Faded Philosopher Cage Match: Plato v. Aristotle

Do you prefer dogs? Do you own a cat? Do you drive a Prius or an SUV? Do you prefer baseball or football? In theory, these preferences could be an indicator whether you are more influenced by the Greek philosopher Plato or his equally famous student Aristotle. I came across an interesting little quiz that you can all try:  http://www.signature-reads.com/2013/11/the-personality-divide-are-you-more-like-plato-or-aristotle/

I am taking a Philosophy mini-course, so I will share the benefit of my quick-learned wisdom. The subject is philosophy and once you dip your toe into Metaphysics – that is, What’s the universe made of – you’re not far from delving into Epistemology – How can I know what I know – and then it’s a slippery slope to Existentialism and Deconstructionism and Miley Cyrus.

But let’s start much simpler.

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozin’ beggar who could drink you under the table
Dave Hume could outconsume Schopenhauer and Hegel
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine who was just as schlossed as Schlegel
–Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Drinking Song

The origins of philosophy came from a guy called Thales of Miletus (now southern Turkey) who thought that the ultimate nature of reality was water. Our bodies have a lot of water in them, the area near where he lived had a lot of water, if you dig deep down you get water, and voila! All is water.  Perhaps that explains why philosophers like to drink so much.

What was important here is that Thales’ ideas attempted to have a proto-scientific root to them. Reality is made up of elements. Previous thinkers had used creation mythology based on the gods to explain reality. The Babylonians thought reality arose when the gods mixed fresh and saltwater together; the Egyptians thought Atun created himself from primordial waters. It is different to say we come from ordinary water via some scientific process. Hypothesis and proof. We can bring up proofs against this idea – fire and air don’t derive from water – because this idea allows counterarguments. You can’t counter whether Atun created everything with a scientific proof.

Next thing you know, the Greeks were getting involved and thinking up a storm about the origin of the universe and the gods. Heraclitus thought reality was a process that was subject to constant change. He was the dude that said you can’t step in the same river twice.

Pythagoras thought that all reality was governed by mathematical formulas and he not only invented understanding of math relations to physical objects (hypotenuses and such) but also musical formulas.  He stretched strings on a lyre and determined the physical ratios: Octave = pitch produced by plucking a half-length compared to entire length. Pythagoras also had an intense aversion to eating meat, fish and especially beans. The Pythagorean Diet was a vegetarian diet and one story, according to Wikipedia, linked his aversion to beans to his death:

According to legend, enemies of the Pythagoreans set fire to Pythagoras’ house, sending the elderly man running toward a bean field, where he halted, declaring that he would rather die than enter the field – whereupon his pursuers slit his throat.

Back to the Greeks, where in the Age of Pericles in Athens – philosophy became popular, even faddish. Philosophers ran around the countryside in Greece, invited to the parties of the wealthy to dispense their theories like Zeno’s paradox and Democritus’ notion of the atom, much like foodies and motivational speakers do today. Next came Socrates who was known more for creating a school and environment where thinking was discussed than for specific ideas. Socrates himself didn’t write anything down, so what we know about him is from his most famous student, Plato. Historians further suggest that Socrates didn’t bathe, hated women, and was a general curmudgeon. He was feisty enough to flip the finger to those who found him guilty of corrupting youth –he refused to capitulate and just drank the hemlock instead. He showed ‘em!

John Stuart Mill of his own free will on a half a pint of shandy was particularly ill
Plato they say, could pack it away, a half a crate of whiskey every day
Aristotle, Aristotle was a beggar for the bottle, Hobbes was fond of his dram
And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart, “I drink, therefore, I am!”
–Monty Python, Drinking Song verse 2

Plato used Socrates as a platform to launch his writing, but he went much further and developed a whole set of ideas around the Forms. He thought there was a world of ideas and a world of the real (World of Becoming and World of Being). What we understood of reality was distorted and limited but it was all we had – the story of the cave being that we see shadows rather than reality, but those shadows are as real to us as if they were reality. And yet there was an ultimate Truth that students should strive to see, an ideal, and if they could reach it, they should return to teach it to others. Plato, therefore, believed in Beauty, Goodness, Truth and ideals as abstracts which could be studied. He also thought that if you studied ideas, you weren’t so much learning as remembering knowledge you had originally been born with.

