Ancient History & Civilisation


The Two Philosophers

Plato used to call Aristotle ‘the foal’. What did he mean by that name? Plainly, it was known that foals kick their mothers when they have had enough milk.

Aelian (c. AD 210), Varia Historia 4.9

Aristotle accuses the old philosophers who thought that philosophy had been perfected by their own efforts and says that they were either very stupid or very vain, but that he himself could see that, as great advances had been made in such a few years, philosophy would be completely finished in a short while.                         Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 3.28.69

Philip was to be one of the two great founders in the classical world (the other being Octavian–Augustus), but his career coincided with the two who were certainly its greatest thinkers: Plato and his pupil, Aristotle. Plato ended by teaching at Athens in the surrounds of a hero-shrine, the Academy (the origin of our word, ‘academic’); those who heard him do not seem to have paid or usually to have heard him behind closed doors. Aristotle taught in the surrounds of a shrine once favoured by Socrates, the Lyceum. His followers became known as the Peripatetics (from the Greek word for a colonnaded walk). Both schools persisted for another eight hundred years and their founders’ thought then revived again in Europe. In my Oxford college, Aristotle’s thinking has been taught and studied continuously for more than 625 years.

Both of them associated with the most powerful Greek dynasts of their age. Plato visited Sicily to lecture and converse with two successive tyrants at Syracuse, both called Dionysius, father and son. A book of his teaching was then published, purportedly by the younger Dionysius, which Plato’s followers promptly disowned. After studying with Plato in Athens, Aristotle lived for a while at the court of a dynast, Hermeias, in north-west Asia Minor, who had created a circle of ‘philosophic’ companions and was eulogized by his visitor in an extravagant hymn. He then travelled to Macedon where his father had been a doctor at court. In 343/2 BC he had been chosen to teach Philip’s son, Alexander, the world’s most wide-ranging mind teaching the world’s greatest conqueror-to-be. When Alexander became king Aristotle returned to teach in Athens for another thirteen years.

Plato was the older philosopher, born in 427 BC and living until he was nearly eighty in 348 BC. He was also the greater writer, in my view the greatest prose-writer in all world literature. He was born into the Athenian upper class and was not too young for those of his same background who hoped, indeed plotted, that democracy would one day go away. He was a star pupil of Socrates, whose questioning about ethical terms, the possibility of knowledge and self-knowledge powerfully influenced the younger Plato’s early dialogues. Socrates’ execution and the experience of majority voting (‘mob-rule’) did not win Plato over to be a democrat. A democracy, he later wrote, is a ‘charming, anarchic and many-sided constitution’ which bestows a ‘sort of equality on the equal and the unequal alike’: Plato detested it.1

It was not only in politics that he went against the current of his fellow citizens. His philosophy was founded on a radical contrast between the worlds of appearance (real to us) and ‘reality’, knowable only to a philosopher who has prepared and trained for more than fifteen years. Plato and his pupils did perhaps engage in classifications of the natural world (the best evidence is only a comedy, sending them up) but they were not really empiricists. What they were most encouraged to admire were the newish sciences of mathematics and astronomy (although Plato himself made no lasting contributions to either of them, as opposed to their appreciation). Plato argued that the soul is separate from the human body, that it enters the body with knowledge from a previous existence which we can then ‘recall’, that there are punishments, and a renewed existence, for souls after bodily death. Famously, he proposed the existence of ‘Forms’, culminating in an enigmatic ‘Form of the Good’, on which he taught but never published a coherent account. These Forms are thought of as the ideal types which are the essence of the objects (beds, dogs, even horses) and qualities (justice, goodness, wisdom) in the world which we wrongly call ‘real’. Like universals to particulars, they represent the goodness or ‘dog-ness’ which is instantiated in our world.

