Plato and Aristotle are both well-known philosophers throughout the Western history. While the former is known for his Cave Allegory and the Two World Theory, the latter is famous for his Four Causes, as far as their ontological accounts concern. This short blog entry will briefly have a look at basic backgrounds of both philosophers and their relationship first, then will try to examine differences in their ontological view points by comparing their accounts in the following order; (1) to have a look at Plato’s Two World Theory, (2) Aristotle’s rejection of this theory and his logics that led him to establish the Four Causes, (3) similarity between Plato and Aristotle, especially in their teleological views, which would reach to (4) a conclusion to point out a certain fallibility.
Plato (427/428 B. C. – 347/348 B. C.) was born in Athens and was a disciple of Socrates, who was executed in 399 B. C., whilst Aristotle (384 B. C. – 322 B. C.) was born in Stagirus, Macedonia and studied under Plato at the Academy, an educational institution established by the latter, in Athens. Both were born in wealthy family background, lost their father in their young age, and received education designed by their guardians: as for Plato, ‘his family had a history in politics’ (http://www.egs.edu/library/plato/biography/) of Athens, his father ‘died while Plato was young’ (ibid), and he ‘studied at a gymnasium owned by Dionysios, and at the palaistra of Ariston of Argos’ (ibid). Similarly, Aristotle’s father ‘was court physician to King Amyntas of Macedonia’ (http://www.egs.edu/library/aristotle/biography/) called Nichomachus, who ‘died while he was a child’ (ibid), and his guardian ‘sent him to Athens at age 17’ (ibid). However, in terms of relationship between the philosopher himself and his mentor, Plato and Aristotle do not look alike: (1) whilst Plato followed Socrates voluntarily, Aristotle was sent to Plato’s Academy by his guardian’s will. (2) Similarly, whilst Plato established his own thoughts based on Socrates’s teachings and though his mentor’s influence gradually diminished towards his later works, in general, it could be said that largely Plato remained loyal to his mentor all through his life. On the contrary, after the death of Plato, Aristotle began to reject his mentor’s teachings – most famously Plato’s so-called two world theory.
In his theory, Plato sees the physical earthly world as being ‘full of unevenness, imperfections, and impurities’ (Baron, 2012). He observes ‘Physical objects are constantly changing (in flux, to use the Heraclitean term)’ (Brown, 2001) and therefore ‘They are transient and ephemeral’ (ibid). He goes further, with his famous Cave Allegory, to explain that ‘what we see on earth are mimics of the real thing, only with a lot of imperfections’ (Baron, 2012), in other words, ‘In real life all that is seen is an illusion (smoke) of the real thing’ (ibid). From this view point, Plato presents his two world theory, in which, ’there are two separate worlds or realms’ (Brown, 2001), namely the visible world of ordinary physical objects and the intelligible world of the Forms. Needless to say, in his Cave Allegory, the former is described as prisoners’ world in the cave whilst the latter as the real world out of the cave. In this theory, there are Forms in the intelligible world that ‘are unchanging and eternal’ (ibid), unlike physical objects we see in our visible world. Furthermore, Plato argues that the visible world ‘is a kind of shadow or reflection of the world of the Forms’ (ibid), ‘Physical objects (in the visible world) are less real than the Forms (in the intelligible world). Physical objects get what reality they have by their participation in the Forms’ (ibid), in other words, what he calls Forms ‘are what really exists’ (ibid).
Now, there arises a question whether the so-called intelligible world is accessible from our visible world or not. On this point, Plato gives the metaphor of the Divided line, another metaphor – along with the Cave Allegory – in his work The Republic and explains as it follows: ‘The intelligible world consists of the things above the (main) line’ (ibid), namely images and Forms, whilst ‘The visible world consists of the things below the (main) line’ (ibid), namely physical objects that are shadows or reflections of the Forms. Nonetheless, in practice, it is yet unclear what does it mean above/below the divided line and though Plato postulates in case where ‘once the humans rose above (the divided line from) their physical environment, they would understand the Forms which were present in the invisible world’ (Baron, 2012), nevertheless, this still holds a room to be answered, as it is argued ‘Whether he meant this would occur after death or during life remains a mystery’ (ibid).
