I hate exams. And instead of studying I suddenly get the desire to do anything else. Re-read the final chapters of a biography of R.E.M.? Sure, what better time than now. Fix the shelf in the utility room? It would only be a 2 hour job! Why are my spices not arranged alphabetically! Exams do not suit me. I can write you an essay to beat the band but remove me from my reference books and my spell checker and I go to pieces. Plus, my right hand is still feeble. My spasmic scrawl is sure to doom me to pass grades. Oh woe is me, still in exam mode at 28 and another 4 loads of exams over the next 3 years to follow.

Instead of cracking open the whiskey and watching Jurassic Park again, I have put my notes away and am going to test my learning right here. You’ll be forced to read lots of similar Zoomtards between now and the end of the month while I try to replicate exam conditions by having to write with an audience in mind, as against the dyslexic mind maps that I use when I am actually studying.

So I expect Plato and Aristotle will come up in the moral philosophy exam (which will be long over before I publish this so that weird plagiarism issues don’t arise).

Raphael School of Athens

In both the moral philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, a key role is alloted to reason and to virtue. With some important differences, both consider the application of human reason for the development of virtue to be central to the human life. They are both teleological thinkers, whereby their understanding of the good life is clearly shaped by articulated presuppositions about the purpose of humanity. And they both write their ethics in a social context – concerned that the individual would serve as a citizen in wider society. Of course, they also share a common relationship with Plato being a predecessor and perhaps teacher of Aristotle in the Athenian school.

The differences between them are beautifully captured in Raphael’s famous masterpiece, the Athenian School. There we see Plato and Aristotle in close dialogue but Plato is pointing towards the heaven and Aristotle is looking towards the ground. The Renaissance master has captured here the great difference between the two thinkers. Plato is inclined to a priori reasoning and his metaphysical elaboration of the Forms is central to his thought. Aristotle is keen to rely much more heavily on observation for the basis of his reasoning and was aware for himself of his own differences. He did write after all, “I like Plato but I like the truth even more.”

For Plato, the good life is the fulfillment of our telos, or purpose. Eros is like a compass that points us in the direction towards the good. For Plato, who is ultimately a dualist, the good takes the form of the human ascending through the application of reason to the level of the Forms. This process is not really a new journey but a return to our initial state and so the good life is the life of anamnesis, of remembering.

For Aristotle, the good life is found through the application of human reason in virtuous action that leads to flourishing, or as he calls it, eudaimonia. Friendship is the context in which this virtuous flourishing occurs. For Aristotle, things are good if they are enjoyable, useful and intrinsically valuable.

For Plato, goodness and beauty are closely interlinked. This is because the world of the Forms is the source of both in our world. The Form of Beauty is the unchanging transcendental form which is reflected in our world in any particular instance of beauty. For Plato, we live a good life by escaping this shadow world and ascending to the level of the Forms and so goodness (which is found in the Forms) is closely connected to beauty (which is also found amongst the Forms). The act of right living is the remembering of our initial origin in the Forms. He expresses this philosophy most clearly perhaps in his parable of the cave. Imagine you and a group of men are trapped in a cave with no natural light. You believe that the shadows cast on the wall by the fire is all there is to life. Then finally one day you break free and ascend out of the cave and into the sunlight. You realise that the life that you have lived up until now, as real as you thought it was, was but a shadow of true existence. So it will be when we ascend to the level of the Forms.

For Aristotle, we don’t properly love the Other in the sense post-Christian thinkers would have it (Levinas for example) but instead love that which is virtuous in the Other. For Plato, love is a driving force of his ethical philosophy. In Platonic terms, love is cast as eros, not merely a general desire or even a sexual desire but a common desire that all humanity shares for the transcendent.

In Platonic thought, human beings were initially whole. We were spherical beings with two heads, four arms, four legs and two sets of genitalia. Yet Zeus and the other gods separated us and now we are cursed to wander the Earth, literally in search of our Other Half. We all have a desire to grasp at and then maintain an eternal hold over that which is beautiful but this is simply impossible for eternal beings. Instead we are driven to create cycles of beauty that can perpetuate themselves. As Diotama taught Socrates, according to one of Plato’s dialogues, this cycle of beauty can take two forms. The first is a cycle that is pregnant with beauty in the body and this takes the form of heterosexual union that brings forth a child. The child reflects the beauty of the parents and can perpetuate that beauty in its own life. The second (and perhaps higher form) is the beauty that is pregnant in the mind and this takes (most commonly) the form of a homosexual union whereby an older gentleman takes a young man under his wing. He exposes him to beauty and thus through their relationship forms and equips the younger man for life as a philosopher.

In Platonic thought, our eros urge begins as love for the individual but as we ascend the ladder of enlightenment it slips out of universal focus on the other and is liberated as we come closer to the Forms to be able to see the beauty in everything.

Where eros drives the Platonic system, friendship, or philia, is central to the Aristotelian ethics. Friendship is the context in which the virtues are exercised and the eudaimonic flourishing of life can occur. For Aristotle, friendship takes three forms. The first and most base form is pleasure friendships where your relationship with the other is simply based on the joy that they can bring you. The second level is that of utility friendships where you serve a purpose for one another, be that economic, relational, cultural or otherwise. The highest form of friendship is the rarest for Aristotle and can only take place between virtuous people (and hence only men for Aristotle!). One can only hope to have a small number of such virtuous friendships in your life. These friendships are marked by a love of the other (and their virtues) without any consideration of their value to you, profit to you or what can be gained from them. They are thus enjoyable, useful and intrinsically valuable and hence are good.

Eros and philia both play central roles in the ethical thought of these two thinkers. Neither has much time for agapé, the self sacrificial love of the stranger (or indeed enemy) that comes with the teaching of Jesus. Both eros and philia as understood by Plato and Aristotle are wrapped up in the good. For Plato, eros is a compass guiding us towards the beautiful anamnesis of the Forms and for Aristotle, friendship is the relationship in which the virtues can be exercised for the sake of human flourishing. Both systems are inherently communal, neither can be fully understood individualistically. Yet the contemporary mind may be drawn more easily to the Aristotelian explanation of the moral life because in part it comes to us without the hefty metaphysical baggage of the Forms and in part because friendship is a relational context that is more easily applied to our contemporary lives with our value systems. Eros, with its suggestion of sexual union (so far from our common understanding of Platonic love!) can only be applied in a small number of relationships in the average life of a contemporary Westerner while Aristotle’s categories of friendship allow us to engage morally across a much broader swathe of our life.

Your Correspondent, His tears have been his food day and night