Plato or Aristotle: Who’s better?

Since the New Year, I’ve been reading some hardcore Plato and Aristotle, working my way through the Republic, the Nicomachean Ethics (in progress), and the Politics (still to come) as part of my class prep. In general, Shimer has led to a major uptick in my consumption of both authors, and in the case of Aristotle it has amounted to a massive crash-course in things that I “should’ve read” long ago.

It seems to me that Aristotle is more authentically dialogical in his approach than Plato, despite the format of their extant works. Perhaps it’s the difference between exposing ignorance (Plato) and looking for the “grain of truth” in all the received opinions (Aristotle). The result is a different kind of tedium characteristic of both authors — it can be hard to summon up the will power to follow yet another thorough consideration of various fine distinctions (Aristotle), but my eyes just glaze over through the repeated “Of course, Socrates!” sections in Plato.

At the same time, experience shows me that Plato’s dialogues are much better for generating in-class discussion than Aristotle’s texts, so what do I know?

20 thoughts on “Plato or Aristotle: Who’s better?

  1. I find Plato much easier to teach, since the allegorical and other such moments are easier for students to relate to. However, I find Aristotle to be more insightful most of the time, especially since I don’t find, e.g., Plato’s method of division to be of significant contemporary import, and thus it drains my attention whenever he uses such an archaic device of argumentation.

    Plato: better for students
    Aristotle: better for scholars
    Tard the Grumpy Cat: No.

  2. Aside from the problem of readability (Plato is easier for most of my undergrads to grasp, though I have had select students express a preference for Aristotle), what’s great about Plato and Aristotle is that you can’t have one without the other. There would be no Aristotle without Plato, and no Plato without Socrates. And no Socrates without the Greek experiment in democracy. What I like about the way that we’ve received them – as this sort of Greek package, passed down to us through an Enlightenment narrative – is that we’re typically “allowed” to think about them both (at once) as ancestral figures. Plato’s academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum are so temporally distant that there’s no real social or political tension between them that we can still feel. It’s not incoherent if we incorporate both Plato and Aristotle into an argument. Aristotle’s forms make a different kind of sense when you read them against Plato’s theory of forms. They are dependent upon one another, for relevance and coherence. I like this. This is certainly not to say that there are no differences between them. There are myriad. I suppose I’m just saying that each of their ideas are simply better (more interesting, more complex) when we read these thinkers together. And I think it should be OK to pick and choose. It may be that I’d rather think forms with Aristotle. But I’d rather think about women with Plato. I think, too often, the history of philosophy is told as a story of heroes who reject one another and trounce a badly formed argument with a better one, etc… A story of great individuals who each demand our loyalty. So according to this narrative, we’re asked to choose our own hero. And I know that the history of Greek thought is often told this way. There have always been Aristoteleans, etc… But I’d rather think about them as a couple of guys who really needed each other, to think. And whose ideas are richer when we see them as dependents of a kind.

  3. Beatrice,

    I cannot help but nitpick. If you’d “rather have forms with Aristotle,” you’re really picking between theories rather than two expressions of the same theory. Regardless, I think it’s apparent what you mean by “pick and choose,” and I was also denying Adam’s implied bifurcation or dilemma. It’s a standard rhetorical trick, and I always feel that Adam is playing games with his reader.

    I don’t mean the negative connotation of “playing games,” but more the idea of a chess match were each side has already thought a number of moves ahead, and each side usually recognizes that of the other … or doesn’t and the conversation lags.

    As far as your depiction of the history of philosophy, those of us who were neither taught nor practice that vision of the history of philosophy, what are we to say? Personally, I have nothing to say other that “don’t do that!,” although I only encounter “that” at conferences or other removed places and times. The authors and general readership here doesn’t seem to do “that” either, and that’s why I frequent this place. But then, what do “we” do that we shouldn’t?

  4. Beatrice: I like it. You’re right that the individual genius model of philosophy instruction occludes the inherently social nature of philosophy — to take a later example, Hegel and Schelling were literally roommates. Deleuze and Guattari aren’t so exceptional in co-authoring their books, they’re more exceptional in being so up-front about it.

  5. Sure, Jason, you’re right to nitpick. Point taken. I was being a bit polemical, to make another point. In all honesty, I don’t think I’ve ever made (or will ever make) the case for either Plato or Aristotle’s theory of forms. In my Intro to Philosophy course, I teach both to students and the whole notion of what a form is becomes something that develops out of a conversation about both Plato and Aristotle.

