On Plato and Aristotle

This was originally written as final paper in partial fulfillment to the requirements of PHIL 2013. Semester II, SY 2012-2013.

Plato, Aristotle: Ancestors.

This literature would attempt to compare the Greek heavyweights in Plato and Aristotle—some two, if not the only, seminal philosophical figures in the Western canon. It is submitted at the outset that the two have their essentially great similarities.

The circumstances under which Plato and Aristotle ‘philosophized’ has not to be taken for granted: Antiquity.[1] They flourished at a time when a particular species of objectivity were ‘called for’—legitimized, so to speak—by the suffused issues of the day, many of which partake a narrative of a certain kind of subjectivity.[2]  The sophistic tradition, characterized by a rather non-stable and fluid argumentation, paved way for its very archnemesis, that is to say: for an organized systematic alternative.[3] In Plato and Aristotle the Socratic ‘rationalizing’ approach reached its heyday, but merely as a perfect response to the demands of the times.

‘The most imperishable contribution of the Greeks to western civilization lies in the taming of man and nature through reason.’[4] Both Plato’s and Aristotle’s thought were imbued with the assumption that man’s (the subject inquirer) intellectual faculties can unravel many of the good, perverted, desireable, ideal(s) and real(s); in a word, a certain ‘naturality’ in the phenomenon of things (as object observed)[5] This kind of idiosyncrasy has been predominant in the Western canon, heretofore. Both Plato and Aristotle, therefore, had put into the intellectual pedestal the technique of speculation.

In the affairs of man, a type of meritocracy, or an inclination to the superior class, is present in both the political speculations of Plato’s and Aristotle’s, in the Republic and in the Politics, respectively.

. . . Unless either philosphers become kings in their countries or those who are now called kings and rulers come to be sufficiently inspired with a genuine desire for wisdom;  unless, that is to say, political power and philosophy meet together . . . there can be no rest for troubles . . . for states, nor yet, as I believe for all mankind. . . .[6] 

Plato, in such a citation appears to have clearly vouched for an elated rational criteria in choosing, determining, those who ought to head the multitude. And similarly as in the case of Aristotle’s in his literature, but with some noticeable overtones about hierarchy.

. . . For that which can foresee by the exercise of mind is by nature intended to be lord and master, and that which can with its body give effect to such foresight is a subject, and by nature a slave; hence master and slave have the same interest. . .[7] 

Both of them, emphatically, are ancestors of the merit to be cast on the faculty of reason.[8] But right at the heart where the two intellectual heavyweights converge, fluctuates the very blood where they irreconcilably diverge; the domain where they harmoniously protagonized is the arena where they violently antagonizes.

Plato, “deeply concerned about practical affairs as he was, nevertheless often went beyond the analysis of what does happen, or is likely to happen, and let himself be carried off into the realm of the Ought. Looking into what may or ought to develop in the future, one is more likely to think in terms of the absolute and perfect, because the imagination of the future is pure idea, unmodified by that relentless relativist and compromiser—experience”[9] Quite corrective to this would be Aristotle’s belief that: “the best is often unattainable,” which in turn led to a qualified refutal of Platos’ Ought ideal, that is to say, to an appreciation of not only “that which is best in the abstract, but also of that which is best relative to the circumstances . . . what is possible and what is easily attainable by all.” These apparently conflicting views have been catalogued, as it were, Platonic Idealism vis-à-vis Aristotelian Relativism.

The idealist philosophy put forward by Plato is also to be found in the conception of his moral philosophy. Plato’s ethical theory revolves around the question, “What is the good life?” This is in accordance with the Socratic philosophy ‘Virtue is Knowledge’ that is, to know the good is to do the good. For Plato, the highest and happiest kind of living is best exemplified through the use of reason. He maintains that knowledge provides the individual with the fundamental precept upon which his passion and appetite must conform. Such harmony of the three distinct faculties of man namely reason, passion and appetite equates to the Platonic conception of justice. The ideal system of Plato’s ethical theory is buttressed by two essential pillars: the doctrine of teleology and the theory of the Forms. The doctrine of teleology states that everything in the universe is pre-determined and has in them an inherent purpose. On the other hand, the theory of the Forms constitutes the total-aggregate of each and all the concepts and ideas as manifested in the material world. Each is the relentless corroborate of the other. Simply put, the core of Plato’s philosophical thought clearly illustrates the poignant picture of idealistic credo.[10] 

Whilst the Platonic notion of the Good as embedded in his ethical philosophy clearly reflects the other-worldly realm of the ‘Forms’ which is separate from the world of experience and upon which the concepts of the good, the true and the beautiful find their humble origins, Plato’s counterpart, Aristotle, on the other hand, took on a different conduit in his moral philosophy.

Aristotle’s theory of morality centered  around his belief that people, like everything else in nature, have a distinct end to achieve and a function to fulfill[11] This belief is evidently manifested in the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics:

“Every human activity aims at some end that we consider good. The highest ends are ends in themselves, while subordinate ends may only be means to higher ends. Those highest ends, which we pursue for their own sake, must be the supreme Good.”

Aristotle emphasized that human actions should aim at its proper end, this ‘end’ he believed as eudaemonia. Happiness, for Aristotle, resembles the good in the strictest sense that like the good, happiness is the meticulous fulfillment of our functions as human beings.

Moreover, the principles of good and right, Aristotle maintained, is not to be found in some heavenly realm unconnected to the senses but rather is inherent in every individual. These principles are situated right at the very core of human nature and could be attained through the actual exercise of these very virtues.

