To effectively study the political philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, a deep analysis of the life and ideology of both philosophers is needed to come up with a conclusive hypothesis. This is necessitated by the fact that life deals with each individual differently and the physical environment determines what an individual perceives.
These aspects combined led to Plato being regarded as a political philosopher and Aristotle being considered as a political scientist. These views are however vague, and as we shall see, both individuals were highly knowledgeable in the political field. Only an imaginary thin line differentiated their political philosophy bearing in mind both descended from the same school of thought.
Life and work of Plato
Plato was a Greek philosopher born in Athens in 427BC to an aristocratic family. He was the second member of the three ancient Greeks philosophers. His father Ariston was believed to be of royal descent and he had three sons, Adeimantus, Glaucon, and Plato who was the youngest.
Plato is described as bright student who excelled in his studies and their parents endeavored to give their children the best education. After his father’s death, his mother Perictione was married to Pyrilampes, given that according to Athenian law; it was illegal for women to be independent.
Pyrilampes was a friend of Pericles, the head of the democratic faction in Athens therefore Plato was exposed to both the oligarchy and democratic political ideologies from early childhood. Pyrilampes attempted to convince him into joining oligarchic leadership but because of the disillusion he bore over the empire, Plato declined this offer and instead joined his two older brothers to become a student of a teacher named Socrates.
Socrates dedicated his life to seeking the truth and examining morality through the challenges he posed to his of pupils. This was achieved by allowing them to test then critically scrutinize their thoughts and values mostly in religion and politics. This put him at loggerheads with many powerful individuals and in a short while, he was charged with corrupting the minds of the youth in Athens.
The death of his teacher further amplified Plato’s detest for the political regimes and he came to the conclusion that politics needed genuine philosophers to rule the states and to introduce sobriety. He later founded an Academy, in a grove sacred to the demigod Academus where Aristotle enrolled as a student.
It was an institution of higher learning, which covered a wide variety of subjects including physical science, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy. Plato spent a few years travelling the Mediterranean where he studied various civilizations until 360BC when he settled back in Athens as president of the Academy and went around giving lectures to various groups until his death in 347 BC.
Life and work of Aristotle
Aristotle was born in 384 BC to a patrician family and his father Nichomachus was a physician to the king of Macedonia. While still young, his father sent him to study in an Academy where he was taught by Plato and indoctrinated with platonic ideology.
For almost twenty years, Aristotle studied Philosophy at the Academy and eventually went on to become a teacher under Plato. As he progressed in philosophy, he often contradicted with his teacher and finally he diverged from Platonic ideas to develop his own philosophy based on deductive logic.
Soon after Plato’s death, Aristotle left Athens for Assos which is in Asia, where he married Pythias, a daughter of King Hermeas who coincidentally was a former student of Plato. He opened his own Academy that mainly focused on biological and zoological sciences and his extensive study on classification of animals into genus and species shaped the foundation on which the modern classification in biology lies.
It is while in Assos that Aristotle began tutoring Alexander, son of King Philip of Macedonia who would eventually be known as Alexander the Great. The death of King Philip in 336 BC gave Alexander a chance to become king and with the help of his father’s army, he went ahead to conquer vast territories including Greece.
The death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC threw Greece into disarray since Athenians had for a long time detested Macedonian dominance. Alexander the Great’s death provides an opportunity for them to be liberated and there were several protests in Athens. Aristotle was forced to abandon Lyceum after he was accused of impiety and he fled to the island of Euboea where he died in 322 BC.
Contrast between the two in epistemology, cosmology, and body/soul theory
Plato put forward the theory on rationality in epistemology which suggested that knowledge is inborn or priori because the soul is only trapped in the body. He goes on to say that the soul once existed in reality and knew everything but forgot it after being trapped in the body (Plato 433a-433b).
He argued that true knowledge is not learnt but merely recalled and so to achieve this knowledge one must overcome the body which is simply a prison that gives us a false perception leading to materialistic desires. Aristotle contradicted this by suggesting that true knowledge can only be achieved through experience or Posteriori. Based on the Empiricism theory, he further argued that knowledge is universal and the difference is only in the perception of form, (Aristotle I.1.175b22).
On cosmology, Plato concentrated on mathematical patterns to demonstrate perfection of true knowledge of being. He argued that the world and cosmos were created by an intelligent superior being according to eternal forms of perfection who induced constant motion to the cosmos.
Human life by itself imitates the order presented by the creator and will be judged on how well it fit into this cosmic order (Plato 396a). Aristotle’s argument was based on biological reasoning where the essence of the universe emanated from a Thinking thought through which the universe was set in motion.
Unlike Plato who argued that nothing can be created from nothing, Aristotle argued that the universe was composed of substance that originated from nothing. The thinking thought therefore organized the cosmos by being matter itself (Aristotle II.10.122a19). Therefore, while Plato argued that a creator only created the forms present in the cosmos, Aristotle contradicted him by arguing that the creator was in the forms themselves.