    I don’t think that I was directly taught to practice the sort of *reverence to your preferred great man* model of reading philosophy. But I have always felt a kind of professional guilt about the fact that I’ve never really become a _______ian of any sort. I feel like this is still considered the primary way of becoming coherent, philosophically. It’s the basic “method” for doing philosophically inflected work. You pick a thinker (maybe two) and allow that thinker to serve as your primary portal into the world of ideas. The thinker becomes your filter. No one’s ever really taught me that this is an expectation. But I’ve learned it through a kind of osmosis, perhaps. When you ask, “what do ‘we’ do, that we shouldn’t?” I’m sure someone would tell you that I’m making a big mistake, in precisely this way.

  6. Beatrice,

    I thank you for taking the point with the kindness in which it was intended.

    Yes, such reverence is one of the predominate ways of doing philosophy in continental or analytic, though how one goes about doing it can vary quite a bit. For continental, it’s usually historical reverence, whereas in analytic is the reverence you show to a formidable opponent as you either demolish. Personally, I perform a third kind of reverence, reverence to the tradition (in this case American pragmatism). It’s analogous to concentrated study of a thinker, though more dispersed. The down side, I have discovered, is that reverence to a tradition that is not very popular leaves one feeling like a third wheel. Or, a related issue, revering a tradition in a context where interlocutors deny tradition-based thinking (including their own as constituting a tradition) can lead to conflict.

    In short, I do think that some kind of “reverence” is required to attain philosophical coherency. I’ve met far too many graduate students and professors who have not attained this, or at least in the same way, because, e.g., they derive “coherency” from the problem-solution model peculiar to analytic philosophy or just lack thorough grounding. It will leave the point at that, since I believe this readership will draw the intended implications as I have gone on for too much. This point addresses what is commonly called the “over-specialization” of the discipline.

  7. Yeah, I think there’s something to be said for focus. Certainly portals, or ports of entry, are necessary. But I also think the risk of this sort focus is that one becomes myopic and territorial. Which isn’t particularly good for thinking, either. I do think, Jason, that when a tradition becomes your filter you have access to something limited and (thus) tangible. Something like a nest. But with, arguably, a greater set of perspectives than when you consider yourself to be modeled somewhat in the image of one thinker, or another. I’ve tended to find a point of focus through a given concept. The animal, for example. Admittedly, there are probably only one or two thinkers whose theories about animals or animality I actually trust. But when your focus is a concept or an idea, this gives you the excuse to read broadly and to see links, dependencies, and associations between variant strains of thought or particular thinkers.

  8. Btw, my focal concept is “hypocrisy,” and I find the analogous concept of “hubris” to be quite insightful in both Plato and Aristotle. For instance, in Plato’s Republic in the discussion of the “over-reacher” or unjust, or in Aristotle’s ethics where he discusses how the incontinent have “perceptual knowledge” of the good and mistake it for theoretical or categorical knowledge of the good. (I’ve omitted a lot of caveats.)

    Adam, I see you one Plato and Aristotle, and raise you a Buddha and a Confucius.

  9. Excuse me, I just want to quote a Borges’ joke that says that there are two kind of men: aristotelian or platonist. After reading the comments, I find out again that the quote has an aristotelian accuracy.

  10. “Aristotle is more authentically dialogical in his approach than Plato, despite the format of their extant works”

    Or perhaps because of the format? I’ve always thought that Plato simulated dialogs in order to avoid the messiness of engaging in them.

  11. Voyou,

    I agree with you that we might be able to debate this topic of authentically dialogical, if we accept the historian’s premise that the texts were meant to be teaching texts. Hence, the actual dialogue is not in the text, but in the live performance of the text. In that light, Aristotle’s texts despite being more “scholarly” are less dialogical and more didactic. Of course, this requires more supposition about the academy or lyceum that we can decidedly prove.

  12. Voyou, Deleuze and Guattari say the same thing, in What Is Philosophy iirc: that though Plato’s dialogues may look like conversations, it’s really just Socrates ignoring the conventions of conversation (like not asking people “what do you mean by x?” after everything they say), a sort of anti-conversation

  13. Of course Socrates is ignoring the conventions of conversation. More correctly, he’s attacking the conventions of conversation intentionally.

  14. Related question: Has anyone heard of folks teaching an introduction to philosophy course *just* using Plato and Aristotle? I’ve heard of this, actually, but was wondering if any of you have. I know Plato’s ‘Republic’ essentially “has it all” and have many times wondered how I might get away with sizing a larger than normal chunk of any intro course that I teach (even ethics) using it before the students “burn out” on a few dialogues (nevermind an entire treatise by Plato). Ideas of where the ‘Republic’ (or Plato, or Aristotle) fits would be welcome – although Adam’s initial post didn’t mention what class specifically he was teaching. Many thanks in advance.

  15. I’ve heard that too, and when I was interviewed by Xavier U in Cincinnatti, it was mentioned that some people teach mostly the Republic. Perhaps I’m misremembering, but I believe that was said.

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