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Aristotle’s Virtuous response to Plato’s Theory of Forms

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Two men, facing a wall, where they delight themselves watching shadows of figures that flit in and around their sight; they are happy and content, yet they do not notice chains in their arms and legs. They have been prisoners of their own room since childhood. A door stand open as sounds of people chattering and making noise go along with the shadowy puppets brought about by a large fire. The two men continue to be amused, until such time the one of them breaks away from the chain. His curiosity takes him around the room, exploring things he had never seen, touched and felt before.

And then, he ventures outside. He is immediately blinded by the sun, but he regains focus and sees lakes, valleys, mountains and tree; the very things he had seen through the shadow puppets illuminated by light. He feels obliged to return to the room and tell his experiences with his partner. But his partner refuses. He is content. He is ignorant, yet happy. On the other hand. The two chained individuals have no sense of goal or purpose. They rely on their sensual perception of the world and immediately base it as source of their own knowledge.

Unknown to them, the outside world of the ideal exists, and they have no sense of duty to overcome their ignorance and to further inquire into the ideal world. This, in a nutshell, is the basic premise of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave which is a part of his dialogues in The Republic. Plato argues in one his tenets on the Theory of Forms that the outside world remains unknowable; that man is compelled to view the ideal or the eidos when he is fed with already subtle images of the real.

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Man’s contentment is bordered with ignorance that enables him to sit placidly and watch the ‘images’ or shadows that do not ultimately give a perception of the outside world. In contrast, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics provide a clear and definite understanding on the nature of man itself, where man’s ultimate purpose is directed toward the attainment of the good or eudaimonia, which is a state of happiness and greater understanding. The existence of virtue necessitates the individual to conceive of a state which provides personal and wilful understanding of the self in order to ‘know. This state of knowing, in Aristotelian terms, is focused on the idea of happiness. In response to the question, the paper will first discuss the notions brought about by Plato on the subject of Scepticism through an enumeration and explanation of his Theory of Forms, specifically on the Allegory of The Cave that brings about the sceptical challenge posed by Plato whether the individual has the capability of attaining true knowledge.

Consequently, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics will attempt to deliver arguments that may answer the challenges posed on scepticism through a monistic approach on the Theory of Forms contrary to the dualistic conception of the world of Forms and Ideas. In addition, Aristotle’s virtue-based ethical system will also provide explanation toward the individuation of man in making his own choice and achieving true knowledge or happiness. Plato and the Cave As narrated in the aforementioned passages, one of Plato’s main philosophies is on the theory of Forms and Ideas.

The Allegory of the Cave sums up one of his numerous epistemological assertions on universals; that is, the complete reliance of a universal tangent in the universe that remains unchanged, thus the existence of the ideal world or the eidos. As narrated in the passage, the work itself is an allegory, meaning that the objects and characters of the story act as symbols that represent one of Plato’s philosophies. The two men in the story (originally described as prisoners) are in a cave since childhood. This implies that man is born ignorant of true knowledge and the world around him.

This also reflects Plato’s stewardship with his former mentor, Socrates, wherein the first method of gaining true knowledge is through a clear reaffirmation of own self-ignorance in order to know; I know nothing and therefore I must question to know. In relation to the allegory, the men are also chained to their places; that is, ignorance prevents them of exploring the outside world, to know the ideal. Yet they remained imprisoned to their own ignorance. Second, the images cast by a large fire in the back of the cave symbolize the form; the unreal objects of reality that merely provides a distorted perception of what is real.

These images are reflected by the fire and cast into shadows onto the walls in which the two men happily watch. This symbolization means that the individual only perceive his world as a mere representation of the ideal. For example, to view a plain object, like a chair or an apple, is not to view it as it is; meaning that these objects are mere representations of the ideal world, thus they are only forms of the ideal. Next, there are also ambient noises of shouts and screams that the two prisoners immediately attribute it with the images they are seeing.

This implies that sensual experience cannot entirely determine what is real. In order to know, one must question and therefore this precept establishes the foremost principles of rationalism, which is knowledge based on question rather than experience. Further, these men, fed with sounds and images, remain ignorantly happy, and therefore establishes continuity with regards contentment. The chains represent ignorance as it hinders both men of establishing real knowledge. Plato then presents a scenario where one of the men breaks free from his bondage.

It takes time though, to walk in and about his place because it is the first time to do such. Man then explores things that he had not seen before - the real of objects of the representations he used to see in the cave. Outside the cave, he is blinded by the sun, yet regains his focus to see things as they are. He is then compelled to tell his fellow of his experiences. However, his companion is hopelessly happy and content with his ignorance that he refuses to free himself from his bondage. The implications of the following symbolisms represent the hopeless refusal of the chained man from knowing ‘what is real. Instead, he focuses his attention toward the petty illusions of the form; he had hopelessly chained himself with ignorance that provides him with happiness and contentment that he refuses to venture into a whole new different realm. On the other hand, the free man extricates himself from the illusions brought about the form and ventures hesitatingly toward the ideal. Plato notes the level of unease and difficulty in facing such since man has long been ignorant of the ideal world. Yet through difficulty, the attainment of true knowledge should be the sole reason of overcoming such obstacles.

