The Philosophical Apprentice

“Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person.” Albert Einstein

Where is the agreement between Plato and Aristotle?

That Plato and Aristotle share much in common goes without saying. Aristotle spent a long and profitable tutelage under Plato. Why study under a teacher unless you’re learning something from him? From my perspective, there are two areas where Plato and Aristotle are in broad agreement – truth and reality. This assertion is best defended against the backdrop of the impasse that had arisen in Greek Philosophy. I call this the problem of change. At one end there is the empiricist / phenomenalist camp represented by Heraclitus which held that everything in the world was in a constant process of change. The other camp, the rationalists, represented by Parmenides maintained that in a system like that of the phenomenalists there was no room for being, which was by definition changeless. Whereas Heraclitus maintained that everything changed and nothing endured (all is becoming is another way of saying this), Parmenides, on the other hand, maintained that being could not not be and hence change was an illusion. The former precluded a rational account of the world and fostered relativism while the latter did violence to common sense by denying sense experience altogether; it also aroused skepticism in the populace at the time. All these strands came together with the Sophists who represented to the eyes of Plato a threat to the moral order. The question then for Plato became then the status of universals. What persisted in the things of this world that could be the object and reference for true statements, especially in moral matters, and, additionally, what was the ontological status of those universals? Where did they reside for instance? For Plato, the objects of knowledge were the forms which existed in an eternal changeless world while the objects of our mundane material world were mere copies of the forms that possessed less reality than the forms themselves – this is I call the form / matter distinction . Although Aristotle is often depicted as differing widely from Plato in many matters in this instance I believe Aristotle is in broad agreement with Plato in that he accepts the form matter distinction. He agrees with Plato in his approach rather than adopting other solutions to the being-becoming problem that had been proposed such as atomism or the pluralism of Empedocles. The real difference is that Aristotle believed that the forms existed in the individual things in the world around rather than in some shadowy transcendent world. As Aristotle tell us: “All substance appears to signify that which is individual” (Chapter 5, Edghill Translation).


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