Plato and Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle

The following article first appeared in Theosophy Magazine for September 1939, the main monthly publication of the United Lodge of Theosophists. It was the 55th in the 59 part series of articles titled “Ancient Landmarks.” The previous article in the series, simply titled “Plato,” had informed the reader that –

“Plato claimed no originality for his ideas. He was, in every sense, the world’s interpreter. He, like H.P.B., gave a new unity to ancient and scattered truths – his work was the string which tied together the nosegay of precious blossoms which had been culled from the gardens of the world’s best thinkers. Without Plato, the Socratic method of education would be unknown. Without Plato, the abstruse numerical system of Pythagoras would have remained unintelligible to the average mind. Without Plato, the philosophical and psychological systems of Patanjali, Kapila and Vyasa, the laws of Manu and the Buddhistic doctrine of emanation, would have remained hidden from the Western world. Plato was the link between the East and the West. As Emerson says, “The excellence of Europe and Asia is in his brain. Metaphysics and natural philosophy expressed the genius of Europe; he substructs the religion of Asia as the base”.”

One definition of Theosophy is that it is “the synthesis of religion, philosophy, and science.” The philosophy side of Theosophy is a vital and essential part of it. The word “philosophy” literally means “Love of Wisdom” or “Love of Truth,” wisdom and truth being synonymous in olden times.

Spirituality divorced from philosophy is often little more than idiocy, as has been painfully demonstrated by the Spiritualist movement and by the channelled teachings and messages and angel mania that characterise the New Age movement. But whereas such things come and go, the Ancient and Ageless Wisdom ever remains, for it is Timeless Truth and the Truth never changes.

H.P. Blavatsky and the Masters of the Trans-Himalayan Brotherhood (her Adept Teachers and direct inspirers) strongly favoured Platonism over Aristotelianism and asserted that the Platonic approach must triumph over the Aristotelian approach, for the sake of humanity’s further spiritual evolution and advancement. HPB and the Masters sometimes called Plato “the Divine Plato” and described him as a great Initiate of the Mysteries and “The World’s Interpreter.”

The millennia old conflict and battle of ideas between Platonism and Aristotelianism is expertly summarised and explained in this article and is something which all sincere Theosophists should clearly comprehend and become acquainted with, if they aren’t already.

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When Socrates was sixty years old, Plato, then a youth of twenty, came to him as a pupil. When Plato was sixty years old, the seventeen-year-old Aristotle presented himself, joining the Teacher’s group of “Friends,” as the members of the Academy called themselves. Aristotle was a youth of gentle birth and breeding, his father occupying the position of physician to King Philip of Macedon. Possessed of a strong character, a penetrating intellect, apparent sincerity, but great personal ambition. Aristotle was a student in the Academy during the twenty years he remained in Athens. His remarkable intellectual powers led Plato to call him the “Mind of the School.”

After the death of his teacher, Aristotle, accompanied by Xenocrates, went to the court of Hermias, lord of Atarneus, whose sister he afterward married. When Aristotle was forty years old, Philip of Macedon engaged him as tutor for his son Alexander, then thirteen, whose later exploits gained for him the title of Alexander the Great. Philip became so interested in Aristotle that he rebuilt his native city and planned a school where the latter might teach. When Alexander started out to conquer the world, learned men accompanied him to gather scientific facts. After his Persian conquest Alexander presented his former tutor with a sum equivalent to a million dollars, which enabled Aristotle to purchase a large library and continue his work under the most ideal circumstances.

When Aristotle was forty-nine years old he returned to Athens and founded his own school of philosophy. It was known as the Peripatetic School because of Aristotle’s habit of strolling up and down the shaded walks around the Lyceum while talking with his pupils. In the morning he gave discourses on philosophy to his more advanced pupils, who were known as his “esoteric” students. In the afternoon a larger circle gathered around him, to whom he imparted simpler teachings. This was known as his exoteric group.