The body/soul theory differed between both philosophers since Plato believed that the soul was the essence of being and that which gave life to the body.
The body could not exist without a soul and therefore both were separate entities. He further implied that the soul was immortal, and death of the body only liberated the soul allowing it to be continually reincarnated into other bodies (Plato 419c). The body, he concluded was hindrance to the soul for bodily perception was unreal and it limited the amount of knowledge the soul could express.
He then divided the soul into three categories; will, reason and appetite each of these working in harmony for a being to achieve balance and peace (Plato 317e-433d). Aristotle negated this with the argument that the body and the soul were not absolute separate entries; rather the soul was life which translated to the activity a being is involved in. The soul therefore was mortal and only existed because of the body and the only role it played was to provide fulfillment and accomplishment (Aristotle II.4.18 9c33).
Plato’s Political Theory
Plato in his conversations does not attempt to arrive at an adequate oral definition of justice, rather he tries to bring forth the right belief by focusing on the thing to which the word refers to. Hence, Platonic dialogs in essence try to conceptualize and critically analyze beliefs subject to justice. In the Republic, Plato attempts to define justice by expressing justice as what sets the guidelines for societal behavior and brings peace to society.
In contrast to Thrasymachus, a sophist who asserts that justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger unjust rulers who make the rules (Plato 338c), Plato clearly analyses justice and goes ahead to categorize it into individual and political. He asserts that political justice is easily achieved for a city is bigger than an individual and this then reflects on individuals thus striking a balances structure of governance achieved through reason and education.
Plato further implies that each community in society has an exclusive set of skills that are in-born. To achieve economic justice, each skill should be exclusive and presented to the unified single society fostered by mutual interests. This greatly contradicted sophists’ approach to justice yet sophists were claimed to be the best teachers in oratory and practical skills (Plato 419b).
The Sophists were teachers of Athenian citizens who were responsible for conveying oral and physical skills for a fee. Plato differentiated sophists from Socrates based on the payment they received for teaching, unlike Socrates who did not ask for payment, nor did he teach but rather guided his pupils into the right thinking framework.
Plato described sophists as peripatetic relativists with good rhetoric proficiency who lacked morality and hence lacked the true perception of justice (Plato 543b). The Sophists neglected philosophy and ethics and instead tutored on art of persuasion, perpetuating eloquent arguments through speech.
Plato uses The Ring of Gyges to portray how flawed human beings are in their belief of justice. He states that any person with the ability to become invincible would most definitely commit injustices, for people are only just as a matter of necessity rather than virtue. Individuals only prefer to be just and obey laws because they will be rewarded, lack the will to behave criminally and are afraid of punishment (Plato, 359a).
Origin of the state
Plato had great philosophical ideology on the ideal state or government ruling a perfect society. He sought to create solutions for political and social problems he felt were prominent and consequently divided individual people into three distinct groupings which were the Productive Workers, the Protective Warriors and the Governing Rulers.
He further designated each group to the sections of the soul, with workers corresponding to appetite, warriors to will and rulers to reason. This model was supportive of philosophical kings guided by wisdom and reason, were in a better position to rule states hence tarnishing the tyranny, despotism and oligarchy forms of governance (Plato 619d). He goes ahead to conceptualize academic systems that were likely to produce philosophical kings.
“Nature and symmetry of three parts of the soul and three parts of the state and correlative virtues”
Plato divided the soul into three parts, the will, reason and appetite. Each of these sections had a certain role to play in the overall function of a being and was responsible for determining the interests, virtues and character of the being.
Reason according to Plato is the soul’s source of power and is responsible for taming the fleshly desires. Individuals with a heightened reasoning capacity should be selected as rulers and kings over nations or become great philosophers due to their wisdom.
The will is what aides reason in overcoming bodily desire and according to Plato, will has its foundation on human emotion(Plato 541a). Plato suggested that individuals with sufficient will over reason and appetite were adventurers and therefore belonged to the creed of warriors propelled by courage.
Appetite was associated too the body and most limiting and overpowering of all the parts of the soul. Desire seeking individuals engaged in materialistic pleasures and according to Plato, they ended up being the majority of citizens referred to as commoners. Plato went further to associate all the parts of the soul to parts of the body with reason connected to the head, will connected to the heart and appetite connected to the abdomen and sensory organs.