Aristotle was Plato’s most famous student and though he followed the master at first, he eventually said Ptooie! to a lot of it. Aristotle became a Materialist, rejecting in part the notion that all was illusion that we couldn’t really know. He liked common sense, enough to invent a great deal of core ideas that formed the basis for key sciences – chemistry, biology, ecology – as well as the arts – theater and poetry.  He rejected the notion of Forms – ideals in a World of Becoming – in favor of aspects related to the material world. Color is related to an object; you can’t have color without the object. Beauty is also an aspect of an object. Six is a measure of how many beans you have, not just an abstract concept.

So if you have a dog, then you know – like Aristotle – that humans are social animals. Whereas the relation between cats and their owners is ethereal and mysterious, as Plato believed about ideas at large. If you have a Prius, you care about the notion of saving the Planet—an abstract concept, you Platonist you. If you own an SUV, you are focused on your large family and practical needs and drive like an Aristotleian. And as for the sports, if you like yours built around the clock, then you follow Aristotle and his notions around measurement, which is key for football with its careful stress on clock and distance measurement. Baseball, with no clock and imaginary foul lines that extend infinitely into the stands, is Platonic. Don’t let me even get started on golf!

After the Greeks faded, the Church absorbed philosophy into its own doctrine and had only one answer for “What is the nature of reality” = God. End of discussion, punkt, zip it, no more questions.  They delved into more important discussions like “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Much, much later Rene Descartes was once more trying to understand – in the age of Galileo – where asking the wrong questions could get you burned at the stake —  Descartes wanted to know “How do I know what I know” given, of course, that GOD. But still, how do I know? His Rationalist view, “I think, therefore, I am” was a convoluted way of toadying up to the church because it rested on the notion that he could think of himself and if he could, it was because God put the notion in his mind. So, thanks God, says Descartes, for proving reality exists.

Locke and others added back Artistotelian ideas that perception and objects are inextricably linked. The tree that falls in the forest has no sound if you aren’t there to hear it. Bishop Berkeley countered that the physical world exists in the mind of God, so the tree is there because God says so. Sounds like Plato to me. But Skepticism in the early 18th century had reared its ugly head.   David Hume then lobbed a little stinkbomb in the middle of it all. Hume said that the only reason we think the physical world exists is because we experience it with our senses. Back to Aristotle! But he went further and said that we try to posit scientific ideas based on causation when really causation is based on our experience and probabilities, not some general “reality.” The sun rises in the east because that’s where we’ve always seen it rise. We “reason” the future will be like the past because we presuppose that effect always follows cause, but only because we’ve seen it happen before, not because there is a logical ideal reason for it.

Oh my! Immanuel Kant, that wacky German, came to the rescue a bit. He said that knowledge did derive from experiments and our understanding of the physical world. But he further said that because our minds can structure ideas (whether God gets credit for our minds or not, yes, Descartes we know) then there can be notions separate from the physical bodies which prove them. If I drop a pencil, I will believe it drops due to my experience. But I can also know that there is a thing called gravity which makes it work.

Phew – reality exists! I was getting worried. In general, though, I tend to fondly recall the conclusions of that famous philosopher (he really was a philosophy major at CSULB) of our time, Steve Martin:

It’s so hard to believe in anything anymore. I mean, it’s like, religion, you really can’t take it seriously, because it seems so mythological, it seems so arbitrary…but, on the other hand, science is just pure empiricism, and by virtue of its method, it excludes metaphysics. I guess I wouldn’t believe in anything anymore if it weren’t for my lucky astrology mood watch.–Steve Martin

And for further reading on How many angels can dance on the head of a pin, see:


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0 Replies to “Faded Philosopher Cage Match: Plato v. Aristotle”

  1. Delightful writing and concepts get one thinking again! I took the test and came out quite strongly Aristotelian and need a little more growth in Platonic spiritual visionary realms – sounds sounds right on to me! Great that you have the time to explore and write so wonderfully, Maria!

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