In passing from Plato to Aristotle, we at once become conscious of a distinct change in philosophical concepts and methods. This is all the more noticeable because of our ignorance of Aristotle’s complete system. The writings which have come down to us comprise only about a quarter of his works. These are all incomplete, some of them seeming to be notes intended for elaboration in his lectures. They are often sketchy and obscure, highly technical and full of repetitions. Sometimes they are so abstruse that we are obliged to call upon the imagination to supply the missing links of his deductions. Before reaching our Western scholars his works passed through too many hands to remain immaculate. From Theophrastus they passed to Neleus, whose heirs kept them mouldering in subterranean caves for a century and a half. After that his manuscripts were copied and augmented by Apellicon of Theos, who supplied many missing paragraphs, probably from his own conjectures. Although the Arabians were acquainted with Aristotle’s works from the eighth century onward, the Christian world paid little attention to them until three centuries later. In the eleventh century, however, the Aristotelian doctrine of Forms became the bone of contention which divided philosophers into two classes which, from that day to this, have remained separate. On the one side were the Nominalists, who maintained that Universals are mere names for the common attributes of things and beings. On the other side were the Realists, whose thought crudely resembled the Platonic doctrine of Ideas as independent realities.

It seems a great historic tragedy that Aristotle, who remained under the influence of Plato for nearly twenty years, failed to continue the line of teaching begun by Pythagoras and clarified by Plato. But Aristotle was not content to be a “transmitter.” Plato claimed no originality for his ideas, giving the credit to Socrates and Pythagoras. Aristotle’s failure in this direction may be due to the fact that, while both Pythagoras and Plato were Initiates of the Mysteries, Aristotle was never initiated and depended on logical speculation for the development of his theories. This accounts for his many divergences from the teachings of Plato, whose philosophy was based upon the wisdom of the ancient East. According to Diogenes Laertius, Aristotle fell away from his teacher while Plato was still alive, whereat Plato remarked, “Aristotle has kicked me, as foals do their mothers when they are born.” While there is evidence that Aristotle never lost his high personal regard for Plato, the fact remains that in his later writings he never mentions Plato except to refute his doctrines, maintaining that the Platonic method is fatal to science.

At every period of the world’s history some philosopher has asked the eternal question: Is there, in the universe or outside of it, an underlying Reality which is eternal, immovable, unchanging? The ancient Egyptians believed, as Hermes taught: “Reality is not upon the earth, my son. Nothing on earth is real. There are only appearances. Appearance is the supreme illusion.” In the still more ancient East, only the eternal and changeless was called Reality. All that is subject to change through differentiation and decay was called Maya, or illusion.

It is the task of Philosophy to investigate this all-important question: What is real? At first glance, Aristotle’s definition of philosophy seems to agree with Plato’s. Plato described philosophy as the science of the Idea, the science which deals with noumena rather than phenomena. Aristotle defined it as the science of the universal essence of that which is real or actual. Plato, the Initiate, taught that there is one Reality lying behind the numberless differentiations of the phenomenal world. Aristotle maintained that there is a graded series of realities, each step in the series revealing more and more those universal relationships which make it an object of true knowledge. At the end of the series, he said, lies that which is no longer relative, but absolute.

Plato taught that “beyond all finite existences and secondary causes, all laws, ideas and principles, there is an Intelligence, or Mind, the first principle of all principles, the Supreme Idea upon which all other ideas are grounded, … the ultimate substance from which all things derive their being and essence, the first and efficient Cause of all the order and harmony and beauty which pervades the Universe.” This he called the “World of Ideas.”

What, actually, is this Intelligence, this Cosmic Mind of which Plato spoke with such assurance? Theosophy explains that Universal Mind is not something outside the universe, but includes all those various intelligences which were evolved in a previous period of evolution. Evolution, therefore, is the further development of those intelligences. This unfolding is the result of conscious experience, beginning in the highest state of manifested matter and descending more and more into concrete forms until the physical is reached. Then begins the ascent, plus the experience gained.

