This is especially true amongst the over 30 thousand Protestant sects of Christianity that exist in America today. Only the Catholics have managed to preserve any amount of Aristotle, and that is through St. Thomas Aquinas.
There are many differences between these two giants of philosophy. I will first briefly summarize the differences in their approaches to metaphysics and epistemology, before moving on to my main topic: the contrast in their political philosophy.
Metaphysics and Epistemology
In the realm of metaphysics for example, we have Plato’s shadows on the wall of the cave symbolizing the perceived world as an illusion created by the senses. This is in stark contrast to Aristotle’s objective view of reality in his “A is A,” symbolizing the idea that reality is what it is, as it is, rather than merely a shadowy representation of some truer reality.
In the science of epistemology, we have the Platonic journey out of the cave into the other world through revelation, in contrast with Aristotle’s science of logic as the tool of reason for acquiring knowledge of reality. Plato was a mystic and therefore set his metaphysical standard as the unknowable other-world, and revelation as his epistemological guide through the magical world of ideas in themselves – justice in itself, the good in itself, etc. This reality that we all live in, according to Plato, is nothing other than an illusion, a mere shadow of the actual reality that lies beyond our normal understanding.
This other-world is knowable only through intense contemplation that brings about revelation. I agree with those who speculate that the Platonic schools developed their own complete system of what we would call Yoga very early on. In book VII of the Republic, for example, Plato begins to describe a scientific method for discovering true being: “What is true unity? This is the way in which the study of the one has power of drawing and converting the mind to the contemplation of true being.”
In contrast, Aristotle’s approach is not mystical, not based on revelation, but rather based in human reason. As we shall see, these differences in metaphysics and epistemology have a profound effect on their different approaches toward political science.
Some of the most profound differences come in the realm of political philosophy. The following short quote from Aristotle’s Politics Book II: Ch. II serves to illustrate the contrast between these two thinkers:
“I am speaking of the premise of Socrates, ‘that the greater the unity of the state the better.’ Is it not obvious that a state may at length attain such a degree of unity as to be no longer a state? – since the nature of a state is to be a plurality, and in tending to greater unity, from being a state, it becomes a family, and from being a family, an individual; for the family may be said to be more than the state, and the individual than a family – so that we ought not to attain this greatest unity even if we could, for it would be the destruction of the state.”
“Hence it is evident that a city is not by nature one in that sense which some persons affirm; and that what is said to be the greatest good of cities is in reality their destruction; but surely the good of things must be that which preserves them. Again, in another point of view, this extreme unification of the state is clearly not good. If then self-sufficiency is to be desired, the lesser degree of unity is more desirable than the greater.”
What Aristotle is contesting is the political system outlined in three of Plato’s works, the Republic, the Statesman, and his last book, the Laws. What Plato sets out to do in his political philosophy is just as mystical as his religious practice. Beginning in the second part of the Republic, Plato describes what he calls, “the good city.” This city was to be what he called, “a city in speech,” and later in the Laws he states, “Let us remember what a courageously mad and daring creation this our city is.”
The Socratic city that we find in the works of Plato is not a city of liberal democracy by any means, but rather absolute communism. Absolute in that, Plato’s communism includes not only equal distribution of material property, but also the sharing and distribution of women and children as well. This Platonic “city in speech” is founded upon the principle that Justice should be set toward the common good rather than toward the rights of the individual.
Plato’s city also requires philosopher kings who hold secret knowledge of the divine law that evades the senses of common man, thus forming what he called a timocracy – the government of honor. This “good city” project first conjured up by Plato, would be further developed by Christianity and Marx, and taken up in real life by such men as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Hitler.
In Book V of the Laws, the Athenian Stranger gives an overview of the top three ideal states. This following passage is his description of the best state of all:
“The first and highest form of the state and of the government and of the law is that in which there prevails most widely the ancient saying, that ‘friends have all things in common.’ Whether there is anywhere now, or will ever be, this communion of women and children and property, in which the private and individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasions, and whatever laws there are unite the city to the utmost – whether all this is possible or not.”
“I say that no man, acting upon any other principle, will ever constitute a state which will be truer or better or more exalted in virtue.”
Because of all this, Aristotle strongly revolts against Plato and moves man in the opposite political direction. Aristotle does not treat political science in the same manner as the other sciences of philosophy, drawing a distinction between practical and theoretical science. To Aristotle, the purpose of political science is not knowledge, but the betterment of action.
Aristotelian political science can be divided into three general branches: ethics, economics, and government. While Aristotle’s political science is not the final word on the subject, it is far more developed and grounded in reality than that of Plato.
Many years later we can see the Aristotelian influences in men such as James Madison who wrote in his Federalist Number X, sentiments reminiscent of Aristotle himself when contending with the nature of faction and political freedom. Madison writes:
“There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.”
Rather than taking the Platonic path toward collectivism, men such as Madison recognized the inevitability and necessity of conflict inherent in individual liberty and political freedom.
“Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”
To Madison, the solution is not in ending conflict, but in allowing competition to run its due and natural course, barring only the initiation of force or the act of fraud upon another. Our republic was not founded upon the aspirations of Plato’s utopian village, or upon Paul’s ancient hippie rebellion of “glad tidings.” Ours is not some mystical experiment in mass democracy, but a grand and rational experiment in mass aristocracy.
Our Political Experiment
Our American experiment is
a further development of Aristotle’s three branches of political science. Our true ethical foundation is found in the enlightenment values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our economic system is based upon the Laissez-Faire capitalism developed by Adam Smith, and brought to life through Alexander Hamilton. Our governmental system is that of a democratic republic whose primary responsibility is to protect the rights of the individual against force and fraud.
To know the difference between the political philosophy of Aristotle and that of Plato is to come one step closer to having a greater understanding of the intellectual and political