Seeking Wisdom in Plato and Aristotle
While Plato and Aristotle have differing views about major philosophical issues, their core philosophies about the good, especially as it applies to the purpose of human life are extremely similar. Both Plato and Aristotle feel that seeking wisdom is the ultimate good in human life. Plato expresses his version of “seeking the good” in the Allegory of the Cave: men think that their existence consisting of watching a shadow-play, an existence in which men enjoy but do not understand, is marvelous.
When one of the men, who we can interpret to be Plato himself, breaks free from his shackles and sees the grandeur of the outside world, he suddenly realizes how hollow his previous existence was; he has found true wisdom and all of the aspects of his previous existence in the cave have no meaning because now he has understanding. When he goes back into the cave to explain what he has found, he is ridiculed because the others cannot grasp the higher good of which he speaks, that is, seeking wisdom and understanding instead of just entertainment. For Plato, the purpose of human life is to break free of our chains, step out into the light of wisdom and seek higher truth, the truth that lies in the philosophy of forms. Doing so shows us the grandeur of the universe and makes us happy. In other words, Plato thinks that we should be good because it will enrich our existence, lead to enlightenment, and allow us to try and help others catch the same vision. Much like Plato, Aristotle sees seeking a higher truth as the purpose of human existence. In the Ethics, he explains that men’s purpose in life is to seek happiness through finding and developing virtue as defined by the Golden Mean. Aristotle’s philosophy is based on functionality, and he argues that when a thing fulfills its intended purpose, it reaches its maximum utility and accomplishes the ultimate “good” for itself. Aristotle says that man’s purpose in life is to be happy, and then clarifies that happiness is not pleasure but rather comes as a person lives a virtuous life. For Aristotle, the ultimate wisdom that can be found in life is by developing virtues within one’s self. He then defines what virtue is by explaining the concept of the “golden mean”. Aristotle explains that virtue is not about going to zealous extremes, but is rather to be found in balance between the two extremes. I will use the virtue of courage as an example: Aristotle says that the virtue of courage is a balance between boldness and cowardice. A warrior who truly possesses virtue must be bold to the point that he will stand and fight in the face of fear, but not so bold that he decides to kill innocents or fight dishonorably. He must also know when to retreat while not going too far toward the extreme of letting fear control him. Virtue is found in balancing both extremes, and the ultimate “good man” is one who has found that balance. In short, Aristotle’s philosophy argues that man should be “good” and seek for virtue because that is what will make him truly happy.
They diverge from one another when they talk about the basis for making moral judgments. Plato feels, as he explains in the republic, that the layman does not have the ability to make wise, moral judgments. Instead, Plato prescribes a society in which a philosopher is king and makes wise, moral decisions for the entire populous. For Plato, the philosopher-king is an absolute dictator because normal men cannot be trusted enough to make their own decisions. In Plato’s system, “we” cannot make moral decisions, only the philosophers can. On the other hand, Aristotle believes that men can be taught to be good, or at least influenced by philosophers and politicians to do good. In Aristotle’s system, a group of wise men rule and persuade others to agree with them as they make wise decisions for the populous. Aristotle’s system is not quite so “radical” as to be democratic, but it does provide people with more ability to choose, argue for what they think is best, and learn as they listen to the wiser philosophers and politicians. Thus, in Aristotle’s system, people will make decisions based on who they feel is more persuasive in their use of logic and rhetoric.