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– Plato Vs Aristotle Essay, Research Paper


Plato vs. Aristotle

In Republic, Plato defines the ideal government to be one that is set up and run by a philosopher king. This person, having a completely just soul, would be able to organize and run a government that was also completely just. Aristotle also believes that this monarchy run by the perfect ruler that Plato describes would be ideal, if it were possible. However, Aristotle doesn?t believe that a perfectly just person exists. On page 81 of The Politics Aristotle says that ?if? such a perfectly just person did exist he would be a ?God among men?, and there are no gods among men. So, Aristotle discounts the possibility of the existence of such a form of government, and moves on to government systems that he believes could realistically exist.

We can trace this disagreement between Aristotle and Plato to a difference in epistemological views (i.e. theories of knowledge). Plato can imagine pure justice, and can imagine man who is purely just. It isn?t relevant to Plato whether he has ever met such a man; he just assumes that since he can imagine such a man, it must be possible for such a man to exist. Plato uses the allegory of the cave to illustrate his epistemological view.

In book VII of the Republic Plato describes a cave where people are chained up and can only see shadows cast on a wall. He parallels these shadows to the things that people see in the world around them, the materialistic reality that most people base their lives on. He parallels the chains to norms, customs, traditions, habits, etc. Plato believes that because people are so preoccupied with these shadows of the truth, they ignore the real truth. So, it makes sense that Plato wouldn?t want to discount the possibility of a philosopher king based on the fact that he has never seen one, because it could be the ?shadows? fooling him into believing that no such man exists.

Aristotle, on the other hand, bases his beliefs on what he can see, and what has been proven. He has never seen a man that is purely just, and he can see no example of such a man in history, so he discounts the possibility of the existence of a purely just man.

This example of the differences in Plato an Aristotle?s different views on government could be expanded and clarified to a much greater extent than I have done here, however I don?t believe that it would help to show which epistemology is better (which is the purpose of this paper). In order to decide which epistemology is better it is necessary to use an example that has proven one or the other superior. Comparing their theories of government would make this task difficult, if not impossible, because such a comparison is so complex. So I would like to move on to an example of their different epistemological views that has been historically tested, the issue of women.

In Greek civilization, women are seen to be inferior to men. They don?t vote, or hold political office. In the household, the man is in charge, and the woman obeys. Women aren?t educated (so they seem stupider than men do), and they are obviously weaker physically than men are. Both Plato and Aristotle live in this civilization where women seem to be unequal to men, but they have different opinions about the significance of this inequality.

Aristotle believes that women are inferior to men by nature (Politics 17, 26). Men hold political offices, and women don?t; men give orders, and women obey. This has been true in every civilization that Aristotle knows about. Aristotle looks at these facts in the world around him, past and present, and uses the facts that he sees to explain reality. In Aristotle?s opinion women are obviously not inclined by nature to rule or be educated, because he can look around and see that they don?t do these things. He bases his beliefs on tangible, provable evidence.

Plato, on the other hand, disregards the fact that women seem to be inferior to men. He can imagine a woman that is worthy of ruling or being educated, and doesn?t care that he can find no example of such a woman. He would argue that the reason he can find no example is that the ?chains? of custom prevent such a woman from existing. He doesn?t allow himself to be fooled by the ?shadows? of inferior women that he sees in his society. In Republic, he argues that women should be treated as men?s equals, despite the fact that this idea seems very far-fetched in his time. (Republic, 126)

In post-woman?s movement America, it seems apparent that Plato was more accurate in his assessment of women?s capabilities. We can, in America, find many examples of women that are capable of ruling and being educated. A similar example to this can be seen in America?s abolition of slavery. Women and black people hold political office, vote, and go to school with white males. This system seems to work well, and it is now apparent that women and black people are just as able as white men are.

If everyone in America had thought about the world like Aristotle (i.e. used Aristotle?s epistemology), it would have been impossible for the women?s movement or the abolition of slavery to take place. Nobody would have thought it possible or prudent for women and black people to go to school with white men, or vote, or hold public office, etc., because it had never been done before. We can see now that it is possible.

During slavery in the Unites States, southern white slave owners lived by Aristotle?s epistemological method. Since childhood, they had been raised to believe that blacks were inferior, and they believed it. Plato would say that the chains of society had forced these people to believe in this ?shadow? of black inferiority. They looked around them, and saw all of their competition using slaves. It was hard to imagine life any other way, and for them, there was no reason to imagine life any other way. In their minds blacks were inferior, what would possess anyone to think that they should roam free?

It could be argued that the Yankees (people from the northern U.S.) used Plato?s epistemology. They broke free from the ?chains? holding them to the belief that blacks are inferior. The reason that they were able to do this might be that their ?chains? weren?t as strong as those of the southerners. The Yankees weren?t totally immersed in the slave culture, which made it easier for them to look beyond the ?shadows? to the real truth. This conflict between the epistemological methods of the north and the south arguably caused the civil war.

