Why is Aristotle considered one of the greatest minds in Western history?
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The system of philosophy that Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) developed became the foundation for European philosophy, theology, science, and literature. The Aristotelian system may be so much a part of the fabric of Western culture that the only effective way to describe his philosophy is through example.
Among his writings on logic is Organon, meaning “tool” or “instrument.” Here he defines the fundamental rules for making an argument. While other thinkers may well have formulated the argument before Aristotle, no one had made a systematic study of it. In Organon, Aristotle puts forth a method for coming to a conclusion based on circumstantial evidence and prior conclusions rather than on the basis of direct observation. This deductive scheme, called a syllogism, is made up of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. For example: every virtue is laudable (major premise); courage is a virtue (minor premise); therefore courage is laudable (conclusion). (It is worth noting, however, that the belief in deductive logic was later rejected by English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon [1561–1626] in 1620, in favor of an inductive system, or one that is based on observation.)
In Poetics, Aristotle expounded upon his literary views. He maintained that epic and tragedy portray human beings as nobler than they truly are, while comedy portrays them as less noble than they are. In order to explain how tragedy speaks to the emotions of the spectator, Aristotle introduced the idea of catharsis. He separated tragedy from epic with the distinction that tragedy maintains unity of plot (later translated as unity of plot, time, and place), while the epic does not. Because of the keen understanding evident in Poetics, the work has illuminated literary criticism since antiquity.
In addition to logic and rhetoric, Aristotle wrote on natural science (Physics, On the Heavens, Parts of Animals, and On Plants) and on ethics and politics (Politics). His great philosophical work was Metaphysics, so named because, in the body of his works, it comes after (the Greek word for which is meta) the work Physics. Metaphysics as a philosophy is the study of substance, or the nature and structure of reality. It is considered one of five major branches of Western philosophy. In modern thought, metaphysics can include many disciplines, such as cosmology (the study of the origins and structure of the universe) and theology (the study of religion). Most of the great philosopher’s writings are compilations of notes from lectures he delivered to his students at the Lyceum, also called the Peripatetic School, in Athens. Among his pupils there were Greek leaders, including Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.).