Aristotle (384–322 BC) was a Greek philosopher and polymath of antiquity. He is with Plato, whose disciple he was at the Academy, one of the most influential thinkers the Western world has known. He is also one of the few to have tackled almost all the fields of knowledge of his time: biology, physics, metaphysics, logic, poetics, politics, rhetoric, ethics and occasionally economics. In Aristotle, philosophy, originally “love of wisdom”, is understood in a broader sense as the search for knowledge for itself, interrogation of the world and science of science.

English Name Aristotle
Greek Name Ἀριστοτέλης
Birth date 384 BC
Birthplace Stagira
Death date 322 BC
Death place Chalcis
Training Academy of Plato
School/tradition Founder of the Lyceum,
Main interests Physics,
Remarkable Ideas Syllogism, Power/Act,
Substance/Accident, Category, Phronesis
Primary works Categories, Metaphysics, Physics, Politics, Poetics
Influenced by Democritus,
Influencer of Most of Western, Islamic and Jewish Philosophy
Derived adjectives Aristotelian
Father Nicomachus
Siblings Arimneste,
Spouse Pythias
Children Nicomachus,

For him, science comprises three main areas: theoretical science, practical science, and productive or poietic (applied) science. Theoretical science is the best use man can make of his free time. It is composed of “first philosophy” or metaphysics, mathematics and physics, also called natural philosophy. Action-oriented practical science (praxis) is the domain of politics and ethics. Productive science covers the field of technology and the production of something external to man. Included in his field are agriculture, but also poetry, rhetoric and, in general, everything that is made by man. Logic, on the other hand, is not considered by Aristotle as a science, but as the instrument that makes it possible to advance the sciences. Exposed in a work entitled Organon, it is based on two central concepts: syllogism, which will strongly mark scholasticism and categories.

Nature (physis) holds an important place in Aristotle’s philosophy. According to him, natural materials have in themselves a principle of movement (in telos echeïn). Consequently, physics is devoted to the study of natural motions caused by the proper principles of matter. For his metaphysics, he defends the idea of a first motor that sets the cosmos in motion without being itself moved. Similarly, according to him all living beings have a soul, but it has various functions. Plants have only a soul animated by a vegetative function, that of animals has both a vegetative and sensory function, that of men is endowed in addition to an intellectual function.

Ethical virtue, according to Aristotle, is balanced between two excesses. Thus, a brave man must be neither reckless nor cowardly. It follows that Aristotelian ethics is very marked by the notions of measure and phronêsis (which can be translated by the words “prudence”, “sagacity” or “practical wisdom”). Its ethics, as well as its politics and economics, are oriented toward the search for the Good. Aristotle, in this field, profoundly influenced the thinkers of later generations. In connection with its naturalism, the Stagirite considers the city as a natural entity that cannot last without justice and friendship (philia).

After his death, his thought was forgotten for several centuries. It was not until late antiquity that it returned to the foreground. From the end of the Roman Empire until its rediscovery in the twelfth century, the West, unlike the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim world, had only limited access to its thought and knew little more than the logical work, thanks to Boethius’ translations.

From his rediscovery, Aristotle’s thought strongly influenced the philosophy and theology of the West for the next four to five centuries, not without clashing with the doctrine of Augustine of Hippo. Associated with the development of universities, which began in the twelfth century, Aristotelian thought profoundly marked scholasticism and, through the work of Thomas Aquinas, Catholic Christianity.

In the seventeenth century, the breakthrough of scientific astronomy with Galileo and Newton discredited geocentrism. The result was a profound retreat of Aristotelian doctrine in all matters relating to science. His logic, the instrument of Aristotelian science, was also criticized at the same time by Francis Bacon. This criticism continued in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when Frege, Russell and Dewey reworked in-depth and generalized the syllogistic.

In the nineteenth century, his philosophy experienced a revival of interest. It is studied and commented on by Schelling and Ravaisson, among others, then by Heidegger and, following him, by Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt, two philosophers considered by Kelvin Knight as “practical” neo-Aristotelians. More than 2,300 years after his death, his thought is still studied and commented on by Western philosophy.

Table of Contents

Etymology of Aristotle

The name Aristotle derives from the Greek name Aristotelês (Ancient Greek: Ἀριστοτέλης [aristotelɛːs]). It is composed of aristos “the best” and telos “completion, fulfillment, achievement”.

Aristotle biography

Aristotle’s life is known only in broad outlines. His work contains very few biographical details and few testimonies of his contemporaries have survived. His doxographers (among others Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Diogenes Laertius) are a few centuries later. He was the tutor of Alexander the Great to whom he transmitted the critical and philosophical spirit as well as the feeling of belonging to Hellenism. According to his biographers, notably Diogenes Laertius, Aristotle was endowed with a certain humor and would have either stuttered or had a hair on his tongue.

Early years

Aristotle was born in 384 BCE in Stagira, a city of Halkidiki located on the Strymonic Gulf in Greece, hence his nickname “Stagirite”. His father, Nicomache, belonged to the corporation of the Asclepiades. He was the physician and friend of King Amyntas III of Macedonia. His mother, Phestias, a midwife, was from Chalcis on the island of Euboea. Aristotle’s family claims descent from Machaon. Orphaned at the age of 11, he was raised by his brother-in-law, Proxena of Atarnaeus, in Mysia. It was at this time that he became friends with Hermias of Atarnaeus, the future tyrant of Mysia.

Around 367, at the age of 17, he was admitted to Plato’s Academy; He stayed there for twenty years. Plato nicknamed him, probably affectionately, the “reader” (anagnosts), in all likelihood because of his appetite for reading. According to the same source, Plato would also have nicknamed him “ὁ Nοῦς”, that is to say, “the Intelligence” (we would say today “the Brain”). This did not prevent Aristotle from rejecting Plato’s theory of ideas, justifying himself as follows: “Friend of Plato, but even more of the truth”. Trained and deeply influenced by the Platonists, he adds: “It was friends who introduced the doctrine of the Ideas. […] Truth and friendship are both dear to us, but it is a sacred duty for us to give preference to truth”.

Aristotle probably participated in the Mysteries of Eleusis.

Preceptor of Alexander the Great

During the period when he attended the Academy, Aristotle followed the local political life, but could not participate because of his status as a metec. When Plato died around 348-347 BCE, his nephew Speusippus succeeded him as scholar. Aristotle, disappointed, leaves for Atarnaea with his fellow student Xenocrates; this departure may just as well have been caused by the growing hostility towards the Macedonians. Shortly before, in 348, King Philip II enslaved the population of Olynthus, a city friendly to the Athenians, and razed Stagirus, whose population was also sold at auction.

At Atarnaea in Troad, on the coast of Anatolia, Aristotle joins Hermias of Atarnaeus, a childhood friend and tyrant of this city. When Macedonia and Athens made peace in 346, Aristotle settled in the small port of Assos in the company of Xenocrates and two other Platonic philosophers, Erastos and Coriscos. He opened a school of philosophy inspired by the Academy.

In 343, at the request of Philip II, he became a tutor to the crown prince, the future Alexander the Great, then 13 years old. Philip’s choice of Aristotle must have been easy to make, partly because of the friendships that united the king of Macedonia and the philosopher from an early age. Aristotle, an exceptional encyclopedist from this time, is also preferred to the old Isocrates, his two disciples, Isocrates of Apollonia and Theopompus, as well as Speusippus.

He taught Alexander literature and probably politics for two or three years at the Nymphaeum of Miéza. Alexander received lessons in the company of his future comrades-in-arms: Hephestion, Ptolemy, Perdiccas, Eumenes, Seleucus, Philotas and Callisthenes. When Alexander became regent at the age of 15, Aristotle ceased to be his tutor but remained at court for the next five years. According to some sources, Alexander provided him with animals from his hunts and expeditions for him to study, which allowed him to accumulate enormous documentation of his zoological works.

Around 341, he took in and married Pythias, the niece and adopted daughter of Hermias, who had taken refuge in Pella, who bore him a daughter, also named Pythias. Widowed in 338, he took as his second wife a woman from Stagira, Herpyllis, with whom he had a son whom he named Nicomache. The Nicomachean Ethics, which deals with virtue and wisdom, is addressed neither to Aristotle’s long-dead father, nor to his son who was not yet born at the time of its writing, but mentions Nicomachean Jr. as the editor of the Nicomachean Ethics, aided by Theophrastus or Eudemus.

Aristotle returned to Athens in 335, at a time when—presumably through his intercession—the city was spared by Alexander although it had revolted against Macedonian hegemony in the company of Thebes.

The foundation of the Lyceum

Shortly after his return to Athens, around 335, Aristotle founded his own school in a public gymnasium called the Lyceum, from which it took its name; this gymnasium was already a philosophical meeting place, and Socrates himself used to go there. The premises were rented and not bought, since the metics did not have the right of ownership.

The land included a promenade (the peripatos), an alley planted with trees in which the master and disciples willingly strolled. The Aristotelians are therefore “those who walk near the Lyceum” (Lukeioi Peripatêtikoi, Λύκειοι Περιπατητικοί) hence the name of Peripatetic school that is sometimes used to designate Aristotelianism. The Lycée includes a library, a museum (Mouseîon) and conference rooms equipped with equipment for study and research.

Aristotle gives two types of lessons: the morning one, “acroamatic” or “esoteric”, is reserved for advanced disciples; The afternoon one, “exoteric”, is open to all. He himself dwells in the wood of Mount Lycabettus.

The third and last great period of Aristotle’s production is therefore at the Lyceum (335-323). From this period probably date the Book VIII of the Metaphysics, the Small Treatises of Natural History, the Ethics to Eudemus, the other part of the Nicomachean Ethics (books IV, V, VI), the Constitution of Athens, the Economics.

Last years

In 327, Alexander had Callisthenes, Aristotle’s nephew, imprisoned because he refused to bow down in the Persian fashion before him and was allegedly involved in the conspiracy of Hermolaos and the pages. Callisthenes died during his captivity in Bactres. The death and dishonor inflicted on his nephew led Aristotle to distance himself from his former pupil, including on the level of political thought, as one of his last writings entitled Alexander or the Colonies tended to prove.

At the death of Alexander the Great in June 323, threatened by the anti-Macedonian agitation brought to its height in Athens by the rebellion against Antipater, Aristotle considered it prudent to flee Athens, a flight all the more justified since Eurymedon, hierophant to Eleusis, made an absurd accusation of impiety, reproaching him for having composed a Hymn to the Virtue of Hermias of Atarneaeus., a genre of poem reserved solely for the worship of the gods. Determined not to let the Athenians commit a “new crime against philosophy” – the first being the death sentence of Socrates – Aristotle took refuge with his second wife, Herpyllis, and his children, Pythias and Nicomache, on the island of Euboea, in Chalcis, where his mother had inherited an estate.

It was there that he died, aged 62, probably swept away by the stomach disease from which he had long suffered. In his will, he made arrangements for the emancipation of his slaves and thought of ensuring the future of all his relatives. His body was transferred to Stagire.

Theophrastus, his classmate and friend, succeeded him at the head of the Lyceum. At the time of Theophrastus and his successor, Straton of Lampsacus, the Lyceum experienced a decline until the fall of Athens in 86 BCE. The school was refounded in the first century BC by Andronicos of Rhodes and had a strong influence until the Goths and Heruli sacked Athens in 267 AD.

Physical appearance

Aristotle is short, stocky, with slender legs and small sunken eyes. His dress is showy and he does not hesitate to wear jewelry. Ancient sources describe Aristotle with a balding skull (Anonymous Life), small eyes (Diogenes Laertius, V, 1) and short trimmed hair and beards (Elian, III, 19). Aristotle’s statues are numerous in antiquity; the statuary type in foot is attested (a statue of the Spada Palace is wrongly identified with the philosopher).

Aristotle attaches great importance to commemorative portraits, which is noticeable in his testament and that of Theophrastus and is confirmed by Pliny the Elder (XXXV, 106), who mentions a painted portrait of the mother of the Stagirite. 18 copies of Aristotle’s bust are preserved, as well as glass pastes with the face in profile. This portrait is very close to that of Euripides, whom Aristotle greatly admires, composed around 330-320 BC. The attribution of its creation to Lysippus is not certain.


Credible appearances and opinions (endoxa)

Aristotle’s approach is the opposite of Descartes’. While the French philosopher begins his philosophical reflection with methodological doubt, Aristotle argues on the contrary that our capacities of perception and cognition put us in contact with the characteristics and divisions of the world, which therefore does not require constant skepticism.

Aristotle trusts in sensation, which reaches its own object; The error is introduced only with judgment. Sensitive intuition and intellectual intuition are in a relationship of continuity. For Aristotle, appearances (phainomena in  Greek), the strange things we perceive, lead us to think about our place in the universe and to philosophize. Once the thought is awakened, he advocates seeking the opinions of serious people (endoxa comes from endoxos word designating in Greek a notable man of high reputation). It is not a question of taking these credible opinions as truths, but of testing their ability to account for reality.

Philosophy and science according to Aristotle

In the Protreptic, a work of youth, Aristotle states that “human life implies the requirement to become a philosopher, that is, to love (philein) and to seek science, or more precisely wisdom (sophia)”. At that time, philosophy was, for him, a desire to know. Philosophy ultimately seeks the good of human beings. Philosophy thinks totality.

