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[A] Mrs R. Lee's Memoirs of Baron Cuvier, p. 51.
[B] Quarterly Review, vol. xxxvi. p. 219.
Introductory Remarks—Birth and Parentage of Aristotle—He studies Philosophy under Plato—Is highly distinguished in the Academy—Retires to Atarneus on the Death of his Master—Marries—Is invited by Philip to superintend the Education of Alexander—Prosecutes his Studies at the Court—On the Succession of Alexander, returns to Athens, where he sets up a School in the Lyceum—Corresponds with Alexander, who supplies Means for carrying on his Investigations—Alexander finds Fault with him for publishing some of his Works, and after putting Callisthenes to Death, exalts his Rival Xenocrates—On the Death of Alexander, he is accused by his Enemies of Impiety, when he escapes to Chalcis, where he dies soon after—His personal Appearance and Character—His Testament—History of his Writings—Great Extent of the Subjects treated of by him—His Notions on elementary Bodies—The Material Universe—The Changes to which the Earth has been subjected, and the Eternity of its Existence—Conclusion.
Natural History, considered as a science or body of doctrine, commenced with Aristotle, the founder of the Peripatetic School, and one of the most illustrious philosophers of antiquity. His writings were held in the highest estimation by his own countrymen the Greeks, as well as by the Romans: they were considered as the most authentic sources of knowledge, after the revival of learning in Europe; and even at the present day their influence may be traced in the works of many who have not[Pg 39] so much as bestowed upon them a cursory glance. It is therefore fit that we should begin our biographical sketches with that celebrated author, the more especially as he did not confine himself to a single branch of natural history, but, like all great minds, possessed an extensive acquaintance with objects of various classes. It is he only, whose comprehensive glance seizes upon what is common to numerous tribes, that can duly estimate what ought to be considered as distinctive of a particular group, or can form rules for the arrangement and description of the beings which compose it. The three greatest naturalists whom the world has produced, Aristotle, Linnæus, and Cuvier, were men whose conceptions were enlarged by the most expanded views. Others have excelled them in particular departments, but none have equalled them in general knowledge.
Aristotle was born at Stagira, a city of the Thracian Chersonesus, in the first year of the 99th Olympiad, or the 384th before the Christian era. His father, Nicomachus, was physician to Amyntas, king of Macedonia, the father of Philip, and grandfather of Alexander the Great. Of his mother, we only know that her name was Phestis, and that, like her husband, she was originally from Chalcis. His family claimed descent from Machaon, the son of Esculapius. Having lost his parents at an early age, he went to reside with Proxenus, a citizen of Atarneus in Mysia, the friend to whose guardianship he had been left. According to some authorities, not being observed very strictly by those who had the immediate charge of his education, he spent a great part of his youth in licentious indulgences, by which he dissipated nearly the whole[Pg 40] of a large patrimony. It is also said that he entered into the military profession, but finding it disagreeable soon renounced it, and, as a means of subsistence, sold medicines at Athens. But most of these reflections on his juvenile character may perhaps be attributed to slander.
However this may be, it became necessary for him to choose an employment; and, on going to Delphi to consult the oracle, he was directed to proceed to Athens, and apply himself to the study of philosophy. This he accordingly did, and at the age of seventeen commenced his career as a pupil of Plato.
Being of an ardent temperament, he addicted himself to his new pursuit with so much energy, that he determined to reduce his hours of repose to the smallest possible limits. For this purpose he placed a metallic basin beside his couch, and on lying down held out one of his hands with an iron ball in it, that the noise produced by the collision might awake him should he happen to slumber. Such intensity of application, in a penetrating and subtile mind, could not fail to render him highly successful in his studies. We accordingly find that he had not been long in the academy when he was distinguished above all the other scholars; and it is said that Plato used to call him the mind of his school, and to compare him to a spirited colt that required the application of the rein to restrain its ardour.
He has been accused of disrespect and ingratitude to his aged master, and with having set up a school in opposition to him. The author of this charge was Aristoxenus, his own pupil; but it is well known that he was personally an enemy to Aristotle, because that philosopher, in choosing a[Pg 41] successor, had preferred Theophrastus. It is doubted, besides, whether he taught publicly until after Plato's death, which happened in 348 B. C.
Speusippus, the nephew of the sage just named, having been appointed to succeed him in his school, Aristotle, retiring from Athens, went to reside with Hermeias, governor of Assus and Atarneus in Mysia. Here he remained three years; but his friend having been executed, by command of Artaxerxes, as a rebel against Persia, he was obliged to seek refuge in Mytelene, taking with him Pythias, the kinswoman and adopted daughter of Hermeias, to whose memory he afterwards erected a statue in the temple of Delphos. This lady, endeared to him by the gratitude which he felt towards her father, and by the distress to which she had been reduced by his death, he married in the thirty-seventh year of his age. She died, however, soon after their union, leaving an infant daughter, who received the same name.
A short time having elapsed, he was invited by Philip to superintend the education of his son. This distinction he no doubt owed in part to his previous intimacy with the King of Macedonia; but it must also have arisen from the great celebrity which he enjoyed, as excelling in all kinds of science, and especially in the doctrine of politics. Alexander had attained the age of fifteen when the management of his studies was confided to Aristotle, then in his forty-second year. There is ground, however, for presuming that previous to this period the philosopher had been consulted respecting the instruction of the young prince.
The master, it has been said, was worthy of his[Pg 42] pupil, and the pupil of his master. In our opinion the master was worthy of a better pupil, and the pupil might have had a better master. At all events, Alexander, who was ambitious of excelling in every pursuit, must have profited greatly in the acquisition of knowledge by the lessons of the most eminently-endowed philosopher of his age. According to Plutarch and Aulus Gellius, he was instructed by him in rhetoric, physics, ethics, and politics; and so high was the estimation in which he held his preceptor, that he is said to have declared, that "he was not less indebted to Aristotle than to his father; since if it was through the one that he lived, it was through the other that he lived well." It is also supposed that he had been initiated in the abstruse speculations respecting the human soul, the nature of the Divinity, and other subjects, on which his master had not yet promulgated his notions to the world.