Translated with introduction and notes by A.E. Taylor

Preface← TOC→(About the) Metaphysics



In or about 335 B.C. Aristotle of Stagira, a small city of the Chalcidic peninsula, took up his permanent residence in Athens as the head of a philosophical school, being at the time a man of some forty-nine or fifty years. This post he continued to fill until a few months before his death, which took place some twelve or thirteen years later (322 B.C.). His early history, so far as it is relevant to the understanding of his works, may be told in a few words. He came of a family in which the medical profession was hereditary; his father, Nicomachus, held the post of court physician to Amyntas II., King of Macedonia. It can scarcely be doubted that these early associations with medicine largely account both for Aristotle's wide acquaintance with natural history, as evinced by a whole series of works on zoology, and for the preponderatingly biological cast of thought which is characteristic of his philosophy as a whole. At the age of eighteen he had entered the philosophical seminary of Plato, of which he continued to be a member until Plato's death, twenty years later (346 B.C.). Somewhat later (343-336 B.C.) he filled for several years the post of tutor to the Crown Prince Alexander of Macedonia, afterwards Alexander the Great. On the accession of Alexander to the throne the ex-tutor withdrew, as already stated, to Athens and devoted himself to the organization of his scientific and philosophical school. During the short period of Anti-Macedonian reaction which broke out in Athens upon the death of Alexander (323 B.C.), Aristotle, from his old connection with the Macedonian Court, naturally became an object of attack. A prosecution for "impiety," i. e., disloyalty to the state religion, was set on foot, and, as there was no possible defense to be made, the philosopher anticipated the verdict by a voluntary exile, in which he died a few months later (322 B.C.).1

At the time when Aristotle opened his "school" in the Lyceum,2 or gymnasium attached to the temple of Apollo Lyceus, there were already in existence two such institutions for the prosecution of the higher education, that of Isocrates, in which the instruction was mainly of a practical kind, designed as a preparation for public political and forensic life, and that of Plato, now presided over by Xenocrates, specially given up to metaphysical, ethical, and mathematical research. To these Aristotle added a third, which speedily distinguished itself by the range and variety of its investigations in what we should now call "positive" science, and especially in the biological, social, and historical sciences. These institutions resembled our "universities" in their permanent organization and the wide scope of their educational program, as well as in the adoption of the formal oral lecture and the "seminar," or informal discussion between master and students, as the principal methods of instruction. The chief differences between the ancient philosophical school and the modern university are, on the other hand, the absence from the former of any provision for the support of the master or "professor" by fees or systematic endowments, and the prolongation of the relation of master and pupil through a much longer period, often until the death of one or the other. The character of the philosophical writings of Aristotle (such as the Metaphysics, Physics, Ethics) makes it clear that they are for the most part not "works" prepared for circulation at all, but the manuscripts of a "professor's" lectures, written out in full for oral delivery, and preserved after his death by disciples whose main object was, not to construct readable and well-arranged books, but to preserve the maximum of the master's words at any cost in repetitions and longueurs. It is only on this supposition that we can reasonably account for the inequalities, abruptness, and frequent irregularity of their style, and the extraordinary amount of repetition which occurs in them.3 The actual "literary works" of Aristotle were the dialogues, intended not for study in a philosophical seminary, but for general circulation among the reading public of Athens. These dialogues, which were presumably in the main composed while their author was still a member of the Platonic Academy and before he had entered on his career as the head of an independent institution, were widely celebrated in antiquity for their literary grace, a quality by no means conspicuous in the Aristotelian writings now extant; portions of them have been suspected by modern scholars to have been incorporated in some of the more elegant and popular parts of the existing writings, and others are occasionally quoted by later authors, but as a whole they have perished. Thus we have to compare the extant books of Aristotle, in respect of their literary character, not so much with those of Plato, or Descartes, or Hume, as with the posthumously published volumes of lectures by which the philosophy of Hegel has chiefly been preserved.

Taylor's Notes

(Taylor's footnotes have been converted to endnotes)


[1].The chief ancient authority for the life of Aristotle is the biography by Diogenes Laertius. There are also one or two shorter anonymous "lives," which are commonly reprinted in complete editions of the "works," and a valuable summary, with dates, by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the principal parts of which the student will find in R. P. 297.

[2]. From the existence in this institution of a Peripatos, a covered portico for exercise in unfavorable weather, comes the name Peripatetic as a designation for the Aristotelian School.

[3]. Cf. the remarks of Burnet, The Ethics of Aristotle, pp. xi-xviii.

Created for Peithô's Web from Aristotle on his predecessors; being the first book of his Metaphysics; tr. from the text edition of W. Christ, with introd. and notes by A. E. Taylor. Chicago, Open Court, 1907.Taylor's footnotes have been converted to endnotes. Greek unicode text entered with Peithô's Younicoder.
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