Plato Aristotle Comparison

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 30 October 2016

Plato Aristotle Comparison

Justice is the topic which has been the main subject of most philosophers; a quick definition for justice could be the quality of being fair and reasonable. A lot of philosophers have written on this subject and have had debates. Two of the most significant ones are Plato and Aristotle, who are two leading figures of ancient Greek civilization and both thought about justice and established theories about the aspects of being just. Plato was a student of Socrates, and Aristotle was a student of Plato.

Aristotle studied under Plato and remained in his academy for 20 years in Athens but left the academy after Plato’s death. Aristotle and Plato had different philosophies about many subjects like justice and injustice, the function of humans, truth, the human soul, art, and politics. Starting with Plato (427 BC-347 BC) one of the most important philosophers of the world and the founder of “The Academy”. Plato’s most famous work is “The Republic” in which he draws the qualities of a just individual and a just city state by explaining the sublime nature of justice.

His beliefs of finding justice in an individual will require finding it in the perfect city (which consists of people). His major questions that were pursued in the rest of his work were: “What is Justice? ” And “is one better off or happier being just rather than unjust? ” Plato faces a situation where he raised a question and he has several answers provided by several traditions, and he also has a new answer of his own. Aristotle (384-322 BC) is one of the founders of modern Western thought with Socrates and Plato.

He was tutored by Socrates’ student Plato, later became very effective in the progress of the idea of scientism and scholastic ideology. Aristotle in his famous work “The Nicomachean Ethics” explains the virtuous and superior nature of justice where he claims that justice can mean either lawfulness or fairness, since injustice is lawlessness and unfairness. In his opinion, laws push and inspire people to act virtuously so, the just person who by definition is lawful, will necessarily be virtuous.

I am going to compare how these two philosophers compare and contrast when it comes to their own political theories regarding the ideal state and how to define justice in it. To compare the political theories of two great philosophers of politics is to first examine each theory in depth. Plato is regarded by many experts as the first writer of political philosophy, and Aristotle is recognized as the first political scientist. These two men were great thinkers.

They each had ideas of how to improve existing societies during their individual lifetimes. It is necessary to look at several areas of each theory to seek the difference and similarities in each. Both philosophers had common points and some differences, starting with Plato, where in the beginning of his conversation with Thrasymachus (Plato, The Republic ,Page 19), the latter defines justice as “what is the interest of the stronger party”. Socrates goes on to refute this definition by saying that the stronger party can be at fault sometimes, and a ruler can make mistakes.

One of the questions that Plato pursued in his work was the one proposed by Thrasymachus who suggests that the pursuit of self-interest or injustice pays better than that the pursuit of justice. Socrates states that the injustice would create disagreement and weakness instead of strength. He says that injustice causes problems and weakens the group “… whether it occurs in a state or family or army or in anything else: it renders it incapable of any common action because of factions and quarrels, and sets it at variance with itself and with its opponents and with whatever is just” (Plato, The Republic, page 38).

The best, rational and righteous political order leads to the harmonious unity of a society and allows all the city’s parts to pursue happiness but not at the expense of others. Plato showed what justice is in the state and then in the soul. He drew a state in which all basic needs are met. The Guardians consist of non-ruling Guardians and ruling Guardians. The non-rulers are a higher level of civil servants and the ruling is the society’s policy architects. Auxiliaries are soldiers and civil servants and finally the workers who are most commonly unskilled laborers. The Guardians are to be wise and good rulers.

It is important that the rulers who arise must be a class of craftsmen who are public-spirited in temperament and skilled in the arts of government areas. The guardians are to be placed in a position in which they are absolute rulers. They are supposed to be the select few who know what is best for society. As far as politics, he stated in the Republic that philosopher rulers who possess knowledge of the good should be the governors in a city-state. Plato’s ruling ideology is briefed as the “rule of the best man”, the philosopher king who alone knows the ideal standards for the state.

Also, ruling is a skill; as the best man must be trained to rule. Ruling is also an perfection. Aristotle’s ruling philosophy can be summarized as the “rule of the best laws” – a well ordered constitution which entails good governance. For him, although ruling is a skill and an ideal as well; it is also a science (although Aristotle understands politics as a normative or prescriptive discipline rather than as a “purely” empirical or descriptive inquiry). Plato believed that each man is better by sticking to one occupation in which he excels in.