Plato held that the Ideas, the Forms of things, are self-existent, and not dependent upon the ever-changing objects of the senses. The noumenon, according to Plato, is the real, the phenomenon only appearance. Aristotle wrote extensively in criticism of Plato’s doctrine of Ideas, affirming that “no universals exist over and above the individual objects and separate from them.” He refused any substantial reality to “the unity which is predicated of many individual things.” Universal principles, he held, are real, and are the objects of our reason, as distinguished from the physical objects of sense-perception. Yet universals are real only as they exist in individuals. “It is,” he said, “apparently impossible that any of the so-called universals should exist as substance.” This conflict between Plato and Aristotle on the subject of reality led to almost infinite controversy and confusion among later philosophers. To the extent that Aristotle endows universals with reality, he is Platonic in thought. His commentators have endeavored to interpret Aristotle according to their predilection. One writer maintains that “according to Aristotle, the formal aspect of universality is conferred by the mind, and therefore, the universal, as such, does not exist in individual things, but in the mind alone.” (William Turner, History of Philosophy, p. 132.) Another points out that while both the Categories and the Metaphysics are based on the assumption of the reality of individual substances, “the Categories (cap. 5) admits that universal species and genera can be called substances, whereas the Metaphysics (Z 13) denies that a universal can be a substance at all.” Yet Aristotle is constrained to regard as “substance” the universal essence of a species of substance, “because the individual essence of an individual substance really is that substance, and the universal essence of the whole species is supposed to be indivisible and therefore identical with the individual essence of any individual of the species.” (Encyc. Brit., “Aristotle,” 11th ed.)

In maintaining this Aristotle seems to invalidate all his arguments against the existence of universals independent of particulars. It was doubtless such difficulties in the comprehension of Aristotle’s real meaning that led H.P.B. to remark upon the abstruse character of his writings, asking, “What do we know so certain about Aristotle?” (Isis Unveiled I, 320.) It seems that in spite of his demand for research into particulars, Aristotle was forced to return to the Platonic view of origins. This is indicated by H.P.B.’s explanation of his theory of Privation, Form and Matter. As Lange points out in his History of Materialism, Aristotle’s admission of the reality of the universal, in things, “leads, in its logical consequences, little as Aristotle cared to trouble himself with these, to the same exaltation of the universal over the particular which we find in Plato. For if it is once conceded that the essence of the individual lies in the species, the most essential part of the species must again lie on a still higher plane, or, in other words, the ground of the species must lie in the genus, and so on.” (I, 88.) Thus, as one of Aristotle’s translators has observed, “he is ultimately driven back to the very standpoint he derides in Platonism.” This writer, Hugh Tredennick, makes clear the internal contradictions in Aristotle’s thought:

“He is emphatic that form cannot exist in separation from matter; and yet the supreme reality turns out to be a pure form. He blames the Platonists for using metaphorical language, and yet when he comes to explain the ultimate method of causation he has to describe it in terms of love or desire. The truth is that Aristotle’s thought is always struggling against Platonic influences, which nevertheless generally emerge triumphant in his ultimate conclusions. His great contribution to philosophy was on the side of method; but it was Plato, acknowledged or unacknowledged, who inspired all that was best in the thought of his great disciple.” (Metaphysics, Introduction, I, xxx.)

The structural stresses and strains in the philosophy of Aristotle are due to his attempt to subject to critical analysis according to his own theory of knowledge the principles and ideas he had learned from Plato. Aristotle, however, refused to recognize supersensible cognition as the source of knowledge, while the clairvoyant vision of the soul was the only channel to truth, according to Plato. But Aristotle had not this vision; hence his dependence on sense-perception and his elevation of the physical world to the status of reality. While admitting that knowledge must be in terms of concepts, of universals – thus escaping the chaos of mere empiricism – he held that we become aware of universals only by abstracting them from the phenomena of the senses. Thus principles or universals are in things, whether they be regarded as essences or as concepts. It seems almost as though Aristotle devoted his life to the task of showing that he, Aristotle, could point the way to final truth, without being initiated into the Mysteries, and that in order to do this he constructed a theory of knowledge which did not involve initiation as a prerequisite to real knowing. For the eye of wisdom he substituted the eye of sense. Hence he is truly spoken of as the Father of Modern Science.

Plato’s science of all sciences was Dialectic, the doctrine of the Idea in Itself, just as physics is the science of the Ideas manifesting in nature, and Ethics is the science of Ideas applied to human action. Aristotle’s science of sciences was Logic, the science of analysis, the weaknesses of which form the theme of Boris Bogoslovsky’s book, The Technique of Controversy.

