which is what Usaiba, the Arabic biographer of Aristotle claims. Aristotle seems to have adopted Nicanor, who might also have been his step-brother. This Nicanor is believed to be the general in Alexander’s army who read an edict at Olympia from Alexander in which Alexander demands divine tribute from the Greek cities (12-13). Nicanor went on to fight in the service of Cassander, the son of Antipater against Polyperchon in a war in which Nicanor commanded the Macedonian troops in Athens. Nicanor was later responsible for occupying the Piraeus and was eventually killed by Cassander when Cassander deemed Nicanor too powerful. This dispute appeared to be between Macedonian troops, but it might explain the suspicion that Athenians had toward Aristotle who would have been the adoptive father of Nicanor.
Aristotle asks to have the bones of his dead wife Pythia moved to be buried next to him. His daughter Pythia was likely an epiklêros heir, a female child who inherits property in the absence of a male heir. She later married Nicanor, and when he died, Procleus, who was said to be a descendent of the Spartan King Demaratus, and who studied philosophy with Theophrastus, Aristotle’s most famous student. It isn’t clear what happened to him, but she did have another husband, who was a doctor, and they had a child that the named Aristotle.
Aristotle also had a son, the rumored editor of the Nicomachean Ethics, Nicomachus, though few people think he was, in fact, the one who edited this treatise since he is considered to have died young.
Aristotle came to Plato’s Academy when he was 17 and studied with Plato for twenty years. We don’t know why he came to Athens. It isn’t clear that he was planning to study philosophy or that he had high flown motivations. He did follow the custom of finding a teacher and staying with that one teacher instead of attending lectures by various teachers throughout the city. At Plato’s Academy, Aristotle was known to walk out of discussions to go read by himself.
Aristotle was a metic, an alien resident, which meant he was restricted from various roles and required to pay a certain tax which citizens did not have to pay. He also had to have a sponsor who was an Athenian citizen and he had to register as a resident of an Athenian demos, but we don’t know which one he registered as. He had to serve in the military, but he could not serve as a magistrate, and he couldn’t own real estate.
Aristotle left Athens and Plato’s Academy in 347 when after Philip of Macedon defeated Olynthus, the anti-Macedonian party of Demosthenes came to power in Athens. Plato dies in 347. Whether Aristotle left because Speusippus becomes the head of the Academy or because of the anti-Macedonian atmosphere in Athens is not clear. It isn’t clear that Plato’s death would have inspired an occasion for a philosophical break and it also isn’t clear that Aristotle held pro-Macedonian sympathies at this early date. We do know that Aristotle was gone from Athens from 347-335 BCE. It seems that he stayed with Hermias, the tyrant of Atarneus for three years (347-345) (to whom Aristotle erects a monument at Delphi) and then he went to Mytilene from 345-344 and then to stay with Philip of Macedon when Alexander was 15 in 343/342. Some sources have him tutoring Alexander for three years, some for eight. There is not clear evidence what he was doing for the five years from 340-335, but it does seem like part of what he did during this time was conduct his biological studies in Troad, at Assos and Atarneus, on Lesbos, and in Macedonia. We know this because many of the species he observes are indigenous to those regions.
His time in Macedonia and the accusations that he had Macedonian sentiments make his categorizing of the Macedonians as barbarians all the more interesting and opens the question of the space between the common Athenian view of barbarian and Aristotle’s specific conception of barbarian. Surely the Macedonians speak Greek and have various structures and forms of rule, two things Aristotle finds lacking among barbarians, so what it means to call the Macedonians barbarians prompts new questions like how Aristotle perceived their rule.
In addition to Nicanor, Aristotle also adopted Callisthenes, who was the likely collaborator with Aristotle on a catalog of winners of athletic games. Callisthenes also wrote a History of Greece and a book about Alexander, and he might have done research for Aristotle. Callisthenes was famously put to death by Alexander himself. He might have been part of a plot to assassinate Alexander. In any case, his death might have reflected poorly on Aristotle in Macedonia, but it might have made Athenians more well-disposed to him again. In any case, Aristotle returns to Athens in 335 BCE, establishes his Lyceum there and lectures for thirteen years until 323, when Alexander dies. That year, Aristotle moved back to Chalcis and he died the next year in 322 at 63. It is likely that if he hadn’t returned to Athens we would not have his work today.
What People Said
In 306, Demochares, nephew of Demosthenes, gave a speech during a trial that was part of the effort to close the philosophical schools in Athens, wherein he accused Aristotle of being a friend of Philip of Macedon and having supported Philip in the Greek defeat. Demochares mentions letters Aristotle wrote against Athens and accuses Aristotle of betraying Stagira and of being an informer to Philip.