Allegory of the cave
Fictional dialogue between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon takes most part of the allegory of the cave in The Republic. Plato uses the allegory to show human desire relative to learning and truth and is depicted by an imaginary group of prisoners who have been chained to a wall in a cave and face a plain wall before them. There is a fire behind them and object in front of the fire casts a shadow on the wall and the prisoners take these shadows to be reality. Later, the prisoners are released only to discover the reality they perceived was not real. Plato uses the allegory to describe how philosophy liberates an individual. Human beings are occupied in achieving material things which Plato metaphorically refers to as the shadows (Plato 538e). Only by studying philosophy is one able to understand the realm of the mind and soul consequently bequeathing earthly pursuits. In the theory of forms, human beings should place greater value on ideas which are eternal and constitute of knowledge, rather than earthly achievements which are just illusions.
Simile of the divided line
Plato uses the simile of the dividing line from a geometric perspective to distinguish between the realms of knowledge and reality and is a larger part of the allegory of the cave. Plato is convinced that human beings are like prisoners in a cave, so limited in our perception that we are easily attracted to false reality.
After being liberated from the bondages of ignorance, humans will then notice the fire and puppets that have been projecting our false reality for a long time, meaning if a person makes an ignorant person knowledgeable he will then be the reality of the ignorant person. The prisoner then ventures outside and discovers the existing features in nature, but is first blinded by the sun that helps him see these things (Plato 576c).
The prisoner is the philosopher who is released from the world of becoming which is the cave, into the world of being. The fire in the cave is the physical sun, while the puppets are objects in the world, reflecting their realities as shadows upon the imprisoned philosopher. The outside sun is the senses which help the philosopher reason out true knowledge and truth.
“Noble lie of men of gold, silver”
In the republic, Plato gives a fictional theory on how the three classes of society came into existence and remained so. The noble lie is a tale told to the people on how the three classes are selected and allocated. Though all people are brothers and sisters, people are subtly composed of different type of metal.
Rulers are made of gold, warriors are made of silver and commoners are made of bronze (Plato 572a). Most of those born among the rulers have gold but those with silver and bronze will be allocated another class. Similarly, most of those born among commoners have bronze but some will contain gold and silver and thus be allocated a higher class. This tale was told in order to induce order and harmony into society which would otherwise be in disarray if all individuals wanted to rule.
“Education and lifestyle of guardians and workers”
Plato in the republic offered a simple profile of how guardians should live in order to dissuade commoners from envying power for their own pleasure.
The Guardians must live in paucity, and communally share their property. Children belonging to guardians will be raised communally with no knowledge of their birth parents. These children will be bred deliberately to produce an offspring suitable to be a guardian. Women will also be guardians and will have to go to war (Plato 544c).
Their education will simply be to determine children who are driven by desire and demoting them to commoners. Workers are to live by their pay and were to be allocated relatively comfortable stature. Their children are to be taught skill and trade for them to be in a capacity to contribute to the state.
Myth of Er
The Myth of Er is mystic story about Er who dies in battle but raises again after being buried. He recollects his experience in the afterlife from where he has been. After death, Er finds himself in place with four openings, two in and out of the heavens and two into and out of the earth. There are judges seated between these openings who direct Er to observe as good souls are heading for the heavens and evil souls are directed below, so as to explain this to the humans back on earth.
Good souls came back to explain the marvels of the heavens whereas the bad souls came to mourn and beg for mercy. For days, Er travels together with other souls and comes to a rainbow referred to the spindle of Necessity (Plato 622b). The souls accompanying Er are then given a token that will select their next life and he is surprised to see animals choose a human life and humans choose animal life.
The souls then traveled to the Plain of Oblivion, to drink from the River of Forgetfulness and each soul forgot everything. The souls are then lifted into the night for reincarnation into their new body and life. The Myth of Er is the concluding dialogue in the republic and is aimed at illustrating the immorality of the soul as well as the reward for good and the punishment for evil.
Aristotle’s Political Theory
Origin of the state & relation to family and village
Aristotle in his book politics begins by defining a citizen as a person who has a right to vie for public office. Children, seniors and foreigners thus do not qualify to be called citizens. He argues that the city-state or the polis is a collective entity composed of different of citizens.
The family unit should therefore be treated as a polis for it is composed of different individuals each subject to that family through different relations. He goes ahead to stress that in comparison, men make better leaders than women so they should assume the leadership role in the family(Aristotle III.16.125b40).
A village is a collection of families which Aristotle associates with the state as an entity to the polis. He further adds that state does not need remaking rather needs improvement of society. He however did not distinguish between state and society therefore forming no absolute merit between the two.
Nature of justice
Aristotle acknowledges that justice should be responsible for nurturing the belief that good life is subject to all in society in disregard to their social class. He gives the examples of democratic states which perceive justice as equality bestowed by free birth and oligarchic states conceive justice even in the presence of corruption and inequality in distribution of office, provided by accumulated wealth (Aristotle III.1.1275b20).
He however disagrees with these forms of justice, which he claims will eventually lead to the fall of a city-state. He therefore believes that justice does exist but in an objective manner. It involves treating all people equally and conversely, it entails unequal treatment to unequal people.