Plato divided knowledge into two classes, the one dealing with the noumenal, the other with the phenomenal world. The first he called real knowledge, the second, opinion. In this statement we find a clear reiteration of the forty-ninth Aphorism of Patanjali. Speaking of Wisdom – that form of knowledge which is absolutely free from error – Patanjali says: “This kind of knowledge differs from the knowledge due to testimony and inference; because, in the pursuit of knowledge based upon these, the mind has to consider many particulars and is not engaged with the general field of knowledge itself.” (Bk. I.)

Considering real knowledge as the only object worthy of the attention of the true philosopher, Plato began by postulating certain universal principles as the basis for understanding all particular phenomena. Aristotle, on the other hand, began with particulars and proceeded by gradual stages to the consideration of universal principles, declaring that “our knowledge of the individual precedes our knowledge of the universal.”

The inductive method, which Aristotle established in the Western world – still slavishly followed by scientific thinkers – is defended on the supposition that it deals with things as they are. Knowledge gained through sense-perception, on which all learning is dependent, according to Aristotle, is therefore more reliable than any a priori concept of an ideal reality.

No student of Theosophy would deny the value of reasoning on the basis of many observed particulars. But he would add that this value is lost when the observer is ignorant of the fact that the phenomenal universe is in a constant state of change. How can changing phenomena be properly evaluated unless there is something changeless with which they may be compared? Philosophy, like Physics, must have its “whereon to stand.” As Dr. A. Gordon Melvin observes in his latest book, The New Culture.

“The Aristotelian tends to be cocksure. He knows what he is talking about, but he does not talk about anything of importance. For the characteristic limitation of this type of search is that it apprehends bit by bit. It knows a corner of the world as long as that corner remains stationary. But it does not know wholes or fundamentals. The veil of matter is a particularization of truth, not its full realization.”

Once we admit that real knowledge does exist, our next question will be: How can it be acquired? Aristotle answered the question by declaring that real knowledge can be gained only through, although not from, the senses. The intellectual faculty discerns the principles of things in the objects of the senses, and knowledge is the product of this abstraction. There are both external and internal senses, according to Aristotle. Memory and imagination are defined as internal senses, as is also the “sense” of self-consciousness. This latter sense, he said, resides in the heart. There is no room in Aristotle’s philosophy for the doctrine of innate ideas. Considering that there is nothing in the mind which is not first an image acquired through the senses, he taught that mind itself is only the potential power to think. All objects of thought are sensuous.

Plato answered the question in another manner. He taught that the nous of man, being “generated by the divine Father,” possesses a nature akin to and homogeneous with the Divine Mind, and is therefore capable of beholding Reality. The faculty by which Reality is perceived is not a sense faculty, but one which belongs to the Soul. Theosophy describes this faculty as Intuition, by which a man may gaze directly upon ideas. Intuition is thus beyond and above the reasoning faculty, and is not dependent upon it. The use of that faculty is gained through the form of concentration described by Patanjali in his Yoga Aphorisms. When this form of concentration is perfected one is able to cognize all the inherent qualities of any object whatsoever, becoming completely identified with the thing considered and experiencing in himself all the qualities exhibited by the object. Plato knew that the best way to awaken that faculty is by turning the mind toward universal ideas; only such sublime objects of thought can produce the steadiness necessary for true contemplation.

In many cases, the teaching of Aristotle may be regarded as the exoteric version of Platonic truth. From the same ontological principles as his teacher, Aristotle reasoned to certain conclusions which to him seemed to follow necessarily, although resulting in a contradiction with one or another of Plato’s doctrines. An instance of this kind is explained by H.P.B.:

“Aristotle argued that the world was eternal, and that it will always be the same; that one generation of men has always produced another, without ever having had a beginning that could be determined by our intellect. In this, his teaching, in its exoteric sense, clashed with that of Plato, who taught that “there was a time when mankind did not perpetuate itself”; but in spirit both doctrines agreed, as Plato adds immediately: “This was followed by the earthly human race, in which the primitive history was gradually forgotten and man sank deeper and deeper”; and Aristotle says: “If there has been a first man he must have been born without father or mother – which is repugnant to nature. For there could not have been a first egg to give a beginning to birds, or there should have been a first bird which gave a beginning to eggs; for a bird comes from an egg.” The same he held good for all species, believing, with Plato, that everything before it appeared on earth had first its being in spirit.” (Isis Unveiled I, 428.)

