At the end of the Republic, Plato relates an eschatological myth (a myth of death), the so-called ‘myth or Er’.

Er was slain in battle but came back to life twelve days later to tell the living of what he had seen during the time that he was dead. During this time, his soul went on a journey to a meadow with four openings, two into the heavens above and two into the earth below. Judges sat in this meadow and ordered the good souls up through one of the openings into the heavens and the bad ones down through one of the openings into the earth. Meanwhile, clean and bright souls floated down to the meadow from the other opening into the heavens, and dusty and worn out souls rose up to the meadow from the other opening into the earth. Each soul had returned from a thousand year journey, but whereas the clean and bright souls spoke merrily of that which they enjoyed in the heavens, the dusty and worn out souls wept at that which they had endured in the underground. Souls that had committed heinous crimes, such as those of tyrants or murderers, were not permitted to rise up into the meadow, and were condemned to an eternity in the underground.

After seven days in the meadow, the souls travelled for five more days to the Spindle of Necessity, a shaft of intensely bright light that extends into the heavens and that holds together the universe. The souls were then asked to come forth one by one and to choose their next life from a scattered jigsaw of human and animal lives. Not having known the terrors of the underworld, the first soul hastily chose the life of a powerful dictator, only to discover that he was fated, among many other evils, to devour his own children. Although he had been virtuous in his previous life, his virtue had arisen out of habit rather than out of philosophy, and so his judgement was poor. In contrast, the souls that had known the terrors of the underworld often chose a better, more virtuous life, but this they did on no other account than harsh experience. Thus, many of the souls exchanged a good destiny for an evil or an evil for a good. The soul of the wily Odysseus, which was the last to come forth, sought out the life of a private man with no cares. This he found easily, lying about and neglected by everybody else.

After having chosen their next life, the souls travelled through the scorching Plain of Oblivion and encamped by the River of Forgetfulness. Each soul was required to drink from the river’s water so as to forget all things, but the souls which had not been saved by wisdom drank more than was strictly necessary. In the night, as they slept, the souls shot up like stars to be reborn into their chosen lives. As they did so, Er opened his eyes to find himself lying on his funeral pyre.

Adapted from

The Art of Failure

Aristotle's Rhetoric

Whenever I come across someone who is better or more successful than I am, I can react either with envy or with emulation. According to Aristotle, envy is the pain that we feel because others have good things, whereas emulation is the pain that we feel because we ourselves do not have them. This is a subtle but crucial difference. Unlike envy, which is useless at best and self-defeating at worst, emulation is a good thing because it makes us take steps towards securing good things.

In the modern world, it strikes me that whenever a person comes across another who has something that is highly valued, for example, power, wealth, good judgement, or tranquillity, the most common reaction is envy, disdain, belle indifference, in short, anything but admiration and emulation. By reacting in this way, the person prevents himself from learning from those who understand more than he does, and thereby condemns himself to a lifetime of stagnation. Far better for him would be to humble himself and ask to be taught some wisdom.

Aristotle says that emulation is felt most of all by those who believe themselves to deserve certain good things that they do not yet have, and most keenly by those with an honourable or aristocratic disposition. The opposite of emulation is not envy but contempt, and those who emulate or who are emulated are naturally disposed to be contemptuous of those who have bad things or who have good things through luck rather than through just desert.

There are three important inferences that I feel able to draw from all of this. The first is that the way that we see the world has changed radically since the time of Aristotle, and not necessarily for the better. The second is that, whereas emulation is the reaction of the few with high self-esteem, envy is the reaction of the many with low self-esteem. And thus that self-esteem is the key to self-improvement.

Live and die in Aristotle’s works.
– Christopher Marlowe, Faust

After Sulla removed Aristotle’s esoteric writings to Rome, they were edited and published by the peripatetic philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes. By late antiquity they had almost fallen out of circulation, hampered by the rise of the Church and of neo-Platonism, the fall of Rome, and the loss of the Greek language amongst educated people. In the early sixth century, the Christian philosopher Boethius translated Aristotle’s works on logic into Latin, and, for centuries to come, these were the only significant portions of Aristotle’s writings (or indeed of Greek philosophy) available in the Occident. However, the study of Aristotle continued unabated in the Orient, in the Byzantine Empire and more particularly in the Abbasid Caliphate, where Persian and Arab philosophers such as Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes wrote extensive commentaries on Aristotle, whom they referred to deferentially as The First Teacher.

