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Plato was born in 427 B.C. and died in 347 B.C. He was born into an aristocratic family which made him an outstanding young man. Plato is also said to have fought in the Greek war with Sparta. Plato later became Socrates’ pupil. Socrates was also a great Greek philosopher. Aristotle was born in 384 B.C. in Stagira, Macedonia and died in 322 B.C. Aristotle was a Greek philosopher but he also wrote a lot about other subjects such as mathematics, biology, poetry and others. This prompted the then leader of Macedonia, King Philip II to ask Aristotle to tutor his son Alexander. Alexander went on to become a famous leader and is commonly referred today as Alexander the Great. Aristotle was Plato’s pupil. These two Greek philosophers are world famous and their theories and teachings are still in use up to date. Aristotle and Plato contributed their ideas in many fields most notably, philosophy. One of the topics they discussed in length was ethics. There are similarities and differences in how the two philosophers have presented their arguments and perspectives on the subject. Aristotle is seen as accurate, realistic and methodical as compared to Plato who is seen as more idealistic and reliant on scientific information.
Ethics: Plato versus Aristotle
Aristotle’s philosophies are based on real life observations and not experiments. Aristotle investigates the character of man. He explores the virtues, morals, generosity, justice, love, pain, courage and vices of man. Plato in his book, The Republic argues that a person does not freely choose to do a wrong act. Aristotle agrees with Plato in the beginning chapters of Book III of the ‘Nicomachean Ethics’. He asserts that an erroneous act is a result of lack of education or ignorance of good. Aristotle states that the description of free will as the conscious choice of a good or bad action is inaccurate and does not exist. However in later sections of Book 3 of ‘Ethics’, Aristotle contradicts Plato and states that in some cases there is a deliberate wrong action. Aristotle’s Book III of Ethics, is mainly concerned with the practice of virtues which is greatly influenced by actions and feelings.
In his book The Republic (Section 430d-432a) Plato seems to suggest that true virtue is only restricted to philosophers only. Plato also describes the ordinary man as innate in matters to do with being good. He also explains that the ordinary man is more likely to combine good and evil actions and in the end he does not have the ability to choose his actions freely. He then concludes that it is only the philosopher who is able to choose his actions freely and is able to do the right thing. In Nicomachean Ethics (Section1123a34-1125a35) Aristotle suggests the same thing and introduces us to the magnanimous man or “spoudaios” who does not need the law to control or guide him because he is condescending of anything that is not true virtue. The magnanimous man has inherent in him the ability to know that which is pleasant and so he does not need the law (1113a29-36). Aristotle also stipulates that a virtuous person does not struggle when making decisions; his desires and reason are harmonized because he does not desire things that are not virtuous (1119a11-20).
In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, there is presented a dogmatic perspective of virtue which is in contrast to Plato’s more flexible view. Aristotle asserts that intellectual virtue or wisdom is quite different from moral virtue. Aristotle in contrast to Plato specifies that people who are not philosophers can be morally virtuous too. Aristotle also describes human nature as a combination of godly and physical factors, as well as the mortal and immortal elements. He also says it is a combination of common and specific factors as well as powerful emotions and reason (Nicomachean Ethics, 1154b17-32, 1177b25-1178a9).
Plato’s Republic, Book I, 343c3 explains that justice is only a representation of the good of those in power and the less powerful or inferior are expected to exude this good in their actions. Plato eloquently uses the word pleonexia, in order to elaborate that justice is only used by the powerful to further their interests. In the concluding chapters of Book I of The Republic, Socrates elaborates and tries to prove that it is better for one to be just than unjust. Socrates, who was also a great philosopher and Plato’s teacher, concluded that everything in this world has a function which it best serves (Republic I 352e). To optimally perform its function any object requires certain good characteristics. Using the analogy of a knife and its sharpness, it is concluded that the human soul also needs virtues to be able to perform well such duties as ruling. It is also asserted that justice is one of the virtues of the human soul that can enable one to deliberate and make the right decisions. Aristotle also speaks about justice and he also asserts that moderation in taking is a manifestation of justice (Nicomachean Ethics 1020a21, 1122a6-7). Aristotle also suggests that there is an element of public action in justice where one is required to distribute goods honestly and avert harm.
Aristotle and Plato differ on their views of pleonexia. Aristotle asserts that Plato’s use of the term pleonoxia is misdirected by friendship and affection. Aristotle states that the just man rejects pleonexia and greediness to follow the just path. (Nicomachean Ethics 1137b34-35a3). Davis describes humans as class-jumpers. He explains that this means that a human being is capable of advancing to a super human or divine status. Striving for perfection or super humanity is what makes men unsatisfied and unquenchable. In Book IX of the Republic (586a) Socrates asserts that this dissatisfaction can only be cured by philosophy.
Plato and Aristotle also differ on their views of thumos or rule of spiritedness. Plato is of the view that thumos is a principal reconciler of human actions. By this Plato meant that thumos is what controls human beings from being totally evil. It is what reconciles their good and bad nature. Aristotle however differed with this view and did not attribute thumos any significant role in human actions. He however mentions it in a number of passages in The Ethics.
Plato and Aristotle did not believe that human nature is always evil and at conflict. Their assertion was that human nature dictates that one is always longing for more. This means one will always be dissatisfied as long as they do not have what they ultimately want. They however discriminate and state that it is only philosophers who are able to recognize the greatest achievement. In their arguments they assert that it is the desire for more that leads men to injustice and excesses such as tyranny.
Plato and Aristotle are phenomenal philosophers and their arguments are in many ways similar owing to their student-teacher relationship. They for example agree that virtue can be defined as a completion of the soul and not a duty as asserted by later philosophers like Cicero. They however disagree on certain issues more so because Plato was an idealist while Aristotle was a realist. Both their arguments make perfect sense though. Their approach on ethics is based on their observations of the human character and the concept of justice. Aristotle and Plato are also described as the founders of virtue ethics which emphasizes on moral character. As a student of Plato, Aristotle basically reaches the same conclusions as Plato but he tries to use his own approach and examples. Aristotle in this sense was more critical of some subjects than his predecessor, Plato. He discusses ethics as a distinct topic and even wrote The Nicomachean Ethics, while Plato just mentions it in his book, The Repulic. Aristotle’s concluding remarks on the nature of happiness are distinct to him. No other writer had elaborated on what it entails to be happy. Aristotle emphasizes that man’s ability to do good rests in his ability to reason and the correct instruction of his soul. In Book II of The Republic (357d-358a) Plato advances that the best type of good is one that is pleasing in its character and its consequences or results. He says this is truer for justice, which is desirable because of the results it achieves. Aristotle dissents with this view and states that good should be viewed separately from any other objects or activities.