Science or, to use Aristotle’s word, episteme, deals with particular fields of knowledge (physics, mathematics, biology, etc.). Theoretical philosophy is therefore first in relation to praxis, a term often translated as “practical science” and to which politics belongs: “Aristotle distinguishes between the happiness that man can find in political life, in active life, and philosophical happiness that corresponds to theory, that is to say, to a kind of life that is devoted entirely to the activity of the mind. Political and practical happiness is happiness in Aristotle’s eyes only in a secondary way.”

The modern distinction between philosophy and science dates from the late eighteenth century, so it is much later than Aristotle. It also postdates the article “Philosophy” in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert.


Episteme (science) and technè (art, techniques)

Aristotle distinguishes five intellectual virtues: technè, episteme, phronesis (prudence), sophia (wisdom) and noûs (intelligence). Technè is often translated as art or technique, while episteme translates as knowledge or science. However, the episteme does not correspond to the notion of modern science because it does not include experimentation. While episteme is the science of eternal truths, technè (art, technique) is devoted to the contingent and deals with what man creates. Medicine is both episteme because it studies human health, and technè because it is necessary to treat a patient, to produce health. While episteme can be learned in a school, technè comes from practice and habit.

Science uses demonstration as a research tool. To demonstrate is to show the internal necessity that governs things, it is at the same time to establish a truth by a syllogism based on assured premises. Demonstrative science “starts from universal definitions to arrive at equally universal conclusions”. However, in practice, the mode of demonstration of the different sciences differs according to the specificity of their object.

The ternary division of the sciences (theoretical, practical and productive) does not include logic because the latter has the task of formulating “the principles of correct argumentation which all fields of research have in common”. Logic aims to establish at a high level of abstraction the norms of inferences (cause-and-effect relations) that must be followed by someone seeking the truth and to avoid fallacious inferences. It is developed in a body of work known since the Middle Ages under the name of Organon (word meaning instrument in Greek). What is called “productive science”  belongs to technè and production (poïesis); practical science belongs to praxis (action) and episteme (science  ) in that it also seeks stable inferences within a science.

Speculative or contemplative science

Speculative or theoretical science (θεωρία, “contemplation”) is disinterested, it constitutes the end in itself of the human soul and the completion of thought. It constitutes the best use that man can make of his free time (skholè), during which, detached from his material concerns, he can devote himself to the disinterested contemplation of the truth.

This is why some Aristotle scholars, such as Fred Miller, prefer to speak of contemplative rather than theoretical sciences. There are as many divisions of theoretical science as there are objects of study, that is, different fields of reality (genera, species, etc.). Aristotle distinguishes between “first philosophy” – future metaphysics, which has as its object of study the totality of what is – mathematics which deals with numbers, that is to say, quantities in general, drawn from reality by the operation of abstraction, and physics or natural philosophy. Physics first testifies to a desire to understand the universe as a whole. It aims more to solve conceptual puzzles than to conduct empirical research. It also looks for the causes in general as well as the first and last cause of any particular movement. Aristotle’s natural philosophy is not limited to physics proper. It includes biology, botany, astronomy and possibly psychology.

Practical science (praxis)

Detail from The School of Athens, Vatican fresco by Raphael (early 16th century). Plato (left) points to the sky, symbol of his belief in Ideas. Aristotle (right) turns the palm of his hand towards the ground, symbolizing his belief in empirical observation
Detail from The School of Athens, Vatican fresco by Raphael (early 16th century). Plato (left) points to the sky, symbol of his belief in Ideas. Aristotle (right) turns the palm of his hand towards the ground, symbolizing his belief in empirical observation

Action (praxis, in Ancient Greek πρᾶξις), as opposed to production (poiesis), is, according to Aristotle, the activity whose end is immanent about the activity (the agent), an activity whose end (the object produced) is external to the subject of the activity. The practical sciences are about human action, about the choices to be made. They understand politics and ethics. Practical science (praxis) is a practical reason (phronesis)

Productive or poietic science (τέχνη)

It is know-how or technique, which consists of a disposition acquired by use, with the aim of producing an object that does not have its principle in itself, but in the agent that produces it (as opposed to natural production). The technè being at the service of production, it is in the field of utility and pleasure, it always aims at the particular and the singular. Agriculture, shipbuilding, medicine, music, theatre, dance, rhetoric belong to productive science.

Science according to Aristotle and Plato: hylemorphism versus idealism

According to Aristotle, Plato conceives “the essence or idea (εἶδος, eïdos) as a being existing in itself, quite independent of sensible reality” so that science must go beyond the sensible to reach “intelligible, universal, immutable and existing in themselves”. This way of seeing has, according to him, two major disadvantages: it complicates the problem by creating intelligible beings and it leads to think of ideas, the universal, as independent of the sensible which, according to him, distances us from the knowledge of reality.

For Aristotle, essence or form (eïdos morphè) can only exist embodied in the matter (ὕλη, hooted). This led him to elaborate “the so-called thesis of hylemorphism which consists in thinking about immanence, the necessary conjunction, in any existing reality, of matter (hulè) and form (morphè) that models it”.

But in doing so, he is confronted with the problem of the universal. Indeed, for Plato, this question does not arise since the universal belongs to the domain of ideas. For Aristotle, the universal consists rather in an intuition of form or essence and in the fact of posing a statement, such as the definition of a man as a “political animal”.

Logic of Aristotle


The Organon is made up of a set of treatises on how to think fairly. The title of the book, “Organon”, which means “instrument of work”, constitutes a stand against the Stoics for whom logic is a part of philosophy.

Book I, called Categories, is devoted to the definition of words and terms. Book II, dedicated to the propositions, is called in Greek Περὶ ἑρμηνείας / Peri Hermeneias, that is to say, “On interpretation”. Scholars generally refer to it by its Latin name De Interpretatione. The Book III, called The Early Analyticals, deals with syllogism in general. Book IV, called Analytical Seconds, is devoted to syllogisms whose results are the fruit of necessity (ex anankês sumbainein), that is, are the logical consequences of the premise (protasis).

Book V, called Topicals, is dedicated to the rules of discussion and syllogisms whose premises are probable (dialectical reasoning from generally accepted opinions). The Book VI, called Sophistical Refutations, is considered a final section or appendix of Book V. In Book II De Interpretatione, some chapters are particularly important, such as Chapter 7 from which the logical square derives and Chapter 11 which is the origin of modal logic.

Inquiry, demonstration and syllogism

In The Early Analytics, Aristotle seeks to define a method intended to allow a scientific understanding of the world. For him, the purpose of research or inquiry is to arrive at “a hierarchically organized system of concepts and propositions, based on knowledge of the essential nature of the object of study and on certain other necessary first principles.” For Aristotle, “analytical science (analytiké episteme) […] teaches us to know and state the causes by the well-constructed means of demonstration.” The goal is to reach universal truths of the subject itself starting from its nature.

In the Second Analyticals, he discusses how to proceed to reach these truths. For this, it is first necessary to know the fact, then the reason why this fact exists, then, the consequences of the fact, and the characteristics of the fact.

The Aristotelian demonstration is based on syllogism which he defines as “a discourse in which, certain things being posed, something other than these data necessarily results from it by the mere fact of these data”.

The syllogism is based on two premises, a major and a minor, from which a necessary conclusion can be drawn. Example:

  1. Major: human beings are mortal.
  2. Underage: Women are human beings.
  3. Conclusion: women are mortal.

A scientific syllogism must be able to identify the cause of a phenomenon, its why. This mode of reasoning raises the question of the infinite regression that occurs, for example, when a child asks us why something works like this, and once the answer is given, he asks us why the premise of our answer. For Aristotle, it is possible to put an end to this regression to infinity by holding certain facts from experience (induction) or from intuition as certain enough to serve as a basis for scientific reasoning. However, for him, the necessity of such axioms must be able to be explained to those who would challenge them.

Definitions and categories

Definition, essence, species, genus, difference, predicate

A definition (in ancient Greek ὅρος, ὁρισμός / horos, horismos) is for Aristotle, “an account which means that what is, is for something (λὀγος ὁ τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι σημαίνει, Logos ho to ti ên einai sêmainei“); it states the proper essence of the thing envisaged. Aristotle means by this that a definition is not purely verbal, but translates the deep being of a thing, which the Latins translated by the word essentia (essence).

One of the central questions of Aristotelian metaphysics then arises, what is an essence? For him, only species (eidos) have essences. The essence is therefore not specific to an individual but to a species that he defines by its genus (genos) and its difference (diaphora). For example “a human being is an animal (gender) that has the ability to reason (difference)”.

The problem of definition poses that of the concept of an essential predicate. A preaching is a true statement, as in the phrase “Bucephalus is black,” which presents simple preaching. For a sermon to be essential, it is not enough that it be true, it must also provide precision. Such is the case when it is declared that Bucephalus is a horse. For Aristotle, “A definition of X must not only be an essential preaching but must also be a preaching only for X”.


The word category derives from the Greek katêgoria which means predicate or attribute. In Aristotle’s work, the list of ten categories is present in Topicals I, 9, 103 b 20-25 and in Categories 4,1 b 25 –  2 to 4. The ten categories can be interpreted in three different ways: as some kind of predicates; as a classification of preaching; as a kind of entity.

English Ancient Greek Latin Question Example
1. Thing, Substance ousia / ουσία Substantia What is it? a human, a horse
2. Quantity, Size poson / πόσον Quantitas How much / How big is it, what weight is the thing? one meter, one kilo
3. Quality, Nature Poion / ποίον Qualitas What kind is it? What quality does it have? brown, tasty
4. Relationship, Link pros ti / πρὸς τί relatio What does it have to do with another person or something? double, half, larger
5. Where, Location louse / ποῦ Ubi Where is it? on the marketplace
6. When, Time  buddy / πότε Quando When is it? yesterday, last year
7. Position, Status Keisthai / κεῖσθαι Situs What position is he in? lying down, sitting
8. Credit note Echein / ἔχειν Habitus What does the thing or person have? wear a shoe, be armed
9. Do, Perform poiein / ποιεῖν actio What does this thing do? cut, burn
10. Passion (in the sense of suffering) Paschein / πάσχειν passio What happens to the thing? is cut, is burned

Dialectics, Aristotle vs. Plato

For Plato, the word “dialectic” has two meanings. It is first of all the “art of proceeding by questions and answers” to arrive at the truth. In this sense, it is at the center of the philosophical method as evidenced by the many Platonic dialogues. Dialectics is also, for Plato, “the art of rigorously defining a notion through a method of division, or dichotomous method  “.

For Aristotle, on the contrary, dialectics is not very scientific, since his argument is only plausible. Moreover, he considers the divisions of the thing studied as subjective and capable of inducing what one wants to demonstrate. Nevertheless, for him, dialectics is useful for testing certain credible opinions (endoxa), for paving the way for first principles or for confronting other thinkers. Generally speaking, Stagirite assigns three functions to dialectics: the formation of human beings, conversation, and “science conducted in a philosophical manner (pros tas kata philosophian epistêmas).”

Aristotle and Plato reproach the Sophists for using the verb, the word, for worldly purposes, without seeking wisdom and truth, two notions close to them. In his book Sophistical Refutations, Aristotle goes so far as to accuse them of resorting to paralogisms, that is to say, false and sometimes deliberately misleading reasoning.

Psychology: Body and Soul

Expositio et quaestiones in Aristoteles De Anima, by Jean Buridan, around 1362
Expositio et quaestiones in Aristoteles De Anima, by Jean Buridan, around 1362

Aristotle addresses psychology in On the Soul, which treats the question from an abstract point of view, and in Parva Naturalia. The Aristotelian conception of psychology is profoundly different from that of the moderns. For him, psychology is the science that studies the soul and its properties. Aristotle approaches psychology with some perplexity both about how to proceed with the analysis of psychological facts, and about whether it is a natural science. In Of the Soul, the study of the soul is already the domain of natural science, in Parts of the Animals, not entirely.

A body is a matter that possesses life in power. It acquires real life only through the soul which gives it its structure, its breath of life. According to Aristotle, the soul is not separated from the body during life. It is only when death occurs and the body no longer moves. Aristotle conceives the living being as an animate body (ἔμψυχα σώματα, empsucha sômata), that is to say, endowed with a soul — which is called anima in  Latin and psuchè in Greek. Without the soul, the body is not animated, not alive.

Aristotle writes about this: “It is a fact that the soul disappeared, the living being no longer exists and that none of its parts remains the same, except as to the external configuration, as, in legend, beings changed into stone.” Aristotle, in opposition to the early philosophers, places the rational soul in the heart rather than in the brain.

According to him, the soul is also the essence or form (eïdos morphè) of living beings. It is the dynamic principle that moves them and guides them towards their own ends, that impels them to realize their potentialities. As all living things have souls, it follows that animals and plants enter the field of psychology. However, not all living beings have the same soul or, rather, not all souls have the same functions. The soul of plants has only a vegetative function, responsible for reproduction, that of animals has both vegetative and sensory functions; The soul of human beings has three functions: vegetative, sensitive and intellectual.