Characteristic of Aristotle’s moral philosophy is his contention of the virtue as the Golden Mean. Aristotle held that human actions are susceptible to vary from too much to too little. The proper course of action is what Aristotle defined as the middle ground or mean between excess and deficiency. This is where his distinct conception of moderation takes its highest applause. Aristotle believed that every human action must be limited to only a considerate amount, not exceeding the middle ground. Example of this is eating. Too much eating results to gluttony as too little results to malnutrition. The same goes for courage. Too much courage gives birth to rashness as too little of it equates to cowardice.

Although Aristotle’s theory of the Golden Mean is somewhat practical and less ideal than that of his teacher, Plato, it is however problematic as Aristotle did not provide a yardstick upon which the act could be measured. It is, nevertheless, an innovation in the Greek Antiquity moral thought as it provided another alternative other than that of the unshakeable proposition put forth by the one considered god of Western world, Plato.

In summary whereof, both of the two intellectual giants, it may be said, have bequeathed the canon of thought with the inherent penchant to incline towards the faith in reason. And that is immortality, a type of which remains formidable, to date. However, at the core of their intellectual harmony (themselves physically confined within their respective Antique context) was an irreconcilable particular which severs their guru-pupil, student-professor relationship. That is, Aristotle’s sanction for that which is rather imperfect.

“Unlike Plato, who conceives of reality in terms of unchanging and static essences and Ideas, Aristotle identifies the nature of a thing with the end toward which it is developing; at each unfinished stage, the thing is partly realizing its own nature and is fully itself when its end is wholly realized. Aristotle’s biological, scientific, and historical interests enabled him to view the philosophical problem of reality from a more dynamic and relative standpoint than Plato’s, and Aristotle’s conceptions encompasses a wider range, a varying blends of idea and circumstance, of the perfect and the imperfect.”[12] 

With pains to provide a conclusion, for purposes of reflection at least, it would be remarkable that in our day and age, a juncture which is post-industrially  ‘consumptive’ in the language of Lyotard’s, and yet ‘discontented’ in the discourse of Freud’s—but of which is ‘a time like any other’[13] —it is of honor and pride that the history of thought had been ignited in a fashion that is rather polemically-provocative rather than tyrannically religious. Plato and Aristotle deserves an attention, more than ever before insofar as their paragon for passion, virtue and mental activity is concerned; historical recognition, morever; for theirs is the impetus from which the objective trajectory has been sparked, ignited. Even Nietzsche’s never did recklessly eschewed their seminality—

. . .the fight against Plato or, to speak more clearly and for ‘the people,’ the fight against the Christian-ecclesiastical pressure of millennia—for Christianity is Platonism for ‘the people’—has created in Europe a magnificent tension of the spirit the like of which had never yet existed on earth: with so tense a bow we can now shoot for the most distant goals. [14] 

[1]  “It was a time of political unrest, of war, and of spiritual malaise; Greek civilization was beginning to decline and pass away.” [cited: Hallowell and Porter (1997). Political Philosophy: The search for humanity and order. Canada: Prentice-Hall, Inc. p. 7.]

[2] As one local commentator notes: “In the fifth century B.C., the Sophists natives of Greece taught doctrines which denied all objective truth.” [from: Coquia, Jorge R. (2005), in Readings in Legal Philosophy and Theory: Text and comments from Plato to McDougal. Quezon City: Rex Printing Company, Inc. p. 3.]

[3] “Plato’s interest in politics was awakened, in part, by the theory of politics taught by the Sophists.” [cited: Meier, Christian (1990). The Greek Discovery of Politics, trans. David McLintock. Camridge: Harvard University Press].

[4] Ebenstein, William and Ebenstein, Alan (2000). Great Political Thinkers: From Plato to the Present, 6th Edition. Hardcourt College Publishers: Pennsylvania. p. 19.

[5] “Long before Plato thought, controversy had arisen whether justice was natural or conventional. The sophists generally taught that human beings are naturally predisposed to seek power and to satisfy their desires, and that justice is simply that which a community agrees to call justice.” [cited: Hallowell and Porter (1997). Political Philosophy: The search for humanity and order. Canada: Prentice-Hall, Inc. p. 5.]

[6] excerpted from Plato’s The Republic; character ‘Socrates’ speaks to ‘Glaucon,’ about the idea ‘philosopher-king.’

[7] culled from Aristotle’s Politics; Aristotle explicates about the ‘nature and origin’ of the state.

[8] Karl Marx (1845), it is to be remembered, in his “Eleven Theses on Feuerbach” obliquely noted that ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world (in various ways),’ but that the point is to change it.’

[9] Ebenstein, William and Ebenstein, Alan (2000). Great Political Thinkers: From Plato to the Present, 6th Edition. Hardcourt College Publishers: Pennsylvania. p. 19.

[10] excerpted from a preceeding undergraduate essay A Reflection Paper on Plato’s Ethical Theory, submitted on 17 July 2012 for PHIL 1043.

[11] Stumpf & Fieser (2008). Socrates to Satre: A History of Philosophy. McGraw Hill Company, New York, p. 82-86.

[12] Ebenstein and Ebenstein, Alan (2000). Great Political Thinkers: From Plato to the Present, 6th Edition. Hardcourt College Publishers: Pennsylvania. p. 77.

[13] “The task of philosophy is to describe the nature of today, and of “ourselves today.” With the proviso that we do not allow ourselves the facile, rather theatrical declaration that this moment in which we exist is one of total perdition, in the abyss of darkness, or a triumphant daybreak, and so on. It is a time like any other, or rather, a time that is never quite like any other.” [quoted Michel Foucault, in Structuralism and Poststructuralism]

[14] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Preface to Beyond Good and Evil: A prelude to a philosophy of the future. (1886).


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