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For centuries, great philosophers have pondered on what it means to be good. Perhaps two of the most influential philosophers of this query were Plato and Aristotle. While their philosophies are largely different, they both define the “good life.” When we compare these men, we can gain perspective on how to define the good life for ourselves and how we can find value in the activities we do from day to day.
Chronologically, Plato comes first. Therefore, we will start with his philosophy. Plato is probably best known for his Allegory of the Cave. In this dialogue, Socrates sets up a scene for his student, Glaucon. In short, there are three men in a cave and all they can see are shadows on the wall from the outside world. The shadows are all these men have ever known. After setting up the scene, Socrates asks hypothetical questions regarding the people of the cave. He proposes that if one were to drag a man from inside the cave into “the real world” they would go through phases of shock and disbelief, but eventually would adjust. Plato argues that the main goal is to enlighten the others in the cave.
Plato believes in the Theory of Form(s). This means that everything that we see is just a shadow of what it is. For instance, if I was admiring the sunrise on the beach, Plato would argue that I was just looking at a shadow of what the sunrise is. Plato would then lead me to see the true Form of the sunrise, which could actually be a very large TV screen that N.A.S.A. installed. Of course, this example may be a bit extreme and Plato might just be a little dead, so let’s a different example. Say that I think that the world is flat. An astronaut would then show me how the world is actually round by taking me into space and showing me firsthand that it is round. Perhaps the best example of this comes from philosopher David Macintosh where he illustrates, in an article about Platonic thinking, a basic application of this. He states:
“Take for example a perfect triangle, as it might be described by a mathematician. This would be a description of the Form or Idea of (a) Triangle. Plato says such Forms exist in an abstract state but independent of minds in their own realm. Considering this Idea of a perfect triangle, we might also be tempted to take pencil and paper and draw it. Our attempts will of course fall short. Plato would say that peoples’ attempts to recreate the Form will end up being a pale facsimile of the perfect Idea, just as everything in this world is an imperfect representation of its perfect Form. The Idea or Form of a triangle and the drawing we come up with is a way of comparing the perfect and imperfect. How good our drawing is will depend on our ability to recognize the Form of Triangle. Although no one has ever seen a perfect triangle, for Plato this is not a problem. If we can conceive the Idea or Form of a perfect triangle in our mind, then the Idea of Triangle must exist.”
After this example, Macintosh then proceeds to speak on how Plato would go about informing others on the Form of a triangle.
According to Plato’s philosophy, the “good life” is transcendence. This simply means to be enlightened and to teach others. In addition to this, it is important to realize that Plato was very adamant about how to go about “enlightening” someone the correct way. This means to not be arrogant and to respectfully show others the true Form of x object/topic. In his work Apology, Plato shows his sense of respect as he disagrees with the standard. This can be seen when he says, “I thought to myself: I am wiser than this man; neither of us probably knows anything that is really good, but he thinks he has knowledge, when he has not, while I, having no knowledge, do not think I have.” This, in short, is Plato’s idea of the good life.
Now that we’re done with Plato for now, it’s time to look at his hot-headed counterpart and student, Aristotle. Aristotle is probably best known for his work Nicomachean Ethics. In this book, Aristotle sets up his idea of the “good life” and rejects the Theory of Form. He argues that the only way to live the “good life” is “…a virtuous activity of soul, of a certain kind.” For Aristotle, virtue is to be “…capable of noble [and good] acts.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 75)
In addition to being virtuous, one must function in society properly. This idea is comparable to the example Macintosh provided for us. While Plato would theorize a perfect triangle, Aristotle would not focus on how there could be a perfect triangle, but rather how he could make the triangle the best he could by learning about it. Now of course, these two philosophers wouldn’t focus on such meaningless things; we’ll leave triangles for Pythagoras.
In order to get a better view of these two schools of thought, let’s replace the triangle with society. In Plato’s mind, society as we know it could just be a shadow of what it is. For example, society could be extremely “broken,” so much so that we think society is perfect. It would take someone or an event to fix this. For a lack of a better example, let’s see this from a Christian standpoint. Say Jesus comes back next year. He would enlighten people to follow Him. Those people would enlighten others, and those people would enlighten others and so on. Those who have been enlightened would have an obligation to teach others. Once you have enlightened others, you have lived the “good life.”
Aristotle, however, would have a different approach. He would say that society is exactly what it is, and it is our responsibility to learn about it. He would likely not be concerned with whether someone would come and enlighten him or not. He would say that it is best for us to learn how we function. Aristotle would say that we should focus on certainty. Once you learn where you function in society, you have lived in society.
At this point, it’s pretty clear to see how Plato and Aristotle differ — it may even appear as if they’re polar opposites. However, they share a few beliefs. For instance, both believe in a tiered society. They do not see this negatively, but just as a fact of life. Plato believed that those with knowledge should rule. Under the “rulers” are “protectors” and “producers”. Aristotle believed that everyone had their place. An example of this can be seen in management of a business. At the top we have the founder/CEO. Next we have the financial board. Under them we have normal employees. Then we have customers. Lastly, we have the janitors. If any of these parts are missing, a chain reaction would cause the entire thing to fall apart.
They also agree on the primary goal of the good life. They would say that you must be a functioning member of society. While their definitions of function may different, they meet at that point. Both would also say that knowledge is something all people should strive for. To them, knowledge is the good life. For Plato, that means to gain knowledge is to transcend and understand true Form. Whereas Aristotle thought that knowledge is based on certainty.
Now, as I close, we must ask what this means regarding our lives. The main point is to figure out what it means to live the “good life”. The best way to see this is by taking ideas from both philosophers. To take from Plato, I think it is important for us to be open to enlightenment in any context. To take from Aristotle, I think we should learn as much as we can about what is around us. It is also important to realize both were very adamant how we should educate those around us and to do good acts. By analyzing the two philosophers, we can best extrapolate what it means to live the good life.
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