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Statemen and Sages by  Charles Horne
Table of Contents


 

 

ARISTOTLE

From the French of Fénelon.

(384—322 B.C.)


[Aristotle and Pupil]

O
F all the philosophers of antiquity, Aristotle was one of the most celebrated; and in every seat of learning, his name, even at this day, is held in esteem.

He was son of Nicomachus, a physician, and friend of Amyntas, king of Macedonia, and was descended from Machaon, son of Æsculapius. He was born at Stagira, a city of Macedonia, in the first year of the 99th Olympiad. He lost his father and mother in his infancy, and was very much neglected by those who had the charge of his education.

In his early years he dissipated almost all his patrimony in libertinism and debauchery. At first he became a soldier; but the profession of arms not suiting his turn of mind, he went to Delphi to consult the Oracle, and fix his determination. By the response of the Oracle, he was directed to go to Athens and [55] pursue the study of philosophy. He was then in his eighteenth year. For twenty years he studied in the academy under Plato, and as he had spent all his inheritance, he was induced, in order to procure a subsistence, to vend medicines at Athens.

Aristotle ate little and slept less. So strong was his passion for study, that in order to resist the oppression of sleep, he kept at his bedside a brazen basin, over which when in bed, he stretched one of his hands in which he held an iron ball, that if he should fall asleep, the noise of the ball dropping into the basin might awake him instantly.

According to Lærtius his voice was shrill and squeaking, his eyes small, his legs slender, and he dressed magnificently.

Aristotle was a man of acute parts, and one who easily comprehended the most difficult questions. He soon became master of the doctrines of Plato, and distinguished himself among the other academicians. No question was decided in the academy without the opinion of Aristotle, though it was often subversive of that of Plato. By all his fellow-students he was considered as a prodigy of genius, and his opinions were often followed, in opposition to those of his master. Aristotle left the academy. This excited the resentment of Plato. He could not refrain from treating him as a rebel, comparing him to the chick which pecks its dam.

The Athenians appointed him ambassador to Philip, king of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great. Aristotle, having spent some time in Macedonia in settling the affairs of the Athenians, found, upon his return, that Xenocrates had been chosen master of the academy. Seeing that place thus filled he said, "It would be a shame for me to be silent, when Xenocrates speaks." He accordingly established a new sect, and taught doctrines different from those of his master Plato.

The celebrity of Aristotle, who now surpassed all his contemporaries in every kind of science, especially in the departments of philosophy and politics, induced Philip, king of Macedonia, to offer him the care of the education of his son Alexander, then fourteen years of age. Aristotle accepted. He continued Alexander's preceptor for eight years; and according to the testimony of Plutarch, taught him some secret doctrines which he communicated to none other.

The study of philosophy did not render the manners of Aristotle austere. He applied to business, and took an interest in everything that passed at the court of Macedonia. From respect to this philosopher, Philip rebuilt Stagira, his native city, which had been destroyed during the wars, and restored to their possessions all the inhabitants, of whom some had fled and others had been reduced to slavery.

When Alexander's education was finished, Aristotle returned to Athens, where he was well received on account of the mildness with which, for his sake, that city had been treated by Philip. He fixed upon a place in the Lyceum highly beautified with avenues of trees, where he established his school. He used to walk about when teaching and from this circumstance his sect was called [56] Peripatetic. The Lyceum was soon thronged by a concourse of students whom Aristotle's reputation had drawn together from every quarter of Greece.

Alexander recommended to him to attend particularly to experiments in physical science. To facilitate his observations he sent him, besides 800 talents to defray expenses, a great number of huntsmen and fishermen to supply him from every quarter with subjects for experiment.

At that time Aristotle published his books of physics and metaphysics. Of this, Alexander who was now in Asia, got information. That ambitious prince, desirous of being in everything the first man in the world, was dissatisfied that the learning of his master should become common.

He showed his resentment by the following letter: "You have not done well in publishing your books on speculative science. If what you taught me be taught to men of all ranks, I shall then have nothing but in common with others. But I would have you consider that I had rather be superior to other men in abstract and secret knowledge, than to surpass them in power."

To appease this prince Aristotle sent him for answer, that he had published his books, but in such a way that in fact they were not published. By this he apparently meant, that his doctrines were laid down in a manner so embarrassed that it was impossible for any one ever to understand them.

Aristotle carefully investigated that question, the great object of moral philosophy, how men might be rendered happy in the present world. In the first place, he refutes the opinion of the voluptuous, who make happiness to consist in corporal pleasures. "Not only," said he, "are these pleasures fleeting, they are also succeeded by disgust; and while they enfeeble the body they debase the mind."

He next rejects the opinion of the ambitious, who place happiness in honors, and, with this object in view, pay no regard to the maxims of equity or the restraints of law. "Honor, he said, "exists in him who honors." "The ambitious," he adds, "desire to be honored in consequence of some virtue of which they wish themselves supposed to be possessed; that consequently, happiness consists in virtue, rather than in honors, especially as these are external and do not depend upon ourselves."

In the last place, he refutes the system of the avaricious, who constitute riches the supreme good. "Riches," he said, "are not desirable on their own account; they render him who possesses them unhappy, because he is afraid to use them. In order to render them really useful it is necessary to use and to distribute them, and not to place happiness in what is in itself detestable and not worth the having."

