Contrast between Socrates (Plato) and Aristotle
Originally published: June 24, 2019
Last edited: June 28, 2019
By Michio Suginoo
While Socrates casted fatalistic and monolithic dispositions in his analysis and elaborated his thoughts in dialectic form, Aristotle, in contrast, embraced freedom of choice and diversity (pluralism) and articulated the importance of contingent particularity of historical experiences.
There are conspicuous differences in thoughts between Socrates and Aristotle. This reading lists up some illustrative differences between these two intellects in antiquity and goes over my personal interpretation on those differences.
As a footnote, whenever this reading refers to Socrates, it refers to Plato’s fictional Socrates in his masterpiece, the Republic. It is simply because Socrates did not leave us his own writing and we can only examine the reflections of Socrates in the writings of his disciples, Plato and Xenophon.
Section 1: Differences in thoughts between Socrates and Aristotle
Fatalism vs Choice of Actions:
While Plato, in his masterpiece of ‘the Republic,’ portrays a deterministic, or fatalistic, disposition of Socrates, Aristotle demonstrated his reservation for non-determinism to explore ‘freedom of choice’, ir not 'free will', for political actions in shaping the future.
As an illustrative anecdote, even in his real personal life, Socrates demonstrated his fatalistic disposition in accepting his fate of execution, which was sentenced by the irrational, and ironically democratic, judiciary ruling based on distorted fictional accusations against him.
In contrast, Aristotle, when the political situations in Athens turned hostile to him, simply fleed from the city-state to avoid falling prey to adverse political consequences: as if he refused to follow suit of Socrates legacy.
Unity (Monolithic doctrine) vs Diversity (Pluralism)
On one hand, Socrates saw that ‘unity’ among the citizens was essential for the preservation of a given constitution. In his argument, he promoted the creation of ‘the foundation myths’—often translated as ‘noble lies’—to craft a social consciousness of unity (Lee, 2007, p. 112) and further devised secret police, censorship and surveillance to fabricate the unity of his utopian kingship/aristocratic state.
On the other hand, Aristotle saw that ‘diversity’ and competitions among citizens were essential dynamisms of a city-state. He, while presenting several alternatives for best form of constitution, did not pick one specific form as the universally best constitution: a best form of constitution is conditions-specific for, thus particular to, a state. He further argued that a mixed form of constitution—in which kingship/aristocracy, oligarchy, and democracy co-exist—provides a viable ‘check and balance’ mechanism to prevent any extreme fundamentalism from arising from any of its constituent doctrines and stabilise a constitutional arrangement.
Simply put, while Socrates demonstrated monolithic disposition, Aristotle embraced pluralism.
Governance by Expert vs Participatory Governance (Freedom of Speech)
While Socrates articulated that the governance of a just society demands specialised examined knowledge that only those experts specialised in governance possess, Aristotle embraced a more liberal principle that a good (natural and just) state can be operated through institutional check and balance and promoted the participation of all classes of the society in deliberative and judicial functions (except for executive function).
Overall, Socrates perceived, non-expert, ordinary people were cognitively too impaired to govern a society. In a means-end frame, he articulated that the end of just society, social harmony or the common good, was realised through individual’s pursuit of specialised expertise, or occupational specialisation. He, interestingly, identified justice in the means—occupational specialisation—to realise a just society, rather than its’ end--‘social harmony’ or ‘the common good’.
On the other hand, Aristotle developed his relatively liberal discourse based on his fundamental principle that we, human kind, were a special specie that were by nature gifted with the ability of speech, thus, naturally a political animal.
Nature, according to Aristotle, granted us with, on top of the ability of speech, the ability to distinguish between just and unjust as well. This draws a fundamental difference between Socrates and Aristotle in their views on who can participate in governance and who should be ruled. Nevertheless, that is not to say that Aristotle did not value expert knowledge. He highly regarded practical wisdom (phronesis).
