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Plato and Aristotle: a short narrative on how they saw the world

School of Athens, plato and aristotle

In Raphael’s School of Athens, a painting that celebrates not only classical thought, but also the liberal arts, symbolized by the statues of Apollo and Minerva. Grammar, and Arithmetic, there are two key figures central to philosophical thought, Plato and Aristotle. Plato (427-347 B.C.E), for obvious reasons, points toward the heavens; whereas, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E) motions his hand toward the earth. The significance with how Raphael choice to paint these two key figures has much to do with how each of them regarded the world. For Plato, his hand pointed upward, the space separate from the physical world and into an ideal realm of Forms, “of which the things we see are imperfect copies or approximations” (Gottlieb, pg.170). This realm, of course, according to Plato, could only be fully realized by the awakened, the true philosophers. This ideal of a transcendent reality is more commonly connected to the term “Platonism,” especially among mathematicians in their attempt to “describe the nature of mathematical objects (such as numbers) or of mathematical truth” (Gottlieb, pg.170), a concept accessible only through intellectual thought. Plato’s theory of Ideal Forms continued to develop and evolve through much of his career, and some have speculated that towards the end of his life he had abandoned the theory altogether; however, it remains important for us to remember the objective of the theory itself, which was, the idea of being able to purify the soul through pure rational contemplation on a fixed reality beyond our ever changing physical world. Without the Forms, according to Plato, “the [physical] world would be too messy to make sense of” (Gottlieb, pg.171) because the two are in relationship with one another. According to Plato, when we are able to understand the ambiguous physical world with their Ideal Forms, then the unintelligible becomes lucid. One of the most interesting notions regarding Plato’s theory is his belief that people are born with an inherent knowledge of Forms and through birth, we’ve simply forgotten. Therefore, through a rational dialectic pursuit, we can be “reminded” of what we have lost.

With Aristotle, we see in the painting that he stands beside his old teacher, but instead of pointing up, he levels his hand, gesturing toward the ground. Raphael painted Aristotle in this way to illuminate how “the master of those who know” believed the world could be understood through natural explanations. Why? First, to be clear, in understanding why Aristotle differed so much from his teachers Ideal Forms, Aristotle was foremost a marine biologist. That is to say, as much as we can estimate, Aristotle’s true passion was in understanding the world through physical observation, as Aristotle had spent most of his time observing the biology of various specimens, especially marine life. For Aristotle, the only way to understand nature was by asking the right kinds of questions. Basically, again according to Aristotle, there are four main things, or causes, one should ask. “First, what is it made of (material)? Second, what is its form, [not Plato’s transcendent Forms; but rather, the physical form]? Third, what purpose does it serve [what is its efficiency, what sets it in motion]? And lastly, what made it come into being or made it change, [the telos; the reason why it’s here]? By tackling these four causes, one could move past the Democritus-esk ignorance of purpose, because without understanding purpose how can we understand the very object we are investigating? One could say, even Plato valued the notion of “final causes;” however, Plato too often found himself tangled in his own web of understanding the physical world by understanding the “non-physical entity that is separate from any particular…thing” (Gottlieb, pg.230). Basically, Plato contemplated the material of a bed by contemplating the Form (transcendent image) of the bed. Aristotle was way too down-to-earth to accept this kind of abstract sentimentality from his old mentor who saw beauty in “unrealized, unworldly things;” whereas, “Aristotle saw [beauty] all around him” (pg.233). The form of something, for Aristotle, was not a ghostly separate entity, but something “somehow twinned [deep] within it” (pg.230).

The differences between these two great thinkers did not stop with how we understand the world; Plato and Aristotle also had differing views with how the world develops and maintains an ideal society. With Plato, we learn his views from his epic work, The Republic, which, through the mouth piece of Socrates and Thrasymachus, at first glance can seem dangerously similar to modern fascism, especially considering the characters remarks regarding democracy, which was stated basically that the “love of freedom will snowball [and] the citizens will become ‘so sensitive that they chafe at the slightest suggestion of servitude and will not endure it’… [Thus] democracy leads to destructive chaos…The naturally pushy and corrupt members of society will thrive and elbow themselves into prominence…masquerading as loyal servants of the people” (Gottlieb, pgs.196-197); however, as author Gottlieb has noted, we have to first understand Plato’s objective. Plato’s objective, according to Gottlieb, was not to define the function of state; rather, the differing relationship between city and soul in relation of justice (just action) and happiness, which can only be attained equally through “the rule of reason” (Gottlieb, pg.201).

