Aristotle’s Early Life and Education
Aristotle (384–322 BC) was born in Stagira in what is now northern Greece but was then a part of the Kingdom of Macedon.
Stagira is located in the northeastern corner of the Chalkidiki Peninsula, about 57 miles east of present-day Thessaloniki. In Aristotle’s day, the town was a thriving seaport and trading center.
Aristotle’s father was a physician who served the Macedonian royal family, presumably in the capital city of Pella, whose ruins are located about 27 miles west of Thessaloniki.
The details of Aristotle’s upbringing are uncertain, but it is known that he was taught in part by his father and it is likely that he spent at least some of his time within the royal palace in Pella, where he made contacts with the royal family.
Around the age of 17 or 18 (and so, about 366 BC), Aristotle move to Athens, where he enrolled as a regular student at the Academy founded and run by Plato. The two men became close friends and Aristotle always considered his own work as largely a refinement of Plato’s ideas.
Although today the Platonic and the Aristotelian systems of thought are usually considered as being opposed to each other, in Antiquity—especially after the founding of “Neoplatonism” by Plotinus in the third century AD—they were more often seen as complementary.
In any case, Plato certainly exercised a greater intellectual influence over the young Aristotle than anyone else.
Aristotle remained In Athens as a student and teacher for a little under 20 years, departing in 348 or 347 BC (at the age of 36 or 37), at around the time of Plato’s death. It is thought that he broke with the Academy because of disagreements with Plato’s nephew and successor as the school’s head, Speusippus.
During the next period of his life, Aristotle undertook several voyages for the sake of scholarly research. First, he accompanied his friend, the philosopher Xenocrates, to the court of the tyrant Hermias at Atarneus, a city near the Aegean Sea on the western coast of Asia Minor, opposite the Greek island of Lesbos.
At the court at Atarneus, Aristotle met Hermias’s adoptive daughter (or perhaps his niece), named Pythias. Aristotle and Pythias were married soon thereafter.
Aristotle then set off once again, this time in the company of his pupil, Theophrastus. The pair traveled across the channel from the mainland to Lesbos where he undertook detailed anatomical research in zoology and, especially, on the many marine invertebrates found in a sheltered lagoon on the island. Years later, he published the results of these pioneering investigations as the voluminous work in ten books known to modern scholars by the title, Historia Animalium [History of Animals].
In 343 BC, some four or five years after leaving Athens on his journeys, and around the age of 41, Aristotle was called back to Pella by King Philip II to become the tutor to his 13-year-old son, Alexander—soon to be known to history as “Alexander the Great.”
It is believed that Aristotle encouraged Alexander in his dreams of conquest, instructing him always to regard the Greeks as his friends and fellow kinsmen and the Persians as dangerous barbarians.
While resident at the court of Pella, Aristotle also taught two of Alexander’s successors, Cassander, who assumed the throne in Macedon itself, and Ptolemy, the founder of the Hellenistic kingdom in Egypt that bore his name.
By 335 BC at the latest, we know that Aristotle was back in Athens, for that is the traditional date given for the foundation (at the age of 49) of Aristotle’s own school, the Lyceum. Many will recognize in this name the root of the modern French and pan-European term for an institute of secondary education, namely, lycée.
The Lyceum contained a circular walkway, or peripatos in Greek, and it is said that Aristotle used to like to present his lessons to his pupils while walking in a group with them around this track. This is the source of the alternative name for Aristotle’s philosophy—the “Peripatetic school.”
It is at Athens between 335 and 323 BC that the works which have come down to us under Aristotle’s name are believed to have been composed. Some scholars believe the books we still possess flowed from Aristotle’s own pen, while others maintain they are more like rough notes of his lectures taken down by his pupils. The latter theory would explain the often extremely compressed style of Aristotle’s writings.
In any event, almost certainly all the genuine works—hence, the Politica [Politics], as well—derive from the fairly short period of Aristotle’s philosophical maturity when he was head of the Lyceum during his second stay in Athens.
When Alexander died unexpectedly in Baghdad in 323 BC, at the tender age of 32, Athens became a dangerous place for an ethnic Macedonian like Aristotle. After all, Alexander had conquered the once-proud free city states of Greece, including Athens, which were now reduced to mere cogs in the vast machine of Alexander’s empire, which stretched from Greece to Egypt in the south and all the way to the Indus River (in modern-day Pakistan) in the east.
