Two Geographers' Tale of His Life and Works

Aristotle was born in 384 B.C. In the small town of Stagira in northern Greece. His father, Nichomachus, personal physician of King Amyntas II of Macedonia, is credited with interesting Aristotle in physical science. His parents both died when Aristotle was a boy and he became the ward of Proxenus, a relation whose son, Nicanor, he later adopted. When Aristotle was eighteen he entered the Academy, Plato's school in Athens,where he stayed for almost twenty years. Although they had their differences, Plato called Aristotle the "reader par excellance" and "the mind of the school". Upon Plato's death in 347 B.C. Aristotle accepted an invitation from a former student of the Academy, Hermeias, to join a group of Plato's followers. Hermeias had risen from slavery to be ruler of Atarneus and Assos in Asia Minor. Aristotle remained with this group for three years, during which time he married Pythias, the adopted daughter of Hermeias. After this time, Aristotle moved to the island of Lesbos where he conducted empirical research of marine biology.

Approximately 343 B.C. King Philip II of Macedonia (son of Amyntas II) invited Aristotle to tutor his son, Alexander, then thirteen years old. Alexander, later to be known as Alexander the Great, studied under Aristotle until 336 B.C., when he become king of Macedonia after his father's assassination. Soon after Philip's death, Aristotle returned to Athens, rented some buildings and started a school which he called Lyceum. Along with his research of science, logic and philosophy, Aristotle also collected hundreds of manuscripts, many maps and a museum of objects to illustrate his lectures, particularly on natural history.

Upon the death of Alexander in 323 B.C. Athens became a center on anti Macedonia feeling. Aristotle was accused of impiety (lack of reverence for the gods) based on a hymn and epitaph he had written about Hermeias. A similar charge had been leveled against Socrates in 399 B.C. Determined that the Athenians not 'sin twice against philosophy', Aristotle fled to Chalcis, where he died a year later.

Aristotle's Influence on Geographic Thought

Of all of the ancients, none has had a more enduring impact, in both positive and negative senses, than that of Aristotle. One of the most significant and positive contribution was Artistotle's scientific method. Predecessors, including Aristotle's teacher, Plato, had used deductive reasoning to prove (or disprove) natural phenomena; that is, they made generalizations about a particular event or occurrence and then applied that generalization to all such events or occurrences. Aristotle, on the other hand, used inductive reasoning to explain physical phenomena that is still being used in scientific circles today. That is, he researched the particulars of a given phenomena and then made generalizations based upon them. His method was fourfold: (1) Characterize descriptions of nature; (2) Determine specific matter; (3) Investigate causation; and (4) Conclude with a purpose of the phenomena.

Correctly, Aristotle conceived the idea that the earth and its environs were in a constant state of change, but erroneously concluded these changes would lead to a final perfect state. These diametric ideas would pervade Western culture and the scientific community until well after the Renaissance. The importance of this paradigm cannot be overstated. Example beliefs will follow; however, in fairness, the scientific method must be emphasized, as well.

Geographically speaking, Aristotle is probably best known for "Meteorolgica", in which the conception of the "oikumene", or zones of habitable world, through the orderly arrangement and distribution of flora and fauna is observed in the natural world. Aristotle concluded that these distributions were latitudinally oriented. Latitude, then, became the basis for temperature. Based on his observations, the most hospitable of these zones were the mid-latitude regions. (Coincidentally, these zones offered the best living conditions for Greeks, too.) Similarly, he reasoned that the opposite areas of the mid-latitudes, namely the equatorial and polar zones, were the least hospitable to sustain life.

In connection with this orderly arrangement of life, reasoned Aristotle, follow an orderly change in, on and above the earth in response to its maturity and age. The world was not regressing into disarray with age, as Pythagorians believed; rather, it was progressing toward a perfect state. Rivers, such as the case in Egypt, will disappear only to resurrect themselves to a final state of perfection.

He was instrumental in defining five elements of physical geography (in ascending order of importance): earth, water, air, fire, and aether. These elements were proposed because observations proved there was fire in lightning, comets and meteor showers; air responded to temperature (fire) and moisture (water); a mass of earth and sea was inhabited by all living things; and aether, a perfect substance, directed the final purpose of all of the other four.

Furthermore, Aristotle understood the dynamics behind precipitation. Low pressure was needed for the development of clouds, condensation and rain. However, volcanic activity and earthquakes were caused by the wind. Exhalations were considered to be both moist and dry. Dry, increased wind velocity caused inhalations to flow into the earth's crust. Aristotle reasoned this is why earthquakes occur during calm weather. The earth is hollow and porous; these winds became constricted below the earth's surface which, in turn, produced volcanic eruptions. Noises of wind movement caused earthquake activity.

