Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Plato/ Aristotle (Notes)

These are notes from one of our philosophy professors on Plato and Aristotle. They might seem a bit arcane, but the debate about how we know the forms of reality went on for centuries. Locke, who I'm reading now, could be considered a 'good Aristotlean' on this point. What I don't yet understand is why metaphysics was so important to political thought. Anyway, here are the prof's notes...

Plato: There are two realms of what exists: being and becoming.
Being is a permanent, unchanging realm of eternal patterns, forms, or ideas.
The principal form is the form of the good; all other forms are ordered according to this.
There are forms of everything; they determine both the characteristics and causal properties of everything [one form brings another with it].
Becoming is the realm in which we now live; it is ordered by the imposition of the patterns of the forms on chaos, but this imposition is never perfect in this realm of continuous change. Knowledge is awareness of the forms; opinion is awareness of the realm of becoming. Knowledge is attained by recollection of the forms, which our souls knew directly prior to being embodied in this realm of becoming; hence we may be able to recall these forms, usually imperfectly. Sensory experience of the realm of becoming may assist recollection, but that is more effectively pursued by inquiry: ask questions seeking to come to remember the permanent that is embodied imperfectly in this becoming realm.
Some few will be able to do this; they will come to remember the form of the good, and are the ones fit to rule.

Aristotle: What exists is formed matter; the forms are present in and determine the characteristics and causal properties of everything - what it can bring about and what can be done to it [forms are the permanent underlying change]. Four causes are everywhere present: material, efficient, formal, and final [the end, or "that for the sake of which"]. Knowledge of these forms can be gained by the soul through experience; from multiple instances of the same kind of thing, the soul is able to abstract the form. Science is deductively organized knowledge; the universal relations known by abstraction, e.g., fire brings heat or wood will burn, can be organized into a logical system. Some men have the capacity to identify ends, select among them, determine the efficient means to bring about the proper ones, and direct action. These are the masters, those fit to rule and to be citizens of a state. Others - women, children, and men fit to be slaves - have only the capacity to understand the means and execute them. Every state is a community that exists for some purpose; states may be organized on a variety of patterns including monarchy and democracy. Households, however, are monarchies properly ruled by masters. Pursuit of wealth is good to the extent it is for the purpose of living well; pursuit of wealth for its own sake is pursuit of a false end. The only true creation of value is making something from the raw materials provided by nature. Masters have the capacity to identify what it is to live well; they can identify the appropriate "golden mean" between the extremes of available possible actions.

Aristotle, it should also be noted, pursued a multiplicity of areas of inquiry, and - viewed as the one who initiated these inquiries into most of the areas to be found in a contemporary college of arts and sciences - came to be known as "the master of those who know". Plato's realm of being, on the other hand, was transformed by St. Augustine - a major 4th C Christian theologian - into ideas in the mind of God. Both were and are major influences on western thought.

For more on either one, a good place to start is the Encyclopedia Britannica. For an excellent, but not brief, history of philosophy, see Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy; Plato's and Aristotle's views are presented in Vol. I.


Hiromi said...

"What I don't yet understand is why metaphysics was so important to political thought."

This might be simpleminded, but is it because they thought that society wasn't just a place where we get ours, but rather a place where we (well, actually, just men) sort of become better people?

Rufus said...

Well, yeah that's part of it. I think that's why Socrates/Plato/Aristotle made male education the model for society in general. But, what confuses me is why writers from Plato to Locke to Rousseau had to explain how we experience the world and the metaphysical forms as a basis for explaining what sort of government we should have. But, generations of them would lay out ontology and then use that as a basis for natural law or the state. It's fascinating, but a bit strange.