Theories of Arete: Aristotle Meets Plato

The theories each of these men laid out in attempt to gain knowledge of the nature of existence and perception present direct clash at many points. Their differences in approach to permanence, shades of reality, and the relationship between body and essence offer a stormy yet rich meeting of concepts for the reader to wade through.Drawing from Plato’s middle dialogues and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in comparing their uses and relationships with Arete within the greater context of their respective explorations of the Good, one sees their intellectual influence on each other, yet each maintains a unique, often contradictory paradigm.

The idea of objective truth of the soul and its nature is the most logical place to begin an understanding of Plato and Aristotle in relation to each other. Some would contend that this is exactly what makes them incomparable, but in all reality, one can think of this as setting them at opposite corners of the boxing ring. Plato, through slow argument building throughout his middle dialogues, asserts that the forms are unchanging, immortal, and immaterial. They are essentially, the ultimate authorities on that which they are. They are the most basic essences of themselves. All things pious are simply manifestations of the greater singular Piety. This implies that there is no shading of piety with perception. Plato believed the forms to be beyond perception, and therefore, by nature untainted.

Singularity, as an idea, is the cohesion to many of the more elusive arguments Plato constructed concerning the nature of our existence and human perception. The assumption that there exists an ultimately authoritative source point of Piety or Virtue, for example, assumes that there are across-the-board less pious or less virtuous individual best expressions of self. This rejects the possible existence of a subject-specific personal best action towards piety or virtue, affected by the specific contexts of each situation. Instead, Plato embraces the universal objective essences, creating a paradigm with well-defined limits of human ability. The most basic, the most real realm is–by definition–unknowable to us, he asserts.

Aristotle, in contrast, found the logic based on Singularity to be flawed. Book 1, Chapter 6 of Ethics His contention that there is no single all-encompassing objective truth of an eternal soul and a realm of unperceivable things or concepts, opens up a space of less rigidity to allow for ideas such as, one person’s ultimate Good may not be the exact same in journey and destination as another person’s. He challenges the need for permanent and objective standards by which to judge all people. Instead, he urges the judgment of action to be specifically appropriate for the individual in question. He argues that permanence does not increase the value of something. In Ethics he writes, “Good Itself will be no more of a good by being eternal; for a white thing is no whiter if it lasts a long time than if it lasts a day” (Cahn, 2002). states, “Hence it is clear that the good cannot be some common and single universal; for if it were, it would be spoken of in only one [of the types of] predication, not in them all” (Cahn, 2002).

The canyon between Aristotle’s relationship with perception and Plato’s use of it always stands at the middle of the map of their borderlands. Aristotle disagrees with Plato’s interpretations of perception and the effects of its limits. Questions arise such as, are human limits real? Can we even truly conceive of them from our perspective? What is their intended function? The idea that something exists that is never perceived is counterintuitive, and he questions even the purpose of debating such a concept for it cannot, by its very nature, be truly resolved.

When applying this to the discussion of the Body/Soul relationship, Aristotle contends that the body and its essence have identities that are mutually dependent on the existence of the other. Without its basic spark of animation, the body is something other than its normal self, for it no longer serves the purpose it was intended to serve. And, without the body to perceive of this Soul or to manifest something of it, he argues, the essence cannot fully exist. There is little unchanging and immortal to Aristotle’s approach, and this later serves as a good compliment to his ideas of the Good.

The Good, the ultimate end, the most basic core of “that which is to be attained” serves a similar role in the rhetorical construction of both their works, being that it is the decidedly most sought after part of the puzzle. Plato’s concepts of the Good, woven closely with the assertion that ‘objective’ and ‘singular’ were the cornerstones of the ultimate alpha-and-omega essence of realities, is something constructed as almost alien to humans due to our inability to perceive of them directly. All key things to be learned in life are there, and the human must simply recollect what she already knows from her more basic self, connected to the Forms. Plato is unable to build a specific picture of exactly what the Good would precisely entail, overall, because of the inherent limits he holds true of human perception. His theory of the Good requires a perspective unaffected by personal perceptions and experiences, but provides no explicit means to go about manifesting something so oxymoronic. It is both that which creates and that which is created. The clearest direction pointed in is that if one participates in specific sub-forms (Virtue, Justice, Courage, etc.), it is indirectly reaching towards the Good.

