In the 4th century BCE, Aristotle took to doing philosophy from the ground up.

The Gulf of Kalloni on Lesbos. Wikimedia commons/Public domain/NASA.

In around 370 BCE, the 13-year-old Aristotle lost both of his parents. When he turned 17, his guardian sent him to study at Plato’s Academy in Athens. He remained at the Academy for nearly 20 years, only leaving after Plato’s death in 347.

Now in his 37th year, Aristotle travelled to Assos (in modern-day Turkey) to join the court of Hermias of Atarneus, who had studied at the Academy. It seems he exerted a moderating influence on Hermias, who softened his harsh tyrannical rule. But in 344, Hermias was captured and tortured to death by a mercenary in the service of the Persian king Artaxerxes III.

After the death of Hermias, Aristotle’s student Theophrastus invited him to cross over to his native Lesbos. Together, they researched the flora and fauna of the island and its remarkable lagoon, then known as the Pyrrha lagoon, now as the Gulf of Kalloni. Supposedly, the more empirical Theophrastus concentrated on the flora while the more speculative Aristotle concentrated on the fauna, so that the one is remembered as the father of botany and the other as the father of zoology. In fact, Theophrastus also wrote on animals, and Aristotle also wrote on plants, but these works have been lost.

Aristotle’s biological works represent the first systematic study of biology and reveal a great deal about the man and his method. They are usually ignored, although they make up a quarter of his extant corpus, and were revered by naturalists such as Georges Cuvier and Charles Darwin—who, in the year of his death, 1882, wrote to William Ogle that “although Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods … they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle”.

In his biological works, Aristotle outlines more than five hundred species, some in more detail than others. He describes the chambered stomachs of ruminants, the social organization of bees, and the embryological development of a chick. He notices that some sharks are viviparous, and that whales and dolphins differ from other fish in breathing air and suckling their young. He infers that brood size decreases with body mass, whereas gestation period, and overall lifespan, increases. In a playful by the way, he remarks that “after drinking wine, the Indian parrot becomes more saucy than ever”.

For centuries, some of Aristotle’s accounts seemed too fanciful to be true, for instance, that the young of a dogfish grow inside their mother’s body, that the male of the river catfish guards the eggs for forty or fifty days after the female has left, or that male octopuses have a sperm-transferring tentacle that sometimes snaps off during mating. Each of these curiosities had to wait until the nineteenth century to be confirmed.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle privileged observation over theory. Like modern scientists, he began with a systematic gathering of data, and from this data attempted to infer explanations and make predictions. He carried out dissections and even rudimentary experiments such as cutting out the heart of a tortoise to discover that it could still move its limbs for a surprisingly long time.

However, he did not carry out anything like modern case-control studies, and relied uncritically on the lay testimony of beekeepers, fishermen, travellers, and the like. This lack of rigour led to some embarrassing errors, such as the claim that lions copulate back-to-back, while bears adopt the missionary position and hedgehogs stand on their hind legs to face each other. Or the claim that the female of several species has fewer teeth than the male. Among these species, he included humans, when he could simply have looked into his wife or daughter’s mouth.

Aristotle was not simply doing biology for the sake of science, but for the sake of philosophy. Like Plato, he was searching for universals, but this time from the ground up. “We should” he said, “venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful.” An animal gives birth to the same animal because of its form or ordering pattern—an idea that resonates with modern genetics. Aristotle’s interest in biology informs his theory of the form, which in turn informs his entire physics and metaphysics.

Although he held that all animals have a form, and that the form is transmitted by the male, Aristotle also believed that many lower animals spontaneously generate: that eels grow out of mud, and insect maggots from putrefying flesh, even though Homer had said otherwise—when, in Iliad XIX, Achilles fears that flies will “breed worms” in the corpse of Patroclus. In Aristotle’s defence, he had observed that eels have no gonads, and could hardly have guessed that they only develop them in the course of their epic migration to the Sargasso Sea.

The earliest challenge to spontaneous generation came at late as 1668, when Francesco Redi covered jars of rotting flesh with gauze and found that only the control, that is, the uncovered jars, grew maggots.

The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle is out this week.

In his Poetics, Aristotle examines what makes a story work.

The theme of Aristotle’s Poetics is not poetry as we now conceive of it, but the imitative arts. The first book treats especially of tragedy and epic poetry. Because the second book addressed comedy, it was less likely to be recopied in the monasteries and came to be lost. What remains, Book 1, is the oldest extant work of dramatic and literary theory, and could also have been entitled, What Makes a Story Work or, How to Write a Good Story

Fittingly or not, Aristotle approached poetry in the same scientific manner that he approached biology or physics, gathering, analyzing, and categorizing a ream of data. From this digested data, he attempted to abstract the deep psychological principles that underlie the best stories. Although he examined many plays, he kept on returning to the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, which he upheld as a paradigm of tragedy.