In the twelfth century, this Aristotelian fervour spilt over into Christian Europe. In the Condemnations of 1210–1277, the Bishops of Paris prohibited Aristotle’s physical writings on the grounds of heterodoxy, but without too much success. In the thirteenth century William of Moerbeke produced a Latin translation of Aristotle’s writings from the original Greek text rather than from Arabic translations, the first complete Latin translation faithful both to the spirit and to the letter of Aristotle. At around the same time, Albert the Great and his pre-eminent student Thomas Aquinas, the Doctor Angelus, sought to reconcile Christian thought with Aristotle, whom they and other scholastic thinkers referred to simply as The Philosopher. Under the aegis of the Church, Aristotelian ideas achieved such prominence and such propriety as to be assimilated to God-given gospel, to be overturned only centuries later by pioneers like Galileo, Descartes, and Newton.

Aristotle is without a doubt one of the greatest philosophers of all time, and, along with Plato, one of the most influential people in Western history. Raphael’s Renaissance masterpiece, The School of Athens, depicts Plato and Aristotle walking side by side, surrounded by a number of other philosophers and personalities of antiquity. An elderly Plato is holding a copy of his Timaeus and pointing vertically to the lofty vault above their heads, whilst a younger Aristotle is holding a copy of the Nicomachean Ethics and gesturing horizontally towards the descending steps at their feet. Plato was chiefly interested in moral philosophy, and held natural philosophy, that is, science, to be an inferior and unworthy type of knowledge. His idealism culminated in the Theory of the Forms, according to which knowledge of the truth cannot be acquired through the sense experience of imperfect particulars, but only through the rational contemplation of their universal essences or Forms. Aristotle flatly rejected the Theory of the Forms and emphasised that all philosophy should be grounded in the simple observation of particulars. In so doing, he laid the foundations for the scientific method, and his meticulous zoological observations remained unsurpassed for several centuries. His moral philosophy prevailed throughout the ancient and mediaeval periods, exerting a profound influence on Christian thought, and returned to due prominence in the twentieth century with the resurgence of virtue ethics. His extant works, to say nothing of those that have been lost, cover such a wide range of topics, from aesthetics to astronomy and from politics to psychology, as to constitute a quasi encyclopaedia of Greek knowledge. Some of his most important works are Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, On the Soul, Poetics, and, of course, the Organon, with which he created the field of logic and dominated it so thoroughly and for so long that even Kant in the eighteenth century thought that he had said the last word upon it.

More than any other figure in Western history, Aristotle is the embodiment of knowledge and of learning. His ideas have shaped centuries of thought and are still keenly pored over by all those who seek to understand Western civilisation, or simply to inhabit one of the greatest minds of all time.

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.

According to legend, while the infant Plato was sleeping in a bower of myrtles on Mount Hymettus, bees settled upon his lips, auguring the honeyed words that would one day flow through his mouth. In his Lives of Philosophers, Diogenes Laertes says that, in the night before Plato was introduced to him as a pupil, Socrates ‘in a dream saw a swan on his knees, which all at once put forth plumage, and flew away after uttering a loud sweet note.’ Cicero, who was himself one of the greatest stylists in antiquity, lauded Plato’s subtle and mellifluous dialogues, but then added that if Plato’s prose was silver, Aristotle’s was ‘a flowing river of gold’. This may come as a surprise to modern readers of Aristotle, whose treatises often seem heavily technical, poorly written, and badly organised – and yet it is difficult to doubt the judgement of a man like Cicero. One can only assume that Cicero had before him works that have since been lost, such as the dialogues that Aristotle is known to have written earlier on in his career, probably while still at the Academy. The few fragments of these dialogues that remain suggest that they were written in a style similar to that of the Son of Apollo, who was then Aristotle’s master.

Whilst the lost works of Aristotle appear to have been intended for publication, this is not the case for the surviving works, the so-called Corpus Aristotelicum, which are not dialogues but technical philosophical treatises from within Aristotle’s school. They were probably lecture notes or student texts, and were almost certainly repeatedly reworked over a period of several years. Although their prose is unembellished, this does not usually detract from their philosophical content, and some scholars even come to admire them for their candour and for their clarity. Aristotle divided his writings into two groups, those intended for the public (‘exoteric’) and those intended for his students and for other specialists (‘esoteric’), and it is possible that all of his extant writings are from the second, esoteric group. According to Strabo and to Plutarch, Aristotle willed his esoteric writings to Theophrastus, who in turn willed them to his student Neleus of Scepsis, who supposedly took them from Athens to Scepsis. Neleus’s heirs hid them in a vault, where they were discovered by the famous book collector Apellicon of Teos some two hundred years later, in the first century BC. According to the story, Apellicon repatriated the dilapidated manuscripts to Athens, wherefrom Sulla, who occupied Athens in 86 BC, removed them to Rome. They were then published by the grammarian Tyrannion of Amisus and, later, by the peripatetic philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes.