Each of the three functions of the soul corresponds to a faculty. To the vegetative function that is found in all living things, corresponds the faculty of nutrition because food as such is necessarily linked to living beings; the sensible function corresponds to perception; to the intellectual function corresponds the spirit or reason (νοῦς, noûs) that is, “the part of the soul thanks to which we know and understand” (De l’âme, III 4, 429 a 99-10). The mind is at a higher level of generality than perception and can reach the abstract structure of what is being studied. To these three functions, Aristotle adds desire, which makes it possible to understand why an animate being engages in action for a goal. He assumes, for example, that man desires to understand.

The soul being defined as a vital principle, biology follows logically from psychology.



The science of biology was born from the meeting on the island of Lesbos between Aristotle and Theophrastus. The first focuses his studies on animals and the second on plants. As far as Aristotle is concerned, works devoted to biology represent more than a quarter of his work and constitute the first systematic study of the animal world. They will remain without equal until the sixteenth century: the oldest is History of Animals, in which Aristotle often accepts common opinions without verifying them. In Animal Parts, he goes back to some earlier statements and corrects them. The third book, Génération des animaux, is the later, because it is announced in the previous one as having to complete it.

“Indeed, the most intelligent being is the one who is able to use the greatest number of tools well: yet the hand seems to be not one tool, but several”.
Parts of Animals, 686 b.

It focuses exclusively on the description of sexual organs and their role in reproduction, both in vertebrates and invertebrates. Part of it deals with the study of milk and sperm, as well as gender differentiation. In addition to these three major works, there are shorter books dealing with a particular subject, such as On the Movement of Animals or March of Animals. This last book illustrates the author’s method: “starting from the facts, comparing them, then by an effort of reflection trying by understanding them to grasp them accurately”.

Nothing is known about the research he conducted before writing these books; Aristotle left no indication of how he collected the information and how he processed it. For James G. Lennox, “it is important to keep in mind that we are studying texts that present, in a theoretical and highly structured way, the results of a real investigation of which we know only a few details.” It is clear, however, that Aristotle worked as a team, particularly for historical research, and that “the Lyceum was from the beginning the center of a collective scientific activity, one of the oldest we can reach”. The school gathered around Aristotle having become “accustomed to a concrete investigation carried out with method and rigor”, “observation and experience played a considerable role in the birth of a whole part of the work”.

Method of Aristotle

In Parts of the Animals, composed around 330, Aristotle begins by establishing elements of the method. The study of facts must not neglect any detail and the observer must not be disgusted by the most repugnant animals, for “in all natural productions lies something admirable” and it is up to the scientist to discover in view of what an animal possesses any peculiarity. Such teleology allows Aristotle to see in the data he observes an expression of their form. Noting that “no animal has both tusks and horns” and that “an animal with one hoof and two horns has never been observed,” Aristotle concludes that nature gives only what is necessary. Similarly, seeing that ruminants have several stomachs and bad teeth, he deduces that one compensates for the other and that nature makes some kind of compensation.

Aristotle approaches biology as a scientist and seeks to identify regularities. He notes in this regard: “the order of nature appears in the constancy of phenomena considered either as a whole or in the majority of cases” (, 663 b 27-8): if monsters (ferae), like the five-legged sheep, are exceptions to natural laws, they are nevertheless natural beings.

Simply, their essence or form does not act in the right way. For him, the study of the living is more complex than that of the inanimate. Indeed, the living being is an organized whole of which one cannot detach without problem a part, as in the case of a stone. Hence the need to consider it as a whole (holon) and not as a formless totality. Hence, also, the need to study the part only in relation to the organized whole of which it is the member.

Sometimes, however, the desire to accumulate as much information as possible leads him to withhold inaccurate statements without examining them:

“A work such as Research on Animals is essentially ambiguous: one finds, side by side, one might say, meticulous, delicate observations, for example, precise data on the structure of the visual apparatus of the mole or on the conformation of teeth in man and animal, and statements on the contrary quite unacceptable,  which constitute serious and sometimes even gross errors, such as these: testaceans are animals without eyes, the woman does not have the same number of teeth as the man, and other mistakes of the same kind. »

Despite these flaws due to hasty generalizations, especially in the History of Animals, Aristotle often expresses doubts about claims supported by his predecessors, refusing, for example, to believe in the existence of horned snakes or an animal that would have three rows of teeth. He readily criticizes naïve beliefs and contrasts them with precise and personal observations of great accuracy. In short, he left “a work incomparable by the richness of facts and ideas, especially if we refer to the time in which it was born”, justifying this testimony of Darwin: “Linnaeus and Cuvier were my two gods in many different directions, but they are only schoolchildren compared to the old Aristotle”.

Aristotle not only describes the physiological aspects, but is also interested in animal psychology, showing that “the conduct and manner of life of animals differ according to their character and mode of feeding, and that in most of them there are traces of a real psychological life analogous to that of man,  but of a much less marked diversity of aspects”.

Everything indicates that the biology books were accompanied by several books of anatomical plates established following meticulously carried out dissections, but unfortunately disappeared. These included the heart, vascular system, stomach of ruminants and the position of certain embryos. The observations relating to embryogenesis are particularly remarkable: “The early appearance of the heart, the description of the chick’s eye, or the detailed study of the umbilical cord and cotyledons of the matrix are of perfect accuracy”. He observed chick embryos at various stages of their development, after a brood of three days, ten days or twenty days—synthesizing observations that were numerous and continuous.

Classification of living things

Aristotle strove to classify animals consistently, while using everyday language. He first distinguishes, according to the soul, conceived as a vital principle, which animates them: plants, animals, animals endowed with a rational soul. It posits genus and species as basic distinctions, but not in the modern (biological) sense of these terms. Rather, they are relative terms, the species being a subdivision of the genus. This has led some authors to claim that Aristotle’s classification of animals could not be considered a taxonomy, but recent studies, conducted by zoologists, refute this idea.

Similarly, the presence of taxa nested in each other and not overlapping, as well as the fact that Aristotle proposed new names of taxa, such as selache, which gave Selacian and Selachii (taxon grouping sharks), suggest a cryptic taxonomy in his History of animals.

Aristotle distinguished between blood animals (vertebrates) and non-blood or invertebrate animals (he does not know complex invertebrates with certain types of hemoglobin). Blood animals are first divided into four broad groups: fish, birds, oviparous quadrupeds and viviparous quadrupeds. Then he expanded the latter group to include cetaceans, seals, monkeys and, to some extent, humans, thus constituting the great class of mammals. Similarly, he distinguishes four genera of invertebrates: crustaceans, mollusks, insects and testaceans.

Far from being rigid, these groups have common characteristics because they participate in the same order or phylum. Aristotle’s classification of the living contains elements that were used until the nineteenth century. As a naturalist, Aristotle does not suffer from comparison with Cuvier:

“The result achieved is astonishing: starting from common data, and apparently making them undergo only rather slight modifications, the naturalist nevertheless arrives at a vision of the animal world of objectivity and a scientific penetration, clearly exceeding the tests of the same order that were attempted until the end of the eighteenth century. In addition, and as if without effort, major hypotheses are suggested: the assumption of an influence of the environment and living conditions on the characteristics of the individual (size, fertility, length of life); the idea of continuity between living beings, from man to the most humble plant, continuity which is not homogeneous and goes hand in hand with profound diversities; Finally, the thought that this continuity implies a progressive, timeless development since the world is eternal. »

Aristotle believes that creatures are classified according to a scale of perfection from plants to man. His system has eleven degrees of perfection classified according to their potentiality at birth. The tallest animals give birth to hot and wet creatures, the lowest to dry and cold eggs. For Charles Singer, “nothing is more remarkable than [Aristotle’s] efforts to [show] that the relations between living things constitute a scala naturae or ‘scale of beings’. The living world is characterized by continuity; on the other hand, Aristotle did not conceive the idea of evolution: species are fixed and immutable.

In total, there are 508 animal names “very unevenly distributed among the eight major genera”: 91 mammals, 178 birds, 18 reptiles and amphibians, 107 fish, 8 cephalopods, 17 crustaceans, 26 testaceans and 67 insects and relatives.


Physics as a science of nature

Physics is the science of nature (“physics” comes from the Greek phusis (φύσις) meaning “nature”). For Aristotle, its object is the study of inanimate beings and their components (earth, fire, water, air, ether). This science does not aim as it does today to transform nature. On the contrary, it seeks to contemplate it.

According to Aristotle, natural beings, whatever they are (stone, living, etc.), consist of the first four elements of Empedocles to which he adds the ether, which occupies what is above the Earth.

  • the Earth, which is cold and dry: corresponds nowadays to the idea of solid.
  • Water, which is cold and wet: this is nowadays the idea of liquid.
  • Air, which is hot and humid: this is nowadays the idea of gas.
  • Fire, which is hot and dry: corresponds nowadays to the idea of plasma and heat.
  • the Ether, the divine substance from which the celestial spheres and heavy bodies (stars and planets) are made.

Nature, according to Aristotle, has an internal principle of movement and rest. Form, the essence of beings, determines the end, so that, for the Stagirite, nature is both the motive cause and the end (Part, an., I, 7, 641 a 27). He writes (Meta., Δ4, 1015 ab 14-15): “Nature, in its primitive and fundamental sense, is the essence of beings who have, in themselves and as such, their principle of movement”. He also distinguishes between natural beings, who have this principle in themselves, and artificial beings, created by man and who are subject to natural movement only by the matter that composes them, so that for him, “Art imitates nature”.

Moreover, in Aristotle’s thought, nature is endowed with a principle of economy, which he translates into his famous precept: “Nature does nothing in vain”.

Four causes

Aristotle developed a general theory of causes that runs through all of his work. If, for example, we want to know what a bronze statue is, we will have to know the material of which it is made (material cause), the formal cause (what gives it form, for example, the statue represents Plato), the efficient cause (the sculptor) and the final cause (keep the memory of Plato). For him, a complete explanation requires being able to highlight these four causes.

English Definitions and/or examples
1. Material cause. It is defined by the nature of the raw material of which the object is composed (the word nature for Aristotle refers to both the potentiality of the material and its ultimate finite form).
2. Formal cause. This concept refers to that of form in Aristotelian philosophy. For example, the formal cause of a statue of Hermes is to resemble Hermes.
3. Efficient cause. It is for example the sculptor who sculpts the statue of Hermes.
4. Final cause. In Greek, telos. It is the goal or the end of something. This is the reason why a statue of Hermes was made. Aristotle’s scholars generally believe that, for him, nature has its own goals, different from those of men.

Substance and accident, act and potency, change

In Aristotle, the substance is that which necessarily belongs to the thing, whereas an accident is “that which really belongs to a thing, but which does not necessarily belong to it most of the time” (Metaphysics, Δ30, 1025 a 14).

Power or potentiality (δύναμις / dunamis) echoes what could become being. For example, a child can, in power, learn to read and write: He has the ability. Power is the principle of imperfection, and this is modified by the act, which brings about change. The act (energeia) “is what produces the finished object, the end. It is the act, and it is in view of the act that power is conceived” (Metaphysics, Θ8, 1050 a 9). Entelechy (en, telos, echeïn) “literally means having (echein) within oneself one’s end (τέλος / telos), gradually attaining one’s end and one’s proper essence.”

These notions allow the philosopher to explain movement and change. Aristotle distinguishes four types of movement: in substance, in quality, in quantity and in place, which manifest themselves respectively as generation, alteration, increase or decrease and local movement. Movement, in him, is due to a couple: an active, external and operative power (or potentiality), and a passive capacity or internal potentiality that is found in the object undergoing change. The entity causing a change transmits its form or essence to the affected entity. For example, the shape of a statue is found in the soul of the sculptor, before materializing through an instrument in the statue. For Aristotle, in the case where there is a chain of efficient causes, the cause of movement lies in the first link.

For there to be change, there must be potentiality, that is, the end inscribed in the essence has not been achieved. However, effective movement does not necessarily exhaust potentiality, does not necessarily lead to the full realization of what is possible. Aristotle distinguishes between natural change (phusei), or in accordance with nature (kata phusin), and forced (βίαι / biai) or contrary to nature (para phusin) changes. Aristotle therefore somehow assumes that nature regulates the behavior of entities and that natural and forced changes form an opposite pair.

The movements we see taking place on Earth are straight and finite; The stone falls and remains at rest, the leaves fly and fall, etc. They are therefore imperfect, as is the sublunar world in general. On the contrary, the supralunar world, that of the ether “unbegotten, indestructible, free from growth and alteration”, is that of circular, eternal motion.

Movement and evolution have no beginning, for the occurrence of change presupposes an earlier process. So that Aristotle postulates that the universe depends on an eternal movement, that of the celestial spheres which, itself, depends on an eternally acting engine. However, unlike what usually happens at home, the first engine does not transmit the acting power in a process of cause and effect. Indeed, for Aristotle, eternity justifies the causal finitude of the universe. To understand this we must remember that, according to him, if men are born endlessly, by begotten by parents (infinite causal chain), without the sun, without its heat (finite causal chain), they could not live.

