THE BIOGRAPHY OF ARISTOTLE: FACTS, HYPOTHESES, CONJECTURES
1. MANY FACTS, NOT ALL OF EQUAL INTEREST
On the biography of Aristotle we have few certain facts, and there has been much conjecture. We lack information on the most important issues, whereas there is much information about matters that are ultimately of marginal significance. The most recent discussion, from Düring 1957 and onward, is largely focused on the analysis of the sources, in order to identify their standpoint. It is very important to follow this approach, known to philologists by the name Quellenforschung
, which has historically been the most rigorous and reliable method; when carried to excess, however, it tends to transform itself into the attitude of those who doubt every fact and, faced with any information, ask themselves only what intention was manifested by the ancient author or authors who are its source, without ever reaching a positive reconstruction. This attitude of diffidence is certainly justified by the history of the modern discussion of Aristotle’s life (see chapter 4
); but it can also lead one to focus too much on the discussion of details and lose sight of the general context.
All things considered, the certain facts that we have about Aristotle’s life, though scarce overall, are actually far more numerous than those available for the lives of many other ancient philosophers. So without falling into the errors of ancient biographers, who reconstructed the biography of the philosopher by choosing eclectically from among the various reports and available facts those that best fit with their preconceived image of Aristotle, we can try to make use of the certain facts and the most plausible information to establish, in the most precise method possible, some of the most interesting aspects of his life and of his intellectual personality. It goes without saying, certainly, that today it is no longer possible to clear up all the obscure issues, to the point of giving a complete and exhaustive description of the historical figure
of Aristotle. In this sense, the modest approach of Gigon (1961, p. 27), which acknowledges that the portrait of Aristotle “is to this day visible only in indefinite outlines,” strikes me as the best one.
“Aristotle, son of Nicomachus and Phaestis, a Stagirite
” (Diogenes Laertius 5.1). “Aristotle the philosopher was of the city of Stagira, and Stagira was a polis of Thrace, near Olynthus and Methone
” (Vita Marciana
1). Aristotle was a citizen of a small Greek polis,
Stagira, located on the Silean Plain, in the Chalcidian peninsula, a colony of Andros (Herodotus 7.115; Thucydides 4.88.2, 5.6.1), which was an ally and tributary of Athens during the first Athenian league.1
So Aristotle was not a “Macedonian subject,” as some say, confused about his political status.
The history of Stagira is not illustrious: in 480 BCE, the army of Xerxes passed by it while on its way to invade Greece; then, in 424, during the Peloponnesian War, Stagira abandoned Athens and allied itself with Sparta, and for this it was besieged in 422 by Cleon of Athens. In 348, Philip of Macedon invaded the Chalcidian peninsula, conquered Zereia, and destroyed or forced the independent Greek city-states of that region into submitting to him (Demosthenes, Third Philippic
26; Diodorus Siculus 16.52.9). He then conquered and destroyed Olynthus, an Athenian ally. An ancient source, the democratic orator Demochares, nephew of Demosthenes, gave a speech in 306, during a trial connected to an attempted closure of all the philosophical schools of Athens,2
accusing Aristotle of having been a friend of Philip of Macedon and of having played a role in this Macedonian expedition; according to Aristocles, in his On Philosophy
(fr. 2 Chiesara), Demochares “says that letters of Aristotle written against the city of the Athenians were intercepted, that he betrayed his home town of Stagira to the Macedonians, and also that, following the destruction of Olynthus, he was Philip’s informer, in the place where the booty was being sold, about the wealthiest of the Olynthians
” (excerpted in Eusebius 15.2.6 = testimonium
58g Düring). On the basis of the passage quoted above and of the Neoplatonic biographies of Aristotle,3
modern historians hypothesize that Stagira was destroyed by Philip of Macedon in 348
BCE, and that it was later rebuilt, during the life of Alexander the Great, by the intercession of Aristotle, who is also thought to have dictated the laws for the city.
