Plato and Aristotle: a Comparison

Last Updated: 20 Jun 2022
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Plato and Aristotle are two of the earliest known thinkers in metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Although Aristotle was a student of Plato, the two had some very contrasting ideas.


Plato and Aristotle believed in the concept of forms, although they had different definitions of the concept. Plato's take on metaphysics can be labeled as dualism. Plato developed his ideas a priori; he formulated his own explanations of an ideal reality and applied them to the observable world.

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Reality had two levels for Plato: the level of the observable objects, and the level of forms (the ideal). The observable aspect of the world are but imperfect copies of the forms, and observable objects are impermanent, as opposed to forms, which are eternal. Plato's forms can be understood as blueprints that existed outside of the observable, and on which everything observable depends; thus these forms are more “real” than the observable. Plato uses analogies for this explanation; in his allegory of the cave, for example, lifetime immobile prisoners see only shadows on a cave wall and think that the shadows are the ultimate reality.

Although it cannot be disputed that the shadows are “real,” it is the objects that are casting the shadows that are, in a sense, the true reality. Aside from the well-known allegory of the cave, Plato used a number of other metaphors to explain his metaphysical views, such as the metaphor of the sun, and the divided line. Conversely, Aristotle developed his ideas a posteriori—by directly observing the world and then deriving “formulas” for this observable reality. His primary concern in this area was causality. Aristotle believed in only one level of reality, and he believed that form had no existence outside of physical, observable reality.

Aristotle's concern on the relationship of form and matter led to his concepts of causality. He believed that there are four very basic causes that can be applied to anything: the Material cause, or, in Aristtle's words, “that out of which a thing comes to be, and which persists,” the formal cause, “the statement of essence” (which states that anything is determined by the definition or archetype), the Efficient cause,  (the primary source of change), and the Final cause, (the end, or the intent of an action).


Plato's epistemology holds that all knowledge is innate, which means the process of learning is actually just a recollection of knowledge buried deep in the soul; Plato believed that before birth the soul had a perfect knowledge of everything. This is the basic precept of Plato's Theory of Ideas. According to Plato, ideas are permanent and absolute. In Plato's view all human actions can be judged through the standard of these concrete and absolute ideas, but Aristotle refutes Plato's theory on the grounds that Plato's arguments are inconclusive—stating that Plato's arguments are not convincing or lead to contradictory conclusions.

Aristotle refutes Plato's claim that Ideas are absolute, perfect entities outside of human experience, but argues that, on the contrary, ideas exist in the mind alone and are simply duplicates or interpretations of things that are experienced. Aristotle claims that all standards are based on things that are first experienced. Aristotle agreed with Plato's notion that the immaterial (form) and the material (matter) were distinctly separate entities; however, he states that forms (or ideas) exist in the mind and are dependent on the observer, and argues that Plato's theory of ideas goes by the incorrect premise of absolute universal definitions for material, observable things.


Plato's ethics states that “good” is born of knowledge and “evil” is born of ignorance (lack of knowledge). Hence Plato argues that the path to a good life is purely intellectual.Plato's  absolutism dictates that there is only one right course of action, one that is true in every case and exists independent of human opinion or interpretation. On the other hand Aristotle adopted a scientific, empirical approach to ethical problems. He believed that in order for human actions to be judged as moral or immoral, they must have a certain degree of health and wealth. Aristotle believed that ethical knowledge is not certain knowledge, like metaphysics and epistemology, but general knowledge.

Also, Aristotle argued that the achievement of “good” must be a practical discipline, as opposed to Plato's heavily theoretical approach. He claimed that to become good cannot be achieved simply by studying virtue, but that one must practice virtue in everyday life. He called the  ultimate goal of this discipline the “Highest Good.” Also, for Aristotle the achievement of happiness was by application of the “golden mean”, which just means moderation in everyday life. Aristotle argued that happiness could not be found only in pleasure, or only in fame and honor. He claims that happiness can be achieved through knowledge of humanity's specific purpose; that is, according to him, "by ascertaining the specific function of man."


In his political theories, Plato focused on formulating the perfect society by finding ways to cure humanity of its social and personal failures. Plato, in Republic, described the ideal government as having a philosopher-king as its leader, a king with a completely just soul who would thus be able to run a completely just government. Plato also argued that since he can imagine such a leader, than such a leader can exist. Plato's utopia consists of three non-hereditary classes: Guardians, Auxiliaries, and Workers. The guardians are wise and good rulers and high-level civil servants, the auxiliaries soldiers and lower civil servants, and the workers composed of unskilled laborers.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle was not concerned with the perfection of society, but simply its improvement, within what he believed were a more realistic context. Aristotle agreed that Plato's government, with its philosopher-king, would be ideal, but did not believe that such a person could exist, and thus dismissed the possibility that such a government could exist, and considers other systems that he believed are more realistic. Plato's belief in this philosopher-king reflects his theories of knowledge, which have the a priori approach to reality. On the other hand, Aristotle bases his beliefs on the observable. And claims that since he has never encountered such a completely just man, he must discount that possibility of his existence.

Aristotle argues that dividing society into distinct classes excludes men with ambition and wisdom but are not in the right class to hold political power. Another argument against Plato's class system is that guardians will, by nature of their work, be deprived of happiness, and such guardians will naturally assume that the same strict lifestyle be imposed on all of society. Aristotle valued moderation more, in contrast to Plato's utopia, which carried expectations to such extremes that it was no longer realistic to Aristotle.

Aristotle derived a theory of Democracy, where he puts emphasis on the polis, or city-state, which allows political participation by the average citizen. He claimed that "the people at large should be sovereign rather than the few best." However, this is contrary to Plato's beliefs, who argues that the public's decisions would be based on mere belief and not fact. Essentially, we can describe Plato as having been in pursuit of a philosophical, idealized truth, whereas Aristotle was concerned with the more worldly and realistic  concerns of the citizen and the government. Although they had widely divergent views, they had essentially the same goal of a better society.


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