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Plato versus Aristotle Plato and Aristotle, two philosophers in the 4th century, hold polar
views on politics and philosophy in general. This fact is very cleverly illustrated by
Raphael’s "School of Athens" (1510-11; Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican), where
Plato is portrayed looking up to the higher forms; and Aristotle is pointing down because
he supports the natural sciences. In a discussion of politics, the stand point of each
philosopher becomes an essential factor. It is not coincidental that Plato states in The
Republic that Philosopher Rulers who possess knowledge of the good should be the governors
in a city state. His strong interest in metaphysics is demonstrated in The Republic
various times: for example, the similes of the cave, the sun, and the line, and his theory
of the forms. Because he is so involved in metaphysics, his views on politics are more
theoretical as opposed to actual. Aristotle, contrarily, holds the view that politics is
the art of ruling and being ruled in turn. In The Politics, he attempts to outline a way
of governing that would be ideal for an actual state. Balance is a main word in discussing
Aristotle because he believes it is the necessary element to creating a stable government.
His less metaphysical approach to politics makes Aristotle more in tune with the modern
world, yet he is far from modern.
Plato’s concept of what politics and government should be is a direct
result of his belief in the theory of forms. The theory of forms basically states that
there is a higher "form" for everything that exists in the world. Each material
thing is simply a representation of the real thing which is the form. According to Plato,
most people cannot see the forms, they only see their representation or their shadows, as
in the simile of the cave. Only those who love knowledge and contemplate on the reality of
things will achieve understanding of the forms. Philosophers, who by definition are
knowledge lovers, are the only beings who can reach true knowledge. This concept has to be
taken a step further because in The Republic, Plato states that philosophers should be the
rulers since they are the only ones who hold the form of the good. Plato seems to be
saying that it is not enough to know the forms of tables or trees, one must know the
greatest form–form of the good–in order to rule. The reasoning is: if you know the good,
then you will do the good. Therefore, philosopher rulers are by far the most apt to rule.
In The Republic, Plato builds around the idea of Philosopher Rulers.
Even though it is not his primary point, it certainly is at the core of his discussion of
the ideal state. The question that arises is, ‘Why do you need ideal states which will
have philosophers as rulers?’ There are many layers to the answer of this question. The
first thing is that a state cannot be ideal without having philosophers as rulers. This
answer leads to the question, ‘Then why do you need ideal states to begin with?’ The
Republic starts with a discussion of Justice which leads to the creation of the ideal
state. The reason why an ideal state is needed is to guarantee the existence of Justice.
This does not mean, though, that there cannot be states without Justice. Actually, Plato
provides at least two reasons why the formation of a state cannot be avoided. These are:
1. human beings are not self-sufficient so they need to live in a social environment, and
2. each person has a natural aptitude for a specified task and should concentrate on
developing it (The Republic, pp 56-62). Although a person is not self-sufficient, a
composition of people–a state–satisfies the needs of all its members. Furthermore,
members can specialize on their natural fortitudes and become more productive members of
States are going to form, whether purposefully or coincidentally. For
this reason, certain rules have to be enacted for the well-being of the state. The main
way to institutionalize rules is through government and in the form of laws. Plato’s The
Republic is not an explication of laws of the people. It is a separation of power amongst
three classes–Rulers, Auxiliaries, Commoners–that makes the most of each person’s
natural abilities and strives for the good of the community. The point is to create a
harmonious unity amongst the three classes which will lead to the greater good of the
community and, consequently, each individual.
The three classes are a product of different aptitude levels for
certain tasks amid various individuals. Plato assigns different political roles to
different members of each class. It appears that the only classes that are allowed to
participate in government are the Auxiliaries and, of course, the Philosopher Rulers. The
lower class does not partake in politics because they are not mentally able. In other
words, they do not understand the concept of the forms. Thus, it is better to allow the
Philosophers, who do have this knowledge, to lead them. Providing food and abode for the
Guardians is the only governmental responsibility the lower class has. The Auxiliaries are
in charge of the military, police, and executive duties. Ruling and making laws is
reserved for the Philosopher Rulers whose actions are all intended for the good of the
state. To ensure that public good continues to be foremost on each Ruler’s agenda, the
Rulers live in community housing, hold wives/children in common, and do not own private
property. The separation of classes is understood by everybody Self-interest, which could
be a negative factor in the scheme of things, is eliminated through a very moral oriented
education system. All these provisions are generated to maintain unity of the state. The
most extravagant precaution that Plato takes is the Foundation Myth of the metals. By
making the people believe, through a myth, that the distinction of each class is
biological as well as moral, Plato reassures that there won’t be any disruption in the
harmony of the state.
