Aristotle Biography 2: Sources


The life and time of the Greek Philosopher

Sources to Aristotle's life

  • Diogenes Laertius
  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus

Though Aristotle is such a magnificent figure in philosophy, the sources to his life are scarce indeed. Except for fragments here and there, two texts of old contain more than brief wordings on the subject — that of Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the 1st century BC, and of Diogenes Laertius in the 3nd century AD. The former is only a page of text in a letter on another subject than the life of Aristotle, the latter several pages in a broad presentation of Aristotle, his life, work and philosophy.

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       Later texts on Aristotle lean on little but the above writings, for the facts about his life. This is still true today. Aristotle mentions nothing about himself in his own books, nor is he mentioned in the works of Plato — not even in his letters, the authenticity of which is in doubt. Of course, there is no reason why it should be different in their writing, and it is understandable why others in their time or the subsequent years would not have come to write substantially on the subject: Aristotle was not regarded as a person of historical significance by his contemporaries. That would take centuries.

       In the reconstruction of Aristotle's life, then, writers have used what little material there is, and filled in the rest with speculation. The results of the guess-works have varied through the years, significantly so during the last century, when nearly all about Aristotle's life has been questioned — such as his tutorship of a young Alexander the Great, his fidelity to the ideas of his own teacher Plato, even whether Aristotle was indeed the writer of the texts credited to him. For such assumptions, though, it has been necessary to move far beyond the existing sources — actually quite contrary to them.

Diogenes Laertius

The most substantial source to the life of Aristotle, is that of Diogenes Laertius in his work Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Nothing is known of Diogenes, except what he mentions in his own work, but by deduction from what thinkers he mentions or not, the book is estimated to have been written around 225-250 AD.

       Diogenes' text can best be compared to modern biographies for a general audience, where entertainment is a central ambition. His treatment of philosophy is generally regarded as of light weight. Regarding his biographical information about the philosophers, though, his book is in many cases the dominant or even sole source of information. The quality of it has been questioned, as well, but he seems to have taken the job seriously enough, frequently mentioning his own sources and pointing out where they contradict each other.

       He was obviously familiar with a rich literature, great parts of which no longer remains. His book makes explicit reference to 365 books by about 250 authors. Most of his favored sources come from the third and second century BC, or the first century AD — in between these periods his sources are strikingly scarce.

       As for Aristotle, he mentions ten sources, appearing in his text in the following order:

  1. Hermippus of Smyrna (flourished c.200 BC), On Aristotle. Hermippus was a student of Callimachus and a Peripatetic philosopher. He wrote the biographical work Bioi (Lives), much used by later writers. The book Diogenes mentions is probably another, solely on Aristotle.
  2. Timotheus of Athens (2nd-3rd century AD), On Lives. Fragments of Timotheus remain only in Diogenes Laertius. He can not be dated with any certainty. He might be identical to Timotheus of Pergamum, said to have written on the virtue of philosophers.
  3. Timaeus (c.352-c.256 BC). Timaeus the historian was the son of Andromachus, tyrant of Tauromenium in Sicily. He was banished from Sicily and passed his exile at Athens. The great work of Timaeus was a history of Sicily from the earliest times to 264 BC. Fragments remain of it. Timaeus is said to have been the first to record events by Olympiads — a system of dating that also Diogenes Laertius utilizes.
  4. Demetrius of Magnesia (died 282 BC), Poets and Writers of the Same Name. This would be Demetrius of Phalerum in Attica, who was the son of a slave, but still managed to become Governor of Athens. Then he was driven from the city, and spent about twenty years in Alexandria. It is generally supposed that he gave the ruler Ptolemy the advice to found the famous library of that city. When Ptolemy II came to the throne, Demetrius was exiled and ended his own life. Plutarch cites his treatise On Socrates. The works of Demetrius are lost, except for a short text on the Seven Sages, which Stobaeus regards as written by Demetrius.
  5. Aristippus, On the Luxury of the Ancients, first book. Almost nothing is known of Aristippus of Arcadia, and only a few fragments of his work remain. Not to be confused with Aristippus (c.435-c.356 BC) from Cyrené.
  6. Favorinus (2nd century AD, flourished during the reign of Hadrian, i.e. 117-138 AD), Miscellaneous History, also Memorabilia, second book. Favorinus of Arelate (Arles), is said to have been an hermaphrodite or a eunuch. He was also a philosopher, highly appreciated in Rome for his wits. Favorinus wrote numerous works, in what seems to have been a light-hearted style, whereof only a few fragments remain.
  7. Eumelus (first half of the 3rd century BC), Histories, fifth book. Eumelus the historian is not mentioned elsewhere than in Diogenes, and nothing else is known about him.
  8. Apollodorus (flourished around 140 BC), Chronology. Apollodorus of Athens was a grammarian and historian, pupil of Aristarchus and the Stoic Panaetius. The Chronica lists dates in history from the fall of Troy, which he set to what we have as 1183 BC, down to his own time. Only fragments remain. The book Bibliotheca, with mythological material, is traditionally but doubtfully regarded as his writing.
  9. Ambryon, On Theocritus. No Ambryon is know outside of Diogenes Laertius. It may be an error of his, intending the Grammarian Amarantus, who did write a commentary to Theocritus of Chios.
  10. Timon (3rd century BC). A Skeptic philosopher who wrote numerous works in prose and poetry. The most celebrated of his poems were the satiric compositions called silli (silloi), on the philosophers and their teachings. Fragments of his poems remain.
       The few biographical facts about Aristotle are so well established in the literature on him that writers rarely bother to specify their sources. In this respect, Diogenes Laertius is a good exception to the rule, mostly naming his sources to specific details about Aristotle.

