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Plato and Aristotle: a Comparison Essay

Comparing the political theories of any two great philosophers is a complex task. Plato and Aristotle are two such philosophers who had ideas of how to improve existing societies during their individual lifetimes. While both Plato and Aristotle were great thinkers, perhaps it is necessary first to examine the ideas of each before showing how one has laid the groundwork and developed certain themes for the other. Plato is regarded by many experts as the first writer of political philosophy. He fashioned a distinctive view of human nature, a view that has had a crucial formative influence on all subsequent theories of human nature.

Plato pointed out the distinction between a perfect ideal and its imperfect replicas, and gave the name forms to these particular ideals. Plato’s philosophy was centered on his famous Theory of Forms, or Theory of Ideas. The theory is based on the observation that there must be some universal quality that all things classed under a single name share in common. For instance, a tulip is beautiful in a very different way from a human, but both the tulip and the human must share something in common if we are to call them both “beautiful”.

Plato’s answer is that they share in common the Form of Beauty, which is itself invisible, unchanging, and eternal. Forms, Plato argues, transcend the empirical world of sensation, and they include both the physical and ethical dimensions. This means that everything we see has a corresponding form, as does every virtue. There is a form of a tree, and of a human being, and of a flower, just as there is a form of temperance, courage, and justice (Nelson, 35). Forms are perfect, ideal universal ideas, existing as transcendental realities.

In regards to the soul, Plato believed that a soul could exist apart from the body and that in an earlier existence, it had acquired knowledge of these forms, which it remembered in this life (Velasquez, 154). To a large extent, Plato’s Theory of Forms was inspired by the questioning of his teacher, Socrates. Socrates would often ask his hearers for the characteristic that makes a thing what it is (Velasquez, 147). We can see this in the dialogue Euthyphro, which we studied in class.

In this dialogue, Socrates says: “I’m afraid, Euthyphro, that when you were asked what piety is, you did not wish to make its nature clear to me, but you told me an affect or a quality of it, that the pious has the quality of being loved by all the gods, but you have not yet told me what the pious is? do not hide things from me but tell me again from the beginning what piety is? ” (p. 14, 11a-b).

Along with the legendary question of is what is pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?, Socrates was also asking Euthyphro to give him examples of holiness, and identify the characteristic that makes all holy things holy.

He is claiming that there must be some characteristic that all holy things have in common, as well as one which makes unholy things holy. Plato’s view of human nature is a direct consequence of his Theory of Forms. He held that we can be completely virtuous only if our reason knows the forms, and in particular, our reason must know the form of the good (Velasquez, 151).

The Form of the Good is the ideal or perfect nature of goodness, a principle form that illuminates all the other Forms of Knowledge. Plato compares the Form of the Good to the sun. The Form of the Good is to knowledge what the sun is to sight and the objects that we see. Just as the sun emanates light, the Form of the Good emanates truth. Just as we are able to see the world with our eyes using the light of the sun, we can make sense of the world with our minds with the help of truth, which is derived from the Form of the Good.

In regards to the theme of happiness and virtue, Plato held that we could achieve full happiness and virtue only by coming to know the perfect forms that exist in another world (Velasquez, 155). He claimed that happiness and virtue can be achieved only when the three parts of our soul are in harmony with one another. Happiness is possible only if reason rules the emotions and desires and both the emotions and desires have been trained to be led harmoniously by reason (Velasquez, 150). In addition to this, Plato said that we can be completely virtuous only if our reason knows the forms.

Ultimately, Plato’s emphasis upon the ideal state, his focus on the existence of another world, as well as his theory of forms, was the basis for his influential view of human nature. Plato would be the inspiration for many future philosophers, most notably, his student Aristotle. To this day, Plato’s philosophy remains very much alive. With a vision more practical and worldly than his teacher’s, Aristotle, a student of Plato’s, distinguished himself as Plato’s most brilliant student at his Academy in Athens.

Unlike Plato, who was distinguished as the first writer of political philosophy, Aristotle is recognized as the first political scientist. Although Aristotle was indeed a student of Plato, his approach to human nature is one of the more prevalent themes that was developed, as well as altered, by Aristotle. As he grew older, Aristotle began to have increasing doubts about Plato’s views. While he agreed with Plato that each class of things has certain essential characteristics (a form), he did not believe that they existed in a world that was separate from what we see around us.

According to Aristotle, the characteristics that make a thing what it is and that all things of that kind have in common are the form of the thing. A simple way of looking at it is this: the form of a dog consists of those qualities that all dogs have in common, and that make a certain thing a dog, and not a cat, for example. Dogness exists only in actual dogs. Once Aristotle realized that the world could be explained without a separate world of ideal forms, he began to develop a new reality that was much closer to common sense than Plato’s (Velasquez, 153).

Unlike Plato, who believed that a soul could exist apart from the body, Aristotle claimed the soul is merely the form of a living human, and like other forms, it cannot exist apart from the visible things in this world (Velasquez, 154). Likewise, in regards to happiness, Aristotle yet again refutes Plato’s suggestions to look outside of this world. Aristotle held that happiness and goodness could be found in this world as well, and can be found in the various pursuits and activities that we engage in.

Happiness, which Aristotle believed to be the human purpose, is to be found by doing well what humans are best able to do: live their lives with reason (Velasquez, 156). This also relates to the concept of eudeimonia, or flourishing: “Moreover, we take the human function to be a certain kind of life, and take this life to be activity and actions of the soul that involve reason; hence the function of the excellent man is to do this well and finely. Now each function is completed well by being completed in accord with the virtue proper” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, Ch.7, lines 12-17).

Aristotle claimed that the human essence involves the activity of flourishing ? actions which amount to flourishing. It is something that we labour over and accomplish. Furthermore, Aristotle argued that although we do not have an immortal soul, like Plato claimed, we do have reason and can use our reason to control our feelings and actions. This in turn will produce happiness that we as human beings seek. Both Plato and Aristotle imparted lasting legacies that left quite an impression on the world of Philosophy.

While Plato did indeed influence Aristotle a great deal, there are many fundamental differences in the two philosophers’ theories. Firstly, Plato claimed that the progression of human development had to come from outside of this world, or from another world altogether. Aristotle disagreed. He argued that we achieve things in this life, for example, happiness and virtue, and we need to look “down”, or inward, and not “up” towards what exists outside of oneself, and this world. Although Aristotle’s views of human nature grew from the views of his teacher Plato, Aristotle’s final theories were quite different from Plato’s.

Not only did Plato look to another world of unchanging forms to explain human nature, but his theories of the form differ greatly from Aristotle’s. Where Plato said that we as human beings acquired human knowledge in another life through the soul existing outside of our bodies, Aristotle held that we acquire all our knowledge in this life, and that the soul cannot exist apart from the body. Finally, where Plato believed that happiness is acquired by coming to know the forms that exist in another world, Aristotle held that happiness is acquired by being moderate in our feelings and actions in this world (Velasquez, 158).

Works Cited 1. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, Second Edition. Translated by Terence Irwin. Hackett Publishing Company, INC. , Indiana: 1999. 2. Nelson, Brian R. Western Political Thought: From Socrates to the Age of Enlightenment. Prentice Hall, New Jersey: 1996. 3. Plato. Euthyphro. Laurier Course Package, Professor V. Burke. p. 14. 4. Velasquez, Manuel. Philosophy: A Text With Readings: Seventh Edition. Wadsworth Publishing Company, Toronto: 1999.


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