Aristotle vs Plato


Plato makes it clear, especially in his Apology of Socrates, that he was one of Socrates' devoted young followers. In that dialogue, Socrates is presented as mentioning Plato by name as one of those youths close enough to him to have been corrupted, if he were in fact guilty of corrupting the youth, and questioning why their fathers and brothers did not step forward to testify against him if he was indeed guilty of such a crime (33d-34a). Later, Plato is mentioned along with Crito, Critobolus, and Apollodorus as offering to pay a fine of 30 minas on Socrates' behalf, in lieu of the death penalty proposed by Meletus (38b). In the Phaedo, the title character lists those who were in attendance at the prison on Socrates' last day, explaining Plato's absence by saying, "Plato was ill" (Phaedo 59b).

The relationship between Plato and Socrates is not unproblematic, however. Aristotle, for example, attributes a different doctrine with respect to the ideas to Plato and Socrates (Metaphysics 987b1–11), but Plato never speaks in his own voice in his dialogues. In the Second Letter, it says, "no writing of Plato exists or ever will exist, but those now said to be his are those of a Socrates become beautiful and new" (341c); if the Letter is Plato's, the final qualification seems to call into question the dialogues' historical fidelity. In any case, Xenophon and Aristophanes seem to present a somewhat different portrait of Socrates than Plato paints. Leo Strauss calls attention to problem of taking Plato's Socrates to be his mouthpiece, given Socrates' reputation for irony.

The precise relationship between Plato and Socrates remains an area of contention among scholars.

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Notable ideas The Golden mean, Reason, Logic, Biology, Passion Platonic realism
Influenced Alexander the Great, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes, Albertus Magnus, Maimonides Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Ptolemy, St. Thomas Aquinas, Ayn Rand, and most of Islamic philosophy, Christian philosophy, Western philosophy and Science in general Aristotle, Augustine, Neoplatonism, Cicero, Plutarch, Stoicism, Anselm, Descartes, Hobbes, Leibniz, Mill, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Arendt, Gadamer, Russell and countless other western philosophers and theologians
Influenced by Parmenides, Socrates, Plato, Heraclitus Socrates, Homer, Hesiod, Aristophanes, Aesop, Protagoras, Parmenides, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Orphism
Main interests Politics, Metaphysics, Science, Logic, Ethics Rhetoric, Art, Literature, Epistemology, Justice, Virtue, Politics, Education, Family, Militarism
School / Philosophical Tradition Inspired the Peripatetic school and tradition of Aristotelianism Platonism
Date of Birth 384 BC 424-423 BC
Place of Birth Stageira, Chalcidice Athens
Date of Death 322 BC 347-348 BC

Contents: Aristotle vs Plato

Views on Art (Mimesis)

Plato (L) holding the Timaeus and Aristotle (R) holding the Ethics, a painting by Raphael Sanzio at The School of Athens
Plato (L) holding the Timaeus and Aristotle (R) holding the Ethics, a painting by Raphael Sanzio at The School of Athens

As literary critics, Plato and Aristotle disagree profoundly about the value of art in human society. Plato attempts to strip artists of the power and prominence they enjoy in his society, while Aristotle tries to develop a method of inquiry to determine the merits of an individual work of art. It is interesting to note that these two disparate notions of art are based upon the same fundamental assumption: that art is a form of mimesis (imitation). Both philosophers are concerned with the artist’s ability to have significant impact on others. It is the imitative function of art which promotes disdain in Plato and curiosity in Aristotle. Examining the reality that art professes to imitate, the process of imitation, and the inherent strengths and weaknesses of imitation as a form of artistic expression may lead to understanding how these conflicting views of art could develop from a seemingly similar premise.

