Comparing the Similarities and Differences Between Plato and Aristotle

Updated on February 6, 2018
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Jade is a graduate of Aberdeen University in Philosophy and Anthropology and remains interested in these areas while training as a teacher.

Plato and Aristotle
Plato and Aristotle | Source

Plato (c.428 - 347 BC) and Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) are two of the most influential philosophers in history. Socrates was also seen as a great philosopher and, as his pupil, Plato was greatly influenced by his teachings. Plato then became the teacher of Aristotle who, although a long-term pupil, was able to find many faults in Plato’s theories and in fact became a great critic of his teacher. Despite his criticisms though, Aristotle was influenced by Plato, making their works, which target the same aspects of philosophy, easily comparable.

Both Plato and Aristotle based their theories on four widely accepted beliefs:

  • Knowledge must be of what is real
  • The world experienced via the senses is what is real
  • Knowledge must be of what is fixed and unchanging
  • The world experienced via the senses is not fixed and unchanging

These points led to a sceptic point of view which both philosophers wished to target, as both agreed knowledge is possible. In order to overcome this prevalent contradiction in the argument, it became necessary that each philosopher choose a point to disregard and prove to be unnecessary. Plato chose to reject the claim that the world experienced through the senses is what is real, while Aristotle rejected the claim that knowledge must be of what is fixed and unchanging. This presented problems to be overcome by each philosopher: Plato had to give an account of where knowledge could be found while Aristotle had to account for how to have knowledge of that which is undergoing change.

This led the philosophers to overwhelming differences in thought.

The Definition of Form

Plato and Aristotle both used their definitions of "form" to overcome their relative problems when it came to knowledge. Form for both philosophers was able to classify all things: chairs are chairs because they reflect the form of a chair. However, their precise definitions of form did differ.

Plato claimed that Particulars (objects) are only crude representations of their Form. For example, a Beauty Particular such as Helen of Troy is physical and accessible to the senses. Her beauty is also only temporary and relative to the observer, because aging and individual opinions alter how her beauty is observed. Her beauty being combined with non-beautiful parts and non-beautiful perspectives, such as organs, mean that she cannot contain the permanent Form of Beauty within herself. Rather, Plato claimed that the Form of Beauty is not accessible to the senses and is not physical, existing outside of time and space, and so can only be understood through reason. The Form of Beauty (being pure beauty) also differs from the Beauty Particular as it is eternally and irrefutably beautiful no matter who experiences it and at what time.

Aristotle refuted Plato’s definition, believing it to be unclear and illogical in claiming that a chair can be understood to be a chair due to its relationship with a form existing outside of time and space. Instead, Aristotle’s method of defining an object's form was through the object's purpose, which it has been given by the designer. So, a chair is a chair because it has been designed to have the function of a chair. That of which the chair is made could have been given a different form if it had been arranged differently. This way, the form of an object exists within the object and all similarly designed and purposed objects, so it is unnecessary to disengage from this world in order to understand a form as it can be observed and understood on earth.

This also enables one to have knowledge of an object whilst it undergoes change, as its change is contained within its purpose. For example, an acorn has within its form the potential to become an oak tree if not interfered with. The change which it is to undergo is contained within the knowledge of it’s form. This became the basis of Aristotle’s teleology (study and explanation of functions). Aristotle proposed that "nature does nothing in vain," as everything has a purpose given to it, perhaps by a God. With this, Aristotle looks not only at human artifacts, but also nature: eyes have different structures and methods of operation between species, yet they all share the form of an eye, as they all exist for the purpose of seeing.

Even though both philosophers use form to understand objects, only Plato believes it is required to gain knowledge. Plato also thinks it essential to disengage from this world to discover an object's form, whereas Aristotle believes we need only study the objects and discover its function (teleology).

Plato's allegory of the cave.
Plato's allegory of the cave.