Plato also returned repeatedly to questions of knowledge, belief and explanation. What is it to ‘know’ something? Does it presuppose knowledge of its definition? What is the difference between knowledge and a belief which is true? What is the moral value of self-knowledge and is it really knowledge if it is not of an object beyond the subject? Is virtue like one of the crafts which expert craftsmen know how to follow? These and other questions, greatly refined, underlie some of the writings which philosophers continue to find the most challenging in all his thought, culminating in his late masterpieces, the Theaetetus and the Sophist. Even the difficult theory of Forms was to come under Plato’s own criticism, especially in his remarkable Parmenides where he criticizes it as leading to an infinite regress and propounds his celebrated ‘third-man’ argument. In the earlier dialogues, especially, Plato hides his own exposition behind his deliberately chosen dialogue form. Keen young opponents are shown arguing with Plato’s version of Socrates who confounds them, sometimes with arguments which strike us as very feeble. On one view, Plato is deliberately exercising his dialogue’s readers by making them engage with arguments whose own validity he is not personally endorsing. This process helps us to tone up our minds, preparing us for future progress. Certainly, Plato does not present his speakers’ views as his own. The use of the dialogue form and the long evolution of his writings across some forty years make it wrong to turn their ideas into one system and call it ‘Platonic’. In antiquity later readers did so, claiming that they were not adding anything new. Their neo-Platonism was radically untrue to much that Plato had discussed.

In the later dialogues, the questioning and provoking Socrates fades away, taking his artful irony with him. The Socratic method becomes a long disquisition by Socrates (or a main speaker) to which a pulverized dialogue-partner can only answer tamely, ‘How not, O Socrates?’ Plato does allow some unusual views to be expounded, nonetheless. In his ideal republic, women are to share in the system of education. In his late work, the Laws, punishment is not just to be a retribution or a deterrent, but it is to be curative in certain circumstances too. But this same Plato can express entirely derogatory views about women’s inferior irrationality; in his earlier works, he is relatively positive about pederasty, but in his Laws he is the first known Greek author to describe homosexual male relations as contrary to nature (‘Plato the homophobe’);2 he is adamant that those who spread atheist views need correction and if they are spreading them cynically and deceptively, they must be put to death. The Plato who so brilliantly turned his tutor Socrates into an eloquent martyr by writing the posthumous Apology for him ended up by propounding laws that would have sent Socrates off to a correction-centre.3

Plato’s writings return often to a central theme, how the ‘best’ can rule and therefore bring justice to a state. Although he was such a contrary voice to his contemporaries, the question was urgent in his own day. The city-states and Leagues of his lifetime were torn by social conflicts and wars over dominance; these became particularly acute in the Sicily which he had visited, after the fall of his hosts, the two despotic tyrants. For Plato, political ‘freedom’ was not a central concern. He disapproved of ‘freedom to live as you please’, which he would equate with ‘licence’, the insatiable pursuit of pleasure and the characteristics of mob-rule. His ideal states in the Republic or the Laws were designed to give people the best possible life and to make them better. The liberal idea of limiting those states’ interference with their citizens’ lives would not concern him. To obey their laws was necessarily to be made good.

Luxury, however, was another matter. As some of his pupils quickly emphasized, its prevalence in Sicily struck Plato and led him to insist on the necessity of living modestly. One side of Socrates’ image, after all, was a Socratic indifference to pleasure or hardship. This theme was strongly emphasized by Plato who transposed it to the life of political communities. In the Republic, the misguided (but rather attractive) ‘inflamed’ community is one which is given over to luxury, and is afflicted with it as if it is a disease. The luxury of sofas, incense and prostitutes turns it away from the pursuit of justice based on self-control. There is an enduring puritanical streak in Plato’s thinking.