Whereas Plato’s The Republic is a text whose goal is to define Justice
and in doing so uses the polis, Aristotle’s The Politics’s sole function is to define
itself–define politics. Aristotle begins his text by answering the question: "Why
does the state exist?" His answer is that the state is the culmination of natural
associations that start with the joining of man and woman ("pair"), which have a
family and form a "household"; households unite and form villages; villages
unite and form the state. This natural order of events is what is best because it provides
for the needs of all the individuals. Aristotle, like Plato, believes that a person is not
self-reliant. This lack of sufficiency is the catalyst in the escalating order of unions
In The Politics, it appears that Aristotle is not very set on breaking
down society. His argument says that there are different classes in society, but they are
naturally defined. For example, he devotes a lot of time to an explanation of the
"naturalness" of slaves and their role in society. Aristotle is also very sexist
and explicitly states so. His view is that women are inferior to men in all senses.
Perhaps the most pertaining to our discussion is the citizen, whose role is purely
political. Both Plato and Aristotle seem to agree that some people are not capable of
practicing an active role in political life. Plato’s reason is that the lower class is not
mentally adept for the intricacies of higher knowledge on the good. Aristotle seems to
base his opinion on a more political issue. He believes that only those that fully
participate in their government should be considered citizens of the state. For this
reason, he excludes workers as citizens because they would not have the required time to
openly participate in politicking.
The Aristotelian polis, as opposed to Plato’s, is a city with a large
middle class which promotes stability and balances the conflicting claims of the poor and
the rich. Aristotle combines elements of democracy with elements of aristocracy, again to
balance opposing claims. Because he is aware that human interest is an inextricable
entity, the distribution of scarce and valuable goods is in proportion to contribution to
the good of the polis. This system provides for the self interested who believe that those
who work harder should receive more. Another point is that the citizens rule and are ruled
in turn, insofar as the mixed social system allows. This is permissible because of the
strong involvement of the citizens in government; it is what one would call a "true
democracy." Overall, a spirit of moderation prevails.
The philosophies of Aristotle and Plato have been around for over
sixteen centuries, yet today it is difficult to find specific instances where either
philosophy is applied. This may be a result of the fact that today’s political philosophy
differs from both philosopher’s. While Aristotle and Plato uphold the good of the
community or state above individual good, today’s constitution includes a bill of rights
that guarantees the rights of each individual in the nation. Having these individual
rights is a necessity for today’s citizens. Going back in history to 1787 will show that
one of the reasons there was controversy in the ratification of the constitution was that
it did not include a Bill of Rights. When the drafters promised that as soon as the
constitution was ratified, a Bill of Rights would be added, the doubting states proceeded
to ratify it. According to Plato and Aristotle, a Bill of Rights is not necessary because
it does not improve the good of the community.
Another point of discrepancy between the philosophers and today’s
society involves the topic of slavery. Aristotle argues for the naturalness of slavery in
The Politics, yet slavery has been considered grotesque for quite some time. In
correlation to slavery, there is the undermining of the female population by Aristotle.
Although Plato is a lot less discriminatory, he also believes women are the sub-species.
While women have had to fight endless battles to achieve the recognition they deserve,
today it is a well accepted fact (generally) that women are as capable as men in
Naturally, since Aristotle and Plato have been around for such a long
time, our society certainly contains some of their influences in a general sense. For
example, today it is believed that certain people are born with certain capacities.
Intelligence has been attributed to genetics. Because of the different intelligence levels
among people, we have different classes–for example: advanced, intermediate, and
beginners. In their appropriate level, each person develops his or her abilities to the
highest potential. This concept is sometimes at odds with the ideal of equality, ie. we
are all human beings. Yet, in essence, it does not take away from the ideal because we are
all humans, but we differ in certain capacity levels to complete tasks.
Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophy have helped shape present thought,
though, by no means, mandate our practices. The philosophers are very community oriented
while we value the individual. Besides differing with today’s standards, each philosopher
is in his own way distinct. Plato is very attracted to metaphysical philosophy, while
Aristotle is much more methodical. Both perspective views are and will continue to puzzle
students for years to come.
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