There is in fact quite a romantic story to be told about Aristotle’s texts. When he died (322 BC), his library and the treatises were all left to a character called Neleus; he was the son of a good and long-standing friend. The texts went to his house in Crete, and apparently were left in the loft, or perhaps it was a cellar. They were ignored. The school that he had founded in Athens (the peripatetics) continued the tradition of working and teaching and lecturing but seems not to have had Aristotle’s actual texts. The works weren’t actually recovered until 80 BC, about 250 years later.
Aristotle was never as influential as Plato in classical times. That part of Aristotle’s work which is called the Organon, which is essentially the logic, was fairly widely read and studied. It was translated into Latin by Boethius in about 500 AD. In the west, Aristotle was known by this translation and nothing else. At this time, Plato became the orthodox philosopher of the Christian church, thanks to St. Augustine. By 800 AD, Islam had conquered Syria, and it was in Syria that the tradition of Aristotle was best preserved. When this tradition was picked up, starting with the medical work, but including Aristotle’s physics, metaphysics and psychology, his works spread all over the Islamic world, all over the middle east and North Africa. Here there was intense study of Aristotle and some important developments as well. Western Europe was still just reading the first few books of the logic translated into Latin – though the other books on logic were gradually introduced.
At about this time, westerners started applying Aristotelian logic to the doctrine of transubstantiation, with interesting results. Gradually, from 1070 AD, the difference between the Platonic Forms and the Aristotelian substance became the critical dividing point in theology.
Now, from 1198 AD the other writings of Aristotle began to come into universities in Christian Europe. They came in some very strange ways. For example, some of them were introduced as Latin translations of Hebrew translations of Arabic expositions of the doctrines. These Arabic accounts were derived from Syriat translations of the original Greeks. There were people who became impatient with this, and when Constantinople was taken by the Christians during the fourth crusade (1204 AD), people from Western Europe started going there, learning Greek and recovering the original texts. This underpins the work of Thomas Aquinas.
Just as Augustine reconciled Plato with Christian doctrine so Aquinas tried to reconcile Aristotle with Christian doctrine. His work was extremely contentious. Eventually, though, his work was accepted and many people still regard it as the foundation of Roman Catholic doctrine. Fifty years after his death in 1274 he became known as the Doctor (Teacher) of the Church.
By 1300, Aristotle was ‘the master of those who know’ and there was huge excitement in Western Europe. Many people were learning ancient Greek, because it was felt that learning Greek was the way to get back to the source and origin of philosophy. Gradually, the trickle of Greek texts (and Greek scholars) into Western Europe became a flood and an important part of the Renaissance. The end of this phase is marked by Constantinople becoming the capital of the Ottoman Empire in 1453.
By 1500 AD you have the reformation and the new science, which involve rejection of the tradition – which meant Aristotle. It’s extraordinary how in 1300 AD rediscovery of his thought can stimulate a new and revolutionary movement, and two hundred years later he’s part of a boring old tradition which everybody wants to kick out. In one way, they were indeed rejecting Aristotle; but in many ways, they were pursuing Aristotelian goals and values. Interest in the ethics survived, however, into the 17th century. It wasn’t until the 19th century that a serious interest in Aristotle was revived as part of the new, more scholarly study of the classics that continues to-day.