Friday, December 16, 2011

Liberals and Conservatives / Plato and Aristotle

Raphael's School of Athens, Rome, IT
The chasm that opens up between Liberals and Conservatives can be traced all the way back to the differences in temperament and philosophic worldview of Plato and Aristotle.  

Let's first consider Plato.  Plato was the disciple of Socrates who wrote many interesting dialogues.  In Plato's "Republic" he recognizes the problems in existing governments of his day and then sketches out his vision of a Utopian society.   In his ideal world society would be ruled by an elite group of men he calls, "The Guardians".  These "Guardians" would receive a systematized education and training that prepared them to rule society.  He was an idealist.  Plato conceived of the Platonic form or ideas of all manner of things.  He believed that the Platonic ideal of a chair, for example, was superior to all real existing chairs out in the world.   Though he was a great stylist himself he mistrusted poetry and drama feeling that it would have a corrupting influence on the young and impressionable.

Plato was Aristotle's mentor, but Aristotle developed quite a distinct worldview.  Aristotle was essentially a realist who preferred to take the world as he experienced it directly.  He believed in the empirical method of discovery.  Observe, record, build lists and categorize you findings.  Aristotle was the founder of the natural sciences making direct contributions to biology, zoology and many more.  He was also a rigorous logician who believed in the power of human reason to solve problems.  Though not as great a stylist as Plato, he appreciated poetry and the dramatic arts and developed theories of art criticism.

Plato was an elitist who believed that only those in possession of superior knowledge as he defined it were capable of ruling.  He was a "top down" kind of guy--wisdom is dispensed the elites and the masses must follow.  He was the founder of Liberalism and clearly had a direct influence on other Utopian schemes such as Marxism as well.  His censorship and intolerance of the poets was the Ur-spring of contemporary political correctness.  His inflated fears about the corruption of youth are echoed directly by the contemporary defense of the nanny state.  Plato also insisted that knowledge of the good would always lead to virtuous living.*

Aristotle wrote in reaction to Plato.  He reasserted the claims of realism.  The world must be taken as it really is.  We must not neglect to use our senses and gain empirical knowledge in order to understand it better.  Aristotle was a "bottom up" kind of guy.  Anyone who has eyes and takes the time to really observe can start to see into the reality of nature particularly when aided by rigorous logic.  He was pragmatic and he became the teacher of Alexander, making a tangible impact on world history.  He was intrinsically less ideological than Plato.  The Platonic idealized Form always ends up disparaging the glorious diversity of nature as we find it.  Aristotle, in short, laid the foundation for Conservatism.

* The Judeo-Christian tradition insists that knowledge does not necessarily equate to virtue.  Man is inherently sinful.  One can know the good and do the opposite.  As St. Augustine expressed it in his Confessions, "Lord make me pure but not now!"
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Anonymous said...

My vote as to who is the first conservative goes to Edmond Burke. WMW

Anonymous said...

As a student of Humanities with a focus in Greek literature, philosophy, and recently, sophistry, I object to your uses of "conservative" and "liberal," obviously being defined through a contemporary lens. Socrates, being associated with the movement of "the New Education" (read the Arrowsmith translation of The Clouds by Aristophanes, and make sure you read the endnotes), was certainly a progressive, especially for his time and also within the context of the prevailing culture of the traditionalist Athenian aristrocrat. Your notion that Aristiotle laid the basis for contemporary conservatism is at best inherently flawed and at worst completely inaccurate. Contemporary conservatism has evolved as a response to more recent political phenomena, not as an offshoot of Aristotelian ethics/politics.

Christopher Kelly said...

Thanks for reading Anonymous. I will revisit The Clouds per your suggestion. Your suggestion about Socrates tends to confirm my view. Plato's Republic was Utopian and envisioned a world in which the Guardians, who had received an elitist education and training, would rule society from the top down. William F. Buckley famously maintained that rule by any page of names from a phone book would be better than rule by the liberal elite. Contemporary socialists are the intellectual heirs of Plato.

There is no question that Ayn Rand identified herself as an Aristotelian and she was also one of the seminal thinkers of the modern Conservative movement.

Christopher Kelly said...

Here is the exact quote: "I would rather be governed by the first 2000 people in the Manhattan phone book than the entire faculty of Harvard.”
― William F. Buckley Jr.