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Plato And Aristotle In The Underworld

Carl Murray finds Plato and Aristotle having a hell of an argument.

We are in the Underworld, Philosophers’ Corner. The atmosphere here is generally calm and reflective. However, on occasion the psyches of even the most celebrated philosophers are not immune to the tension, resentments and mutual suspicions that have built up over the centuries. This can sometimes lead to a heated exchange, as our correspondent recently reported when he overheard the following conversation between its two most distinguished residents, Plato and Aristotle.

Plato Greetings, Aristotle! Greetings to the most outstanding alumnus of my Academy.

Aristotle If I truly was the most outstanding student of your famous Academy, why was I not appointed your successor instead of that Speusippus, who wasn’t even third-rate? But then, I forgot – he’s a relative of yours. Or was.

Plato Come come, dear boy. You were showing so much independence of thought that it seemed more appropriate to let you go, so that you could set up your Lyceum, for those studies which reflected your own intellectual range – which as we all know is considerable. Besides, by the end of your stay at my Academy you seemed to be questioning some of my most cherished doctrines.

Aristotle Certainly, and with good cause. I was beginning to find some of your ideas rather eccentric – for example, your proposal to banish poets from your ideal society. Just think of it: no Homer, no Sophocles! This seemed strange coming from you, often the most poetic of writers. I, on the other hand, as prosaic as I may seem to you, consider poetry and drama to be worthy of serious study and of having a beneficial psychological and social function. As I keep saying, “Poetry is more philosophical and more worthy of serious attention than history.”

Plato Yes, but…

Aristotle As for the plans for your so-called ‘ideal society’, I found them astonishing – eugenics, equality of opportunity, and education for women! I suspect that your basic research on all this was non-existent. Also, your suggestion that the ruling class – the Guardians – should use a ‘Noble Lie’ to divide and control the different social classes seemed to me to be totally immoral. As for your famous Philosopher-King – what a chimera! Come on! One thing or the other, but not both.

Plato Oh dear me. Your sense of humour – which, as I recall, was never very well developed – seems to have deserted you completely. All these ideas were meant to be not so much a blueprint for an ideal society as a stimulus for the examination of fundamental issues. As for basic research, I admit I did not look much further afield than Sparta. Sparta may not have been a perfect society, but then, neither was Athens. If we reflect on how Socrates was treated by his fellow Athenians, we might conclude that radical democracy is little more than a deviant and dangerous experiment.

Aristotle Ah, but…

Plato And in your Politics, you seemed to be content to collect copies of different constitutions from the city-states, and to pick out the best features from each – while I, in sketching an imaginary society, was attempting something with a little more intellectual penetration.

Aristotle Maybe – but so far no one has tried to set up a state based on your so-called ‘Republic’, whereas in the Lyceum we studied states that actually existed and how they were best run. We could then give good, practical advice to the many city-states that consulted me and my colleagues when framing a new constitution. I will pass over your ignominious failure in Sicily to turn a tyrannical ruler into one of your Philosopher-Kings. Dionysius wasn’t it?

Plato Yes… Perhaps that was not my finest hour. Shall we move on?

Aristotle Certainly. However, all this is relatively trivial compared to some of my other concerns about your philosophical development. During my stay at your Academy it seemed to me you were increasingly in danger of retreating ever further into your world of Forms – those mysterious, invisible entities independent of space and time, separate from the world of the senses, and yet somehow part of it… They seemed to me to cause more problems than they solved. Naturally I felt compelled to formulate a more down to earth approach.

Plato Down to earth! That does rather sum you up, my dear Aristotle. By contrast, I have always thought that the task of the philosopher is to see beneath the surface of things and penetrate to the underlying reality – the realm of Forms, which is of course more real than the physical world you study with such zeal.

Aristotle Well, at least the physical world I studied actually exists, whereas your so-called world of Forms seems to be largely a creation of your imagination. In fact, I find – or found – the world around me to be a source of infinite wonder – “for in all things natural there is something wonderful,” as I wrote. The physical, real world is worthy of study, rather than being relegated to being merely illusory and transitory in contrast to a perfect and permanent world of Forms, whose existence you postulate but have yet to prove – even here in the Afterlife.

Plato How disappointing. But then I suppose we must not forget that your approach is probably determined by the fact that you came from a medical family. So very practical. Also, I suspect that your work in the natural sciences has blunted the edge of your intellect, my friend. You have only to turn to mathematics to see that mathematical concepts have an existence of their own and inhabit an ideal world to which access can be gained by intellectual reflection. This can be done with the concept of Number itself, for example. With sustained intellectual effort, one can climb the ladder from Mathematical Forms to Forms of Truth, Beauty, Justice and above all, the Good. Such Forms are accessible to sincerely enquiring minds. Such minds are, of course, few in number.

Aristotle Your obsession led you astray. You can’t reduce everything to Mathematics. I think you need to be reminded of what I wrote in my Metaphysics: “Mathematical entities are only logically prior to sensible things, they are not prior in being.” Mathematical entities can in no way exist on their own, independent of the things to which they apply; and since they are apparently Forms, they could not exist as perceivable objects in their own right either. But then, I don’t think you were ever very clear about what ‘existence’ means.

Plato You have failed to grasp…

Aristotle No, my dear Plato, you have failed – failed to produce a coherent and comprehensive formulation of your theory; and it is my mission to expose its shortcomings.

Plato I myself am only too aware of some of the problems.

Aristotle Indeed. For example, just now you asserted that we can gain access to the Forms by means of the intellect; but in your dialogue Phaedo, you stressed that it is through recollection that we can gain this special knowledge. This process of recollection may need some special prompting, of course – as with the slave-boy in your Meno. I don’t see how you can have it both ways. How do we gain knowledge of your Forms? Is it through sustained intellectual activity, or through recollection?

Plato You have failed to understand my theory. Or perhaps you’re mischievously misinterpreting it. First of all…

Aristotle I’ve studied your theory for almost as long as you have now. Rather like a conjuror, you produce a particular version of it to make a point in a dialogue, such as when you make up the Allegory of the Cave, or the Creation Myth in your Timaeus, or to justify the banishment of poets and artists from your Republic. If your theory is still a work in progress, as you seem to be admitting, I’m surprised that you deployed it so confidently to support some of your rather debatable views.

Plato Well… Yes… I suppose some more work is needed.

Aristotle Naturally, as a reaction to your theory, I developed one of my own. I objected strongly to the way you separated your Forms from the physical world. For me the truth about Forms is that they are essences, immanent in particular things, and cannot have a separate existence from them. My rather common-sense view is that Redness, for example, only exists insofar as certain substances are red; while you hold that a substance is red in so far as it partakes of Redness. But surely red things are prior to Redness, ontologically speaking …

Plato (interrupting) I think we had better change the subject, my dear Aristotle. I see Socrates approaching, with his usual crowd of acolytes in tow.

Aristotle Yes, of course. The last thing we need in this argument is a ‘Third Man’.

Plato If we let him get involved, we’ll have to start over again from the beginning, defining our terms and trying to answer his annoying questions. Shall we postpone our discussion?

Plato and Aristotle (together) Greetings, Socrates. Welcome to Philosophers’ Corner. We were just leaving, actually.

© Carl Murray 2010

Carl Murray is a classicist, a singer, and an adult education lecturer in Philosophy and also in Opera.

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