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Aristotle and Platos Theories of Ethics

Essay add: 30-09-2015, 19:01   /   Views: 156
This essay examines Aristotle’s and Plato’s theories of ethics, and briefly compares them.

Classical Theories of Ethics – Outline

I Introduction

II Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

III Plato’s Republic

IV Brief Comparison

V Conclusion


Classical Theories of Ethics

I Introduction

The study of ethics takes us all the way back to classical Greece. Since it does, I thought it might be useful to compare “classical” theories from truly classical figures. Thus, we’ll examine Aristotle’s and Plato’s ideas about ethics, as revealed in The Nicomachean Ethics and The Republic.

II Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

We have nothing of Aristotle’s original writings left to us; the Ethics appears to be a sort of “compilation” of his works written down by one Nicomachus, from whom we get the title of this version of the work. Because it is a compendium, not an original work, it’s somewhat repetitive. However, it is still a vital guide to Aristotle’s thought.
The basic point that the philosopher makes in this writing is that the goal of humanity is happiness. He arrives at this by suggesting, in the very first sentence, that the aim of every human activity is good: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim.” (Aristotle, PG).
He argues that what he is looking for is an understanding of the concept of a “universal good,” and he says that it will be “achievable by action.” Furthermore, this action will not be the same for everyone, but that each person will pursue his own ends and find good therein. That is, the doctor will find good in medicine; the farmer in tending his farm; and the politician in politics. “Therefore, if there is an end for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action…” (Aristotle, PG).
He also says that although it’s obvious that some ends are not final ends (we complete some tasks in order to get to others), at some point when the final end is reached, it will be the “chief good” of the entire process. Lastly, he says that those things that we pursue in and of themselves and not as a means to something else are desirable in themselves. This final end of goodness is what we call happiness. It is a thing, an end in itself. (Aristotle, PG).

III Plato’s Republic

The Republic is Plato’s longest work, and it is concerned largely with the idea of whether it is better to live justly or unjustly. However, in describing his Just City and the type of state that arises from it, he considers the issue of happiness and how it is to be found. Unlike the Ethics, The Republic covers a great many subjects; but woven throughout is Plato’s concern for Forms. (As I understand Forms, they are representations of qualities that exist whether or not the things themselves exist. For example, there is “Tall,” and we can apply that to a tree. The Form of Tall will remain unchanging whether the tree is stricken with disease, cut down, or never existed in the first place. The Form is the idea of the thing, not the thing itself. Plato also uses the idea of Form as part of his justification for the immortality of the soul.)
The most striking (and famous) example of his concern with form and substance is his allegory of the cave. Imagine, he says, a race of people raised in darkness. They are chained against a low wall in a cave so that they cannot move their heads. The only light is from a fire behind and above them. Now imagine that there are people walking along the top of the wall, such that the fire throws their shadows on the wall in front of those who are chained in place. What would reality be for these people? Since they have no concept of the appearance of the objects in three dimensions, they would believe that the shadows they see before them are the objects themselves.
Plato uses the allegory of the cave to illustrate an argument he made previously, about good being the last thing perceived in the world of knowledge:
“But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; [517c] and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.” (Plato, PG).

We can see here that the references to light, beauty and the visible world are perfectly illustrated by the allegory of the cave.

IV Brief Comparison

Though both philosophers are struggling to determine what happiness is and how to attain it, they have come to different conclusions. For Aristotle, goodness is an end in itself, but for Plato, it is a starting point for yet more discovery, as he says above.

V Conclusion
Aristotle and Plato, along with Socrates, have given us some of our most important ideas. The fact that we still seek for meaning 2,000 years after these men lived is an indication of the subtlety of their thought, as well as the debt we owe them.
VI References
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. The Internet Classics Archive [Web site]. 1994-2000. Accessed: 16 Mar 2003. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html

Plato. The Republic. Exploring Plato’s Dialogues [Web site]. Undated. Accessed: 16 Mar 2003. http://plato.evansville.edu/texts/jowett/republic.htm

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