Saturday, May 21, 2016

Plato vs. Aristotle: some thoughts, hint Plato wins

Someone once said, I think it was Whitehead, that one is either a follower of Plato or a follower of Aristotle.  I have always felt closer to Plato.  This semester as a final exam project I had students in my Ancient Philosophy class take sides.  Most were Aristotelians, but there were a few Platonist in the crowd.  I confess that I have no love for Plato as traditionally interpreted, i.e. as a rigid dogmatist Pythagorean who attempts to understand the world as a merely reflection of ideal mathematics-like reality.  In relation to that Plato, Aristotle seems a breath of fresh air.  But the Plato I see is the one who wrote dialogues, who struggled every day with the questions of philosophy, who did not have rigid doctrines, who had a vision, yes, but also had a pragmatic side, thinking for instance that the bridle-user is the one best able to know a bridle, and who had a poetic soul even though he rejected imitative poetry in the ideal society.  I have always thought of Platonic Forms as ideal but not real entities, or at best quasi-real.  They are known as the objects of what we are searching for when we are trying to get at the essences of things.  They are charming although sometimes misleading hypostatizations of the process of Socratic dialectic. Aristotle thinks it is damning to charge Plato with giving us a mere metaphor when he says that things in the perceptual world participate in the forms.  But I think this is exactly what Plato intended:  a metaphor.  That Plato continued to believe in the Forms even after he raised the third man argument (in his version, it was the third largeness argument), shows that the third man argument does not hold much water when directed against what he really believe, not just against the caricature of a rigid Plato.  At first, Aristotle's corrective seems a good one:  forms are in things rather than in some separate unprovable realm, until you realize that it does not make much sense to say that ideals are in things. (It makes more sense to say that they are both in and not in things...more on that later.)  Aristotle's thinking about forms nicely translates into the idea that species have DNA, genetic plans that determine their development, except that DNA has nothing to do with ideals, as anyone with a genetic disease can confirm.  What is left of Aristotle when his forms are reduced to DNA?  When Plato has Socrates search for the form of Piety the answer cannot be some rigid structure pre-existent in things any more than it can be a rigid structure pre-existent in the world of Forms.  For Plato, I suspect the world of Forms, is every bit a myth, and even more useful as mythology, than the world of Gods it replaced.  Most important for me is that Plato leaves room for a powerful combination of mystic vision and ecstatic aesthetic experience. Diotima's philosophy as expressed by Socrates is the key to Plato's philosophy and its superiority to that of Aristotle.  It is noteworthy how weak Aristotle's defense of poetry is in the Poetics:  we should be happy with imitative art since it has therapeutic value, can get pity and fear out of our system, perhaps also give us a bit of knowledge of universals we couldn't get from history.  Blah blah blah.  Plato's attack on poetry is ironically much more friendly than Aristotle's milquetoast defense. The history of art might be seen as an attempt to say "Plato, you are right only in the sense that art has not achieved its highest goal, and certainly does not do so if it reduces itself to merely entertainment.  Art should reach to the realm of the gods, not wallow in the mud of mere amusement." Plato, by attacking art, became the hero of art.  Aristotle, by defending art, became its apologist.  Plato tells us at the end of the Republic that he is deeply moved by Homer and wishes someone would defend him.  Beware of getting what you wish.  Moreover, Plato does not attack art itself:  he sees the greatest artists, at least in the Republic, as creators of constitutions, i.e. as having grand cultural significance, not just as therapists eager to get you on the couch for a good cry. Not only that, but Aristotle is something of a thief.  It is not bad to borrow ideas, but a thief is someone who takes your property and claims it was always his.  Aristotle is supposed to be great for giving us the four causes, the material, final, efficient and formal, all of which are to be found in Plato, although not so neatly lined up.  Even the idea that the Forms can do nothing since they are in a separate world, although fair enough, is simply resolved by Aristotle by bringing in the idea of Love, much as Plato would anyway. Aristotle makes a big deal of dumping on Plato's notion of a separate realm, and then he finds he needs one himself, except his is ridiculously literal, i.e. the eternal realm of the stars and, beyond it, the Unmoved Mover, or fifty six of them, or whatever number he came up with.  (Don't you find this hilarious?)  The Unmoved Mover(s) is going to move everything by way of our love of it.  This is a far less sophisticated understanding of the relation between ideals and reality than that found in Plato's concept of the Good, which too moves us by way of our Love, as Plato makes perfectly clear.   Plato's idea of the Good can be consistent with Deism, Agnosticism or even Atheism, whereas Aristotle's Unmoved Mover is just a Theistic God ridiculously contemplating itself for eternity.  