In his book Process and Reality, philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” To be sure, the West is indebted to Plato for his momentous intellectual achievements. But the Western emphasis on systematic empirical observation and interpretation comes from Plato’s disciple. Like the brilliant Sir Isaac Newton, Plato’s student Aristotle didn’t just learn various disciplines, he created them. Aristotle invented the disciplines of logic, biology, and ethics, and he was considered the expert on these topics well into the middle ages.
Aristotle was born in Stagira Macedonia in 384 BC and was sent to Plato’s academy in Athens around the age of seventeen. After the death of Plato, Aristotle went to Assos for roughly 3 years and then moved again to the island of Lesbos. During this period, it is thought that Aristotle developed biology, with a focus on marine biology. His biological notes were so detailed that some of his observations were not confirmed until the development of higher-powered magnification. In 343 BC, the king of Macedon asked Aristotle to tutor his son—Alexander the Great.
Alexander conquered the then known ancient world. In doing so, he spread the ideas of the Greeks to the furthest reaches of his empire. This political and military expansion had, in no small measure, solidified the prominence of Aristotle in the West. It also set the stage for the Greco-Roman world that existed during the time of Christ.
During the early formation of the church, Christian thinkers drew upon the thought of the Greeks in their apologetic and polemical writings. Augustine, for example, was particularly prone to using the thought and categories of the Neo-Platonists. In fact, many early Christian creeds framed their language about God and the incarnation in terms that were familiar to the Greeks. Terms like “substance,” “essence,” and “consubstantial” are all terms that comport with and are likely derived from Greek thought.
While some of our earliest church fathers were influenced by Platonism and Neo-Platonism, later Islamic and Western Christian thinkers were primarily influenced by Aristotle. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Aristotle’s works were translated into Latin, making them accessible to the Christian West. One of the first major Christian advocates of Aristotle was Albert the Great. He worked to use the categories of Aristotelian thought to elucidate doctrines of the Christian faith. But it was Albert’s student, Thomas Aquinas, who thoroughly incorporated Aristotle’s thinking into the church.
In the Protestant church, Martin Luther rejected Aquinas’ underlying commitment to Aristotelian realism. But thinkers like Jacob Arminius and some from the Reformed scholastic tradition took Aquinas seriously and therefore the influence of Aristotle proceeded into the Protestant world. One of the largest contributions Aristotle gave to the West, and to the Western church, was his emphasis on the observable world. Plato tended to emphasize the reality and primacy of the “world of forms.” For Plato, the unobserved world of forms was more durable, lasting, and—in a sense—"real” than the changing material world. Aristotle placed greater importance on learning about the world through observation and systematic reasoning from what we observe.
In a very important way, Aristotle helped usher in what we now know as modern science. He created a way to meaningfully divide the sciences according to the object studied and the way in which the object is to be studied. Thus, he gave us a principled way to talk about different scientific disciplines.
For Christian thinkers, one of the more fascinating aspects of Aristotle’s thought is that he placed great emphasis on the sensible world without reducing the world to the stuff we detect with our senses. Contrary to contemporary naturalists, Aristotle believed that we could get at the underlying metaphysical principles that make sense of the material world, asserting that the world was composed of at least two irreducible realities—matter and form. This was appealing to Christian thinkers who wanted to affirm, along with Genesis, that the material world is good, but that it is not reducible to matter.
It is difficult to overstate the impact Aristotle has had on the Western world. But in our admiration of him, we must also note that some of his thinking has been shown to be wrong. His physics, for example, is outdated. Additionally, his view of women and foreigners left much to be desired. So, while his ethics serves as the groundwork for later natural law theories, some of the ideas he espoused should be corrected or rejected.
Matt Graham is an IT professional at Colorado State University. He also works with Ratio Christi, a campus ministry that focuses on giving rational arguments for the Christian faith. Matt earned his undergraduate degree from Iowa State University where he majored in sociology and minored in psychology. He obtained an M.A. in Religion from Southern Evangelical Seminary. Matt's areas of academic interest are: philosophical anthropology, philosophical theology, ancient and medieval metaphysics, feminism, and the nature of emotion. He is married to a wonderful wife and has two amazing children.