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Have you ever ventured into the Octagon, which used to be the Queen Mary library, for meetings or lectures and has your eye started wandering around the room? In doing so your gaze may have rested on the gold plated names etched in the base of the dome. These are the names of eight Greek and Roman philosophers and poets that lived in the ancient world, whose works are still read today. This week the focus is on Aristotle. A series by Special Collections Information Assistant Anne Marie McHarg.

Octagon dome showing names of Greek writers

Illustration of Octagon Library dome [Ref. QM SB 13/63]

Aristotle was born in 384 in the city of Stagira in Macedonia, and died in Euboea, Macedonian Empire Northern Greece 322 B.C. His name means "the best purpose" in Ancient Greek. 

His father was the personal physician at the court of the King of Macedon Philip II. From a very young age his father taught him biology and the beginnings of medical information. When he reached his early teenage years both his parents died. He then came under the guardianship of Proxenus of Atarneus.

At the age of seventeen he was sent to Athens as a pupil to continue his education at Plato's Academy, the renowned philosopher of the day. During his time at the Academy, he probably experienced the Eleusinian Mysteries (an initiation rite into the cult of Demeter and Persephone) as he described the sights one viewed at the event. He studied biology, mathematics and all branches of philosophy. Aristotle remained at the Academy till he was thirty-seven years of age.

After the death of Plato and at the request of Philip of Macedon, Aristotle left Athens and became tutor to Alexander the Great. He taught Alexander to love and respect the great qualities which the Greeks most admired, such as wisdom and freedom of ideas. In the year of 336 B.C. King Philip was murdered and therefore Alexander had to give up his studies to take the throne and become king.

After the death of King Philip and Alexander ascending the throne, Aristotle went back to Athens and began teaching and setting up his own school. His ideas were very different to that of Plato. Plato was interested in what man’s life ought to be, but Aristotle thought more about what it was actually like, and how to solve some of the problems that men faced in their lives. Aristotle had the characteristics of a modern-day scientist. He looked at the facts of the real world that he could see and tried to work out new ideas from these facts. Logic, which lays down the rules of reasoning, began with Aristotle and has come down to the present with very few changes. Aristotle said of his teacher Plato:

Of course such an examination is contrary to us, given that those who introduced those ideas were our friends. However, … for the preservation of the truth, we would seem to be obliged not to spare our own sentiments, since we are philosophers….” Hence the famous Latin dictum attributed to Aristotle (freely paraphrased from the Greek of the Nicomachean Ethics): amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas, “Plato is a friend, but truth is a better friend.”

At his school, the Lyceum, he taught astronomy and science using the latest scientific instruments and astronomical charts. He wrote and produced works on physics, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and rhetoric. He established his own library with many hundreds of books on papyrus scrolls. Though Aristotle wrote many elegant treatises and dialogues for publication, only around a third of his original output has survived, none of it intended for publication.

Aristotle was a polymath of ideas and writing. Besides the sciences he wrote books on the art of public speaking and poetry, and he also studied the great Greek plays of his time. He became an expert and many budding playwrights approached him for ideas. He and his pupils were often seen walking under the trees during their discussions, and from this habit they became known as the Peripatetics, from the Greek word meaning “to walk about”. This meaning to walk about is also used in the aboriginal language in Australia.

After a trip to Lesbos with Theophrastus he met and eventually married Pythias, Hermias’ daughter (or possibly niece), with whom he had a daughter (also called Pythias) and a son, Nicomachus (named after his father). In 323 B.C. Aristotle retired at the age of 61 and left Athens for his mother’s home in Chalcis on the island of Euboea. Within a year he had died at the age of 62.

Aristotelian Legacy 

After the death of Aristotle, Theophrastus was his successor in the Peripatetic school. Under his tutelage Theophrastus had learnt among other disciplines, botany. After the death of Hermias, Aristotle had travelled with his pupil, collaborator and friend, Theophrastus, to the island of Lesbos, where together they had researched the botany and zoology of the island and its sheltered lagoon. Theophrastus continued with his research into botany and he became known as the father of botany.

There are limited documents and biographical reports of Aristotle. Dante called him “master of those who knowin the Divine Comedy. There are poems, letters and other material passed down from Stagira, Delphi and Athens that give us a vague impression of his personality. The best known text we have for this period is Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers (220 CE).  Diogenes has this to report about Aristotle “He spoke with a lisp, and he also had weak legs and small eyes, but he dressed elegantly and was conspicuous by his use of rings and his hair-style.”

Books in Our Collection

Aristotelis De rhetorica, libri III : De rhetorica ad Alexandrum. De poetica / En recensione Immanuelis Bekkeri (1837) [Ref. PA3893.R3 ARI]

De anima libri tres / ad interpretum Graecorum auctoritatem et codicum fidem recognovit commentariis illustravit Frider. Adolph Trendelenburg (1833) [Ref. PA3892.A2 ARI]

Aristotelis De arte rhetorica libri III : Ad optimorum librorum fidem accurate editi (1831) [Ref. PA3893.R3 ARI]

Politicorum libri octo ad codicum fidem / edidit et adnotationem adiecit Carolus Goettling
(1824) [Ref. PA3893.P8 ARI]

Scholia in Aristotelem / Collegit Christianus Augustus Brandis: edidit Academia regia Borussica (1836) [Ref. PA3902.A2 BRA]

Every Friday our Special Collections' librarian Anne-Marie will be introducing you to each of the writers featured in the Octagon in this blog series.



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