Aristotle (384 BC 322 BC)

Amidst the general obscurity in which the early history of anatomy is involved, only two leading facts may be admitted with certainty. The first is, that previous to the time of Aristotle there was no accurate knowledge of anatomy; and the second, that all that was known was derived from the dissection of the lower animals only. By the appearance of Aristotle this species of knowledge, which was hitherto acquired in a desultory and irregular manner, began to be cultivated systematically and with a definite object; and among the services which the philosopher of Stagira rendered to mankind, one of the greatest and most substantial is, that he was the founder of Comparative Anatomy, and was the first to apply its facts to the elucidation of zoology. The works of this ardent and original naturalist show that his zoological knowledge was extensive and often accurate; and from several of his descriptions it is impossible to doubt that they were derived from frequent personal dissection. Aristotle, who was born 384 years before the Christian era, or in the first year of the 99th Olympiad, was at the age of thirty-nine requested by Philip to undertake the education of his son Alexander. During this period it is said he composed several works on anatomy, which, however, are now lost. The military expedition of his royal pupil into Asia, by laying open the animal stores of that vast and little-known continent, furnished Aristotle with the means of extending his knowledge, not only of the animal tribes, but of their structure, and of communicating more accurate and distinct notions than were yet accessible to the world. A sum of 800 talents, and the concurrent aid of numerous intelligent assistants in Greece and Asia, were intended to facilitate his researches in composing a system of zoological knowledge; but it has been observed that the number of instances in which he was thus compelled to trust to the testimony of other observers led him to commit errors in description which personal observation might have enabled him to avoid.

The first three books of the History of Animals, a treatise consisting of ten books, and the four books on the Parts of Animals, constitute the great monument of the Aristotelian Anatomy. From these we find that Aristotle was the first who corrected the erroneous statements of Polybus, Syennesis and Diogenes regarding the blood-vessels, which they made, as we have seen, to arise from the head and brain. These he represents to be two in number, placed before the spinal column, the larger on the right, the smaller on the left, which, he also remarks, is by some called aorta (aorte), the first time we observe that this epithet occurs in the history. Both he represents to arise from the heart, the larger from the largest upper cavity, the smaller or aorta from the middle cavity, but in a different manner and forming a narrower canal. He also distinguishes the thick, firm and more tendinous structure of the aorta from the thin and membranous structure of vein. In describing the distribution of the latter, however, he confounds the vena cava and pulmonary artery, and, as might be expected, he confounds the ramifications of the former with those of the arterial tubes in general. While he represents the lung to be liberally supplied with blood, he describes the brain as an organ almost destitute of this fluid. His account of the distribution of the aorta is wonderfully correct. Though he does not notice the coeliac, and remarks that the aorta sends no direct branches to the liver and spleen, he had observed the mesenteric, the renal and the common iliac arteries. It is nevertheless singular that though he remarks particularly that the renal branches of the aorta go to the substance and not the pelvis (koilia) of the kidney, he appears to mistake the ureters for branches of the aorta. Of the nerves (neura) he appears to have the most confused notions. Making them arise from the heart, which he says has nerves (tendons) in its largest cavity, he represents the aorta to be a nervous or tendinous vein (neuroder fleps.) By and by, afterwards saying that all the articulated bones are connected by nerves, he makes them the same as ligaments.

He distinguishes the windpipe or air-holder (arteria) from the oesophagus, because it is placed before the latter, because food or drink passing into it causes distressing cough and suffocation, and because there is no passage from the lung to the stomach. He knew the situation and use of the epiglottis, seems to have had some indistinct notions of the larynx, represents the windpipe to be necessary to convey air to and from the lungs, and appears to have a tolerable understanding of the structure of the lungs. He repeatedly represents the heart, the shape and site of which he describes accurately, to be the origin of the blood-vessels, in opposition to those who made them descend from the head; yet, though he represents it as full of blood and the source and fountain of that fluid, and even speaks of the blood flowing from the heart to the veins, and thence to every part of the body, he says nothing of the circular motion of the blood. The diaphragm he distinguishes by the name diazoma, and upozoma. With the liver and spleen, and the whole alimentary canal, he seems well acquainted. The several parts of the quadruple stomach of the ruminating animals are distinguished and named; and he even traces the relations between the teeth and the several forms of stomach, and the length or brevity, the simplicity or complication of the intestinal tube. Upon the same principles distinguishes the jejunum (e nestis), or the empty portion of the small intestines in animals (to enteron lepton), the caecum (tuflon ti kai ogkodes), the colon (to kolon), and the sigmoid flexure (stenoteron kai eligmenon.) The modern epithet of rectum is the literal translation of his description of the straight progress (euthu) of the bowel to the anus (proktos). He knew the nasal cavities and the passage from the tympanal cavity of the ear to the palate, afterwards described by B. Eustachius. He distinguishes as "partes similares" those structures, such as bone, cartilage, vessels, sinews, blood, lymph, fat, flesh, which, not confined to one locality, but distributed throughout the body generally, we now term the tissues or textures, whilst he applies the term "partes dissimilares" to the regions of the head, neck, trunk and extremities.

Aristotle was born at Stageira, a Greek colony on the Macedonian peninsula Chalcidice in 384 BCE. His father, Nicomachus, was court physician to King Amyntas III of Macedon. It is believed that Aristotle's ancestors held this position under various kings of Macedonia. Aristotle was probably influenced by his father's medical knowledge; when he went to Athens at the age of 18, he was likely already trained in the investigation of natural phenomena.