The Human Condition

Plato

  • Plato’s allegory of the cave is the key to understanding his view of the human condition. In this allegory, the human condition is likened to being trapped in a cave facing the back wall, only able to see shadows and unaware that there is anything else in the world. The world beyond though contains the truth of reality and acts as a higher plane which must be accessed in order to gain knowledge. One person in the cave is set free and forced to climb a steep hill representing the struggle and effort it takes to gain knowledge and learn as a philosopher would. The struggle is also portrayed as a worthwhile act, as the person freed now knows reality and not merely the shadow of it. The people remaining in the cave represent the ignorant, uneducated majority of society and these people, when the philosophically enlightened person returns, are unwilling to believe him and would rather cast him away than accept his truth. This allegory displays Plato’s feelings about how his teacher, Socrates, had been treated for attempting to enlighten his pupils. It also reveals Plato’s own feelings towards gaining knowledge, which would have been inspired by his teacher. Plato was a transcendentalist, meaning he believed that to understand truth one must transcend beyond this world to a higher reality where true concepts exist. In this reality beyond the senses, the knowledge found is unchanging. This makes it necessary to use asceticism to find the truth. By doing this, Plato is able to ignore the sensory distraction of the body in which he is trapped, while also minimising the distractions of the appetites of the body such as food and sex. Plato uses mathematics as the paradigm of knowledge, as its truth exists beyond sensory perception.

Aristotle

  • Aristotle does not agree with this idea of the human condition, and uses biology as the paradigm for knowledge. This encompasses his view that knowledge need not be of an unchanging nature, but can be gained by observing the world around us. Aristotle becomes the leading forefather of the naturalist thought in philosophy, which studies natural occurrences in the world and nature in order to gain knowledge. He did not see the human condition as a trap distracting the mind from truth, instead Aristotle believed we could use the body as a tool to aid us in learning. His view of everything having a purpose would suggest that the human body itself has a purpose, which allows it to accommodate what humans should be able to have knowledge of. If learning were to require asceticism, then it would suggest that humans are not meant to or did not have the capacity to know or learn these things. In observing natural occurrences, Aristotle was able to discover a lot about how it develops in nature, and for what reasons it acts as it does. Use of his natural senses were all Aristotle required in order to learn.

Conclusion

The differences between Plato and Aristotle’s theories outweigh the similarities. However, both philosophers do leave holes and questions in their arguments. Plato is often criticised for being too elitist in his views, as he requires a great amount of time devoted to asceticism in order to learn. He also sees the mass public as ignorant and incapable, or at least unwilling to accept the truth of a reality beyond our own.

Aristotle, though, is much more grounded and includes everybody when it comes to their ability to learn. He also criticises Plato for suggesting that forms exist outside of time and space, as they are non-physical entities. Aristotle raises the question of how something which existed beyond time and space can have a connection with those particulars which exist within time and space. However, Aristotle’s belief that everything has a purpose also leaves doubts, as there are examples of things in nature which do not have a purpose such as the human appendix. Both fail to account for the possibility of chance happenings, and each philosopher believes there is an ultimate truth and explanation to everything. Both have ultimately left large gaps in their theories, which leave them open to criticism. However, their theories led to two of the greatest philosophical views, transcendentalism and naturalism, which has enabled future philosophers to build upon their original views and revise them to accommodate new information and discoveries.

© 2012 jadesmg

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    • profile image

      Paramjit 

      2 months ago

      Human Appendix? If knowledge is changing and everything has a purpose and if we understand purpose, we gain knowledge, does that mean purpose is knowledge? If true, does this imply purpose also changes and is not fixed. So, may be human appendix had purpose but not anymore.

    • profile image

      yo girl 

      16 months ago

      where did u get these faces

    • profile image

      geoffrey 

      2 years ago

      awesome explanation

    • Parimalpolymath profile image

      Prabhat Parimal 

      2 years ago from India

      Excellent article!

      You have elaborately pointed out the differences in their philosophical point of views. Aristotle had a more rational approach than Plato. Before Aristotle Philosophy was completely confined within metaphysical realm, but Aristotle introduced the rational approach.

      I have written an article the link of which is : https://hubpages.com/education/10-Great-Thinkers...

      I thought you may find it interesting

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