Plato vs Aristotle: Place Your Bets

If you like to really dig into philosophy, you can do so at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but be warned, Aristotle said, “Philosophy can make people sick.”

Dueling Philosophers
Dueling Philosophers

Alternatively, you could watch historian-comedian Mark Steele’s lectures on Youtube, where he laments that most people think of the Monty Python song when they hear Aristotel’s name:

“Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle…”

Yet Plato and Aristotle were the authorities on politics, ethics and well, reality from around 400 BC until around the 1600’s. That’s a long time and their influence still echoes down to us today. Aristotle got the boot along with the Catholic Church, which really liked him, during the Protestant Reformation; kind of a guilt by association thing.

Aristotle was the teacher of Alexander before he was Great and the student of Plato. Plato was the student of Socrates, who said he was the wisest man in Athens because he was the only one who admitted he didn’t know everything.

Plato and Aristotle disagreed. Plato thought there was a reality beyond the senses that was transcendent. We say a thing is beautiful, so there must be an ultimately beautiful thing that we are vaguely aware of, that is not part of the physical world. Same with Truth and Love; we know they exist, but they don’t exist perfectly here on earth, so they must exist somewhere else.

Actually, human beings had been saying this for…ever and these attributes of the Ultimate Everything was identified as God (in various forms.) But Plato wrote it down in an orderly fashion and is thus credited with the concept.

Aristotle wrote stuff down (lots of stuff!) in an orderly fashion, too. He thought Plato’s idea was silly. He thought there can’t be a thing like Truth that exists apart from our senses, so we should study the natural world and eventually we’ll find all the Truth. Aristotle’s idea was a boost to what we call the natural sciences, even though Aristotle said a fly has four legs, which could have been corrected fairly easily, I would think, by counting the legs on a fly.

Plato’s ideas led to exploration of the soul and seeking for more contact with the Ultimate Everything. Their divergence is not simply “religion vs science,” as we like to frame things, but you can see the streams of thought coming down to us.

So who was right? Even to ask the question illustrates our human limitations. Can they not both be right? No, you might say, there either is or is not an Ultimate Everything and there either is or is not a human soul.

Maybe they should start with Socrates, who said the wisest person is the one who admits they don’t know everything. So should we give up questioning? No, Plato and Aristotle would agree that asking questions and seeking answers is part of what it means to be a human being.

As a standup philosopher, I hereby throw my two cents in:

Plato was right, there is a reality beyond our physical senses. How arrogant to think all of reality is limited by our ears, eyeballs and sense of touch. On the other hand, there is a fascinating visible, touchable world out there and we should study it with joy and enthusiasm.



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