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Contrasting Plato & Aristotle

    While neither the philosophy of Plato nor of Aristotle in their original forms would be considered adequate for a truly Christian philosophy, I have nonetheless (following the brilliant Thomas Aquinas so much earlier) found Aristotle's fundamental ideas more resourceful than Plato�s for Christian thought and life.

    Even so, Aristotle�s original thought had serious problems. For example, he held that the soul died with the body; that women were not rational; and that certain ethnic groups were "natural slaves" (not Africans, but rather the Slavic tribes whom the Greeks hunted, and from which we get the name "slave"). But Aristotle�s great errors do not depend on his method, whereas Plato�s great errors are indeed endemic to his method.

    I see the main contrast between Plato and Aristotle as found in their positions on:

      1) body and soul;
      2) ethics and politics; and
      3) family and society.

    Plato�s Dualism of Body & Soul

    Plato thought that the human soul was eternal, buty had "fallen" out of the �heavens� (i.e., the sky) to become imprisoned in an earthy body � like a heavenly star falling into earthy mud! In the heavens Plato thought the soul had been immortal and brilliant. But through birth, according to Plato, the soul became trapped and confused in the mud of earth here below.

    In a related vein, Plato thought that knowledge through the senses (which are part of the body) was not real knowledge of truth. For him, only abstract thinking, and ultimately mathematics, held access to real truth.

    For Plato, one�s immortal soul had the possibility of escaping from imprisonment in the earthy body through death, but only if one had first become enlightened as a "philosopher," by which he meant committed to abstract truth � something that he saw as available only to a very few. (In contrast to Plato, I find that nearly all of my university students are natural philosophers!)

    For Plato, if one did not become a �philosopher,� then after death the soul of that person would remain imprisoned in the wheel of reincarnation. A non-philosophical male after death would �fall� further though reincarnation into a female body, and a woman into a non-human animal body.

    Following Plato, Christians still today speak of Original Sin as �The Fall� and of �falling into sin.� They also speak of �saving souls� (without the body!) and of going to �heaven� (without the Earth!). But the image of sin as �falling� does not appear in the Bible, and Jesus spoke holistically of saving spirit and body together (so the Resurrection) and of a �news Heaven and a new Earth.�

    Forgetful of the true teachings of Jesus, much of the "spiritual" emphasis of the Christian form of the neo-Platonic tradition has, in the name of �spirituality,� tended to despise �the body� and the �world," and to seek "holiness" as escape from both. Such a spirituality, however, is not truly Christian, for the body and the world are God�s holy creation.

    Aristotle�s Holism of Body & Soul

    In contrast to Plato, Aristotle holistically thought that soul and body (or �form and matter�) were two dimensions of the same thing. The body was the dynamic expression of the energy of the soul, and conversely the soul was the body's very own energy. Aristotle�s view of the �soul� is like the African American sense of "soul," which is revealed in the body -- through dance, song, rhetoric, etc.

    Because Aristotle saw body and soul as one or �holistic� (in contrast to Plato's �dualism�), Aristotle assumed that the soul had to die with the body. Of course, living hundreds of years before Jesus, he could not have been aware of Jesus� preaching about the holistic salvation of the soul and the body together, and indeed his concern with the salvation of all creation, that is, with the entire Universe.

    Aristotle's holism may be re-appropriated today in a holistic Christian sense if energy and matter are seen as convertible states of the same reality, which is what Einstein proposed. Thus in death, matter may be converted back to energy, and the holistic reality of the human person may survive death in a new form � without loss of personhood.

    A Christian spirituality which draws on Aristotle rather than Plato would see the material world and the human body as truly spiritual, since spiritual energy is the holistic immanent energy of material things.

    Aristotle�s Natural Way

    The consequence of Aristotle's spiritual holism is seen in ethics and politics. For him, ethics is learning how to befriend nature and the body, and learning how to help them to flourish in their dynamic natural energy. Similarly authentic politics is allowing the human community to flourish as a whole (so the "common good"), with laws deliberately passed to limit the number of both rich and poor and to favor a very large middle class.

    For Aristotle, the basis for all politics is the first and fundamental community of the family. Society is simply family blown large. So we are all responsible for each other, since we all form one great human family. The family is the root of the Aristotelian doctrine of the common good.

    Aristotle�s ethical-political perspective, rooted in nature and based on the family, has traditionally been referred to as an ethics of �natural law.� Today we might speak of it as an ecological perspective, embracing holistically both natural and social ecology, or alternately as the natural way.

    Plato�s �Higher� Ideological Way

    By contrast, Plato thought that ethics was the extrinsic application of �higher� eternal spiritual or rational ideas from above to the �lowly� and crude world of matter. For him, nature was not our true teacher, for he saw us learning real truth only from the abstract rationalism of �higher� ideas.

    Politics in turn was for Plato to serve the �philosophical� liberation of the individual from the material world, with the assumption that most people (whom he described as "the mob") were not capable of such liberation. Hence Plato combined an emphasis on liberation of the individual with subtle contempt for the general society.