       Those details can often be of both questionable and quite peripheral nature. In the first paragraph on his text about Aristotle, Diogenes mentions that he spoke with a lisp, had slender calves, small eyes, and was conspicuous about his attire, his rings and haircut.

       Well, the lisp could not have been a severe speech impediment, nor a big embarrassment, or Aristotle would have been more eager to write books than to give lectures. The slender calves imply that Aristotle did not walk that much in his Peripatetic, or they would have become more muscular. The size of his eyes were of little significance, compared to his eyesight, for reading and writing. Finally, his striking way of dressing up may have come from his general interest in the physical world and its workings. Aristotle may have enjoyed to experiment with how to attract attention to his appearance, as a way of playing on people's irrational responses. Coming to think of it, his lisp may have been another gimmick of that kind. In those days, as well as ours, the importance of being noticed could not be overly emphasized.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus

Dionysius of Halicarnassus (-7 BC) wrote a long letter to Ammaeus, where he aimed to prove that the famous orator Demosthenes was not inspired by Aristotle's Rhetoric. His argument was simple: Demosthenes was an acclaimed speaker before Rhetoric was written. In order to prove this, Dionysius gave a rhapsodic biography of Aristotle, and specified the time in which Aristotle must have written the book in question. This letter remains, and contains a substantial, though brief, biography of Aristotle.

       The historian and critic Dionysius was born at Halicarnassus in the first century BC. What is known about his life is what he has written about it. He came to Rome in about 29 BC, and remained there until his death. His major work is that on Roman antiquities, relating the history of Rome from ancient times to the beginning of the First Punic War, in 265 BC. The ten first of its original twenty books remain in their entirety.

       The biography on Aristotle is just one page of text, but a very important document, considering the scarce classical sources on the subject. Therefore, I include it in its entirety:

       Aristotle was the son of Nicomachus, who traced his lineage and his profession back to Machaon, the son of Asclepius. His mother, Phaestis, was descended from one of those who led the expedition from Chalcis which founded the colony at Stagira. He was born in the ninety-ninth Olympiad, when Diotrephes was archon at Athens, and was thus three years older than Demosthenes. In the archonship of Polyzelus, after the death of his father, he came to Athens, being then eighteen years of age. Having been recommended to Plato as a pupil, he spent twenty years in his society. When Plato died, in the archonship of Theophilus, he went off to the court of Hermias, the tyrant of Atarneus, and spent three years with him before returning to Mytilene in the archonship of Eubulus. Thence he went to the court of Philip, during the archonship of Pythodotus, and spent eight years there as tutor to Alexander. After the death of Philip, in the archonship of Evaenetus, he returned to Athens, and taught in the Lyceum for a period of twelve years. In the thirteenth year, after the death of Alexander in the archon-year of Cephisodorus, he set off for Chalcis, where he fell ill and died at the age of sixty-three. These, then, are the facts which the biographers of Aristotle have left us.


© Stefan Stenudd 2003, 2006.



Aristotle's Life
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Aristotle's Cosmology

The Greek Philosophers.

The Greek Philosophers

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Table of the Greek Philosophers
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