Plato and Aristotle have formed democracy, defined philosophy for centuries, defined ethics, set the roots for our understanding of the cosmos, created university principles that are still used today. They are unmistakably among the handful of the most important individuals that have ever lived.
Without them we would not be the same. We might ask, what would happen if they were not born? Arguably, paganism would rule, Christianity would have maybe never arisen from Israel and settled in Greece and Italy. Aristotle invented the concept of formal logic, without any influence at all. And Plato’s definitions and concepts on mathematics are still being used today. The question of this essay is which man has been a larger influence on our society today. In this essay I will first go through the major works of Plato and later compare them with Aristotle’s. To reiterate our aim is to clearly see which man has been more influential to us and our western democratic world. From this observation of the past we can see where we have gone wrong, where we can ask for change, and what we should subsequently aspire towards as we move forwards.
Before you continue, I have written something about this in the past, if you want some more work on this topic:
Why People are Still Talking About Greek Philosophers (Plato Style)
Through my studies my goal is to make these writers more accessible to the modern world. I would like to believe that…
Plato has been called by some the “father of Western philosophy.” He has mainly been an influence through his two more well known works: The Republic and Timaeus. His influence spans from philosophy to science. As has already been mentioned in the introduction, when a mathematician today tries to describe numbers or a mathematical truth, they tend to fall on the ideas and the name of Plato. Which is a lot to say, since it’s been a couple of thousands of years. It is unquestionable that Plato had also been influenced by his contemporaries such as Parmenides, Pythagoras, and Socrates. There were many brilliant minds in the area at the time. That is not to take away from his brilliance. Similarly Aristotle had been influenced by Plato and Socrates as we will soon see.
Furthermore, Plato had also created a theory of the Forms. The philosopher Anthony Gottlieb helpfully expands on this in his book The Dream of Reason. In it he says that it’s the idea that the world is “accessible via the intellect.” The forms are basically meant to differentiate between phantoms (beautiful objects) with the reality (which is Beauty itself). Plato’s idea is that “The true philosophers are those who have woken up out of this particular dream.” The dream he is speaking about is the illusion of beautiful objects. This is elaborated in his famous idea of the Allegory of the Cave, in which we can only see the shadows of objects and never the true object.
Of more interest to us is his timely commentary on politics, which included a reflection on democracy. This work, titled The Republic, is a long discussion on justice. And it had been highly influential on society and democracies around the world. Of course, it was not all heralded to believe in and to practice. Not even Socrates himself (who co-wrote The Republic) expected everyone to hold up it’s ideals. Along with that it also contained a revolutionary idea on womanhood and the value of females in society, which would require an analytical essay of it’s own. Another belief in this work was that democracy would ultimately lead to chaos and fail. This was arguably due to Socrates’ execution, from which Plato never really recovered.
Let us continue with Timaeus. It is in the form of a dialogue, as are most of his works. It is a discussion on the nature of the physical world, the purpose of the world, properties of the universe, and geometrical elements. Because it was written two millennia ago, it’s science on certain issues was mostly incorrect. One modern historian of science went so far as writing that the influence of “ ‘[Timaeus] was enormous and essentially evil’ and that is had ‘remained to this day’ — this was in 1952 — ‘a source of obscurity and superstition.’ ” Whatever people believed they believed because of Plato. Consequently for centuries, it was “virtually the bible of natural science.”
Sir Karl Popper (1902–94) would also argue that Plato’s most influential achievement was his geometrical theory of the world, which Popper takes to be the basis of the works of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein.
Plato also founded his own Academy which allowed his influence to spread even further. Especially since his most known student at the academy was Aristotle. We could say that he gained a lot from Plato’s and Socrates’ teaching.
Aristotle went to Athens at the age of seventeen and joined Plato’s Academy, where he stayed for the next twenty years of his life. He was an enthusiastic follower of Plato at first but then managed to move far beyond his intellectual reach. He is supposed to have said, “Plato is dear to me, but truth is dearer still.”
After Plato’s death he moved away and twelve years later got a job to be the personal tutor to Alexander the Great, who was just thirteen at the time.