    To protect the philosophical vocation of the select few, Plato�s vision of the state would allow secret manipulation, secret lies, and even secret murders by the government, that is, by the governing band of philosophers who were also society�s military leaders.

    Plato even saw the family as a threat to the state, and as needing to be strictly controlled among the mob and excluded among the band of soldier-philosophers. Plato is thus the father of the modern anti-family movement and ultimately of political totalitarianism.

    Capitalism as a Platonic Variant

    Curiously, I propose, Plato�s philosophy, or perhaps better a degraded Platonism, can be seen at the root of modern capitalism in its pure form. Please note, however, that business and capitalism are not the same thing, since business is thousands of years old, whereas pure capitalism is a totally recent modern invention.

    Modern capitalism began in the modern European Renaissance, which, along with inventing double-entry bookkeeping, was caught up in a neo-Platonic mysticism of numbers. Double-entry bookkeeping was reportedly invented by a monk, showing that monasteries historically were important economic institutions.

    The great German sociologist Max Weber portrayed capitalism as arising immediately from Protestantism, and (interestingly) more remotely from classical Christian monasticism, which was also neo-Platonic.

    Classical Protestantism, though invaluable for its return to the Bible and its promotion of the laity, may also be seen as Platonic. Its founder, Luther, was a Catholic priest who was also an Augustinian monk, and Augustine was the greatest Christian neo-Platonist. Protestantism showed its Platonic bias by rejecting sensory knowledge of God through the natural world (the �natural way� of knowing God), and instead substituting a purely spiritual and anti-worldly path to God through individual psychological �faith alone.�

    Pure capitalism is a social system based on the mathematical abstraction of numbers (bookkeeping), with priority given to the emancipation (�freedom�) of the individual in a framework where the free individual has no responsibility for or solidarity with the rest of humanity. Following the mathematical orientation of Plato�s philosophical elite, the elite of pure capitalism focus on abstract numerical returns without regard for natural or social ecology.

    For pure capitalism, the common good only exists as the logical outcome of the free market. If a given capitalist society has major social problems, for pure capitalism such social problems are simply the result of deficient individuals who need to be formed better in the virtues and to become more spiritual. For pure capitalism, capitalist society is OK but individuals within it, and especially the poor, are deficient.

    The Aristotelian Alternative

    By contrast, Aristotle claimed that where great social problems exist (for example, many rich people getting richer and richer, and the number of poor people growing, with the middle class shrinking), the problem was not with deficient individuals but rather with the social structure itself. According to an Aristotelian perspective, such societies have lost their familial roots, have abandoned the natural way of the environmental and societal common good, and need major legal reform.

    Because pure capitalism is grounded only on ideas, that is, on ideology, it does not truly pursue the natural way, neither in relation to the natural world itself nor in relation to human community. For this reason, I propose, the more pure capitalism advances globally, the more it will foster an uprooted postmodern global totalitarianism.

    Catholicism (at least in the strain developed by initially Thomas Aquinas and later by Pope Leo XIII) has leaned toward Aristotle, and thus has made an institutional commitment to natural law, to an aesthetic of the senses, to the common good, and increasingly to a spirituality and ethics of environmental and societal ecology.

    Interestingly, Thomas Aquinas learned of Aristotle from brilliant Islamic and Jewish scholars in Moorish Spain, where the study of Aristotle had been kept alive long after the dominant Christian monastic strain of neo-Platonism had rejected him.

    Unfortunately, however, even today many of the "spiritual" theologians in Catholicism still remain neo-Platonic.

    For example, the �spiritual� defense of the anti-family imposition of mandatory celibacy on the Catholic clergy in the Latin Church is clearly neither Biblical nor Evangelical, but quite simply neo-Platonic. Similarly the great Western Christian anxiety historically associated with the body and with human sexuality is also clearly neo-Platonic. Lastly the assumption that one can try to �save one�s soul� with no concern for social justice, world peace, or sustainable ecology is blatantly anti-Biblical, anti-Evangelical, and clearly a degraded neo-Platonic perspective.

    � J o e    H o l l a n d

    President, Pax Romana/Catholic Movement for Intellectual & Cultural Affairs-USA
    Prof. of Philosophy & Religion, St.Thomas University, Miami FL

    Dedicated to Joe and Mabel Gil:

    As Mabel Gil always reminds me, and as Mabel and Joe�s Christian life together always testified, Jesus, the founder of Christianity, was not a dualistic neo-Platonist but rather a holistic and prophetic Jew deeply concerned with the world and especially with the poor.

    Perhaps a neo-Aristotelian perspective (returning to natural way, but in the process affirming the creative rationality of women, rejecting the demonic doctrine of �natural slaves,� and celebrating the possibility of holistic life after death) may help us to return in a postmodern and post-capitalist path to the prophetic holism of Jesus� own Jewish roots.

    Joe and Mabel have already shown us the way!