The opinion of Aristotle is that happiness consists in the most perfect exercise of the understanding and the practice of the virtues. The most noble exercise of the understanding, he considered to be speculation concerning natural objects; the heavens, the stars, nature, and chiefly the First Being. He observed, however, that without a competency of the good things of fortune suited to a man's situation in life, it was impossible to be perfectly happy, because [57] without this we could neither have time to pursue speculation, nor opportunity to practise the virtues. Thus, for example, one could not please his friends; and to do good to those whom we love is always one of the highest enjoyments of fife.

"Happiness depends therefore," he said, "on three things: the goods of mind, as wisdom and prudence; the goods of the body, as beauty, health, strength; and the goods of fortune, as riches and nobility." Virtue he maintained, is not sufficient to render men happy; the goods of the body and of fortune are absolutely necessary; and a wise man would be unhappy were he to want riches or if his share of them were insufficient.

He affirmed, on the other hand: "Vice is sufficient to render men unhappy. Though in the greatest affluence and enjoying every other advantage, it is impossible for a man ever to be happy while the slave of vice. The wise man is not wholly exempted from the ills of life, but his share of them is small." "The virtues and vices," he said, "are not incompatible, for the same man, though intemperate, may be just and prudent."

He mentions three kinds of friendship; one of relationship, another of inclination, and a third of hospitality.

Elegant literature, he thinks, contributes greatly to produce a love of virtue; and the cultivation of letters he affirms to be the greatest consolation of age. Like Plato, he admitted the existence of a Supreme Being, to whom he attributed providence.

In his politics, he maintains that the monarchical form of government is the most perfect, because in other forms there are more rulers than one. An army under the conduct of one able commander, succeeds better than one conducted by several leaders; and while deputies, or chief men, are employed in assembling and deliberating, a monarch has already finished an expedition and executed his designs. The rulers of a republic do not care though they should ruin the state, provided they enrich themselves. Jealousies are engendered, divisions arise, and the republic is in danger of being finally destroyed and overthrown. In a monarchy, on the other hand, the interests of the prince are those of the state; and the state of course must flourish.

Aristotle was one day asked, "What does a man gain by telling a lie?" "Not to be believed," said he, "even when he tells the truth."

Having been blamed for giving alms to a bad man, he said: "It is not because he is bad, but because he is a man, that I have compassion for him."

To, his friends and scholars he used to say, that knowledge is to the soul what light is to the eyes; and that mellowness of the fruit makes up for the bitterness of the root. When irritated against the Athenians, he reproached them with neglecting their laws, and using their corn; though possessed of the former, as well as the latter.

He was one day asked, "What it is that is soonest effaced?" "Gratitude," replied he. "What is hope?" "A waking man's dream."

Diogenes presented Aristotle with a fig. Aristotle very well knew that were [58] he to refuse it, Diogenes would level his wit against him. He took the fig, therefore, and with a smile said, "Diogenes has at once lost his fig and the use he intended to make of it."

He said there were three things very necessary to children: Genius, exercise, and instruction. When asked the difference between the learned and the ignorant, he replied: "The same as between the living and the dead." "Knowledge," he said, "is an ornament in prosperity, and in adversity a refuge. Those who give children a good education, are much more their fathers than those who have begotten them; the latter communicate mere life to them; the former put it in their power to spend it comfortably." "Beauty," said he, "is a recommendation infinitely stronger than any kind of learning."

He was one day asked, What pupils should do to turn their instructions to the greatest advantage? "They must," said he, "always keep in view those before them, and never look back to those behind them."

A certain person was one day boasting of being the citizen of an illustrious state. "Do not value yourself upon that," said Aristotle; "rather ask yourself whether you deserve to be so?"

Reflecting on human life, he sometimes said: "There are some who amass riches with as much avidity as if they were to live forever; others are as careless about their possessions as if they were to die to-morrow."

When asked, what is a friend? he replied, "One soul animating two bodies." "How," said one to him, "ought we to act to our friends?" "As we would have them to act toward us," replied Aristotle. He used frequently to exclaim, "Ah! my friends, there is not a friend in the world!"

He was one day asked, "How it comes that we prefer beautiful women to those who are ugly?" "You now ask a blind man's question," returned Aristotle.

He was asked what advantage he had derived from philosophy?" To do voluntarily," replied he, "what others do through fear of the laws."

It is said that during his stay at Athens he was intimate with an able Jew, by whom he was accurately instructed in the science and religion of the Egyptians, for the acquisition of which everyone at that time used to go to Egypt itself.

Having taught in the Lyceum for thirteen years with great reputation, Aristotle was accused of impiety by Eurimedon, priest of Ceres. He was so overwhelmed with the recollection of what Socrates had suffered that he hastily left Athens and retired to Chalcis in Eubœa. It is said by some that he there died of vexation because he could not discover the cause of the flux and reflux of the Euripus. By others it is added that he threw himself into that sea, and when falling said, "Let the Euripus receive me since I cannot comprehend it." And lastly, it is affirmed by others that he died of a colic in the sixty-third year of his age, two years after the death of his pupil, Alexander the Great.

By the Stagirites, altars were erected to him as a god.

Aristotle made a will, of which Antipater was appointed the executor. He left a son called Nicomachus, and a daughter who was married to a grandson of Demaratus, king of Lacedæmonia.


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