For Aristotle, “it is by a perceiving movement that we perceive meaning” (Phys., IV, 11, 219 a 3). However, eternal beings (celestial spheres) escape time, while beings in the sublunar world are in time which is measured from the movements of the celestial spheres. As this movement is circular, time is also circular hence the regular return of the seasons. Time allows us to perceive change and movement. It marks a difference between a before and after, a past and a future. It is divisible but without parts. It is neither body nor substance, and yet it is.

He rejects the point of view of the atomists and considers it absurd to want to reduce change to insensitive elementary movements. For him, “the distinction between ‘power’ and ‘act’, of ‘matter’ and ‘form’, makes it possible to account for all the facts”. He also denies the reality of emptiness: in a vacuum, a mobile should acquire infinite speed, which offends experience; and the movement should be endless, while Aristotle’s physics notes the cessation of motion once the mobile has reached its “natural place”.

Aristotle deepened his conception of substance as matter through the concepts of homeomere and anhomeomere.


Sublunar and supralunar world

In the Treatise on Heaven and Meteorological, Aristotle demonstrates that the Earth is spherical and that it is absurd to present it as a flat disk. He argues that lunar eclipses show curved sections and that even a slight north-south shift causes the horizon line to be altered overtly. But his main argument lies in the idea that the motion of solid bodies is naturally centripetal: such a movement originally dragged solids around the center of the Universe, their reciprocal thrusts achieving a spherical shape, the Earth.

It divides the globe into five climatic zones corresponding to the inclination of the sun’s rays: two polar zones, two habitable temperate zones on each side of the equator and a central zone at the equator rendered uninhabitable due to the high heat prevailing there. He estimates the circumference of the Earth at 400,000 stades, or about 60,000 km. Aristotle’s geocentric conception, together with that of Ptolemy, would dominate thinking for more than a millennium.

Aristotle, however, owes this conception of the cosmos largely from Eudoxus of Cnidus (whose theory of spheres he perfected), with the difference that Eudoxus did not defend a realistic position, as Aristotle did. Ptolemy also does not support this realistic position: his theory and that of Eudoxus are for them only theoretical models that allow calculation. It is, therefore, the influence of Aristotelianism that makes the Ptolemaic system appear as the “reality” of the cosmos in philosophical reflections, until the fifteenth century.

Aristotle distinguishes two great regions in the cosmos: the sublunar world, ours, and the supralunar world, that of the sky and the stars, which are eternal and admit no change because they are made up of ether and possess a truly divine life that is self-sufficient. The Earth is necessarily motionless but is at the center of a sphere animated by a continuous and uniform rotational movement; the rest of the world participates in a double revolution, one peculiar to the “first Heaven” making a diurnal revolution from East to West, while the other makes a reverse revolution from West to East and decomposes into as many distinct revolutions as there are planets.

This model is further complicated by the fact that it is not the planets that move, but the translucent spheres on the equator on whose equator they are fixed: three spheres were needed to explain the movement of the moon, but four for each of the planets.

Influence of cosmology on science and on the representation of the world

According to Alexandre Koyré, Aristotelian cosmology leads, on the one hand, to conceive of the world as a finite and well-ordered whole where the spatial structure embodies a hierarchy of value and perfection: “”Above” the heavy and opaque earth, the center of the sublunar region of change and corruption”, rise “the celestial spheres of imponderable stars,  incorruptible and luminous… ». On the other hand, in science, this leads to seeing space as a “differentiated set of intramundane places”, which are opposed to “the space of Euclidean geometry — homogeneous and necessarily infinite extension”. This has the effect of introducing into scientific thought considerations based on the notions of value, perfection, meaning or end, as well as linking the world of values and the world of facts.


The Great Library of Alexandria possessed the works of Aristotle (here painting by O. Von Corven, 19th century)
The Great Library of Alexandria possessed the works of Aristotle (here painting by O. Von Corven, 19th century)

The word metaphysics is not known to Aristotle, who uses the expression first philosophy. The work called Metaphysics is composed of rather heterogeneous notes. The term “metaphysics” was attributed to it in the first century because the writings that compose it were classified “after Physics” in the Library of Alexandria. Since the prefix meta can mean after or beyond, the term  “meta-physics” (meta ta phusika), can be interpreted in two ways.

First of all, it is possible to understand that texts must be studied after physics. It is also possible to understand the term to mean that the object of texts is hierarchically above physics. Even if, in both cases, it is permissible to perceive a certain compatibility with the Aristotelian term of first philosophy, the use of a different word is often perceived by specialists as the reflection of a problem, especially since the texts gathered under the name of metaphysics are crossed by two distinct questions. On the one hand, first philosophy is seen as the “science of first principles and causes,” that is, of the divine; This is a questioning now called theological.

On the other hand, books Γ and K are crossed by an ontological questioning concerning “the science of being as being”. So that we sometimes speak of an “onto-theological orientation” of the first philosophy. To complicate matters, Aristotle seems, in some books (book E in particular), to introduce the ontological question of the gamma book (what makes everything that is, is?) within a theological question (what is the first cause that leads to being the whole of what is?).

Physics and metaphysics

In Book E chapter 1, Aristotle notes: “Physics studies beings that are separate (χωριστά) but not immobile, while primary science concerns beings that are both separate and immobile […] If there were no other substance than those constituted by nature, physics would be a primary science. But as there is an immobile substance, then the science of this substance must be prior to the sensible things of the world of phenomena, and metaphysics must be the first philosophy.

And the task of this science will be to consider being as such and the concept and qualities that belong to it as being” (E 1:1026 a 13-32). Also, if physics studies the whole form-matter (ἔνυλα εἴδη) of the visible world, metaphysics or first philosophy studies form as a form, that is, the divine “present in this motionless and separate nature” (E1, 1026 a 19-21). For a specialist like A. Jaulin, metaphysics, therefore, studies “the same objects as physics, but from the perspective of the study of form”.

For Aristotle, while physics studies natural movements, that is to say, caused by the principle proper to matter, metaphysics studies the “non-moving motors”, those who make things move without being themselves moved. “The two sensible substances [matter, and the compound substance] are the object of Physics because they involve motion; but the immobile substance is the object of a different science [the first philosophy]”).

Therefore, “Metaphysics is indeed the science of essence, and on the other hand, are universal the ‘axioms’ which basically express the nature of God”.

God as the first motor and philosophy of religion

The conventional representation we have of Aristotle makes him a pure intellectualist metaphysician; However, according to Werner Jaeger, Aristotle must also be considered the founder of the philosophy of religion because his dialectic is “inspired from within by a lively religious feeling, of which all parts of the logical organization of his philosophy are penetrated and informed”.

According to Jaeger, after Plato’s theology of old age, Aristotle provides the first proof of the existence of God in his dialogue On Philosophy (Περὶ φιλοσοφίας), writing in Book III fragment 16: “It may be considered that in any field where a hierarchy of degrees reigns, and therefore a greater or lesser approximation of perfection,  There must be something absolutely perfect. Now, since in all that is such a gradation of more or less perfect things is manifested, there is therefore a being of absolute superiority and perfection, and this being may well be God.” Now, Jaeger continues, it is precisely nature, the reign of strictly hierarchical Forms, which is governed according to Aristotle by this gradation: every inferior thing is linked to another that is superior to it.

In the realm of existing things, then, there is also a thing of ultimate perfection, the highest final cause and principle of everything else. This ontological argument, linked to the teleological argument in accordance with  Aristotle’s Physics, constitutes what the great scholastics will call the argumentum ex gradibus. This is the first great attempt to deal scientifically with the problem of God. This scientific speculation does not, however, exclude the personal experience of God’s intimate intuition, especially in the piety with which Aristotle evokes the divinity of the cosmos. “Aristotle’s amazed contemplation at the immutable order of the stars, intensified to the point of becoming God’s religious intuition”, is in line with Plato and is not without announcing Kant’s wonder.

In the book entitled Metaphysics, man’s knowledge of God is identified with man’s knowledge of God. The self is the spirit, the νοῦς / noûs, which is said to “come from outside” (θύραθεν εἰσίων) and be “the divine in us”, (τὸ θεῖον ἐν ἡμῖν). And it is through the νοῦς / noûs that the knowledge of God enters into us, Aristotle therefore defines it as the thought of thought (νοήσεως νόησις, “noeseos noesis“), that is to say as a being who thinks his own thought, intelligence and the act of intelligence being one and the same thing in god: “God is happy, he is too perfect to think himself anything other than himself.

The Supreme Intelligence, therefore, thinks of itself…, and its Thought is thought of thought.” It is in this sense a pure form or Act, without matter, which launches all the movements: indeed, Aristotle describes God as the first immutable and incorruptible engine, and which, subsequently, actualizes the whole of what is. He perpetually enjoys pure and simple pleasure, because there is not only an activity of movement — transitive or fabricative activity in the Aristotelian sense of the Greek ἔργον — but also an immobile, immanent, perfect activity, which reaches its end at any moment, and this “activity of stillness”, ἐνέργεια ἀκινησίας, type of activity par excellence, is fully realized in the pure Act that Aristotle calls “the perfect eternal living”,  ζῷον ἀΐδιον ἄριστον, for the act of intelligence is life: ἡ γὰρ νοῦ ἐνέργεια ζῳή.

In Aristotle, God, defined at the end of his work On Prayer as “the νοῦς or something superior to the νοῦς”, is absolutely transcendent, so that it is difficult to describe him other than in a negative way, that is, in relation to what men do not have. For Céline Denat, “The Aristotelian God, enjoying a perfect life consisting in the pure activity of intelligible contemplation, certainly constitutes for man “an ideal”, the model of an existence devoid of the imperfections and limits that are proper to us”. However, this negative theology, which will influence the Neo-Platonists, is not assumed by Aristotle. Pierre Aubenque notes: “The negativity of theology is simply encountered in the mode of failure; it is not accepted by Aristotle as the realization of his project, which was undoubtedly to make a positive theology”.

Aristotelian ontology

The ontological question of being as being is not approached in Aristotle as the study of a matter constituted by being as being, but as the study of a subject, being, seen from the angle as being. For Aristotle, the word “being” has several meanings. The first meaning is that of substance (ousia), the second, that of quantity, qualities, etc., of this substance.

Nevertheless, for him, the science of being as a being is mainly centered on substance. To ask the question “What is being?” is to ask the question “What is substance?” Aristotle addresses in the book of Metaphysics the principle of non-contradiction (PNC), that is, “the same thing cannot belong and not belong to the same thing and in the same respect” (Meta 1005b  19). If this principle is central to Aristotle, he does not try to prove it. He prefers to show that this hypothesis is necessary if words are to have meaning.

In Metaphysics Z, 3, Aristotle presents four possible explanations of what the substance of x is. It can be “(i) the essence of x or (ii) universal predicates of x, or (iii) a genus to which x belongs, or (iv) a subject of which x is the predicate.” For Cohen and Reeve, “an essential form is the essence of the substance, and that corresponds to a species. Since a substantial form is an essence, it is what is denoted by the definians of the definition. Since only universals are definable, substantial forms are universals.” The problem is that if Aristotle in Metaphysics Z, 8 seems to think that substantial forms are universals, in Metaphysics Z, 3, he excludes this possibility. Hence two lines of interpretation.

For Sellars (1957), Hartman (1977), Irwin (1988) and Witt (1989), substantial forms are not universals and there are as many substantial forms as there are particular types of a thing. For others, (Woods (1967), Owen (1978), Code (1986), Loux (1991) and Lewis (1991)), Aristotle does not mean in Z, 13 that universals are not a substance but something more subtle that does not oppose “there being only one substantial form for all individuals belonging to the same species”.

In Z, 17, Aristotle hypothesizes that substance is both principle and cause. Indeed, if there are four types of causes (material, formal, efficient and final), the same thing can belong to several types of causes. For example, in De Anima (198 a 25), he argues that the soul can be efficient, formal and final cause. So that essence is not only a formal cause, it can also be an efficient and final cause. To put it simply, for Aristotle, Socrates is a man “because the form or essence of man is present in the flesh and bones that constitute” his body.

If Aristotle, in Metaphysics Z, distinguishes matter and body, in book Θ, he distinguishes between reality and potentiality. Just as form takes precedence over matter, reality takes precedence over potentiality for two reasons. First of all, reality is the end, it is for it that potentiality exists. Then, potentiality may not become a reality, so it is perishable and as such inferior to what is because “what is eternal must be entirely real”.

For Pierre Aubenque, Aristotle’s ontology is an ontology of the split between the immutable essence and the sensible essence. So that it is the mediation of dialectics that makes possible a unity “properly ontological, that is to say, which holds only to the discourse we hold on it and which would collapse without it”.

Ethics according to Aristotle

Aristotle addressed ethical issues in two books, Ethics to Eudemus and Ethics to Nicomache. The first is related to the period prior to the foundation of the Lyceum, between the years 348 to 355, and presents a first state of his thought on the subject, in a simple and accessible exposition, pieces of which will be taken up later in the Nicomachean Ethics. Both books have more or less the same concerns. They begin with a reflection on eudemonism, that is, on happiness or fulfillment. They continue with a study of the nature of virtue and excellence. Aristotle also addresses the character traits necessary to achieve this virtue (arete).

