Jonathan Barnes 2000. Aristotle. A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 160 pp.

The main message: Aristotle loved to know stuff.

Jonathan Barnes offers mixed messages for the older reader (p. 1): “Aristotle died in the autumn of 322 BC. He was sixty-two and at the height of his powers …”. There is a good deal of this sort of flowery language: “he bestrode antiquity like an intellectual colossus” (p. 1).

Better to quote Aristotle directly where possible. He had a scheme for the sciences:

All thought is either practical or productive or theoretical.

For Aristotle, objects in natural science (his transliterated ~”physike”) have two properties: they are capable of change, and they exist ‘separately’ [separately from the Platonic ideal, I suppose he meant?] or in their own right (p. 41) and it is these objects that were his main interest. But he realised:

If there are no substances apart from natural substances, natural science will be the primary science; but if there are changeless substances, the science of them will be prior and will be the primary philosophy.

As a zoologist Aristotle had mixed success. He knew (or some fisherman told him) that octopus copulate using their longest arm as a “penis”, but on the other hand he thought some insects were spontaneously generated from dew. I guess in a world where so little was known, someone who loved knowledge and learning was bound to go off the rails occasionally, especially as he must have used multiple sources.

One striking similarity between Aristotle and geniuses from other fields (Beethoven, Leonardo da Vinci for example) is that they all lived through wars and other conflicts but apparently remained rather removed.