Both philosophers hold radically different notions of reality. The assumptions each man makes about truth, knowledge, and goodness directly affect their specific ideas about art. For Plato, art imitates a world that is already far removed from authentic reality, Truth. Truth exists only in intellectual abstraction, that is, paradoxically, more real than concrete objects. The universal essence, the Idea, the Form of a thing, is more real and thus more important than its physical substance. The physical world, the world of appearances experienced through the senses, does not harbor reality. This tangible world is an imperfect reflection of the universal world of Forms. Human observations based on these reflections are, therefore, highly suspect. At best, the tangible fruit of any human labor is "an indistinct expression of truth". Because knowledge of truth and knowledge of good are virtually inseparable to Plato, he counsels rejection of the physical in favor of embracing reason in an abstract, intellectual, and ultimately more human, existence. Art is removed from any notion of real truth, an inherently flawed copy of an already imperfect world. Art as an imitation is irrelevant to what is real.

Aristotle approaches reality from a completely different premise. While his ideas do stand in sharp contrast to Plato's, they are not simply a refutation of his former mentor's views. To Aristotle, the world exists in an infinitely diverse series of parts. These various parts are open to human observation and scrutiny. Rather than an eternally regressing truth beyond the scope of human apprehension, knowledge of truth and good are rooted firmly in the observable universe; truth, or at least gestures toward it, lies in existence rather than essence. Aristotle encourages embracing the particular in order to possibly gain a sense of the universal. There is, however, no universal system of inquiry to investigate each part of the whole. Different parts require different methods of discourse.

In The Poetics, Aristotle attempts to articulate a method of inquiry, not a rigid system or standard of evaluation, applicable to tragedy. Tragedy attempts to imitate the complex world of human actions, and yet tragedy is itself still part of a larger, more complicated world of human existence. Tragedy is a manifestation of the human desire to imitate. Because he asserts that each person "learns his lessons through imitation and we observe that all men find pleasure in imitations", the self referential function of tragedy gives it inherent relevance to Aristotle's concept of reality.

The actual process of imitation employed by the artist seems to underscore each philosopher's vision of reality. A Platonic artist lacks any substantial knowledge of the subject that is imitated. Three degrees of separation prevent the artist from providing an authentic representation or insight: the ethereal Form of a thing, the physical manifestation of a thing, and knowledge of the physical manifestation. An artist merely copies the surface, the appearance, of a thing without the need for understanding or even awareness of its substance. The artist is "an imitator of images and is very far removed from the truth". This fact is obscured, Plato claims, because the artist is adept at manipulating the emotional responses of an audience. While it attempts to claim truth as its domain, art as a process of imitation is a deceptive but essentially superficial and imperfect enterprise.

Aristotle does not attempt to dispute the fact that imitation will not produce perfect copies of an original. Instead, he describes imitation as a creative process of selection, translation, and transformation from one media to another. Art attempts to imitate human action, not specific individuals. The literary artist seeks to portray accurately the general actions of human life (|happiness, misery) within the confines of a consciously constructed sequence of particular events and characters. Poetry, for example, can thus be described as human action given new form by language. Tragedy, as an act of imitation, implies more than the act of copying because the artist is an active participant in the process. The artist is a maker, selecting certain details, excluding others, giving a work its particular shape, not a deceitful scribe. Where the historian is obsessed with absolute accuracy in cataloging events and actions, the artist attempts to transcend individual details to provide an audience with fleeting glimpses, insights about the truth of human existence.

To Aristotle, it is the attempt to point toward a broader sense of the truth of human existence, its concern with "the universal", which makes tragedy valuable . Not that tragedy always (or ever) succeeds completely (or at all). Tragedy's value, though, is inherently connected to the process of imitating not only the world as it is known, but the world as it should be. The artist encourages an audience to reconcile the actuality of existence with the human condition rather than ignoring it. Aristotle, in developing a method of inquiry, helps others understand how a tragedy operates (intellectually and practically) in its parts and as a whole. With tragedy as the catalyst, other specific lines of inquiry may also begin to develop, leading ever so slightly closer to the goal: knowledge in general and knowledge of good in specific. Tragedy, though an imperfect imitation, is to Aristotle an inherently ethical endeavor.