“Social justice aims at promoting the good of the city as a whole; it does that by dividing social labors and by assigning optimal social functions to all the citizens equally”(Gerasimos Santas, Goodness and Justice Plato Aristotle and the moderns page 103). Plato valued the skills of all people, and believed that the perfect polis would be one in which every citizen would do his part according to his abilities, and there would be no unique marks between the rich and the poor. Plato’s ethical ideal of the successful running of the city and the internal harmony of the citizen who runs it is the main ethical aim.

Plato maintains a virtue-based eudemonistic ethics. His model of the just state was one where all the parts function for the benefit of the whole, and the whole benefits the parts. “His first argument is that the matching of citizens to their optimal social functions makes possible and preserves the other social virtues and the good they promote”. (Gerasimos Santas, Goodness and Justice Plato Aristotle and the moderns page 90). According to Plato ethics is a form of knowledge, it is the knowledge of measurement of short-term and long-term consequences.

Plato also appealed to a model of harmonious functioning by saying that the soul has its divisions just as the state does. He develops the view that being a good person in an ethical sense involves achieving internal harmony of the parts of the soul. Essentially what Plato wants to achieve is a perfect society. Justice in the soul is likewise a matter of each part of the soul performing its own and proper function. An individual is wise in the virtue of reason ruling in him and brave in the virtue of the spirited part playing its role.

An individual is temperate if his inferior bodily appetites are ruled by his reason. And justice belongs to its total ordering. Moreover, the just man will rarely exist except in the just state, where at least some men, the future rulers are systematically educated in justice. But the just state cannot possibly exist except where there are just men; Plato brings the ideal of the philosopher king. Aristotle, differs from Plato here in the way that he is not concerned with perfecting society, he just wants to improve on the existing one.

Rather than produce a plan for the perfect society, Aristotle suggested that the society itself should improve to adapt the best system; therefore he relied on the logical tactic. “Utopia” (Plato’s perfect city) is an abstract solution because there is no real proof that all societies are in need of all that change like Plato wanted. Aristotle discovered that the best possible has already been obtained. All that can be done is to try to improve on the existing one. He disagreed with Plato’s point of “each man (or groups) sticks to one job, he thought that idea of one class holding discontinuing political power will not result positively.

The failure to allow circulation between classes eliminates those men who may be ambitious, and wise, but are not in the right class of society to hold any type of political power. He quotes “It is a further objection that he deprives his Guardians even of happiness, maintaining that happiness of the whole state which should be the object of legislation” what he is saying is that Guardians sacrifice their happiness for power and control, and those guardian who lead a strict lifestyle like that will impose that kind of lifestyle on their society.

Both Plato and Aristotle have a common point when it comes to justice. For both, the end of the state is ethical; as justice is the basis for the ideal state, For Plato, the individual and the state are one, as they both have a tripartite nature of which justice is the result of a sound balance of these three parts. Aristotle asserts that the city-state (polis) comes into being for the sake of life, but exists for the sake of the good life.

It is mainly about justice existing in an objective sense, or in other words, a belief that the good and just life should be available for all individuals no matter how high or low their social status is “In democracies, for example, justice is considered to mean equality, in oligarchies, again inequality in the distribution of office is considered to be just, “says Aristotle. Plato sees the justice and law as what sets the guidelines for societal behavior.

Aristotle said, “The people at large should be sovereign rather than the few best” (Edward A.Hacker, Aristotelian logic, p 92). Plato would never allow the full public participation in government as Aristotle would like. According to Plato public judgments of approval and disapproval are based on belief and not on knowledge (Edward A. Hacker, Aristotelian logic, p 96). Aristotle’s ethics are based on his view of the Universe. He saw it as a hierarchy in which everything has a function. The highest form of existence is the life of the rational being, and the function of lower beings is to serve this form of life. According to him, justice must be distributed proportionately.

For instance, a tailor and a farmer cannot exchange clothes for food, since clothes and food are not of equal value. Aristotle’s equation of justice with lawfulness can create a problem since laws can be unjust too. However, he refutes this idea again by separating political justice from domestic justice. “The function of the law is to lay down sound and balances principals of character-formation, in the light of which it should be the function of educational practice to accustom various kinds of people, each in different ways, to refrain from greed and thereby arrive at an equalization of desires” (W.Von Leyden, Aristotle on equality and justice, his political argument p 82).

