February 20, 2014

Plato and Aristotle

Plato lived from 428/427 or 424/423 BCE  to 348/347 BCE. He was born and died in Athens, and reached 80. He was a student of Socrates, and started a school of philosophy, the Academy, when he was around 40. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was born in Stagirus, northern Greece. His father died when Aristotle was a child. At eighteen, he joined Plato’s Academy in Athens and remained there until he was 37. He then went to Lesbos, married, and had a daughter. In 343 BCE, he became the tutor of Alexander the Great. In 335 BCE, Aristotle returned to Athens and established his own school, known as the Lyceum.

Overview

Aristotle shared many of Plato’s basic assumptions. He believed with Plato in the primacy of reason, and that there is an intrinsic connection between politics and ethics. Both accepted the role of society in improving individuals through education. Plato and Aristotle agreed that humans can fulfill their nature only in a social context, but they had very different ideas about the best constitution for state and government. Aristotle criticized Plato’s political views mostly on empirical and practical grounds. He rejected Plato’s ideas for revolutionary change by observing that they are impracticable, and they cannot easily be reconciled with human nature as we know it. Aristotle attempted to correct Plato’s idealistic views by teaching adherence to the “golden mean;” a term borrowed from geometry that can be interpreted as a “middle way” in the recommendation of political arrangements.

  • Aristotle was born in Macedonia; he was not an Athenian and therefore not personally as affected by Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War, as Plato was.
  • Aristotle’s teacher was Plato, who lived a long and productive life. Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was condemned and executed.
  • Aristotle came from the middle class, while Plato was a member of the aristocracy.
  • Aristotle looks to biology as his model of learning, while Plato looks to mathematics.
  • Aristotle relies heavily on observation; he criticizes Plato for positing things without observable evidence (e.g., the transcendent Forms).
  • Aristotle resembles Plato, however, in viewing politics as closely related to ethics and in regarding the state as an agent of virtue.

Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s first wave of revolutionary change (i.e., access of qualified women to political rule).

  • According to Aristotle, observation shows that nature dictates a union of naturally ruling and ruled elements, for the preservation of both. The naturally ruling element has superior reason and forethought. The naturally ruled element should obey the ruling element. That hierarchy is evident throughout nature and it applies to political organization as well as family.
  • The human soul (psyche) has two elements, one that rules (i.e., reason) and one that is ruled. Nature dictates that order in the soul to allow for right behavior to follow.
  • Some humans are slaves by nature because they lack the capacity to reason.
  • Women must not be allowed to rule, since they lack rational capacity. In men, the rational element naturally rules, while in women it is present but usually ineffective. Women’s natural role is to serve the family as good wives and mothers but to stay out of the public sphere.
  • Aristotle claims that his defense of patriarchy rests on observation.

Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s second wave (i.e., the abolition of the nuclear family and private property, and their replacement with communal forms of extended family and common property among the rulers).

  • Aristotle rejects those reforms as impracticable. The institutions of the family and private property are rooted in nature.
  • Observation shows that men pay most attention to what is their own and neglect what is not their own. The sense of possession is natural and brings duty and obligation.
  • Aristotle sees the family as a natural institution that promotes civic virtue as well as mutual care among loved ones. Parents’ feelings of special attachment to their children are natural.
  • Aristotle also sees private property as a natural institution.
  • The impulse to own and cherish objects is natural, and efforts to eradicate private property are wrong and futile.
  • The project to abolish private property is characteristic of Plato’s extremism.
  • Aristotle suggests that property should be possessed in moderation and should be put to public use whenever possible. Charity is possible only under a regime of private property.

Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s third wave (i.e., the permanent rule of philosophers, which unites political power with wisdom).

  • Aristotle believes that it is dangerous to concentrate power in the hands of an elite; that concentration will breed discontent and dissension.
  • The best practical constitution for most states is rule by the middle class.
  • The middle class embodies moderation because it constitutes the mean between rich and poor. Because it possesses a stake in the property system, the middle class is likely to follow moderation and eschew radical change.
  • Because it practices moderation and avoids extremes, the middle class is more likely than either the rich or the poor to be guided by reason.
  • Those qualified for rule must therefore be male, own property, and be literate (or at least have modest education). The middle-class rule will then confer stability and rational control.

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Ancient Philosophy, Philosophy, Political Theory

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