Monday, March 16, 2015

Plato and Aristotle

For the past ten or eleven weeks I've been steadily reading either Plato, Aristotle or a commentary on the two of them.  (The commentary has been largely this book, 'The Cave and the Light: Plato vs Aristotle' by Arthur Herman, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.)  I've been absolutely steeped in their writings and who/what they've influenced.  This means that I've barely scratched the surface.  The two of them together constitute years of study and I won't pretend that I'm at that level.
But I do have thoughts.
  • I've  become accustomed to thinking of Aristotle as the patron saint of text book writers.  He set out to systematically figure out how things work and then pass them on to others.  In the same regard, Plato is the patron saint of op-ed writers and gadflys.  His job is to question how things are done and point out flaws in the structures that others have built.
  • They each have enormous roles in the development of western thought.  Through Aristotle we learn the very basic lesson that we can understand the world around us.  We can use our senses and our human faculties to grasp what's happening.  We can sit down and understand the the how and why of the world and use those thoughts to shape our own lives and futures.
  • Plato is more mystical but he's also more uncertain.  Or at least he leaves great room for uncertainty.  His greatest gift to the world is the sense that we ought to question everything around us.  I've long said that the Great Books have taught me of the great streak of rebelliousness in Western thought.  That started with Plato.  
  • Both of these things are strengths.  Aristotle gave us absolute knowledge and objective facts.  At some point those facts became gospel writ and it was hard for people to question him.  Then the Platonic influence rebounded and the 'gospel' quality receded.  People again sought the same objective facts and we got a scientific revolution.
  • Plato's 'Republic' is a landmark book, not for what it gets right but for what it attempts to do.  Aristotle's 'Politics' is a similar landmark, for the opposite reasons.  Today it reads as an utterly conventional book of political theory but it inspired much of our understanding of how government should work.
  • The university model was based on the academy that benefited both Aristotle and Plato but it has wandered far off course.  Could such a thing be remade?  Would it still work even if you couldn't prove its utility?  Would an entirely free search for knowledge lead students into areas where they'd be condemned?  (If the last question is answered 'yes', it's an enormous indictment on modern society.)
Every year of the reading list features works from Plato and Aristotle.  It's not hard to understand why.


  1. I have just procured books by Aristotle and Plato. My son just wrote an essay on them for an assignment which makes me want to read them all the more. I am also going to look up the book about them that you recommended.

    1. Sharon, I hope you enjoy it! Plato is fairly easy to read, though sometimes maddening in what he says. Aristotle is fairly dense. Some subjects of his are easier than others. I found 'Poetics' and 'Politics' very readable.
      Having said that, I don't think there is any problem with approaching them first through other people's readings.