Justice remains absolutely central to it. In his earlier works, Socrates tends to question a young participant on what exactly is courage, say, or piety or knowledge. Quite often, the resulting mental gymnastics reach no conclusion: we do, however, learn that justice is soundness of mind which results, in turn, from self-knowledge and helps us to maintain virtuous relations with others. In the Republic, the nature of justice then becomes the major question. The answer digresses through ten books, ending in a magnificent myth to answer the hard question of why we should be just at all. Ascribed to a mysterious ‘Er, the Armenian’, it describes what befalls the soul after death and how it is allotted its next human life after being judged for the previous one. This myth answers beautifully but quite implausibly the question ‘What are the rewards of justice?’ rather than of an injustice which hopes to go unpunished. The Republic’s general definition of justice is related to its complex idea that there is a three-part nature in the soul, matched, in turn, by the three-part nature of the ideal state. Justice results when each part co-operates with the others for its own good and for the good of the whole.

The trouble is that Plato’s ideal communities strike readers as potentially most unjust. In the Republic, the assumption is that the best community will be ruled by the best who are duly educated and selected for their responsibility. There are to be three classes: the workers, the warriors and the philosophic rulers. Citizens will be selected for each, but only the rulers will be put through a very long process of philosophical education which leads to the point where they will know the Forms and the supreme Form of the Good. Without any check or accountability or majority voting, they will then simply rule everyone else. Later in life, in his Laws, Plato does accept that even the rulers may need some laws which they themselves must obey. However, the problem then is that the laws which his long dialogue constructs are so dictatorial and repressive that no sane Greek contemporary would accept for one moment that this community is the ‘just’ one in which he should live. The Republic, with fine regrets, had already banished artists, poets and even the ‘deceiving’ Homer. It had proposed that all goods should be held in common, including women (Aristophanes had made wonderful fun of this notion way back in the 390s, in my view because he had heard a very early report of Plato’s emerging views on the subject). The Laws then multiplied the repression by proposing a Nocturnal Council (imitated, however, in Renaissance Venice) and threatening uses of religion to deter citizens from having sex.

Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, was born in Stageira in northern Greece in 384 BC, more than forty years after Plato; he lived until 322 BC. While shaped by Plato and sharing several approaches with him, he was much more of an empirical thinker, a brilliant classifier and categorizer and much more alert to everyday accepted wisdom which needed intellectual support, not demolition. He persistently stressed the existence of exceptions and particular cases as opposed to all-embracing generalizations. Ever the empiricist, he ranged widely and even when set beside Plato’s, his mind has the most amazing range in history. Philosophers admire him for his system of logic, including his discussion of ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’; and his outstanding writings on ethics. Some of his central ideas are now superseded, his views on perception, say, or the pervasive ‘purposiveness’ in biology, while others are certainly over-played, his distinction between the ‘potential’ and the ‘actual’, his four different types of cause or his elusive views on substances. But the discrimination and guiding use of inference with which he discusses them are immensely rewarding.

Yet Aristotle was not only a pure philosopher. His theoretical interests extended to political theory, to poetry, especially drama, to the constitutions, even, of 158 different Greek states, a massive undertaking which surely drew on research teams of his pupils. He wrote on the weather, On Colonies (for his pupil, Alexander), on the parts of animals, or on rhetoric. He even compiled chronological lists of victors in the major Greek games. His range was prodigious. His treatises on individual subjects do not follow the deductive methods of his most abstract treatises on logic, but the underlying approach is that all these forms of knowledge can, when understood, be brought as far as appropriate under logical and axiomatic reasoning.