It is precisely this conception of art which threatens Plato's pursuit of truth. Because artists claim their imitations can speak to the true nature of things, circumventing the need for serious, calmly considered intellectual inquiry, art should not be pursued as a valuable endeavor. Art widens the gap between truth and the world of appearances, ironically by claiming to breach it. Whether in Plato's idealized Republic or his actual society, the threat art poses to attaining knowledge and becoming good is significant and ubiquitous. "The power which poetry has of harming even the good (and there are very few who are not harmed) is surely an awful thing" .Art cannot promote falsehood and remain neutral in this debate. A binary relationship exists. False imitations breed false hopes by claiming to point toward the truth. Either/or: either art is perfect in its mimetic process (in which case its claims are upheld) or art is flawed, and therefore not only worthless, but a challenge to truth in general. Since the physical universe Plato describes is itself a pale imitation of its true form, art is also imperfect and must be controlled and delegitmized.

Though both critics use the word mimetic to describe art, the definition derived by each philosopher is profoundly different. In order to construct a coherent, wide-ranging philosophy, art and its impact on society must be reckoned with, whether as an imitation of a system far removed or a system in our midst. The process of imitation is used in both cases to promote the particular version of reality espoused by each man. While such a study is beneficial in tracing the philosophical conflict regarding the usage and importance of imitation in art, what is most apparent, perhaps, is the discovery that language itself is an imperfect imitation of meaning, capable of fostering such conflicts.

Contrast to diegesis

Statue of Aristotle in Thessaloniki (click to enlarge)
Statue of Aristotle in Thessaloniki (click to enlarge)

Though they conceive of mimesis in quite different ways, its relation with diegesis is identical in Plato's and Aristotle's formulations; one represents, the other reports; one embodies, the other narrates; one transforms, the other indicates; one knows only a continuous present, the other looks back on a past.

It was also Plato and Aristotle who contrasted mimesis with diegesis (Greek διήγησις). Mimesis shows rather than tells, by means of directly-represented action that is enacted. Diegesis, however, is the telling of the story by a narrator; the author narrates action indirectly and describes what is in the characters' minds and emotions. The narrator may speak as a particular character or may be the invisible narrator or even the all-knowing narrator who speaks from above in the form of commenting on the action or the characters.

In Book III of his Republic (c.373BCE), Plato examines the 'style' of 'poetry' (the term includes comedy, tragedy, epic and lyric poetry): All types narrate events, he argues, but by differing means. He distinguishes between narration or report (diegesis) and imitation or representation (mimesis). Tragedy and comedy, he goes on to explain, are wholly imitative types; the dithyramb is wholly narrative; and their combination is found in epic poetry. When reporting or narrating, "the poet is speaking in his own person; he never leads us to suppose that he is any one else"; when imitating, the poet produces an "assimilation of himself to another, either by the use of voice or gesture". In dramatic texts, the poet never speaks directly; in narrative texts, the poet speaks as his or herself.

In his Poetics, Aristotle argues that kinds of 'poetry' (the term includes drama, flute music, and lyre music for Aristotle) may be differentiated in three ways: according to their medium, according to their objects, and according to their mode or 'manner' (section I); "For the medium being the same, and the objects the same, the poet may imitate by narration—in which case he can either take another personality as Homer does, or speak in his own person, unchanged—or he may present all his characters as living and moving before us" (section III).

Videos:Artistole's and Plato's view on various subjects

Plato and Aristotle's view on slavery:

Plato's cave analysis: Cave Analysis is mentioned in Book 7 of THE REPUBLIC and references Meno (anamnesis and the discussion on the difference between true belief and true knowledge); the theory of forms


Comments: Aristotle vs Plato

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February 6, 2014, 2:04pm

realy explored

— 82.✗.✗.66

August 19, 2013, 5:54pm

The reference to Plato's 2nd letter, concerning Plato's dialogues representing a "Socrates cleansed and beautified" or "beautified and rejuvenated" (somce translations say "modernized") is not at 341c, but, rather, 314c.


— 174.✗.✗.61
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