Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Plato and Aristotle

Political Science 160A
Classical Political Thought

Take Home Final Examination: Plato and Aristotle

The historian Thomas Carlyle made the famous observation that half of humanity seems to be inspired more by Plato in its thinking and the other half seems to be inspired more by Aristotle. With specific reference to politics and political science, in which group would you be inclined to place yourself? Explain why fully.

Thomas Carlyle made the observation that half of humanity seems to be inspired by Plato while the other half seems to be inspired by Aristotle. This break in humanity appears to be a break in the history of ideals of community and communal values in political life. But what Carlyle may not have realized is that both Plato and Aristotle portray opposite extremes in these political ideals. Plato attempts to define these political ideals by creating a Utopian political society whereas Aristotle takes the view of political ideals by observing and comparing political constitutions. More importantly, both philosophers reject the possibility of examining these political ideals from the opposing viewpoint.

In the Republic, Plato takes the view that to discover goodness and justice in the individual, you must search for it in the state or polis. The entire crux of the argument is that to identify and define what goodness and justice is in the polis, one can then search for those same qualities in an individual. The only means to identify what goodness and justice is in the city is to create a perfect representation of a city in order to examine these characteristics. Plato attempts to create a simple, utopian society based on the idea of people living in a communal, tribal environment close to nature. However, Plato fails to consider that people are individuals with their own individual interests, passions, and emotional viewpoints—both good and bad. These individual interests will conflict with one another. When Plato’s main character Socrates defines this natural city, Glaucon rebukes him as being a city of pigs. Because of this, Plato creates the Utopian society, which can incorporate the luxury lovers and show the comparison of the goodness and justice of the city with the goodness and justice of the individual. But the city is so perfect in its existence with the social and cultural norms so radically different from Greek social norms at that time that the city and its political institutions could never be properly established. This is the main problem with the Republic. Plato has created such an extreme view of a utopian society that the society would be impossible to implement as a viable political entity. For example, Socrates claims that such a society could never be created, even as Glaucon repeatedly asks for specifics in how to create such a society.

Not only is Glaucon anxious to create this Utopian society, but the first half of humanity is anxious as well. While Plato may have viewed this as an intellectual theory for which to stimulate the mind of philosophers, the first half of humanity has taken the Republic as an extreme model for creating the Utopian society. As a result, philosophers and thinkers have all attempted to emulate Plato by creating their own versions of a perfect society. In these perfect societies, it is the polis or state, which defines all aspects of how individuals will live their lives and how these individuals will think. In effect, the state decides everything that an individual will do and think. Plato does not go this far in the Republic. He allows the state to establish guidelines for modifying the behavior for philosopher-kings and guardians who are considered the ruling class. However, he has the state completely ignore the laborers, farmers, and common citizens in the Utopian society—the state never attempts to force these individuals how to think or live. Utopian societies that have been attempted by humanity all have shown the state force its own will upon all people and classes of a society in how these people shall live and how they think. History is littered with such attempts at creating a Utopian society with the Communist revolutions in Russia, China and Vietnam, Nazi Germany’s attempt at creating the master race for Hitler’s thousand year Reich, and even Cambodia where the Khmar Rouge literally depopulated Cambodian cities and forced the Cambodian people to live in a simple agrarian society where individuals who showed any initiative or intelligence were shot in the killing fields. There have been literary works attempting to create Utopian societies such as Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Animal Farm, and even the Bible has man living in Utopian setting of the Garden of Eden.

Plato also never considers the possibility of creating a practical society, even though he leaves unique insights in political theory, which can be utilized in developing a practical political association. There are actually two unique insights that Plato simply refers to, but never fully examines. The first is when Glaucon proposes an early form of a social contract where individuals agree with one another not to commit any wrongs. The second insight is Thrasymachus’ views of realpolitiks in which the world is a dog-eat-dog world where the strong survive over the weak. Both of these views concentrate on individual actions with individual reasons for their actions. Yet, Plato fails to comprehend this concept of individuality. He concentrates solely on comparing the Utopian polis with the perfect individual that all other unique and interesting possibilities in intellectual and political thought are ignored. Plato concentrates on the ideal—the ideal individual or the ideal polis. He ignores the problem that such an ideal could never be fully identified or implemented. In the end, humanity studies the Republic, recognizes this ideal, and then attempts to recreate the ideal on a practical matter only to end in failure. Plato has created an illusion of a perfect society which half of humanity continues to believe may exist.

While Plato seemed interested in creating the ideal society and polis, Aristotle take takes the opposite approach in his views of politics. Aristotle examines politics by observing and comparing the structure and characteristics of all constitutions in the world which existed and in the ideal constitutions which showed the basic ideas, but were not implemented such as Plato’s Republic.

The important factor of Aristotle’s Politics is that he develops the concept of contemporary politics where you can develop rational tools of observation to compare different constitutions and note the structural similarities and differences in these constitutions. This concept is founded in Aristotle’s own education and training in the natural sciences and medicine. He was specifically trained in observation. His views are considered more scientific where he observes nature and then incorporates natural elements in the polis. Plato never considered the possibility to observe and compare characteristics of different constitutions. However, the problem with Aristotle is that he uses too much observation and incorporates a greater share of natural elements into individuals and in the polis. This creates a form of bias on observation where the conclusions of such observation can be affected by the individual’s own viewpoints, education and philosophy. Aristotle never uses deductive reasoning as a check to filter out individual biases while Plato’s the Republic consistently uses deductive reasoning to advance its arguments. In addition, Aristotle never considers the realm of alternative possibilities. Aristotle thrashes Plato’s views of the perfect Utopian society, claiming such a society would never conform in a natural setting. However, he does not propose an alternative view of such a constitution, which could reflect the characteristics of a natural environment. He never developed any philosophical views of the state, nor does he elaborate on the state’s relationship with nature in a theoretical model—he only identifies what is natural in a state through his observations and comparisons. A prime example of this is that Aristotle never considered the theory that the state is not a natural element but is a human creation. This modern idea is completely alien to Aristotle.

Finally, there is more of a unique problem which the second half of humanity views Aristotle’s Politics. While the second half of humanity has rejected Plato’s view of creating the perfect Utopian society, they have embraced Aristotle’s model of observing and comparing the structures of different constitutions. With the tools Aristotle has given for comparing political systems, this half of humanity has embraced Thrasymachus’ philosophical views of the individual and the role of politics which are found in Plato’s Republic. In a sense, this half of humanity has attempted to prove Thrasymachus’ political position not on the grounds of a utopian society with a Utopian form of a political government as described in the Republic, but rather using Aristotle’s tools of observing and comparing world constitutions and society as a whole.

While Thomas Carlyle claims that half of humanity is inspired by Plato and the other half by Aristotle, such a claim is not a strict division between the two philosophers. Both Plato and Aristotle examined the role of politics through their own sharp biases. Yet, the whole of humanity seems interested in taking a combination of views from both philosophers and incorporating such views into a new form of political theory and political thought.

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