Saturday, September 10, 2016

280. Plato and Aristotle

There are both important affinities and important differences between Plato and Aristotle. When Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, his thought was closer, later he deviated more, and then Plato followed his thought to an important extent.

Here I follow the account given by Alasdair MacIntyre[i]. He proposed, and this is most important, I think, that Plato and Aristotle shared a basic perspective and programme concerning the good life. MacIntyre reduced a complex debate, over centuries, to a choice between two basic perspectives.

First, the perspective shared by Plato and Aristotle entails a striving for excellence in pursuing a set of goods. Virtues are traits of character needed for achieving a good.

The alternative view was held by the sophists contemporary to Plato and Aristotle, and was adopted in our presently dominant view, in the West, of liberal individualism. It entails a striving for effectiveness in satisfying desires. For (neo)liberalism the engine for achieving that is the market.

For example, for the sophists public speech is not aimed at achieving the truth, which is ephemeral, but to convince people of one’s view (rhetoric). In markets, the aim of advertising is not truth but affecting preferences. 

For Plato and Aristotle, who or what determines what is the good, or the ranking of multiple goods, and corresponding virtues? For Plato it is more the individual, though instructed by philosophy. For Aristotle it is the community, the polis, such as the Athens of his time. Here I side with Plato, though in my view philosophers should inform, not dictate ethical debate. 

An important difference between Plato and Aristotle is the following. For (the early) Plato experience, and the complex, variable world we experience, are disparate from the underlying forms according to which reality is ordered. For Aristotle, experience is the basis for inferring and understanding forms. Here I side with Aristotle. However, in his later work Plato approached Aristotle’s views.

Of particular interest for my endeavours in philosophy and economics is Aristotle’s notion of phronesis, practical wisdom. Experience and judgement in the world are too complex and variable, and context-dependent, to be based on fixed, universal ideas or rules.

Yet, and this is a problematic point in Aristotelian philosophy, Aristotle, like Plato, assumed ultimate harmony between different goods. Any conflict between them is due to imperfect reason. Here I disagree with both. I think tragedy is real. Conflicts between goods arise that cannot be resolved by reason alone. I will return to this in a later item in this blog.

Now, my project is to bring in, or bring back, in public  discourse (and economics), considerations of the good life and corresponding virtues. However, rather than having goods and their ordering imposed by the state, I would leave them to personal choice, but subject to public debate, with guidance from people who have mastered phronesis, recognising the occurrence of tragedy while still trying to grapple with it. I might sum this up as follows: I want to combat liberalism by liberal means.

Important for my project is also the claim, by both Plato and Aristotle, that virtuous conduct is not just instrumental to pursuing the good life, but an integral part of it, with intrinsic value. The virtuous person enjoys virtuous conduct for itself.

Also, relationships, in particular friendship, entail the sharing of a project, with mutual interest, care for the partner, and willingness to yield, to some extent, without expectation of material reward or gain.

These are crucial for the goodness of life and for the quality of society.

Finally, especially Plato, but also still Aristotle, rank as the highest, purest good, contemplation (the original meaning of ‘theory’) of ultimate, eternal, universal truths. Phronesis and political virtue are subordinate to that, even though they are necessary to achieve it (according to Aristotle, and the later Plato, perhaps). To me, that is an illusion. I think we cannot achieve more than ongoing ‘imperfection on the move’. 

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose justice, Which rationality?, University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

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