While Plato and Aristotle are often considered to be contrary thinkers, or at the very least they were certainly distinct from one another, we might be surprised at just how much they had in common.
When faced with the question, “how should I be living?”, they both arrived at the conclusion that a good life and a virtuous life were one in the same.
To be sure, they both certainly expressed this sentiment in their own unique ways. Plato leads us through numerous dialogues in which the hero of Greek philosophy, Socrates,
discusses, refutes, and then constructs a new understanding of human virtue and philosophical enlightenment.
The dialogues wax and wane in the same manner that true conversation would. It all seems to culminate, at least in part, with the illumination of Plato’s theory of Forms
within The Republic. And with an understanding of the Forms comes the tacit suggestion that we ought to spend our lives pursuing the Form of The Good, the highest realization of all goodness.
This is not told to us, by any means, in a straightforward or concise manner. Plato certainly has an idea of how we ought to live our lives, but he refuses to come right out and say it. It is perhaps fortunate then that Aristotle has no patience for ambiguity.
Unlike his teacher, Aristotle seems to think very little of the Forms. He has no time for abstract, cerebral realms of existence. He is concerned with the here and now. The philosopher sets about uncovering philosophy that is verifiable, logical, and immediately applicable.
And so we see that an examination of the differing styles of the two philosophers is almost as interesting as the very ideas they put forth. While Plato spent his time pontificating about the existence of an unseen realm, Aristotle had his feet firmly planted on the ground.
However, it is important that we remember our original point. While the two men differed greatly in many regards, they still arrived at the conclusion that a virtuous life and a good life are one in the same.
This leads us rather naturally to a rather important question. How do we attain virtue? How do we arrive at the good life? And while Plato and Aristotle agreed that virtue would indeed lead us to happiness, they disagreed rather drastically on how we can achieve virtuousness.
PART 1: Plato’s “The Meno”
It is in Plato’s dialogue The Meno that the philosopher, through the voice of Socrates, begins to discuss the question of attaining virtue. The opening line of The Meno makes this clear to us…
“Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor by practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” -Plato (Meno)
What follows is the predictable and inescapable follow up question that we would come to expect from a Platonic dialogue. What is virtue? For how can we know know how to attain virtue if we do not know adequately what virtue is.
Meno proposes a number of possible definitions. He says that virtue is doing good deeds for your friends and performing bad deeds against your enemy, all while seeing to it that you receive no harm to yourself. Meno continues by saying that there is a virtue for women and children as well, these virtues differing greatly from the virtues of men.
Socrates seems unimpressed. He tells Meno that there must be some singular ideal of virtue and not merely an inexhaustible list of examples. By dividing the idea of virtue into many splintering definitions, Meno is making many out of one as if he were breaking a plate into many shards.
Socrates proposes that virtue is good and that that which is good is profitable to us. Therefore the virtues such as justice, piety and bravery are profitable to a person who exercises them. However, the misuse of these virtues can sometimes bring us harm. Therefore, it is through wisdom that we have a proper understanding of the many virtues. And so the hypothesis becomes that true virtue is wisdom, or at the very least the two are intimately linked.
“If then virtue is a quality of the soul, and is admitted to be profitable, it must be wisdom or prudence, since none of the things of the soul are either profitable or hurtful in themselves, but they are all made profitable or hurtful by the addition of wisdom” -Plato (Meno)
So if virtue is a type of knowledge, then this would seem to suggest that virtue can be taught. However, every type of teachable subject must have instructors. And so the men run into a problem when they attempt to identify who the true teachers of virtue are.
Socrates proposes that perhaps the Sophists,
the wandering lecturers of Greece, are these mysterious teachers. However, this possibility is shot down by Anytus, a newcomer in the dialouge, who considers the Sophists to be conmen and charlatans. He declares…
“I only hope that no friend or kinsman or acquaintance of mine, whether citizen or stranger, will ever be so mad as to allow himself to be corrupted by them; for they are a manifest pest and corrupting influence to those who have to do with them.” -Plato (Meno)
Additionally, if virtue can be taught, then why is it that the great and virtuous men of Greece such as Themistocles, Pericles, and Thucydides all bore sons who were largely considered to be morally corrupt? Certainly if virtue were teachable, then these great leaders would have insured that it be instilled within their children.
It had previously been agreed that that which can be taught must have teachers. Since the men can think of no suitable group who would qualify as the teachers of virtue, they must conclude that virtue cannot be taught. It would seem then that the attainment of virtue is impossible.
The obvious reaction to this idea is to declare it to be absurd. Which is exactly what Meno does…
“But I cannot believe, Socrates, that there are no good men: And if there are, how did they come into existence?”-Plato (Meno)
It is here Socrates changes the direction of the dialogue ever so slightly. He reminds Meno that previously they said that in order for a man to be profitable and good, he must have knowledge. Socrates believes this now to be a mistake. He continues by telling us that a man may not have knowledge of a true thing, but that he may have true opinion of a thing. And from a purely pragmatic perspective, true opinion is just as useful as true knowledge.
Socrates explains this idea by using the example of travelers asking for directions to the city of Larisa. The travelers first ask for directions from a man who has visited the city many times and is very aware of its location. This man will inevitably tell the travelers the correct way and the wanders will arrive safely.
Now, let us imagine that the travelers again ask for directions; this time from a man who has never been to Larisa, but who believes he knows its approximate location. If the man has a true opinion of the location of the city, he will point the travelers in the right direction and they will arrive safely.
And so we see that, purely from a practical perspective, having true knowledge of a thing and having true opinion are just as useful. Socrates believes that the great leaders of Greece have true opinion of things and will faithfully lead the Athenians to greatness. However, they do not possess a higher form of knowing to substantiate their beliefs. They do not know why they know.
“And therefore not by any wisdom, and not because they were wise, did Themistocles and those others of whom Anytus spoke govern states. This was the reason why they were unable to make others like themselves—because their virtue was not grounded on knowledge.” -Plato (Meno)
This distinction between true knowledge and true belief is the foundation for what is known as “justified true belief.” This idea tells us that S can know Y is true if and only if:
- Y is true
- S believes Y is true, and
- S is justified in believing Y is true
And where do men acquire this higher form of understanding? How does one achieve true virtue in the form of absolute knowledge? Well, Plato tells us that it is a gift from God; true virtue comes to us in the form of divine inspiration.
“Then, Meno, the conclusion is that virtue comes to the virtuous by the gift of God.” -Plato (Meno)
The conclusion that true virtue is given through divine means is often considered to either be a droll sense of irony from Plato, or an allusion to Plato’s later Theory of Forms and the Form of the Good.
And if that all got you scratching your head in confusion, don’t worry. You certainly are not alone. Aristotle believed that such dependence on fanciful ideas was unwarranted and unnecessary. He would set about explaining the attainment of virtue in a way that was distinctively Aristotelian.