Aristotle left Athens in a hurry. To put the best face on it, he is reported to have said he did it for the sake of the Athenians themselves—to prevent them from “sinning twice against philosophy” (the first time being when they put Socrates to death in 399 BC).
Aristotle fled to an estate on the island of Euboea owned by his mother’s family. However, he died the very next year, apparently of natural causes, at about 62 years of age.
Aristotle’s and Peripatetic Ideas on Political Economy
Most of what we might call the “Peripatetic” view on political economy is contained in two books known to scholars by their Latin titles: the Politica [Politics] and the Oeconomica [Economics].
No one questions the authenticity of the Politica, which has long been regarded as one of Aristotle’s most important and influential works.
However, the Oeconomica is clearly a work of inferior quality. Although it was attributed to Aristotle by the ancient tradition, scholars today prefer to ascribe it to one of Aristotle’s pupils, or perhaps Theophrastus’s.
One might expect the difference between the Politica and the Oeconomica to consist mainly in a difference of focus and scale, seeing that the Greek word politikē signifies “the affairs of the polis” [the Greek city state], while oikonomikē means the “law of the oikos” [household].
In practice, however, the Oeconomica is more of a hodge-podge of material, some of which has been culled from other sources, notably the earlier work of the same name by Xenophon. As such, its contents are more varied than its title would indicate. The book discusses various aspects of what we would now call microeconomics and macroeconomics.
Among other things, the Oeconomica describes the principle of the balance of income and expenses as it operates at four separate social levels: the kingdom, the satrapy, the polis, and the individual household, reflecting the new political reality of the Hellenistic kingdoms founded by Alexander’s successors in which it must have been written.
The Oeconomica further states that expenses must not exceed income at any of these levels. However, it then goes on to discuss various ways in which political leaders may raise money by borrowing for specific purposes, primarily raising armies.
The author of the Oeconomica makes a distinction between economics and chrematistics (the study of money or wealth), which was very influential throughout the Middle Ages. In a nutshell, he condemns the accumulation of money for its own sake, especially when it is achieved by lending at interest (usury).
The Oeconomica acknowledges the utility of money as a medium of exchange, seeing it as introduced by convention by kings and other leaders. The author sees the only legitimate forms of economic exchange as direct and unmediated, forbidding all resale creating added value as illegitimate.
Other topics covered by the Oeconomica include the proper relations between a husband and his wife and those between a master and his slaves.
Treatments of such things as property, business affairs, money, and household management may also be found sprinkled throughout the Politica, notably, in Book I, Chapters 8 through 13.
These discussions are carried on at a higher level of philosophical sophistication than those in the Oeconomica; however, they are incidental to the main purpose of the Politica, which is the investigation of pure politics, not political economy.
Economics-Related Works Attributed to Aristotle
1. Politica [Politics]
The Politics and the Constitution of Athens, translated by Stephen Everson (1996).
The Politics of Aristotle, translated by Peter L. Phillips Simpson (1997).
Politics, translated by Joe Sachs (2012).
Aristotle’s Politics, second edition, translated by Carnes Lord (2013).
Politics: A New Translation, translated by C.D.C. Reeve (2017).
2. Oeconomica [Economics]
Oeconomics, translated by E.S. (Edward Seymour) Forster (1920).
Metaphysics, Books 10-14. Oeconomica. Magna Moralia; Oeconomica translated by G. Cyril Armstrong (Loeb Classical Library) (1935).
3. Both Politica and Oeconomica
The Politics and Economics of Aristotle, translated by John Gillies (1908).
Aristotle’s Politics: Writings from the Complete Works: Politics, Economics, Constitution of Athens, translated by Jonathan Barnes (2016).
Selected Works About Aristotle’s Economics
Crespo, Ricardo F., A Re-Assessment of Aristotle’s Economic Thought (2013).
Deslauriers, Marguerite and Pierre Destrée, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Aristotle’s Politics (2013).
Eich, Stefan, The Currency of Politics: The Political Theory of Money from Aristotle to Keynes (2022).
Gallagher, Robert L., Aristotle’s Critique of Political Economy: With a Contemporary Application (2018).
Hartman, Edwin M., Virtue in Business: Conversations with Aristotle (2013).
Kraut, Richard, Aristotle: Political Philosophy (2002).
Meikle, Scott, Aristotle’s Economic Thought (1997).
Morris, Tom, If Aristotle Ran General Motors (1997).
Pascarella, John Antonio, Economics and the Public Good: The End of Desire in Aristotle’s Politics and Ethics (2022).