Plato Vs. Aristotle

Plato was a brilliant philosopher and teacher who helped establish what is today known as western philosophy. Plato's most famous student is Aristotle, who regardless of his education by the great philosopher has differing world views and thoughts on what the ideal polis is.

The worldviews of Plato and Aristotle are strikingly diverse. Plato's metaphysics and epistemology for example divides the world into the everyday perception of the world and into forms. These forms are best described as perfect ideas that are 'floating in space.' For example, there are a thousand different designs for chairs which exist in the real world. However, according to Plato there is somewhere, 'floating in space' the idea of a perfect chair in which all woodworkers base their flawed chairs off of (Fisher 2008).

Plato uses the allegory of the cave to demonstrate his metaphysics and epistemology. First, he describes people who are forced to sit and watch shadows on a cave wall for the entirety of their lives (Bloom 194-198). The shadows are a representation of how regular people see objects in everyday life. If one of these people, who has only watched shadows, were permitted to leave the cave they would then see the true forms of objects. To Plato these forms are reality because of their perfection. Plato also believes that only enlightened philosophers are able to truly comprehend these forms; this belief affects how he invents his ideal city.

Similar to Plato's beliefs Aristotle also believes in forms. However, Aristotle does not contrive that these forms simply 'float in space.' On the contrary, Aristotle thinks that these forms exist inside of objects themselves. So, instead of having the idea of a perfect chair floating in one's imagination the perfect chair could be found lurking inside of any chair. Aristotle expresses this idea by saying, "as the soul and body are two, so also we not two parts of the soul" (Aristotle, Sinclair, and Saunders 259-260, 427-430). In this example, the soul represents the forms and the body reality.

A major difference between the two philosophers is also seen in how the two philosophers determine what is true and what is not. Aristotle believes only what he has seen and knows to be true, whereas Plato is more likely to believe what he reasons to be true. Therefore, Aristotle would be more inclined than Plato to use scientific method to prove truths physically, before stating them as true. But, Plato would use common sense and intuition to determine if something is true or not. Reason is not the same as actually seeing and therefore Aristotle and Plato diverge there methods of finding truth.

Due to there world views, Plato and Aristotle also have conflicting ideas about what is and what is not an ideal polis. First off, Plato wishes to create a just oligarchy where the wisest philosophers are in charge. To do this Plato states that an ideal polis must be maintained by one essential myth. This myth says that all people are born of mother Earth and have qualities correlating with three of her fine metals: gold, silver and iron (Bloom 94). The result of this essential myth is that the people of the polis are divided into three main classes, each corresponding to the metal they are 'made of' (Bloom94). The lowest class in Plato's polis includes those who are farmers and artisans and whose job it is to farm the land or work with metals or clay. In addition to the lower class there are also two upper classes in Plato's ideal polis, and they are responsible for the defense and ruling of the city; these classes are known as the auxiliaries and the guardians.

The auxiliaries act as the soldiers of the city and defend it when it is under attack. Likewise, the guardians command the auxiliaries and are the leaders of the polis. These two classes are separated by age, experience, and knowledge; just as a general must first be a soldier so too must a guardian first be an auxiliary (Bloom 93). Once in a class a person is a member of it for life. However, children have the opportunity to be placed in any of the classes regardless of their parent's stature; this movement is based purely on ability and skill.

Becoming a ruler or Philosopher King in Plato's ideal polis is difficult work. Candidates begin training as auxiliaries from a young age beginning with simple play (Bloom 90). As time progresses they are educated in both academics and gymnastics in order to be multi-faceted (Bloom 90). Furthermore, the everyday lives of guardians and auxiliaries are controlled to ensure that they remain loyal and honorable to the polis. For example, guardians and auxiliaries are denied the privilege of personal possessions and reside in communal barracks where they live and eat (Bloom 94-96). The life of a guardian is harsh and demanding, but the training that they endure is intended to create wise rulers, who understand that their righteous leadership is a job that needs to be done for the greater good of the polis (Bloom 97-100).

Plato's state is intended to create justice; however Aristotle's state is intended to provide happiness to citizens through an aristocracy (Aristotle, Sinclair, and Saunders 259-260, 427-430). This distinction in the intentions of Aristotle's and Plato's ideal polis results in many other conflicting beliefs concerning their ideal poleis.

To begin with, Aristotle has no essential myth to help the upper class maintain control over the lower classes. Instead, Aristotle's form of government encourages all citizens to participate in matters of the state. Aristotle also emphasizes the importance of communal meals, where citizens gather and eat as a group. The mingling of all citizens regardless of class is intended to promote the participation in government as well as unity with fellow citizens (Aristotle, Sinclair, and Saunders 418-419).