One might wonder why a great logician such as Aristotle turned his mind to the imitative arts. In Islamic scholarship, the Rhetoric and Poetics came to be appended to the compilation of Aristotle’s logical works, or Organon, and it is true that the three books lie on a spectrum: whereas the Organon is about uncovering the truth, the Rhetoric and Poetics are about instilling it in less philosophical types.

For all that, Aristotle does not look down on poetry, and, in fact, regards it more highly than history. Poetry, he says, ‘is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular…’

Although Aristotle himself is not nearly so prescriptive, the Poetics inspired the three classical unities of action, place, and time, according to which a tragedy should consist of a single action that unfolds in a single place over the course of a single day. These rules held sway from the sixteenth century for three centuries and were rigidly observed especially by French playwrights such as Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine.

How to write the perfect story

1. Ultimately, a story should be about people. Aristotle makes the point that even for abstract forms of imitation such as dancing and flute-playing, the objects of imitation are men. In tragedy and epic poetry, people are represented as better than in real life, in comedy, as worse. The inferior characters of comedy should not be bad in the full sense but merely ridiculous.

2. The hero should be illustrious, and better than average without being virtuous. The hero should be neither extremely good nor extremely bad. But although not virtuous, he should be illustrious, like Oedipus, Thyestes, and their ilk. The hero should never be worse than the average person and is often significantly better.

3. The hero’s character should be consistent. Actions should succeed one another with necessity or probability to provide insight into general principles of conduct. Consistency of character ensures that the plot’s unravelling arises out of the plot itself and not from improbable actions or divine intervention. The poet should go so far as to put herself into the shoes of her characters, enact their actions, and feel their emotions. To be able to do this, the poet must have a special gift, or else a strain of madness. 

4. But there should also be room for surprise. Tragedy is most effective at arousing feelings of fear and pity if actions, although credible, come as something of a surprise. The outright fantastical ought to be avoided but might be justified if it makes the work more striking—in which case a probable impossibility is preferable to an improbable possibility.

5. The story should be plot-driven. Although a story should be about people, it is not character but actions that determine failure and success. Life consists in action, and the end of life is not a quality but a mode of action. This cryptic remark reflects Aristotle’s view that the end of life is happiness, and that happiness is not a state but an activity.

6. Plot should consist of three parts. The poet should outline the plot before filling its episodes. The outline of the Odyssey could fit into just three sentences. Plot should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Since beauty depends on magnitude as well as order, each of these parts must be of a certain magnitude. Plot should be long enough for the main character to transition from fortune to misfortune or vice versa, but not so long as to lose the audience. Pity and fear should be inspired by the plot itself, not by mere spectacle. Actions that most inspire pity and fear are those that take place between intimates, rather than between strangers or enemies.

7. Plot should consist of a single narrative. Unity of action does not imply unity of the main character. For instance, the Odyssey does not include every adventure that Odysseus ever embarked upon, but only those that form part of a single, if broad, narrative. Plotting should be tight. If a thing’s presence or absence makes no difference, that thing is not an organic part of the whole and ought to be left out.

8. Ideally, reversal of fortune should coincide with recognition. The plot of a perfect tragedy is complex and imitates actions that inspire pity and fear. In a complex plot, transition occurs through reversal of fortune [peripeteia] or recognition [anagnorisis]. The best transition combines peripeteia and anagnorisis, as when Oedipus finds out who he is. A third plot element is the scene of suffering, which involves a destructive or painful action such as murder or mutilation.

9. Reversal of fortune should not be caused by vice, but by error or frailty. Peripeteia should not involve a good person passing from prosperity to adversity, since this inspires shock more than pity and fear. Nor should it involve a bad person passing from adversity to prosperity, since there is no tragedy in that. Nor again should it involve the downfall of an utter rogue, which although satisfying, does not inspire pity and fear, for pity is inspired by unmerited misfortune, and fear by the misfortune of one who is our similar. Instead, it should involve a person who is neither particularly good nor bad, and whose misfortune is brought about by some great error or frailty [hamartia].

10. Style is also important, although less so than character and plot. Style ought to be clear without being mean. Language can be elevated by the judicious use of strange words, compounded words, and, above all, metaphor. The poet should speak of herself as little as possible.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle

The famous “Ladder of Love” is the crowning glory of Plato’s Symposium.

Plato’s Symposium by Anselm Feuerbach

Plato’s Symposium is set in 416 BCE at a drinking party held by the playwright Agathon to celebrate his victory at the Lenaia festival. Most of the guests have a hangover from the previous night’s revels, and all agree to curtail the drinking in favour of conversation. Since the young Phaedrus has been lamenting that Eros (the god of love) is not sufficiently praised, the physician Eryximachus suggests that each person, from left to right starting with Phaedrus, make a speech in praise of Love.