Perhaps Aristotle's only really good idea is his notion of potentiality and actualization of potentiality:  an idea, I suppose, that should allow us to forgive him for all of his other sins.  Oh yes, Plato did not quite have the idea of the final cause as distinct from the formal cause, but to be honest, neither does Aristotle, since he mushes them together as often as he distinguishes them.  At least Plato was not responsible for the years of bad science tied to over-reliance on teleology.  It took Galileo to get us back on the right track.  As for Aristotle's attack in the Nicomachean Ethics of Plato's concept of the good I just wish that Plato had had a chance to get back at him.  First, there is something disturbing about Aristotle's assumption, so contrary to Socrates, that we should base our notion of the good on common belief, as though commonality was itself an argument.  Again, and in the end, Aristotle is going to go the route of the conventionally understood Plato anyway in that he will see the final good as contemplation and scientific study just as Diotima and Socrates do in the Symposium (and yet the contemplation and study is really very different...Aristotle's being the study of an obsessive collector, whereas Plato's is that of a creative visionary).  But this is a far cry from the activist an idealistic Plato for whom the end result is the creative activity that comes out of grasping the Good. The happiness that Aristotle touts is OK, and better than most of what we get in this world, but seems strangely like the happiness that Nietzsche has so much fun mocking.   We get happiness in doing a job intelligently:  fine.  But when do we get joy?  What, happiness just is excellence at a particular skill?  I would like to see a debate in which Nietzsche and Plato take up against Aristotle and not against each other:  Plato and Aristotle are only superficially similar, whereas Plato and Nietzsche are only superficially different.   There is nothing Dionysian in Aristotle:  he is all Apollo.  Nietzsche gets his Dionysian/Apollonian duality from Plato.   Funny how these things work out.  Aristotle gives us the three lives of gratification, political activity, and study as the plausible routes to happiness, but all three are anemic versions of themselves.  As for gratification he has no idea of the way in which eros can animate the pleasure of the senses so that all else seems to melt away.  Plato at least recognizes how beauty of a boy's shoulder glimpsed in a gymnasium can be the start on a path to recognition of the great sea of beauty.  Aristotle, as does Plato himself sometimes, reduces the life of pleasure to the life of gratification: as though the whole point of sex was the orgasm, or the orgiastic life of Sardanapallus.  Aristotle cannot conceive of the Epicurean way of life, maybe even Epicurus couldn't, i.e. the life in which a taste of truly fine wine can give life meaning at least for a day. Similarly, his view of politics is cheap, a kind of Donald Trump view:  politics is all about fame, honor, reputation, making your name big so that everyone in New York City or Chicago can, has to, see it every day:  this is a far cry from the Solon and Lycurgas admired so much by Plato which themselves were so like the founding fathers of America, true politicians in every sense of the word.  Aristotle's and Trump's isn't the notion of politics is a creative craft. And this is the point overall.  Perhaps Aristotle missed it when thinking about potentiality:  creativity is a matter of actualizing something that only exists as quasi-real as a kind of beautiful illusion, a vision, something ideal.  Once we get rid of this, or reduce it to something like DNA, or reduce it to mathematical understanding (which Plato's other followers did) then the game is lost, only to be recovered by Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, each in their own way.  Even the life of study on Aristotle's view loses its generative power and becomes nothing but classification, all pretty much summed up by the notion that thinking could be explained by the syllogism,  All men are mortal.  Socrates is a man.  Therefore Socrates is mortal.  (But since Socrates is one of the set that includes all men we could not possibly know the truth of the first premise without already knowing the truth of the second and also the conclusion.  Logic based on circular reasoning, to be short.)  There is much to be said for pursuing virtue as the mean and this will make for more happiness overall, but it is in stark contrast to radical world-making, to revolutionary thinking, to truly deep thinking.  Creative accomplishment is not going to be achieved by following the mean. Of course the good is something different in each craft...does Aristotle seriously think that Plato did not see that?  The good is not something definable.  It is ideal.  To seek the good in each craft is to seek to actualize the potential in each craft.  By the way, Aristotle's idea of potential is pretty much ruined by his association of it with matter.  The whole radical form/matter distinction is itself problematic as Heidegger observed.  Potential is not to be found in unformed matter:  unformed matter has no potential at all. Potential is to be found in breaking down boundaries, in looking to an ideal that transcends the actual.          

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