Imperialism Expansionism vs Self-Preservation oriented Liberty & Prosperity
In his discourse on the development of a civilisation, Socrates regarded war as a means for its end, civilised life. He argued, a civilised society would demand more than bare necessities and pursue luxuries. The luxuries of civilisation would necessitate the society to seek resources abroad, and expand her territory; thus, she would inevitably invoke wars. (Plato, The Republic, 373 c-e) Simply put, Socrates promotes an expansionary imperialism.
On the contrary, Aristotle, in his discourse of a good society, rather aimed at liberty from foreign dominations and self-preservation-oriented prosperity and highly valued dividends from peace. Overall, he considered war as a means primarily for self-preservation and peace-making. (Aristotle, the Politics, Book VII ii & xiv: 1325a & 1333a)
These ends that these intellects were aiming at were not necessarily mutually exclusive, but their motives are very different, thus suggesting the difference in their dispositions.
Dialectic Knowledge vs Empirical Knowledge:
While Socrates had demonstrated his tendency to conduct dialectic discourse, Aristotle unfolded his arguments based extensively on his empirical knowledge (his broad survey of 158 constitutions of his time). That is not to say that Socrates did not engage any empirical discourse: he often referred to historical episodes to exemplify his deductive argument.
Discord over Political Regime Transformation
These two intellects shaped contrary views on constitutional changes. While Socrates, by presenting only one single path of constitutional transformations, casts fatalism, Aristotle upholds non-deterministic pluralism, or a contingent view, that there can be multiple paths that constitutional change can take.
Nevertheless, Socrates is not necessarily an absolute fatalist on this matter. We can find this fact in the way he presents his single path of constitutional change. Although he presents only one single path, he describes it as a hypothetical path, rather than the only necessary path, as a product of a series of conditional events: if such conditions are met, it would lead to such a consequence. Simply put, the path that he chose is a very special path in the sense that it is a manifestation of his version of a natural (uninterrupted endogenous) decay of social psyche, or social moral order that he calls the soul. Cur a long story short, he briliantly demonstrated that civilisation can disintegrate from within, without any interruption from exogeneous causes. In his discourse, he illustrated how its uninterrupted endogenous decay could express a chain of different souls—or Zeitgeists if you like—in five phases (generations or epochs) throughout the life of a civilisation (particularly Ancient Western Civilisation). And as a result, Western Civilisation started from just kingship/aristocracy, then travels through timocracy, oligarchy, and democracy, then finally degenerates into tyranny to complete its one life cycle. This is a notion of the constitutional (political regime) cycle formulated by Socrates—call it Socrates Cycle (for more details, please visit the following contents: Intrinsic value; Thus spoke Socrates.
Aristotle, on the contrary, embraced an open, non-deterministic, or contingent, view on constitutional changes. For him, one constitution can transform into any direction—for example, democracy can transform to either oligarchy, tyranny, or a mixed form of constitution. Furthermore, he articulated that we could preserve any existing constitution (political regime), if we managed it appropriately.
On one hand, Aristotle was right in conceiving a contingent view in the direction of constitutional change on regime-by-regime basis. On the other hand, Socrates was brilliant in portraying the natural decay of the soul, or Zeitgeist, that populated constitutional changes; as if it were the natural law of gravity. In a way, in order to compare Aristotle’s and Socrates’ views, we can use an analogy of rain running through different landscapes (rivers, lakes, caves)—rain can take different paths depending on the landscape that it runs through; but it will flow from the highest place to the lowest place dictated by the force of gravity. While Aristotle illuminated different possible paths of constitutional change analogous to different landscapes that rain runs through, Socrates presented a natural (uninterrupted endogenous) constitutional decay analogous to rain falling directly from the sky into the sea by the force of gravity.
This analogy suggests that these two intellectuals illuminate two different aspects of the same phenomena, constitutional transformation. In other words, their opposite views constitute the both sides of a same coin.
Last, not least, to be fair to Socrates, I don’t think that it is reasonable to assume that anyone could populate and describe multitudes of scenarios of constitutional change. Even Aristotle did not capture all the variety of the entire universe. In this respect, I would still see paramount intrinsic value in Socrates discourse: at least, he illustrated an imperative cause of constitutional decay.
Although there remain more differences between these two intellects, these comparisons paint a rough overall illustrative sketch of their contrasting differences.