The Ladder of Love

After Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and the host, Agathon, it is the turn of Socrates to speak. Socrates slips into elenchus mode and gets Agathon to agree that if love is not of nothing, then it must be of something, and if it is of something, then it must be of something that is desired, and therefore of something that is lacking.

Socrates then relates a conversation that he once had with a mysterious priestess, Diotima of Mantinea, who, he says, taught him the art of love. This Diotima (the name means, “Honoured by the gods”) told him that the something that Love lacks and desires consists of beautiful and good things, and especially of wisdom, which is both extremely good and extremely beautiful.

If Love lacks and desires beautiful and good things, and if all the gods are good and beautiful, Love cannot, as most people think, be a god. In truth, Love is the child of Poverty and Resource, always in need but always inventive. He is not a god, but a great spirit who intermediates between gods and men. As such, he is neither mortal nor immortal, neither wise nor ignorant, but a lover of wisdom [philosophos].

No one who is wise wants to become ignorant, just as no one who is ignorant wants to become wise: “For herein lies the evil of ignorance, that he who is neither good nor wise is nevertheless satisfied with himself…” The aim of loving beautiful and good things is to possess them, because the possession of good and beautiful things is called happiness, and happiness is an end in itself.

Wild animals enter into a state of love because they seek to reproduce and make themselves immortal. People too seek to make themselves immortal, and are prepared to take great risks, even to die, to attain fame and honour. Some people are pregnant in body and beget children who will preserve their memory, but a few are pregnant in soul and instead beget wisdom and virtue. As their children are more beautiful and more immortal, people who are pregnant in soul have more to share with one another, and a stronger bond of friendship between them.

Who when he thinks of Homer and Hesiod and other great poets, would not rather have their children than ordinary human ones? Who would not emulate them in the creation of children such as theirs, which have preserved their memory and given them everlasting glory?

Diotima then told Socrates the proper way to learn to love beauty:

A youth should first be taught to love one beautiful body so that he comes to realize that this beautiful body shares beauty with every other beautiful body, and thus that it is foolish to love just one beautiful body. In loving all beautiful bodies, the youth begins to appreciate that the beauty of the soul is superior to the beauty of the body and begins to love those who are beautiful in soul, regardless of whether they are also beautiful in body. 

Having thus transcended the physical, he gradually finds that beautiful practices and customs and the various kinds of knowledge also share in a common beauty. 

Finally, on the highest rung of the ladder of love, he is able to experience Beauty itself, rather than its various apparitions. By exchanging the various apparitions of virtue for Virtue herself, he gains immortality and the love of the gods.

This is why love is so important, and why it deserves so much praise.

How the Ladder of Love changed love

Before Plato, and for a long time after, people did, of course, fall in love, but they did not believe that this love might in some sense save them, as we tend to today. When, in the Iliad, Helen eloped with Paris, neither she nor he thought of their attraction as pure or noble or exalting. In the Odyssey, Penelope’s commitment to Odysseus is better understood in terms of dutiful love, or connubial fidelity, than modern, madcap romantic love. Other, less influential models of love in antiquity include the “perfect friendship” of Plato’s student Aristotle and the naturalism of the Roman poets Lucretius and Ovid.

On the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, the Jewish and Christian models of love evolved alongside the Greco-Roman ones. In the Old Testament, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his precious son Isaac. But as Abraham is about to slay Isaac, an angel stays his hand. The Sacrifice of Isaac highlights that, although love and morality are important principles, unquestioning obedience to God is more important still, for God is morality, and God is love.

The New Testament, in contrast to the Old, elevates love into the supreme virtue. More than a commandment, love becomes the royal road to redemption. One must even turn the other cheek to love one’s enemies. It is a far cry from the law of retaliation of the Old Testament: “…thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…” 

Even so, the Bible, which is almost 800,000 words long, contains not a single modern love story. Its greatest human love stories are between two women and two men: Ruth and Naomi, and David and Jonathan.

Jesus may have spoken Greek and might have come under the direct or indirect influence of Platonism. But even if he did not, the later Church sought to align Christian theology with classical philosophy—and Christian love, more properly called charity, and originally directed at God, began to blur with something much more individualistic. 

The blending of Christian love with Platonism prepared the ground for the troubadour tradition that began in 11th century Occitania (broadly, the southern half of France). A troubadour extolled refined or courtly love, which he directed at a married or otherwise unattainable lady, often of a superior rank, as a means of exalting himself and attaining to higher virtue. For the first time, love did not ultimately aim at, or depend on, God—and the Church duly condemned courtly love as a heresy. In a radical cultural reversal, the daughter of Eve turned from devilish temptress to sublime conduit of virtue, a goddess in the place of God.

The troubadour tradition, which had remained an elite and minority movement, died out around the time of the Black Death in 1348, but prepared the ground for the modern conception of romantic love.

Read my related articles, A Short History of Love and The Hidden Woman Behind Socrates.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle (forthcoming).