Types of government
Aristotle discerns six types of governments, each determined by the number of rulers a state has. A one-ruler state in the correct form of administration, he identifies as a kingship. A state under a few rulers under the correct conditions will form an aristocracy, but where disaccord arises, an oligarchy is formed. Aristotle also acknowledges that many rulers can form a polity, a combination of oligarchy, and aristocracy, which under deviant conditions forms a democracy (Aristotle II.1.1261a18).
How to distinguish good government from bad
Aristotle was of the view that a good government no matter how distorted was to look out for the common people’s welfare. A good government was therefore just and maintained a balance in all state offices.
This government was in a position to have a constitution and impose authority subjecting everyone to the law. He was also of the view that lawgivers should be the politicians ruling the state for they know what is just. He most favored the aristocratic form of government which pooled the various virtues of different leaders into one government (Aristotle II.1.1339a11).
A bad government according to Aristotle was one that allowed one class to wield political power. What this meant is that the state would miss out on a great leader with wisdom and high values simply because he did not belong to the ruling class. This according to Aristotle was bad governance.
“Why Plato’s idea of state is impractical”
Aristotle in politics greatly disagrees with Plato’s idea of state which provides the framework for creating a new state. Rather, Aristotle is of the view that the state itself should be responsible for attaining the best system of existence.
By deductive inference, Aristotle states that the perfect system of state is already in existence, and finds no reason as to why the platonic ideology should be applied to it. Thus to Aristotle, the perfect state is being lived out at present and Plato’s state is a mere solution to a non-existent problem.
“Change in states and best functioning”
Aristotle believed that the state was primarily responsible for its own prosperity. To achieve this, the state should have order in government and society, with each category having different sectors of distinct function. Though he was against money exchange, he was for a state that could rebuild itself through the available physical and human resources (Aristotle II.2.3261b27).
To do this, every individual in society who qualifies to be a citizen should be consulted in the running of the state, for only then can true harmony be achieved. Therefore, the best functioning state was one that allowed citizens of every class into government and every class was eligible for trade and possession of private property.
“Ideal state, active & philosophical life”
Aristotelian politics seeks to establish the best system that will be able to support a majority of city-states. He aims at a state that is concerned with the happiness of its citizens, where each individual will possess virtues and the knowledge and skill required to dispense justice, leading to a peaceful and happy state.
Such a state will allow citizens to hold public office trade freely and own private property and everyone will be equal as opposed to the oppressive communal state. This state will possess a common educational system for all citizens and the lawmakers will be primarily responsible for it in case the initial objectives are not achieved (Aristotle III.1.1298a21).
Role of education in relation to the state
Education according to Aristotle will provide a balance in the state since all citizens will be knowledgeable. Education should not only cover area of skill and basic knowledge, rather should instill virtues to the pupils and integrate values into society. Education is therefore a form of glue that can hold a state together cohesively, but only when taught in the right way.
Education should also provide the values needed by rulers of the state to govern effectively. It is therefore a basic necessity to incorporate education into society for growth and prosperity of the state. Philosophers and intellectuals should be bred through education if the state desires to advance its systems of governance and coexistence.
Main Points of Comparison
- Both philosophers agree that justice is a necessary value and should be experienced by every one in a society regardless of their social class.
- Plato and Aristotle had a basic intent to improve the society they lived in and both came up with brilliant ideas as to how the society could be enhanced.
- Plato and Aristotle also agree that the universe originated from a more powerful and intelligent entity than the normal human being. Though they both have a different opinion on the function of the entity, they acknowledge its existence.
- Plato and Aristotle are descendants of the intellectual prism housed by Socrates. Socrates taught Plato and Plato taught Aristotle. They shared the same backbone in philosophy even though their ideology may have differed.
- Both Plato and Aristotle were not content with the political governance of Athens during their time. Both tried to come up with concepts that were supposed to improve these forms of governance and consequently alter the leadership.
- Both philosophers are responsible for shaping modern civilization. Aristotle played a contributory role to modern democracy and Plato’s writings have helped shape the curricula of political institutions through his quest for truth in political philosophy.
Plato and Aristotle were both brought up in descent homes in their times. They went to the same academy and taught at this same academy. Their philosophies in regard to politics differ and both men impel a convincing argument as far as political governance is concerned.
Their views on life and death are also polarized with Plato suggesting the existence of life after death and Aristotle affirming that life ends when one dies. Though they have different opinions on a wide range of issues, they seemed to concur that society needed to be improved and the full capacity of human resource and knowledge has never been attained.
They also yearn for a balanced, peaceful and harmonized society, which compels them to come up with social models that would eventually produce the desired results. Both are highly acclaimed philosophers who formed the foundation of modern western culture and so presuming one’s work is superior to the other is a fallacy.