In the meantime, Aristotle famously rejects Plato’s two world theory. He argues that ‘one cannot know the type of interaction which is occurring between the two Forms. If the “real or ideal forms” are eternal, pure and unchanging then how do they relate to the material objections or Forms on earth with all their physical imperfections? This participation or imitation link between the real and the imaginary… is erroneous thinking as no one can/has established such a link’ (ibid). Having objected his former mentor, Aristotle determined to stick to his belief that ‘our natural world itself was real and physical’ (ibid) and to ‘place himself in direct continuity with’ (Falcon, 2012) the tradition done by his predecessors: a causal investigation of the natural world around us. In doing so, he had to face to the same fact that physical objects – or matters, in his words – are constantly changing, in other words, ‘Matter underlies and persists through substantial changes. A substance is generated (destroyed) by having matter take on (lose) form’ (Cohen, 2002). This may suggest that ontological substances – or primary substances – could be ‘compounds of form and matter’ (ibid). However, ‘in the Metaphysics, Aristotle suggests that a compound cannot be a substance (Z3, 1029a30)’ (ibid). Instead, he defines requirements to be a substance as being ‘separable and a this something’ (ibid) As for the latter, Cohen adds a description that this locution is ‘usually translated, perhaps misleadingly, as “an individual”’ (ibid).
Subsequently, Aristotle ‘considers the claim of matter to be substance, and rejects it’ (ibid) because ‘Substance must be separable and a this something’ (ibid). To cut a long story short, it could be summarised that ‘perhaps Aristotle’s point is not that matter is neither separable nor individual; all he is committed to saying is that matter fails to be both separable and individual’ (ibid), therefore, ‘The only remaining candidate for primary substance seems to be form’ (ibid). Whilst the form Plato argued was separable from their shadows in the visible world, it is said that the form Aristotle argues is not ‘separable from all matter (except, perhaps, in thought). And it cannot exist if it is not the form of something’ (ibid). In his logic, individual substances are ‘compounds of matter and form’ (ibid), and ‘they’re not just unstructured collections of elements, but have a structure that is essential to their being what they are’ (ibid). In this relation, the form provides matter ‘a structure that is essential to their being what they are’ (ibid), therefore, ‘the form of a compound substance is essential to it (whilst) its matter is accidental’ (ibid). Due to its own nature, the form in Aristotle ‘is not a “thing,” (but)… the way something is’ (ibid) and this is where his form differs from Plato’s and where the following criticism arises from; what Aristotle counts as the form or ‘primary substance is one that is not in any way universal’ (ibid).
Nevertheless, Aristotle insists that ‘Substances are supposed to be objects of knowledge, and objects of knowledge are universals… (and are supposed to be) definable’ (ibid). As for knowledge, in its proper meaning, he also gives a following condition: ‘we think we have knowledge of a thing only when we have grasped its cause’ (Falcon, 2012). As for causes, through examining traditional causal investigations conducted by his predecessors, he reaches to a conclusion that ‘all his predecessors were engaged in an investigation that eventuated in knowledge of one or more of the following causes: material, formal, efficient and final cause’ (ibid). In summary, Aristotle supposedly means ‘proper knowledge is knowledge of the cause’ (ibid). Here, it would be useful to mention that what Aristotle actually had in mind was something that could be only described by using the Greek word aitia, which ‘is translated as “causes,” is probably better rendered as “that which explains”’ (Baron, 2012). In other words, ‘knowledge of the form or essence is in effect knowledge of the thing’s causes, of what explains why it is what it is’ (ibid). As a result of these arguments, Aristotle gives one of his flagship accounts known as the Four Causes, which can be summarised as following:
- ‘The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
- The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
- The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
- The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools’ (Falcon, 2012).