Every natural body, according to Aristotle, is brought into existence by three principles: Privation, Form, and Matter. Privation, says H.P.B., “meant in the mind of the great philosopher that which the Occultists call the prototypes impressed in the Astral Light – the lowest plane and world of Anima Mundi.” (S.D. I, 59.) Privation is not, however, “considered in Aristotelic philosophy as a principle in the composition of bodies, but as an external property in their production; for the production is a change by which the matter passes from the shape it has not to that which it assumes.” (Isis Unveiled I, 310.) As to Form, “His philosophy teaches that besides the original matter, another principle is necessary to complete the triune nature of every particle, and this is form; an invisible, but still, in an ontological sense of the word, a substantial being, really distinct from matter proper.” (Ibid. I, 312.) This substantial form Aristotle called the soul.

Plato, starting with universal principles, declared that the soul of man is derived from the Universal World-Soul, and is therefore identical in essence with that which is a radiation of the ever-unknown Absolute. Aristotle, starting from below, approached the subject of the soul by eliminating one by one those things which the soul is not. The conclusion he finally reached was that the soul is the form of the body. This soul, however, is plainly the astral or psychic principle, for Aristotle says in De Anima, “It cannot be that the body is the full realization or expression of the soul; rather on the contrary it is the soul which is the full realization of some body.” (It may be noted that the term Entelechy, which is here translated “full realization,” has been borrowed by members of the modern vitalist school of Biology to represent the formative principle of organic life.) Besides the psyche or mortal soul, Aristotle taught that there is in man a rational soul, the “creative reason,” and with Plato held this Nous to be pre-existing and eternal, although he denied that the mind-principle carries with it the knowledge gained by individual experiences in the past, speaking of metempsychosis as “absurd.” Thus, with Aristotle, the immortal element in man seems to lose its individual character on the death of the body.

Aristotle’s cosmological speculations were in many cases opposed to the teachings of Plato. Plato, for one thing, was well versed in the heliocentric system. Aristotle adopted the astronomy of Eudoxus, which taught that the world is the center of the universe, and that it is round and stationary. He described the earth as being surrounded by a sphere of air and a sphere of fire, saying that the heavenly bodies are fixed in these spheres.

In formulating his ethical system Aristotle started with Plato’s query: What is the end of life, the highest good toward which a man can aspire? Reasoning inductively, Aristotle showed that a man’s highest aim is not merely to live, for that aim he shares with the whole of nature. Nor is it to feel, for that is shared with the animals. As man is the only being in the universe who possesses a rational soul, Aristotle concluded that man’s highest aim is the activity of the soul in conformity with reason. Although Plato taught that every man should concentrate upon the particular virtue which was most necessary for him at his own stage of evolution, he declared that Justice is the highest of all virtues, being inherent in the soul itself. That idea is clarified by Mr. Judge’s statement that “all is soul and spirit ever evolving under the rule of law (or Justice) which is inherent in the whole.” Aristotle, on the other hand, taught that the highest virtue is intellectual contemplation.

True happiness, according to Plato, is found only in the performance of one’s own duty, which is determined individually by the degree of evolution achieved, and politically by the position one occupies in the State. Aristotle disagrees with Plato’s view that individual happiness should be sacrificed for the good of the community. He believes that individual happiness depends not only upon virtue, but also upon wealth, pleasure and the opportunity for leisure. He does not advocate spending those leisure hours in the cultivation of any art, as he considers that artistic craftsmanship belongs to the field of manual labor, and that professional skill in any of the arts is a disgrace to a free citizen. The ideal life, from Aristotle’s point of view, seems to be one which is given over entirely to intellectual research and contemplation – the life of a cultivated and reflective country gentlemen, remote from the workaday world.

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“What a common ruse it is of your Aristoteleans! with the sleuth hound’s persistence they track an idea to the very verge of the “impassable chasm,” and then brought to bay leave the metaphysicians to take up the trail if they can, or let it be lost.” (Master K.H.)

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