According to him, although political justice and domestic justice are related, they are also distinct. Political justice is about laws since “justice exists only between men whose mutual relations are governed by law” (The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, book 5, part 6). So, political justice is governed by the rule of law, while domestic justice relies more on respect. Thus, Aristotle says “the justice of a master and that of a father are not the same as the justice of citizens” (The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, book 5, part 6).

Aristotle regarded the concept of justice as necessary to satisfy social equality. But he also wanted to argue that justice is based on a background of laws and rules. Aristotle begins to define justice by saying that “we observe that everyone means by justice the disposition which makes us doers of just actions, that makes us do what is just and wish that is just. ” (The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, book 5 chapters 1). The rest of Aristotle’s procedure in his attempt to define justice is explaining the just actions in terms of laws.

Therefore the unjust person is the one who doesn’t follow the law (unlawful), which is where his two definitions of justice come from. The 1st one, “general justice” identified with what is lawful in our behavior; the 2nd one “particular justice” that is identified with the distribution of honor and wealth. Plato and Aristotle had very different views about the functions of the human. Plato refutes the idea that backs that injustice is better than justice. He argued that injustice was not very helpful for setting up a model city.

Virtue for the model city was derived from the individuals living in the city and their capability to fulfill their functions. He defined human function as ruling, thinking, living, and taking care of the purposes attributed to each in a city. He defined a person’s purpose in relation to his position in the society and his existence in relation to a community. Aristotle argues about the method to achieving ultimate good by searching for happiness by every single person.

He believed that happiness or the pursuit of it was the ultimate end, and people worked their way to achieve the ultimate end which is happiness. Happiness, according to him, was attained if one fulfilled one’s reasons, purposes, meanings, and expressions in the best way possible. His views focused on the individual rather than a society or community as a whole. He had a more individualistic point of view. Aristotle disagrees with Plato on another idea. Plato’s worldview rendered the material, physical world less important than the realm of ideas and abstractions.

According to him, the world we see around us consists of imperfect copies of the ideal versions of the same things that are accessible to us only through our minds, and therefore our time is better spent contemplating the better, “real,” abstractions than their flawed manifestations. Aristotle does not share this worldview, but I will not get into this idea. Their philosophies were different from each other in many subjects, but the most important philosophy which sets the differentiation is the human purpose.

Plato believed in a community or society as one and the function of humans in relation to it for achieving a model society. Aristotle was more individualistic and believed in individual happiness as the main function of humans and their achievement by being excellent in what they did and thus forming a model society or city. Although, Plato and Aristotle agree on the concept of an ideal state, they still disagree on deeper issues as Aristotle distanced himself from Plato, who was his mentor, at some point.

Plato and Aristotle constructed two utopian state models in which in order to provide justice the ruling power is given to a philosopher king (in Aristotle’s model) or a class of philosopher Guardians who are able to produce better knowledge (in Plato’s model). But rather than giving the ruling power to an elite, in order to provide justice we could raise just children who will be just citizens in the future. Plato’s philosophy tends toward the metaphysically excessive. He is not bound by realism or model, but allows his imagination to wander into theoretical areas most people today would dismiss as irrelevant and unrealistic.

His political philosophy, for instance, is utopian. He sets for himself the task of imagining the ideal way to structure and govern a society, and ends up with an impressively inventive and elaborate scheme, but one that tolerates little resemblance to how human beings ever have or likely ever will interact politically in the real world. Aristotle’s philosophy is much more grounded in realism and common sense and logical. He’s more about describing the world as it is than going too far in the direction of speculating about how it should be.

In contrast to Plato’s utopian political philosophy, Aristotle’s political philosophy has a large component of descriptive political science. When he does argue for certain political schemes, they tend to be positive improvements on existing systems. Plato and Aristotle have a lot of differences in both style and material, but what they have in common is that both are still being read nowadays, and still are inspirational and they both challenge philosophers and students all over the world.

Sources used: 1- The Republic: Author: Plato Published by: Penguin Classics 2- The Nicomachean Ethics: Author: Aristotle Published by: Penguin Classics 3- Goodness and Justice, Plato, Aristotle, and the Moderns: Author: Gerasimos Santas Published by: Blackwell Publishers 4- Aristotle on equality and justice, his political argument: Author: W. Von Leyden Published by: Macmillan 5- Aristotelian logic: Author: William Thomas Parry, Edward A. Hacker Published by: State University of New York, Albany.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

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