The works in the Corpus Aristotelicum can be classified into one of several groups according to their subject matter. Aristotle referred to the branches of learning as ‘sciences’, which he divided into three groups: theoretical sciences, practical sciences, and productive sciences. Theoretical sciences are concerned with knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and comprise both natural sciences and non-empirical forms of knowledge such as mathematics and ‘first philosophy’ (metaphysics). Practical sciences are concerned with good conduct and action both at the individual level, as in ethics, and at the societal level, as in politics. Productive sciences are concerned with the creation of beautiful or useful artefacts, and include, amongst many others, agriculture, medicine, music, and rhetoric. Logic, that is, the branch of learning that is concerned with the principles of intellectual inquiry, does not fit into this tripartite division of the sciences, but stands apart under the heading of Organon or ‘Tool’.

Not all the works in the Corpus Aristotelicum are considered to be genuine, and the list that follows is composed only of those that are. The works are referred to by their English titles, but their Latin titles and standard abbreviations, which are often used by scholars, are also given. The works are ordered by their Bekker numbers, which are named after the classical philologist August Immanuel Bekker, editor of the Prussian Academy of Sciences edition in Greek of the complete works of Aristotle (1831-1870). The Bekker numbers are based on the page numbers used in the Bekker edition, and take the format of up to four digits, a letter for column ‘a’ or ‘b’, and then the line number. For example, the beginning of On the Soul is 402a1, which corresponds to the first line of the first column on page 402 of the Bekker edition. Bekker numbers are included in all modern editions or translations of Aristotle that are intended for scholarly readers, and enable citations to be cross-checked in any edition or translation that contain the numbers. The equivalent numbering system for the Corpus Platonicum is the Stephanus pagination.

Categories [Categorie, Cat.]
On Interpretation [De Interpretatione, DI]
Prior Analytics [Analytica Priora, APr]
Posterior Analytics [Analytica Posteriora, APo]
Topics [Topica, Top.]
Sophistical Refutations [De Sophisticis Elenchis, SE]
Theoretical Sciences
Physics [Physica, Phys.]
On the Heavens [De Caelo, DC]
Generation and Corruption [De Generatione et Corruptione, Gen. et Corr.]
Meteorology [Meteorologica, Meteor.]
On the Soul [De Anima, DA]
Brief Natural Treatises [Parva Naturalia, PN]
Sense and Sensibilia
On Memory
On Sleep
On Dreams
On Divination in Sleep
On Length and Shortness of Life
On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration
History of Animals [Historia animalium, HA]
Parts of Animals [De Partibus Animalium, PA]
Movement of Animals [De Motu Animalium, MA]
Progression of Animals [De Incessu Animalium, LA]
Generation of Animals [De Generatione Animalium, GA]
Metaphysics [Metaphysica, Met.]
Practical Sciences
Nicomachean Ethics [Ethica Nicomachea, EN]
Eudemian Ethics [Ethica Eudemia, EE]
Politics [Politica, Pol.]
Productive Sciences
Rhetoric [Ars Rhetorica, Rhet.]
Poetics [Ars Poetica, Poet.]

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.

I saw the Master there of those who know,
Amid the philosophic family,
By all admired, and by all reverenced;
There Plato too I saw, and Socrates,
Who stood beside him closer than the rest.

Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno IV, verses 131-135.

Aristotle was born in 384 BC at Stageira in Chalcidice, a Grecian colony in the Macedonian region of north-eastern Greece. In 348, Stageira was occupied and destroyed by Philip II of Macedon. Philip later rebuilt the city and freed its inhabitants from slavery in honour of Aristotle, who had been his childhood friend, and whom he had appointed as tutor to his son, the future Alexander the Great.

The Stagirite’s father, Nicomachus, was the personal physician to King Amyntas of Macedon, the father of Philip, and the profession of medicine was quasi hereditary in his family. His mother, Phaestis, was a woman of aristocratic descent, and he also had one sister, Arimneste, and one brother, Arimnestus. Both ‘Arimneste’ and ‘Arimnestus’ translate as ‘Greatly remembered’, and the parallelism of these names suggests that Aristotle may have been the youngest of the three siblings. Arimneste married Proxenus of Atarneus and had a daughter, Hero, and a son, Nicanor. Hero in turn had a son, the historian Callisthenes of Olynthus, great nephew to Aristotle. Both Nichomachus and Phaestis died when Aristotle was about ten years old, and Aristotle became the ward of Proxenus of Atarneus. Proxenus taught him Greek, rhetoric, and poetry, and thereby complemented the biological education that Nicomachus had been giving him.