For Aristotle, ethics is a field of practical science whose study must enable human beings to live better life. Hence the importance of ethical virtues (justice, courage, temperance, etc.), seen as a mixture of reason, emotions and social skills. However, Aristotle, unlike Plato, does not believe that “the study of science and metaphysics is a prerequisite for a full understanding of our good.” For him, the good life requires that we have acquired “the ability to understand on every occasion what actions are most in conformity with reason.” The important thing is not to follow general rules but to acquire “through practice the deliberative, emotional and social skills that enable us to put our general understanding of well-being into practice”. Its purpose is not to “know what virtue is in its essence” but to show how to become virtuous.

Aristotle sees ethics as an autonomous field that requires no expertise in other fields. On the other hand, justice is different from and inferior to the common good. Also, unlike Plato for whom justice and the common good must be sought for themselves and for their results, for Aristotle, justice must be sought only for its consequences.

The good: a central concept

All action tends towards a good that is its end. What is called the supreme good, or the sovereign good, is called by Aristotle eudaimonia and designates both happiness and good living, εὖ ζῆν / eu zên. Being εὐδαίμων / eudaimon is the highest end of the human being, the one to which all other ends (health, wealth, etc.) are subordinate. This is why the philosopher Jean Greisch proposed to translate the term eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), by fulfillment rather than happiness. For Aristotle, the supreme good has three characteristics: it is desirable by itself; it is not desirable for the search for other goods; Other goods are desirable for the sole purpose of attaining it.

Thus Aristotle makes ethics a constitutive science of politics: “For the conduct of life, the knowledge of this good is of great weight […] and depends on the supreme and architectonic science par excellence (which) is obviously politics because it determines which of the sciences are necessary in the cities”. The ultimate end of the human being is also linked to ἔργον / ergon, that is, to his task, to his function which, for him, consists in using the rational part of man in a manner consistent with virtue (ἀρετή, “aretê“) and excellence. To live well, we must practice activities “that throughout our lives actualize the virtues of the rational part of the soul.”

There are various conceptions of happiness. The most common form is pleasure, but this type of happiness is peculiar to “the grossest people” because it is within the reach of animals. A higher form of happiness is that which is given by the esteem of society, because “one seeks to be honored by sensible men and to those of whom one is known, and one wants to be honored for his excellence.”

This form of happiness is perfectly satisfying because “the life of good people does not need pleasure to be added to it as an extra hairpiece, but it has its pleasure in itself”. There is, however, an even greater happiness: it is that which contemplation provides, understood as the search for truth, for what is immutable, for what finds its end in itself. This is something divine: “It is not as man that we will live in this way, but according to the divine element that is present in us.” Aristotle devotes to this form of happiness the entire last book of his Ethics.

Wealth should not be confused with happiness: “As for the life of the businessman, it is a life of constraint, and wealth is obviously not the good we seek: it is only a useful thing, a means to another thing.”

Theory of virtues

Aristotle distinguishes two kinds of virtues: intellectual virtues, which “depend to a large extent on the teaching received” and moral virtues, which are “the product of habit”: “It is by practicing righteous actions that we become righteous, moderate actions that we become moderate and courageous actions that we become courageous.” In both cases, these virtues are in us only in the state of power. All free men are born with the potential to become morally virtuous. Virtue cannot be mere good intention, it must also be action and realization. It depends on the character (ethos) and habit of doing well that individual must acquire. Prudence is practical wisdom par excellence.

Intellectual virtues include:

  1. science (episteme), which relies on induction and proceeds by syllogism;
  2. art (technè), which is “a certain disposition accompanied by the true rule”, such as architecture;
  3. prudence (phronesis) or “the art of deliberating correctly on what is good and advantageous”;
  4. intuitive understanding (noûs) which is the grasp of principles;
  5. Theoretical wisdom (Sophia), considered “the most complete form of knowledge”.

An intemperate person does not follow reason but emotions. Now, moral virtue is a middle way between two vices, one by excess and the other by default: “It is quite a job to be virtuous. In all things, indeed, it is difficult to find the way.” There are four forms of excess in Aristotle: “(a) impetuosity caused by pleasure, (b) impetuosity caused by anger, (c) weakness caused by pleasure, (d) weakness caused by anger.”

“In all things, finally, we must above all be wary against what is pleasant and against pleasure, because in this matter we do not judge impartially.” A person who controls himself and shows temperance although subject to the passions (pathos) retains the strength to follow reason and shows self-discipline. This is reinforced by habit: “It is by abstaining from pleasures that we become moderate, and once we have become so, it is then that we are most capable of practicing this abstention”.

On the other hand, there are people who do not believe in the value of virtues. Aristotle calls them bad (kakos, phaulos). Their desire for domination or luxury knows no bounds (πλεονεξία / pleonexia) but leaves them unsatisfied, unable to achieve inner harmony. Like Plato, he believes that inner harmony is necessary to live a good life. We lead a bad life when we allow ourselves to be dominated by irrational psychological forces that lead us towards goals outside of ourselves.

Desire, deliberation and rational wish

“There are three predominant factors in the soul that determine action and truth: sensation, intellect and desire. Unfortunately, our desires do not necessarily lead to good, but can lead to immediate satisfaction, dispersion: we desire something because it seems good to us, rather than it seems good to us because we desire it.” To do well, man must be guided by reason: “Just as the child must live in accordance with the prescriptions of his governor, so must the lustful part of the soul conform to reason.” He can thus attain rational wish and then, through the study of means and deliberation, arrive at a thoughtful choice.

« There are three factors that drive our choices, and three factors our repulsions: the beautiful, the useful, the pleasant and their opposites, the ugly, the damaging and the painful. » Deliberation leads to the rational choice about the means to the end: “We deliberate not about the ends themselves, but about the means to achieve the ends.” Virtue and vice result from voluntary choices: “Choice is not something common to man and beings devoid of reason, unlike what takes place for concupiscence and impulsivity. […] The man master of himself […] acts by choice and not by concupiscence.”

“Aristotle does not yet use the notions of free will, freedom, responsibility”, but in a way lays the foundations on which these notions will be built, distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary actions. The latter cannot be related to our will and we cannot therefore be held responsible for them. However, in Aristotle, ignorance does not necessarily lead to forgiveness. Indeed, there are cases where the ignorance of human beings must be punished because it was up to them to inform themselves.

Thus, when we realize, sometimes, our ignorance and our mistake, we recognize that we have done wrong. However, in cases where men are subject to external constraints that are impossible for them to resist, they are not responsible for their conduct. Generally speaking, for Aristotle, the will is about the end sought and the choice about the means to achieve that end. While Plato insists on the end and holds the means as subordinate, enslaved to the ends, Aristotle wonders about the dissonances between ends and means. So that, for the Stagirite, ends and means are equally important and interact.

Prudence and deliberation on the means to an end

For Aristotle, the “phronêsis”  is not only the Latin “prudentia“. It is the consequence of “a split within reason, and the recognition of this split as a condition for a new critical intellectualism.” So that phronêsis is not the virtue of the reasonable soul, but that of the part of that soul which bears the contingent. While for Plato the split is between the Forms (or Ideas) and the contingent or rather, the shadow, the copy of forms, in Aristotle, it is the real world that is itself split in two.

This split does not imply, as in Plato, a hierarchy between the two parts of the reasonable soul. In the Stagirite, phronêsis derives from the inability of science “to know the particular and the contingent, which are nevertheless the proper domain of action”. The phronêsis serves to bridge “the infinite distance between the real efficiency of the means and the realization of the end.” Phronesis is related to intuition, to glance, so it is not indecision. Pierre Aubenque notes in this regard: “At the same time a man of thought and action, heir in this to the heroes of tradition, the phronimos unites in him the slowness of reflection and the immediacy of the glance, which is only the sudden blossoming of the latter: he unites meticulousness and inspiration, the spirit of foresight and the spirit of decision”.

Measurement theory

For Aristotle, every ethical virtue is in the balance between two excesses. For example, a brave person is between the coward who is afraid of everything and the reckless who is not afraid of anything. However, virtue is not quantifiable, it is not the right arithmetic average between two states. For example, in some cases, a big anger will be required while in another circumstance a very small level of anger will be required.

This interpretation of the measure is generally accepted. On the other hand, the interpretation that to think that to be virtuous one must achieve a goal between two options is quite widely rejected. Indeed, for Aristotle, the important thing is not to be “lukewarm” but to discover what is adapted to the present case. To act virtuously, one must act in such a way as to be “καλός / kalos” (noble, or beautiful), for men have for ethical activities the same attraction they have for the beauty of works of art. True to his educational principles, Aristotle considers that young people should learn what is “καλόν  / kalon”  and develop an aversion to what is “αἰσχρόν / aischron”  (ugly or shameful).

The theory of measurement helps to understand which qualities are virtuous, such as courage or temperance, because they are located between two extremes and which emotions (spite, envy), which actions (adultery, theft, murder) are wrong in all circumstances. Unlike Plato, Aristotle has a great interest in the family and is very concerned with the virtues that are necessary for it.

Measurement theory is not part of the deliberative process focused on studying the means to achieve an end. It belongs to the process that leads to virtue and that makes it possible to define the right goal: “Moral virtue, in fact, ensures the rectitude of the goal we pursue, and prudence that of the means to achieve this end.”


An extract in Greek from Aristotle's Politics (book I, 1252 b 1-8)
An extract in Greek from Aristotle’s Politics (book I, 1252 b 1-8)

The Politics is one of the oldest treatises on the political philosophy of ancient Greece and the only ancient work that analyzes the problematic of the city as well as the concept of slavery. Aristotle examines how the city should be organized (Greek: πόλις, polis). He also discusses the conceptions expounded by Plato in  The Republic and The Laws, as well as various models of constitutions.


Political science (πολιτικὴ ἐπιστήμη / politikê epistêmê) is first and foremost a practical science that seeks the good and happiness of citizens: “The most perfect state is obviously that in which every citizen, whoever he may be, can, thanks to the laws, best practice virtue, and ensure the most happiness.” Politics is also a productive science when it deals with the creation, preservation and reform of political systems. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that political science is the most important science of the city, the one that must be studied first by citizens, even before military science, household management (which would become much later with Adam Smith, economics), and rhetoric. Political science is not limited as it is currently to political philosophy but also includes ethics and education.

Ethics and politics have in common the search for the Good. They participate in technê politikê, or political art, whose object is, at the same time, the common good, and the good of individuals.

For a society to be sustainable, it must first be fair. Justice is used to qualify our relationships with our fellow human beings when they are marked by friendship. It is therefore the complete virtue that makes us seek, at the same time, our own good and that of others. In practice, it is useful for it to be supported by laws that will say the right and the unjust. The relationship between justice and law is two-sided. Indeed, justice, which is first and foremost an ethical virtue, also serves as a norm for the law.

According to Aristotle, man can only live among men: “Without friends no one would choose to live, would he have all other goods.” He distinguishes three types of friendship: useful friendship (we render each other services); friendship based on pleasure (for example, we are happy to play cards with someone) and true friendship where we “love the other for himself”. This last type of friendship is in itself a virtue that participates in the common good.

If a city can live without this form of virtue, to endure it must at least reach the concord that makes it possible to arrive at a community of interests: “Friendship also seems to constitute the bond of cities, and legislators seem to attach a greater value to it than to justice itself: indeed, concord, which seems to be a feeling close to friendship,  is what legislators seek above all else, while factionalism, which is its enemy, is what they pursue most energetically.”

Presuppositions of Aristotle’s Political Philosophy

According to Fred Miller, Aristotle’s political philosophy is based on five principles:

  1. The principle of teleology: nature has an end, so human beings have a function (a task) to assume.
  2. The principle of perfection: “The ultimate good or happiness (eudaimonia) of human beings consists in perfection, in the full realization of their natural function, which he sees as the movement of the soul in accord to reason.”
  3. The principle of community: the most perfect community is the city-state. Indeed, being neither too big nor too small, it corresponds to the nature of man and makes it possible to reach the good life.
  4. The principle of government under the law.
  5. The principle of the rule of reason. Like Plato, Aristotle believes that the non-rational part of man must be governed by the rational part.

Importance of education

Aristotle devotes several chapters of his Politics to education. It makes the legislator “a strict duty to legislate on education” and considers that “the education of children must be one of the principal objects of the care of the legislator”. Clearly opposed to Plato’s collectivism, he saw education as a means “of bringing back to community and unity the state, which is multiple.” He, therefore, devotes a long reflection on the modalities it must take: “Education must necessarily be one and identical for all its members” and “the education of children and women must be in harmony with the political organization”. Aristotle wants education to necessarily comprise “two distinct epochs, from seven years to puberty, and from puberty to twenty-one years.” As for the pedagogical objectives, he opted for a position that Marrou considered to be of “remarkable finesse”:

“Physical education, far from aiming at selecting champions, must aim at the harmonious development of the child; In the same way, musical education will reject any pretense of competing with professionals: it will aspire only to train an enlightened amateur, who has practiced the musical technique himself only to the extent that such direct experience is useful to form his judgment”.