Aristotle already started developing deductive reasoning techniques in the 4th century BC. Deductive reasoning is still a technique used in Logic and Critical Thinking courses around the globe today. A deductive argument is simply an argument that is not based on probability — an argument supported with an evidential case.
Aristotle also taught at a research institute which he set up in Athens in 335 BC, known as the Lyceum. His works are comprised of almost one and a half million words, there is also a good reason to think that this is no more than a quarter of his actual work.
These include books on topics such as ethics, political theory, rhetoric, poetry, constitutional history, theology, zoology, meteorology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, scientific method, anatomy, the foundations of mathematics, language, formal logic, techniques of reasoning, fallacies, household management, mechanics, among other subjects. Two of his contributions stand above all the rest because of the original nature and influence: formal logic, which Aristotle invented without any influence, and biology, in which he was referenced until Darwin evolved. To give you an example of how Aristotle wrote, here is an excerpt from his book Ethics: “it is easy to get angry . . . but to feel or act towards the right person to the right extend at the right time for the right reason in the right way — that is not easy, and it is not everyone that can do it. Hence to do these things is rare, laudable and fine achievement.” It would be easy to imagine this sort of prose in a contemporary self-help book. Many modern authors, including Timothy Ferris actually spend a lot of time reading ancient Greek philosophers, since their material is so applicable to everyday life.
We may be impressed by all of his achievements, but the educated people of late medieval times, in the words of Gottlieb, “ate, drank and breathed him.” Dante (1265–1321) referred to Aristotle in his Divine Comedy as “the master of those who know” — there was no need to mention who this title referred to. Aquinas (arguably most influential theologian to date) would merely describe Aristotle as ‘the Philosopher’. Later Descartes sarcastically said, “How fortunate that man was: whatever he wrote, whether he gave it much thought or not, is regarded by most people today as having oracular authority.”
Aristotle’s books are not easy to read, but they follow the same structure and form of logic that we apply today. Gottlieb suggests that Aristotle “writes like a modern-day professor” because “today’s academics are direct descendants of a line that dutifully copied his approach.”
The reason why the Christian world hated him apart from a handful of intellectuals, such as Thomas Aquinas, was that he had a uniquely different view on both the metaphysical and physical world. Aristotle believed that the soul dies after death; Christians believed in an eternal soul. Aristotle believed that the world had always existed; Christians said that it had a beginning. Aristotle’s God was deistic in nature; Christians believed that God cared for them to the point of sacrificing his son. This is why Christians dismissed his concepts and strayed from Greek thought — mistakenly so.
It was argued that in Europe by the year 1000 almost all branches of knowledge from medicine and biology to physics and astronomy had “virtually collapsed.” Even the Christian monks that were in the process of acquiring knowledge in the monasteries knew significantly less than the Greeks who preceded them by eight centuries. Meanwhile, the Muslim world was making rapid progress in medicine, science, mathematics, and philosophy, ever since its scholars began translating Greek works (namely from Aristotle and Plato) into Syriac and Arabic.
Is There Anything to Learn Here? Why Are We Still Talking About Greek Philosophers?
One of the ways in which we will improve as a society is to not make the same mistakes our predecessors have. By the help of Enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume, Rene Descartes, and Immanuel Kant, Western Democracy awoke from the deep sleep of the intellectually incurious Medieval era. In order to progress positively forwards, and not fall into the trap of prejudice, we should pause on our past and dig for these hidden ethical treasures.
As we have seen from the information provided above: both Aristotle and Plato have had a large impact on the world. Aristotle however exceeded Plato in content and reach. Therefore it is arguable that Aristotle has had a much larger influence than Plato on most of the western world. This was mainly due to his extensive research in various different branches and his unique insight within them. It is however debatable whether or not Aristotle could have been this source of influence for the world without being at the Academy where Plato taught.
The mentioned Renaissance critics (Hume, Descartes, Kant) lived in a world that Aristotle created. They questioned his conclusions, as did the Christian world, but they on the other hand learnt from his thought processes, logic, and intellectual curiosity. Without Plato and Aristotle, Western thought would not be the same.
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