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September 04, 2019 Wednesday 03:55:09 PM IST

Aristotle: The Elixir of Western Thought

Creative Living

If you look for a single genius, who commands abiding influence over the Western thought, itsphilosophy, science, technology, religion and politics, your search would certainly end up with Aristotle of Stagira (384–322 BC), a polymath, who changed its course for eternity. Aristotle definedthe themes of Western philosophy, designed its methods of investigation and proposedits ultimate purpose. Born in ancient Greece to aristocratic parents, Aristotle wieldedremarkableinfluence on the thinkersall over the world for centuries. Contributions of Aristotle to Western thought were comprehensive and no serious modern thinkercanafford tooverlook the meaning and directions posited by this legendary teacher. The life of Aristotle, whohadleft a lasting impressionon this beautiful blue planet Earth, is a textbook for any creative mind.

Life of Aristotle

In Ancient Greek, the word Aristotle means ‘the best purpose’, a justification forthe seminal contributions that Aristotle made.Aristotle was born in Stagira near the modern-day Thessaloniki in Greece, which was then under the Macedonian rule. Both his parents died when he was about thirteen. At the age of seventeen or eighteen, Aristotle came to Athens to join Plato's Academy and continued there for nearly twenty years. He was an illustrious student and Plato took care to mentor him as his successor.

However, in the course of time,differences in points of viewssurfaced between Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle did not subscribe to the Platonicconcept of the `Realm of Forms'. According to Plato, there exists a Realm of Forms, which contains the perfect expressions of what is Good, True, and Beautiful, which gets reflected on the earthly plane, in so far as how people participate in these Forms.As a consequence, knowledge cannot be gained from experience, makingthe search for Truth a ‘remembrance’of the pastengagement with the world of Forms.


Aristotle rejected this theory completely and instead, postulated the Causality Principle. According to it, the cause-effect dyad produces pieces of knowledge, which ultimately connect the seeker back to the First Cause of everything, the Prime Mover, which moves everything else but is itself unmoved by anything else.Eventually, the concept of Unmoved Mover got absorbed into the definition of God of the three major monotheistic religions, namely Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The Causality Principle of Aristotle is the basis for any scientific investigation, though the discovery of scientific method is often ascribed to Galileo.

Aristotle was disappointed with the decision of the Academy to hand over the directorship of the Academy to Plato’s nephew Speusippus, after the death of Plato. Aristotle left Plato’s Academyand also the city of Athens.

Without much delay,Aristotle joined the court of his friend Hermias of Atarneus, a former student of Plato’s Academy, in Asia Minor. Aristotle took time to travel far and wide, investigating into botany and zoology in the island of Lesbos. Here Aristotle met with his first love Pythias, the daughter of Hermias, a passionate botanist herself.

During his stay in Lesbos island, Aristotle received an invitation from the king Philip II of Macedonia to be the tutor to his son Alexander, who later became Alexander the Great, one of the most influential Greek emperors. This invitation worked out as one of the major breakthroughs in the life of Aristotle.


Around 335 BC, Aristotle returned to Athens to start his own school there. It was a rival to Plato's Academy and named it Lyceum.  Aristotle taught there for the next 12 years, a period which is considered as the most fruitful one duringhis career. Aristotle received relentless support from Emperor Alexander, who embarked on a project to conquer the entire known world. Being mentored as a lover of wisdom, Alexander paid Aristotle back with a large amount of information he gathered during his conquest of the world. Such a huge heap of information helped Aristotle in his major research endeavors in different disciplines. Aristotlebuilt a resourceful library in the city of Athens,with many of the books contributed by the Emperor Alexander, who took carenot to destroy the cultural or intellectual goods, but to treasure and preserve them for posterity.

Aristotle gathered around him a group of brilliant students and researchers, who were designated as ‘peripatetics’, or nomads, referring to the Aristotelean style of lecturing while walking with his students.Aristotle composed a large number of his works during this period, which includedtheDialogue, Treatises in Physics, Metaphysics, Ethics, Politics, Psychology and Poetics apart from significant contributions to Logic, Mathematics, Biology, Botany, Agriculture, Medicine, Dance and Theatre.

However, following the premature death of Emperor Alexanderin Babylon (323 BC), probably due to malaria, Aristotle decided to flee Athens, to save himself from the anti-Macedonian sentiments, which was on the rise in the city. He is said to have quipped: "I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy," referring to the execution of Socrates by Athenians. Aristotle was 61, when he died in 322 BC due to somestomach disease.