Aristotle is critical of Athens because it did not “understand that education was not only a political problem, but perhaps the most important”; he is no kinder to Sparta, which aims first to inculcate in young people warlike virtues. The philosopher speaks as a precursor, because in his time “the existence of a true public education assumed by the State remained an originality of the aristocratic cities (Sparta, Crete)”. It was not until the Hellenistic period that girls from the main cities attended primary and secondary schools or the palaestra and gymnasium in the same way as boys.

The city and political naturalism

Aristotle, in Book I of his work Politics, considers the city and the law as natural. According to him, human beings first formed pairs for the purpose of reproducing, then created villages with natural masters, able to rule, and natural slaves, used for their labor power. Finally, several villages united to form a city-state.

For Aristotle, man is “a political animal”, that is, a being who lives in a city (Greek: polis). He sees proof that men are social beings in the fact that “nature, which does nothing in vain, has endowed them with language, which makes them capable of sharing moral concepts such as justice.” Man is not the only social animal, for bees, wasps, ants and cranes are also able to organize themselves for a common goal.

The notion of nature, and especially that of human nature, is not fixed in Aristotle. Indeed, he considers that the human can transform his status into a natural slave, or even into a semi-divine human.

Political actors

Only a full citizen is one who can exercise the functions of judge and magistrate: “The eminently distinctive feature of the true citizen is the enjoyment of the functions of judge and magistrate”. However, these functions require a virtuous character of which many are incapable. Since these functions are granted by a constitution and constitutions vary between cities, there are cities where very few are full citizens.

Aristotle has a hierarchical vision of society: he ranks the free man above other human beings such as the slave, the child, the woman. He writes:

“Thus, the free man commands the slave quite differently than the husband commands the wife, and the father, the child; and yet the essential elements of the soul exist in all these beings; But they are there to varying degrees. The slave is absolutely deprived of will; the woman has one, but in suborder; The child has only an incomplete one”.

He placed in a lower class the laborers, artisans, tradesmen, sailors or fishermen, and all “people of too mediocre fortune to live without work”. All these people are indeed unable to perform the function of the magistrate and to devote themselves to the pursuit of happiness through philosophy, because this requires a lot of free time.

The most important task of politics is that of the legislator (Nomothete). Aristotle often compares the politician to a craftsman, because like the latter, he creates, uses and reforms when necessary legal system. But its operations must be carried out in accordance with universal principles. For Aristotle, the citizen, that is to say, the one who has the right (ἐξουσία, exousia) to participate in public life, has a much more active role, is much more involved in the management of the city than in our modern democracies.

General theory of constitutions and citizenship

However, for it to flourish, the city must be well governed. A happy city is one that is governed by a good constitution, “the constitution being defined by the organization of the various magistracies”. It is important that the constitution be accepted by all citizens and, to this end, that all classes participate in some way in power. Thus he rejected the system advocated by Hippodamos of Miletus because it excluded the two working classes from power: “But if the craftsmen and laborers are excluded from the government of the city, how can they have any attachment to it?” He analyzed other constitutions, notably those of Sparta, Carthage, Crete and Athens.

According to Aristotle, there are two main types of constitution: correct constitutions that lead to the good of all, and deviant constitutions, which benefit only those who govern. He distinguishes three forms of correct constitutions: royalty, aristocracy, and constitutional government. Aristotle differentiates the forms of government according to the number of rulers: only one in tyranny and royalty, a few in aristocracy or oligarchy and many in democracy and republic. The “aristocracy” in his country does not necessarily refer to a privilege of birth but designates the best in the sense of personal merit, while “democracy” or “popular regime” refers to the exercise of power by the people.

The six forms of government
  Correct Deviant
A ruler Monarchy Tyranny
Some rulers Aristocracy (= the best) Oligarchy (= the richest)
Many rulers Politeia or constitutional government Democracy

In Praise of Democracy
But that it is necessary for the masses to be sovereign rather than those who are the best but who are few, this would seem to bring a solution which certainly also causes difficulty, but which undoubtedly also involves some truth. For it is possible that many individuals, none of whom is a virtuous man, when they assemble are better than the people mentioned, not individually, but collectively, as collective meals are better than those organized at the expense of one person. Among many, in fact, everyone possesses a share of excellence and prudence, and when people have come together as this gives a kind of unique man with many feet, so too is the ethical and intellectual qualities. This is also why the multitude is the best judge of the arts and artists: indeed, some judge one part, others another, and all judge the whole. […] It remains to involve these people in the deliberative and judicial functions. […] Indeed, when they are all together, they possess a correct perception of things, and mixed with the tailors, they are useful to the cities. On the other hand, taken individually, everyone has an imperfect judgment.
Policies, III, 11.

The rulers must be chosen on the basis of their political excellence, that is, they must be able to govern not for the benefit of a particular group, but with the good of all: “all claims (to govern) formulated in the name of another criterion (wealth, birth, freedom) are, as such, disqualified and dismissed back to back”.

A constitution is excellent if it ensures the happiness of citizens and if it is able to last. The least bad constitution would be one where power is controlled by a large middle class: “the city wants to be composed above all of equal and similar people, which is above all the characteristic of average people”. There are several reasons for this. First, being neither very rich nor very poor, members of this class are more naturally moderate and inclined to follow reason than others. In addition, they are less likely to join violent and irreducible factions, which makes cities more stable:

“It is therefore also clear that the best political community is that which is constituted by average people, and that the cities which can be well governed are those in which the middle class is numerous and at best stronger than the other two, or at least than one of the two, because its assistance tips the balance and prevents contrary excesses.”

As can be seen in the attached box, Aristotle differs from Plato by showing the superiority of the democratic ideal as Athens had known it in the fifth century BC. If it is absolutely necessary to choose between various regimes, “the regime where everyone participates in power is the best”.

While affirming that there is “an excellent constitution”, and while acknowledging that its establishment is necessarily progressive, it nevertheless recognizes that the situations are diverse according to the local culture and that “in every concrete situation there is one and only one constitutional form that is excellent”. The only universal principle that is valid for all constitutions is that of proportional equality: “Everyone must receive in proportion to his excellence.”

Without systematically dealing with the problem of laws, Aristotle shows its interdependence with the constitution: “Such a just law in one constitution would be unjust in another, because it contradicts the spirit of this constitution. […] The introduction of a new legislative provision can have devastating effects on the Constitution.” It also shows the rivalry that develops between two cities governed by opposing systems: “when they have on their doorstep a state constituted on a principle opposed to theirs, or when this enemy, distant as he is, has a great power. Look at the struggle of Sparta and Athens: everywhere the Athenians overthrew the oligarchies, while the Lacedaemonians overthrew democratic constitutions.”

Influence of this book

As with most of Aristotle’s works, this one was not revised for publication, but was intended for his teaching. This results in gaps, inconsistencies and ambiguities due to the state of incompleteness of the text. Nor do we have ancient Greek commentaries as for other treatises, nor an indirect tradition that can help to make corrections or restore the authentic text in corrupted passages. But this in no way alters the unity of structure of the work and of a thought that remains “the most important and richest contribution of antiquity in the field of political science”.

In his time, Aristotle’s political analysis did not have a strong influence, because many city-states had already lost their independence to Alexander the Great, whose tutor he was. Little commented and long forgotten, the work was rediscovered only in the thirteenth century, where Aristotle’s thought is invoked in a reflection on Augustinism and later in the quarrel between the papacy and the empire.


Presentation of Aristotle’s thought

Aristotle addresses economic topics in Nicomachean Ethics 5:5 and Politics I, 8-10; in both cases, these are subsections within studies on more fundamental topics. In Nicomachean Ethics, he differentiates distributive justice (διανεμητικός / dianemetikos) which deals with how honors, goods and the like should be distributed, and corrective justice (διορθωτικός / diorthotikos).

In the first case, justice does not consist in an equal distribution between unequal people, but in a balance perceived as fair. In the second case, that of corrective justice, the Stagirite distinguishes between voluntary and involuntary exchanges. In the case of an involuntary exchange, justice intervenes only if there has been fraud and does not have to investigate whether there was a fair price.

Aristotle explicitly recognizes the economic necessity of slavery at a time when mechanization did not exist: “if the shuttles wove on their own; If the bow played the zither on its own, the entrepreneurs would do without workers, and the masters, slaves.” His treatise on politics is even the only text from antiquity that studies slavery as a concept.

He also reflects on the nature of money, which he affirms as purely conventional, because money has value only “by law and not by nature”. It is thanks to money that the exchange between different goods can be balanced. But a question haunts Aristotle, is money only an instrument of exchange or is it a substance that has within it its own end (telos)? He condemns lending at interest and usury “because it is a mode of acquisition born of money itself, and not giving it the destination for which it was created.” In Policy, he clearly states that money should only be used to facilitate the exchange of goods:

“Money should only be used for exchange; And the interest that one draws from it multiplies it itself, as indicated enough by the name given to it by the Greek language (Tokos), the beings produced here are absolutely similar to their parents. Interest is money derived from money, and it is of all acquisitions that is most contrary to nature. »

He warns against unbridled commercial acquisition—chrematistics—which “has no limit even to the goal it pursues, since its goal is precisely indefinite opulence and enrichment.”

Aristotle perceived the danger created for the city by the development of the commodity economy. The economic part of his work was of particular interest to St. Thomas Aquinas and Catholicism, to whom it provided the basis of his social teaching. Its influence is also strong on the social thought of Islam. Nowadays, Aristotle’s economic thought is also studied by those who want to moralize economics. Aristotle has long been attributed to Economics in the Middle Ages, the authenticity of which is in fact highly doubtful.

Thinking with little focus on economic analysis

Joseph Schumpeter was one of the first to question the existence in Aristotle’s thought of economic analysis, that is, an “intellectual effort… intended to understand economic phenomena”. His research led him to conclude that there was an analytical intention that did not lead to anything serious. Moreover, for him, the Stagirite would have treated the economy only through the small end of the lens and would have neglected slavery which then constituted the basis of the economy and the great maritime trade, the other key point of the Athenian power. So that Aristotle restricts the field of economics to exchanges between free producers then very marginal. In fact, the Stagirite deals only with “exchange relations that take place in the context of the community”, which is also consistent with its policy.

For Atoll Fitzgibbons, Adam Smith’s plan was to replace Aristotelian philosophy, which he saw as a brake on freedom and economic growth, with an equally large but more dynamic system.

Poietics or productive science


Aristotle wrote three major works of rhetoric: Poetics, Rhetoric,  and Topicals.

According to Aristotle, rhetoric is above all a useful art. Defined as “the ability to consider, for each question, what may be suitable to persuade”, it is a “means of arguing, using common notions and rational evidence, in order to make an audience accept ideas”. Its function is to communicate ideas despite the differences in the language of the disciplines. Aristotle thus founded rhetoric as an autonomous oratorical science of philosophy.

The three genres of discourse
  Audience Time Act Securities Typical argument
judicial Judges Past Accuse – defend Just – unfair Enthymeme (or deductive)
deliberative Assembly Future Advisor-discourager Useful – harmful Example (or inductive)
epidictic Spectator Present Rent – blame Noble – vile Amplification

Each type of speech corresponds to a series of techniques and a particular time. Judicial discourse requires the past since it is on accomplished facts that the prosecution or defense is concerned. Deliberative requires the future because we consider the future issues and consequences of the decision. Finally, the epidictic or demonstrative genre highlights amplification.

Aristotle defines the rules of rhetoric not only in rhetoric but also in books V and VI of the Organon. He bases it on logic, which he also codified. The Topicals section defines the framework of argumentative possibilities between the parties, i.e. the rhetorical places. For Jean-Jacques Robrieux, “thus is traced, with Aristotle, the path of a rhetoric based on the logic of values”.

In addition to a theory of rhetorical inference expounded in Book I of Rhetoric, Aristotle proposes in the same work a theory of passions (Book II) and a theory of style (Book III).

Poetics (tragedy and epic)

Aristotle on a wall fresco in Rome
Aristotle on a wall fresco in Rome

The last work of the Aristotelian corpus, probably one of Aristotle’s best known, The Poetics deals with the “science of the production of an object that is called a work of art”. If Aristotle considers poetry, painting, sculpture, music and dance to be arts, in his book he is mainly interested in tragedy and epic and, very anecdotally, in music. Aristotle mentions a future work on comedy which is one of the lost works.

The role of the poet, in the Aristotelian sense, that is to say, of the writer, is not so much to write verses as to represent reality, actions; This is the theme of mimesis. However, the poet is not a historian-chronicler: “The role of the poet is to say not what really takes place, but what could take place in the order of the plausible or the necessary […] It is for this reason that poetry is more philosophical and noble than the chronicle: poetry deals with the general, the chronicle with the particular. The general term refers to the type of thing that a certain category of men does or says presumably or necessarily.” In tragedy, history is more important than characters.

In one story, “the twist is the reversal of action in the opposite direction”. Unity of action is probably the most important rule; It is obtained by the representation of a single action around which the whole tragedy is organized. Another major rule is respect for plausibility: the narrative must present only necessary and plausible events; It must not contain irrationality or illogic, as this would break the audience’s adherence to the spectacle they are watching. If the story has illogical elements, these must be outside the narrative as in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.

