Plato and Aristotle

Plato (left) and Aristotle in Raphael’s School of Athens

Plato and Aristotle were ancient Greek philosophers who thought deeply about politics, ethics, science, and many more. Their works have been studied by scholars in the past several centuries and even today. A larger number of Plato’s works are available today than Aristotle’s, although in logic and science, it is Aristotle’s works that have the most influence.

Plato was a student of Socrates, and Aristotle was a student of Plato. Plato greatly influenced his student, but each philosopher developed his own unmistakable style and body of thought. Plato’s works became very influential after his death, and European scholars made copies of his works. For hundreds of years, Plato’s works were compulsory materials in institutions of learning, while his political philosophy, contained in his Republic, remains one of the most famous political documents in history.

During the Middle Ages, Aristotle’s ideas became very influential in science and religion. Saint Thomas of Aquinas was very much influenced by Aristotle’s ethics that he based his ethics on the philosophers’. Throughout this period, Aristotle’s scientific ideas were considered the authority until scientists in the renaissance conducted their experiments and discovered that there were flaws in Aristotle’s concepts. However, Aristotle’s method of observation and experimentation became the basis of modern science.

While a large portion of Aristotle’s works has not survived, most of Plato’s works are available to scholars today. Scholars believe that Aristotle has written around 200 works on a wide range of topics, but of these, only 31 remain. His remaining works are mostly drafts and lecture notes and are not finished documents. Despite this, this small collection has left its mark on the modern world, especially in astronomy, biology, ethics, politics, medicine, and physics. His most powerful works, which pervaded the thoughts of the ancient and medieval periods, are entitled physics, metaphysics, politics, On the Soul, and poetics. Meanwhile, Plato’s writings can be categorized into 3 phases. His first phase was mostly concerned with recording the philosophy of his teacher, Socrates. 

The Apology, which is about Socrates’ legal defense, is a major part of this phase. Plato’s second phase is concerned with morality in society and individuals. Here, he discussed wisdom, courage, justice, and the power of the state. This phase includes the Republic, which is Plato’s recommendation on building the perfect state. The third part of Plato’s philosophical development features his discussions about art, ethics, and morality. In this period, he asserted that truth is beyond the physical world and can only be reached through pure reason. In the Theory of Forms, Plato claimed that the world of ideas is permanent and perfect, whereas the physical world is full of change and illusory.

Contributions in Ethics

Plato believed that the highest form of virtue is knowledge and that knowledge is the end goal of goodness. He claimed that as the highest form of virtue, knowledge attracts all other virtues. He asserted that if a person knows what is good, then that person will necessarily do good deeds. On the other hand, Aristotle disagreed that knowledge was all-important. He did not believe that possessing knowledge would lead one to perform good deeds. He stated that for one to be good, one has to develop the habits of doing good deeds. Therefore, to Aristotle, even if one knew what is good, he still had to choose whether to do good or evil.

Differences in Methods of Acquiring Knowledge

Plato explained that objects and concepts have a universal source, which is an ideal form or a perfect copy. This is known as Plato’s idealistic philosophy. He stated that copies of these ideal forms are found in the physical world and are not perfect. Plato claimed that this ideal realm could only be reached through reasoning. On the other hand, Aristotle put importance on the objects found in the physical world, saying that an object in itself is a subject for study. This is the primary reason that Aristotle developed his empiricism. In contrast to Plato, who put primary importance on thought experiments. Aristotle placed experimentation and observation above all else.

Contributions in Science

Plato gave the world his ideas on geometry, physics, and mathematics, but most of these treatises were theoretical and were not intended for application. Plato also wrote on astronomy and biology but could not contribute progressive thoughts on these matters. On the contrary, Aristotle is believed to be the first person to develop an elementary version of the scientific method. He emphasized the importance of experimentation and observation to acquire knowledge about a particular subject matter. The scientific method has undergone major changes, but its roots can be traced to Aristotle’s method. His appetite for observation and experimentation enabled him to classify animal and plant life, and his classification had been considered authoritative for centuries. Today, a new and better classification system is used, but Aristotle’s terminologies survive. Aristotle also wrote on subjects such as geology and medicine, but his ideas on these matters are no longer used. Nonetheless, his contributions to these fields of science-inspired others to pursue similar research.

Contributions to Political Theory

Plato’s political philosophy states that an individual should sacrifice his interests and portions of his freedom to enable the state to perform its functions to full capacity. According to Plato, this is the only way a government could rule perfectly. In his Republic, Plato imagined a perfect society with three classes: the philosopher kings, the warriors, and the workers. In this perfect society, the philosopher-kings possess the highest form of knowledge and rule the uninformed classes. Therefore, each class is working in its own proper sphere.

Meanwhile, Aristotle believed that politics does not operate like a machine but should be treated more like an organism. He believed that men are naturally inclined to politics. Aristotle did not write about his political theories on a grand scale, such as a state, but believed that the fundamental political unit in the city.

Plato and Aristotle in the Modern World

Plato and Aristotle are widely known as the two giants of ancient philosophy. Both of their works have influenced the centuries after their deaths. Many of their ideas are not in use now because of the mountains of scientific information accumulated over the centuries. Apart from scientific discoveries that made their ideas dated, prevailing democratic sentiments also toppled Plato and Aristotle’s views on slavery. Plato thought that slavery should be integrated into his perfect Republic. Aristotle, meanwhile, believed that slavery was a part of the natural order of things. He stated that slavery was not unjust because nature intended many people to be slaves.