Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

Page 9 of 79

With respect to personal appearance, Aristotle was not highly favoured. He was of short stature, with slender legs, and remarkably small eyes. His voice was shrill, and his utterance hesitating. Although his constitution was feeble, he seems to have enjoyed good health. His moral character has been impeached by some; but we may presume that it was not liable to any serious imputation, otherwise his faults would not have escaped the observation of his numerous enemies, who yet could only prefer against him some vague charges of impiety.

Aristotle was not merely a philosopher; he was also what would at the present day be called a gentleman and a man of the world. In accordance with this character he dressed magnificently, wore rings of great value, shaved his head and face, contrary to the practice of the other scholars of Plato, and freely indulged in social intercourse. He was twice married. By his first wife, Pythias, he had a daughter of the same name, who was married to Nicanor, the son of Proxenus. His second wife was Herpylis, a native of Stagira, by whom he had a son, called Nicomachus.

It is difficult to determine his real character. Those who seem to find pleasure in reviling him, assert that he was a parasite, a habitual glutton and drunkard, a despiser of the gods, a vain person, whose chief care was to ornament his person, and thereby counteract the unfavourable impression which his disproportioned figure might make. It has been said, with perhaps more truth, that he taught his pupil Alexander principles of morals and policy which were not the best adapted for a prince of his ambitious temper; and that his desire of standing[Pg 49] forth as the founder of a philosophical sect, induced him to prefer abstract disquisitions to solid knowledge, and to indulge in a spirit of contradiction and innovation. On the other hand, he has been extolled as a prodigy of knowledge and intellect, and represented as "the secretary of nature." Jews have laid claim to his philosophy as derived from Solomon, and Christians have held him up as a person ordained to prepare the way for a Divine revelation. It is certain, however, that he was a very remarkable individual, possessed of great powers of observation and discrimination, and one who, had he devoted himself to the study of natural objects with a sincere desire of ascertaining their properties and a resolution to adhere to truth, might have succeeded in laying on a solid basis the foundations of physical science.

Diogenes of Laertes in Cilicia, who lived about the end of the second century, and who wrote an account of the lives of the philosophers, has preserved his testament, the substance of which is as follows:—Antipater, the regent of Macedonia, is appointed his executor. To his wife Herpylis he leaves the choice of two houses, the one in Chalcis, the other at Stagira. He commends her domestic virtues, and requests his friends to distinguish her by the kindest attention. To Nicomachus, his son by Herpylis, and to Pythias, his daughter by his first wife, he bequeaths the remainder of his fortune, excepting his library and writings, which he leaves to Theophrastus. He desires that his daughter shall be given in marriage to Nicanor, the son of his benefactor Proxenus, or, should he not be inclined to receive her, to Theophrastus, his esteemed[Pg 50] pupil. The bones of Pythias he orders to be disinterred and buried with his own body, as she herself had desired. None of his slaves are to be sold; they are all either emancipated by his will, or ordered to be set free by his heirs whenever they shall become worthy of liberty. Finally, he orders that the dedications which he had vowed for the safety of Nicanor be presented at Stagira to Jupiter and Minerva.

The same writer gives the titles of 260 works of Aristotle. Many of these, however, have perished. From his situation in society, and the munificent patronage of Alexander, he possessed more ample resources than any other man of science that could be named; and, considering the age in which he lived, his success in the investigation of nature may be considered as almost unrivalled. It is to be regretted that so many of his treatises have been lost, and that even those which have been transmitted to us have not been preserved in a perfect state.

Strabo has given a melancholy history of these works, in the ninth book of his geography. Aristotle, as we have stated above, had bequeathed them to Theophrastus, the most distinguished of his pupils, and his successor in the school. That philosopher left them, together with his own works, to his scholar Neleus, who carried them to his native city, Scepsis in Asia Minor. The heirs of Neleus, who were unlettered men, kept them locked up; and when they understood that the King of Pergamos, to whom the town belonged, was collecting books, to form a library on the plan of the Alexandrian, they concealed them in a vault or cellar, where they lay forgotten 130 years. When accidentally[Pg 51] discovered, at the end of that period, they were found to be greatly injured by damp and vermin. At length they were sold to an inhabitant of Athens, named Apellicon, who, however, was not so much a lover of philosophy as a collector of manuscripts, and who adulterated the original text by his injudicious emendations and interpolations. Several copies thus altered were published by him. When Athens was taken by Sylla, the library of this citizen was carried to Rome, where the works of Aristotle were corrected by Tyrannion, a grammarian. Andronicus of Rhodes afterwards arranged the whole into sections, and gave them to the world.

According to Dr Gillies, Aristotle must have "composed above 400 different treatises, of which only forty-eight have been transmitted to the present age. But many of these last consist of several books; and the whole of his remains together still form a golden stream of Greek erudition, exceeding four times the collective bulk of the Iliad and Odyssey."

He was scarcely less ambitious than his pupil Alexander, and his works embrace nearly the whole range of human knowledge as it existed in his day. He was the inventor of the syllogistic mode of reasoning, the principles of which he lays down in his work on logic. In his books on rhetoric, he has investigated the principles of eloquence with great accuracy and precision, insomuch that they form the basis of all that has since been written on the subject. His work on poetics, or rather the fragment which has come down to us under that name, although almost entirely confined to the consideration of the drama, contains principles applicable to[Pg 52] poetical composition in general, and is equally distinguished for precision and depth of thought. Those on ethics and politics are also remarkable productions; and although the former has been effectually superseded by a more perfect system, the latter contains much that is interesting even at the present day. In his metaphysics, he expounds the doctrine of Being abstracted from Matter, and speaks of a First Mover,—the life and intellect of the universe, eternal and immutable, but neither omnipresent nor omnipotent. When treating of physics, he does not in general lay down rules a priori, but deduces them from the observation and comparison of facts. This being the case, we might expect that such of his writings as relate to natural history should contain much truth.

He holds that all terrestrial bodies are composed of four elements,—earth, water, air, and fire. Earth and water are heavy, because they tend towards the earth's centre; while air and fire, which tend upwards, are light.

Besides these four elements, he has admitted a fifth, of which the celestial objects were composed, and whose motion is always circular. He supposed that there is above the air, under the concave part of the moon, a sphere of fire to which all the flames ascend, as the brooks and rivers flow into the ocean.

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