The phenomenon of catharsis, or purification of passions, linked to tragedy, has been the subject of various interpretations. For Beck, “emotions are purified analytically (as by a process of discernment exposed on the scene seen and producing a purity, a kind of abstraction, so that […] The pleasure of the spectator […] is also an intelligent pleasure.” In the “classical” interpretation the sight of the bad or the painful distances itself from this type of passion. Medical interpretation, on the other hand, considers that “the effect of the poem is to relieve the spectator physiologically”.

The text of the Poetics, rediscovered in Europe in 1453, has been extensively commented on and invoked as an authority. The French seventeenth century wrongly attributes to him the rule of three units in dramatic composition.

The Little Treatises: Sleep and Dreams

Brief presentation of the treaties

Aristotle devoted three small treatises to the question of sleep and dreams: Of sleep and wakefulness, Dreams and Divination in sleep. These treatises extend the reflection of the treatise On the Soul, to which they sometimes refer indirectly, and aim to explore psychological phenomena in relation to their physiological basis.

The Aristotelian conception of dreams

Like Xenophanes and Heraclitus, Aristotle rejected out of hand the ideas in force at his time which saw in the dream a divine appearance: “In the same way neither can the dream be for the one who sees it, neither a sign nor a cause of the reality that comes after; It’s just a coincidence.”

He does not suspect the symbolism of dreams or its narrative dimension, but remains fixed on the illusion it creates and its hallucinatory scope. In doing so, he departs from Plato’s conception in The Republic that the soul during sleep is freed from space and time and can set out in search of the Truth. To the question of whether the dream is produced by the perceptual part of the soul or its intellectual part, Aristotle excludes them both and asserts that it is the work of the imagination:

“Thus, during the night the inactivity of each of the particular senses, and the powerlessness to act where they are . . . bring all these impressions, which were insensitive during the day before, back to the very center of sensitivity; and they become perfectly clear”.

Dreams, therefore, make us relive experiences of waking life, but in a diminished form because the perceptions made during the day have left traces in the mind, “a residue of sensation” (461 b). He does not attribute to the dream any finality, function or meaning, but sees it as an almost mechanical production. It should therefore not be attached to importance.

To properly interpret dreams, we must know how to recognize similarities:

“Besides, the most skillful interpreter of dreams is the one who knows best how to recognize their similarities […] Because dream images are pretty much like representations of objects in water, as we have already said: when the movement of the liquid is violent, the exact representation does not occur, and the copy does not look at all like the original”.

Freud, who comments on this passage, also sees in the games of resemblance “the first foundations of any dream construction”. Aristotle was also interested in lucid dreaming and gives the first written testimony on the fact that one can be aware of dreaming while dreaming:

“If one feels that one is sleeping, if one is aware of the perception that reveals the sensation of sleep, the appearance is well shown; but there is something in us which says that it appears Coriscus, but that it is not Coriscus; Because often when we sleep, there is something in the soul that tells us that what we see is only a dream”.



After his death, Aristotle fell into oblivion for at least two reasons. On the one hand, his pupil and successor, Theophrastus, was not concerned with developing his teaching but preferred to devote himself to his own research on plants and on the notion of the “first engine”. On the other hand, Aristotle did not really found a school strictly speaking, in the doctrinal sense of the term. Finally, Straton of Lampsacus, who succeeded Theophrastus, seems to have “turned away from many aspects of the teaching of its founder, and in particular from his political teaching.”

According to an anecdote related by Strabo, the works of Aristotle and Theophrastus are left at the bottom of a cellar, forgotten by all, until they are discovered in the first century BC. by the bibliophile Apellicon, who buys them. Sylla obtained the library of Apellicon and had it transported to Rome, where the grammarian Tyrannion undertook an edition and had a copy executed for Andronicos of Rhodes, around 60 BC. The latter was Aristotle’s eleventh successor at the head of the Lyceum. It was he who established the “form and canon of Aristotle’s writings” and who “consecrated the way of philosophizing that predominated among the Aristotelians until the end of Antiquity”.

In Roman times, Aristotelianism was not very popular, it was preferred either Epicureanism or Stoicism. Aristotle is nevertheless commented on by the Neoplatonic tradition and integrated into this philosophy, which attempts a synthesis between Plato, Aristotle and spiritual currents from the East. It was through the Neoplatonists, notably Plotinus, Porphyry and Simplicius, that Aristotelianism penetrated early Christianity.

Aristotle’s physics had a definite influence on alchemy, particularly Greco-Alexandrian. Indeed, alchemists like Zosimus or Olympiodorus quote him and use his concepts to think about the transmutation of metals (including genus/species, substance/accident, act/power). However, philosophers who were familiar with Aristotelianism such as Proclus and later Avicenna refuted the theoretical possibility of the transmutation of metals, relying on a different interpretation of Aristotle. According to them, the fixity of species (types of metals) does not allow one metal to change into another.

Around the year 500, under the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great, the Latin philosopher Boethius translated Logic and Analytica and also left three books of commentaries on Aristotle. The Western High Middle Ages will mainly have access to Aristotle’s thoughts through this work.

Influence on Byzantine Thinkers

In the East, Christian Greek scribes played an important role in preserving Aristotle’s work by commenting on and copying it (printing did not exist then). John Philopon is the first Greek Christian to have commented in depth on Aristotle in the sixth century; he was followed, at the beginning of the seventh century, by Stephen of Alexandria. Jean Philopon is also known for his criticism of Aristotle’s notion of the eternity of the world. After centuries of oblivion, towards the end of the eleventh century and the beginning of the twelfth century, Eustratius and Michael of Ephesus wrote new commentaries on Aristotle, apparently under the aegis of Anna Komnenos. A critical edition of these commentaries was published in Berlin in 23 volumes (1882-1909).

Penetration into the Muslim world

From the foundation of Baghdad in the eighth century, the Abbasid Caliphate encouraged intense translation activity, with Arabic-speaking Christian scholars such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq, followed later by Ibn Zura and Yahya ibn Adi, who translated the logico-philosophical corpus into Syriac and then into Arabic. The caliph Al-Mansur, who reigned from 754 to 775, and especially his successor Al-Ma’mūn, who reigned from 786 to 833, sent emissaries to Byzantium and the great cities of the world in search of Aristotle’s manuscripts.

To facilitate the establishment of a new technical vocabulary, Syro-Arabic glossaries were developed in the ninth century. On the other hand, works on mathematics or astronomy have often been translated directly into Arabic, without Syriac intermediary. By the middle of the ninth century, “Arabic began to prevail over Syriac as a learned language in medical matters.” These works are found in Spain with the flight of the Umayyads there.

Aristotle left a profound mark on Islamic theology in its early days. Al-Fârâbî, Avicenna and Averroes wrote extensively about Aristotle. Their ideas influenced St. Thomas Aquinas and other Western Christian philosophers. Al-Kindi considered Aristotle the sole representative of philosophy and Averroes speaks of Aristotle as the example for any future philosopher. Medieval Muslim thinkers frequently present Aristotle as the “first master”. This title of “master” was later taken up by Western philosophers influenced by Islamic philosophy such as Dante.

Like the Greek philosophers, their Muslim counterparts regard Aristotle as a dogmatic philosopher, the author of a closed system. They believe that Aristotle shares most of Plato’s philosophy. Some have gone so far as to attribute Neoplatonic ideas to Aristotle.

Western Middle Ages

Marius Victorinus translates the Categories and On Interpretation. Boethius translates the Analyticals. After them, Christian scholars (such as Isidore of Seville) did not read Aristotle directly. But they know his thought thanks to St. Augustine, Tertullian, Ambrose, Boethius who read him and quoted him. The philosophy of Aristotle is preferred to that of Plato: we speak then of Neoplatonism. Aristotle is therefore not ignored, but he is in the background behind Plato. In the twelfth century, however, there was a renewed interest in Aristotle’s work and this time Aristotle took first place ahead of Plato.

The “rediscovery” of Aristotle in the West in the XII century

In the twelfth century, Christian scholars are interested in the work of Aristotle so that all his works will be available in Latin from about 1150.

In France, James of Venice, a Greek who passed through Venice before settling at the abbey of Mont Saint Michel, translated from 1127 almost all Aristotle: Physics, Metaphysics, On the soul, On memory, Topicals, De longitudine, De generatione et corruptione, etc.

Also, in Spain, the reconquest of Toledo (1085) opened the city’s libraries to European Christian scholars, an impetus fostered by the archbishop of the city Raymond of Toulouse. Thus, Dominic Gondissalvi (1105-1181), Gerard of Cremona (1114-1187), Michael Scotus (1175-1232) read Aristotle thanks to the versions of the Christians of Syria. Dominique Gondissalvi, Gerard of Cremona and Michael Scotus even translated these versions into Latin. In Muslim Spain, in Cordoba, Averroës (1126-1198) also read and commented on Aristotle.

Other translation centers are active in Sicily and Italy: Palermo, Rome, Venice and Pisa.

However, in Sicily and France, it is directly from Greek that Aristotle’s texts are known. Indeed, Henry Aristippe, Albert the Great and William of Moerbeke, a close friend of St. Thomas Aquinas, translated from ancient Greek.

This attraction to Aristotle is so sudden that institutions are suspicious and prohibit these translations in the first place.

Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas

In the thirteenth century, Aristotelian philosophy, revised by Thomas Aquinas, became the official doctrine of the Latin Church, despite some upheavals, such as the condemnation of 1277 of a set of Aristotelian proposals by the bishop of Paris Étienne Tempier. It also became the philosophical and scientific reference for all serious reflection, giving birth to scholasticism and Thomism.

St. Thomas Aquinas is fundamentally an Aristotelian even if his thought also draws from other sources. As with Stagirite, in Thomas Aquinas philosophy includes practical science and theoretical science, which themselves break down into several fields. However, Thomas Aquinas subjected Aristotelian thought to certain twists. On the one hand, it subordinates philosophy to theology, which is itself at the service of the knowledge of God. On the other hand, he integrated “all the Aristotelian sciences into a single and hierarchical order” itself subordinated to theology.

Cary Nederman accuses Thomas Aquinas of having used Aristotle’s aristocratic tendencies to justify his own distaste for the mechanical arts, especially manual labor. Knight tempered this criticism. On the one hand, he notes that in his last work, which remained unfinished, Thomas Aquinas places the ideal of nobility, dominant at the time, under the patronage of Aristotle and the mark of the Aristotelian seal of the arete, of excellence. In addition, Thomas Aquinas, based on the thought of Aristotle, introduced the fight against poverty into the political field.

So that his economic and social concerns may make him consider more egalitarian than Aristotle. However, Thomas Aquinas, taking up from Aristotle the search for the common good, tends to divert Christianity from the spiritual and to push towards the temporal realm, towards politics and the world. It thus distances him from the thought of Saint Augustine, whose theory of the two cities introduces a stronger distance between the temporal and the spiritual.


During the Renaissance (1348-1648), Aristotle’s work was widely studied in universities. His logic was taught everywhere and his philosophy of nature was widely disseminated, especially in the medical faculties of Bologna and Padua. We particularly study De anima II  and III and Physics. His metaphysics, on the other hand, is mainly disseminated in Protestant universities. The teaching of his moral philosophy differs greatly from one institution to another. Generally speaking, ethics is much more studied than politics.

During this period, commentaries on Aristotle are very numerous. Richard Blum counted 6,653 between 500 and 1650.

Aristotle and Republicanism

The Aristotelianism of Padua of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries neglected the teleological aspect to focus, following Marsilius of Padua, on civic virtues such as loyalty to the state and its rulers. When Leonardo Bruni retranslated Nicomachean Politics and Ethics, he was less concerned with conceptual problems than with the desire “to propose works written in excellent Latin that allow his Florentine compatriots to imagine paragons of Aristotelian virtue.”

Following it, republicanism, according to Kelvin Knight, elaborates the notion of a sovereign state by referring to the Aristotelian idea of a self-sufficient political community. Individualist republicanism, which an English-language author such as John M. Najemy, a specialist in Machiavelli, contrasts with corporatist republicanism, is marked by Aristotelian ethics and, much like it, links “ethical excellence to good birth, good education, power and leisure.”

Luther and Aristotle: History of an Opposition

Martin Luther saw the Catholic Church as a Thomistic or Aristotelian Church and opposed the Stagirite on several points:

  • Like St. Augustine, and unlike Aristotle, he does not base politics on the virtue of rulers.
  • Like the apostle Paul, he wants to destroy the wisdom of the wise. In this view, Aristotle’s ethics are the worst because they are opposed to divine grace and Christian virtues.
  • Finally, and most importantly, he understands the Aristotelian idea of men’s ability to become better by practice as the source of justification by works. It is the idea that men can contribute to their salvation by their own means, an idea to which he opposes sola fide, that is, the fact that only faith can contribute to grace.

Luther’s successor, Philip Melanchthon, reconnected with Aristotle. However, with him, ethics does not aim at temporal happiness. On the contrary, it tends to discipline the action of men so that they can act in accordance with the divine will. Ethics, in a word, supports the action of grace.