The city-state orientation was an eastern one; this was so that the residents of eastern slopes could receive the sunrise's believed healthier sea breezes. This eastern orientation also created milder winters; easy access for the escape of its residents in case they were militarily besieged; and plenty of downslope fresh water would be available to its residents, would this occur. Interestingly, he felt that a hill site for a city would be best if the government was oligarchic but democracy best served was located on a level plain.

Aristotle had working knowledge to the extent of Greek understanding of maps of the time. The Mediterranean opened at the "Pillars of Hercules", (Gibraltar); the Indian Ocean lies south of Persia; the Red Sea surrounded Africa on the east; the Caspian was the northeastern and the British Isles were the northwestern extent of this knowledge, respectively.

Aristotle is also considered to be one of the great "geographers" because he left such a dynamic legacy. Part of his legacy, a school, the Lyceum, lasted well after his death. Among his most famous students was Alexander the Great, who furthered geographic studies through conquests of the "known" world. The administration of these conquered states, too, is a legacy of Aristotle. His philosophy indicates that he thought all men should be treated like brothers. This, in turn, probably guided Alexander in his administrative capacity to deal generously with vanquished states. The emphasis on Greek political thought, too has not only greatly influenced and shaped the ancient Western world (the Romans would later borrow many of these same ideas), but they have also been integrated into modern democracies and have influenced relationships among nations.

Succeeding ancient geographers who were influenced by Aristotle include: Erastosthenes, Posidonus and, later, Strabo. Erastosthenes, chief librarian of Alexandria, and whose main contribution was calculating the earth's circumference accurately, was also a student of the Lyceum. He improved on Aristotle's "oikumene", the zones of habitation, by conceiving actual lines of latitude dividing these zones. Likewise, Posidinus' contributed a calculation of the earth's circumference (at a much smaller rate than Erastosthenes), but not as memorable, contributed by refuting Aristotle's "oikumene". While Aristotle conceived that the torrid zone was at the equator, Posidinus determined that it was, indeed, the zone immediately north and south of the equatorial zone--the subtropics, where more inhospitable conditions existed. Strabo, the Roman geographer, on the other hand, became critical (jealous?) of Aristotelian geographers. He felt that they were copying Aristotle's scientific method, instead of presenting new explanations for phenomena; mimicry is the greatest form of flattery.

Another contribution of Aristotle included a belief in a geocentric universe. It wouldn't be until much later that Copernicus would refute Aristotle's claim of a geocentric universe; the sun was the center of our solar system. However, belief in a geocentric universe not only persisted beyond the millennia, medieval Western religion proported it as dogma. As geography grew into its classical phase with German geographers of the mid-nineteenth century, von Humboldt and Ritter harkened to Aristotle's inductive methods to prove phenomena in their respective studies. One can only speculate, too, if Davis' Theory of Geomorphology was influenced by Aristotle's observation on the final state of perfection achieved by the Nile River. And so, too, today the study of physical geography, filled with all its fact and fallacy, as well as other physical sciences, owes its methodology to Aristotle.


Aristotle's Life
Ross, Sir David. 1964. "Aristotle". pp. 1-7 University Paperbacks, 5th edition, revised. Barnes and Noble, Inc., New York, New York.

Ackrill, J. L. 1981. "Aristotle the Philosopher". Pp 1-6 Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, Toronto, Melbourne

Aristotle's Geographic Contributions
Kish, Geogre. 1978. "A Source Book in Geography", pp. 31-43. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press

Martin, Geoffrey J. And Preston E. James. 1993. "All Possible Worlds" A History of Geographical Ideas", 3rd ed. Pp 14, 26-28, 33, 35, 37-38. New York, NY. John Wiley and Sons, publishers

Further Reading
For those with the curiosity and fortitude to tackle the treatises of Aristotle, the following is a small list of his works. All are English translations. A more throrough list can be found in either of the two books listed under 'Aristotle's Life'.

Philosophy of Nature
text, translation and commentary, W. D. Ross. Oxford, 1936

Meteorologica: text, translation and notes, H. D. P. Lee. London and Cambridge, Mass. 1952

De partibus animalium ('On the Parts of Animals): translation with philosophical notes, D. M. Balme. Clarendon Aristotle series. Oxford. 1972

Metaphysics (meta,systematic ordering; physics, the philosophy of nature)
Metaphysics: translated by W. D. Ross, Oxford Aristotle, vol. VIII), 1924.
Chapter-by-chapter analyses.

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