Critical Essays Aristotle's Works


Unlike the dialogues of Plato, none of Aristotle's surviving works are noted for their literary craftsmanship, and, with the exception of the Constitution of Athens, were never intended for publication in their present form. In ancient times, when his published works were still in existence, however, Aristotle had a solid reputation as a literary stylist, attested by such authorities as Cicero and Quintillian.

When Aristotle died, his library, including all his notes, the rough drafts of his lectures, and copies of his lectures made by students, were inherited by Theophrastus, who in turn left them to his own heir. The papers were taken to Asia Minor for safekeeping and stored for many years in a damp basement where they were soon forgotten. They were rediscovered around 100 B.C. and sold to a collector of old books who took them to Athens, where they were confiscated and sent to Rome after the city fell to Sulla's legions in 86 B.C.

Aristotle's papers, by this time badly disorganized and deteriorated, now came into the hands of librarians and scholars in Rome, who edited them in a rather haphazard fashion, occasionally filling in gaps with their own words. A hastily copied and error-laden pirated edition of the text quickly went into circulation. A more authoritative edition was prepared a few years later and published around 70 B.C. Since even the Lyceum had no definitive version of Aristotle's teachings and he had been most widely known until then for Platonist dialogues and general works written on a semi-popular level, these newly published texts had a tremendous intellectual impact and led to a revival of interest in Aristotelian philosophy. His works were widely studied and carefully preserved from then on.

In ancient times Aristotle was said to have written several hundred books and treatises on a wide variety of subjects. The titles of slightly more than 200 of these are still known, but some seem to have been duplications. Others were probably not genuine and may have been written by his successors at the Lyceum. The present corpus of Aristotelian works, most of which derive from the manuscripts brought to Rome in 86 B.C., comprises 47 long and short treatises, about 20 of which are spurious, as well as a large number of fragments that appeared as extracts or references in the works of other ancient writers.

The following descriptive list, which includes most of the works considered to be genuine, illustrates the broad scope of Aristotle's interests and shows how he laid the groundwork for later research and speculation in many different fields.

Works on Logic

These Works are known collectively as the Organon or "tool" because they deal with methodology, the tool of research.

  • The Categories, a treatise on the fundamental classification of ideas, particularly isolated and uncombined terms.
  • On Interpretation, a treatise on philosophical terminology in general, with emphasis on the theory and analysis of propositions used to show relations between concepts.
  • Prior Analytics, 2 books on the laws of syllogistic reasoning and the proper use of the syllogism.
  • Posterior Analytics, 2 books on methods of demonstration and definition.
  • The Topics, 8 books on dialectical inferences, probability, and the use of the syllogism.
  • On Sophistical Refutations, a treatise on the solution of Sophist fallacies and the refutation of false syllogisms.

Works on Natural Science

  • Physics, 8 books on the general bases and relations of nature as a whole, containing discussions of movement and change, place, time, motion, the transformation of potentiality into actuality, etc.
  • On the Heavens, 2 books on the heavenly and sublunary bodies.
  • On Generation and Decay, 2 books on the cyclical sequence of transformations.
  • On Meteorology, 4 books on the phenomena of the air, with some discussion of chemistry and physics.

Works on Biology

  • History of Animals, 10 books containing a classified collection of facts pertaining to the anatomy of organisms, with particular emphasis on morphology (the branch of biological science concerning form and structure without regard for function).
  • On the Parts of Animals, 4 books on physiology.
  • On the Motion of Animals.
  • On the Progression of Animals, 1 book on the mechanical aspects of physiology.
  • On the Generation of Animals, 5 books on embryology and reproduction.

Works on Psychology

  • On the Soul, 3 books on the nature, functions, and elements of the soul, considered to be the foundation of all modern psychological studies.
  • A collection of 9 treatises on specific areas of psychological investigation, collectively known as the Parva Naturalia, and including such works as: On Sense Perception, On Memory and Recollection, On Sleep, On Dreams.

Works on Metaphysics

  • Metaphysics, 14 books on what Aristotle called "first philosophy," the study of absolute being, dealing with such things as being in itself and the ultimate grounds of being, the relation of matter and form, causation (material, formal, efficient, and final causes), and the Prime Mover.

Works on Ethics

  • Nicomachean Ethics.
  • Eudemian Ethics, 7 books, 3 of which are almost identical with books of the Nicomachean Ethics, and which is evidently an earlier and less comprehensive treatment of the same subject.
  • Magna Moralia, an abstract in 2 books of the other works on ethics, which contains some Stoic elements and is therefore thought to be at least partly spurious.

Works on Political Science

  • Politics, 8 books on the origins, purpose, and elements of the state, the various kinds of constitutions, ideal education, and related topics.
  • The Constitution of Athens, a treatise covering the history and political development of the Athenian state to about 328 B.C. This is the only surviving work from a collection of 158 Greek and non-Greek constitutions made at the Lyceum during Aristotle's lifetime, discovered by chance in Egypt in 1890, and is the only known text actually prepared by him for publication.

Works on Aesthetics

  • On Rhetoric, a treatise on public speaking and means of persuasion, with emphasis on logic, psychology, and ethics.
  • The Poetics, a treatise on the art of poetry which does not survive in full, but contains a valuable and comprehensive discussion of Greek tragedy.