While Aristotle might have tried to play up his father’s medical ancestry, his contemporary biographers Epicurus and Timaeus both accuse Aristotle of being at the very nicest, a pill pusher. Diogenes Laertius tells us that Epicurus called Aristotle “a wastrel, who after devouring his father’s fortune took to soldiering and selling drugs” (9). Aelian reports a similar story, but probably was using Epicurus as a source. Aristocles throws further shade:
how could [Aristotle] have consumed all his father’s wealth, and then gone off to be a soldier, and having failed at this as well, entered the drug trade, and then joined Plato’s Peripatos, which was open to all comers, as Epicurus says … (9)
An unknown person testifies in Athenaeus to this fact and ties it to Aristotle’s turn to the philosophical:
I am well aware that Epicurus, who was very devoted to the truth, has said of him, in his letter On Vocations, that after he devoured his father’s inheritance he rushed into the army, and because he was bad at this, he got into selling drugs. Then, since the peripatos of Plato was open to everybody, he said, Aristotle presented himself and sat in on the lectures, not without talent, and graduatelly got out of that and into the theoretical.
This person seems to be saying that Aristotle had little talent of his own for the medical art and so was basically living in his parents’ basement until the money started to run out so he had to get a job and the only thing he could think of was going into the army, but they didn’t even want him. So he started selling drugs to make some money, which legal or not, everyone found suspicious and disreputable. And then because Plato’s school was open admission and anyone could go he kind of stumbled into it and hey, he was a pretty good student. So then he kind of got into it and yeah so philosophy set him on the straight and narrow.
Timaeus really did not like Aristotle, probably because Aristotle talked trash about Locri, where Timaeus was from, as Polybius reports:
[Timaeus} says that [Aristotle] was brash, rash, and reckless, and furthermore, that he said absolutely outrageous things about the city of Locri, alleging that their colony was a colony of fugitives, servants, adulterers, and slave dealers. And he says that he tells all this with such trustworthiness that he as the air of being the numero uno of those who were on campaign and had just now defeated the Persians marshaled at the Cilician gates, by his own strength, and not instead a retarded and insatiable sophist who had just shut down an expensive medical clinic; furthermore, that he used to jump into every house and every tent, and also that he was a glutton and a chef de cuisine, always carried away in the direction of his mouth (10).
Aristotle’s love life was the subject of much gossip, whether it was about his wife or his rumored lover. Diogenes Laertius claims that Aristotle sacrificed to his wife “the way Athenians sacrifice to Demeter of Eleusis” (14). This tidbit apparently made the rounds, because Aristocles mentions it but dismisses it. But this notion that he was so given over to her is perhaps what inspired medieval thinkers to depict him on fours straddled by a woman. But maybe it was his lover that inspired those images.
Aristotle had a daughter younger than fourteen when he died in 322 BCE, so his wife must have been alive twelve years before his death, but when she died, it appears that Aristotle took a lover. He mentions a woman, Herpyllis in his will, and asks that she be taken care of “because she was good to me” (15). If she chose not to marry, Aristotle directed that she be put up in one of his houses in Stagira or Chalcis. Usaiba makes Aristotle’s claim even stronger, describing her “earnestness in rendering service to me and her zeal for all that was becoming for me” (16). Natali lists six sources that speak of Herpyllis as Aristotle’s lover (hetaira). Notably the Neoplatonists make no mention of her. Aristocles says Aristotle married her, but it isn’t clear whether this claim is true or made in an effort to protect Aristotle’s reputation.
Aristotle was clearly ill toward the end of his life, but most ancient authors report that Aristotle left Athens to avoid being condemned to death for impiety. A trial was begun against him on those charges, so that might have been the case. But it isn’t obvious that the impiety was because of his philosophical teaching as much as his public action and associations, whether with the tyrant Hermias or with Alexander.
In any case, Aristotle was not in his own time particularly revered. He was rich guy from a rich family who got in with some important if dubious people on occasion. He didn’t study philosophy so much because it was virtuous as much as he thought it was a good use of his leisure time. That is to say, unlike Socrates who pursued a philosophical life that made him poor, Aristotle pursued a philosophical life in order to fill the free hours he had as a result of having sufficient resources, as Natali notes (66). But Aristotle was also an outsider in many ways, and people often talked about him as if they were skeptical of him, as an outsider. I wonder if those Arabic scribes and medieval monks knew.