The symbolism of the sun, which blinds the free man as soon he leaves the cave, represents the intellectual illumination brought about by the ideal. This can also be related to a theistic interpretation of Plato’s view on God. The blinding illumination represents ‘greatness’ of the Thus, Plato’s scepticism is unidentified through the notion of man in search of the ideal. Taking from the philosophies of Socrates, Plato’s Theory of Forms argues for a search using rational thought and the mode of questioning in supposition with the sensual experience in attaining knowledge.

This thought lies with the notion of sceptical assimilation of knowledge whether it can be attained or not. For Plato, the notion of the Good or the Ideal remains speculative since man’s ignorance prevents him from seeking such. A life in the Golden Mean On the other hand, Aristotle argues ethics is the search for the chief end and final goal in life. Ethical knowledge is not precise compared to mathematics and sciences, but it is a practical discipline in a way that in order to be good or virtuous is not to quantify it as a study but to actually become good or virtuous.

Aristotle conceptualized that the highest good is happiness – the universal end of human life. Contrary to Plato's self-existing good, happiness should be practical rather than abstract or ideal. The Highest Good must be desirable in itself and not for some other good. Happiness is found in the experience of life and work that is unique to humans or the rational soul. The function of human beings is then to do what is inherently human, because to be good is to individuate oneself through the use of reason or logos.

To achieve happiness, according to Aristotle, is line with the fulfilment of the natural purpose of the human soul. In addition, Aristotle states that an ethical virtue is a condition between what is in excess or deficient. However, Aristotle did not espouse moral relativism as he assigned certain emotions (hate, envy, jealousy) and certain actions (theft, murder) as intrinsically wrong in spite of different circumstances. In his work, the Nichomachean Ethics, the process to achieve happiness is to find a mean or middle ground between the two polar opposite of a particularly subject.

For example, modesty is a middle ground between two emotions. Too much modesty leads to bashfulness and the lack leads to shamelessness. The foundation of the mean between the opposites of behavior is the Golden Mean. Aristotle’s ethics is goal-oriented; that every being has a definite purpose or end. In line with Plato’s thought, both philosophies center itself on the individual and choice. The difference lies with Aristotle’s ethical system wherein his virtues give the character its purpose, as opposed to Plato’s aim of achieving knowledge.

As mentioned from book one of the Ethics, “every art and inquiry, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has been rightly declared to be that at which all things aim” (Pojman 2007, p. 375). Thus, Aristotle’s primary aim is for the attainment of the good, which all behaviour and action is directed to such. Plato argues for an assertion of knowledge as implied in the allegory, but Aristotle contradicts this argument that the ideal or the ‘good’ is not otherworldly and unattainable but can be achieved through the direction of happiness in an individual’s life.

Aristotle defines virtue as excellence, not only in the material, bodily part of man but also of the soul: “for the good we are seeking was human good and the happiness human happiness. By human excellence we mean not that of the body but that of the soul; and happiness also we call an activity of the soul” (Pojman 2007, p. 382). For Aristotle, the concept of the good is not metaphysical, but rather attainable; a state of excellence motivated by virtue of the soul. This contrasts sharply with Plato’s notion of a self-existing good or the universals (the ideal, eidos).

The human mind, according to Aristotle, naturally aligns its thinking toward abstraction and the conception of the form and ideal does not necessitate a separation of these two ‘worlds. ’ Rather, he argues that the attainment of the ideal is equated with the good or happiness and that it can be practically achieved through a life practiced with virtue. On the concept of virtue, Aristotle defines these as excellence on the part of the human soul. However, these virtues may either be in excess or defect that ultimately harms both the body and soul. Let us consider this, that it is in the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and health; both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health” (Pojman 2007, p. 384). The same occurrence happens with virtue; a virtuous act cannot be considered if it is in defect or in excess. For example, fear is a polar opposite of rashness while courage is the mediated virtue. Both defect and excess are considered vice and therefore follows a certain amount of pain.

Vice only exists in the bodily understanding of the mind while virtue (courage, temperance, justice) is nobler and man’s duty is to attain such. Moral excellence or virtue is then a mediation between virtue and vice and it through such that man achieves happiness. The Golden Mean, on the other hand, is a mediated state which enables the individual to achieve eudaimonia through virtue, which is a moderate state that separates excess and deficiency. As explained in the aforementioned passages, this balance relies on the understanding of excess or defect.

The proper virtues, according to Aristotle, are courage, temperance, truthfulness, among others. These are the mediated forms of vice (courage as a middle ground between foolhardiness and fear). Scepticism Response In relation to the sceptical problems posited by Plato in his Theory of Forms, the arguments is the nature in which knowledge is acquired, which according to Platonic philosophy, is man’s goal – to break free from ignorance and to attain true knowledge. Plato slightly deviates from Socrates’ methods through the conception of the world of the ideal and forms.

