Session Notes

What We Will Learn Today

  1. The different epistemologies of Plato and Aristotle
  2. How these epistemologies affect their views on ethics and aesthetics
  3. The importance of virtue for Aristotle’s ethic
  4. How Aristotle used the golden mean to define the virtues
  5. How fulfilling a person’s purpose with excellence leads to happiness


Introducing Aristotle

If Alfred North Whitehead was right that all Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato, Aristotle was Plato’s most important footnote.

  1. Arguably, though he was a creative and important thinker of equal significance.
  2. Though he was born in Stagirus Greece in 384 BC, he came to Athens to join Plato’s famous Academy at the age of 18, and stayed there until Plato’s death.
  3. After that, he left Athens to become the tutor of Alexander the Great.
  4. Unlike Plato, Aristotle was interested in the natural world, and while many of his interpretations of nature have been disproven, the scientific world owes lot to his emphases, interests and observations.
  5. Aristotle taught on diverse subjects, from rhetoric to zoology, poetry to politics. For this reason, his influence is widespread.

The School of Athens painting

  1. Around the year 1510, the Renaissance artist Raphael painted his famous School of Athens.
  2. While it contains many important philosophers, the very center of the painting focuses on Plato and Aristotle.
  3. Raphael’s depiction of these two thinkers helps us understand their different perspectives on the best way to understand goodness, truth and beauty.

Significance of hands in The School of Athens

  1. Plato is the character pointing with one finger, upward.
  2. Aristotle has a hand out in front of him and his fingers are spread out.
    1. Their hands are as they are in the painting because Plato was famously most concerned with the realm of universal ideas or forms, while Aristotle was most interested in observing the many particular things in this world in order to understand universal principles.

Plato and Aristotle compared

  1. There are other important differences between Aristotle and Plato.
  2. While Plato emphasized reasoning from first principles to particular applications, Aristotle sought to first understand and arrive at general principles by observing and drawing conclusions from the particular things we experience in this world.
  3. While Plato wanted to establish knowledge that could be considered certain, Aristotle thought that knowledge focused on what was probable.
    1. Another way of thinking about this is that Plato worked from cause to effect.
    2. This is called a priori reasoning, that is, reasoning that takes place prior to experience.
    3. In contrast Aristotle sought to work from effects to causes. This is called a posteriori reasoning, that is, reasoning that takes place after experience.
  4. To understand these two ways of reasoning, think of Plato as a top down thinker and Aristotle as a bottom up thinker.
  5. We shouldn’t take any of these generalizations too far, but these differences can help us understand the variance between these two men on other topi
  6. As we learned in the last lecture, philosophy is concerned with the good, the true and the beautiful.
    1. That is -- ethics, epistemology, and aesthetics.

As we consider Plato and Aristotle, we can see that their different epistemologies affected the way they viewed ethics and aesthetics.

  1. For instance, in the realm of ethics, Plato wanted to understand the abstract idea or form of the good, whereas Aristotle wanted to understand how to do good in the world and be a virtuous individual.
  2. When it came to aesthetics, especially art and literature, Plato didn’t have a high view of visual art and he didn’t like fictional stories because they were only copies of something particular in the world.

Aristotle and Plato on Aesthetics

  1. Since Plato believed that the physical world was itself a copy of some idea in the realm of ideas, art seemed to be little more than a copy of a copy.
  2. Aristotle, on the other hand, had a higher appreciation for the way art and stories can help us process human emotions. Maybe you remember the term catharsis from high school English class. Catharsis refers to the purging of emotions through art and literature, and is discussed in a work by Aristotle called the Poetics.
    1. Aristotle also thought that stories had a teaching value.
    2. Stories didn’t always depict what was, they could also give us models to which we could aspire.

Dialog vs. Lecture

  1. Plato, using dialogs, often leaves the reader to make up his or her own mind.
  2. Aristotle, however, is sometimes dense and his work is sometimes viewed as a little bit boring.
    1. This is because, while Plato wrote dialogs, much of what we have from Aristotle are, in fact, modified lecture notes.

Different views on Education

  1. Since Plato believed we were born with innate ideas, dialog could help bring latent knowledge out of the mind.
  2. Aristotle, however, saw purpose of education to be about filling student minds with new knowledge, through verbal instruction, and then teaching them the critical thinking skills necessary for applying information to life.

Reflecting from a Christian perspective

  1. The value of the created world and physical embodiment
  2. Empirical orientation is better for apologetics in our age, at least to the extent that we are looking for probabilistic evidence rather than abstract certainty …
  3. A posteriori reasoning… that is, reasoning from effect to cause, or drawing conclusions after exploring the world is important and we will learn that this approach helped develop Christian apologetic arguments.
  4. Aristotle had a different concept of God when compared to the biblical picture.
    1. He believed the world was eternal, while Christians teach creatio ex nihilo
  5. Aristotle’s divine mind was impersonal whereas the God of Christianity is personal and engaged in the lives of humans.

Luther’s view of Aristotle

  1. Luther’s disputation against Scholastic Theology we come across thesis: #44 … no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle.
  2. And #50 … the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light
    1. Context: overreliance on Aristotle as THE PHILOSOPHER by medieval scholastics
  3. Luther and Melanchthon set about reforming education in Germany
    1. Turn Aristotle not for theological truth but for flourishing in everyday life.

So what’s going on with Luther and Aristotle?

  1. Luther was talking about our relationship to God when he said in thesis # 41: Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace.

Virtue Ethics

  1. Aristotle was interested in developing a certain kind of character in a person so that he or she would respond instantly to each new situation in a virtuous way.

Translating Virtue

  1. Word virtue comes from the Latin word for manliness.
  2. What was meant was being a true and authentic human, the best specimen of a person.
  3. But we use this Latin-derived word to translate the Greek word arête, which can mean excellence in general.
    1. When it comes to ethics then, think of virtue as excellence of character.

Can virtue be taught?

  1. Aristotle believed young people can be trained to develop habits of character or virtue.
  2. Even when we don’t want to be good, by practicing virtue, it eventually becomes a part of who we are.

The Golden Mean

  1. For Aristotle, this was discovered by finding the middle point between the vice of excess and the vice of defect.
  2. Take, for instance, the virtue of courage. Aristotle’s approach defines courage as the point that is equidistant between the vices of cowardice (a lack of bravery) and recklessness (too much bravery).

To what end do we practice virtue?

  1. Aristotle thought that these beliefs serve an important purpose: happiness.
    1. But happiness isn’t simply a feeling of euphoria or momentary giddiness. It is deeper than that.
    2. To illustrate, consider the 35th American President, John F. Kennedy.

Fulfilling your purpose

  1. Happiness for Aristotle had a lot to do with fulfilling one’s purpose, design or end.
    1. The Greek word for this is telos.
  2. This concept is incredibly important to understand Aristotle’s view of human life and even science.
    1. Consider the example of the acorn

Connecting the dots to Christian thought

  1. Happiness is fulfilling your calling according to virtue.
    1. Consider Luther’s doctrine of vocation
  2. Some Christians, such as those in the tradition of Martin Luther are uncomfortable with the language of virtue because they associate it with self-righteousness and legalism.
  3. Consider Luther’s Freedom of the Christian though….
    1. Not legalism, but a new life made possible in Christ.
  4. Christians can look to the virtues found in the way of Jesus and emphasized in the Bible, such as Paul’s so-called theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

Further reading

Primary sources:

  1. Aristotle, Poetics
  2. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Secondary source:

  1. Mortimer Adler, Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1997)