Plato Vs. Aristotle In Terms of Politics – Idealism Vs. Rationalism
Plato can be understood as the father of rationalism and political philosophy (political idealism), and Aristotle, his student, the father of empiricism and political science (political realism).
Before we examine the realist and idealist ideology of the Greeks, let’s put forward some quick definitions:
- Idealism: Dealing with things as they should be. Rooted in the internal world of rationalism and ideas.
- Realism: Dealing with things as they are. Rooted in the external material world of empiricism.
- Political Science: The science of politics, based on empirical evidence. See “can politics be a science?“
- Political Philosophy: The philosophy of politics from a metaphysic and reason-based perspective.
TIP: The reason Plato, Aristotle, and so many others point up or down in images is because this is a symbol of the ideal and realist (the metaphysical and physical). Plato points up (to his forms), and Aristotle points down (indicating his realist philosophy).
Socrates and Plato as Idealists vs. Aristotle as a Realist
More specifically, Socrates, the main character of Plato’s dialogues and Plato’s teacher, is an idealist. He holds ideals above money, rejecting the Sophist idea of being a paid tutor, and even favoring his ideals over his life. Plato’s student Aristotle, who didn’t use his teacher as a literary tool, is a realist. He explains how moral virtue can be applied in real life situations, and how maintaining a “balance” of vice and virtue can be a useful tool of political influence.
Although we can’t sum up the two major Greek philosophers in a paragraph, we can say that this realist vs. idealist dichotomy is true for most subjects they wrote about. Plato and Aristotle tackled nearly all of them. Specifically, we can understand this dichotomy through the lens of politics which is the main subject of this page.
TIP: Consider Plato defines the government types by their virtues, and Aristotle defines them by…. how many rulers there are. That illustrates their differences in idealist and realist style well.
Plato and Aristotle (Introduction to Greek Philosophy)
TIP: Despite the useful truths on this page and its videos, the Greeks need to be understood in their own time. Both Plato and Aristotle are idealists compared to empirically minded figures like Hobbes or Hume. So while the idealist / realist dichotomy works as a comparison of the Greeks, it doesn’t hold up as a timeless truth. Most Athenians erred on the side of ideals, metaphysics, and reasoned theories of justice; so almost none could compare to a realist of the modern age like Sartre or Rand.
OPINION: This fundamental duality of idealism vs. realism isn’t rooted in Greek thought, it is rooted in the human condition. The ideology of Plato and Aristotle can work as a metaphor for Hume’s Fork, the modern idealism vs. realism debate, Left-Right politics, or Democrats and Republicans. I’ll be clear as Aristotle here. In my opinion, I’d say history clearly shows us that neither side is right, it’s not either/or, it is A+B (think quantum, and not binary). Both realism and idealism are meant to temper each other, just like Aristotle’s vice is a deficiency or excess of virtue. In my opinion, this is why absolutists like Mises and Marx miss the mark.
Understanding Plato’s Idealism and Aristotle’s Realism
Plato, through dialogues concerning his teacher Socrates, takes an idealistic approach to politics (dealing with things as they should be, more than as they are). This is true to the extent that Socrates chooses to martyr himself in the name of altruism to make a point, rather than choosing to escape a state-imposed death sentence. This can also be seen in the Sophist’s endless stream of questions which offer more doubt than answers.
Aristotle, on the other hand, wrote much more practical advice. For example, his book Rhetoric teaches the Greek version of Machiavellian tactics (underhanded tactics we refer today as “political realism”).
Now consider Machiavelli, the father of modern political science, wrote his masterwork The Prince in the 1530’s. Plato and Aristotle lived between 400 – 300 BC. Pair these dates with the fact that Machiavelli wrote about rhetoric and republics in 16th-century politics, and the fact that western democracy is a mix between a Republic and Athenian Democracy. Compare that view to Plato’s Republic, and you’ll start to get why this story is not just neat, but central to all of the modern western socioeconomic politics.
These truisms can be gleaned by comparing Plato’s Republic (which is written as a dialogue between Socrates and some Athenians) and Aristotle’ Politics (which is a mostly realist discussion of politics written in essay form).
To understand this argument, you should look at Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and his Rhetoric as well. Plato is a little more difficult. Aristotle wrote books on each area of academic interest, Plato wrote many dialogues that often jump between subjects. Plato’s Laws, Statesman, and Crito come to mind.
FACT: Speaking of Realists, Aristotle’s student was Alexander the Great. That is about as practical as it gets. Another important realist and Athenian idealist from 600 BC is Solon who liberated Athens from indentured servitude and implemented their version of Direct Democracy. Another important Greek state was the National Socialist state Sparta. Athens had a form of capitalism and Direct Democracy; Sparta didn’t. Both were successful city-states.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: It isn’t fair or wise to try to sum up the Greeks in a single page as all western philosophy essentially starts with their work. The following videos will help fill in remaining bits of the puzzle. Click on the above links and read their words. If you have to pick one, I suggest Nicomachean Ethics and Statesman.
Greek Thought- Aristotle & Plato | Science Full Documentary
The Ancient Greek Sophists (Greek Philosophy)
PHILOSOPHY – Plato
PHILOSOPHY – Aristotle
Alexander the Great and the Situation … the Great? Crash Course World History #8
- Plato and Aristotle Similarities and Differences
- Aristotle vs. Plato
- Politics (Aristotle)
- Republic (Plato)