All the same, we cannot be certain that the events described in the ancient biographies really took place; Demochares does not actually state that Stagira was destroyed; he only says that Aristotle “betrayed” Stagira, his homeland. Given the fragmentary state in which his words have come down to us, this argument from silence may not have much relevance. It is true, though, that the most reliable ancient sources do not list Stagira among the cities destroyed by Philip (see Mulvany 1926, p. 163 and Düring 1957, p. 59). It is therefore likely that the town was not destroyed, since in 322, twenty-six years after the invasion of Philip of Macedon, Aristotle’s father’s house seems to be still standing. In Aristotle’s will, in fact, Aristotle mentions the house of his father in Stagira, directing that, if Herpyllis wishes to live in Stagira, she should be given “my father’s house
So what are we to say now about these assertions of Demochares?
When an ancient orator, during a trial held in a court in Athens, describes an event or an episode of his time to derive from it arguments in favor of one of his proposals, his method of presenting the facts is not excessively preoccupied with historical veracity. So we do not know whether Aristotle was actually in the camp of Philip of Macedon during the king’s expedition. Other sources suggest that, in the period when Philip conquered Olynthus, Aristotle was not on the Chalcidian peninsula at all but elsewhere, perhaps still in Athens or perhaps already in Assos. But this passage from Demochares attests, at least, that in all likelihood something ugly happened in Stagira in 348, and that, toward the end of the fourth century BCE, in Athens at least, Aristotle was generally considered to be a friend of the Macedonians. I shall come back to this point later.
In Aristotle’s works Stagira is never mentioned. His father’s house, which is mentioned in his will, passed to Theophrastus, who gives directions about it in his own will: “the estate in Stagira belonging to me I give and bequeath to Callinus
” (Diogenes Laertius 5.52). Theophrastus, in his Research on Plants
(4.16.3), mentions a “mouseion in Stagira
The source of our word “museum,” the term mouseion
designated a temple dedicated to the Muses, but it was later stretched to mean any place dedicated to cultural pursuits. We do not know whether this mouseion
of Stagira was a temple of the Muses or Aristotle’s own house, converted to a philosophical school and temple of knowledge. In the time of Theophrastus in any case (he died between 288 and 284 BCE), the city does not give the impression of being abandoned. However, by the time of Strabo (first century CE), Stagira had long been little more than a heap of ruins (book 7, fr. 15 Radt).
3. A FAMILY OF NOTABLES
We are well informed about Aristotle’s family from the philosopher’s will, which gives us much more information than is usual on these matters. All biographers, both ancient and modern, starting with Hermippus6
(a biographer of the Aristotelian school, third century BCE), have based their works on the facts given in this will, with personal interpretations and additions. Not all the information is very interesting, but the sum of the information serves to delineate some aspects of the philosopher’s native environment.
“Aristotle was the son of Nicomachus and Phaestis, both descended from the family of Machaon, son of Asclepius [ … ] Aristotle was born under Diotrephes [384/383 BCE]” (Vita Marciana 1 and 10). “Aristotle, son of Nicomachus and Phaestis, Stagirite. Nicomachus traced his descent from Nicomachus who was the son of Machaon, who was the son of Asclepius [ … ] Apollodorus in his Chronicles says that he [Aristotle] was born in the first year of the 99th Olympiad ” (Diogenes Laertius 5.1 and 5.9). “Aristotle was the son of Nicomachus, who traced his family and his vocation back to Machaon, the son of Asclepius. His mother Phaestis was descended from one of the leaders of the expedition from Chalcis that colonized Stagira. He was born in the ninety-ninth Olympiad, when Diotrephes was archon at Athens, and so he was three years older than Demosthenes” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, First Letter to Ammaeus 5.1).
