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Aristotle vs. Plato on Metaphysics

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    Aristotle vs. Plato on Metaphysics

    I. Introduction

                Metaphysics pertains to the branch of philosophy which studies the ultimate reality. The term originated in ancient times as an editor’s designation for some of Aristotle’s writings. Aristotle had called these writings First Philosophy. The editor designated this treatise Metaphysics (“after the physics”) because he placed it in his edition after Aristotle’s writings on external nature, which were called Physics. In his First Philosophy Aristotle discussed causality (the relationship between cause and effect), the nature of being, potentiality and actuality, the existence of God, and related subjects. Traditionally, these topics form the content of metaphysics.

                In general, metaphysics deals mainly with reality that cannot be seen, heard, felt, etc. Philosophers use various methods to try to understand this world beyond the senses. Some employ reason and logic; some, intuition (direct and unreasoning perception). Others use experience, or sense perception.

                Some philosophers divide metaphysics into ontology, which seeks to explain the nature of being, or reality; and epistemology, which deals with theories of human knowledge. Some philosophers limit metaphysics to ontology alone, while others broaden the field to include cosmology, which deals with theories of the origin and structure of the universe as an orderly system.

                Thesis Statement: This paper scrutinizes and compares Aristotle and Plato on metaphysics.

    II. Discussion

    A. Metaphysics

    Plato had no philosophy in the sense of a fixed and supposedly all-embracing system which he first constructed, then completed, and finally defended to the end of his life. He was constantly questioning and criticizing. Some of the dialogues seem to reach no conclusion at all, and others are so tentative in tone as to elicit more confusion and doubt from certain readers. All through the ages such readers have interpreted this critical spirit, so manifest in the Platonic writings, as an all-consuming skepticism. But this conclusion cannot be reconciled with other features of the literature (Russell, 2005).

    Certain concepts and certain doctrines are never abandoned, though often refined and modified. In this concluding section it may be possible to suggest some of those doctrines which may be regarded as conclusions of Plato himself and, therefore, as basic to genuine Platonism. In attempting to do this, we shall follow the traditional division of philosophy into ethics, the theory of reason, and the theory of nature, which itself emerged in the early Platonic schools as a result of studying the dialogues.

    Ethics. Plato wrote his dialogues for one purpose, to help men understand the nature o the good life, and to goad them into actually living it. He called this life “the imitation of God.” That his major aim was a moral or practical one is indicated not only by the Seventh Epistle but by the fact that the crowning works of his youth and old age, the Republic and the Laws, were both primarily concerned with practical matters (Harte, 2005).  The Platonic ethics includes the following principles:

    All men seek the good by nature. All things have an inherent tendency to enhance and to perfect the existence with which they are originally endowed. Man is no exception to this rule (Harte, 2005). When the soul fulfils this natural tendency its well-functioning is called virtue, as, when the body functions well in accordance with nature, the condition is called health. This conception, later called natural law, is fundamental to the whole Platonic ethics.

    Virtue is knowledge. Like art, virtue cannot be obtained automatically or by mere luck. Men cannot act well without knowing what they are doing, why, and how to do it. The source of all virtue is knowledge, not merely an abstract, theoretical knowledge, but a concrete, practical knowledge (not excluding theory), like that of the skilled craftsman who knows what he is making and how to make it (Russell, 2005).

    The most vicious acts are done involuntarily, or against the will, in the sense that they obstruct its basic, natural tendency to what is good. He who commits such acts is in worse state than he who knows the good and wills it but is overcome by passion or accident. The former cannot help doing evil, for his guiding faculties are corrupted. He thinks that he knows what he does not know, and thinks that he wills what he does not will, i.e. the good (Russell, 2005).

    The four chief virtues of the soul are wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. Wisdom alone can guide action to its natural end; justice renders to each thing its due according to genuine need and capacity as understood by reason; courage persists in wise and just action whatever obstacles may arise; and temperance is the harmony of all the various parts of the soul in agreement with reason (Russell, 2005).

    Pleasure as such is neither good nor bad. There are virtuous pleasures as well as vicious pleasures, but virtuous pleasures that attend rational action, since they are in accordance with nature, are far more satisfying than vicious ones.

    Hence there is no natural conflict between the real duty and the real interest of man. Duty and interest ultimately coincide. What we ought to do is really and thoroughly to be what we are. In the long run this is more satisfying and pleasant than to violate and thwart our nature by vicious and irrational acts (Harte, 2005).