His challenge of scepticism lies primarily with the senses as explained in the allegory. The sensual experiences of individual cannot entirely guarantee a clear perception of what is real or not. Thus, the sensory images that man experiences everyday represent an ideal form on some outside world. The problem lies with the method of achieving such; that is, actually conceiving of perfect idea of a represented object. For Aristotle on the other hand, he answers this challenge through the conception of his own ideal end of man – achieving happiness.

For Aristotle, the dualistic conception of the realm of the form and ideal, though abstract, does not necessarily mean that it is apart. Rather, he argues that both worlds are unified into one stratified substance and the ideal (eudaimonia, happiness) exist in the sensory world that the individual lives around. Thus, he categorizes the different factors of the world that the individual lives around through the conception of virtue and vice. Aristotle’s ethical system solely rely on the individual to conceptualize or to practice virtue in order to achieve happiness.

Contrary to Plato’s theory, the assimilation of virtue is entirely attainable through a more practical practice rather than a metaphysical understanding. However, both philosophers share the same ‘struggle’ in achieving the desired state of human consciousness: “That moral excellence is a mean, then, and in what sense it is so, and that it is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess and deficiency. Hence, it is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is not easy task to find the middle” (Pojman 2007, p. 388).

The same amount of effort, as characterized in the allegory, needs to be equally powerful or in this case, needs to have complete understanding on what it is to be in the ‘middle ground. ’ As Aristotle’s goal-centered ethical system, it contrasts with the implication brought by Plato’s allegory wherein there is only an imagined state of ‘escape’ from ignorance rather than a self-proclaimed attempt of defining one’s life. In the allegory, it is clearly presented from the symbolisms that the reader must ‘imagine’ the man escaping from the chains of ignorance in order to view the world of the eidos.

Based from this premise, it can be assumed that this freedom of ignorance is through an understanding of the unreal; that one must question in order to know what real knowledge is. Plato’s problem on scepticism lies on the idea whether the ignorant man has the capability to question or understand the unreal objects of impression and further realizes the ideal that which represents it. Aristotle addresses this through the Nichomachean Ethics wherein the individual character and disposition of man is necessary in directing his own life to an objective state of happiness.

Contrary to the dualistic notion of the form and ideal, both worlds, according to Aristotle, exists as one and are the world of forms is represented with the vice. Vice is considered a material, worldly state, something that opposes happiness through its polar opposites. Excess of happiness is indulgence and pleasure while the lack of it is melancholy. Both states however, follow a certain amount of pain since it neither provides balance, always an excess or lack. Through the practice of virtue and mediation, the individual experiences eudaimonia through a careful re-examination of action and the application of virtue.

The virtuous life does not have pain, defect or excess, since it is mediated in the middle that is carefully suited to one’s individual needs. Aristotle’s idea of happiness is similar to that of Plato’s ideal world. However, Plato’s conception of the ideal remains unachievable, since the individuals response to their own ignorant states already provide them a sense of satisfaction and happiness. For Aristotle, this mediocre sense of happiness is not the final end or purpose of man.

Rather, the application of the Nichomachean Ethics provide another greater purpose or end. The theory of forms merely presents a sceptical approach to man’s choice to break free from ignorance. Aristotle answers this problem through a character-oriented approach – that which gives purpose to the individual to totally break away from sensory experience and to question the world around him. A mediated knowledge Therefore, we conclude that Aristotle’s arguments opposing Plato’s Theory of Forms practically answers the sceptical problem of knowledge in Plato’s allegory.

The question whether man has the capability to break free from ignorance is answered through an evaluation of personal character and moral beliefs in attaining a redirected good – happiness. Through the valuation of an end object, the individual is then given purpose. This purpose, applied with Plato’s ideologies, gives the ignorant man a sense of responsibility to know and redirect action toward a much nobler purpose. The individual is then not forever condemned with his own ignorance as he has a purpose to fulfil. Thus, the imagined state of freedom from bondage is gone from a wilful acknowledgement of purpose.

In Aristotle’s notion, this purpose is directed toward happiness which individuates the being through purpose. These notions can also be based on the succeeding theories on rationalism and existentialism where Aristotle’s ethical systems give importance on the individual to question his own existence and surroundings in order to know, contrary to a sensual perception of the world. It is important for an individual to know a middle-ground between excess and deficient moral attitudes and characters in order to fully realize the illusions brought about by materialistic objects.

Wilful ignorance poses a problem on the understanding of true knowledge since there is no courage to face new objects or truths. Both philosophers mention a certain level of difficulty in attaining virtue or intellectual illumination. It is then necessitated in the individual to fulfil such roles and break away from the ignorant perception of illusionary objects and to find a greater purpose in life. These finite states of worldly objects always posses a cycle of unending pain and only through a mediated understanding of happiness is when man can break away from such trivial cycle and achieve a complete state of understanding.

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Aristotle’s Virtuous response to Plato’s Theory of Forms. (2017, May 10). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/aristotles-virtuous-response-platos-theory-forms/

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