Comparing Plato’s and Aristotle’s Philosophy

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Plato (c. 428-c. 348 BCE) and Aristotle (384- 322 BCE) are commonly regarded as two of the greatest figures of western philosophy. They formed democracy, defined philosophy for centuries, defined ethics, and created university principles that are still used today. Without them, the world would undoubtedly not be the same. It is interesting to consider what our world might be like had they not have been born. Would polytheism rule? Christianity may have never arisen from Israel and gained traction in Greece and Italy without Plato. Aristotle gave us the concept of formal logic and Plato’s definitions and concepts on mathematics are still being used today. While acknowledging the vast influence both of these thinkers have had on our society today, the aim of this essay is to compare and contrast Plato and Aristotle and to attempt to see which man has been more influential to us and our western democratic world.

For around 20 years Aristotle was Plato’s student and colleague at the Academy in Athens. The Academy was an institution for scientific, philosophical, and mathematical research founded by Plato. Although Aristotle highly respected his teacher, his own philosophy eventually departed from Plato’s. Plato’s philosophy tended to be more abstract and utopian, while his former student’s thought tended to be more empirical and practical. Nowadays we better know these two differing points of view as Idealism and Realism. This contrast in ideas can be easily seen in the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael’s painting of the School of Athens depicting a scene in which both philosophers are holding copies of their own dialogues with Plato pointing upward towards the heavens, and Aristotle pointing outward to the world. Aristotle might ask “How does it work?” while Plato would consider “Why does it exist at all?”

These are two differing world views that result in an epic debate. Plato believed that every human soul has the desire for a higher, purer, and more spiritual truth that will guide our lives and ultimately transform the world. This belief is what made him the sort of chief spokesperson for many religious mystics and believers in a supernatural reality in the western world. He believed that there are two worlds; one spiritual or mental world, which is eternal, orderly, permanent, and universal, and also the world of appearance, or the world experienced through sight, touch, smell, etc. This second world, according to Plato is changing, imperfect and disorderly. Plato’s division among these two worlds is often referred to as the duality of the mind and body. He believed that there was too much focus on the immediacy of the physical and sensory world. Plato described a utopian society in which “education to body and soul all the beauty and perfection are capable” as his ideal. For example, in his allegory of the cave, the shadows of the sensory world must be overcome with the light of reason and universal truth. (FIESER PAGE 48) To fully understand truth, one must pursue knowledge. In Plato’s idealism, the main focus of education is to discover and further develop an individual’s abilities and full moral excellence in order to better serve society.

Aristotle on the other hand, believed that the ultimate source of truth is found her in the material world, and our job is to not only understand, but also find our place in it. This belief is what led him to become the father of western science, technology, and logical linear thinking. Aristotle believed that reality exists independent of the human mind and that the ultimate reality is the world of physical objects. Truth is objective, and only is what can be observed. In this view of the world, the aim is to understand objective reality through “the diligent and unsparing scrutiny of all observable data.” In debatably Plato’s most famous work, The Republic, Plato uses a dialogue format in which he voices many of his philosophical views through the main character and his former teacher, Socrates.

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