Among these four causes, the final cause only regards to explain why it is and by providing this, it is argued that ‘Aristotle offers a teleological explanation… that is to say, an explanation that makes a reference to the telos or end of the process’ (ibid). In general, it is said that ‘for Aristotle, an end (telos) is always something good’ (Henry, 2013). Strictly speaking, ‘final causation requires invoking the good as a per se cause. This is why Aristotle thinks no one before him grasped the final cause. For they may have employed the good in their accounts but only as an incidental cause’ (ibid). In this quest for the good as per se (good in itself), Aristotle’s tune resonates with his old mentor, Plato, whose teaching could be summarised in a following way: ‘A life focused on the question of its greatest good is a life lived to its fullest—an excellent or virtuous life’ (http://www.carroll.edu/msmillie/perspectives/wisdomasexcellence.htm). Seeking for the good as per se, or the greatest good, whilst Aristotle takes a direction for the Ethics, Plato sees the best example in his old mentor, Socrates, and whose wisdom. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates ‘identifies his activity with “wisdom”’ (ibid) as the wisest who ‘understands that his wisdom is worthless’ (ibid). This wisdom, and its ultimate state called wisdom as not knowing, provide the very basis of Plato’s thoughts. From his first-hand experience, Plato impersonates his late mentor and retells, ‘…the greatest good for a man [is] to discuss virtue [excellence] every day… for the unexamined life is not worth living for men’ (ibid). Nevertheless, as his mentor’s example clearly shows, wisdom at its wisest only achieves to wisdom as not knowing due to ‘the limited nature of human knowing—as he says, all human wisdom is worthless, nothing, in other words, fallible. Even in their best operation, even regarding those beliefs for which we have the best reasons, and spent the most time considering, human knowing is still fallible, and error is still possible’ (ibid). A clear cut difference between Aristotle and Plato here is, while Aristotle sticks to conduct his causal investigation, following the tradition of his predecessors, basically by counting on his own might, Plato rather recommends Socratic dialectic to minimise the effect of human fallibility, since it helps to ‘overcome our own defensiveness, prejudice, haste, lack of confidence’ (ibid).
However Aristotle’s causal investigation could be more realistic or scientific, in Plato’s view it would be ended up to be described as it follows: ‘We learn about physical objects empirically, by means of the senses: we look at them, taste them, listen to them, and so on. But none of the information we gain in this way is reliable or trustworthy: we don’t have real knowledge of the visible world, just mere “opinion.”… Empirical evidence is at best irrelevant, at worst misleading’ (Brown, 2001). Having rejected to learn by means of the sense, Plato tries to replace it with means of Reason. Upon this differentiation, once again, Plato inevitably goes back to his two world theory. In his view, ‘Our physical bodies are a part of the visible world. Our bodies are responsible for our appetites. Our sense organs, by means of which we learn about the visible world… But there’s also another part of us which links us with the eternal realm of the Forms, namely our soul (which for Plato is more or less identical with our reason). So one result of coming to learn about the Forms is that we will become less concerned with physical matters; we will be less governed by our appetites, and less reliant on our unreliable senses for knowledge’ (ibid).
Thus, this short blog entry briefly tried to examine differences of ontological views between Plato and Aristotle. At first, it had a look at Plato’s two world theory, which sees the physical earthly world as an illusion and sets up the intelligible world that accommodates the real Forms. Then it looked at Aristotle’s rejection of this theory and how he reached to establish the Four Causes, his ultimate conclusion through the traditional method called causal investigation. Subsequently, it tried to compare both theories, especially focusing on their teleological view points, and found that both weighed on similar terms; the good as per se, and the greatest good. Finally, through examining the terms above and comparing the difference in methods they took, i. e., Aristotle’s causal investigation and Plato’s Socratic dialectic, it was made to point out the former’s fallibility, which provides one of key issues to be dealt with for the latter, human fallibility.
Baron, Peter (2012), Explain the differences between Plato and Aristotle’s view of reality, Philosophical Investigation – Philosophy – Aristotle (electronically accessed on 28/08/2013)
Brown, Curtis (2001), Plato’s Metaphysics and Epistemology: Two Worlds, Trinity University – Philosophy Department – Introduction to Phylosophy (last updated 17/03/2001, electronically accessed 29/08/2013)
Cohen, S. Marc (2002), Aristotle on Substance, Matter, and Form, University of Washington – Philosophy 320, History of Ancient History – Lecture Notes (last updated on 09/07/2002, electronically accessed on 02/09/2013)
European Graduate School, The (2012), Aristotle of Stagirus – Biography, Library / Encyclopedia (electronically accessed 11/09/2013)
European Graduate School, The (2012), Plato – Biography, Library / Encyclopedia (electronically accessed 10/09/2013)
Falcon, Andrea (2012), Aristotle on Causality, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (electronically accessed 05/09/2013)
Henry, Devin (2013), Allan Gotthelf, Teology, First Principles, and Scientific Method in Aristotle’s Biology, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, An Electronic Journal (electronically accessed 12/10/2013)
Smillie, Mark (year unstated), Wisdom as Virtue or Human Excellence, Plato’s View of the Search for Wisdom (i.e. Philosophy), Carroll College (electronically accessed 16/09/2013)