In 367, at the age of seventeen, Aristotle went to Athens to study at Plato’s Academy, which had by then already become a pre-eminent centre of learning. Whilst Plato and Aristotle certainly had differences of opinion, there was no lack of cordial appreciation, or of that mutual forbearance which one would expect from men of lofty character. Aristotle remained at the Academy for nearly twenty years and left around the time of Plato’s death in 347. The reasons for his departure are unclear: he may have felt slighted that the scholarchship (or leadership) of the Academy had passed on to Plato’s nephew Speusippus, or he may have opposed Speusippus’ views, or he may have left before Plato’s death because he feared growing anti-Macedonian feelings.

Then in his thirty-seventh year, Aristotle travelled with Xenocrates of Chalcedon to Assos on the north-western coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) to join the court of his friend Hermias of Atarneus. He may or may not have travelled to Assos as an ambassador for Philip. In either case, it seems that he exerted a moderating influence on Hermias, who softened his harsh tyrannical rule and introduced reforms consistent with Platonic principles of government. Aristotle married Hermias’ niece and adoptive daughter, Pythias, who was then probably around eighteen years old, and Pythias bore him a daughter, also called Pythias. In 344, Hermias was captured by the Persians and tortured for information about Philip’s plans, but Hermias kept his silence. His dying words were that he had done nothing shameful or unworthy of philosophy, and Aristotle honoured him by dedicating a statue in Delphi and composing a hymn to Virtue. At around this time, Aristotle travelled with his pupil Theophrastus (‘Divinely speaking’ – the nickname given to him by Aristotle) to the nearby island of Lesbos where he researched the zoology of the island and Theophastrus researched its botany.

Some two years later Aristotle was invited by Philip to tutor his son Alexander, who was then thirteen years old. At the temple of the Nymphs near Mieza near the Macedonian capital of Pella, Aristotle gave lessons not only to Alexander, but also to two other future rulers, Ptolemy and Cassander. He probably had considerable influence over Alexander, who took with him on his eastern conquests a crowd of zoologists, botanists, and other researchers. It is said that Aristotle prepared for Alexander a special edition of Homer’s Iliad, which inspired the young prince to model his life on that of the greatest of the Greek heroes of the Trojan War, the semi-divine Achilles. According to Plutarch and to Aulius Gellius, upon hearing that Aristotle had published some of his oral teachings, Alexander wrote to him from Asia,

Alexander to Aristotle, greeting. You have not done well to publish your books of oral doctrine; for what is there now that we excel others in, if those things which we have been particularly instructed in be laid open to all? For my part, I assure you, I had rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and dominion. Farewell.

In 339, Xenocrates succeeded Speusippus as Scholarch of the Academy, with Aristotle being passed over for the scholarchship for a second time. By 335, Aristotle had returned to Athens where he established his own school in a public exercise area dedicated to the god Apollo Lykeois, whence its name, the Lyceum. Aristotle often discussed philosophical problems while walking along the shaded walks (peripatoi) of the Lyceum, for which reason affiliates of the school came to be known as ‘peripatetics’. The Lyceum survived until 86, when Athens was sacked by the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (Sulla being the only man in history to have attacked and occupied both Athens and Rome). Aristotle taught at the Lyceum for some twelve years, during which time he also wrote many of his works and collected the first great library of the Ancient World. After the death of his wife Pythias, he became involved with (but did not marry) Herpyllis of Stageira, who bore him a son whom he named after his father, Nicomachus. According to the Suda, he also kept an eromenos (younger male lover), the historian Palaephatus of Abydus.

Near the end of his life, Alexander ordered the execution as a traitor of Aristotle’s grandnephew Callisthenes and this and other things soured the relationship between the king and his master. After Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323, anti-Macedonian feelings in Athens flared up, and Eurydemon the hierophant denounced Aristotle for not holding the gods in honour. Aristotle fled to his country house at Chalcis on Euboea, an island off the Attic coast and the homeland of his mother’s family. Referring to the trial and execution of Socrates in 399, he famously explained, ‘I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy’. He died of natural causes within the year on March 7 of 322, aged sixty-two. There is a story according to which he threw himself into the sea ‘because he could not explain the tides’, but this is unlikely to be true, as are other fanciful conjectures about his death. After Aristotle had left Athens, Theophrastus – who was not Macedonian but Lesbian – had stayed behind as scholarch of the peripatetic school, and in his will Aristotle made provisions for him and for others to take over the care of his children and of Herpyllis. He also left him his works and his library, and designated him as his successor at the Lyceum.

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.