Plato understood that “utopia” could not exist in the ideal “civic apparatus,” which is why he developed the “noble lie” to help construct a government for those who could not govern themselves. The “noble lie” is basically a structured formation of society where the lower echelons (the bronze) are made up of average everyday men and women, who deal with trade and merchant craft. The bronze are ordinary folk ruled by their appetites (basic needs), which are the culmination of a good and comfortable life. According to Plato, the bronze are naturally made to be governed and should be taught from early age the virtue of obedience. A step higher from the bronze are the folks Plato described to have “silver” twinned with their souls. These people are motivated by honor and want to be recognized for their rigorous militaristic life. The silver echelons, according to Plato, should be taught obedience, which ought to work side by side with their desire for courageous acts. And higher still, a small minority of folks, called the “guardians,” are considered to have gold entwined with their soul. This upper echelon, according to Plato, is obedient, courageous, and also has reason and wisdom. They should be taught the philosophical discipline of dialectic and should also be prohibited to govern until they reach the age of fifty. Why? Similar to our own standards for presidency, the age limit set by Plato was to ensure that the guardian was able to see and apply the eternal transcendent Forms of nature and goodness. A guardian could only achieve guardianship through means of living a full philosopher-king life; essentially, an experienced life.

Aristotle, on the other hand, had differing opinions regarding the ideal form of society; whereas, the ideal society can only be achieved by developing the ideal individual. People, according to Aristotle in his work, Nicomachean Ethics, are rational social beings with an inherent desire to live in community with others. However, again according to Aristotle, to live within a community one must live within certain proximity of moral codes (or virtues, dealing with emotion in a rational way), which are: courage, justice, generosity, and temperance. Courage and justice ought to be self-explanatory; though, we should probably expand what Aristotle meant with generosity and temperance as these terminologies have somewhat changed over the years. Generosity is basically the moral virtue of being a balanced person, generous both monetarily and with time, but also emotionally. Temperance was meant as its most basic definition, which is self-control. For Aristotle, “life is too complicated to navigate by means of just a list of Dos and Don’ts” (Gottlieb, pg.263), and so did not see much value with understanding Plato’s abstract nature of “good.” Ethical issues played second fiddle to Plato’s assumption in the responsibility of the “guardians,” which was basically to somehow “get hold of the Form of Good” (pg.263). Aristotle’s objection to his old mentors abstract transcendent funky notion of obtaining the “good” by contemplating the higher Form of said Good and so forth, has much to do with the kind of man Aristotle was. Aristotle was a biologist. For Aristotle, understanding the happiness (or eudaimonia) of humanity was in understanding the function (or aim, purpose) of humanity in the same way he understood the function of everything else in nature.

According to Aristotle, folks tend to take the side of two extremes. Some believe that the aim of life is pleasure, [while others] identify it with honours and reputation” (Gottlieb, pg.265). Neither expresses a balanced virtuous life. Unlike Plato’s idea that people are born with knowledge of Forms, Aristotle understood that “the moral virtues are neither innate nor unnatural” (Gottlieb, pg.268). Virtue must be learned overtime and practice until it becomes habitual. There really is no better example for this than watching a toddler denied something that gives her pleasure. For Aristotle, people are responsible for their own actions and habits they allow themselves to become accustom to. The aim of virtue is to “steer a middle course between [morality and vice]” (pg.268), basically, too much courage and you would be considered foolhardy; too little, cowardice. Again, there are no predetermined formulas that would work for every single person; everyone must know themselves, know which way to pull the reins, so to speak, (also known as the Golden Ratio) between whatever quality you are seeking to develop. Know yourself, be honest with yourself, says Aristotle.

When comparing the way Plato and Aristotle understood how the world should be, we see precise swings of the pendulum. Aristotle wanted the individual to know themselves, to develop themselves from the inside out, thus making them a functioning eudemonic member of society; however, Plato dismissed the happiness of the individual almost completely in favor of the happiness of the whole. Aristotle simply could not accept this abstract notion of the whole. Understanding the whole, for Aristotle, must begin with understanding the single individual, much in the way he understood everything else in nature; that is to say, you cannot fully understand the nature of a seagull by looking at the flock of seagulls; but rather, the biological function of a single seagull. Plato believed happiness (if there is such a thing) could be obtained when folks accepted their prescribed roles in society; whereas, Aristotle believed people should know their function and to live a life balanced between the “narrow course [of] buffoonery and boorishness” (Gottlieb, pg.269).

Anthony Gottlieb. The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, W. W. Norton & Company, January 22, 2001.

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