Aristotle is capable of some reassuringly mundane or inaccurate beliefs, nonetheless. He considers that a work of art gives pleasure when it resembles the object depicted: he has a rather straightforward view of a good drama, which should have items like a mistake (not a ‘moral flaw’), a reversal of fortune and a recognition at its core. He would intensely dislike Pinter and Beckett, but he would much like the modern definition of a good novel as ‘what happens next?’ He was much too trusting in the apparently genuine documents which he used in the one of his ‘Constitutions’, that of the Athenians, which we know best: they tended to be fakes. His theories of change and of the desirable ‘mean’ between two extremes distorted his views of early Greek history. Like Plato, he saw the political conflicts of the archaic past in horizontal terms, as conflicts between classes: Plato and he had seen such conflicts played out in contemporary Sicily. In the past a vertical model of conflict between powerful men, backed by their dependants, would usually have been more appropriate. But even his mistakes are intriguing. Like Plato, he believed in a previous lost era of civilization: for Plato the imaginary ‘Atlantis’, for Aristotle, too, a world before a great flood. Rain, he believed, had washed away an old civilization in the plains, but a few survivors had lived on in the mountains and preserved the ‘ancient wisdom’. Being simple people, shepherds and the like, they had gradually distorted it into myths.4 If Aristotle had met a modern shepherd or forester, he would have had to accept that the ‘ancient wisdom’ was sexist and racist. But he also believed that such a great flood would happen again.

For non-philosophers, the most remarkable of his works are those on biology and natural history. These masterpieces of observation are rooted in the years before he went to Macedon, especially the years which he spent on the island of Lesbos. Aristotle’s physiology is not always on the right lines, and although he has an idea of a hierarchy of natural kinds, he has no idea of evolution. But his fieldwork and classification are breathtaking, ranging from a superb account of the life cycle of a mosquito to a brilliant attempt to understand an octopus (including the use of its tentacles for sex) and some shrewd observations about elephants. These observations were improved by the Macedonian conquests of Asia, except that he did not understand the size of an elephant’s penis or its usual lifespan. Of course there are some quaint inferences: men with long penises, Aristotle believed, are less fertile because their sperm ‘cools’ as it has further to travel. But throughout, there is a superb range of empirical thinking. The sperm of Ethiopians, he insists, is not black, as some Greeks presumed, a fact which makes us wonder how he himself had established it.5

Aristotle is less interested in the possible effects of luxury than in the futility of making money for its own sake. For him, a good, happy life is the ‘activity of the soul in accordance with excellence’, with sufficient ‘external goods’, but no more. Freedom concerns him in his writings on the ideal state, and he is certainly less authoritarian in this respect than Plato. Although he presents extreme democracy as a reprehensible attempt to be free to live as one pleases, a caricature of its principles, he accepts the good principle that citizens should rule and be ruled in turn. He does see that a state should be a partnership, common to all citizens, but because of his low opinion of the uneducated and property-less masses, including tradesmen, he opts for a constitution which includes farmers and soldiers but not all the poorer citizens in its territory. He was too strongly attracted by the idea of a ‘mixed’ constitution, an unrealizable ideal of mere theorists, and he also believed that a constitution which fell between two opposed extremes would be fairer because it stood midway as the ‘mean’ between them. He underestimated the justice, stability and sound sense of the democratic Athenians among whom he lived, but at least he did not deviate from it as unattractively as Plato and his proposed alternative.

Notoriously, he had views on slaves and women. Unnamed thinkers, probably in Socrates’ Athens, had denied that slavery was in ‘accordance with nature’: Aristotle disagreed. There were ‘slaves by nature’, he believed, who were incapable of foresight, deliberation or practical wisdom. At times he even writes as if they are animals. Most of the slaves whom Aristotle saw in Athens, western Asia or Macedon would have been non-Greek ‘barbarians’, whom he regarded as inferior by nature: he says explicitly that the existence of natural slaves can be proved both by theory and by experience.6 His views about natural slavery caused his own arguments serious problems on many counts, but they were not just a passing consequence of his theories on ruling or the household. What he saw in his own experience seemed to require them, just as his perceptions of women accounted for his view that they are defective versions of the rational ‘polis-male’: what he saw were uneducated, irrational beings, who would typically lament in public. Although women have a trace of a power of reason, it is very feeble and ‘without authority’.7 For barbarians and women, therefore, freedom is a wholly inappropriate state.