    Man is a social animal by nature. He cannot satisfy even the most elementary needs without the co-operation of his fellow men. These elementary needs fall into three major groups requiring that three major social functions be performed in any human community: that of acquiring and preserving knowledge, that of active political service, and that of producing material artifacts required for a healthy life. These three essential functions are typified by the teacher, the soldier, and the worker. Every member of a human community has a natural obligation to perform at least one of these functions (Russell, 2005).

    During Aristotle’s years with Plato, he reflected the older philosopher’s views. After Plato’s death, Aristotle began to develop his own ideas more fully. Practical and empirical, in contrast to Plato, he was less concerned with abstraction than with his environment (Ackrill, 2001).

    In Plato’s philosophy, reality consisted of two worlds—one of understanding, ideal forms and another of material objects less real than the forms. Aristotle tried to reformulate Plato’s insights into a system that would be more unified and would treat change and material objects as entirely real. In doing so, he worked out concepts that he could apply to all knowledge of his time. Aristotle’s organization and classification of this knowledge formed the first systematized sciences (Lear, 2005).

    Natural Science (chiefly in Physics, History of Animals and on the Soul). To Aristotle, nature included all things capable of changing by themselves. Each living thing, according to him, has a soul, or psyche, which is its form and directs its change. Man and all other animals experience things as sources of either attraction or repulsion.

    Aristotle compiled a wealth of information about plants and about the anatomy and behaviour of animals. His studies and classifications were accepted as infallible for nearly 2, 000 years. However, his lack of interest in experiment and his concentration on the purpose of objects limit the value of his lack of interest in experiment and his concentration on the purpose of objects limit the value of his scientific work, especially in physics and astronomy (Ackrill, 2001). (He maintained, for example, that the universe consisted of 55 concentric spheres, with the earth motionless at its centre).

     Logic (chiefly in prior Analytics and Posterior Analytics, later collected with other treatise as the Organon, or Instrument). Aristotle has been called the inventor of formal logic, since he was the first to formulate specific rules for distinguishing valid from invalid reasoning. According to Aristotle, any inquiry relies on logic, which consists of finding out the relationship between propositions. He maintained that all logical thought follows a certain sequence, which he called syllogism—an arrangement of three propositions in which the third necessarily follows from the other two. Aristotle also felt that in every science there are self-evident truths that can be used as starting points for syllogistic deduction (Adler, 2005).

    Ethics (chiefly in Nicomachean Ethics).  According to Aristotle, the purpose of a thing, as revealed by its form, is what it strives toward. A thing is good when it performs its purpose, and, if conscious, it feels pleasure when it does so efficiently. But although each thing has its own purpose, this purpose is also a means to a higher purpose. Only man, who has both consciousness and reason, is capable of happiness, which accompanies conscious performance of a higher purpose. Man’s highest purpose is to imitate the action of the ultimate “unmoved mover,” corresponding to God, whose only action is contemplation (Adler, 2005).

    The specific virtues Aristotle listed reflect those valued by his culture. They include courage, temperance, liberty, self-respect, friendliness, and justice. Aristotle stressed motive and also suitability of the action to the circumstances (a reformulation of the Greek ideal of moderation).

    Rhetoric and Art (in Rhetoric and Poetics). In Rhetoric, Aristotle stressed logic as a necessary basis for public speaking. In Poetics, Aristotle investigated the nature of Greek drama. Like Plato, he felt the purpose of art was to increase the audience’s understanding of the world. But he believed drama had a second purpose—to cleanse the audience’ strong emotions of their painful aspects. “Tragedy,” he noted in Poetics, “is an imitation of an action…through pity and fear affecting the proper catharsis of these emotions (Lear, 2005).

    III. Conclusion

                In conclusion, it has often been questioned whether metaphysics is a legitimate pursuit. At times the doubt is based on the admitted fact that it has been revolving the same questions for centuries. Such criticism is not very telling, partly since the questions are so difficult that a rapid solution is not to be expected, partly because in point of fact much progress has been made, at least in the closing of blind alleys and in the sharper defining issues.


    Ackrill, J.L. editor (2001). Aristotle the Philosopher (Oxford University).
    Adler, M.J. (2005). Aristotle for Everyday: Difficult Thought made Easy (Macmillan).
    Lear, Jonathan (2005). Aristotle: the Desire to Understand (Cambridge University).
    Harte, Verity (2005). Plato on Parts and Wholes: The Metaphysics of Structure. Clarendon.
    Russell, Daniel (2005). Plato on Pleasure and the Good Life. Oxford, England.

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