This post is to inform you that if you think you know what Plato and Aristotle are about, you’re probably wrong. Unless, of course, you’ve studied them, in which case you should probably teach me. Hopefully I can follow this up with a short explanation of why studying them is fruitful. The caveat here is that I have read several of Plato’s dialogues once each and only portions of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Metaphysics, and Nicomachean Ethics. So I am drawing from a general sense of things and not an expert knowledge.
So let’s see what the general impression of both of these fine gentlemen is (or at least what I had been taught about them)
- Forms and Ideals (He has an ideal chair of which all other chairs are an imitation)
- The Cave (we only perceive shadows of reality)
- Goes from the general to the particular (relates to the Forms)
- Our senses cannot be trusted
- BUT his redeeming quality is that he’s monotheistic
- Particular to general (Opposed to Plato. These guys are at war)
- The virtuous thing is the mean (so being extreme is always bad)
- Trusts his senses/observes (once again: opposed to Plato!)
- His idea of God is ???
Okay, I’m sure I left some things out, but I think that is the major stuff.
Much of this is at least semi-truthful, but still these general understandings are not perhaps representative of either thinker.
To begin with Plato, I think we must begin by trying to understand what he’s trying to do. Our ideas of Philosophy probably get in the way here. We want to be able to quickly and easily summarize a philosopher’s ideas about the Entire World and Everything That Is and How the World Really Works. Plato does seem to have a fairly comprehensive “world view” that he works out in his dialogues, but we must remember that, more than anything, he is an ethical philosopher. He writes about the good life, and what is justice and topics of this nature. True, he also writes about Knowledge (a lot actually), which seems more esoteric, but one must understand how his ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful are all tied up together (which is actually one of the things that makes him of particular interest to the Christian reader. But we’ll get to that later).
Thus, if you read Plato talking about the Forms and think about an Ideal Chair, you’re missing the point. The Forms most of all are things like Truth, Justice, Equality, essentially all the things we seem to have innate understanding/recollection of. I’m not sure if there are other Forms for him or not, but if there are these take a backseat to the much bigger issues.
So, when we look at the Cave and at his apparent distrust of the senses, we need to know what we’re looking at. Plato believed in the immortality of the soul. And it seemed to him that all the truly good things we experience are most of all related to the soul more than to the body (knowledge, truth, and beauty all seem to relate primarily to our souls. And I think we can agree with this). As such, it’s fairly irrelevant to him what exactly we believe about our senses in general, but we can pretty safely say that they lie to us when it comes to what’s really good for us. Bodily pleasure tells your senses that it is your ultimate good, but, hopefully, your soul knows better, that there’s more to life than that. This is the way our senses lie to us, at least primarily, and I think it would be hard to argue with that. That actually seems to jive pretty well with Christian belief. The things that are most Real are not necessarily the things most present to our senses.
When we get to Aristotle, we start comparing the two. Here we get into the general to particular vs. particular to general. Now, I guess this is true more or less, but I’m not sure it’s always put in the right framework. It does not follow from this that Aristotle is a much better scientist than Plato (although I guess you could suggest that he tried, which Plato did not bother with). Actually, both of them make bad scientists because of what they have in common. Both do philosophy based on general human understanding and the way that people speak about things. This can be a very enlightening approach, but it is not well adapted to science, because science depends on precision, and neither uses language which is precise in that way. (This is not to say that their language choices aren’t careful and deliberate, but both generalize and move from idea to idea in a way that lacks scientific preciseness. Aristotle codified much of this generalization in such a way that probably actually stultified scientific development for some time to come. You cannot do good science based primarily on language)
Further, the particular to general or vice versa argument is not an argument about the senses. It has much more to do with the Problem of Universals and whether you can locate something like Justice or Beauty or whatever you like outside of the particulars it appears in or not. This is a fascinating discussion and incredibly difficult to resolve and so should be treated with respect and care, at least in my opinion.
And very quickly, when Aristotle writes about the “mean,” he is not writing about doing a calculation of what the exact middle response to any situation would be. It’s much more like observing what is fitting and appropriate to a given situation. And he acknowledges that something can be a mean and an extreme at the same time depending on what we are considering it to be a mean in regard to. Hopefully I can write more on this later, but the general idea here is that it’s nothing so silly as calculating how not to be extreme.
That’s all I have for now, but hopefully I can find more time to dig into this further, because I think we should do these brilliant minds the justice of understanding them properly.