For Aristotle, justice is the very nature of virtue and like Plato, his ethics and political theory are centrally concerned with it. Typically, Aristotle distinguishes several types of it, and although, oddly, he says nothing about criminal justice, he is explicitly concerned with notions of ‘equality’ and fairness. If the rulers of a state are unjust to those they rule, the result, he sees, will be civil strife. We have an equal claim to justice, but justice is not necessarily a claim to receive an equal amount. For Aristotle, a ‘distributive’ type of justice allots justice in accordance with the recipient’s ‘worth’: this notion of proportionate justice is not at all the notion of a justice which distributes equal shares for all citizens, the justice which sustained Athenian democracy.

In Plato’s Republic, the participant, Adeimantus, complains to Socrates that philosophers are mostly weird or even wicked, and even the best of them are rendered useless in government. Plato and Aristotle had scores of pupils and listeners: did their teaching have a practical, political impact? The point here is not that Plato’s Laws are completely impractical and that no state could possibly survive them, not even a little one with no more than Plato’s ideal number of 5,040 land-holding citizens. Rather, Plato did try, we are told, to apply his philosophy to the reform of a real state by his visits, three in all, to the ruling tyrants in Sicily. His experience of the harsh elder tyrant Dionysius surely shaped his striking portrait of the insatiable ‘tyrannical’ man in his subsequent work, the Republic. His project, we are told, was that the state should be ruled by the ‘best laws’: the exceptional luxury of the Syracusan citizens should be curbed and the ruler, the Syracusan tyrant, must adopt philosophy like one of Plato’s philosopher-kings. We know of these efforts from the remarkable Seventh Letter which is manifestly a fiction ascribed to Plato, but was surely written by a pupil soon after Plato’s death. It is clearly apologetic, as it attempts to explain Plato’s repeated visits to this brutal tyranny and to credit him with high hopes of the notorious Dion, uncle to the younger of the two tyrants. Supposedly, Dion was at first won over to Plato’s reforming project, only to be led astray by undesirable friends. The fact was that Dion also ruled harshly when he had power in the 350s, that he murdered a political contemporary (which the Letter glosses over), that he probably used Plato in the hope of saving his own property from the tyrants’ confiscation and that he was murdered by a particularly frightful Athenian who had also, wondrously, been a listener to Plato in the Academy. There was no philosopher-king here in the making.

Nonetheless, the will to apply and reform was certainly there in Plato, and we must do justice to his interest in laws and his detestation of tyranny. Later sources credit him with many pupils who were asked, as he was, to help in drawing up laws for city-states: there is no evidence that any of them really did so. Several of them are also credited with actions against reigning tyrants, even with killing them. This involvement may be true. Two of Plato’s former hearers did assassinate Cotys, the despotic king of Thrace, in 359BC and six years later another is said to have killed Clearchus, a remarkable Greek tyrant at Heraclea on the south shore of the Black Sea.8 Aristotle’s pupil Callisthenes was also believed to have encouraged a plot against the ‘tyrannical’ Alexander. There are several stories of such involvement, but the Academy did not urge political murders and we do not know how far any philosophic principles inflamed these various people. They may have done, but not at Plato’s direction.

The more difficult legacy comes after Plato’s death. We have a repulsive letter ascribed to Speusippus, his successor at the Academy, which is addressed to King Philip of Macedon and which smoothly assures Philip that his forceful conquest of so much of Greek city-territory in the north is simply the reclaiming of ‘his own’, his heritage, as is proven by some highly dubious references to the ancient Greek myths. This letter picks up contemporary diplomatic issues and is very well informed: it reads like a genuine flattery of the greatest enemy to Greek freedom in the years 343–342 BC. It is a major warning against allowing a philosopher near foreign affairs.

