Epistemology - Plato Vs Aristotle
Plato vs. Aristotle
In Republic, Plato defines the ideal government to be one that is set up and run by a philosopher king. This person, having a completely just soul, would be able to organize and run a government that was also completely just. Aristotle also believes that this monarchy run by the perfect ruler that Plato describes would be ideal, if it were possible. However, Aristotle doesn’t believe that a perfectly just person exists. On page 81 of The Politics Aristotle says that “if” such a perfectly just person did exist he would be a “God among men”, and there are no gods among men. So, Aristotle discounts the possibility of the existence of such a form of government, and moves on to government systems that he believes could realistically exist.
We can trace this disagreement between Aristotle and Plato to a difference in epistemological views (i.e. theories of knowledge). Plato can imagine pure justice, and can imagine man who is purely just. It isn’t relevant to Plato whether he has ever met such a man; he just assumes that since he can imagine such a man, it must be possible for such a man to exist. Plato uses the allegory of the cave to illustrate his epistemological view.
In book VII of the Republic Plato describes a cave where people are chained up and can only see shadows cast on a wall. He parallels these shadows to the things that people see in the world around them, the materialistic reality that most people base their lives on. He parallels the chains to norms, customs, traditions, habits, etc. Plato believes that because people are so preoccupied with these shadows of the truth, they ignore the real truth. So, it makes sense that Plato wouldn’t want to discount the possibility of a philosopher king based on the fact that he has never seen one, because it could be the “shadows” fooling him into believing that no such man exists.
Aristotle, on the other hand, bases his beliefs on what he can see, and what has been proven. He has never seen a man that is purely just, and he can see no example of such a man in history, so he discounts the possibility of the existence of a purely just man.
This example of the differences in Plato an Aristotle’s different views on government could be expanded and clarified to a much greater extent than I have done here, however I don’t believe that it would help to show which epistemology is better (which is the purpose of this paper). In order to decide which epistemology is better it is necessary to use an example that has proven one or the other superior. Comparing their theories of government would make this task difficult, if not impossible, because such a comparison is so complex. So I would like to move on to an example of their different epistemological views that has been historically tested, the issue of women.
In Greek civilization, women are seen to be inferior to men. They don’t vote, or hold political office. In the household, the man is in charge, and the woman obeys. Women aren’t educated (so they seem stupider than men do), and they are obviously weaker physically than men are. Both Plato and Aristotle live in this civilization where women seem to be unequal to men, but they have different opinions about the significance of this inequality.
Aristotle believes that women are inferior to men by nature (Politics 17, 26). Men hold political offices, and women don’t; men give orders, and women obey. This has been true in every civilization that Aristotle knows about. Aristotle looks at these facts in the world around him, past and present, and uses the facts that he sees to explain reality. In Aristotle’s opinion women are obviously not inclined by nature to rule or be educated, because he can look around and see that they don’t do these things. He bases his beliefs on tangible, provable evidence.
Plato, on the other hand, disregards the fact that women seem to be inferior to men. He can imagine a woman that is worthy of ruling or being educated, and doesn’t care that