Aristotle:The Initiator


Aristotle was endowed with an indomitable startup spirit all along his life. He cleverly made use of the opportunities that life offered him to deliver the ‘best purpose’ of his life and thus justifying his very name. Though born to aristocratic parents, Aristotle’s life was not a bed of flowers. He had a challenging adolescence, having lost both his parents at atender age. He had the privilege to join the best school of his time, namely, the Academy of Plato, where he honed his intellectual and practical skills. He wonthe attention and appreciation of Plato, who mentored him to be his successor.

However, Aristotle was denied of the leadership the institution after the death of Plato.But that did not subdue the spirit of Aristotleby an iota. He dared to venture out of Athens with his novel projects in biology and botany.

Eventually, he was invited to teach the future monarch of Macedonia, which he utilized to build up his own school, namely Lyceum, near to the Plato’s Academy. It was his sweet revenge at Platonists, who underestimated his leadership prowess. In the course of time, Aristotle overtrumped the supporters of Plato and established his powerful school on solid foundations, which was instrumental in spreadingthe influence of Aristotelianism over the whole world and for many centuries to come.

Aristotle was a never-say-die spirit and an initiator par excellence!


Aristotle:The Investigator

Aristotle developed a complete portfolio to investigate everythingunder the sun based on the principles of causality, which he elaborated in Physics II, 3 and Metaphysics V, 2. According to Aristotle, any investigation needs to answer four typical‘Why’ questions, namely the questions on its material cause, formal cause, efficient cause and final cause. Any explanation which fails to provide answers to any of these questions, has to be considered an incomplete and inadequate explanation.

Let us describe Aristotelean causality with an example, say, table. A sound explanation on table shall include answers to the following questions. 1. What is it made of? (Material Cause) 2) What causes its unique shape or appearance? (Formal Cause), 3) Whose agency help develop it? (Efficient Cause) and 4) What is its end purpose? (Final Cause). In the case of table, its complete explanation may look like: The table is made of wood, based on a design with four legs of equal length, carved by a carpenter out of wood for the purpose of using it as a dining table.

In this way, Aristotle provided the Western world with a framework for critical and creative thinking and initiated semi-scientific investigations based on data and evidence.However, thehistory of sciencemay identifythe postulates of Aristotle as the major bottleneck that constrained the birth of modern science.


It so happened that any scientist, who wanted to put up a new theory in science,was condemned first to prove Aristotle wrong! Copernicus had to reject Aristotle, who said that earth is the centre of the universe,in order to establish his theory of sun-centred (heliocentric) world. Galileo had to contradict Aristotle,with the surmise that heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones, to establish his theory of gravity. Isaac Newton had to agitate against Aristotle by stating that the natural state of all objects is to be at rest and they require constant application of force to move them, to establish his First Law of Motion. William Harvey,who had to repudiate Aristotle, suggested that heart is the organ of reason and intellect to prove his theory of heart as a pump for blood. In the course of time, Aristotelian thoughts became stumbling blocks on the path of progress of science, technology, religion, medicine, art and literature. It is worthwhile to investigate into its reason.

The fanatic followers of Aristotle,both in philosophical and theological garbs, dared to block everything creative and novel, blindly asserting the authority of Aristotle. They regarded anything to be right, in contrast to the statements of Aristotle, absolutizing Aristotle’s wisdom. Even tentative statements of Aristotle became golden truths. In the attempts to defend Aristotelean patrimony, they were actually defiling its spirit.Eventually Aristotelianism became a sign of contradiction, agitating against everything new. It turned to be a tool in the hands of the killers of creativity!

Aristotle:The Integrator

The major reason for abiding interest in the Aristotelean way of thinking is its power of integration. It transcends the boundaries of science, art and religion and offers a framework for critical and creative thinking. This appeals to people of all walks of life.


Whether you are aware of it or not, whether you like it or not, you will be using one or the other elements of Aristotelean logic in your daily lives. It is difficult for a common man to do without Aristotle! Either one will have to oppose Aristotle or subscribe tohis point of view. Nobody can afford to remain untouched by hisphilosophy.That is a sign of originality and the level of integration achieved by Aristotelian philosophy.


Dr. Varghese Panthalookaran


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