Aristotle vs. Plato

From our study of Greek history we know that there are basically two world view roots: One originates from Aristotle and argues that the empirical world is primary.  Thus, if one wants to advance knowledge one has to learn more about the world.  Another root originates with Plato who argues that the unseen world is primary. In Plato’s case, that meant that if one wished to understand the world one studied the gods.  In our case, we agree with Plato to the extent that we believe that God–who cannot be seen, measured–is in fact more real than the world.

Incidentally, these two world view positions are replicated in American society today.  How important is God’s Word?  Does a person claim allegiance to something and to someone he cannot see?  Or does one bank on science and empiricism?  The truth is in 2013 I think our epistemology has taken us about as far as we can go.  We need our metaphysics to rescue us.

Both Plato and Aristotle were impacted by Socrates.  Socrates was one of the most influential but mysterious figures in Western philosophy.  He wrote nothing, yet he had a profound influence on someone who did: Plato.  Plato carefully recorded most of his dialogues.  Unlike earlier philosophers, Socrates’ main concern was with ethics.  There was nothing remotely pragmatic about Socrates who was the consummate idealist.  Until his day, philosophers invested most of their time explaining the natural world.   In fact, the natural world often intruded into the abstract world of ideas and reality.  Socrates kept both worlds completely separate.  To Socrates, the natural laws governing the rotation of the earth were merely uninteresting speculation of no earthly good.   Socrates was more interested in such meaty concepts as “virtue” and “justice.”  Taking issue with the Sophists, Socrates believed that ethics, specifically virtue, must be learned and practiced like any trade.   One was not born virtuous; one developed virtue as he would a good habit.  It could be practiced only by experts.  There was, then, nothing pragmatic about the pursuit of virtue.  It was systematic; it was intentional.  Virtue was acquired and maintained by open and free dialogue.  For the first time, the importance of human language was advanced by a philosopher (to reappear at the end of the 20th century in Post-modern philosophy).

There was no more important philosopher in Western culture than Socrates’ disciple, Plato.   Plato, like Socrates, regarded ethics as the highest branch of knowledge.   Plato stressed the intellectual basis of virtue, identifying virtue with wisdom.  Plato believed that the world was made of forms (such as, a rock) and ideas (such as, virtue).  The ability of human beings to appreciate forms made a person virtuous.  Knowledge came from the gods; opinion was from man.  Virtuous activity, then, was dependent upon knowledge of the forms.

To Plato, knowledge and virtue were inseparable.  To Aristotle, they were unconnected.  Aristotle was not on a search for absolute truth.  He was not even certain it existed.  Truth, beauty, and goodness were to be observed and quantified from human behavior and the senses but they were not the legal tender of the land.  Goodness in particular was not an absolute and in Aristotle’s opinion it was much abused.  Goodness was an average between two absolutes.   Aristotle said that mankind should strike a balance between passion and temperance, between extremes of all sorts. He said that good people should seek the “Golden Mean” defined as a course of life that was never extreme.  Finally, while Plato argued that reality lay in knowledge of the gods, Aristotle argued that reality lay in empirical, measurable knowledge.   To Aristotle, reality was tied to purpose and to action.  For these reasons, Aristotle, became known as the father of modern science.  Aristotle’s most enduring impact occurred in the area of metaphysics–philosophical speculation about the nature, substance, and structure of reality.  It is not physics–concerned with the visible or natural world.  Metaphysics is concerned with explaining the non-physical world.  Aristotle, then advanced the discussion about God, the human soul, and the nature of space and time. What makes this particularly interesting is Aristotle’s penchant for delving into the metaphysical by talking about the gods in human terms.   Aristotle said, “All men by nature desire to know” and it is by the senses that the gods were known–or not.  Faith had nothing to do with it.   In other words, Aristotle, for the first time, discussed the gods as if they were quantified entities.  He spoke about them as if they were not present.   The Hebrews had done this earlier (Genesis 3) but Aristotle was probably not aware of Moses’ text.   While some Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas employed Aristotelian logic in their discussions about God, they never speculated about His existence as Aristotle did.  They only used Aristotle’s techniques to understand more about Him.

As you consider the decisions that you must make for your children, yourselves, and your nation, make sure that you epistemology (knowledge) doesn’t take you farther than your metaphysics (faith) can rescue you!

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