Plato or Aristotle?

There’s a pop-culture game you see now and then, the name of which I’m unsure, but which you could call “this or that”. You name a certain pop-cultural category in which there are (or are perceived to be) two different major choices, and the players pick which one. For example: “Coke or Pepsi”; “Chevy or Ford”; “PC or Mac”; “Marvel or DC”. You get the idea. If one played this game with ancient philosophy, one might say, “Plato or Aristotle”.

The two giants of Classical Greek philosophy are an appropriate “this or that” for various reasons. Theirs are the last two major schools of Classical Greek philosophy–after Aristotle comes the Hellenistic age. Hellenistic philosophy (some characteristic examples of which are Cynicism, Skepticism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism) is generally thought to be less ambitious, more inwardly directed, and more pessimistic than Classical philosophy. On the other hand, the towering genius of Plato has had the result that we have only fragments of the pre-Socratics. Many of them probably weren’t systematists; but even of those, such as Pythagoras, who probably were, we have little that remains. Thus, for Greek philosophy at its height, the choices are Plato and Aristotle.

Another reason for this particular “this or that” is the opposition between the two greats, memorably indicated in visual form by the centerpiece of Raphael’s great The School of Athens. Plato, on the left, points upward, whereas Aristotle, to the right, holds his hand outward and downward. Plato, of course, is indicating the eternal Forms in their heavenly, perfect world, far above our world of illusion and mutability. Aristotle was more concerned with the practicalities of this world, and believed the Forms to be real only insofar as instantiated in specific actual things. The Idealist vs. the Realist, the Theorist vs. the Pragmatist–loose terms to express this dichotomy, but not that far off. The eternal opposites!

They say that there are two kinds of people–those who divide people into two kinds, and those who don’t. That’s a good warning about facile personality typing, but I’m going to go ahead and be a divider. I think people are intrinsically on one level or other Platonists or Aristotelians, whether they understand (or even know) the philosophers and their philosophies or not. In short, we are all either concerned with ideas and meanings and “what’s it all about” type questions; or we’re hardnosed pragmatists, concerned with the here and now, with how to put things into practice. I realize that that’s a very impressionistic and somewhat misleading description of the two sides, but for the purposes here it will do. Anyway, I have to declare myself, in the context of this game, as a Platonist.

I’ve always been Platonic long before I had heard that word or knew what it meant. I’ve always been the dreamy, slightly mystic type who was never too much concerned with practicality or details, but who wanted to know what was going on behind it all. That unchanging temperament has manifested itself at different times in my life as interest in science, mathematics, religion, and philosophy, in that order. The interplay and emphasis has changed, and superficially I’ve drifted back and forth from Platonism, but the overall orientation has been constant.

I remember in my first honors class in college (a sort of high-level interdisciplinary Western Civ) when our professor first outlined Plato’s Theory of Forms. I imagine there are two ways one might react to the notion: either, “What a monumental piece of crap!” or, as was my reaction, “Of course! How logical! That explains it all–that’s how it works!” Of course, our professor went on to explain the weaknesses of the theory, which was rather deflating. Nevertheless, I think the underlying affinity that I first became conscious of that day, while it may have wavered a bit now and then, has never left.

I didn’t actually start reading much philosophy until later. I got hold of Ten Philosophical Mistakes, by Mortimer Adler a few years later; then in my last year in college I had a free space to fill, so I took Philosophy 100 for a hoot and read Descartes, Berkeley, and some others. In the early 90’s, I read a lot of Adler’s popular books on philosophy, notably Aristotle for Everybody. About the same time, I converted to Catholicism and began a more systematic reading of theology. Of course, the official Catholic theology is Thomism, so this plus Adler’s Aristotelian-Thomism swayed me for awhile in Aristotle’s direction. I would still admit that in terms of analyzing ethics and politics and in his amazingly accurate biological writings, Aristotle was not only ahead of his time, but much more practical and useful than Plato.

However, over time, I–well, “became disillusioned” isn’t quite right–became more aware of Aristotle’s (and Adler’s) limitations. I got a lot of Aristotelianism through Adler, and even at the time I thought Adler’s discussion of quantum physics (touched upon tangentially in one of his later books) was somewhat deficient. I taught physics for a few years in the early 2000’s, and went into the history a bit for pedagogical reasons. It reminded me of just how appallingly bad (if in some respects understandable) Aristotle’s physics was; and that got me back to quantum physics. Given what we know about atomic structure, Aristotle’s substance/accident dichotomy simply doesn’t hold up, in my view (though there still might be a place for prime matter on the sub-quark level, and maybe some role for potentia and essentia). Much later I came across the website of the physicist Pharsea, who interestingly defends Platonism contra Aristotelianism for some of the same physics-based reasons (among others) that I’ve considered.

I also noticed with Adler’s books a kind of smug attitude of superiority to everything done in philosophy since St. Thomas Aquinas. Ironically, Adler, by his own account, got interested in philosophy to begin with because of his interest in the works of John Dewey; but as Adler later said, he came to think there was nothing of major value to be learned from any post-Aquinas philosophers, except for a few minor corrections (such as correcting Aristotle’s notion that some are “naturally” slaves–hardly “minor”, in my view!). I have noticed this attitude in some other modern Thomists, too. Actually, I think that philosophy after the Renaissance largely has been on the wrong track–certainly German Idealism, analytic and positivist philosophy, and Existentialism, to name a few, have been, to say the least, bad ideas. Nonetheless, I think there are legitimate insights to be found in modern times, and even insights that aren’t new are sometimes expressed in terms moderns can better understand.

Finally, as I’ve read and thought more and more on the philosophy of mathematics, my major field in college, the more I am convinced of the basic validity of Plato’s insights. I certainly go with Kurt Gödel in being a mathematical Platonist–that is, in believing that mathematical truth is exterior to us and objective. In short, it’s real and it’s there whether we are or not. It seems to me that this is irrefutable (though not all mathematicians so believe). It is an obvious corollary that if math is immaterial yet objective, that there is a true non-material realm beyond the material realm we live in. Moreover, if our minds can grasp this immaterial realm, it follows logically that said minds are at least in part immaterial themselves–and thence toward Platonism more generally.

I have more to say about Plato and my thoughts on him, but I think this is enough right now. I’m going to shift gears for the next few posts.

Posted on 30/06/2011, in meaning of life, miscellania, philosophy, Plato and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Plato! (And I’m not just saying this ‘cuz I’m Orthodox…)

    BTW, have you ever noticed how “the greats” of Roman Catholicism aslways start with an “A” ? (Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Albert, etc).

    And in Orthodoxy it’s: Plato, Philo, Plotinus, Photius, Palamas, etc.

    But when you really dig a chick, and the only thing she can feel for you is Platonic love, that really sucks… so Catholics win in the end… darn! 😦

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