If everyone (in the north and the south) held a similar epistemological view (either Plato?s or Aristotle?s) then the civil war wouldn?t have taken place. It seems possible that this could happen if nobody broke free from his ?chains? to conceive of a new idea. In this case, everyone would hold a view based on Aristotle?s epistemology, and there would be no conflict. It seems impossible, however, for everyone to hold a view based on a Platonic epistemology. There will always be people who gain in some way from a current situation, or, because of habituation, simply can?t break from their ?chains? to see past the ?shadows?.

It seems then, that one problem with Plato?s epistemology is that change can?t be clean or easy. This can be seen in the struggle that our country has gone through both with the women?s movement and the abolition of slavery. The civil war resulted in an estimated 620,000 deaths. If we had lived by Aristotle?s epistemology, 620,000 men wouldn?t have died, but we would still have slavery. The question we must ask ourselves then, is if the change is worth the trouble.

In the case of slavery and the women?s movement, it seems to have been worth the trouble. These ideas worked (or at least are well on their way to working), and seem to make a better society. However, I think there are examples in history where an idea didn?t work or didn?t create a benefit that out-weighed the struggle. General Motors?s so called “side-saddle” gas tanks are an example of an idea that didn?t work.

GM installed ?side-saddle? gas tanks on pickup trucks from 1973 to 1989. These tanks have killed more than 700 people in explosions. If Aristotle had designed the trucks, he probably wouldn?t have moved the gas tanks. He would say that gas tanks shouldn?t go on the side; they aren?t on the side now and have never been on the side, it is obvious that the side isn?t the place for gas tanks. If Aristotle designed the gas tanks, it would have saved over 700 lives. The people who designed the gas tanks used a platonic epistemological method. They decided to try something new and unproven, they moved the gas tanks. KABOOM!!!, 700 deaths.

Although this example might seem superficial, I think it proves my point. Change isn?t safe; change is risky. Not only are people resistant to change (which in extreme cases, like slavery, could cause war), but change isn?t proven. It might not produce the desired outcome. At the same time, without change, humanity can?t evolve. Without imagination and willingness to try new things, humanity would still be living in caves pounding rocks together. This brings me to an interesting point; it seems that Plato?s epistemology may be necessary for scientific innovation, but what about Aristotle?s epistemology?

In order for human knowledge of science to evolve, it seems necessary to ?think outside of the box?. It seems necessary to ignore conventional beliefs, so that new ideas can be conceived of. However, since science and innovation build on the study of the world around us, it also seems necessary to examine the world around us (i.e. use Aristotelian epistemology). It seems then that the epistemological views of Plato and Aristotle are both necessary for scientific innovation. If we ignore what is tangible and visible, and if we ignore proven facts, science can?t exist. If we refuse to think outside of the box, science can?t evolve. At the same time, both epistemological methods seem to conflict with science.

Using Plato?s epistemological method, all that is physical is nothing more than a shadow of the truth. This means that it is pointless to examine and test physical things in a search for truth, because truth can?t be found in these ?shadows?. However, the study of physical interactions between tangible, material things, is essential to science because those interactions are the basis of scientific knowledge. In addition, because science builds on previous discoveries, it is necessary in science to rely on historical evidence. So, although by using Plato?s epistemology, imaginative new scientific discoveries could be made, there would be no previous basis to build on in making these discoveries, and any discoveries that were made would deal with irrelevant ?shadows? shadows of reality anyway.

Using Aristotle?s epistemological method also seems to conflict with scientific discovery. Aristotle would look at the scientific knowledge that already exists, and believe that it is true, preventing new discoveries from being made. There would be no point in ?thinking outside of the box? because the way things are, is the way things are.

If Christopher Columbus thought like Aristotle, he never would have discovered America. After asking the educated people of the time, he would have discovered that everyone agreed that the world was flat. At the time, the earth?s flatness was considered scientific fact; there was no reason to believe otherwise. Therefore, using Aristotle?s epistemology, Columbus would have concluded that the world was flat and stopped there. If Columbus had used Plato?s epistemology, he might have wondered would happen if he sailed straight out into the ocean. However, he would surely get lost at sea if he tried to find out. If he used Plato?s epistemology he wouldn?t trust the stars as a guide, he would no nothing about winds or currents, he wouldn?t even know how to work a sail. All of these things are based on tangible evidence and past experience, which according to Plato are nothing more than shallow ?shadows? of the truth, and should be discounted. If Columbus used a platonic epistemology, all he could have done was sit around and wonder what was across the ocean.

It seems then, that the best epistemology for science, must fall somewhere between that of Aristotle and Plato. A good scientist needs to acknowledge the facts, but be open to new ideas and beware of the ?chains? of custom and habit. This also seems to hold true in other matters, such as slavery, women, and automobile design. The best epistemology to live by isn?t the epistemology of Plato, or that of Aristotle, it is a combination of the two. A person needs to acknowledge the world around him, but be wary of the ?chains? of custom. He needs to be open to new ideas, but keep in mind the hardships that may come with change. He should acknowledge that things might not always be as they seem, but not lose sight of reality. He should be an Aristotelian-Platonist.