Aristotle defines a Final End in Book I, Chapter 7 of Ethics as, “That which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else” (Cahn, 2002), or Metaphysics’s, “That for the sake of which” (Cahn, 2002). Taking actions that strive towards Arete, or Virtue, serve as a means to this Final End. He argues that to consciously make the virtuous choice breeds habit of virtue. Book II, Chapter 4 argues a virtuous action as something that resembles the actions of a virtuous person. Unlike Plato, Aristotle does not believe that there is one single perfect manifestation of Virtue because it is different when placed in the context of a person’s life and options. “And so the human good proves to be activity of the soul in accord with virtue, and indeed with the best and most complete virtue, if there are more virtues than one” (Cahn, 2002), Aristotle asserts in Ethics. Aristotle defines happiness as the right exercise of things that are proper for humans. People do often choose that which they think they desire. Some would argue that the ability to choose something you desire, but that is not good for your well-being in the long run would disprove his argument that the ultimate Good is Happiness. The best responses to this are that first, people usually have a sense of what end they’re heading towards when deciding between choices. If one makes the choice to get very drunk, to feed that desire, it could be considered positive in the immediate. The inevitable down sides arrive after the choice has been long set in motion, and the unhappiness of moving against Virtue with great excesses surfaces. Attaining Virtue makes a happy person, he says, and there is nothing to desire past Happiness. For this reason Aristotle claims Happiness to be the Good, the goal entire unto itself.

Arete, often said to carry a suggestion of consciously striving towards being the best you can be, encompasses some very important Greek concepts. Synonyms include the traditional Virtue, Excellence, Quality, and Goodness. Plato’s middle dialogues were very concerned with this broad concept of Virtue. The Meno sets out to explore whether Virtue can be taught or not. The answer is never fully reached, but Plato writes extensively on what is necessary to form a solid and rhetorically sound theory of Virtue. Plato leaves us with the contradiction of accepting that Virtue is some sort of knowledge, at least in part, yet he asserts it cannot be really taught (as all knowledge in one way or another can). Arete serves more the role of an end that Plato seeks after, than it does in the works of Aristotle. His explorations of its various concept spaces, at times, make it appear as rewarding to the hunt as the Good itself. Plato took several works with varying focuses to develop his theories and implementations of Arete. He utilized it’s meanings as a staple for other more complex theories, and built it to be very strategic in debate. Plato’s concepts of Arete serve to force the opposing side to concede a large amount of ground from the very beginning. There is little room for attack on its importance and existence as a driving force. It draws together his ideas of human conscious worth and function, and yet continues to force the reader into the uncomfortable space where overtly spelled-out definitions and ideas remain elusive. One cannot simply walk away from the Theory of Forms, for example, and write off the quasi-formed ideas of pure and unperceivable essences. The presence of Virtue as a critical means to the ultimate end allows for no on-face complete rejection because there are no respectable and rational arguments against Virtue itself.

Aristotle’s view of Arete was marked by a strong focus on intellect and the pursuit of true knowledge. Ethics Book I, Chapter 6 reads:

We had better examine the universal good, and puzzle out what is meant in speaking of it. This sort of inquiry is, to be sure, unwelcome to us, because those who introduced the Forms are friends of ours; still, it presumably seems better, indeed only right, to destroy even what is close to us if that is the way to preserve truth. We must especially do this as philosophers; for though we love both the truth and our friends, reverence is due to the truth first (Cahn, 2002).

Reason reigns paramount throughout Aristotle’s paradigm. He writes of its worth, and labels it as a factor that categorizes our very existence. If the Good/Happiness is to do well at that which we are built to do, then reasoning is a defining purpose of humanity. This puts faith in there being an actual intended function for humans, to begin with. He goes on to point out that when we think of the function of a thing, we think of it performing that function well, not as broken or lacking. Logically, one could follow that the instinct to identify something at its functional prime is evidence for the idea that it is the most virtuous or best to perform well at what you were intended to perform.

The unique and mutually affecting uses of Plato and Aristotle’s ideas of Arete, within their respective works, offer a complex and oftentimes intense discourse attempting at the most basic questions of the human experience. Each utilizing their own approach to the craft of argument construction, they offer a wish for greater clarity and a glimpse into overlapping intellectual lives.

Works Cited

Cahn, Steven M., Classics of Western Philosophy. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2002.

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