A Platonist pupil, we are told, had also helped Philip to establish his rule in Macedon before his accession. We know nothing more of it, but we do know that in 322 BC, when the Athenians’ democracy was at the mercy of Alexander’s victorious Macedonian Successors, the Athenians chose the head of the Platonist Academy, Xenocrates, to go as one of their ambassadors to plead for a lenient treatment of their city-state: Xenocrates was a resident foreigner, not even a citizen. He was a landmark, the first of many future philosophers to be used on embassies (previously, Athenians had preferred to send theatre actors). The choice was surely made because the Academy stood so high in the respect of the Macedonian ‘tyrants’; Alexander himself had favoured Xenocrates, who had addressed four books On Kingship to him, although, sadly, they do not survive.

Similar involvement was even more obviously true of Aristotle. He lived at court in Macedon from 342 to 335 BC and he taught Alexander. Before he arrived King Philip had flattened his home town of Stageira, but the tradition that Aristotle did get the king to agree to its rebuilding now seems more likely, as archaeologists have proved there was some rebuilding on the site in Philip’s reign, albeit on a smaller area. Perhaps Aristotle did also later receive funds and materials for his researches from the far-ranging Alexander. His visit, then, was not an entirely fruitless stay with the kings.

Aristotle also developed close links with Philip’s senior general, Antipater, and probably with his family. We have a text of his will, of which Antipater is to be an executor. He even wrote a work called Justified Claims, probably to help with the claims of the Greek states in the Peloponnese after the Spartan-led rebellion which Antipater crushed there in 331/0 BC. When Alexander died and the Athenians rebelled against the Macedonians, we can see why Aristotle, the friend of top Macedonians, was forced to leave the city: he was accused, tendentiously, of impiety, and so he left, saying that he wished to save the Athenians from ‘sinning twice against philosophy’ (the first sin was condemning Socrates). He is also reported as saying he became ‘fonder of the myths as he became alone’.9

He had some role, surely, in the continuing curiosity of Alexander about the Asia which he was conquering, but his main role appears to be in passing on his awful sense of geography. Aristotle believed that the edge of the world was visible from what we call the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan: like many, Aristotle confused them with the distant Caucasus. He also reasoned that the river Indus ran neatly round to Egypt and that modern Morocco is quite close to India, on the grounds that both lands have elephants. This view of the world can only have strengthened the young Alexander’s resolve to conquer to the edge of it. For Aristotle, our world lies at the centre of the universe, and the assertions of astronomers are consistent with that view.10

His real political influence followed after his death. Plato’s admiration for the stars in the heavens, the universe and a supreme God were to be taken up in subsequent philosophy: they make him the father of a distinctive strand in Hellenistic religion. Aristotle’s followers, rather, were to carry forward the systematic study of laws and constitutions. Their advice may well have been very important for the first ruling Ptolemies in Egypt’s Alexandria, especially what they could say about a Library, a Museum and royal laws. Certainly, Aristotle’s 158 local Constitutions influenced one of the major Alexandrian poets, Callimachus. But the most immediate impact came from a pupil of one of Aristotle’s own former pupils, the Athenian Demetrius from Phaleron. In 317 BC the Macedonians put down the Athenians’ attempt at a revived democracy and instead supported this Demetrius as the head of a restrictive oligarchy. The poor were disenfranchised and the rich were spared the expense, in future, of liturgies; Demetrius passed laws to limit luxury in funerary monuments and approved the appointment of ‘inspectors of women’, surely so as to curb female extravagance, including the city’s notorious prostitution. Quite probably, his motives were ethical, formed by Aristotelian values of moderation and restraint. He was then attacked, inevitably, for his own luxury, including the supposed use of make-up and blond hair-dye and the acceptance of statues in his own honour (‘360’, it was alleged). His friends included other pupils of Aristotle, and he was most urbane in defending his own elegant and gentlemanly habits.11 His rule lasted ten years, until 307 BC, but when it fell and democracy returned, the Athenians ecstatically celebrated their liberation. Freedom was back, and one Sophocles promptly proposed that philosophers should be banned in future from teaching in the city unless they were licensed by the democracy.12 The Athenians did relent, but the proposal was eloquent. Democrats detested these philosopher-friends of kings and tyrants and their unbearable notions of an ideal state.

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