All we know about Aristotle’s father is his name. According to several sources, his father died when Aristotle was young, a supposition strengthened by the fact that Neoplatonic biographies speak of his
being assigned a “guardian”; I shall return to this point later. The report that he was a doctor is not confirmed in the will, where he is never mentioned. This information comes from one of Aristotle’s earliest biographers, Hermippus,7
who claimed that Nicomachus, Aristotle’s father, was a descendant of one of the most illustrious branches of the Asclepiads. The biographers of late antiquity, expanding on this story in order to honor Aristotle, say that Nicomachus was court physician and friend of Amyntas, king of Macedonia (Diogenes Laertius 5.1, Vita Marciana
2, Vita Vulgata
1, Vita Latina
All of this might seem an invention, and to a great degree perhaps, it is, but at the end of the fourth century BCE, both Epicurus and Timaeus accuse Aristotle of being dissolute and of having sold drugs or practiced medicine. The evidence that stems from Epicurus is preserved for us in four later sources: Diogenes Laertius, Aristocles, Athenaeus, and Aelian. In his biography of Epicurus, Diogenes Laertius (10.8) said that Epicurus called Aristotle “a wastrel, who after devouring his father’s fortune took to soldiering and selling drugs
59a). In his On Philosophy
, Aristocles asked, “how could
[Aristotle] have consumed all his father’s wealth, and then gone off to be a soldier, and having failed at this as well, entered the drug trade, and then joined Plato’s Peripatos, which was open to all comers, as Epicurus says in his letter On Vocations?”
(excerpted in Eusebius 15.2.1 = testimonium
58b). One of the erudite speakers in Athenaeus declares (8, 354b–c), “I am well aware that Epicurus, who was very devoted to truth, has said of him, in his letter On Vocations, that after he had devoured his father’s inheritance he rushed into the army, and because he was bad at this, he got into selling drugs. Then, since the peripatos of Plato was open to everybody, he
[Epicurus] said, Aristotle presented himself and sat in on the lectures
, not without talent, and gradually got out of that and into the theoretical
[disposition]. And I know that Epicurus is the only one to have said these things against him, not even Eubulides, nor has even Cephisodorus dared to say that kind of thing against the Stagirite, although they have published works written against the man
Aelian also reports, in his Miscellaneous Research
(5.9), a short version of the story transmitted by Epicurus, but
without identifying him as his source. “Aristotle wasted the property he had from his father and rushed into the army. After turning out badly at this, he showed up again as a drug seller. He insinuated himself into the Peripatos and listened to the lectures, and, since he was naturally better than many, he then acquired the disposition that he possessed after this point
From Timaeus of Tauromenium, historian of the late fourth century BCE, there are some other comments, preserved by Aristocles and by Polybius, that attempt to cast a discreditable light on Aristotle’s character and his involvement with medicine. Aristocles protests, “how can anyone accept what Timaeus of Tauromenium said in his Histories, that he
[Aristotle] locked the doors of a disreputable medical clinic, when he was at a late age in life
?” (excerpted in Eusebius 15.2.2 = testimonium
58c). The abuse hurled by Timaeus against Aristotle was evidently too much for Polybius (12.8.1–4), who says, “let’s agree that people are ignorant and raving mad if they treat their neighbors with such enmity and harshness as Timaeus treated Aristotle. He says that he was brash, rash, and reckless, and, furthermore, that he said absolutely outrageous things about the city of Locri, alleging that their colony was a colony of fugitives, servants, adulterers, and slave dealers
. And he says that he tells all this with such trustworthiness that he has the air of being the numero uno of those who were on campaign and had just now defeated the Persians marshaled at the Cilician gates, by his own strength, and not instead a retarded and insatiable sophist who had just shut down an expensive medical clinic; furthermore, that he used to jump into every house and every tent, and also that he was a glutton and a chef de cuisine, always getting carried away in the direction of his mouth
60a; on this passage, see below, section 6.2
Given the generally rather heavy way of engaging in polemics that is typical of ancient authors, these might even be “subtle” allusions to his father’s profession. If so, Hermippus’s asse...