Furthermore, Aristotle finds the guardians of Plato's upper class to be unhappy, which conflicts with his constitution and his ideas of an ideal polis (Aristotle, Sinclair, Saunders 119, 427-430). Instead of withholding belongings from his citizens, Aristotle proposes that personal possessions be allowed for both personal satisfaction and as a source of minimal control over lower classes. For if there is nothing separating the lower classes from the upper classes why would the lower classes obey their superiors? In return for this right to personal ownership, Aristotle wishes the possessions to be shared by the owner for the benefit of the polis. Aristotle emphasizes the use of land in particular saying, "we do believe there should be a friendly arrangement for its common use" (Aristotle, Sinclair, and Saunders 419).

The brutal training of guardians and auxiliaries in Plato's ideal polis is also a source of disagreement between Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle's ideal polis, like Plato's, does involve academic and physical education for citizens (Aristotle, Sinclair, and Saunders 431-436). However, Aristotle makes it a point to emphasize the importance of balance between work and leisure (Aristotle, Sinclair, and Saunders 431-436). Aristotle believes that if citizens simply work all of the time, that when a time of peace arises the constitution will collapse, resulting in havoc throughout the society (Aristotle, Sinclair, and Saunders 437-439).

Continuing on with the academic education of the young, Aristotle like Plato believes that children before the age of five must participate in basic play and games, supervised by select citizens called trainers of children (Aristotle, Sinclair, and Saunders 445). Aristotle like Plato also wishes to restrict the types of stories and games that the young participate in, thus teaching them from a young age what is right and wrong (Aristotle, Sinclair, and Saunders 413-414). However, unlike the guardians of Plato's polis, this restriction ends in adulthood, when the children have become men and are full citizens who completely understand right from wrong, and make-believe from reality (Aristotle, Sinclair, and Saunders 446-447). Part of this education between right and wrong is academic, so at the age of seven citizen children begin a public education until age twenty-one (Aristotle, Sinclair, and Saunders 447, 452).

After age twenty-one the children are considered full citizens and thus participate in militaristic duties as well as in matters of the state. Unlike Aristotle's ideal polis where the heads of state consist only of those guardians who have reached the rank of philosopher kings, Aristotle suggests that all citizens be rewarded the opportunity to participate in affairs of the state. This results in another difference; unlike in Plato's polis where only the few Philosopher Kings rule for many years until their retirement (this is due to the lack of guardians who reach the rank of Philosopher Kings) those in Aristotle's ideal polis only rule for one or two years before retiring from their post.

As Aristotle describes his ideal polis he begins to see that certain aspects of the polis are not possible and therefore he constructs a practical polis as well. One of his first realizations is that aristocracy, though the best form of government will not function as he wishes in his ideal polis. Thus he comes to the conclusion that government by a combination of an oligarchy and a democracy also known as polity is the most practical form of government (Aristotle, Sinclair, Saunders 258-263). This is where the saying "government by the one, the few, and the many" comes from (Aristotle, Sinclair, and Saunders 189). In other words, a polity is run by the one: a king or queen like figure, the few: members of the upper class, and the many: or all citizens of the state.

Aristotle also diverges from his blueprint of an ideal polis when it comes to the citizenship of laborers. In his ideal city laborers would not be considered citizens, Aristotle relays this idea by saying, "But the best state will not make the mechanic a citizen" this is because in an Aristocracy a laborer has no virtue (Aristotle, Sinclair, Saunders 184). However, because Aristotle's practical polis is not an aristocracy but a polity which is a mixture between an oligarchy and a democracy, it is possible for laborers to be citizens. This citizenship is permitted because in a polity a laborer "has a share in honors" (Aristotle, Sinclair, and Saunders 185).

Another difference in Aristotle's ideal and practical polis is that of equality. In his ideal polis Aristotle argues that those who are better with matters of the state, regardless of birth should be rewarded for being better, not because of social status (Aristotle, Sinclair, and Saunders 207-208). Likewise, in Aristotle's practical state a pauper and a nobleman of equal skill would not be judged the same in matters of the state simply because "members of the state must be and must have taxable property" (Aristotle, Sinclair, and Saunders 208-209). Plato is one of the best teachers that Aristotle could have ever hoped to have. However, like any other student, Aristotle disagreed with his teachers many ideas and worldviews. Plato hoped to create the perfect polis, yet disregarded the impracticality of its creation. Aristotle on the other hand, created an ideal polis, but then realizing the practicality of it, proceeded to create a more realistic polis. The resulting ideas from both philosophers are a magnificent array of ideas pertaining to how the perfect city would be run and controlled.

Published by Sam Snyder

I'm a junior in college who enjoys writing, but is of all things a biology major. I love snowboarding, white water rafting, and traveling!  View profile