Birth of modern science and questioning of Aristotle

In 1600, Aristotle’s logic and his astronomy were called into question. Francis Bacon, one of the fathers of modern science and philosophy, disputes the abuse of Aristotle’s references to authority in his work On Progress and the Promotion of Knowledge  (1605): “Knowledge derived from Aristotle, if removed from free examination, will not rise higher than the knowledge Aristotle had.” At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Galileo, who defended heliocentrism, came into conflict with the Catholic Church as well as with the majority of educated people who, following Aristotle, maintained the thesis of geocentrism. Despite Galileo’s condemnation, heliocentrism, despite everything, triumphed with Isaac Newton. For Alexandre Koyré, the transition from Aristotelian geocentrism to heliocentrism has two major consequences:

“a) The destruction of the world conceived as a finite and well-ordered whole, in which the spatial structure embodied a hierarchy of value and perfection, a world in which “above” the heavy and opaque earth, the center of the sublunar region of change and corruption, “rised” the celestial spheres of the imponderable, incorruptible and luminous stars…

b) The replacement of the Aristotelian conception of space, a differentiated set of intramundane places, by that of the space of Euclidean geometry – a homogeneous and necessarily infinite extension – now considered identical, in its structure, with the real space of the universe. This in turn implied the rejection by scientific thought of all considerations based on the notions of value, perfection, meaning or end, and finally, the complete devaluation of Being, the total divorce between the world of values and the world of facts”.

Aristotle and philosophy from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century

According to Alexandre Koyré, Descartes’ world “is a rigorously uniform mathematical world, a world of reified geometry, of which our clear and distinct ideas give us an obvious and certain knowledge”. On the contrary, Aristotle’s is “colorful, multifaceted and endowed with qualitative determinations”, it is “the world of our life and our daily experience”.

In Aristotle, men have within them principles that impel them to achieve their purpose. Christian Wolff, following Leibniz, transforms these various hierarchical tendencies “into a single narrative of a world and a universe providentially designed for the benefit of the human race”, according to the principle of teleology. According to Pierre Aubenque, it was Leibniz who, despite Luther, ensured the continuity of the Aristotelian tradition in Germany.

Kant also transforms several Aristotelian concepts. First, going even further than Leibniz and Wolff, he proposes a “God savior of virtue and guarantor of complete good,” and, secondly, he modifies the meaning of practical reason. In Aristotle what is practical is linked to circumstances, is an adaptation of a general idea, whereas in Kant it is something universal that is not linked to circumstances. The two philosophers also do not have the same approach to the notion of concept: “A concept, for Kant, exists only in the minds of individuals. By contrast, a form, for Aristotle, is a real universal which substantifies itself in various substances from which it remains external, but which can be apprehended by the human mind.”

Hegel, following Wolff and Kant, further extends the field of teleology, which no longer concerns only human beings but also the system. Moreover, it moves from a timeless universal to temporal and historical processes—a change that strongly marks modern teleologies. Hegel also has a different conception of individuals than Aristotle. According to him, humans are parts of a universal whole that gives them identity, role and functions; Stagirite, on the contrary, is more individualistic, insists more on the centrality of human beings seen as beings. Regarding aesthetics, Hegel is halfway between the perception of a work of art as technè found in  Aristotle, and that of the fruit of genius found in Kant and the Romantics.

Karl Marx is sometimes perceived as partially Aristotelian because he has the idea of free action to realize the potential of human beings.

Contemporary period

In the nineteenth century, there was a return to Aristotelian metaphysics, which began with Schelling and continued with Ravaisson, Trendelenburg and Brentano.

In the twentieth century, Heidegger also returned to Aristotle. Kelvin Knight believes that the deconstruction of the philosophical “tradition” (which he understands mainly as that of neo-Kantianism) carried out by this philosopher allows Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt to rehabilitate the practical philosophy of Aristotle which, according to them, has been corrupted by science, natural law and the importance given to production. However, this return to Aristotle does not prevent a movement of distancing Heidegger’s thought. Kelvin Knight, writes on this subject “These philosophers partly reject Heiddeger’s interpretation of Aristotle by refusing, in particular, to see, like him, the Stagirite as the source of the theoretical tradition in philosophy”.

Similarly, they refuse to use the word Dasein and prefer the Aristotelian terms praxis and phronesis. In general, Kelvin Knight classifies Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt and Hans-Georg Gadamer in a current he describes as “practical neo-Aristotelian”. According to him, these philosophers would take up Heidegger’s thesis that Aristotle would place himself in the continuity of Plato and insist on the fact that Aristotle conceives ethics as separate from metaphysics and technical knowledge. Moreover, Gadamer and Arendt “equate the idea of aesthetic judgment of Kant’s third critique with what Aristotle calls phronesis.”

More recently, Alasdair MacIntyre has sought to reform the Aristotelian tradition, so as to give it an anti-elitist turn, and thereby to respond to the objections of social liberals and Nietzscheans. Kelvin Knight calls this attempt “revolutionary Aristotelianism.” In France, Pierre Aubenque insisted on forgetting, in the Aristotelian tradition, the aporetic character of Aristotle’s work.

This incompleteness of Aristotelian thought explains, according to this philosopher, why Christianity and Islam have so prized the thought of the Stagirite. He writes about the Christian or Islamic interpretation: “Because she had heard another Word, Aristotle’s silences seemed to her more hospitable to that Word than Plato’s competing Word; it was easier to Christianize (or Islamize) an Aristotle who fell short of the religious option than to philosophize in terms of Platonism that was another religion.” The other way to fill Aristotle’s silences consists, according to Pierre Aubenque, in amplifying the split by assuming the incompleteness of thought; This is the path taken by Neoplatonism.

According to Aubenque’s interpretation, “the divinity of man is less the degradation of the divine in man than the infinite approximation of the divine by man.” In the twentieth century, two philosophers proposed a logic competing with that of Aristotle: John Dewey with his book Logic: The Theory of Inquiry and Bertrand Russell. Dewey claims to be the one who went the furthest in novelty against Aristotle. He believes that “it is not enough to extrapolate the Organon, as Bacon and Mill did, nor to adorn it with mathematical finery, as Russell did,” but that it must be based on new foundations. What interests Dewey in logic is not so much to ensure the true character of the thing by deductive and formal reasoning, as, as the subtitle indicates, to establish a link between idea and action, based both on intuition and on the study and verification of this idea.

Feminists, for their part, accuse Aristotle of being sexist and misogynistic. This accusation is based on the fact that Aristotle gives men an active role in procreation and, in politics, he gives pride of place to men.

In the 1960s and 1970s, some scholars looked into Arabic translations of letters Aristotle wrote to Alexander the Great. In parts of one of these letters that Pierre Thillet considers relatively reliable in 1972, Aristotle no longer places himself in the context of a city, but following the conquest of Persia by Alexander, in the context of a “state whose ethnic diversity could even tend to erasure by mass deportations of population”. It should be noted, however, that Pierre Carlier in 1982 in an article entitled Study on the alleged letter from Aristotle to Alexander transmitted by several Arabic manuscripts argues that this letter is much later than the time of Aristotle.

Even so, more than 2,300 years after his death, Aristotle remains one of the most influential men the world has ever known. He worked on almost every field of human knowledge known of his time and helped open up several others. According to philosopher Bryan Magee, “it is doubtful that any human being has known more than he has.”

Aristotle in fiction

Comic book artist Sam Kieth made him one of the characters (along with Plato and Epicurus) in his comic strip Epicurus the Sage.


General information about the work

It is known that Aristotle wrote dialogues for the general public in the manner of Plato. Only rare fragments remain (Eudemus, Philosophy, Of Good, etc.). These dialogues represent Aristotle’s “exoteric discourses” (ἐξωτερικοὶ λόγοι), intended for a wide audience. Cicero did not hesitate to call his eloquence a “river of gold” and to judge his books (now lost) better written than those of Plato.

The thirty-one treatises that remain come mainly from lecture notes or writings intended for the specialized public of the Lycée. In addition to “exoteric discourses” (for public use), there are only oral lessons also called “acroamatic” notes, collections of lectures intended for advanced disciples.

Aristotle scholars wonder how the writings we know were assembled. Indeed, their organization sometimes seems risky and their style has little to do with what Cicero says.

About thirty works by Aristotle have been lost. Experts have questioned whether or not this loss distorts the understanding of Aristotle’s work. In his History of the Philosophy of the Greeks, Eduard Zeller answers in the negative:

“All the works in question belong to the last years of Aristotle’s life. If one day a happy discovery were to enrich our knowledge of the chronological order of these writings, there would be no reason to hope that the oldest work would take us back to a time when Aristotle was still working on his system. In all its parts, it presents itself to us as a completed whole; Nowhere do we still see the architect at work”.

It should be noted that this position dates from a time when “the image of a systematic Aristotle” still dominated. Since the writings of Werner Jaeger, particularly his 1923 book Aristotle, Foundations for a History of its Evolution, the thesis of the doctrinal unity of Aristotelian thought is no longer dominant.

Question of interpretation of the work of Aristotle

The work we have is based on documents assembled in books in the first century BC by Andronicos of Rhodes without the latter having known the order envisaged by Aristotle or “the ins and outs of the approach, the motivations and the occasions of the writing”. The corpus we have was therefore written in the fourth century but published in the first century BC. For Pierre Aubenque, this delay of several centuries, coupled at the same time by a forgetfulness of Aristotle’s thought, led to a strong dissociation of the man Aristotle from the philosophy known by his name. Also, the intention of the author being unknown, the exegetes were led to make hypotheses that led to divergent lines of interpretation.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, Aristotle’s thought was considered to form a complete and coherent system, so commentators “supplemented” Aristotle’s thought when needed. According to Pierre Aubenque, Greek commentators systematized Aristotle’s thought from Neo-Platonism and “scholastic commentators, from a certain idea of the God of the Bible and his relationship to the world”.

In 1923, Werner Jaeger in a book entitled Aristotle: Foundations for a History of its Evolution inaugurated a method of genetic interpretation that saw Aristotle’s philosophy “as a dynamic system of concepts” in evolution. He distinguishes three phases: the time of the Academy, the years of travel and finally the second stay in Athens. The first phase would be that of Platonic dogmatism (early works, Ethics to Eudemus, Protreptic).

The second phase would be that of the birth of a critical Platonism and the emergence of a transitional philosophy during which Aristotle proceeds to corrections of Platonism while taking up several Platonic themes: identification of theology and astronomy, the principle of the first immobile engine (idea that has its origin in the Laws). of Plato) and notion of the soul of the stars. Finally, the third phase would correspond to the second stay in Athens and would mark the apogee of Aristotelian philosophy. During this third phase, Aristotle engaged in empirical research and created a new type of science based on the investigation, description and observation of particular things. Jaeger thus proposes a systematic but evolving vision of Aristotle’s thought.

This view of the evolution of Aristotle’s thought is contested. It was criticized first by Ingemar Düring and then by Hans-Georg Gadamer, who believes that Jaeger’s analysis is based on what he considers to be contradictions. However, it is possible that what he perceives as contradictions is simply what in Aristotle’s thought is “complicated, nuanced, outside the framework of everyday common sense”. To overcome these defects, Pierre Aubenque prefers to start from the hypothesis that we are not sure that Aristotle “designed a perfectly coherent system”. For him, Aristotle’s metaphysics would be aporetic and one should not seek a systematizing interpretation but, on the contrary, interpret the difficulties or aporia in such a way as to proceed “to a methodical elucidation of the failure” of systematization.

Catalog of Aristotle’s works

In Lives of the Philosophers (V, 21-27), Diogenes Laertius established a catalog of Aristotle’s works comprising 157 titles and which still makes reference even if many writings have been lost. It probably comes from the Library of Alexandria. This one is quite similar to that of the Onomatologos established by Hesychios of Miletus. The most complete catalog has been transmitted to us by two Arab authors, Ibn-el-Kifti in his History of the Scholars and Ibn-Abi-Oseibia in his History of the Famous Physicians.

Works are traditionally abbreviated by the initials of their Latin titles: thus P.N.  for Small treatises on natural history (Parva naturalia), G.A. for Animal Generation. The figures refer to the columns of the Bekker edition of the Berlin Academy (1831): thus, the History of Animals (H.A.) occupies columns 486 A — 638 B.

Logic (Organon)

  • Categories
  • Interpretation
  • Early Analytics
  • Analytical Seconds
  • Topical
  • Sophistry refutations

Practical science (moral and political)

  • Protreptic
  • Nicomachean Ethics
  • Ethics in Eudemus
  • Virtues and vices
  • Politics
  • Constitution of the Athenians

Productive science

  • Poetic
  • Rhetoric

Theoretical sciences

  • Physics
  • Generation and Corruption
  • About the Universe
  • Treatise on Heaven
  • Weather
  • Of the Soul (Latin: de anima)
  • Metaphysics

Zoological works

  • History of animals
  • Animal parts
  • From the Movement of Animals
  • Animal Walking
  • Animal generation

Small treaties

  • Aristotle’s Psychology. Pamphlets (Parva naturalia)
  • Sensation and sensitive (from sensu and sensibilibus)
  • Memory and reminiscence
  • Sleep and wakefulness
  • Dreams
  • Divination in sleep
  • Longevity and short life
  • Youth and old age
  • Breathing
  • Of life and death

References (sources)