From the ages of 18 to 37 Aristotle remained in Athens as a pupil of Plato and distinguished himself at the Academe. The relations between Plato and Aristotle have formed the subject of various legends, many of which depict Aristotle unfavourably. No doubt there were divergences of opinion between Plato, who took his stand on sublime, idealistic principles, and Aristotle, who even at that time showed a preference for the investigation of the facts and laws of the physical world. It is also probable that Plato suggested that Aristotle needed restraining rather than encouragement, but not that there was an open breach of friendship. In fact, Aristotle's conduct after the death of Plato, his continued association with Xenocrates and other Platonists, and his allusions in his writings to Plato's doctrines prove that while there were conflicts of opinion between Plato and Aristotle, there was no lack of cordial appreciation or mutual forbearance. Besides this, the legends that reflect Aristotle unfavourably are traceable to the Epicureans, who were known as slanderers. If such legends were circulated widely by patristic writers such as Justin Martyr and Gregory Nazianzen, the reason lies in the exaggerated esteem Aristotle was held in by the early Christian heretics, not in any well-grounded historical tradition.

After the death of Plato (347 BCE), Aristotle went with Xenocrates to the court of Hermias, ruler of Atarneus in Asia Minor, and married his niece and adopted daughter, Pythia. In 344 BCE, Hermias was murdered in a rebellion, and Aristotle went with his family to Mytilene. Then, one or two years later, he was summoned to his native Stageira by King Philip II of Macedon to become the tutor of Alexander the Great, who was then 13.

Plutarch wrote that Aristotle not only imparted to Alexander a knowledge of ethics and politics, but also of the most profound secrets of philosophy. We have positive proof that Alexander profited by contact with the philosopher, and that Aristotle made prudent and beneficial use of his influence over the young prince. Due to this influence, Alexander provided Aristotle with ample means for the acquisition of books and the pursuit of his scientific investigation, and it is quite likely that Alexander the Great's renowned military ability can be traced, at least in part, to his relationship with Aristotle.

In about 335 BCE, Alexander departed for his Asiatic campaign, and Aristotle, who had served as an informal adviser (more or less) since Alexander ascended the Macedonian throne, returned to Athens and opened his own school of philosophy. He may, as Aulus Gellius says, have conducted a school of rhetoric during his former residence in Athens; but now, following Plato's example, he gave regular instruction in philosophy in a gymnasium dedicated to Apollo Lyceios, from which his school has come to be known as the Lyceum. (It was also called the Peripatetic School because Aristotle preferred to discuss problems of philosophy with his pupils while walking up and down -- peripateo -- the shaded walks -- peripatoi -- around the gymnasium.)

During the thirteen years (335 BCE-322 BCE) which he spent as teacher of the Lyceum, Aristotle composed most of his writings. Imitating Plato, he wrote "Dialogues" in which his doctrines were expounded in somewhat popular language. He also composed the several treatises (which will be mentioned below) on physics, metaphysics, and so forth, in which the exposition is more didactic and the language more technical than in the "Dialogues". These writings show to what good use he put the resources Alexander had provided for him. They show particularly how he succeeded in bringing together the works of his predecessors in Greek philosophy, and how he pursued, either personally or through others, his investigations in the realm of natural phenomena. Pliny claimed that Alexander placed under Aristotle's orders all the hunters, fishermen, and fowlers of the royal kingdom and all the overseers of the royal forests, lakes, ponds and cattle-ranges, and Aristotle's works on zoology make this statement more believeable. Aristotle was fully informed about the doctrines of his predecessors, and Strabo asserted that he was the first to accumulate a great library.

During the last years of Aristotle's life the relations between him and Alexander the Great became very strained, owing to the disgrace and punishment of Callisthenes whom Aristotle had recommended to Alexander. Nevertheless, Aristotle continued to be regarded at Athens as a friend of Alexander and a representative of Macedonia. Consequently, when Alexander's death became known in Athens, and the outbreak occurred which led to the Lamian war, Aristotle shared in the general unpopularity of the Macedonians. The charge of impiety, which had been brought against Anaxagoras and Socrates, was now, with even less reason, brought against Aristotle. He left the city, saying (according to many ancient authorities) that he would not give the Athenians a chance to sin a third time against philosophy. He took up residence at his country house at Chalcis, in Euboea, and there he died the following year, 322 BCE. His death was due to a disease from which he had long suffered. The story that his death was due to hemlock poisoning, as well as the legend that he threw himself into the sea "because he could not explain the tides," is without historical foundation.

Very little is known about Aristotle's personal appearance except from hostile sources. The statues and busts of Aristotle, possibly from the first years of the Peripatetic School, represent him as sharp and keen of countenance, and somewhat below the average height. His character (as revealed by his writings, his will (which is undoubtedly genuine), fragments of his letters and the allusions of his unprejudiced contemporaries) was that of a high-minded, kind-hearted man, devoted to his family and his friends, kind to his slaves, fair to his enemies and rivals, grateful towards his benefactors. When Platonism ceased to dominate the world of Christian speculation, and the works of Aristotle began to be studied without fear and prejudice, the personality of Aristotle appeared to the Christian writers of the 13th century, as it had to the unprejudiced pagan writers of his own day, as calm, majestic, untroubled by passion, and undimmed by any great moral defects, "the master of those who know".

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